CHAPTER 18 – FIRE ALARMS AND LOSING YOU

~SOUNDTRACK: Barns Courtney – Glitter and gold~

"Okay, buckle the fuck up," Noah clapped his hands together and stood to face Christopher and the Kowalskis. "I have a plan. It's stupid and it could potentially get me killed and you will yell at me."

"So basically just another Tuesday," Christopher muttered under his breath and Noah pointed a finger at him.

"Hold your sass until I'm done, pal. You'll need it."

"Not to state the obvious," Ivy inspected her nails looking almost bored, "but the last time you had a plan we ended up in jail."

Noah put his hands on his hips and narrowed his eyes at her, and then at Christopher. Like seriously, the only person in this household with a little discipline was Viktor, and that's because he looked too terrified to open his mouth most of the time. And yes, that included himself. Noah was quite aware he had no discipline whatsoever and he was in the same room with a she-assassin and a mobster heir.

"What did I just say?" he snapped at Ivy. "Comments at the end. You might feel differently."

"Will I?" Ivy narrowed her eyes back.

"No. Here it goes. I have every detail that I need about the fundraiser from Kara's phone. It's tonight, so we're gonna have to move fast. Everything was very vague, which is what led me to believe it's all a cover for some shady business. My best guess, gathering investors for their child prostitution trade. At this point though, everything is just sheer speculation. Viktor, I'm gonna need you to hack the security cameras at the venue."

Viktor frowned. "I mean, sure, but why me? What will you be doing? Not that I mind, but you're a way better hacker than me."

Noah paused a second for dramatic effect. "I'll be going in undercover."

Out of all the reactions he'd expected to get out of them with that announcement, them laughing was something he hadn't counted on. Like seriously. There were three solid seconds of utter silence to the point of being slightly awkward and then, almost on cue, all three of them burst out into obnoxious laughter. Noah could only stare. Hell, he'd never thought he'd see the day when he could see Ivy Kowalski laughing so lively. Noah crossed his arms over his arms and pouted.

"What's so funny?" he mumbled.

"Yes, Noah," Christopher wiped away a tear from the corner of his eye. "You'll infiltrate the most dangerous operation in the tristate area all by your lonesome, like a cute little millennial James Bond, and meanwhile Ivy Kowalski and I will sit here and sip the 5 o'clock tea and discuss the latest fashion."

Noah half expected Ivy to pull her gun on Christopher. At least glare at him. But to his absolute shock, Ivy snorted and nodded in agreement. And Noah realized. They weren't taking him seriously. He supposed that was on him, since he was all goofy and dismissive all the time, but he found himself angry to have his devotement to the cause questioned. He stepped forward and slammed his hands across the table, watching as their laughter died out and they all turned their eyes on him.

"Listen up, knuckleheads," he raised his voice. "This ain't no joke. I'm serious. If we want to take down their business, we need evidence. After all the stunts we've pulled, Jo will never buy it if I just waltz in and announce and Donovan Kowalski and his little Mexican girlfriend have a child prostitution operation. We need proof to back it up."

The amusement had been snuffed out of the room all of a sudden and he saw Christopher just nod slowly, as if trying to humor a kid throwing a temper tantrum without pointing out the temper tantrum.

"Okay," Christopher said in an annoyingly high-pitched voice. "Fair enough. But why does that have to be you? No offense," he turned to Ivy, "but Ivy's cutthroat bitch attitude is a lot more likely to get stuff done and not get her killed in the process."

Ivy simply shrugged. "None taken. And he's right, Noah. You're making a good point, but I can take better care of myself. If any of us is going to infiltrate, it should be me."

Noah closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He'd anticipated that he'd have a hard time convincing them, but he hadn't expected it to be so irritating.

"No offense, angel," he turned to Ivy and spoke in a soft, contained voice, "but your methods aren't exactly quiet. This requires a bit of delicacy."

"Oh, cause you're delicate as a flower?" Ivy snapped at him, but Noah just ignored her.

"You're a loud presence. And a cutthroat bitch attitude isn't gonna, well, cut it in this instance." He looked between all three of them, practically begging them to see reason. "Guys. They call me The Snake. This is what I'm famous for. This is my gig."

This time, they all fell quiet. Noah dared to hope they were seeing reason. This really was his gig. This was what he was best at. Getting himself in danger and then finding the most efficient way out of it. This operation had his name written all over it.

Eventually, Ivy sighed and stood up, starting to pace and glaring at Noah. "I don't like it."

