ace_icon.gif odessa4_icon.gif

Scene Title #thisisfine
Synopsis It's just like that meme.
Date February 21, 2021

Callahan-Price Residence, Williamsburg

The soles of shoes click on the ground as they're kicked off, nudged aside on the rack by the door.

Plastic totes with items from the grocery crinkle quietly on a walk to the kitchen.

The key fob rattles as it hits the counter. Phones— one then another— whisper scratches against the surface of it as they're slid aside. The thin clear plastic of a produce bag rustles as it's pulled free.

These are the only sounds Ace Callahan makes after coming home from Harry and Ourania's first couples therapy session together. It's not entirely unlike he might behave other evenings— quiet, reserved, his emotions barely shifting.

Except those other days hadn't been today.

"O, do you want the zucchini boiled or sauteed?" Ace asks offhandedly as he slides out the cutting board for use.

"Always prefer sautéed, when I have a choice," Odessa reveals. It's nothing compared to all the other reveals they've experienced today as a result of their session. She's likewise been quiet until now, apart from the occasional necessary question at the grocery store.

Now, however, there are no innocent bystanders, should either of them blow up.

"I didn't really know you felt like that," she says cautiously. She looks up from where she's sorting cans on the kitchen island opposite from him, seated on one of the tall stools. It's a habit leftover from a time when she was forced to rest after such an outing. Any outing. "I— I don't know what to do with it."

Ace breathes out a slow sigh from the counter, not turning back to her. There's a tinge of weariness in him that's tidily swept back into whatever black hole makes up the space in him where most people would find any more of an emotional reaction. He slides a knife free from the block next to the stove, rolls over one of the zucchini, and takes off an end apiece before lining up the blade to slice it down the middle.

He minds his hand. Wouldn't want to create an uneven cut.

"Which part of it?" he asks, and there's a gentleness there rather than brusque indifference. He lays the flat of the blade down through the squash. As he flips over the cut halves onto their side to quarter, he pauses rather than continue chopping, turning his head slightly to listen for her reply without fully looking over his shoulder.

Odessa shrugs, waving a hand nebulously through the air between them. “Take your pick.” With vegetables separated from soups separated from cans of chicken and fish, she gathers up a small armful from one category, moving to take it to the pantry where it belongs.

That sense of emptiness where inescapable feelings should be makes Odessa want to squirm. It highlights further the difference between her and him and underlines it for her. “I regret putting you through that.” She frowns, turns away a moment while she reconsiders what she’s just said. “No. I regret putting us through that.”

By that time, he's finished the cuts he means to make, but he doesn't quite set aside his knife yet. Ace lifts it, wrist rolling while he makes his point. "But we learned something," he posits. "Didn't we?"

There's a subtle roil at his edges. Distant thunder on a dark horizon, too difficult to tell if the storm is headed this way or merely passing by.

He works his jaw before enunciating, "I thought that was the point." Ace sets aside the knife and vegetables in favor of reaching for the chicken before it can be stowed away. It's set beside the cutting board, and both are left in favor of gathering seasonings next. "To figure out what we're doing wrong."

There it is again— the niggling ripple of something. His eyes flutter shut as he grabs a larger pan by its handle.

"I don't like her," he states plainly. Finally. A touch flatly even if it's not thin as paper. "I don't like the way she treats you."

Rather than watch him, Odessa watches the knife until it’s set aside. That has more to do with her and her history than him, as is the case with most things, but it doesn’t change the habits she’s formed. The inflection of his emphasis has her lips pressing together faintly, growing smaller only by degrees.

With the implement no longer in his hand, Odessa relaxes a fraction. There’s something at the edges of the state of him that she can’t reach out to grasp. That she can’t tease toward her so she can better get a taste. She’s grateful he can’t feel her frustration.

Instead, one corner of her mouth kicks up, one brow lifts. “You have no idea how many court-mandated therapists I went through before I landed on her. Some after her, too, when she went on sabbatical.” Odessa takes another armful from the island to the pantry, leaving just a pair of cans left, apart from what he’s already set aside.

“She knows who I am, which already makes her safer than just about anyone I could be talking to. So when I say things about my past trauma, she doesn’t feel the need to dig. She already has a good idea. I couldn’t be candid with any other therapist.”

Maybe if they tied someone up in a basement or something. But that’s definitely in violation of her parole.

“You know, I threatened to kill her once. I think it was with a table lamp? Might’ve been with a leg off the end table.” Odessa grins and shakes her head. Good times. “She didn’t bat an eye.

Ace doesn't interrupt at least. He sets the pan on the range, flips on the electric— it's not as good as gas, but the gas lines are something else these days in New York— and waits for the pan to warm over. Oil is spilled across the flat surface, rotated so it rolls its way to all the edges.

She can feel how he's putting his energy into what he's doing. Calm, methodical, measured. There's a twitch at the corner of his mouth when his hands stop moving.

But then he's moved on again, to the next thing. "I can tell she's not afraid of you. I imagine she knows very well the Sword of Damocles hanging over you both should you cross her. Or, well—" he pauses, eyes half-lidding as a breath leaves him, expression unchanging save for the touch of amusement that douses his chest. "Harm her."

Ace chuckles after that.

"I just don't see the purpose in her. What she provides. I don't think she gives you enough credit, for one. I don't rightly know how you stand it." Twisting the cap off a container of garlic, he demures, "What she does… I don't see how any of that is supposed to build you up."

“She doesn’t,” Odessa responds easily. Doesn’t fear her and doesn’t build her up, either. “That’s not her job, to build me up. Only I can do that. But I can’t… do that until I figure out how to tear down the walls I’ve constructed.”

