Rebecca was weighed down, hampered by the skirts swathing her legs. It had been so long since she had worn skirts, and she had forgotten how restraining they were. Nevertheless, she knew she would never be able to go about in London society if she went about dressed like a man.
She anxiously pulled at the waistband of the crimson skirt, feeling the heavy weight of her pistol against the small of her back, under her jacket. Unlike her clothing, the weight of her pistol was reassuring; she knew she would be able to draw it at any moment if the need arose, and she knew she wouldn't be able to walk about without its comforting weight somewhere on her body.
She wrapped her arms around herself, hugging her jacket closer to her as protection against the cold as she stared across the square before her. She had taken to lingering near the airdocks, scanning every ship which came into port. Triton, Zephyr, Grace, Amelia, and a hundred more came and went before her eyes; but never did she see a trio come into port together. Never did she see three ships, one large and two smaller, with matching names. Never did she have even the slightest hint that he cared.
Finally, she turned away and departed from the airdocks. She'd promised herself that this would be her last day of waiting for him. If he was going to come for her, he would have done so by now. Clearly, he didn't care.
Just one more day, that voice in her head whispered. Just give him one more day.
She ground her teeth and steeled herself against the temptation. It had been a year, and she'd given him one more day far too many times. It would always be one more day, if she waited, but she would wait no longer; she couldn't spend the rest of her life waiting for James Auburn.
"James, you don't have to drink it." Margaret Auburn removed the teacup from her son's hands and passed it into her husband's; he drained it in one gulp. "You hate tea; why did you take a cup to begin with?" She frowned and reached up, smoothing James' hair away from his face. "Is something bothering you?"
"I wasn't paying attention," James admitted, answering the first question. He gingerly resettled himself on the sofa, careful not to move his arm too much. His shoulder had healed, the bullet hole now a round, puckered scar, but it still pained him during the cold, rainy weather such as that which currently hovered over London.
"I can see that." Margaret took James' chin in her hand and forced him to look at her. "Now, tell us why you're here, and what's bothering you."
James pulled away from Margaret and looked at the floor in front of him. "I lost her," he said finally.
Silence reigned for a long moment before George spoke up, trying to cheer his son's spirits. "Well, son, you're going to have to tell us more than that."
"Rebecca," James clarified, and then repeated, "I lost her."
His parents exchanged brief looks. "What do you mean, dear?" Margaret asked. "That she left, or that she's—?"
"She's not dead," James said, laughing. There was a harsh tone in it, making both parents wince. "She was, but she's not anymore. I…it's a long story. But she's not dead. She's just—gone." He turned his head away and refused to answer any more questions.
After a while of receiving no reply but silence, Margaret stood, drawing her husband up with her. "We have some business to take care of," she said to James. "You get yourself settled in again, darling. Supper will be ready in about an hour, if what I hear from the kitchen staff is correct." She stooped slightly and pressed a kiss to the crown of her son's head. "It's wonderful to have you home," she added softly.
She and George left the sitting room, closing the doors tightly behind them. "No one is to disturb him unless he rings," said George to the maids clustered outside the door, eager for a glance of the newly-returned Auburn heir. "Am I understood?"
Skirts rustled as the maids dropped into curtsies. As George and Margaret walked away, they broke out in excited whispers, discussing what they had overheard and mongering the latest rumors.
The Auburns went up the stairs to George's office on the second floor, off their bedchamber. George sank onto the leather sofa which adorned one wall and pulled his wife down beside him. Margaret sighed and leaned her head against her husband's shoulder.
"He's fallen in love, hasn't she?" she asked quietly.
George wrapped his arms around her, resting his cheek atop her head. "I believe so," he replied. "But it seems that either Rebecca doesn't feel the same, or he's done something to drive her away. I wish we knew the entire story."
"Unless he deems it necessary to tell us, we never will," said Margaret. "You know how he is."
"Unfortunately, yes, I do. He's like you in that manner." George hesitated. "Which is why I was considering contacting Master Locke."
"William?" Margaret asked, picking up her head to look at George. "Do you think he'd be able to tell us?"
"There is no doubt in my mind."
In an instant, Margaret was off the couch and behind George's desk, seated in his chair and rummaging in a drawer for stationary. "Well, then," she said, finally finding a sheet of embossed paper and a fountain pen, "I suppose we should begin."
Two days later, a reply to Margaret's letter appeared on George's desk. He sighed, took it to his wife, and allowed her to open and read it. He could tell by the way her face fell, the hopeful expression vanishing, that it didn't contain favorable news.
"He won't tell us what happened to James," she said slowly. "He says that the situation is under control, or it will be soon, and that we should…and that we should just wait." She looked up at George. "He's in pain, George," she said. "How can I just sit by while my baby is in pain?"
"He's a grown man, Maggie," George said, wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "He knows how to care for himself. You let him go gallivanting off around the world without you; surely you think he's capable of dealing with a girl?"
