Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, Part IV



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Scene Title Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, Part IV
Synopsis CONTENT WARNING: Depictions of violence.
Odessa remembers the first time she fell in love. And the first time her heart was broken.
Date In the past…

Dorchester Towers, Ethan's Apartment

Floating in between
Where our worlds collide

Two items are packed into the same box. The first is a coat. On first pass, it's black quilted lambskin, girl-sized, gathered at the waist with a feminine flourish, notch-collar sleeked out by slash pockets and discreetly hidden buttons; on second pass, ti's fully reversible. The inside shows an identical cut and figure in a champagne shade of suede. Flattened underneath the coat layers her desired undergarment: a Kevlar vest.


"It's beautiful! Thank you!" Odessa actually hugs the new coat – her first coat – to her chest and then peers down at the Kevlar vest. "Oooh…" She knows what that's for. It's for having fun. The coat is carefully set aside on the couch in favor of lifting out the vest now. "I love it." She grins and feels the heavy material between her fingers.

Wu-Long Zhang shifts his attention to the real novelty Ethan's keeping in his house. One Odessa Knutson, who finds Kevlar and reversible coats equally delightful. Which is sort of awesome, and he's smiling before he seems to realize it. "Buyao keqi," he says, waving his hand modestly. "It's nothing. I don't expect him to start shooting, but I decided it was important you to have these things for the near future." Partly also because he wanted to see how she'd react, confronted with Kevlar.

It's the nicest gift anyone's ever given me. I wish I still had that coat. I'd be wearing it right now, blood stains and all.

I'd be comfortable with dying in that coat. It was so nice.

Wu-Long isn't sure what to do with her mixture of sheltered ignorance, void of conventional naïvete. He gets to his feet, straightens up and circles around her to get a look at the coat laid out in front of her. "See, when you wear that side out," he points at the leather, "it makes you feel fucking badass." Trust him, he'd know. "The other side," he points at the seam of white wine gold. "Those are your civilian colors. I'm selling him heroin and diamonds. They're a lot easier to shift than rare strains of cholera, so I don't think it should be bad," he says, squinting critically at the cut. Nice to think he isn't hopeless when it comes to sizing.

"So, what would you like me to be?" Odessa queries with a smile, pulling the vest on over her dress shirt. "Badass, or civilian?" She holds up the coat first turned one way, then the other.

Wu-Long tips his head to the right just a fraction of a degree, looking at the coat, then the woman, then the woman's throat in a momentary distraction, then the coat again. He can't seem to decide which ruse would be the actual ruse, looking at her, or what would be more transparent to anyone who studied her hard enough. "Which one do you prefer?"

"They're both nice," Odessa muses, running her fingers over the fabric of her new coat. "I think I like the champagne today." She flips the coat around and tugs it on to check the size. "Wow. You have a good eye," she murmurs.

Wu-Long stares at her for a protracted moment, pupils dark and indiscernible against iris, his pulse beating in his mouth. The next, he steps back, approving of her choice with a diplomatic nod. "We can go out the window," he says. Doesn't bother raising the blinds before he flips the catch, opening it a chink with a rattling jerk of brushed metal on metal, glass on hinges. A hand is offered to Odessa, unobtrusive and yet expectant in the upturn of his callused palm.

Always afraid to take someone's hand back then. Too afraid to trust. Oh, sweetie. I should have trusted this one so much sooner.

Odessa stares down at the hand offered to her a long moment before taking it with a certain reluctance. Her grip isn't very strong and the way the muscles in her arm tense, it's like she's just waiting to yank free of his grasp at a moment's notice. She stands firm for the moment, staring at the covered window. "Are we going to be using your ability?" This prospect seems to clear some of the apprehension and she squeezes the hand she holds a little tighter. Excitement and anticipation overpower trepidation.

"Yep," matched with a nod. "We're going to be using my ability. Only a little." Word choice implies reassurance; his tone would have been the same if he had instead said to her, Don't struggle.


This turned out to be such a fun outing.

"Run away," he says, motioning Odessa toward the doorway they came through, his .45 out.