Setting the last of the cans on the appropriate shelves, the pantry door is closed with a quiet squeak. With a frown, she makes a mental note to come back to that tomorrow and see if she can fix it. “I think she gives me plenty of credit.” The assertion is made even though she isn’t quite sure of his meaning. “I think you give me too much.”

Stepping back up to reclaim the seat she had earlier, the traces of her good humor have melted. Still, she’s not feeling negatively toward him. At this particular moment, anyway. “It could also, possibly, be more effective if I could stop tearing myself down for sixty seconds.” Her faults are many, and this one doesn’t fall into one of her blind spots.

Ace sighs, his shoulders sinking down. For a moment it seems like whatever weighs on him will stop him from moving, but he sniffs the garlic he's opened to make sure it's still worthwhile, flicking bits of it into the oil that's begun to warm. The second, small bit of paste actually brings it to sizzle.

"It could," he admits with a hint of impatience that's directed at himself rather than her. He should've set this up a bit differently. "You need to give yourself credit for the progress you've made, true." The chicken is cracked open, carefully drained, tongs retrieved from the hanging hooks so he can lay out the chicken on the larger pan. "As for the rest— I don't know, O. I don't know." The rare admittance doesn't sound like an attempt to put his thoughts off, either.

He's just not giving himself enough time to think of a better admission than that.

"I disagree. I have found that with you expecting you to build yourself up on your own is akin to setting you up to fail. You need feedback. You need reinforcement, positive or negative." In the intervening moments, he's grabbed a sautee pan, dribbling more oil onto that as he ignites another element on the stove. "If left to your own devices, you have just— this tendency to jump to the worst possible option when it comes to yourself."

He didn't mean to talk this much. It's something he realizes abruptly, belatedly, and the shroud over his emotions gets tugged back a layer. There's more thought than feeling still, but more going on there than he's let on, even to himself, save for that he's been caught in the act of it.

Damn him.

Ace bites his tongue, pausing in his busying of himself as he decides how to juggle that in the midst of everything else. His tone is still conversational, open and without edges as he asks, "You know that. Right?"

Odessa watches him work around the kitchen. It’s usually an enjoyable activity that she finds some comfort in the simple domesticity of it. She is not nearly so handy in this realm, so there’s a certain calm she finds while watching his method and trying to absorb some in the process. Right now, it’s just making her anxious. Maybe because the surface of his emotions isn’t a placid one the way it often is while he’s cooking. Maybe all of this is just in her head anyway.

She plays amused when he’s finished speaking. It’s a vein of humor she doesn’t often engage in for this sort of deflection, but it’s what she reaches for at the moment. “You just used an awful lot of words to say you make some really poor decisions, idiot.” Though her chin’s tipped down, her gaze has stayed angled up to Ace beneath the veil of her lashes.

With a heavy sigh, she shakes her head. “That… This is so far from what I meant to say to you,” she admits. “I meant to tell you that I never realized I was asking too much of you.” Odessa turns her gaze back down to the countertop, watching as she gently pushes back the cuticle of one thumb with the nail of the other.

Ace regards Odessa directly finally with an equally tucked chin, eyes slanted at her with a look that looks more cartoonish— librarianish— than severe when she rephrases what it was he'd said. The look is leveled, and then he goes back to picking up the cutting board.

If he wanted to call her an idiot, he'd have called her an idiot.

But in the time it takes for him to turn back to the stove and shovel zucchini into the other pan, she turns the topic back around. Once she's done that, Ace keeps moving, but he also doesn't.

His emotional self has stilled. There's no trace of fear to him, and yet it's different than the lack of emotion he has for so many other things. Perhaps it's more don't move or it'll see you, after all. Who's the T-Rex, in that case? Odessa?


Weakness isn't a side he bares, even to himself. And this isn't a light subject, a matter of preference in the sense of does one prefer their side dish boiled or sauteed.

"I've attempted to keep most of those moments private," he admits evenly while turning a grinder of salt over the chicken. The other pan follows, but pepper only for the meat. "Because I know what I ask of you at times goes outside your comfort as well. I've tried to be as accommodating as possible."

"This…" Ace remarks with some gravity as he sets the grinder aside. "To tell you the truth, I am not sure when it began."

“How can you expect me to be open about the times that I feel you ask too much of me if you won’t do me the same courtesy?” Odessa asks in a gentle voice. It’s odd how she can feel the struggle that Ace is going through internally through the lack of push and pull. The waters of his emotional sea grow unnaturally calm where hers would be tumultuous.

Maybe he’s simply the eye to her storm.

“I feel like you build resentment toward me for the things that I ask.” There’s a quiet sigh to punctuate the worry. Her language is carefully chosen. It isn’t that he does this thing intentionally, but it’s her perception of the end result all the same. “And that you don’t tell me, until the frustration of it comes to a head.” The slope of her brow speaks to her empathy more than to any fear that may have built within her over this observed behavior.

Finally, she brings her gaze up to him again with a tired smile. “I don’t want that cycle for either of us. I love you far too much to—” There’s no good word to express herself in this moment. The way she wants to protect him more than anything else, never bring harm to him herself, make him feel safe to be open with her and even vulnerable at times.

Odessa's question sees that the invisible pressure that had been building again in Ace reaches a point needing release. His feet take him to the trash can, foot depressing the pedal so he can deposit the emptied can, get rid of the vegetable endpieces on the cutting board by tapping it away. In this way, pressure escapes like a hissing teapot, frustration exhaling away from almost like catharsis.