Noah snorted and shot her a lazy smile. "You don't like anything, Ivy." He stood up straight and clapped his hands together. "It's settled then. I go in, get my hands on evidence, get out. Piece of cake. Viktor's gonna hack security cams to back me up. We can't risk any wires on me since we don't know what kind of hardcore security they have. And judging by how high the stakes are, security's bound to be tight. In case things go sideways and I'm followed, you guys stay here and I'll go to Motel St. Luke's."

"I'll meet you there," Ivy replied, tapping her foot. "No way will I be able to wait until tomorrow to hear what you found." She paused for half a heartbeat and pointed at finger at Noah. "I do not like this."

Noah simply shrugged. He'd expected as much.

"Warned you, angel."

~SOUNDTRACK: Taylor Swift – The archer~

Ivy was yet again standing on Noah's balcony, smoking cigarette after cigarette like she expected the smoke to take the shape of whatever the empty space in the middle of her chest was. It didn't. So she kept trying.

A small voice in the back of her head tried to tell her that all these emotions she was feeling right now were because she was worried about Noah, but that couldn't be. She'd never been worried about another human other than herself. And Viktor. And unlike Noah, Viktor didn't have the tendency of jumping head first into every dangerous situation he encountered. But that was on him. Ivy couldn't care less. He was a grown boy. He could take care of himself. She was in no way able to control what he was doing. Now if only she could fucking stop this hammering of her heart against her chest whenever she thought of everything that could go sideways for him tonight.

"Millennial James Bond, he said?" she heard Noah's voice behind her and turned around to find him in the balcony door, posing for her to show off his suit. "James Bond can only dream."

Ivy forced a smile at his joke. She had to admit, he looked good. She'd seen Noah Clark in jeans, in sweatpants, she'd seen him naked, she'd seen him in plaid and in pajamas, but she thought Noah Clark in a suit was her favorite version. It gave him a sort of edge he didn't have before. Like she was aware it was just a shell, but it forced her to take him more seriously. That is, until she raised her gaze and met his goofy gaze again and she remembered it was still Noah Clark stuffed in that suit.

"You know, I would've actually said you look good until you had to open your mouth," she crossed her arms over her chest and he narrowed his eyes at her.

"Wow," he pursed his lips. "I don't know if I like sassy Ivy. I think I liked you better when you were just sulking and threatening me at gunpoint. Your humor is mean."

Ivy simply shrugged. "I'm mean."

She expected him to just agree and to keep going with their little funny remarks game, but to her surprise, Noah stuffed his hands in his pockets and took one step closer, his smile growing just a shade more serious since a second ago.

"You still think that, don't you?"

Ivy frowned at him. "That I'm mean?" she scoffed. "I know who I am, Noah. I can kill a man with my bare hands. Whatever gave you the impression that I'm a ray of sunshine?"

Noah just shook his head like she was a child who was having a hard time grasping a basic concept. "Yeah, yeah, I know that's how Donovan built you to think. But do you actually think a bad person would fight as hard as you're fighting to correct even one of all the fucked-up things that are wrong about the world?"

Ivy swallowed hard, pondering his words. He'd put in so few and well-articulated words that it had hit her right across the face. There was a lot to dig here. So she did what she knew best. She avoided it.

"I never said I was a bad person, dick," she narrowed her eyes at him. "Just that I'm mean."

Noah scoffed and stepped past her to lean against the balcony railing, looking over the city. "You got me there."

Ivy turned around and leaned against it too, next to Noah, so that their elbows were touching. She stole a sideways glance at him. He did look pretty sharp. And right now, for some reason, he looked intense and serious. So much that Ivy found herself talking before she could stop.

"Be careful," was all she said, then she bit her lip, almost regretting what was starting to feel like a moment of weakness. She'd been raised to feel a certain way about moments of weakness.

"Careful, angel," Ivy heard the smirk in his voice even though he didn't turn to look at her. "One might think you're worried about me."

Ivy huffed. "I wouldn't go that far. I just have no wish to see you dead."

This time, Noah actually turned to look at her with an amused expression, and their faces ended up closer to each other than anticipated. Noah's amusement died off from his face and Ivy noted with no little amount of satisfaction that he gulped a little.

"Since when?" he asked.

Ivy had no idea. She couldn't exactly pinpoint that one moment when she'd started caring for the well-being of Noah fucking Clark, and she sure as hell wasn't about to start digging for it. She wasn't sure whether she'd be hitting gold and had no intention to try her luck. So she just tilted her head to one side and offered him a defiant look.

"You saved my life, Noah Clark," she just stated. "I owe you."