"I'm not leaving you," Odessa insists, taking Wu-Long aback. She pulls her own gun out and quickly figures out how to turn off the safety. Like she'd watched the Company agents do, she keeps the weapon pointed at the floor.

He reaches to pull the woman down behind the meager cover of the capsized table. Hears the safe give a final swizz before it swings open on hinges too well-oiled to squeak, sees the bodyguard begin to fill his bag with funds, ignoring both Wu-Long and Odessa for no other reason than because he thinks he has no choice. A fallacious opinion, and he sees the error of his ways the next moment. Pulls out a silver gun, and fires at Wu-Long's head.

One small hand shoots up in a surprised gesture. "Look out!" Luckily for both of them, Odessa kept a wary eye on the remaining guard. Lucky for her, because it's likely she would have been next. Their good fortunate is continued when the shot goes wide, compounded with the blonde lunging forward to shove Wu-Long down on the floor entirely beneath her. The hand cradling the gun is brought up and aimed at the large man's head. Fingers flexing restlessly on her free hand, she pulls the trigger without hesitation.

He must have been so impressed. He had no idea I had all the time in the world to line up that shot and make sure it was perfect.

Now Wu-Long is underneath a hundred pounds of blonde in immaculate accoutrement while bullets whizz about overhead. Life could be a lot worse. He manages not to clunk his head on flat on the floor, winds up blinking at the underside of her gun in time to see the muzzle-flash of discharge. Abruptly, the man's falling, string's cut, puppet parts tumbling limb and clothes and sack of bills and stones, a corpse before he hits the carpet with a wretched splattering stain, a new hole splintered through his face. Odessa might imagine she'd seen straight through it.

The two of them get to their feet, and Odessa demands Wu-Long head up the stairs ahead of her while she grabs some of the money. It takes some convincing – he's meant to be protecting her, after all – and he consents only because he's achingly curious to know what it is she's going to do.

He doesn't see it. Once his back is to her, Odessa freezes time and stalks over to the corpse she created so neatly moments ago. He had an ability. She'd seen it. He'd been fast. Too fast. She looks about the space and on the desk she spots a heavy crystal paperweight.

Yes. That ought to do.

It's not the sophisticated brain surgery she'd performed in the sterile conditions of the Company's medical facilities, but this isn't a patient she's keeping alive. Crouching down on the ground, she hefts the weight in both hands and holds it up over her head for a moment, trembling.

After a deep breath, she brings it down on the skull viciously. Blood sprays upward, but never connects with her vest and her shirt. It simply hangs suspended in the air. Some ends up on her sleeves when her movements are careless and she passes through the suspended trajectory. Her blow didn't connect with enough force to crack the skull, however. She has to go back for another pass.

Once more, with feeling.

The sound is sickening, but she is rewarded for her efforts. Now she engages in a quick series of little taps, careful now not to cause more damage than is necessary. Flesh is separated from bone and bone is peeled back like egg shell to receive the prize beneath. A wave of nausea washes over her, but Odessa keeps it in check. She's been doing surgery for years, and this, she has decided, should be no different.

One of the money sacks is selected, the cash poured out of it and onto the floor. The brain is oh, so carefully lifted from the man's skull, a quick tug here, a yank and a snap there removes it from the last of its trappings. It's deposited in the bag, which will have to do for now.

Odessa uses the dead man's suit to wipe the blood from her hands. She isn't used to blood on her hands. In her surgery, there are always gloves. Masks. Scrubs that are disposed of immediately after. Even when she's dealing with emergencies, she always has time for gloves. She wonders idly how she's going to get the blood out from under her nails.

With her gift for Sylar secured, Odessa pushes herself back up off the floor and heads back to the stairwell she came from, sees Wu-Long's shape frozen there. A deep breath, and time resumes again.

Their escape is bloody, but swift, culminating in the use of Wu-Long's ability to get them ahead of their pursuers quickly. Odessa hits the pavement running once they're fully tangible again, unable to catch herself before she slams into the side of the getaway car in her disorientation. She bounces back and stumbles a few steps, teetering backward dangerously on her high heels before she catches her balance once again, throws open the car door, and jumps in.