"I tell you, frequently, when you do something I don't like. When you tread on borders I don't want tested." Again there's a type of sigh in his being. The efforts he makes being acknowledged seem to be enough from her for him, maybe. "Wherever possible, I have tried to ease back on pushing on you with those preferences. Resentment— I do not want to limit you. I want more for you, but I do not want that to become a cage for you."

Somewhere in there, the ease in his being has stopped, leaving behind the nebulous gas of frustrations churning underneath his surface.

In that time, he's flipped the chicken, rustled the sautée pan and flicked the cooking vegetables over to keep them from burning, and come to the sink. It's aggressively he scrubs the cutting board with soap and sponge.

"The borders between you and I are less clean than they used to be," he observes with more snap than before. He focuses that down into his task rather than at her, for whatever that is worth. "Try as I may to give you space to grow, you reach for me, and I in turn want ever to keep you close. It's…"

Jaw setting, he grabs the sprayer hose and douses the soaped board. "This is complicated."

The more pressure builds in him, the worse it feels in her. Odessa has to remind herself that this frustration is not hers. That has a distinctly different tang to it. “I just get the impression that there’s plenty you don’t tell me I’m pushing.” But she doesn’t force more reflection on it than that. It’s her observation and it’s one that doesn’t need an immediate response.

Staring at the kitchen backsplash while he scrubs, she muses very quietly to herself. “Maybe I just don’t know how to live outside of a cage.” There are plenty of cages she can think of that she’d enjoy being locked in right now. Chiefly the cage of his arms around her frame. But an embrace won’t solve their problems. They’ve tried enough of that for her scientific mind to safely conclude that isn’t the way to bring about resolution.

He presses on, and she lifts her voice again with the intent to be heard once more. “And you dislike that.” It’s both statement and question, but she feels more certainty in that than its opposite.

Ace shuts off the water and braces both hands against the sink with a sigh, his head dipping. There it is— signs of life from within him, the barrier emotion he was hiding behind pierced right through to reveal a wealth of conflict that's been hiding compressed in him.

"It's not…" His eyes flutter shut, his shoulders visibly tensing from behind.

Tilting her head back just enough for her to regard him better, what with nearly a foot difference between them in height — advantage, him — she half pleads - half offers, “Take me.”

His expression flickers in his regard of her as she makes her plea in full melodrama. Take her? Ace considers the request, and unsmiling tells her: "Meet me on the street below in a few moments' time. If you're going to make this leap—" and his small, knowing smirk returns again. "do it independently. Meet me there, and then I'll lead you on."

He's known this since the beginning. And he laid out the terms then— to take the first step and he would guide her from there.

Ace lifts his head to look out the window, exhaling away tensely. Has he done that for her? To the extent perhaps that she wants?

"You don't know how to," he allows, and then turns around to look her in the eye. He's reached a point of difficult clarity, one that isn't as satisfying as he'd hoped it would be. "But you're not happiest in a cage, either, are you? A cage is safety, but a cage is something you come to resent over time. Boundaries are safe, but they're not enjoyable. It doesn't matter if it's following the rules of parole or science for world-ending masterminds, Odessa; cages aren't devotion."

"Boundaries? Meant to be tested." He lifts one hand away from the sink to gesture vaguely between them. "And what we want, what we are working toward?"

"It's not that," Ace declares openly, tiredly. "It's something more. It's not that."

Isn't it?

“This isn’t a cage,” she says of their relationship. She lacks internal conviction as she tells him this, but she wears her mask well. “I have the freedom to do more, be more… I just don’t always know what to do with it.” Odessa flattens her mouth into a line, her brows knitting together. “You say my ability is changing me… What if in the course of my self-discovery — which is part of what that is — you find you don’t… don’t love the person I’m becoming?”

Her eyes close heavily, she turns her face away. “I’m afraid there’s no winning in this scenario. What if I start to like who I am, and you don’t? What if I finally begin to find myself, and you no longer want me?” The shaky breath she draws in betrays the effort Odessa’s expending not to cry. This doesn’t need to be a conversation of tears. This is just a conversation.

"It's not a cage," Ace agrees, but he sounds more frustrated than before. "And I don't want it to be."

But neither does he have an answer for his reaction to the person she's slowly becoming. How it's not quite aligned with him anymore… and how he's reacted poorly to that, in some cases. How they've both pushed themselves to fit into molds neither of them truly fit in in the name of preserving unity.

"If you find you run into moments where you're tired of freedom, where you genuinely don't know the next step…" He begins to shake his head to himself as he turns away back for the food he's left cooking, shifting both pans to make sure their contents don't stick, flipping them over. He'd meant to add more flavor, but alas. "Just— tell me. Tell me and I'll take over."

"That's a compromise I'm willing to make. If you find you don't know the right path and you feel more comfortable trusting me, then— I'll accept that. But when you speak of resentment, I fear causing it in you. Of doing what feels natural for me, but no longer is for you."

"Of rejecting that truth ungracefully." Unhappily, he taps the tongs against the top of the cooking chicken. His stream of consciousness feels disjointed, but honest. "I want to look up to you again, O. I want to be as inspired as I was the moment you first brought chaos and excitement back into my life again. I want to let you make decisions that surprise me."

"But I'd rather still have you near when that is done." Ace purses his lips together, tongue running across the backs of them. "So we make compromises. Meet somewhere in the middle. Find the thing closest to happiness for both of us."

"Because I do not want to let you go," he states softly. The sudden turn in the conversation feels so familiar, somehow, and when his eyes draw up again, he's momentarily no longer here. Before him lies lake and white-blanketed forest, a background to a better vision at its center.