Noah shook his head like he didn't buy that one bit. "Is that all there is?"

No. "Yes."

He could've at least had the decency to look hurt or disappointed. But instead, Noah kept shaking his head and chuckling lightly, as if enjoying a joke only he could get. Then he gently took her hand, raised it to his lips and planted a gentle kiss across her knuckles. The gesture was probably the softest thing that Ivy had ever experienced and it made that spot in the middle of her chest fill with a warmth she could not name. She desperately needed a cigarette to drown that.

"Wish me luck out there," he said and winked, but was out the door before Ivy could actually wish him good luck.

~SOUNDTRACK: Fall Out Boy ft. Black Thought – Immortals (remix)~

Noah wasn't a person who found it easy to feel hate. There were a lot of people in his past that deserved his full hatred for what they'd put him through, a lot of people he could've easily hated and no one would've blamed him for it. He just didn't like that black mark on his soul. He'd be the one carrying the weight of that hate and he was just too vain and selfish and cherished his peace of mind too much for that. So he just didn't waste his own time with feelings of hate.

But right now, standing in the crowd wearing a fancy suit, blending in with these people who were here to make a business out of the misery of innocent girls, these people who could laugh and eat and drink at the expense of the freedom of those girls, he felt disgusted. And as he looked at Kara Lopez and Donovan Kowalski standing side by side, bathing in the power they were wielding as if it weren't built on mountains of pain, he hated them like he had never thought he'd ever be capable to hate anyone else.

He couldn't risk wearing a wire and blowing up his cover, so he would have to rely on good old-fashioned picture snapping with his phone for evidence. Except there wasn't much evidence to snap pictures of. This did look like your typical fundraiser. The location was one of the well-renowned ones on the Upper East Side, looking so fancy, so expensive, so pretentious Noah worried they were gonna to ask for money just to allow him to breath the air in there. The people attending were obviously stuck-up clowns, but precisely the ones you'd see at this kind of event. The ones who sip on champagne and throw their heads laughing and talk a lot about the economy. And in the middle of this whole charade, Kara Lopez, wearing a simple backless black dress, her hair tucked over one shoulder, looking like a vengeful angel. And Donovan Kowalski, looking like her guard dog. Kara looked bored. Donovan looked proud.

Noah did sneak some pictures of them standing together, but he was starting to grow frustrated. If this was all he'd be getting all night, it wasn't nearly enough to go on. So two criminals were friends. Big deal. Not enough to stand up in court. Definitely not enough to win Jo over on their side.

But right before Noah could throw in the towel and hope Viktor had had better luck with the security cameras, he saw Kara and Donovan exchange a few whispers and then subtly slip away through a back door.

Now this was worth investigating. It was probably a bad idea. It would probably get him killed. But then again he'd hooked up with the daughter of the biggest mobster in the country, and that had worked out well for him. The things that were supposed to get him killed didn't really stick.

Noah casually downed his glass of champagne and slipped out unnoticed, pulling out his phone and studying the map of the hotel to see where that door that Donovan and Kara had slipped through led. But according to his blueprint of the building, this was supposed to be a dead end. Which could only mean that this hotel was definitely used for their dirty business. Now Noah just had to find his way through that secret door somehow.

He looked around until his eyes caught an air vent.

He sighed. So fucking cliché. Out of all the gigs he'd chosen to wear his favorite suit to.

He had a deadline. And he had fucking missed it.

Ivy had asked Noah to meet her back at Motel St. Luke at exactly midnight. He didn't need to be a hero. And they'd already agreed he shouldn't go back to the apartment. And now it was 2 am and he'd missed that deadline by two hours. And Ivy was going out of her freaking mind.

She'd called Viktor to ask him if he'd seen anything suspicious on the cameras. Viktor had said that at some point, Donovan and Kara had slipped out and Noah had disappeared slowly after that, but everything had been quiet otherwise.

That had been at 11:30. It was now 2:15. Ivy was pacing back and forth. She pulled out her phone and called Viktor again. He picked up almost immediately.

"Anything, Vik?" She could hear him hover, but that just pissed her off even more. "Spit it out, Viktor."

"Listen, it might be nothing," Viktor whispered in the phone and Ivy was sure she would've strangled him, had he been standing in front of her right now.

"Viktor," she simply whispered back, and he let out a long sigh.

"The party's over, Ives. I sat in this chair and checked everyone who went in and out of the hotel. Every single person for the last hours. Donovan and Kara came out last, probably a little over half an hour ago." He paused. "I'm pretty sure there was blood on Donovan's suit and hands."