From the driver's seat, he looks at her. Polite enough to turn in his seat as he does so, his shoulders squaring, a conversational posture. He cocks his head slightly to catch Odessa's gaze, as if her eyes were raindrops to be fielded by the flat of his face. "Next time," he says, the rust of his accent thinned by the precision of his enunciation, "if I tell you to run away."

"Yes sir," Odessa murmurs numbly, staring straight ahead. "Let's get out of here."

I never did listen.

Ruins of Midtown

"I can't tell if your objection is moral or professional," he states, after a moment, his confusion as sincere as his curiosity, despite the edge of humor peeking out from underneath. The next, his hand rises, unbidden, moves to try the new line across her throat with a warm forefinger, and Odessa shrinks up. Her shoulders huddle tighter and she trembles, though not due to the cold or the rain. She tips her head back in almost a gesture of submission the way she bares her throat for his inspection.

Wu-Long. You taught me to appreciate me as I am. I'm glad you taught me this acceptance early. It made it so much easier later.

There isn't enough light here to do it with his eyes. A scarred knuckle probes the small bones of her throat, tracks across jugular, ignores pulse in favor of the thin seam there on her skin, the interruption to the grain he can barely feel through the stinging needles of rainwater. The woman shivers and jumps from the touch of callused fingers. The pulse ignored quickens beneath her skin.

"Maybe you're unhappy because there had to have been good people in there," he says suddenly, of her sorrow regarding what happened to this place just over two years ago. He thumbs her chin gently and his hand falls, patting her shoulder in something similar to an awkward farce of comfort. "Innocent ones. Children and a gentleman trying to learn how to mix guacamole. None of them perfect, all of them valuable. Economically, sentimentally. I guess they didn't talk about that much in your silver tower. You're very beautiful," he adds absently, pulling his hand into his pocket where it can't hurt her anymore.

I'm so glad to hear him say that one more time…

"Good people," she murmurs numbly. The thumb on her chin and the hand on her shoulder both cause her to jerk away a little. She's about to open her mouth to comment on her upbringing in her silver tower and her black cellar when her thoughts are entirely derailed.

How can one's thoughts completely and utterly halt while simultaneously racing out of control at breakneck speeds? Odessa takes three heavy steps back – away from Wu-Long. Her shoes slide precariously over loose bits of concrete and debris. She can't even pin down a verbal response to his assertion of her beauty.

Perhaps Wu-Long should have known better. She seems to have an odd relationship with sexuality, if not actually more so than the average Vanguardian does, and beauty seems too ofte to draw from that cultural context. He fails entirely to feel remorseful about it, or even play at it.

Instead, he watches her. "What do you want from this world?" he asks. It seems a natural question to place before a woman who can't take a compliment.

Maybe we can talk about that when I get wherever the hell it is that monsters go when they die.

Odessa's eyes shut heavily. She finds herself in complete disarray. Maybe because he touched her. Maybe because of his words. Maybe because of what he's asked her just now? The answer is likely a combination of all three of those things. She lifts her hands to the sky, feeling the straggling drops of rain from the retreating clouds upon her fingertips fro a moment before her eyes open again. She can't quite bring herself to tip her head down enough to look at him. "I don't know." And that fact scares her right now almost as much as he does.

He follows her gaze s he had followed her gesture before. Into the sky. Tian. There's no sun yet, and he is incapable of generating light; this bothers him primarily because he thinks that's what she's trying to look for, and he'd like to see how she'd react to receiving it, this once. "That's all right," he says instead. He lifts an arm, crooked back over his shoulder, and hauls his fingers through his waterlogged hair. Snags up short on the rubber band binding his ponytail together, and keeps dragging, until it pops free and his barbarian's curls shag loose. He squeezes the water out of them, an uncharacteristic moment of vanity. "You're young. Have fun. If you know how," he adds, in a tone like concession.

If you know how. Hah… No, I never did know how to have fun.

While Wu-Long suspects it's the light of day that she reaches for, the truth is that she hopes to find answers in the space just beyond her grasp. Like if she can just lean up on her toes just a little more, she might be able to find what she seeks and grasp it in her slender hands. "This is everything I've ever wanted, and now I don't even know what to do with it."