"This is different, George!"
"I know it is, Maggie," he said soothingly. "But life goes on. If he's meant to have this girl, he will. If he's not, then he shall recover and move on with his life. That will have to be enough, for both of us."
After three weeks at home, James finally brought himself to do more than lie in bed or wander the streets of London, vainly hoping to see some sign of Rebecca. He remembered the plan he, Will, and Jon had come up with, and he had set about gathering information. This was done primarily by inquiring after her with the other maids of the house.
"Hattie," he said, stopping the young woman in the kitchen one day. "Hattie, you lived with Rebecca, didn't you?"
"We shared a room, sir," Hattie replied nervously.
"What do you know of her?"
"We…we didn't talk much, sir. I only know that she came here from a boardinghouse, where she worked in the kitchen for some time. But everyone knows that, sir. I—she left her things here, you know. She didn't take anything with her the night she left to guide you. I suppose—well, I don't think she's coming back for them. Sir. You could look through them, if you'd like, I think. They're—this way," she said, breaking off in mid-sentence and hurriedly turning to lead the way to her room.
To James' relief, the maid who had been hired to replace Rebecca—the French girl, whom his mother couldn't stand—wasn't in residence. She had obviously taken over Rebecca's place with no qualms; her things had replaced Rebecca's own, which had been shoved into a corner and covered with a blanket, presumably so they wouldn't bother anyone.
James tore the blanket off the pile and began rooting through it. Clothing he had no interest in, and he tossed garment after garment aside, not noticing as Hattie made herself scarce.
Finally, he came to what he was looking for: personal belongings. He looked at various books and small knickknacks, wondering what their significance was. He'd thought that seeing these things would allow him to see further into Rebecca; now, he discovered that he wasn't learning anything at all. Rebecca was as much of a mystery as she had ever been, perhaps even more as one.
And then his fingers brushed across a canvas-wrapped package at the bottom of the trunk.
He carefully withdrew the package, turning it over and over. There was nothing written on the canvas, and it wasn't tied shut; simply wrapped around a slender volume, as if to protect it from any of the common accidents books were prone to.
Bound in green leather, worn smooth in some places, the page edges were painted with golden gilt which flaked away at his touch. The pages themselves were warped from moisture. The book was in poor shape; what could its significance possibly be?
He flipped it open, and sighed at what he saw. It was a book of fairy tales. Of course Rebecca would treasure something like this. He didn't read the book; he didn't see the point in doing so. Instead, he simply replaced the canvas wrapping, tossed the rest of Rebecca's belongings back into her trunk, and took the book with him when he left. He would ponder its meaning more at a later date.
James wound his way through the crowd, occasionally stumbling, in pursuit of his prey. His reflexes weren't all they could be; he'd had several coupes of champagne too many already, and he was intent on more. His goal was the waiter, who was ambling through the crowd offering coupes of sparkling liquid to the guests of the party. James put down his latest, empty couope in order to free his hands; the more champagne he could carry, the better.
His parents had told him of a party being held at the house of a friend; when he had told them he wasn't interested, they had insisted that he either come or tell them all that had happened with Rebecca. And so here he was, dressed in clothing he hadn't worn in nearly half a year, looking for something to drink. He needed that alcohol; it would take his mind off his stalled search for Rebecca.
He had continued to search for her, using the little information he had acquired as a guide, but London was too large of a place for him to find a slip of a girl with no help. Normally, he would have had his crew to rely on; indeed, in the early days of their stay, they had been more than eager to aid him. Now, however, they had been in London for nearly three months, and the crews of the Star and its sisters were getting restless. They had already been out on several raiding runs, but he knew that they wanted to move on to new grounds, especially Elizabeth. It was only a matter of time until she held a mutiny; it meant that, if he wanted to keep his life as an air pirate, he needed to find Rebecca, and he needed to find her fast.
James turned at the feminine voice, confused. It was vaguely familiar, but he could find neither name nor face to match it. He swept his eyes over the crowd, hoping to see something to spark a memory, but the haze of champagne blurred the features of everyone present.
"Over here, Captain."
James turned at a light touch on his arm, and his eyes slowly focused on the speaker. He blinked in surprise; it was none other than Lottie Gale, arm in arm with her husband, dressed in clothes even finer than those James wore.
"I thought it was you," said Lottie with a charming smile.
If I didn't know about your past, I would never guess that you were a prostitute once, James thought dully at Lottie.
"Hello," he said aloud, managing a bow, though he nearly fell over. He looked around for the waiter as he straightened; he desperately wanted that next glass of champagne. His parents would be ashamed of his public drunkenness, but he didn't care. He wanted to be able to completely forget everything about Rebecca, at least for the moment—and that meant getting rid of the Gales. "Imagine seeing you here," he added, looking back at them.
"We thought we'd return, now that all of the—well, now that all of our troubles are over," said Harvey Gale. "London is my home, of course, and Charlotte's, as well. We never would have truly belonged anywhere else, away from the ton."