Mohonk Mountain House

December 26, 2020

With Odessa looking out the window, blanket drawn around her shoulders, Ace quietly slips in behind her, arms cinching around her waist, chin hooking over her shoulder. He takes a moment to observe the view with her as his perch, sighing contentedly. He knows she may not be feeling the same way he is at this moment, but perhaps she can use his state as a crutch to get to somewhere happier.

"Something on your mind?" he wonders in a murmur to her. He knows there must be. She's been quiet ever since breakfast.

The embrace is accepted, sagged into with something like gratitude, trust. In the reflection from the window, Ace can see her eyes close and her tired smile. Yes. She could stand on the balcony to better admire the stunning view… But not too close to the edge. And maybe if she had one hand on the door frame. Or if he stood inside and let her hold his hand so she knows he would totally catch her if the balcony fell away beneath her feet.

The serious, rational thoughts of Odessa Price, acrophobic.

“Yesterday was… I don’t know if anything can truly be perfect, but this was probably as close as it gets.” His happiness seeps into her like the warmth of his arms wrapped around her. It isn’t quite enough. She’s spent time enough with Ace that she’s better able to sort what’s his from what’s hers. At least where the positive emotions are concerned. He has more moments of those than she tends to.

Her head tilts to allow her to gently rest hers against his. “Just… I wonder if this is what you really want.” Blue eyes open, muted enough in the reflection to look grey, studying his face in the glass. “I’ve made it perfectly obvious it’s what I want, but…”

But never has Odessa received what she wants without strings so adamantine as to be chains.

“This isn’t who you are, is it?” It’s barely who she is. It’s someone she’d like to be. Her voice gets a little breathier, like she’s about to spiral into something. Maybe panic. “I don’t want you to be anything other than you. I—”

"I'm completely certain of my course here," Ace answers before she can go further. He presses a kiss into her shoulder before pushing his forehead against the side of her head, letting his conviction speak for itself. "And no, this doesn't seem like me, does it. Would it reassure you to know I killed a man to secure the ring?"

He's joking. He smirks against the side of her neck before letting out a chuckle.

"That sounds more in character, doesn't it?" Lifting his head, he shifts to stand slightly more at her side, to see her face outside of the reflection. "But also, when have you ever known me to do something I don't want?"

Ace brushes his thumb up and down her side. "I've had time to think about this, O. It's something I've considered at length." He pauses for a moment, long enough to tilt his head thoughtfully. "Am I a married man? No." His brow lifts. "Could I see myself as one? … That will take time." His expression mellows, fading in favor of looking more deeply into her eyes. "But I could no longer see myself— see you without…"

The hand around her side shifts, finding her left and firming his grip around the curve of her knuckles gently to lift up her hand and the ring prominent on it as better explanation than any words could provide.

There’s a sudden spark in her eyes, a quiet but sharp inhale of breath. A stirring in her belly that immediately brings about feelings of shame. Joking. Right. She exhales slowly, letting her smile slide back into place slowly, as though he’s placated her with his tacit assurance. Her heart shouldn’t race so much to wonder if he killed for her. Even in the most roundabout of ways.

Ace turns to her and so Odessa turns in kind so they’re both better able to see one another. Slowly, the mask she wears fades away, leaving something far closer to the reality of her underneath. He sees the vulnerability he knows is there, no matter how hard she hides it, but also the way her hope is tempered by his own admittance.

Still, her eyes alight on the jewel on her finger, the way he intends. The way the sunlight through the window makes the bands of darker green stand out even more stark against the light canary yellow they’re woven through. She sighs happily. It suits the pair of them so well, doesn’t it?

“I’d like to be Odessa Callahan,” his fiancée confides, letting the distance of her gaze shift focus a little further to his face, rather than their joined hands. “Even if that has to be our secret. Ourania Stoltz could suit me just fine.”

Ace's contentment stills as she lifts her eyes to him, like his heart skips a bit. It might. She does the strangest things to him when she confirms all the ways she'd like to tie herself to him.

This one, he doesn't even mind. His head dips for hers, kissing her immediately, hungrily. In all the ways a proposal wasn't him, but the way he did theirs was, this is much the same. Acts of love from him are so often strange and possessive, rarely anything like this.

"Suddenly I can see myself a married man that much clearer," Ace confesses on a breath. The joy inside him is a dizzying thing, chilled but not. Like fine, thrown snow, glittering like diamonds. It's like she's said yes all over again. Those fireworks flare inside him more brightly than even last night.

He's not in the midst of a performance, after all. He can properly appreciate her now.

Normally, there’s a little flutter of fear, sometimes manifesting from her as a small squeak of surprise before he can close the distance between them. There’s no such thing this time. The butterflies buoy both of them in this case. Odessa reaches up to place her hands on his shoulders, curling fingers into the fabric of his shirt as they kiss and the crystalline ice of her worry starts to thaw.

“I’m glad,” she murmurs once they’ve parted, reestablishing the borders of where he ends and she begins. “I don’t think my heart could take it if you decided to hold it in limbo forever,” she teases, closing her eyes and leaning up into another, briefer kiss. “As long as this is what you want… I’m happy to be yours.”

Ace's smile is a faint one, save for how it lives in his eyes. He lifts his hand to her cheek, brushing it gently with two knuckles. "I promise to only keep you in suspense for so long as it takes to keep things interesting," he teases, but the sparkle of mirth in his gaze fades to something softer. "And to catch you when it's time to cut you down."

His grin flickers, the embrace of his arm suring against her. "If I had my way, I'd never let you go, O."


Present Day

Ace breaks the quiet he nearly slipped into by asking, "Can you grab us some plates, please?"