Never did figure that out. Couldn't ever figure out what to do with myself without the cages.

There's a little wist, sharpened by curiosity. "A least, it's good that you see it that way. Too many people who live here creep among the cringing, wondering what Manhattan's going to do with them." It's clear he thinks that's a dumb way to go about extending one's life. "You could go to the zoo. Learn to climb trees. It was the first thing I taught my son. Take a glassblowing class," he suggests. "Fall in love, if you're feeling braver than usual."

Love does take a whole lot of bravery. And I have always been a fucking coward.

"What good is love to someone intent on destroying everything they are?"

"Are you talking about the Work? Kazimir's orders?" Wu-Long considers his answer in silence for a few minutes, listening to the fading susurration of weather abrading horizon while he watches her breathe. Finds himself subconsciously cuing his own with her. Inhale, exhale. Cold in, warm out. Even wrung out, his hair is cold and clammy on his neck. "I don't think either of those things would have stopped me." He steps forward finally, once again closing a little of the distance she had slipped and slid away from him, his head slightly tilted, his eyes unfocused past her shoulder.

To her credit, Odessa doesn't step away when he steps closer once more. But she doesn't let the issue go, either. She fixes him with a look and asks, "Why are you doing this?"

He stops when he is little over two feet away, returning to conversational configuration. "I wasn't a very good father, either. I don't know why Kazimir gave you to me, but you shouldn't be concerned." A ringlet falls against his cheek, beaded with water. "I'll keep you alive until I can't."

You did make good on that promise, didn't you?

He never stops looking at her face. Nose, mouth, forehead, remembers routinely to look back into her eyes the way people are supposed to. "What am I doing?"

"You're making me uncomfortable." Odessa shivers and shrinks back just a little, though she never takes a full step. "And you know you are. But you keep doing it." Her lips purse in a sour expression.

I missed this. I forgot how he used to make me feel. It was thrilling. I just didn't have the context to understand it back then. Things would have been so very different if I did.

Then again, perhaps he would not have wanted me without the pursuit.

His eyes lid, amused before he widens them in inquiry. "If you want me to stop, you should ask me to do something you would like. I am not mind-reader, xiaojie."

No. Don't stop.

The doctor finds herself without response. He may be less than charismatic, but she's certainly clueless in matters of the heart. Any sign of affection is horribly misconstrued, misinformed by her unusual upbringing, every aspect of it is beyond her comprehension. "Xiaojie," she repeats, the foreign word tripping off her tongue awkwardly, but Odessa has a head for languages, and so her mimicry is just that, and not mangling. "What does that mean?" Odessa presses her lips together in a thin line, actually unsure of whether she truly wants to know the answer or not.

Nor is Wu-Long entirely without lecherous intent, or undercurrents, to be fair. He's as bad at being chaste as he is at being anything else categorically nice. His smile doesn't reach his mouth, crows' feet curling at the corners of his eyes. It's significant to him, that she didn't tell him to stop, couldn't tell him what to do. To be young and fail to understand oneself.

He sort of misses that. "Xiaojie," he repeats. "'Little woman' is the direct translation. It's the Chinese equivalent to 'miss.' Polite," he promises. "Xiaojie. Ni xiang huijia ba? 'Miss: would you care to go home?'" He thinks she looks cold. He's wondering how she got all the way out here by herself.

Odessa nods shakily and looks back toward the ruined landscape of New York City one more time. "Yes… I think I would like to go home." Insomuch as any place can be called that for her. The young woman balls her hands into fists briefly, flexing her fingers outward again. Breathing comes in deep and even, an obvious calming or focusing technique. "I would like that very much."

"I took a car." She's given a hand, or offered a test, if she'll accept either of those things. A palm up, rough fingers splayed loosely, his wrist held motionless against the dulled sway of the wind that catches her hair and nudges the long panels of his coat against her leg.