"Ah, yes," James said vaguely. "I see."
Lottie looked around anxiously, and then pressed on James' arm again. She nodded to Harvey, and they carefully drew James away from the rest of the crowd. When they had a relative measure of privacy, Lottie looked back at him. "James," she said hesitantly, "have you—how is Rebecca?"
James looked away. "I don't know," he said. "She left the ship in Calcutta, over a year ago. I don't know where she went; I didn't ask. I just let her go. What else was I supposed to do?
"I thought she might have come to her senses, finally, so I came back here. I was hoping she'd come back to London, but I've been looking for her for three months, and I haven't seen a single sign of her. I've even been out of the city, looking through all of the surrounding towns."
His hopes of becoming completely inebriated were gone; there was nothing more sobering than talk of Rebecca.
Lottie looked at Harvey, biting her lower lip. "I think we might know where she is," she said finally, looking back at James. "I wanted to repay her, for some of the awful things I've done to her, and so I left her a deed, with Harvey's blessing, of course, to a building here in London. I haven't been by there recently to see if she's chosen to do anything with it; for all that I know, the letter I left it in might never have been opened. It would be just like Becky to toss something from me into the fire."
She looked down. "I don't know if she'd choose to go there; it's awfully close to the slums, and you should know how she feels about them. But I can tell you where it is."
She stopped a young woman to borrow the small pencil attached to the debutante's dance card, and scribbled down a set of directions on the back of her own party invitation. "Here," she said, returning the pencil to the girl and handing the invitation to James. "You might try looking for her there, though I've no idea what you'll find."
"Charlotte, dear, perhaps we should move on," suggested Harvey in a low tone. "We seem awfully rude, simply standing here with only Captain Auburn for company, and as we're trying to rebuild our reputation—"
"Yes, of course," Lottie said quickly. She gave James an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, but you know how society is. We can't be seen associating with a pirate for too long!" She let out a laugh that belied none of her own origins, far lower than those of James' occupation.
As the Gales departed, James stared out one of the nearby windows. Night had fallen, and the time was now long after sunset, nearing midnight—or perhaps past it already. He folded Lottie's party invitation several times, thinking.
Another waiter passed with a tray of champagne. James grabbed one of the coupes and drained its contents in a gulp—for courage. Making up his mind, he put the glass down on the nearest table and left through the house gardens, not even bothering to retrieve his coat and hat from the cloakroom.
He went to the Star, rousing Will by pounding on the cabin door with all his might. When it flew open, James nearly fell through the opening. "Good," he said, regaining his balance. "You're awake. Where's Elizabeth?"
"I imagine that she's in her hammock, don't you?" grumbled Will, rubbing his eyes. "God, James, it's the middle of the night. What do you want?"
"I want you to get Elizabeth. And you might as well wake up everyone else while you're at it."
Will grumbled some more, tucking in his shirt and tugging on his boots before going to do as James bid. James took advantage of the opportunity to duck inside his cabin and retrieve a certain canvas-wrapped package before he went to meet the crew on the deck.
In the open air, James ascended to the upper deck to look down upon the crew, gesturing for Will and Elizabeth to join him. "I have something to tell all of you," he announced. "I'm leaving the Star. I no longer have any say in your future. I know this is probably pointless, as Elizabeth will do whatever she wants anyway—"
There was widespread laughter among the crew.
"—but I'm leaving the ship in the capable hands of William Locke." James surveyed the crew gathered below him. No one was objecting to his proclamation. "That's all, but I'm sure you're all glad that you'll be able to finally leave this damned city, eh?" He grinned and stepped away from the rail.
"James," Will said slowly, staring at his friend.
"Yes, Captain?" James asked, more than a touch of cheek in his voice.
"Get off my ship."
James' grin widened. "Gladly, sir." He made an elegant bow and salute, and went to the gangplank.
James half-turned, only to find Elizabeth suddenly throwing her arms around him in an embrace. "You're not a bad sort, are you, James?" she asked, releasing him and holding him at arm's length. "You found her, didn't you?"
James shook his head. "No," he said. "Not yet. But I've found what might be a clue." He leaned forward, kissed Elizabeth on each cheek, and trudged down the gangplank, his head bowed in thought.
Will moved to stand next to Elizabeth, close enough that their hands brushed. To his surprise and elation, she didn't pull away from the slight contact. "Well," he said slowly, "I guess this is it."
"I knew he would be leaving soon," said Elizabeth as James vanished into the warren of London streets.
"Mmhm. I told Rebecca when she first signed on. It's something with the Star. The captains—they don't last long, not much more than two years at the most. They usually realize the sky pirate life isn't for them, find a girl, and settle down with her somewhere."
Will let out a bitter laugh. "James stayed for too long, then," he said. "He lost the girl."
"He'll get her back," Elizabeth said. She turned to look at Will, cocking her head to the side, a slow smile on her lips. "Have a little faith."