The silence has suited her just fine. Odessa’s been struggling to keep her emotions in check. Not needing to speak has given her the space to do this. She’s focused on her breath, keeping it deep and even, willing the prickling sensation around her eyes to be no worse than that threat of rain.

The rate of success in this endeavor is remarkably low.

Still, she slips back off her stool, stockinged feet padding silently across the kitchen so she can reach up into the cupboard and retrieve their plates with a soft scrape of the bottom of one dish over the top of the one beneath as she slides the pair across the stack and moves them down to the counter. She sets them out next to each other alongside the stove while she retrieves utensils as well. One set she leaves on the kitchen side of the island. The other she sets atop a folded napkin at the dining room table.

Then, she begins the circuit back in anticipation of collecting her portion of their late lunch. Her thoughts she’s managed to keep to herself thus far. Though she’s moved about so close to and around him, her eyes have been on anything but his form. Those two factors combined tell volumes to Ace of Odessa’s wounded state.

There's a reason Ace opts so infrequently for unvarnished truth. Its edges are tricky things. What he'd said meaning to be supportive of her and their reality… he meant just that, even if things weren't perfect.

But the longer the silence goes on, he begins to key in on the fact he's said something upsetting. He draws in a breath to speak when she moves past him with the utensils, and notes she's not looking at him, either. Damn it.

What did he say?

Winding back through the words, he thinks he's found them, and frowns. A flare of frustration is quelled, and he begins drawing himself back together again. Stove snapped off, he plates the food with a return of the carefully measured calm as before— pans deposited quietly rather than let to clatter in the sink.

Both plates are lifted before she can get to grabbing hers. He looks her in the eye, on the verge of saying something, and instead tilts his head to the table. He'll bring it. And he does.

Her plate is set down by her impromptu place setting, and his— across hers at the table.

Ace slides into the seat, quiet at first. A thin sheen of something settles at the bottom of his emotional core, transparent yet dark as dread. One forearm lies across the table as he wills his tone of voice to obey. "I've hurt you," he says apologetically. "That— wasn't my intention. What I meant to say… What I mean, O, is that I want you to act without fear of my reaction on your day to day." He purses his lips together, brow knitting. "I want to be surprised by you. I want to be in awe of the person you're becoming. Do you understand?"

This is more important to him than having retrieved his set of silverware, than the meal entirely.

To her credit, when he stares her down, she doesn’t shrink back. There’s no challenge to her, but there’s nothing about her demeanor that requests more of him than he’s already given. When he starts to take both plates to the table, she gathers up the utensils she’d set aside for him on the counter and brings them over to set in front of his seat instead before taking her own.

The food in front of her likewise sits untouched. “That isn’t it,” she says quietly, and he can hear the heaviness of her shame just as well as he can see it in her eyes, even as she refuses to look at him again. Odessa wets her lips in anticipation of speaking further, but holds her tongue for a long moment instead. This isn’t something he’s going to need to drag out of her, by now he knows her well enough to tell that much, but she needs the time to organize those thoughts all the same.

“What good is a muse if she can’t inspire?”

This is what he feared she'd focused on, even more than what he'd pointed out. The sheen in him glistens, traces of that disconcert in his emotional presence on clearer, if invisible display.

Ace takes in a slow breath. Calmly, he reminds her, "That isn't what I said."

Odessa’s breath is equally slow, but a far shakier thing. “I don’t inspire you the way that I did.” More than anything else, she just looks lost. Hopeless. There’s a terrible emptiness to her, surrounded by edges of dread. “And how could I possibly? What’s so inspiring about someone like me to someone like //you?/”

It’s made clear in that inflection that she still holds him in the highest regard. There’s no possibility that the expectations set out before her are too high or unrealistic. She simply can’t live up to them.

“I’m not that person you met anymore. Even if I wanted to be, I can’t. I don’t have her power. I can’t sow her discord.”

There’s only the barest of flinches on Odessa’s face, unseen to Ace as he’s staring down the barrel, with each crack of the rifle that echoes in the unnatural stillness that surrounds them. Her concentration never falters, however. She watches the bullets soar — feels them cut through the hold she has on time. From the sniper’s vantage, there’s just the faintest hint of red mist in the air around his targets after each hit.

The green-grey of Ace’s eyes glint with delight as he leans ever so slightly toward Odessa. "Are you ready for the show?" he asks gravely. It's up to her to let the curtain rise now.

“Roll snare drum.”

Her gaze hasn’t left the rebel soldiers, but now her eyes widen a fraction. “Here.” Her fingers curl around the fabric of his sleeve without clutching at him specifically. “We.” The fist of her right hand clutches tighter for just a second. “Go.”

That fist springs open as though she might have been about to throw a handful of flash powder as an illusionist might. "All eyes now to center stage," Ace whispers as he breathes in deeply, taking in the atmosphere. It's like he wants to engrave this moment on his mind forever. Blood erupts from wounds, people stagger and drop to the pavement.

Except on the horizon, it's not the rebels who fall. His fellows in their army fatigues are the ones whose blood splatters from their unprotected necks, the ones who fall to the ground. And as the sound of a clamor rises up from below, a whispery laugh flows from him. "Oh, how lovely." Ace remarks to himself, looking down again over the havoc that's just begun to unfold on the ground below. On seeing it, his laugh grows in volume.

"I feel inspired," he declares on the end of his breath, as much to Odessa as to the universe itself.

Odessa releases the breath that she’d been holding as an ecstatic sigh.

And that still hurts. How much of herself was lost along with her control over time? “You only finally saw a glimmer of the possibility that you could care for me when I had murder on my mind.”

