Chapter One: Tall, Blond and Handsome


The best feature of this apartment was the floor to ceiling window that took up the entire back wall. If only it had offered a better view.

He stood in front of that window, hand pressed against the glass, eyes scanning listlessly over the usual sights. The back alley behind his building; the dumpster overflowing with garbage from the bar on the first floor; the homeless man sleeping curled up next to the dumpster, seeking shelter and some privacy, same man for the past couple of weeks with wild red hair, a long beard and a bright yellow coat, occasionally could be heard talking to himself in the dead of night, he thought of the man as Finn for some inexplicable reason. The brick wall of the building opposite, stained, old, crumbling, covered in graffiti mostly juvenile and unimpressive; above that and slightly in the distance a bill board, this time advertising some new reality show he didn't care about and would never watch. Beyond that a cloudy sky, threatening rain; there was a slight chill to the air he could feel through the glass that brought a smile to his face even as he knew he would see no true winter here.

(not like then, beautiful, pristine white as far as the eye could see, unbroken, undisturbed…)

(except where it was green and gold… distant, always distant then…)

He is acutely aware of the time, that he has only a few more minutes before he has to leave. He's been standing here for an hour already, since he first woke up, drinking a cup of coffee and slowly eating the bagel he made for breakfast. Earlier he had the small television he picked up at a second hand store running in the background; just the local news, just to see the weather and traffic reports, if there was anything that might make him late for work.

He took one last, long look around, eyes scanning the skyline, same skyline everyday yet everyday this routine, as if looking for some change.


(where? where did you go?)

The skyline, as usual, gave him no answers. Not today.

(find me… take me away…)

Wrapped in an over sized coat, he made his way out and down the hall, walking as close to the wall as he could. There were twelve other apartments in this building, all occupied as far as he knew, yet he encountered no one else on his way out, he rarely ever did. The bar wasn't opened yet either; perfect timing.

The bus stop was right on the corner, just a few steps away; the wait would only be two minutes. This was another piece of perfect timing, worked out between his boss and a bus route that almost always ran on schedule. There was a shelter three blocks away and many homeless populated the area, the majority of whom seemed not altogether there; if he stood there too long, someone would wander over and talk with him. They were not harassing or threatening, they weren't bothered as long as he looked in their general direction and nodded every so often, he never had to say a word; it was still more than he could deal with most days.

(too intense…people too intense…the world too intense, even without-…never missed the peace and solitude more…)

Thankfully the bus was on time. And thankfully, it was mostly empty.

A ten minute ride and three block walk later, he pushed his way into the café/bookstore he found tolerable employment in. Locally run by a couple who owned it for about twenty years, he had somehow either charmed the wife or made her feel sorry for him and won himself relatively stress free work with minimal customer interaction. He came out to stock shelves but mostly stayed in the back dealing with paperwork or, more recently, baking treats to sell in the café. Not perfect, he certainly would have rather had a job at home

(can't, have to be out, to be found…)

but there were probably worse ways to make money.

(kill time…waiting…)

Sophie was wiping down tables, whistling a tune he was unfamiliar with. She was the only person he could consider a friend, the perky twenty year old college student having taken it upon herself to get to know him and refuse to be daunted by his walls or his silence. It took her a few months to wear him down; most days he was glad she did. She paused in her work to greet him with an enthusiastic hug and a kiss on the cheek; he only tensed up a little, which was certainly a big improvement over the first hundred times she had done that, but he still couldn't bring himself to put his arms around her in return.

Behind the register, waiting on a middle aged woman that he thought worked in the doctor's office across the street and came in every day at least for a coffee, was not Marie like he expected. Another girl, went to college with Sophie, usually worked weekends so he had only seen her a couple times. Name began with an R he was fairly sure but couldn't remember it. Always too many names to remember.

Sophie saw where his eyes were and gently touched his arm. "Marie caught the flu from her son, she might be out a few days," she helpfully explained, "Don't worry, Rachel knows not to bother you with anything."

Rachel, right that was it. He gave Sophie a tentative smile; he knew she thought he was weird, and he appreciated her willingness to indulge him anyway.

With a final nod in Sophie's direction he walked away, slipped passed the counter and Rachel to the backroom to see what work their boss had left for him.

Three hours later, a stack of paperwork gone through and a batch of blueberry muffins out of the oven, and he was beginning to feel uneasy. The cigarette pack in his jeans pocket seemed to have doubled in weight over the last thirty minutes and his fingers itched to hold one. Instead, he arranged the muffins in the basket left for them and moved to bring them out front.

He vaguely registered a man moving away from the counter toward the tables with a thermos in hand, Sophie at the counter gesturing none too subtly for Rachel to come over to her. Slipping the muffin basket into the display case and moving to get back where he was as quickly as possible, he realized with mild confusion that both girls were following him. They stopped just on the other side of the threshold where they had some privacy but could still keep an eye on things out there. He lingered near by, pretending to be busy with papers but listening in nonetheless.

Sophie leaned in close to Rachel, a sly grin on her face, her hand gesturing out toward the cafe area, "So," she said in as low a tone as Sophie ever got (not much), "That there is TBH."

Rachel seemed to know what this meant and nodded her head, "Yeah, I figured," she turned her head toward the cafe, gazing at something out there for a few minutes before nodding again in approval, "Not bad. If you guys don't want him, I'd gladly take him."

Sophie smiled, "I'll keep that in mind, but I think Bethany might be in line ahead of you."

"Isn't she a little old?" Rachel asked with an eye roll; he didn't know who they were talking about. "My money is still on you," she added.

"Just because we're friends, or is there some special other reason?"

"The friends thing mostly," she answered, "Though having seen him now, he doesn't exactly come off like a family man type, does he?"

"I don't think Marie's looking for anything long term right now. Or ever, probably. I didn't say that."

"But still, doesn't…" Rachel shook her head, "You know what, never mind. Its probably just going to piss me off anyway."


"That poor kid. All I got to say, that poor, poor kid." Still shaking her head, Rachel glanced over her shoulder and noticed him standing there paying attention. Her features softened into a look of friendly uncertainty; not quite sure how to take him, how to approach him. It was familiar. "So, who's your money on?" she asked him.

His brows drew down in confusion as Sophie came to his rescue, "Oh no, Rach. Frostie has nothing to do with this. He's way more mature than any of us." She said it with a friendly laugh; Rachel smiled too, but again in a way that suggested she wasn't quite sure how to take him.

Now he was curious. He shot Sophie a quizzical look; she gave him a small, embarrassed smile and pointed out toward the café. "Over there," she said, "TBH. Tall, blond and handsome."

With Rachel slipping past him to the restroom with a polite nod on the way, he stepped next to Sophie to look where she pointed. The man he had barely noticed before was now sitting alone at one of the tables, his silver thermos set before him, his head turned away as he was digging through a messenger bag he had with him. He was certainly blond, appeared to be tall, the handsome part he would have to take her word for with the man's face currently out of view.