Will smiled in return. "Two years, you say?"
"Indeed," Elizabeth said with a nod. "Two years."
Will reached out and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear, brushing his fingers over her cheek. "I suppose I can wait that long."
At some point in time since she had awoken in Atlantis, Rebecca had come to hate mending. Nevertheless, it was a task that had to be done. She grated her teeth as she pushed a needle through cloth, working by candlelight, often stopping to steal looks out the window at the sky. She didn't have the patience for this; she didn't want to be patching clothes, she wanted to be off, gallivanting about above the clouds.
As soon as she thought of James, those urges usually went away.
She had ceased looking for the Star three months ago, and in the intervening time, she had begun her new life. She'd opened a small shop, and had even managed to hire another girl to help her. She wasn't making gowns for the Queen, but she was doing well enough on her own, especially as she didn't have to pay rent on the building.
Despite her pretense of being a levelheaded shop girl, she doubted she would ever truly be the domestic little girl she pretended to be. At night, she often donned pants and a shirt, pulled on a hood to conceal her face and hair, and walked the streets with a pistol and rapier at her side, trying to regain the taste of adventure she had so briefly savored.
Tonight, however, was no such night. Tonight, she was forcing her to stay inside and work on her own mending; if she didn't, she would soon be out of whole clothes to wear, and she didn't make quite enough money to be buying fabric for new clothing constantly—most of her earnings went right back into the shop. Still, mending clothes tried her patience as it hadn't before her death, and she was relieved as the pile of clothes in need of patching grew smaller and smaller.
She tied off the knot on the hem she'd torn and pushed the skirt off her lap, stretching and looking out the window with a sigh of relief; she was finally finished. The stars were dim through the smog of the city, but she could see one or two. She slowly rose and pressed a hand against the glass. The lights of airships moved every now and then, floating across her field of vision. With a sigh, she rested her forehead against the glass and raised a finger to the two necklaces she wore. One was the delicate blue opal pendant on its spun silver chain, but the other—
She withdrew the heavy golden chain from under her blouse, staring long and hard at the golden key which dangled from it.
She sat at the writing desk in her cabin, trembling, the story of her past still fresh on her lips. She glanced up at James, and then away; she expected him to simply stand and leave, to see judgment on his face. She didn't care. She stood, wanting to scrub herself until she bled, to rid herself of the feel of hands on her, brought upon her by reliving the memories she had struggled to suppress for so long.
She didn't expect him to wrap his arms around her in an embrace. Her breath caught in her throat, and tears welled up in her eyes. The next thing she knew, she was clinging to him for dear life, using him as a rock in the flood of emotions rushing through her.
"Don't get any ideas," she whispered to him, the words half-lost in the fabric of his shirt. "I've left all of that behind."
His arms tightened around her; for the briefest instant, she managed to forget. "I wouldn't dream of it," he whispered in return. His lips brushed her ear with the words, and a shiver ran through her.
She choked back a sob, but nodded against his shirt, unable to find any words.
He pulled back, sliding his hands from her back to her shoulders. "Rebecca," he said softly. "Rebecca, look at me."
She took a few deep, shuddering breaths, and then looked up. He removed his hands from her shoulders, unclasping the gold chain she'd briefly taken from him, and drew a golden skeleton key from the breast pocket of his shirt. He slid the key onto the chain, which he fastened around Rebecca's neck.
"Hide that under your shirt," he instructed.
Rebecca did so, still staring at him.
"I don't want anyone else to see it. They'll say I've gone soft. But Rebecca—when you leave—if you ever need somewhere to go, someone to turn to—the key is to my parents' house in London. If you need help, go there, and tell them I told you to do so. Someone will send word to me, and wherever I am in the world, it doesn't matter, I'll come running."
Rebecca pressed a hand over the key which now hung over her heart. "James," she said, stumbling over his name. "I—I can't—I don't—"
"Just take it, Rebecca," he said, cupping her chin in his hand to force her to look at him. "You deserve something to hang onto."
She sighed and dropped the key and its chain, tucking it back out of sight beneath her blouse. She didn't need something to hang onto, not from James Auburn; she was doing well enough on her own. But still, the words were tempting, a lure dangled just in front of her. What if James really was there? She dreamed of him, sometimes, so vividly that when she woke up and he wasn't there, she ached. He'd held an irresistible pull to her since the very start, and she had to struggle to resist. What if she went back, only to be hurt again? It was a risk she couldn't take.
She scooped up the fallen skirt and carefully folded it, placing it atop the other mending as she stifled a yawn. It was late; she'd lost track of the hour, and should really have been abed long ago.
"I'll just have a bite," she murmured, "and then I'll sleep."
She opened a cupboard and removed a loaf of bread and some butter—just the thing for a late night snack. She neatly sliced and buttered the bread, but she hadn't taken a single bite before the bell in the shop below rang.