Odessa cannot bring herself to look at the hand even as she reaches out to grasp it. That just makes it too… She isn't sure what it makes it. Too complaint? Too real? Complacent, submissive, willing, weak? The sheltered and confused doctor doesn't have words yet for the conflicted emotion that stirs in her when she looks at him. When he looks at her in that way that he does when he knows she's watching.

Intimate. The word you don't know yet, is intimate.

"That's good," she responds absently. "My feet are starting to hurt."

What was I ever thinking? Those heels…

Staten Island, Boat Graveyard

Why was it always this place? It's like something kept calling me here. Time? It's stupid, but have I been back since…?

"I learned how to cover bruises with make-up." Odessa tugs open her coat a bit and Wu-Long leans closer so see the line of yellow-green and blue-purple blossoms that have sprung forth from her damaged shoulder, visible over the neckline of her boatneck sweater, faded into something a bit more socially acceptable through the power of concealer and full-coverage foundation.

His breath and loose strands of his dark hair brush over her cheek, he squints to see in the dark, which does a far better job of hiding her damage than the make-up ever could. The proximity lasts only a moment, but it's enough to start the tension weaving into the woman's muscles. "You aren't hiding," he observes, gesturing to the world at large.

"The last thing I want to do is hide," Odessa confirms. She pauses to gnaw on her lower lip, letting go of the neck of her coat to allow it to slide back into place as she gingerly rolls her shoulders. "This is… kind of like a date, isn't it? I mean, if we had planned it, it could have been a date?" She pouts faintly at her own inability to properly articulate the thoughts in her head.

Wu-Long frames his jaw with forefinger and thumb, thoughtful, but looking comedic enough that he could be making fun of her. Odessa's stomach sinks for a moment. "This would have been a date if we planned it," he acknowledges. "Maybe not a very impressive one. Most women like movies. I remember you like movies. Or at least one made you cry." There's a twinkle in his eye. She takes his appreciation of her contradictory nature for mischief at her expense, and is shocked to discover it doesn't offend her in the least. "Do you want to talk about it?"

In the low light, he can't see the blush creeping into her pale cheeks, but he can hear it in her voice, that bashfulness. "I, ah… I have a favor I would like to ask. If you're feeling indulgent."

"I am."


"I think…" Odessa takes in a deep breath and closes her eyes, dark lashes resting against her cheeks as she slowly exhales. "I would like to kiss someone." You. Her eyes open again and she takes a short gasp of air, horrified now that the words have been spoken. "I – You said I was beautiful," she feels the need to qualify why him. "So, I thought…" A wince and a purse of lips serve to hold in whatever other words are threatening to tumble from her tongue and into the small space between them. He considers her, and the silence stretches on. Her eyes widen a fraction as she tries to discern what he's thinking, divine his thoughts from the lines of his handsome face.

Please, no. Please. I've lived these moments over and over again in my head so many times.

Then, he steps forward. The salt grass around them parts to allow him passage. His arm slides easily around her waist. While she has absolutely no experience in this realm, she can tell that this move of his is practiced. She goes very stiff and very still in his embrace, her breath having left her in the horrific anticipation of what's to come as his face draws near to hers. It causes her to actually flinch, not a terribly attractive expression on that face he called beautiful once, but what does one expect from a woman so obviously scared to death of intimacy?

Please, do not make me love him again.

The kiss is just that, when it does descend to her. A kiss, press, touch, nearer, slow if not sedentary, acquiescence requested without specific egress demanded. Odessa softens slowly and begins to yield to him. Her chest rises and hitches there with the breath she holds. She's understandably awkward, uncertain of which way to tilt her head or how she's supposed to handle all the subtle nuances. Action and reaction, all vague and unfamiliar notions. A sibilant wind tells him when to stop, and he lets go with his arm, first, mouth second.

It's then that reluctant instinct finally takes its hold and the girl's reaching for his arm to hold him there before he can disengage fully, though she hasn't the courage to do more than that. Fortunately, she doesn't need to. He takes the signal well. Their parting is brief, and then he's back again. It takes effort that she doesn't realize for him to be slow with her, or gentle. Sharks sate their curiosity this way, too: with their mouths.