"Ah," he whispers to himself with some relief, turning his entire body to her, giving her his full attention in a way he hasn't in some time, because just like that, she’s a predatory creature again. Their would-be mugger is a gazelle and she’s a lioness ready to give chase. Already she’s two steps into breaking out into a sprint when Ace snares her wrist and pulls her back toward him, snapping her out of her lust for blood.

He's not done in his study.

"There you are."

Odessa never left. But as far as he's concerned, this change of her physical appearance saw to it that she had, and that she might never return. While there were things he liked about her new form, her new identity, her new demeanor, it never felt quite… her. Never in a way that was satisfying to watch. Never in a way that was satisfying to…

Ace lifts his hand, fingers curled to brush the backs of his knuckles against her cheek. "I was wondering if you'd come back to me." Inside him, that great longing is filled, his misery— crushed. He just needed to see her.

And just like that, his flame for her renews.

“I know you’ve been happy.” That much has to be acknowledged. She can’t abide him thinking she believes otherwise. “But I also know the depths of how unhappy I can make you.” The smile’s a reflex at best, and fleeting. “My feelings hardly matter here. I’m always unhappy when you aren’t there to be like the sun shining on my face.”

Still, she won’t look at him. Her gaze comes only as close as tracing the lengths of his fingers along the table top until the sleeve of his shirt breaks up the x-ray examination of his bones that takes place entirely in her wandering mind.

“How can a songbird with broken wings be any kind of inspiration to a virtuoso?”

Ace remains still. For all that he tries to be sympathetic to her concern, he can't be. He eases away from his dread— because the worst has already happened. She's questioning the nature of her reality, essentially. It's the moment that's been so artfully avoided for the better part of a year.

Had this happened last summer, he'd have crafted a more artful answer than he does now to clue her in on a truth he's accepted ever since their chance reunion on the street.

"Odessa," he says evenly, forgoing gentleness entirely. "No— you are not the same person now."

He cants his head to the side as he regards her. "Were you, the man I was would have left you to die at the moment it became most beautiful to do so. He would have recalled you fondly, remembered you well. Savored the taste of his name in your mouth… and moved on without a second thought."

"Who you are now transcends who that was," Ace says quietly. "Who you are now affects me in ways I did not think possible."

His eyes half-lid as he sits back from the table, unfocused on her as he remarks, "But even to that man, the man I was before, you still have worth now. You have something he doesn't. Insight he'd never have, no matter how hard he studies." There's a flick to his gaze, catlike while he thinks. Perhaps it's easier to discuss his weaknesses as though they belong only to the past tense; mere hypotheticals rather than truths. "Even without the development that happened—" falling in love, he means, "What you can do brings such possibilities. There'd have been worth, to him, in stringing you along."

Ace sighs, and in so doing, comes back to the present— meets Odessa's eyes again. There's something wary in them, unguarded as they are. For all he knows, he's again said something that's cut in ways he hasn't intended. Even so, he admires her for a moment, his even expression broken with the twitch of smile. He marvels with reverence in his voice, "The universe itself tried to cut you down and make things more sporting." His eyes gleam as he notes, "But it hasn't diminished any of the fun, my muse."

"Not for me," he clarifies with a lift of his brow. A breathless pause later, he easily continues, "It's simply provided a new angle for us to approach things together. Perhaps even a more favorable one."

Though he could continue at length, he's satisfied enough with what he's said. Ace reaches for the silverware and slices his way into his cooling meal. It's a statement of its own— he's not going anywhere, and neither is he throwing her out because she's finally realized something he's known for some time.

Conversely, she cannot bring herself to touch her meal. Maybe she’s just too sensitive. Every time he tries to explain to her how things are different, she hurts a little bit more. It was one thing to play their game before. The rules of it allowed her knowledge of his impending treachery to be a secret thing. Something he was getting away with and she ready to counter in the moment. To hear him speak so plainly how he intended to let her die — if not do the deed himself — simply because he could find beauty in it, that he’d just been stringing her along…

How could it not hurt?

Logically, intellectually, realistically, she had known all this. That there had been a shift in him. That shift had to come from something else, or it wouldn’t have been a shift at all. But somehow, she’d deluded herself, as she always does. Deluded herself into thinking that it had been different from the very beginning. That he could have been as taken with her as she was with him.

This is when she should push away from the table, go put the stairs to their room and start packing her bag while he finishes his meal.

But she doesn’t. She won’t.

“What about my vitiated state could possibly prove favorable to you?” Odessa’s guarded where he has opened himself. “Everything I could possibly conceive of, I—”

Odessa draws in a deep breath and pushes it from her lungs in an audible way that doesn’t resemble her sighs of exasperation or sorrow. This is a resignation. A prelude to a white flag she hasn’t quite yet raised.

Her handkerchief is still tucked into her pocket.

"Your spirit, my phoenix," Ace tells her sharply, attempting to shut down argument on the matter. He looks up from his plate, his stomach shifting, his being reaching for her in the intensity of his stare.

"It shines when given light. It masks itself when the stage is unfavorable. It perseveres through every discomfort and comes out again beautiful. Change may burn you or threaten to break you, but you rise."

He rolls his tongue before bidding her, "Tell me I'm lying. Tell me that is not what I see in you. Tell me I'm wrong in that there is not beauty in overcoming." His earnest fades with the slightest frown. "I never ascribed you just to your genetics, Odessa Price. You were always something more." He lets out a faint, disbelieving laugh. "But as I've said, the changes wrought on your ability— my other concerns with them aside— are valuable in every moment leading up to production, and even in it."

He brushes the back of his hand down the napkin to smooth it. "What doesn't prove favorable to me is how you question even what makes you happy. These… major life changes you swear you want for yourself— I feel and fear they're only things you think you should want and not what actually grant you joy."