"Who could that possibly be at this hour?" Rebecca grumbled. She peered out the small window above the sink, trying to crane her neck for a view of the door, only to find that her actions were in vain. "Are they simple-minded? We've been closed for hours."
She put down the bread knife, selected the chopping knife from the block, and removed her pistol from a drawer—she didn't carry it about the shop, but she kept it on hand, just in case. Its belt was next to it, and she hurriedly fastened it around her waist, sliding the pistol into the holster. She didn't have a place for the knife, and so kept it in her hand as she took one of the candles and went down to the shop.
The shop was dark, but she knew the placement of everything it by heart. Traversing the floor in the dim light of the candle was no bother. She put the candle on a table near the door and carefully turned the latch, opening the door only a crack and keeping her knife at the ready.
"We're closed," she said, squinting out into the dark and trying to determine the details of the figure there. "We've been closed for hours. Whatever you want, you can come back in the morning."
She moved to close the door, only to have it caught by someone much stronger than she.
"I'm not here for business, and if I come back tomorrow, you'll just send me away—if you're even still here," said a voice she knew all too well. "I suspect that you might be gone entirely. I was lucky to find you here, and I'm not going to lose my chance."
Rebecca released the door, knowing that holding it was useless. "James," she said. She put the knife on the table; it would be useless against him. Instead, she drew the pistol, took several steps back, and leveled it at him. "Did you come so that I could make your right arm match your left?"
"No. I only want to talk to you."
"There's no point. I won't work for you again, James. I don't want to be your secret weapon, and I couldn't be even if I did want to; I can't control the crystals anymore."
That was true, to a degree. She'd tried to control the crystals she had taken from the Star, with little success. They worked if she used the proper menus, of course, but she couldn't make them do her bidding as she had before. But sometimes they still reacted strangely around her, malfunctioning or doing things they weren't programmed to, even when she didn't consciously will it. She'd finally buried the box in the back of a closet; the last thing she needed around was a bunch of supernatural crystals with minds of their own.
James pressed harder against the door, breaking her chain of thought. Her fingers trembled on the pistol. She hadn't seen him in over a year, and now—he was like a long drink of cool water in the midst of summer. She looked away sharply and holstered the pistol, knowing she wouldn't be able to bring herself to shoot him.
"You might as well come in," she said. She grabbed the knife off the table and reached for the candle, as well, only to find that James had already taken hold of it.
"Allow me," he said. That aristocratic drawl was back in his voice, proof that he'd been in London for some time; it only came back when he spent time in the city.
"If you insist."
"Thank you for being so civil."
She ignored the sarcasm in his voice and led him up to her living quarters. Her left hand was clenched into a fist so tight that she could feel her nails leaving impressions in her palm, but her stomach was full of butterflies at the very thought of his presence in her home.
He came for me.
"Why are you here, James?" she asked, sliding the knife home to its place in the block and turning to look at him.
"I was looking for you," he said. "I've been looking for you, for months. I never thought you'd be back here, so close. Mistress Gale directed me here; she said she wasn't sure if you'd come or not, but that it was a good place to start."
"You saw Lottie?" Rebecca asked sharply. "When?" She didn't want the woman dropping in on her unexpectedly; really, she had no interest in contact with her benefactor.
"At a party. Don't worry; I don't think she wants to be seen in this part of the city, so I doubt she'll try to befriend you. She and her husband are too occupied with rebuilding their reputation."
Rebecca nodded slowly as she examined James' face for any signs of falsehood. All she saw was intense relief, presumably at finding her, and perhaps—elation?
It can't be.
"So," she said, "why did you come? Why are you here? You should be off on the Star, terrorizing the skies." She was surprised at the bitterness in her voice, the stark jealousy. He loved those skies so much that he hadn't even given a thought to how much that love might hurt her.
"I don't have the Star anymore. My days as an air pirate are over, thanks to this arm of mine."
"I gave the ship to Will, and I suspect Elizabeth will continue to play a large part in its functioning. I think that, when Will leaves, Elizabeth might very well go with him; things are changing between them."
"Ah, yes," Rebecca replied. "Elizabeth. I see. Would you like some tea?" She reached for the teakettle and put it on the small stove, pouring in a good amount of water. The irony of offering James tea was not lost upon her.
"Tea would be lovely."
Her hands faltered on the kettle, and she hastily covered the motion by adjusting its position. Silence reigned as the water boiled, and Rebecca set about preparing the battered teapot, using a bit of water to warm it, spooning in tea leaves. The silence was abruptly broken as the kettle shrieked, and Rebecca removed it from the stove, pouring the water into the teapot. There was another period of silence as the tea brewed.
Finally, Rebecca arranged two chipped teacups and picked up the teapot, carefully pouring. "I don't have a strainer, so you'll simply have to do with the leaves," she said, shoving one of the cups into James' hands, being careful not to touch him—she didn't want to risk all of her walls falling down.
