It was an inhuman blow; Kadlien and I both flew several feet before we crashed to the floor, so forcefully we didn't even have the chance to tuck and roll. Pain lanced through my upper body, which had taken the brunt of the fall, and I gasped as I continued to skid across the floor to the sound of flesh and leather scraping stone. But years of training have to have some sort of impact, and before my brain could catch up my body had bulled through the pain and dragged me to my hands and knees. My right arm buckled and hung useless; I spared a glance for Kadlien. Then the faintest ring of steel on crystal echoed through all the noise and confusion around us, and we looked up in horrified tandem.

The vial spun through the air, catching the dim light of the room and throwing it back magnified a thousand times in a myriad of colors. It arched. Our purpose, our mission, what we had bled and sweat and killed and cried for the past decade of our lives, caught eternally in one helpless moment, seconds from shattering, lost forever. Rihaina leveled her weapons at us, the beginnings of a triumphant smirk forming on her lips; she knew there was only one choice. She was already squeezing the triggers as both Kadlien and I launched ourselves. And then time unfroze.

Two shots. Bone hitting flesh, and an astonished gasp. The satisfying thud of crystal landing in the palm of Kadlien's outstretched hand. And Rihaina's confused curse, cut off abruptly.

I lay in shock for a moment, simply feeling. The heat of Kadlien's body beneath mine. Her hip digging into my stomach, and the contradicting softness of her breast beneath my cheek. The quick, adrenaline-induced raggedness of her breathing. A warm liquid, seeping slowly between us, and a strange heaviness in my chest that made it irritatingly difficult to breath. I coughed once, and met wide cobalt eyes.

"…No!" Suddenly I was sliding. I was on the floor, and Kadlien was hovering above me, apparently oblivious to the battle still raging all around us, and even to the prize still clutched in her fist. It still shocked me to see her cry. The sight of that endless blue gaze blurred with tears was so alien that I would have done anything to stop it. And she looked so confused. Vulnerable. Absurdly, I smiled.

"You idiot! You FUCKING idiot! Don't you FUCKING smile at me!" Angry now, rocking back on her heels, Kadlien grabbed me roughly and pulled me into her lap. Her free hand was stained with my blood as she lifted it to grab my chin, forcing my wandering gaze back to hers. "What the fuck were you thinking, huh?!" Her fierce whisper cracked, betraying her.

I smiled again; I couldn't help myself. After all this time, she still hadn't understood. "S'ok, Kadlien…I always knew you'd pick the job. I thought…by now….you would know…" I couldn't feel my arms or legs. When I coughed again, I tasted copper. "You thought of the safety of the mission. I thought…of yours. I always knew which you'd choose…I just…love you." The last two words were nothing more than a breath. It was taking a supreme effort of will to keep my eyes open. Dying was turning out to be harder than I'd expected.

"Don't you fucking leave me." Warm lips, soft on my forehead. My eyelids flickered back open in surprise, but I was too weak to respond. I stared up at her one last time, filled with an agonizing regret that I couldn't honor the only request she'd ever made of me. A single tear slid off the tip of her nose and dropped onto my cheek; then she followed it down, and I felt what I'd fantasized for 10 years. Her lips were softer then I'd imagined, her tentative tongue tasted vaguely sweet beneath the acrid tang of my own blood. I sighed, and the world faded gently to black.

"I love you too…"