"He's been coming in here every day for the past two and a half months or so," Sophie continued, "Well, not every day. Just when we're all working."

He nodded, waiting for her to continue. He could feel his heart begin to beat a bit faster, that nicotine itch in his veins getting worse.

"So anyway, we don't really think that timing is a coincidence," she said, fiddling with a small gold ring on her index finger, "We've thought he's probably…you know, working up the courage to make his move. And so some of us who work here and friends of ours that hang out here, kind of have a betting pool going on whether its going to be me or Marie."

It took a moment for his mind to fully process this and he blinked in confusion. "Wait…what?"

"I know its stupid," Sophie defended, stepping closer to ensure she could hear his often whisper quiet voice. "To be fair it started out as a joke, but then Chad got involved and ran away with it. Now I guess there's a lot of money involved, or so he says anyway."

He scowled briefly at the mention of Chad, a loud mouth from the local college that spent far too much of his free time floating around the area, popping in to flirt with whoever was working the register. Chad had a sort of superficial charm many seemed taken in by; he just found the boy abrasive. Thankfully, Chad had sense enough to steer clear of him, him and anyone else immune to his charm.

"I don't understand," he mumbled, looking down at her; he wasn't particularly tall but she was barely five feet, "Why do you think it has anything to do with you?" he shrugged uncomfortably, feeling tension digging its claws deeper into him but not wanting to make it obvious. "He probably just works in the area and likes the coffee."

"Maybe," she conceded, gazing up at him with her sparkling hazel eyes, "But…I don't know. There's this…tension to him, whenever I see him here. Know what I mean?"

He shook his head, "No."

She gave him that look, a look that he could best describe as a combination exasperation, pity and amusement; a look he frequently saw directed at him at times like this. It used to embarrass him, but he had long since stopped taking it personally. "Yeah, but…you wouldn't really know anyway, right?"

"No, I guess I wouldn't," and normally he wouldn't much care either. "I still think you're all crazy."

She shrugged, "Maybe, but whatever. Its all harmless fun, not like he'll ever know anything, right?"

Her ideas of fun were beyond him sometimes. He nodded politely and made his way back into the office again.

Fifteen minutes later he wandered back out with a small stack of used books in his arms; Rachel was at the register, Sophie was straightening a few shelves. Tall, Blond and Handsome was still at the table near where these books needed to go. Anxiety tightening in his chest again, he quietly made his way over to the shelf.

Though he tried to keep his mind on work, he couldn't help but steal glances over at the man that apparently had his co-workers in an uproar. Though Sophie said he had been coming in every day for over two months, he couldn't recall having seen the man before

(its a game)

but his time in the back room could easily account for that.

(pretend I don't see)

The man looked to be in his early-mid twenties, like he himself was. His skin was light the color of beach sand, the hints of an old tan just still visible; his hair was gold, changing leaves in the Fall, cut short and just a little on the shaggy side, not in a deliberately done over groomed sort of way he was more used to seeing and all the better for that. His clothing appeared slightly worn, scuffed combat boots, faded blue jeans one knee completely threadbare and ready to break, a long black trench coat covering his muscular frame.

(still?…is that a bad sign?)

He had a newspaper spread open on the table before him, not close enough to see what, just that it didn't look familiar. He had a red pen in hand he was using to circle things of interest and jot notes in a small flip pad resting just below the paper.

He watched the man absorbed in his work; he watched him reach for his coffee, trench coat sleeve pulling up just enough to reveal black lines on the inside of a pale wrist, the start of a tattoo;

(aether burn)

watched him tilting his head back, cheek smooth, neck unmarked, throat working, eyes closed. Perfectly content.

The thermos was set back down and that head turned, perhaps feeling the stare being leveled at him. Pine needle green eyes gazed back at him out of an angular face that was indeed handsome still retaining a lot of boyish charm, that would likely mature into something ruggedly attractive. Thin golden eyebrows moved up a fraction, expression friendly but guarded. The corners of his pale pink lips twitched upward into a smile, small smile, almost shy, before those beautiful green eyes drifted back down to the paper on the table.

He didn't realize he was holding a breath until those eyes were off of him and he found he could kind of release it. His fingers had curled tight around the paperback he had been holding and it was only with great effort that he made himself let go without ripping it in half. How he managed to walk away without running or stumbling or otherwise making an ass of himself he wasn't sure; his self control was a remarkable thing.

(…I don't know…if I'm ready…if I can do this…)

Sophie's head popped up as he came near and he could see the concern clear on her face. It had gotten to the point where he couldn't hide his sometimes unstable moods, she had learned to see past his walls at least part way; he wasn't always sure how he felt about that, and right now it wasn't good. He honestly felt he might scream if she asked if he was okay and that wasn't a reaction he could afford at the moment.

To throw her off course, he spoke first. "He doesn't seem your type."

That seemed to work, she blinked her hazel eyes a few times in confusion. "What? Who?"

He tilted his head to the left and back without turning around, indicating the customer now behind him. "Him. Doesn't seem your usual type."

Her lips curved into a bright smile, "Aw, should I be really touched that you've noticed what my type is?"

He rolled his eyes. "I do pay attention, you know. Just because I don't talk about it." He had met two boyfriends in the time he had known her and heard stories; so many stories.

"Oh, so I should be touched that you're talking to me about it, then."

He shrugged, "If you want. Just curious."

She gave him a look and he thought for a moment she had caught on to his game and was about to call him on his crap. Maybe she had, but it seemed she decided to play along and he had another moment of feeling glad he knew her. "I get what you mean," she said, standing on her tip toes to try and peak over his shoulder, as close to subtlety as Sophie typically got. "He does sort of have that wrong side of the tracks look to him, doesn't he? And some…vibe. Some…some sort of vibe…weird vibe." Her face scrunched up in confusion, "Not really sure what to call it, or even if its a good or a bad thing really. Just…a thing. I don't know…. its kind of hard to take your eyes off of him, isn't it?"

("he is more there, somehow.")

He nodded like that made sense. "So, then, why are you hoping to win this bet?"

"Oh, I'm not hoping I win," she protested, "I'm not hoping I don't win either. Like I said, this whole thing is more about fun with friends than anything else, I'm not that invested in the outcome."

"But what if it is you?"

She shrugged nonchalantly, "Well, I'd give him an honest chance, sure. No reason not to. I mean, he is cute, every time I've talked to him he's been really nice and polite. And he has kind eyes…god, he has beautiful eyes." She smiled a little wistfully; he tried to remain straight faced and ignore the flaring anxiety, "Actually, I kind of hope I win just because I'd hate for Marie to get her hooks in him. I didn't say that," she added quickly, holding up a finger, lowering her voice as though afraid the woman might somehow hear, "I like Marie, I really do, as a friend, or acquaintance friend thing, whatever."