"You should be happy even when not fixed to my side," he insists almost dismissively. "Domesticity was supposed to be a warm blanket for you to shroud yourself in, and in its safety you were supposed to find happiness." The tines of his fork find the plate as he stabs a bite of chicken. "If you're not finding your comfort there, I mean what I said."

Even if it brings a tinge of conflict to him, he plays it off effortlessly. Her comfort matters here, and he supposes he can take enjoyment out of providing that for her. "If you need guidance, need me to steer us both more firmly… I'll do it. It's not a shameful thing, either."

Ace glances up to her. "The trust involved in that is monumental. I'd treat it with due respect."

“Ace, my love, I am sad because I have seen so much tragedy in my life. I’ve seen what’s left of my father cooling on the living room carpet. I’ve seen my sister’s memories torn from her after she was torn from our parents. I reunited with my mother only for her to sacrifice herself for me, everyone. I stabbed my own grandfather in the back and never had the opportunity to apologize, to tell him I found out who we were to each other. My loves have left me. My loves have spurned me. My loves have tried to kill me. My loves have died.”

Odessa’s gaze has unfocused, left this physical place. It isn’t as bad as he’d seen on her a week before, but it’s close. Even she is stunned by just how much personal trauma she’s experienced in such a short period of time, and that list is by no means exhaustive. They may have hidden the myriad physical scars she possesses, but nothing can erase the ones on her heart.

But he’s right. All of that has served to try and crush her into the ground beneath the metaphorical heel of the universe, and she still stands. Terribly, she still stands.

She comes back to herself without prompting. Back to him, her gaze settling on his face, studying him as though she might count his every freckle. “I like our life together,” is promised on a breath. “I go to work in the morning, I come home in the evening, put away my bag, change my clothes to something cozier, and come back down to either sit in front of the fire or…” Odessa smiles faintly, “play the piano. Even when you stay upstairs in your office or let something else keep your attention, I feel your contentment after those first couple of measures.”

There’s a softness to her now. It’s this look of hers he knows best, when there’s no question about her love for him. “But I know I can never have all of you.” The sorrow tinges it, but not enough to entirely diminish the overt sentiment of adoration. “Not the way that I am now.”

But as easily as she could find a moment of clarity, a ray of sunshine through the clouds of her emotional condition, the storms have rolled in again. “Can you continue to love me as I am? Or will I lose you?”

Ace finishes his current bite, a flinty look given up to Odessa before he looks back down to his plate. "I fell in love with you as you are," he reminds her quietly, unwilling as ever to play into anxiety-driven hypotheticals in conversation. "I would consider that before you begin worrying about other possibilities."

But he knows he's capricious, as does she. Her concerns aren't entirely unfounded.

"I've built life plans involving you," he adds next. "Even with the restrictions placed on your possibilities." Another bite of food is stabbed. "If I didn't enjoy your presence, I wouldn't keep drawing you in closer when I fear you're slipping away. I wouldn't be having this conversation with you." There's a flare of impatience quickly tempered back out of his voice with a sigh.

"Stop blinding yourself to the victory you've won, Odessa. You deserve everything you fight for, and you've found victory here. In us." His brow draws together, perturbed as he glances back up. "What you have of me is more than any person has ever had. And if you don't appreciate that, then I am disappointed."

Praising her hadn't gotten through to her. Perhaps this will.

If he had an ability like hers — or maybe just any idea how to deal with someone as fragile as she is — he might not have shifted away from praise. Odessa lowers her gaze to the table, fingers curling in toward her palms slowly. The glimmer of his impatience, the way that he hides it behind a mask like she can’t tell, pains her.

Odessa sighs softly. “I am always going to be like this, Ace. I am clinically depressed and I have PTSD coming out of my ears. I am always going to latch on to every negative thing you say about me. I’m going to graft them to my heart and refuse to forget them.”

And because he is such a capricious thing, she has more she needs to say. This time, she does him the courtesy of looking at him while she does. “I am afraid of you. And I know that’s not what you want to hear. I know it’s not what you want for me. But how can I know when you’re going to vacillate back to I should have killed you?”

Wide blue eyes hold her incredulity. The very fact that she stays with him is preposterous. “I have left other men for less.” Though she struggles to think of any, he doesn’t need to know that. Odessa Price is always loyal in her own way to the very last. Her eyes close heavily and her shoulders sag. “This would be different if I still had my power. I’m not saying I’d be untouchable, but it would at least be…”

Lips painted with fading coral lipstick curve into an ironic smirk. “Sporting.

Ace smiles despite himself, too, as he looks away, but it becomes something more solemn swiftly enough. His jaw tenses. She's given him plenty to think about here.

"The thing I can't stand, the only thing that has ever made me want to throw you away, is when you doubt yourself and nothing I do can reach you. Because if you find yourself unable to lift yourself up by your own means, and mine are useless to you— what good is continuing to try this?"

He rolls his jaw before he pries it open to eat his next bite of zucchini, to carry on with a stiff upper lip rather than succumbing to the memory of that feeling. "I have learned patience. I have learned when you need space to give it, I have learned what to give you when my words and presence won't suffice. Salves of various kinds, the television, your favorite foods. I have compacted that frustration and tried to help you walk again, even if you can't fly."

He relents, "But I tire of having the same conversations. In feeling as though nothing I do will save us."

Ace looks back to her. "Can I make you happy? Or should I stop trying?"

That question devastates her in ways she couldn’t have predicted. She’d been prepared to offer some analogy about ropes and lifting oneself up, but that all turns to ash in her mouth. That voice in the back of her mind tells her again: You aren’t worth fighting for.