Only once more does she come up for air before she's suddenly, abruptly pulling away from the man. For one harrowing instant, Wu-Longs arm constricts like he might drag her back to him and finish what she's started. When he doesn't pursue her, she puts three steps' distance between them. Even in this dim moonlight, he can see the scarlet flush of her face. Kissing was unfamiliar enough, but the stirring in her chest and in her belly are something almost uncomfortable. She certainly doesn't understand them. Desire was always an abstract concept that she thought was felt more in the head, improbably logical thinker that she was conditioned to be. "I'm sorry. That was t- terrible. Please forgive me."

"No," he contradicts, making eye contact as if to soften the general unkindness of telling somebody that they've got it quite wrong. "That was pretty good, considering everything." He doesn't have to use words to convey to her that he understands what she really means. The wind snatches at his hair and scrawls one dark curl across his cheek. There is nothing to forgive.

"It's cold," he tells her. He means: they should go home.

Confucius Plaza, Wu-Long's Apartment

"I don't know what to make of the Work some days, I admit." Odessa's gaze takes on a sort of unfocused quality as she considers his question a bit further. "The prospect of dying when I've only just begun to experience life terrifies me. I don't feel I deserve to die so quickly." She's drunk. And babbling. "Or, at least, I find it terribly unfair and will fight it tooth and nail until I've had my fill of what this world has to offer me."

"You would need more than your teeth and your nails," he points out, cheerfully. "Unless it's Eileen that we set on you. Maybe." If this is a death threat, it isn't a very impressive one.

"Eileen?" Odessa seems to think about this for a moment before she shakes her head and downs another mouthful of whiskey, even though it causes her to shudder and make a face. "Nah. Eileen likes me. She wouldn't do that."

Oh. How very wrong that turned out to be.

She grins widely and leans forward, "Besides, it wouldn't work."

And wronger still.

It sounds alarmingly like a gauntlet. Wu-Long looks her over, as if gauging if she's truly drunk enough to throw it. "There are a lot of things Eileen wouldn't do to people she likes," he acknowledges dryly. "What wouldn't work?"

So careless.

A quizzical expression is fixed on Wu-Long as if to relay, Isn't it obvious? "The birds," Odessa states simply. "They couldn't hurt me. There are very few people in this world that can hurt me." A beat, then the disclaimer: "That I'm aware of." There's less intent to issue a challenge, in her mind, and more a sense that she's simply stating facts. So very self-assured is she in this matter.

"I think she prefers guns." Wu-Long folds the fingers of his right hand into one, the muzzle constituted of forefinger and middle, the trigger curled in his ring finger underneath. He raises his hand to plant the makeshift muzzle against the woman's temple. "To do the work." Not birds.

But a rock will do in a pinch.

He smiles, lips sealed over teeth and, without noise, ceremony or sincerity, pulls a trigger that isn't. The kickback rocks his fingers away from her head. Odessa reaches a hand up in that moment as though plucking this invisible bullet out of the millimeters of air between the barrel and her skull. "Bullets? No match." She makes a pantomime of dropping the fictitious bullet, eyes following its unseen descent and clatter on the lazy susan before she wraps her hands around the fake firearm. Her eyes have that sort of glazed over quality of one who's had far too much to drink, if the way she's seems apt to parade her secrets around the room weren't evidence enough. "It's all part of the game I play. I can't be hurt unless I let it happen."

It turns out that there's a lot of ways to hurt a person. Not all of them are physical. Not all of them have to be done to them. I didn't let Kazimir rip my heart out.

"Kazimir's sword disagreed," he points out after a moment. His other hand sorts itself into a blade. Flat, thin, angled expertly on the end of a wiry wrist. He matches it against the subtle seam horizontal across her throat: her healing scar.

Odessa rolls her eyes, "Please." Expertly, she leans back to dodge the blade that threatens to slash her tender throat. "I let him so Sylar could prove himself."

I had to stop time in that instant, determine the arc his blade would take, and stand just so. I let him slash my throat, yes, but the wound he gave me was far more shallow than the one he intended to give me.

She pries the gun until it's once more a hand that she can lace her fingers with. "You don't believe me. That's okay. It's better for both of us that you don't."