He shrugged and nodded. There was really no chance he would say anything to Marie; they didn't talk to each other, and Sophie knew that.

She continued, "But yeah, anyway, I'd give him a chance. If he's as nice as he seems, got his shit together, then…well, you know, we'll see. Otherwise…" she shrugged, "Unlike some people, I got over the whole bad boy thing a long time ago. Don't need a project either."

He nodded, recalling one of those many stories, the one about her high school boyfriend that she had relayed to him more than once now, not that she was aware of that or that he ever said anything about it. She had described him as "wrong side of the tracks" too, but not without cause, she says; she had watched him grow up and understood why he turned out as he did

("can I show you something" … "promise you won't tell anyone")

(shy, shameful eyes watching from over a shaking shoulder; tears slipping down and over a swollen, ropey scar)

("ugly…made me ugly.")

and for that reason she ignored what she would usually take as warning signs and started dating him anyway.

"I swear I never had any real thoughts about saving him," she had said both times, "But I realize now that was totally what I was doing, which is just so embarrassing. And of course it didn't work out that way, instead of me helping him, he dragged me down with him. Which was not what he intended or what he wanted, so that was as hard on him as it was on me. The whole thing was just…a disaster. Total disaster. I was ready to swear off dating forever, I swear."

The last time he had heard this story was this past Spring, on a lunch break when she dragged him to a deli two blocks over; they were sitting outside so he could smoke. She put a french fry in her mouth, chewing slowly with a somewhat thoughtful expression, before saying, "You know, I think I learned a valuable lesson in all that."

She was waiting for some sign of interest from him. And even though this conversation always made him feel uneasy, he gave her a nod.

Sophie continued, "I learned that sometimes, even if you think someone really needs help, even if it seems really obvious, that person might not agree. And even if they do, they might not want your help. And if they don't want it, there's really nothing you can do about that." She smiled a little sadly, fiddling with her soda straw, "I really thought he wanted more of a normal, stable kind of life, because who wouldn't, right? But he was okay with the way things were. He learned how to survive that way, and he didn't trust anything else."

("what, did you wait up for me?")

(eyes averted, like to think its shame but probably not…how can it be…smells of cigarettes and alcohol and sex with anything and everyone…everyone but you…)

("you shouldn't have bothered.")

"You know, I think what happened with him is one of the reasons why I can be friends with you."

"Hmm?" her words had dragged him out of his increasingly dark thoughts. "What? Why?"

She gave him a big smile and he had a feeling he wouldn't like what came next. "Well, sometimes, honestly, when I look at you I have these powerful urges to just grab hold of you, stuff you in a sack or something, drag you to a party and like, make you talk to people and be friendly and stuff."

He wasn't sure what expression was on his face right then, but when Sophie got a look at him she laughed out loud. "Don't be scared, Frostie, I'm not going to do anything," she assured, which was convincing only because he knew she wouldn't have been able to hold out so long had she been even a little serious. "I admit, I don't really get you. Mostly because of myself and because I know I would go nuts. But you seem happy enough or whatever, and even though I don't get it, that's the only thing that really matters, right?"

He thought of commenting on how little he understood her most times, but then decided the conversation would likely end quicker if he kept quiet.

"Which is not to compare you and Curt, not really. Your circumstances aren't the same…or, well, I'm assuming not, since its not like I know what your circumstances are. You are less destructive either way, and-"

Or that was his hope. Frequently with Sophie, things didn't always work out that way.

"And you do know if you ever want help with that whole getting out of my hermit hole and talking to people thing, I will totally be there for you with a sack and a party, right?"

"-Hey, Frostie, are you okay?" Sophie interrupted his thoughts, dragging him back to this uncomfortable moment, "I mean, if you're done trying to distract me, you really don't look so good."

"I'll be fine," he mumbled, again cursing that he knew her at all, "I just need to get out of here for a minute." He moved his hand to his pocket, feeling his cigarette pack and lighter. She saw the gesture and knew his intentions. "I'll be right back," he told her.

She gave him a comforting smile, "Take your time, Rach and I can handle things here."

Of course, since he didn't generally work out front. Still, he appreciated her attempt to be supportive as he made his way outside. Around the alley next to the building, he sat down on the couple of concrete steps leading up to a back entrance they never used except to access the dumpster. He lit up with a small sigh of relief, feeling some of his tension melting away in this safe quiet space, performing this old familiar ritual.

Where did I learn this? He wondered idly, watching curls of smoke waft into the air, a sight which had calmed him from as far back as he could remember. He thought he knew the who, the when and where having long since faded. Like so much else.

He inhaled deeply, wincing just a little. Gods within, these taste like death. It was better before. People here don't know what they're missing. Inhale, exhale and the anxiety melted away.

Peace…makes me think of peace, of quiet…I can almost remember…

(candlelight…incense smoke…low, murmured voices…)

(golden fingers skimming the surface of an icy lake)

-so that I can almost forget…

(blood splashed across the snow…his blood?…my blood?…screaming…red, gods its so red…)

-almost forget…can almost forget…

A soft sound interrupted his thoughts, so unexpected it took him a moment to process what it was: someone clearing their throat. Jerked rudely out of his calm meditation, his head whipped around.

Tall, Blond and Handsome was standing a few feet away, calmly watching him. Now seen from the front and standing upright, he noted the man was probably a little over six feet, six two perhaps; he was wearing a dark green t-shirt that seemed designed to bring out those eyes that, for the moment, were intently focused on him. The man's left hand was raised in what he at first thought was a greeting, after a second noticing the cigarette he was holding between his thumb and middle finger.

"Hey," he said, his voice pleasantly smooth, mellow, tone open and friendly with maybe just a hint of tension, "You got a light I can use? Mine crapped out on me a couple hours back."

He was quiet, staring back; outwardly calm, inwardly…calmer than he would have expected. That was good, a good sign maybe. Still, he knew he wouldn't be able to make his voice work however hard he tried. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the zippo lighter Lillian, his boss, gifted him with one Christmas; she was a smoker, too, and sometimes sat out here with him when she wasn't in her apartment above the store.

The man saw the gesture and a small grin spread over his face, some of that anxiety seeming to fade away. "Excellent, " he said, striding over to the stairs, long coat billowing out behind him. Instead of holding out his hand for the lighter as was expected, he put the cigarette in between his full lips and leaned forward, eyes tilted up expectantly.

He swallowed, knowing this move was likely deliberate, but not really wanting to argue. He flipped the lighter open, extending his arm out as the flame flickered to life.

The man wrapped his larger hand around his wrist, the sudden touch burning him like a brand even through the sleeve of the sweater he wore. It was not altogether unpleasant as it was when anyone else put hands on him, still more than he could handle right now. The man kept his hand steady as he lowered the tip of his cigarette into the lighter's flame. Those pine green eyes were focused on his hand, on a silver band he wore on his ring finger. The corner of the man's lip quirked up and he seemed about to comment, but didn't. His wrist was released and the man stood upright again.