"I prefer the leaves, really," James said. "Perhaps I can take them to a gypsy and have my fortune told from the patterns they make in the cup."
You liar, Rebecca thought, wetting a rag and starting to scrub the counters. You hate tea, whether it has the leaves or not.
"I heard from Jon and the Phoenix about a week ago," James continued conversationally. "They're off to China, apparently. They were in Atlantis for a while, from what Jon said; Abe and Isabelle were married there in some ancient tribal ceremony. I don't know how they managed that, as Atlantians are notorious for hating foreigners, but I suppose Jon has connections the rest of us can only dream of."
"How nice for them." She was hard put not to say anything more. She had so many questions. Why did they wait so long to marry? Didn't they want to have Jon marry them aboard the Phoenix? How is Jon himself doing, for that matter?
"Damn it, Rebecca, would you just look at me?" There was an angry clink as James slammed his tea cup down. His hands landed on her shoulders, and he spun her around, trapping her between his body and the counter. Rebecca stopped breathing, unsure what to do in such close proximity to him. "Why did you leave?" he whispered.
Her face grew hot with anger. Did he really not know? "You turned me into a pirate," she said in her lowest tone, with all the vehemence she could muster. "You turned me into a pirate, you brought me back from the dead when you should have let me go, and you used me to take over the bloody world!"
"That's an exaggeration, and you know it," James said. "And Rebecca, that was never what I wanted! I wanted—I wanted to keep you from getting hurt again. I wanted to show you that I was willing to do anything to protect you. I wanted to give you everything you wanted." His head drooped. "I suppose I didn't do as well as I had hoped."
"No," she said. "You didn't." She was silent for a long moment. "I was testing you, James," she finally admitted, unable to look him in the eye. "I—I wanted to see how much you cared, to see if you would come after me. I wanted that so much. You should have seen me." She took a deep, shaking breath, and let it out as a bitter laugh.
"I found you," she said. "I finally managed to get past everything that was holding me back, my past, my fears, everything, and when I did, I found you. But just when I did—you went and made me into a pirate, more so than I ever wanted to be. So I had to leave. And I lost you again."
When James opened his mouth, she held up a hand to stop him from speaking. "But I didn't want to lose you. So I waited for you. You probably didn't know that, did you? You probably didn't know I waited, that I went down to the airdocks every day, and I looked for you. I was there, every day, for over a year. But you never came. All those days, all that time I spent waiting, and you never came. And now, just when I was starting to move on, just when I thought it was over—you came back."
James stared at her, at a loss for words.
"Do you know how much that tore me apart?" she demanded, tearing away from him. "Do you know how much that hurt? It killed me, James. You used me as a weapon, in a way that I never wanted, in a way you swore you never would. You broke your promise, but I still couldn't stay away." She pulled the key necklace and the opal he had given her so long ago from around her neck and threw them at him with all her might. "You can take your trinkets back. I'd prefer if you left now."
"Is that why you hate me? Because I took advantage of your ability to use the crystals?"
"You dragged me from my life. You took me from my home. You turned me into a pirate, and you put my life at risk. You got me killed, and you brought me back from the dead. You used me to your own ends, mercilessly, and drove me away by doing so." She took a deep, shuddering breath. "But you were always there when I needed you. How could I hate you, James? I can't. I want to, but I can't. So had I leave. It was the only way out."
James swallowed, stooped, and picked up the two necklaces from the floor. He turned each over in his hands, examining them for long moments. "You never said goodbye," he said finally.
"No," Rebecca agreed. "I didn't, did I?"
"What do you want from me, Rebecca?"
There were so many possibilities. She turned away, looking at the floor, trying to tame the maelstrom of emotions that fought for dominance within her. She wanted him to hold her, wanted him to say he was sorry, wanted him to ask her to go with him. She wanted him to return her innocence, even though she knew that was impossible. She wanted him to do what he'd wanted to do all along: to never let her be hurt again. She wanted James Auburn, all of him, more than she had ever wanted anything else—but she could never have him.
"I think," she said quietly, "that I want you to leave."
"Yes. Because as long as you're here, I can't really be sure." She raised her trembling gaze to meet his. As soon as their eyes met, she gasped. Every wall she'd built, every layer she had manufactured to protect herself, all the defensive changes she had gone through since she'd come back from the dead—it all fell away in one startling moment, leaving her soul stripped bare. She raised a hand to her mouth and tried to look away, but found she couldn't.
And she saw that James had seen it all.
He crossed the distance between them in two strides, grabbed her face in his hands, and kissed her.
Rebecca gasped at the contact, and the world seemed to melt. She'd never really been kissed before, not by someone who meant it. This was so completely different; this was like flying. Fire spread from where his skin touched hers, racing through every vein in her body. It had been over a year since he had touched her, but some nights she had still awoken remembering what it had felt like when his fingers brushed her cheek, or the mere warmth of his presence at her side. Now, all of those watery sensations were brushed away by the purely elemental feeling of him kissing her.