Ivy felt her mind racing as she kept pacing the room. "Okay, whatever. Donovan's almost always covered in blood. What about Noah?"

Viktor took another deep breath as if trying to explain himself to a child who was hard of understanding. "Noah never came out, Ives."

And Ivy stopped pacing. Donovan had come out, blood on his hands. But Noah hadn't. Logically speaking, she guessed there could be zero correlation between those two pieces of information. But save for the fact that there was too much of a coincidence and Ivy didn't believe in coincidences in her line of work, she was also the furthest thing from logic right now. The only conclusion she was able to reach was that Donovan had hurt Noah. And Donovan never settled for hurting. She suspected she was the only person he'd ever hurt and left alive afterwards.

"Ives?" she heard Viktor's voice on the phone, but she was far away.

She hung up the phone and threw it on the bed, grabbing her jacket and her guns and her knives. She would murder everyone in that hotel to find out what had happened to Noah. And if Donovan had any hand in this, she'd come for his head.

~SOUNDTRACK: Peter Yorn – Lose you~

Ivy rushed out the door and slammed the door behind her, and when she was met with the cold night air, she just paused for a second, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, suddenly feeling like she needed to sit on the stairs for just a second before she went out to wreak havoc. Christ. The last thing she'd said to him had been that she only cared what happened to him because she owed him. He'd kissed her hand and he'd taken one minute before jumping into danger to remind her that he didn't think she was a bad person, and she hadn't even had the guts to admit to him that she gave a fuck about what happened to him. That she wanted him to make it out alive.

But there was no time for this. There was nothing to be sad about yet, not until she found out what had happened to him. And if there was anything to be sad about, she'd save that for later, after she was done being angry and deadly.

So she pulled herself together and she stood up just in time to see a car pull into the parking lot. Noah's car.

Ivy froze.

For a brief second, she couldn't dare to hope that it would actually be Noah climbing out of that car. She held her breath as the door opened and surely enough, Noah Clark came out, holding his side, looking quite bruised, but very much alive. And Ivy just stopped breathing.

Noah caught sight of her and stopped in his track, simply raising two fingers to his forehead and saluting.

And Ivy's body reacted before her mind did. Before she could even realize she was moving, she took one step, then two, then she was running, then she closed the distance between them within seconds she had basically launched herself across the parking lot until she somehow found her arms around him. Throwing herself in his arms with her entire body as if she just needed to feel that he was alive and breathing in her every cell.

And then he groaned in pain and the sound brought Ivy back and she let go of him just slightly, her hands still clutching his shoulders and her eyes closed.

"I thought you were gone," she just whispered.

He brought his hand up and cupped her cheek, leaning his forehead against her. "For a second there, angel, so did I."

Ivy basked in the closeness for a total of 3 seconds before taking a deep breath and pulling away.

"Okay. Tell me everything."

Noah simply shook his head. "Tomorrow. I'm gonna leave my car here in case I was followed, but I'd rather not stay here tonight. In case anyone followed."

"Alright," Ivy nodded. "Makes sense. Come on then. I'll drive you home."

The drive back to his place was completely silent. After her outburst earlier, Ivy didn't trust herself to talk. She'd already admitted she'd thought he was dead and it was clear that had thrown her into a fit. She didn't know how to admit out loud how absolutely terrified she'd been of losing him. Noah Clark was the only person ever, aside from Viktor and Viktor was family, who'd ever cracked a wall. Who'd ever even cared enough to want to take a peak inside, no matter how many times those efforts had been met with aggressiveness and the barrel of a gun. If Noah Clark was gone, Ivy just knew she'd put back those walls again, a thousand times thicker, a thousand times higher. It would just be so unfair to be getting this person in her life and to have him taken away from her. And all these feelings frightened her so badly she was afraid about how they might have come out if she opened her mouth.

So she drove in silence. Noah said nothing either, and she was dying to find out what the hell had happened, but she'd have to open her mouth for that. He had a few cuts on his forehead and a black eye, and he seemed to favor his left shoulder, but he was in a better shape that she'd expected after her phone call with Viktor. Granted, she'd been pretty sure he was dead. Ivy knew the reason for her silence, but she couldn't for the life of her figure out his silence, and it drove her nuts more than the things she couldn't say.

Eventually, they made it to Noah's. Ivy pulled over in front of his building and killed the engine, giving them both a chance to speak up, but neither did. They sat in silence charged of all the things they wanted to say, but couldn't, and it felt heavy and suffocating. Ivy supposed this was the first time in her life when she was actually a coward.