"Thanks," he said, smiling warmly; he wiggled the cigarette up and down a little, drawing attention to its glowing end, "Appreciated."

That smile was hard to resist and he found himself returning it rather shyly, slipping the lighter wordlessly back into his pocket.

Pine green eyes tilted up to the sky as he took a long, thoughtful drag, exhaling almost gratefully. "Nice day for this at least," he commented absently, "I keep hearing that it rains a lot here, but I haven't seen it yet. Not that I'm complaining or anything, really. I like being outdoors, whatever the weather."

The man turned to face him again, running a hand through that golden hair. He seemed to think something through before coming to a final decision; taking a few steps closer and sitting down beside him on the stairs, carefully keeping a few inches of space between them. His messenger bag was slipped off his shoulder and rested against the step by his feet.

"You don't mind if I sit out here, do you?" he asked quietly, still smiling that shy smile that was both endearing and somehow all wrong on that face.

(what happened to that confidence?)

"I just like having company on my smoke breaks if I can get it, it is sort of a weirdly social thing, isn't it?" he gave a small shrug, "You don't have to talk to me if you really don't want to. Its fine with me."

He seemed almost hopeful, but under that, deep under, like he fully expected rejection and was bracing himself for it. Anxiety, the excess of it anyway, now melted into a sort of tense calm, he couldn't bring himself to dismiss Tall, Blond and Handsome and send him on his way. He nodded his head just slightly, giving his tentative approval, and saw that smile widen into something that looked truly happy.

A foreign smell drifted to his nostrils, he realized his companion was not smoking a regular cigarette like he was; it was long, filterless, tightly hand rolled, smelled vaguely sweet, almost like fruit. He inhaled deeply, feeling even more of his tension break up and drift away at that comforting, nostalgic scent. His eyes flitted down to the messenger bag which was unzipped, the newspaper, notepad and silver thermos having been hastily shoved inside. A corner of that newspaper was just visible, just enough to see it wasn't English; not something too foreign looking at a glance, Greek or Russian maybe, he wasn't close enough to tell exactly what and he wasn't about to very obviously nose into what was none of his business.

(and why do you have that?…what were you doing with it?)

The man looked over at him again, offering another smile. "I don't think we've officially met, right?" he extended a hand, "I'm Tallen."

He stared down at that offered hand for a moment, the man attached to it waiting patiently, not seeming offended at all by the delayed response. Slowly, he extended his own hand, not grasping the other but leaving it in grabbing range. He forced his vocal chords to work, his voice coming out quiet and steady. "Frost…Landon Frost."

That grin spread across Tallen's face as his larger hand closed around his own and squeezed gently; his eyes seemed to be dancing. "Cool name," he said then chuckled a little, embarrassed, "Well, so to speak."

The hand was lingering, burning his skin stronger than the touch at his wrist had been. Physical contact was something he generally avoided so, even if this instance was less skin crawlingly awful as it usually was, it was still more intense than he could deal with presently.

(I used to be able to handle this…its been a long time since…)

He locked his eyes on the man's neck. There was a charm there on a black leather cord, an imperfect circular metal disk resting just below the hollow of his throat. There looked to be something carved on it, some symbol


but it was hard to make out since most of it rested beneath the collar of his shirt. Still, he stared, trying to see, trying to ignore the heat crawling up his arm.

With one final, friendly squeeze, his hand was released. It wandered back to his lap, curling into a loose fist, still tingling.

Tallen's body shifted in his direction, smoke streaming out his nostrils. "So," he said, continuing the conversation, "Can I ask what you do here? Because I come here all the time, and…well, I have seen you, but not a lot. Usually briefly." He shrugged a little as if in apology for the question, "Makes me curious. If that's okay."

He nodded that it was, and took another moment to figure out his words and then to force his tongue to shape them. "I stay in the back mostly. I do a lot of things the owner used to do, it frees up her time for…other things. Paperwork, order forms, inventory," he shrugged, "…stuff. Also I usually stock shelves, put new books out. Oh, and I bake."

A wide grin spread across Tallen's face. "Wow, really? That's you?" That sparkle was back in his eyes that looked so alive, "That's awesome, I'm really glad to meet you now."

At his confused look, Tallen elaborated, "I blow so much money on food here. Its weird, I don't usually indulge like that, but I find that basket kind of hard to walk away from." His eyes shifted down, his free hand touching his stomach briefly, "At least it doesn't show, right?"

(of course…always had that sweet tooth…and that's why I…)

He shrugged self consciously, "Its just a little talent I learned."

"Its a good talent." A quick drag, then, "Do you take requests, by any chance?"

The corner of his lip ticked up in an almost smile. "I might," he said, eyes flitting between Tallen's face and his worn boots, "I usually just make whatever I'm in the mood for. Sometimes my boss makes specific requests…holidays usually, you know. But mostly she lets me choose, and makes sure I have what I need."

Tallen nodded enthusiastically, "Nice. I'm going to make a list, I'll make sure you get it." He glanced over with a smirk, "Yes, that's right, I have a list. I've had lots of time to think about this."

His lips quirked again; he wanted to smile but it was hard to make it work, all his current effort went into speaking. Tallen though seemed to recognize the gesture for what it was and he seemed happy enough. It was a relief, as always, to see, to be understood.

Tallen took another drag off his cigarette, eyes glancing around the alley; he seemed to be thinking of his next question. "How long have you worked here?"

He had to stop and think about that one, it was always hard for him to keep track of time. "…almost two years."

Something flashed in those pine green eyes, there and gone too quickly to discern. "Do you like it?" he inquired, "Working here, I mean."

He nodded, "Yeah, its…its good." Tallen remained silent, watching him expectantly, wanting more of an answer. He struggled to comply, "Um, well…its pretty quiet here. And my boss is… accommodating. I don't have to to anything I don't think I can…don't think I can handle. So…that's good, too."

Tallen nodded, "Yeah, it is. Good to have something like that." His voice had turned quiet, more serious than it had been, "This seems like it would be a good place to work. Its very…laid back, very, well, quiet like you said." He smiled again, "That's one of the reasons I like coming here. I don't get a lot of quiet in my life, and sometimes I just need a break."

He nodded, sensing that moment in the conversation where his active participation was required, lest things quickly become awkward and fizzle out entirely (unless, of course, you happen to be Sophie). It was always a point he easily, and sometimes happily, allowed to pass unchallenged. But here, he actually wanted this to continue, regardless of the strain it placed on him. And even that strain was lessening as he got into the swing of things, remembering how to do this; as he grew comfortable with Tallen and his show of patience that he so rarely saw in others. People typically took his withdrawn silence as rudeness when it truly was never his intention; they assumed it was something personal when it was never about the individual, it was…it was everything. It was the noise, the smells, the heat, the suffocating proximity, that so much was always happening, so fast and it never took a break…it was everything.