Her eyes had drifted shut at some point; she didn't even realize they were closed until James pulled away and she opened them. Her fingers ached from where she had grabbed his shirt and held it with all her might. She hurriedly buried her hands in her skirt and swallowed, looking up into his eyes. His forehead rested against hers, and she slowly realized they were leaning back against the counter.
"You're back," James said quietly. "You. All of you, not some half-suppressed version that I—" He shook his head. "I don't even know how to phrase it." He raised a hand, ran the backs of his fingers along her cheek. "Rebecca, I've missed you." He pulled her into an embrace, resting his cheek atop her head. "You're trembling."
"I—I know. But I don't think I can stop." She slowly raised her hands and pressed them flat against his chest, eyes closed as she concentrated on keeping her breathing even; a difficult task, with him so close.
"What would it take for me to get you to stay? I'll do anything Rebecca, and I mean that. I'll give you the world. Do you want the stars from the sky? They're yours, just say the word. I'll give you anything, as long as you'll stay. A glass slipper, sunset rides on the beach—whatever you want, just ask, and I'll find a way to give it to you."
"You're simple, aren't you?" she murmured against his chest. "You gave me the world. You let me see places I never would have seen without your help. You walked with me in Paris and Madrid and Greece and Atlantis, gave me adventure and showed me a world I had never seen before. I told you once that I wanted power, didn't I? You gave me power, James. You gave me the power to decide my own life, to live the way I wanted to. Why would I ever ask for things like the stars when I already have everything I ever wanted?"
"You have everything you ever wanted?" James asked quietly. He pulled away ever so slightly. "Well, then, I guess my job here is done."
Rebecca's heart hammered as he released her and turned to go to the door. "I—James, no, please don't—"
"Oh," he said as an afterthought, ignoring her stammering. "I brought you something." He withdrew a canvas-wrapped package from inside his coat and tossed it to the counter. Rebecca gasped as the wrapping partially fell away, revealing a book she knew very well.
"How did you—?" she started to ask. But when she looked up, she realized he was already gone.
She sat on the floor of the small kitchen for a long time, holding the book in her lap, stroking its covers and its warped pages, fingering the frayed ribbon which marked the spot she had left off at so long ago. She'd stolen this book, the night Lottie had found her; this book was the catalyst. If she hadn't stolen it, she wouldn't have run, and if she hadn't run, she would never have encountered Lottie. It was the reason she had been caught up in a life of prostitution and nightmares.
But at the same time, the book had given her hope, hope that she would be able to escape that life and create a new one, one where she would be able to live happily ever after. It was the source of all of her childhood dreams—it had given her the idea that she couldn't be happy without someone to give her the world, the stars from the sky, the glass slipper, the sunset ride on the beach, the fairy tale, complete with a dashing hero and herself in the starring role of heroine.
She'd always dreamed that she'd find such a man, that they'd fall desperately in love.
She had never dreamed that when he offered her everything she'd ever wanted, she would want nothing more than to give it all back. And she had never dreamed that falling in love would feel like this. She'd heard it described as flying, and James kissing her had certainly felt that way. What she hadn't heard was that it was actually more like falling—a lot like flying, until she hit the ground.
She knew that, in order to come by the book, he must have gone through the belongings she had left at the Auburn house. She knew she should have been enraged by this invasion on her privacy, but she couldn't actually bring herself to care. He'd found the book, the book she had almost forgotten about, and he'd brought it back to her. It was her only remaining tie to the life she'd left behind—to all the lives she'd left behind.
She stared down at it, admiring the way the gilt glittered in the dancing candlelight, and licked her lips as she tried to summon the courage to act. Finally, she pushed the book aside, got to her feet, scooped the two fallen necklaces from the floor, and ran from her home—for she knew that, if she walked, she would only convince herself to turn back.
When James returned to his parents' home, the sun was rising. He had wandered the city in a daze for hours after leaving Rebecca. He had found her—and now it seemed that she hadn't wanted him at all. She'd said she did, but then—he just didn't know. He'd been so hopeful; he should have known better.
He didn't go to the front door, knowing that his entry would cause a commotion. Instead, he went around the back of the house, to the servants' entrance. He didn't pause when he realized the door was unlocked; he simply accepted that one of the kitchen maids or errand boys had forgotten to close up properly. Normally, that would have annoyed him, but now it allowed him to enter completely silently, without even the noise of a key turning in the lock.
He stumbled up the stairs to his room in darkness; the servants' stair was windowless, and the curtains in the second floor hallway were all drawn. He found the door to his room by touch—it had been left slightly ajar. Yet again, a useful oversight on the part of the servants. He pushed it open, dropped his coat and hat on a chair, and suddenly realized there was someone on his bed.
He drew his pistol in an instant before noticing that, whoever was there, they hadn't moved when he had entered, and they weren't moving now. He crept closer, frowning—and dropped the pistol. It thumped onto the rug which adorned the floor, thankfully not going off.