Noah cleared his voice eventually. "I'll see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah," Ivy whispered. "Good night. Ice that eye."

"I will," he offered a tight smile, and climbed out of the car, walking into the building without another word.

Ivy watched him disappear behind those doors and sat in her car for another two minutes. She didn't know why. It was stupid. This whole fucking thing was just so stupid. He wasn't dead. So what was she grieving here?

She turned on the engine and drove away. She just needed to shake off this night and come back and face his tomorrow with a clear mind, without these complicated feelings she couldn't make sense of.

But then again, why did she think she'd be able to make sense of these feelings tomorrow? She would just push them deeper and deeper and deeper once again, like a pile of trash under the rug that ends up leaving bumps and that you eventually end up tripping over. She had never run away from anything in her entire life. She was so not running away from Noah fucking Clark. Not when every instinct of her body had had her running towards him tonight.

Ivy had made it exactly two blocks away when she abruptly turned the car around. She pulled over in front of his place again, rushed out of the car and practically ran inside the building. She didn't have the patience to wait for the elevator right now and she was in no mood for the flair of showing up to his balcony. So she took the stairs, taking them two at a time, feeling like she practically flew up to his floor like a rocket on a mission. Before she even knew it, before she had the time to question what was driving her or what she was even gonna say, she was in front of his door. She raised her hand to knock but didn't get to, because at that exact same moment, the door basically flew open and in the doorway stood Noah, a little short of breath and with a weird expression in his eyes, like was on his way out himself.

"Ivy," he whispered.

"Noah," he whispered back.

They just stood there for a minute, catching their breath, taking each other in, and then Noah stepped aside and he let her in. Ivy quietly stepped inside, not quite knowing what to do with herself now that she was actually here. She hadn't thought it through this far ahead. So she just made her way to the fridge and pulled out an ice pack and looked through their drawers until she found some rubbing alcohol and a cloth.

She found Noah sitting on the couch, watching her. Ivy went over and sat on the coffee table in front of him. She put the ice pack down for now and just started working on cleaning his wounds. He hissed as the alcohol burned at the edge of his cuts, but he kept his eyes on her the entire time. Like he was looking for something and he wasn't sure what it looked like, so he totally oblivious that it was sitting right in front of him. Like he could feel it, but couldn't really see it.

When Ivy was done with his cuts, she disposed of the cloth and the alcohol and went back to place the ice pack gently over his eye, and he released a breath of relief. Ivy knew a thing or two about how that felt. She was an expert at tending to bruises. A greater expert at hiding them. Face bruises were tricky. Neck bruises were manageable. Any other kind were basically nothing.

She met Noah's eyes. Well, eye. She felt as though something in his gaze was practically begging her to speak. As if whatever she had to say, he needed to hear it.

"I thought—" Ivy tried, but the words died out in her throat.

"I know," Noah was quick to nod and found her fingers, giving them a light squeeze.

Ivy shook her head vigorously. "You don't. I thought—" she took a deep breath. "I cannot. Lose you."

There were more words. She felt them right in the back of her throat, suffocating her, she felt them in the back of her mouth, tasting like bile, she felt them trapped in her chest like wild birds fluttering their wings desperate to get out. But that was all she could say. She couldn't let out the birds. She'd be left empty. But she could offer him that. She could offer him this one bit of vulnerability, this one moment of truth to let him know it mattered to her. That it mattered a lot to her whether he was in her life or not.

Noah placed his finger under her chin and raised her face to meet his gaze. "I will never leave you, angel. I promise."

And Ivy knew better than this. She'd been raised better than this. She liked to pride herself smarter than this. But despite all that. She believed him. She found it was ridiculously easy to believe him. So she just nodded.

Noah gulped before speaking. "Will you stay? Tonight?"

And Ivy knew better than this. She probably shouldn't. Everything that had happened tonight had already complicated things so much she just knew she wouldn't able to look him in the eyes for at least a few days now. They kept crossing every single boundary, every single fine line in the sand, and he was just asking to take a fucking leap over every one of those. It was probably a terrible idea.

"Okay," she said nonetheless.

Christopher stopped dead in his track, assessed the scene, and then slowly walked back inside his bedroom. Viktor, freshly awake, was sitting up in his bed. They were still taking things easy, but after watching those security cameras for hours yesterday, he'd basically crashed in Christopher's bed without a single word. And Christopher sure as hell didn't mind.

Viktor took one look at Christopher's distressed face now and frowned. "What's wrong?"

"Would you happen to know," Christopher asked slowly, "why the hell are Ivy and Noah sleeping on my couch drooling all over each other?"