He would explain if he thought he could, if he thought there was a chance he could make anyone understand. Sophie was his friend, he could never make her understand.

(there are exceptions to every rule…even my own…an exception)

Wracking his brain for a question, he came out with, "What…what do you do?" wincing as soon as he said it. It never made sense to him, the way people defined themselves by their jobs, not anymore when it seemed most fell into work for lack of better options than because it was something they chose and worked toward, a point of pride and joy. But it seemed a common question, and it went along with what they had been discussing so it might be all right.

Tallen blinked a few times, seeming pleasantly surprised by the question but also…uncomfortable about something. "Oh, you know, I do lots of stuff," he answered, waving his hand with the cigarette in it nonchalantly in the air. "Lot of odd jobs here and there. I, um, I work mostly with a few other people, and we just do…you know, whatever. Whatever's needed."

He nodded, from what he gathered this might be something a person would feel a need to be embarrassed about, though he never understood why. "Sounds interesting," he said, hoping to put him at ease. "Do you like it?"

"Depends on the job," was the answer. "Sometimes I do. Other times…uh, not so much. But it is always interesting," he said with a small laugh, "Got to give it that."

"Do you…um, work, around here?" he asked next, thinking of his earlier conversation with Sophie and the alternative explanation for the man's frequent patronage.

"I did. Couple weeks back." He pointed out the alley toward the street, "Couple blocks that way…uh, south that is. Um, where was it?…Jefferson and…Fourth, I think? Anyway, there's this big mural there, on the side of one of the buildings there. I was helping paint that."

Fourth and Jefferson was not a place he usually went; he didn't usually go anywhere except home, work, a small grocery store around the corner from him and the Goodwill where, combined, he found anything he needed. Two months back though, a couple times, he instead visited a larger grocery store on his way out of work, picking up the same bus at a further stop. His walk would have taken him right by there. He wanted to say he remembered seeing some people working there at the time, but he wasn't sure. He hadn't felt so well then, he'd been distracted all that week; he might only be remembering it because of what Tallen was saying now.

(I saw…at the corner of my eye…but its a game, have to play the game)

"You're an artist?" he heard himself asking, trying to pull his mind back to the present, out of these…thoughts.

"Um, not really, no. I mean I suppose I have some…artistic inclinations, I guess. Not enough to make a living off of." He smiled, "I didn't design the thing if that's what you're asking me. I just followed directions."

He nodded, "And now…what are you doing now?" He was no longer actually smoking his cigarette, just holding it and letting it burn. The nicotine itch in his system was always satisfied by little, and now he contented himself with watching the smoke curling up from the end, diving his attention between that and Tallen's expressive face.

Tallen cleared his throat, pausing to take a long drag off his cigarette, eyes darting up, left. "Um, construction work," he answered, blowing smoke out his nose, "Not around here, down…uh, southern end of the city. I know the neighborhood has a name, but damned if I can remember it." He shrugged, "Anyway, some people bought this old house there, and we're…well, cleaning it out, fixing it up, um…" another pause, another drag, glancing left toward the street, "putting on additions. Stuff like that."

He nodded, "And do you…do you, like it?"

Tallen smirked, slowly shaking his head, "Not really. Its dirty, lot of heavy lifting, lot of running errands, lot of dealing with people I don't want to deal with." He turned and a warmer smile crept over his face, "Plus, I have to go so out of my way to get to my favorite coffee/bookshop."

He smiled in return, "No coffee down there?"

"There probably is. Probably sucks, too," he grinned and added, "Doubt the help is as charming either."

He nodded but said nothing. A moment of comfortable silence passed between them before Tallen resumed his questioning. "So, do you live here in the city?"

He nodded.

"Near by, or what?"

"Close," he answered, "Ten minutes. By bus, I mean."

"How long?"

"…almost two years."

Tallen nodded and again, something passed over his eyes, some emotion, there and gone too quickly to identify. "Do you like it? Living here?"

He shrugged, taking a deep breath as Tallen blew a cloud of that sweet smelling smoke his way. "Its all right, I guess." He shrugged a second time, running his long fingers through his choppy brown hair, pushing it out of his face. "Its not like…I mean, I don't get out much. So its not like…I don't know the city that well. At all. But its…its quiet, people don't…they leave me alone. Bus takes me where I need to go." He glanced at Tallen, shrugging a third time, "Don't need much else."

Tallen nodded, looking thoughtful, "Yeah, it seems like it. I've been coming here for a little while now, and it seems like it would be a good place to live. Quiet, relatively safe, enough that's entertaining, not a whole lot that's really annoying." He took one last drag off his cigarette before dropping it to the pavement, grinding it out beneath his boot. "I could live here."

"So, you don't…" he started.

Tallen shook his head, "Nah, I live…outside the city."


He shook his head again, eyes darting left toward the street, "Nowhere special. Just this old housing development. Nothing you would have ever heard of."

Considering how little he got out, that was likely true. "So, you don't…I mean, well, it sounds like you don't…like it there?"

Tallen slowly shook his head, pursing his lips just slightly. "Nope. No, I don't."

A stab of pain went through him briefly; he lowered his head, staring down at his other hand still curled in his lap. "Sorry to hear that," he mumbled, the words coming automatically.

"Thanks," Tallen sounded grateful, "But don't worry about it. Things are already looking up, you know." He raised his head again and Tallen gave him a wink. It was hard to tell if it was deliberate or an involuntary tic.

"So," Tallen said after another second of silence passed, "are you done watching that thing burn?"

Embarrassed as usual at having some of his stranger habits so closely observed, he looked down at his cigarette almost burned to the filter now. He nodded, letting it slip from his fingers and fall to the ground. "I should…" he started.

"Get back to work?"


Tallen gave him that warm smile again, "That's cool, I should get going, too." He extended his hand again, "Thanks for talking to me. It was fun."

Again, he moved his hand to where Tallen could grab hold of it, where it was again squeezed gently once, then released. He was glad to hear he had been entertaining even if he couldn't imagine how it was possible. It was good to know his effort was appreciated. He was also grateful to note he didn't feel as emotionally drained as he usually did after extended conversation. In fact…he felt better than he had in a long time.

Tallen stood, straightening his coat and slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder, reaching inside. "Hey, I don't suppose I could ask one more favor from you?"

He had not moved from the steps yet, just watching Tallen move. He sat up straighter and looked attentive.

Tallen pulled his silver thermos out of the bag before zipping it closed. "I really do need to get going, but, well, I could probably use one for the road. Do you think you could, maybe, get me a refill?"

He held out his hand for the cup, "Sure, I can do that."