Rebecca was sprawled across his bed, her head pillowed on one arm and her hair spilling out around her. She was sound asleep; she looked so much younger when she was at rest, as if the years of wear and troubles had been washed from her face, leaving her completely innocent again. Without meaning to, James reached out and brushed his fingers across her cheek. She was solid, real—not the dream he'd imagined he was having.
She stirred at the light contact, her breath coming out in a little sigh and her eyes slowly fluttering open. "James," she murmured as her gaze settled on him. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up. "You're here."
"It is my room," he replied, but without any of the sarcasm which would normally have instilled the statement. What was more important than his presence was hers. She'd come back to him.
Even in the dim light from the banked fire, he could see her blush. "I know," she said. "I just…I just thought…." She ran a hand around her neck, and he noticed the outline of a necklace; or, more accurately, two necklaces. He hadn't taken them with him when he had left, and she must have put them back on. "I wanted to ask you for something," she said finally.
James fought down the sudden wave of disgust for both himself and her, and then took on the subsequent wave of disappointment. She had only come because she wanted something from him. He should have known better than to think—no. He wouldn't follow that train of thought. Instead, he snapped out, "What is it?"
Rebecca recoiled at his sharp tone, and he looked away, only to have his gaze pulled back to her as she slipped off the bed and stood before him, so close he could feel her warmth. She licked her lips, like she was preparing to say something. James followed every little movement, completely entranced. She wasn't trying to bewitch him. Maybe if she had been, he could have resisted. But as it was, he was trapped, caught in a web of hazy imaginings of where things could go from this point.
"It's more than one thing, actually," she said softly, looking him directly in the eye. "I want you to forgive me. I've done so many things you should hate me for, but—" She shook her head mutely, spread her hands. He caught them in his own, lacing their fingers together. They stood in silence for a long moment as James stared down at their joint hands, marveling at how her fingers fit perfectly between his, before he finally raised them and brushed his lips over them.
"You're trembling," he whispered, for the second time that night. Even as the words left his lips, he knew how she would respond.
"I know," she breathed. "But I don't think I can stop."
She wasn't pulling away. She hadn't put forth her demands, not yet, but she wasn't pulling away. And he would give her anything, anything in the entire world, just to keep her there for the next moment, and the one after that, and the one after that…
He rested his forehead against hers, smiled at the quiet hitch in her breath. "Rebecca?"
"What did you come here to say?"
"What did I—? Oh." She was quiet for a long moment, closing her eyes. Finally, she opened them again, and said, "You came back." Another pause, another breath. "You came back, but that's not enough. I want you to promise that you will never try to use me as a weapon again, in any way. I want you to say that you'll never leave me, and that you'll always come after me, that you'll always come back for me."
This time it was his breath that caught in his throat, and his eyes widened. Her lips quirked upward in a smile.
"You're in my bedroom."
She drew back ever so slightly, and he swayed after her as she looked around. "So I am," she finally said, letting him pull her back to where she had been before.
"So I find it hard to believe that you didn't have something else to say."
"Oh. Well, I did."
"And that would be?"
"Well, there's one more thing I want."
He freed one hand from hers, cupped her cheek in his palm, and leaned close enough that they were breathing the same air. "It's yours. Anything. Just ask."
She raised her free hand and brushed her fingers over the scar on his face, sending shivers through him. And then, her voice little more than a whisper, she said, "I want you to kiss me again."
For the first time in over a year, for the first time since she had left him, he truly laughed, squeezing her hand before releasing it to grab her around the waist, pulling her flush against him. He reveled in her gasp, at the feel of her hands against his chest as he brushed his lips over her forehead, her cheeks, her closed eyes. And then he wound his fingers through her hair and closed the distance between them, so that their lips brushed with every word he spoke. "Well," he whispered in return, "that I can do."
A/N: Well, there's the end, newly-revised to include more fluffy goodness. At least, I hope it's fluffy. I've never really had a boyfriend (yeah, you totes did not need to know that, but oh well!) so I have no idea if it's a potentially realistic situation or not, but you know what? It's my world. So it totally is. Check out my profile for the link to Over the Hills and Far Away, the sequel to Rule the World. Here's the blurb: When James and Rebecca answer a distress call from the Fallen Star, they find it burned to the waterline and the crew slaughtered. They intend to get revenge-but when they try to do just that, they find out that not all of their friends are dead. No, Elizabeth is alive and well, and slated to marry the man she abandoned years ago. Of course, she doesn't really want to, but she doesn't have much of a choice. It takes a village to raise a child, but it will take the entire world to help Elizabeth ditch her husband, fake her own death, find her true love, convince him they still have a chance, and live happily ever after. Unfortunately, the world isn't on Elizabeth's side-and the only people who are, are a pair of ex-pirates and some mismatched supernatural exiles. And the man they're trying to find? Well, he doesn't exactly want to be found...