His eyes hood, with awareness that that statement, at the very least, is not only lucid, but true. It's better that Wu-Long doesn't believe her. Ironically, it's that fact that causes him then to believe her claims. Long, combat-scarred fingers splay to allow hers through. "Maybe then you won't need to fight," he suggests. "If he can't kill you, you could just run away. You could do whatever you want, wherever you want. Your great thing." Black eyes smile for her now. "I never took you for bloodlust.

"I've maybe the stomach for it, but not much taste." Odessa contemplates leaving her plate at the table for a moment.

God. Had I really been that girl once?

The hand in hers tightens, barely tangible, before loosening as if he had noticed she was going to get up. She lets her hand slip away so she can stand finally and stretch her legs, pacing for a few moments. "I think I'd like to kiss you again," she resolves finally.

Instantly, mirth flares up in his eyes and frame like fire behind the black-on-black of coals. She's a good liar, he knows now. That mingles oddly with her inexperience in all things else. "I don't think Ethan would like it." Still, he rises to his full height. His feet are noiseless on the floor, closing the distance to where she has paced to. Either unconcerned or merely afraid, he studies her whiskey-flushed face with a discriminating eye. "Where?"

She closes her eyes and tilts her head up a bit and murmurs with a smile, "Surprise me."

That was an incredible act of bravery.

His mouth finds the scar across her throat, teeth easing along its subtle line. A little squeak slips from Odessa's lips, surprised, but pleased by the placement. Blue eyes open only far enough so she can see where to lift her hands to tangle in his hair. "You think my flaws have their own beauty, don't you?" Her eyes slide shut again and she tips her head back to expose more throat to him. "I can't believe I was ever terrified of this. But you wouldn't hurt me…" In this moment, she acknowledges that he could, and that she would let him.

Hands marked and callused by war and work alike cup her neck, thumbs tucked under her chin and fingers curled around to support the base of her head with their points. Wu-Long's answer doesn't come in verbal affirmations. His attention proves to her that what she posits is true. That it might be a cruel joke never passes her mind. There's a mark when he turns his attention to instead trail along her jaw, near her ear, then the corner of her eye. She isn't crying this time.

They stand there, arms coiling around one another, lips locking together periodically, other times roaming to find the sensitive skin at the hollow of throats or the shells of ears. Half an hour of bliss and exquisite agony for Odessa as she struggles to understand the coiling tension in her. Academic thought processes were already impaired by alcohol, now further by this sensation she doesn't have a name for until much later. She's trembling when he pulls away to brush his thumb over her lip. The lack of understanding is what causes her flight instinct to kick in, to feel like she should run. But she stays, fearful of emotions she doesn't fully comprehend. Her chest heaves with breaths she's had to remind herself to take. Her eyes are wet and glisten when she meets his gaze. She cannot find the words to express the jumbled thoughts in her head.

When he sees her tears, he stops toying with her mouth and withdraws abruptly. "It's late," he says, not harshly, but it smacks of rejection that resembles a physical blow in the way Odessa flinches. "Thank you for coming. You should try to avoid drinking when you speak to the others. Except Eileen, maybe."

"Thank you for dinner," Odessa murmurs somewhat numbly. "And, ah…" She waves one hand in a vague gesture. "Whatever this was." Stepping back twice before she's turn to begin the hunt for where she left her coat.

Wu-Long follows, four long, silent strides, stops with his shoulder against the wall, a strangely casual stance for a man so often characterized by utter military self-discipline. The tilt of his shoulders catches his hair in a snarl in the hollow of his neck. "Do you want to stay?" His tone is almost weightless in the brightness of the room, as if it weren't laden with a dozen other implications.

How I wish he could have stayed. Somewhere, there's another life where the two of us managed to escape. Maybe these two live on the run, in fear of Volken's retribution, but they have each other. My Wu-Long — Her Wu-Long has his life.

Odessa's hand hesitates in its quest to reach out and retrieve her coat, and she meets Wu-Long's gaze with a hint of confusion that doesn't last. She seizes on those heavy implications and ponders them. Not whether or not she welcomes them, but just exactly how to submit to him in this. In the end, she suspects he knows what to do with her when she doesn't know what to do with herself. She doesn't have the words for that.