Tallen handed it over, then leaned over further to touch his shoulder. "Thanks, appreciated," smiling that warm smile he couldn't help but return.

He stood and walked out of the alley, acutely aware of Tallen following closely behind him. He fiddled with the silver thermos, passing it back and forth between his hands as Tallen leaned over him, catching the door handle and holding it open for him. He ignored the heat he could feel at his back, at the way his heart beat sped up and how it was, for once, in this moment, not entirely unpleasant.

(or depressing…not that, either…)

Sophie wasn't immediately in sight when he went back inside, for which he was mildly grateful. Rachel leaned against a wall by the magazines, idly flipping through something; not at the counter, but close enough to walk over if needed, not surprising as this was typically a slow hour. She glanced up as they came in but he paid her no mind, walking straight behind the counter, pulling the top off the thermos as he went. Tallen leaned against the counter, elbows on top, chin on his folded hands, watching him work.

"Regular, right?" he asked, making an effort to raise his voice just enough to be heard.

Tallen nodded, "Yeah, that's right. With cream and-"

"And lots of sugar?" the words were out before he could think to censor them.

Tallen laughed, gesturing at him with his index finger and thumb extended. "You got it," he winked again.

He made the drink as requested, a thought occurring to him as he did so. Placing the full and closed thermos in front of Tallen, he struggled to find his words; it was harder now that they were no longer alone. "Do you have…can you wait, just a minute?"

Tallen nodded slowly, looking a little confused, "Uh, sure. Why not?"

In respect for the man's schedule, he moved quickly into the back, to the desk he and his boss both used and the top drawer of it. He returned, wordlessly sliding a full matchbook across the counter toward Tallen. The name and logo of some local bar was emblazoned on both sides.

Tallen appeared pleasantly surprised. "Wow, really? You're giving these to me?"

He nodded, again fighting with his vocal cords. "My boss, she…keeps these on hand, just in case. There's a lot, so…just take it."

"Wow, thank you, so much." He slipped them into his jeans pocket; his eyes unconsciously followed the movements of Tallen's hands. "I really fucking needed these. You may have saved lives today, I am not kidding." He looked back up with a slight smirk, "So, if these are your boss's, I assume you're not the one hanging out at the Red Hook Tavern?"

He shook his head.

(do you know it?…oh, I hope not…)

The smirk widened, "Didn't think so, but I had to check." Green eyes shifted to the right, to the muffin basket in the display case. "Those were not there when I got coffee," he commented.

He shook his head. No, they hadn't been.

Green eyes flicked back to him, "You make them, too?"

A nod.


Another nod.

"Hmm, so they're fresh out of the oven, then." He looked back at the food again, contemplating. "Well, its just a muffin. That's not like a brownie or anything, I mean these are good for you, right? They have fruit in them, right?"

A smile tugged at his lips, he was helpless to stop it. "I don't think so," the words came easy, too; no effort, no thought.

Tallen looked mock reproachful, "Now, you're not supposed to say stuff like that, you know. You're supposed to be selling me these things. You want me to buy them, don't you?"

His smile widened, thinking back to half overheard commercials that played while he watched the news. "Um…they're filled with essential vitamins and nutrients…" dipping a little further back into his memory, "Uh, they'll add five years to your life."

Tallen laughed, those green eyes dancing again, "Five years, huh? I'm sold, give me one."

He packed one up then rung up the purchases. During the money exchange, Tallen held his folded bill in such a way that he couldn't avoid brushing the man's fingers as he took it from him. Similarly, when he dropped change into his waiting palm, Tallen's fingers curled up and lightly brushed at his own palm. Those pine green eyes were fixed intently on his face, showing no reaction…but then again, neither did he though his hand flushed and tingled. Exchange made, he slipped both his over sensitized hands into his pockets, giving them a chance to calm down.

Tallen pulled a five dollar bill out of his wallet before putting it away, waving it a moment to draw attention to it. "This is for you, okay?" he said, dropping it into the tip jar next to the register, "for being so awesome."

Not working with customers, tips weren't something he ever got; it made him feel oddly happy. "Thank you," he muttered.

Tallen grinned in response before it fell away, replaced by something that looked like disappointment. He shifted his grip on his coffee and the small paper bag with the muffin in it, eyes darting around, trying to think of something to say. Finally, those eyes settled on his face again, looking resigned. "Well…guess I'll see you tomorrow, right?"

There wasn't a hesitation in mind, not a thought about how he stayed in the back and never saw customers. He nodded his head, "Sure."

It was the right answer and he saw that warm smile one more time. "You have a nice day, Frost."

He nodded, "Sure… You, too."

Tallen snorted, "Yeah, I'll try anyway," and with one more friendly grin and a wave of his free hand, Tallen turned and made for the door. He watched the man walk away and, with a final swish of his long, dark coat, disappear outside.

Almost immediately he became aware of eyes on him, intense burning weights drilling uncomfortably into the side of his head. Instantly that social exhaustion that he had escaped so far came crashing over him as he turned his head to meet those watchful eyes. Rachel, still in the same spot; and Sophie, reappeared and standing next to her. Rachel simply looked bemused but Sophie was standing there with her eyes comically bugged out and her mouth hanging open. And all of this seemed to be directed at him.

In addition to the exhaustion, he was now also profoundly uncomfortable. He waited for Sophie to say something, to explain herself; surely she would, Sophie could never remain silent for long. But now…now, she seemed to be rendered speechless. Her hazel eyes locked on his in shock, screaming wordless questions while her jaw worked, trying to produce sound that, right now, just wasn't coming.

I can not deal with this right now. He might have just walked away, went in the back again and stayed there until everyone was gone; but he had never seen Sophie like this before, and he couldn't help his curiosity that froze him to the spot. To move things forward, he forced himself to speak. "…what?"

Sophie's eyes bugged out further, her jaw working rapidly again; this time sound did come out, alas sense did not follow. "What…what! You're asking me…you're asking…no, that's my-that's my question. What the…what the fuck was…"

Rachel chuckled at that, patting her on the back. "Breathe, Soph."

Sophie made a show of taking a deep, calming breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth; eyes closed and hands moving up and down in front of her chest to the rhythm of her breath. She cracked an eye open at him, holding up a finger indicating for him to wait while, with the other, she pulled her cell phone out of her pocket.

"What?" she muttered to herself as she pressed some buttons and Rachel peered over her shoulder and looked like she wanted to laugh. "He asks me what," and placed the phone to her ear, "like I'm the one who just waltzed in here all smiling and-" She cut off, listening to something on the phone before speaking, louder this time. "Hi Marie, its me. Don't rush to get the phone or anything, I'm just calling to- well honestly, I'm using it as an excuse to take a minute to get my head together. But anyway, wanted to let you know that it looks like our big bet has come to an end. I'll give you the details and everything later, but…well, I'll just say we're going to have to get together and figure out what we're supposed to do when no one wins. Like I said, I'll get you details later, just as soon as I get them myself. Feel better and all that. And tell Nicky I said hi."