But hasn’t he been fighting? He’s been fighting and now he’s tired. Of the fight, of her…

“You do make me happy,” Odessa argues with a wounded expression. “Haven’t you seen it?” If he can’t trust her words, surely he’s willing to trust his own eyes. “The day you asked me to marry you was one of the happiest days of my entire life. Fuck, it was probably the best. And it would have still been even if you’d kept that ring in your pocket and never asked.”

Her eyes glisten with tears yet unshed. “It was inspired. Every step of it. The snowflakes, the waterfall, the view…” Even though her heart aches so badly, she smiles, because the memory is beautiful. “Dinner, the note, the box…” Tentatively, she reaches a hand out across the table. “The piano, your voice.”

There’s a breath of laughter there, impossibly fond of him and touched by the efforts he put in to wooing her. “You made me feel like the most important woman in the world.” She sniffs loudly, just the once. “I love you, Ace Callahan. And I’m not always going to make sense, or respond the way you want me to, but I want this. I want us.

Ace's expression doesn't shift, but the bedrock underneath his surface does. Stone becomes silt, crumbling and swirling and settling in him. He sees her and hears her. He trusts what she says.

"All right," he answers quietly, opaquely. He seems to be lost in thought, but remembers to lift his hand and reach out for hers, taking hold and brushing his thumb over her knuckles. He finds peace in hearing not all of this will have to be a fight, even if it's not without its challenges, its struggles.

Ace draws in a breath, murmuring, "I don't want us to lose sight of that. I'd rather us focus on how we make each other happy, rather than continue to tear each other apart without meaning to. We deserve better than that. We have worked so hard to get where we are, and all this…" How to describe today? "unpleasantness has done is needlessly fray us in ways it did not need to."

He looks back up to her, the calming of his emotional state quieting to a muted thing. Something accepting. "I swear to you to do better at that which I am not skilled in. I will mind what I say more carefully. I will remember this moment rather than become mired in doubt about your commitment to our happiness the next time you go somewhere hard-to-reach." He firms his hand around hers in that solemn vow. "In return, O… can you promise me the same? To remember my commitment to you rather than the way I might feel in a given moment."

"Believe it or not," he confides wryly— he knows, it's hard for him to believe too— "I am only human as well."

“Sometimes we have to address the unpleasantness, Ace.” Still, Odessa is taking his hand and holding fast to him. “We can’t avoid injuring one another irrevocably if we don’t warn when it starts to hurt.”

Her heart soars to hear his vow, only to dip again when he asks the same of her, and she doubts her ability to abide. “I know, darling.” That he’s as human as she is. “But some of your moments are… Inescapable.” Eyes close heavily, she sighs just as much so. It’s like picking at a scab, and she just can’t stop herself. “All it takes is a moment for you to decide you’re better off if I’m dead. No amount of your regret will bring me back.”

If that’s all it took, she’d be a master of that particular necromantic art.

"I'm not going to do that," Ace counters openly this time, offense in his voice. He doesn't withdraw his hand, but an agitation at that insistence curls his under his skin. He sighs hard over it, wondering how to rid her of that notion.

She wonders suddenly if this must be what it’s like to be in a relationship with her. It was different before, in its way. A pair of killers united in the notion that they would give the other a run for their money if they tried. Who delighted enough in watching the other work that there was a safety inherent in that bond.

Odessa still can’t fathom what there is about her that could hold his attention that way. How she could be safe from his capriciousness without some kind of ferociousness to match him. “Do you actually trust that I’d never hurt you? Or do you just trust that I’m not strong enough to?”

While the tiger can’t change her stripes, she feels as though she’s been defanged and declawed.

"My muse," Ace remarks knowingly with a tip of his head, squeezing her hand before he releases it, picking up his abandoned utensils again. "If I crossed you, there are at least three different ways you could kill me on any given day."

He's seen what she can do when motivated— back when she was far less certain on her feet than she is now. He knows, if she wanted, she could poison him if displeased with him.

Every day spent together is a dangerous act of trust when she is unhappy with him.

"The world took from you your ability to stop time, not your ability to kill," he chuckles.

Slowly, she smiles. The fact that he considers her capable in this realm makes her glad in ways that she knows it shouldn’t. Odessa draws her hand back and finally picks up her own utensils so she can get a late start on their meal. “You never lose sight of these things, do you?” Zucchini is tasted first, the brief contented look on her face indicates that it’s how she likes. The chicken she begins cutting into pieces before she’ll test it.

“I’m going to try,” she promises, “to remember how you feel about me, how you want to commit to me, to us, when I’m feeling vulnerable or wounded. I will talk to you, instead of letting it fester.” It’s the same she asked of him when his jealousy left her terrified. It’s only fair that she honor his request and return the favor.

“I know this was difficult for you today. It was for me too… But I’m optimistic we’ll both be encouraged to communicate better.” Odessa smiles hopefully. “That it will make us stronger.”

Seeing that curve of a smile come back to Odessa's face is the relief he needed from this. It grants him peace to go with his confidence for now. Once again, they've overcome. That the meal is to her liking is another small bit of satisfaction to add to the moment.

He tries to not let Odessa's pining regarding recurring days like this one affect him, but the light shifts in his eyes. It'd be better, certainly, if he never had to see the likes of Everleigh Madison ever again. If they could stop peeling apart each other's failings in the slow, bland two-step of therapy which felt like its own brand of festering.

For him, he finds it's enough that they made it through this day at all. He's sure he'll come to feel better with each passing day that gets put between them and this.

"I'll grab us a drink," Ace volunteers, pushing himself to his feet.

… God, he hopes so, at least.

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