Surrender is given in a simple nod.

Chinatown, Canal Street Market

"Freedom is more important to you than anyone I've met in four years."

"You would understand if you'd lived the way I have lived." Odessa's eyes hold a certain sort of sadness to them. "Phase Three is mine. The Wolf answers to me now. I suppose this means that you do as well. I've never been a leader before." She can't even manage to the smile she had hopes to plaster on her face. "Don't judge me too harshly?"

"I will look dangerous," he says, only a little wry.

There's a grin now as Odessa reaches up to cup the soldier's cheek. "I'm glad you don't find this distasteful. It will make things easier once the curtain rises on our stage."

Look at you, Odessa. A little power, a little pep talk from Volken, and you get theatrical. The madness loves power. That power loves more.

The expression falters, fingers twitching once against his skin. "Time marches on," she murmurs for the second time.

I wish I could have held us there longer. I should have held him in my grasp and made him see reason. I should have made him run away with me. So, so many times.

Wu-Long smiles, and his face turns slightly toward the palm that clasps his cheek, warm against his face. Her skin is flushed in willful defiance of the chilly weather and her own size. "We always run out," he says, laughter and accent rusting the consonants of his words. Time waits for no man. She shouldn't, either. He's curious: "Will you disappear?"

Please. I don't want to do this anymore. Please, stop.

"Do you want me to?" Odessa's eyes, wide and curious, peer into Wu-Long's. She looks healthy, despite the apparent toll capturing this ever-lingering moment in time is costing her. She feels it acutely, however, the pain of holding back this tide. Method actors for the Work, indeed.

Other times, the Work suffers nothing for sincerity. Wu-Long turns his head experimentally until the angle of his nose pries her thumb apart and her fingers splay gently under the graze of his weathered skin – rougher than it looks, affording his single eye a glance through the gap between her slender forefinger and middle. He puts a smile on, and it tugs the thin skin inside her wrist. "No."

Confucius Plaza, Wu-Long's Apartment

"Come with me," Odessa begs of him. "We could leave together. Find somewhere new. With our abilities, no one would ever find us. Even if they did, no one could ever catch us." She's still frightened, but her eyes hold some glimmer of hope. "We could start over together." She pauses and manages a shaky smile. "We could try to be… normal. Live normal lives."

I already know this is my biggest regret. I already know being unable to protect him, to save him is my greatest failure.

A different man may have laughed, shaken his head, groaned, and expected her to understand the impossibility of what she was asking before she spoke it. She would not have asked a different man. "Not with me," he says, his voice low after discarding something that couldn't have been hope. He meets her eyes and confirms for her that it's there. Only in one of them. Nothing glimmers in his eyes except for light. "I'm too old to change, qingai de. I am married.

"I'm a monster."

She doesn't understand. Well, how could she? Odessa disengages herself from Wu-Long, tries to back away. There is nothing in those eyes of his. Nothing for her.

The arms around Odessa don't unlock at first. She bounces off them like a pup – which she was, once – off the rim of metal collar and choke chain, her slender back bending like a willow limb against the circle of his embrace. It seems, for a moment, that Wu-Long might have forgotten his strength. Of course, that's just stupid. He wouldn't forget that.

And then he does let go, though not before a gentle pull of his arms assures himself that she won't fall backward on her heels from some accident of gravity. His fingers close again, and he lets his hands fall to his sides. His head tilts fractionally, black-on-black eyes staring out from his tawny features, something hard about his expression that Odessa has never warranted before, because he had never needed it: armor. "There is nothing wrong with killing. I am not the right man to do anything else."

The tears well up in Odessa's eyes and she doesn't even realize they have until they're spilling down either cheek, coming to meet at the point of her chin. She keeps her footing once he releases her, but the damage is done.


Her heart is broken.

Je suis tellement désolé, mon amour… I am sorry I left you this way. I am sorry you died believing I had lost faith in you.

Previously in this storyline…
Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, Part III

Next in this storyline…
Thoughts of a Dying Atheist, Part V

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