Sophie snapped her phone shut and slipped it back into her pocket. With a sharp head gesture to Rachel that seemed to ask for privacy, she marched forcefully over to him, an impressive display from such a petite person. "All right, Frostie," she began, her finger pointed at him and her eyes blazing. "You are going to tell me what the hell is going on here."

If anything, he was more confused now than he had been at the start. "What? I don't know what…what you mean?" He was also far too tired to play guessing games with her; he sincerely hoped this went without saying.

"What do you mean, what?" she gestured at the counter, waving her hand back and forth over it. "This, that's what. What was this?"

Thinking he understood now, he rolled his eyes. "Just because I don't usually wait on people, it doesn't mean I can't. And I wish you'd stop making such a big deal when I do." He had thought he had gotten that point across the last time a customer requested his help when he was stocking shelves; he told Sophie then if she hounded him every time he spoke to someone like the event was worthy of a parade, it would make him reluctant to do it again. He thought that had done the trick, but perhaps not.

No…wait. That can't be…then why would she…

Sophie was already talking, "-not what I meant, I'm talking about you and him and-"

He cut her off, "Why did you call Marie?" that was the one part he could make no sense of, "What did you mean…the bet is over?"

She raised an eyebrow at him, "Oh, don't you dare, don't even pretend you don't know what I'm talking about, I told you not even an hour ago."

His brow lowered as he thought, "You mean the thing with him?" his finger gestured toward the door.

She nodded, slowly and deliberately, a strange smile on her face. "Yeah, I mean him, your new favorite customer."

"What do you-" and he stopped himself, not wanting to be derailed by what was likely meaningless sarcasm on her part. "Why is your bet suddenly over? An hour ago, it was…it wasn't."

She snorted, "Yeah, well. An hour ago, he didn't walk in here with his eyes glued to your ass. Doesn't seem to be much to wonder about anymore."

What? He felt frozen in shock and it was only when Sophie kept talking that he realized he had only thought the word.

"You know, it never even occurred to me to think it. Didn't occur to any of us, but I really shouldn't have, being your friend and all, forgotten you were there. I mean, he didn't seem the type – which, I fully realize, is a stupid way to think about things and I should know better but you can't always help it. And then there's you and you're…well, you. So I didn't-"

"Wait," it was an effort to speak through the shock, and his voice was quieter than ever, less than a whisper, a bare breath of sound. Still, she heard and she stopped; sometimes he was glad to know her, even when he wasn't. "What do you…what are you talking about?"

She gave him that old exasperation/pity/amusement look again. "Sweetie…I know you're not so good with stuff like this, but still…do I really need to spell it out for you?" Grin widening, she spoke slowly, carefully enunciating each word, "He…was…interested…in…you."

(that's not true…)

Anxiety clawed at his chest anew, and he struggled to push it back, before it could overtake him again.

(don't want…to feel like that again…)

("you shouldn't have bothered.")

(he changed his mind)

"No," he heard himself speak in denial, "No, that's not…you're wrong."

"Okay," she replied, "So, what was that, then?" waving her hand toward the counter again.

He shrugged stiffly, trying to sound nonchalant and failing miserably, "Customer service?"

"Uh-huh," she did not sound convinced. "And outside? What the hell was that?"

"Smoke break, I told you that."

"You know he bolted out of here after you? I thought he suddenly realized he was late for something important."

He shrugged again, "His lighter was broken, he wanted to use mine."

"And he ran after you, for that?"

Another shrug, "He might have been waiting for a while." Low and defiant, "This is not a big deal."

"He was flirting with you!"

(he wouldn't…)

(…no, wait…)

"He was being friendly."

Sophie scoffed, "No, Frost. He is friendly to me. He is friendly to Marie. He was coming on to you." He opened his mouth to refute and she spoke right over him, "I have never seen him smile like that, never heard him laugh like that, and he has certainly never winked at me."


("I'm sorry," … "I never meant to hurt you."…)

(…he took it back…remember…)

Her grin turned mischievous, "And then there's that whole staring at your ass thing I already mentioned."

He felt himself flush with embarrassment. "He did not," he murmured in reply. This he could refute; he would have known, he would have felt it.

She conceded, "Okay, so maybe stare isn't the right word. But he looked. More than once."

"So?" was that not natural? For the eye to wander?

"When he's talked to me, his eyes stay up here," she gestured to her own. "When he talks to Marie, his eyes stay up here, however hard she tries to redirect his attention elsewhere."

He couldn't remember the last time a conversation made him so uncomfortable, and he had no energy left to handle it. I don't want to talk about this, not now, why can't she see that? Why can't she see I can't…I can't…

(get my hopes up)

He took a deep breath. "I think you're blowing this whole thing up," he said quietly, "seeing things that aren't there. Its not…what you think. Any of it. Like I said earlier, Tallen only comes here because he used to work in the area and he likes the coffee and that its quiet here. It has nothing to do with anyone-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa!" Sophie waved her arms in his face, cutting him off again. She took a minute to process something, then, "…Tallen? Is that – is that his name?"

He nodded, not understanding what the big deal was, but Sophie's grin only got wider. "Sweetie, why do you think we've been calling him Tall, Blond and Handsome? Because we didn't know his name. However many times we've talked to him, he's never introduced himself. Its kind of a joke, actually, with me and Marie, the way he manages to dodge that without ever being rude about it, which is more of a talent than you might think."

His mouth fell closed, the anxiety abruptly falling out of him, leaving him feeling empty. Empty and…something else? That exhaustion likely, he was too worn out to feel anything anymore.

And yet Sophie was still going, "Now, I know there's no way in hell you asked him for his name…which means, he must have just given it to you…" She clasped her hands together, smiling at him both happy and teasing, "Oh honey, I think he must want you real bad."

Clearly this was not going to end any time soon; Sophie looked like she had just been given a present she had never thought to ask for but which was everything she ever wanted. That look scared him (not the least of which because it made him miss friendly patience and comfortable silences…if he wanted to be perfectly honest with himself, which currently he did not). He shook his head dismissively, not even feigning politeness now, "I'm leaving," he said as he brushed past her and made his way to the office. That beautiful back room with the door that could lock.

Her voice followed him as he walked away, "You know, I'd ask which team you bat for, but judging by the way you were smiling back at him, I'd say its a pretty safe bet-"

Gratefully, the door closing cut her off as well. He leaned himself against it, breathing a sigh of relief at being alone again.

That unknown feeling in him grew as solitude relieved his exhaustion; a warm spark that started from the center of his chest and slowly spread its way outward. This sense of…


(maybe…I can do this after all…maybe…maybe this time…)

He touched his fingers to his mouth, surprised to find a smile there.

(maybe this time…it will be better…)

The last time he had walked this route, he had been almost in a daze, seeing little more than the ground before his feet. He had surprised himself at first, walking automatically past his bus stop and continuing down the street; it didn't take long to realize where he was going, seems his curiosity was getting the better of him.

Jefferson and Fourth looked to be a slightly run down residential neighborhood, not too different from the one he himself lived in but quieter, less homeless around. Even at this hour, the streets were practically deserted, which suited him just fine.

Sun set early this time of year, the light was rapidly bleeding from the sky; illumination from street lights helped him to see. He stopped on Jefferson, where the line of row houses ended in a weedy, overgrown vacant lot that extended about a quarter of a block up to the intersection, and a quarter of a block up Fourth. There, where the line of row houses started up Fourth, on the wall of the first building facing the lot, facing where he stood: Tallen's mural.

I do remember seeing this, he thought to himself, I remember more vehicles in the lot, and one of those…rising baskets?…what do they call that…cherry picker?

The execution looked decently done to his untrained eye, even if the subject was rather uninspired. Just like any inner city art, its message seemed to be one of inclusion, diversity, hope. A line of children stood holding hands in the forefront, every skin and hair color combination represented at least as far as he knew, gazing up top a hill with a road curling up the center and a door at the crest, standing by itself with light spilling out on all sides.

His eyes shifted up to the top left corner, noting what looked to be a flock of distant birds flying through the sky in a particular pattern he traced over slowly once, twice. In the upper right sat the sun, a mostly yellow ball with streaks of orange highlighting the heat in the center, and it took only a moment for him to see the picture those streaks made. In the lower left a patch of flowers grew in the grass, precisely placed, leaves bent and petals bloomed exacting; in the lower right a squirrel, a rabbit, a chipmunk and a butterfly cavorted in a jumble that looked like random play, but…

(they're sigils…)

His eyes scanned the mural again, picking out odd details all around. A scattering of leaves blowing in the wind; the way two children were holding hands; blowing curls of blond hair on one, the placement of a hair ribbon on another; the way the edge of a skirt belled out, the position of a leg, the curl of a cloud; the sway of individual grass blades, the slop of a nose, the tilt of a head, a row of turned around bricks in the road. All round in between these anomalies, visibly different paint strokes, made with a brush at least half the size of the rest of it, diagonal strokes instead of vertical, connecting each piece of the picture to the other, creating…

(…the Wheel…?)

The door in the center, in small streaks of tan in the dark brown, hidden as wood grain and tree knots…


His breath caught in his throat; his heart beat felt distant.

(why…why would…no, how…how would he even know…to paint that?)

He stood there for he wasn't sure how long, as the night deepened around him and grew cold; never a cold like he was used to, never one to rival what he felt inside. One hand in his pocket and the other braced on the brick wall, eyes staring ahead unfocused, mind moving too fast to keep up with. A sense of dread growing in his stomach.

(what…what are you mixed up in…this time?)

A group of men suddenly appeared at the wall…no, not suddenly, he had half noticed them coming out of the first row home on Fourth, turning the corner at the building's edge and setting up camp. Four men, they were loud and they looked to be drinking. Anxiety tightened his chest again; if the normal world was difficult to deal with, situations most anyone would find anxious are that much worse. He forced himself to ignore it, to be calm; he couldn't leave, not yet, he had to wait, wait for…

…for what? What was he even doing here in the first place?

Another figure emerged suddenly from the shadows at the far side of the building, furthest from the street. The clip-clop of the person's shoes on the pavement was ridiculously loud in the quiet, setting a fast tempo his pounding heart beat tried to imitate. The group of men made loud catcalls, whistles, comments he couldn't quite make out but which were no doubt rude. Easier to make out the high pitched, heavily accented voice that replied those men should piss off. The lone person never broke their stride or even turned their head, not sparing them a single glance; the men chuckled quietly to themselves but there was a distinct nervous quality to it, and not only did they not reply they all but fell silent. It spoke volumes.

His eyes tracked the figure, picking out the movement of a long dark skirt, the bounce of a mop of loose wavy curls, a canvas bag held in steady hands. His breath grew shallow, his heart beat pounded in his ears as the figure reached the sidewalk, standing beneath a street lamp in a pool of light and stopped.

His fingers curling into fists, he watched that head move, tilting up first one direction, then another, the motions oddly birdlike. His breath had all but ceased to sound, watching that head cock to the right, further right, before that body gracefully pivoted to face in his direction.

(…oh gods…)

Not fully in his direction but far too close; facing toward the intersection but tilted just to the right, taking a careful step forward, head cocked bird fashion. Watching; searching.

(he can see)

He took in the black sleeveless top and billowing black skirt with white patterns something similar to a bandanna; the skirt stopped just above the ankles, black high heeled boots took yet another clip-clopping step forward. Black leather gloves covered his arms up to the elbows; a series of black vertical lines, like stripes, were visible on his upper arms, disappearing beneath his clothing at both ends. His…his?… Yes, despite the feminine clothes, the thin waifish body and visible curves, some instinct told him he was looking at a male.

(he can see)

He had a long thin neck and a dark olive complexion with fine, delicate features framed by that thick mop of dark wavy curls. A pair of small circular sunglasses covered his eyes, even at this time of night.

(he can see…he can see, he can see)

He inched slowly back around the corner, back around the side of the row house; dropping slowly and carefully down to his knees so there was a thick metal dumpster as well as a brick wall in between him and those hidden, searching eyes. He tried to slow his breathing, to still his heart, to not make a sound nor a move, not external not internal, not a thing to risk drawing attention.

Please go, please just go…go, go, go…please go…

The silence seemed to stretch into eternity, and the struggle to keep his body from shaking, to keep his flight instinct from taking over and plowing recklessly down the street was becoming harder to maintain. When the clip-clop of those boots sounded again his terror was so intense he thought his heart would stop from the shock, before he realized those foot steps were moving away from him.

He risked a peak around the corner, seeing the stranger continuing up Fourth, re-entering the shadows again. He had seemed to be moving toward a parked car on the edge of the road; and Fourth was, thankfully, a north bound street.

He let out his held breath in a rush, almost falling backward in relief. Both his hands had curled into fists and he worked on undoing them while giving his overloaded mind a second to calm down. His fingers were stiff and didn't want to uncurl; there was blood on a few of his nails and his palms stung sharply.

What am I doing here? He wondered, staring down at his shaking hands. In a neighborhood like this, at this time of night, just standing here…what, looking at urban art work? What am I thinking, what has gotten into me?…stupid…

(if he is here…if he is…then…that means…that means…)

Finally, he let his flight instinct take over, scrambling to his feet and moving, as quickly and as quietly as possible, back down Jefferson. He didn't stop at any of the near by bus stops, not until he was back near work, in a neighborhood he knew, where he could feel safe again.

(that means the Wolf can't be far behind)