Auset stared out the dirty glass window at nothing as the train screeched around a bend in the tracks. Graffiti-covered walls sped passed in a blur of colour, an interesting contrast to the silver light of the full moon night. She ran a hand through the dark and chaotically arranged locks that covered her head and let out a long sigh. The old man sitting across the way smiled at her, revealing several empty spaces where teeth should have been, and she grinned back. He was a regular on this particular line at this time of night and she, in a way, knew him because of that. She knew he was no threat and therefor returned his happy greetings without hesitation. This evening, however, he limited his hello to the smile alone and then went back to reading a beat-up paperback copy of Vonnegut's "Slapstick."
The dark haired woman stood and moved towards the doors as the train began to slow in preparation for arrival at the next station. A large green sign just across the way read "Belmont", the closest stop the El had to Halstead.
Ash had called earlier to ask her to meet him at the club again; he had made it his personal mission in life to force some sort of social life on Auset and since he worked at the club, it was where he harassed her into coming quite often. Bondage wasn't exactly her scene, though for some strange reason the leather appealed to her in a primal sort of way. Mostly she put up with the place for Ash's sake, and hell, she got free drinks out of the deal.
There was a particularly intriguing thought lingering at the back of her mind as she crossed a relatively calm Belmont Street en route to Halstead, the next road over. Perhaps the short, cute, blonde would be there? Nah, that's silly. Reese had said herself that she was only there to meet her boyfriend...and then there was that. Dade was good-looking, so the girl had taste--no doubt about it. Auset even remembered checking out the guy a few nights before, but...
That was before she had met his girlfriend.
Too bad Reese was apparently straight. And too bad Auset wasn't the relationship wrecking type. But, physical attraction aside, there was no way she could escape the overwhelming feeling of familiarity she got from Reese. She could at least make an effort to get to know the girl as a friend, right? Sure. Now all Auset had to do was find her again.
Oh well. Guess tonight aint the night. She turned down the alleyway where the entrance to the club was and stripped off her leather jacket before stepping into the doorway where Large Doorman waited.
"Evening, Rob," she greeted him and shrugged nonchalantly.
"'Lo Aus. Ash's jus' inside, like usual. G'wan in," he replied happily and moved aside to let the dark woman in.
The thick, smoke-filled air of the club invaded Auset's lungs as soon as she stepped inside and the pungent odor of alcohol felt like it was saturating her whole body through and through. She went immediately to the bar, where Ash was happily mixing a drink that was becoming a fascinating if somewhat disturbing shade of blue. He looked up as she situated herself on one of the stools and began to swivel slightly from side to side. The bartender slid the drink down the countertop to the waiting hands of a man at the other end and then turned his attentions back to the figure in front of him.
"Wow. I get you out of the Pit for two nights in a row? That's gotta be a record or something!" Ash teased.
"Yeah yeah. I'd say it's good for me, except that I think eventually I'm gonna get cancer from all the damned second-hand smoke I inhale in this place. You got any cranberry juice hidden back there?"
Ash let out an exasperated sigh but ducked under the counter and then reappeared shortly thereafter with a bottle of the juice.
"This should be considered a blasphemy--drinking straight cranberry juice at a bar...especially one that a friend tends," he joked and began the perpetual habit of wiping down the surfaces.
"Wine with meals. That's pretty-much it. You know me," Auset replied and then took a long swig of the juice.
"Reese is here."
She nearly inhaled and shot the juice out of her nose simultaneously.
"Buh...what?" Auset managed to sputter while trying to regain the ability to breathe. Ash giggled and tossed a rag at her.
"The cute blonde from last night is sitting at the table over in the corner there, you dork. Y'know, you were going on forever about her last night? Thought you'd want to know. Didn't think I'd make you choke by tellin' ya though, sorry."
Auset scowled at him for as long as she could before what she was sure was probably the goofiest grin overtook her lips. She lowered her face into waiting hands and shook her head woefully.
"I'm so bad. Thanks Ash. I'll...uh...be right back," she managed to get out and then got up and began to head over to the table.
"No problem," he laughed and went back to tending to the alcohol-craving patrons of the club.
Auset collected her unexpectedly shattered composure and became her usual confident self as she moved towards the table in the corner where a shadowed but familiar figure sat watching the dance floor with idle interest. She waited until she was standing just two paces away from Reese before announcing her presence.
"Hey, back for more?" she commented casually. Reese, startled from her dance floor musings, looked up at the tall and dark form that was looming before her and grinning mischievously.
For once in Reese's life she was speechless. Some random guttural noise managed to escape from her mouth before she merely shrugged helplessly and smiled.
"Uh....hi," Reese finally said, and fiddled nervously with an unsuspecting napkin on the table. "Didn't see you come in. You surprised me, I guess."
"Mind if I sit down?" Auset inquired, then sat as Reese nodded her head and smiled again.
Smiling is easy enough, I can do that.
"My friend, Ash--he's the bartender--conned me into coming 'ere again tonight. It's not an usual haunt of mine either. But I'm glad I came now," Auset commented, then took a sip of the juice. Reese was sure she was blushing and was, yet again, made thankful for the bad lighting.
"Well...heh...I ah, came back tonight cos..." damn, what lame excuse can I use? "Um...I thought I left something here. But it turns out I didn't and I figured, what the hell? Check the place out a little, right? Couldn't hurt. Too bad I can't get a drink, being underage and all--" oh, you're babbling now. "--but maybe since you know the guy you could get me a hook up?"
Auset smiled endearingly at the girl's apparently nervous babble. "Yeah, I could do that...but...I've got a better idea. My lungs are pleading for fresh air, so how about we go grab something to drink at this little, open-air cafˇ just down the street?"
Reese just blinked for a moment. The music in the club switched to something faster and angrier and the dancers responded appropriately, their undulations shifting from sensuous to dangerous.
"Sure. I could stand to get out of here too," Reese offered. Auset stood and stretched a little, then motioned for the blonde woman to go ahead of her towards the door. As she passed by Ash, still diligently tending bar, she nodded and grinned. He shook his head and chuckled, a knowing grin shaping his lips.
The cafˇ was a small, intimate affair that had half of its tables situated outside in the cool evening air. The two women chose a table on the outermost corner and sat down.
A waiter sauntered up, pen in hand, a friendly grin on his face. "Can I get you two something t' drink?"
"Tea," they both said simultaneously and then chuckled nervously as they realized. Auset shook her head and smiled, motioning for Reese to order first.
"Ah...I'll have hot tea, please," she managed and then grinned at her clasped hands that were resting on the table before her.
"Same, thanks," Auset added as the waiter winked and then wandered back inside. She looked at Reese with a bemused grin on her face. "Tea drinker too, eh?"
"Yeeaahh," she drawled. "I really don't like carbonated stuff, and my mom always gave me tea when I was little. It's a comfort thing, I guess."
Auset nodded her head in understanding. "Same here. Mother converted to tea-drinking bliss when she moved to London and the habit sorta rubbed off on me. Don't like iced tea though, never have. Just a good ole fashioned hot tea fanatic."
"London? You from there?" Reese asked, intrigued and for the moment distracted from her rather extreme nervousness.
"Well, born there yes. Moved to Australia for my high school years though."
Ah. That explained the strange accent.
Before Reese could respond, the waiter returned with their drinks and placed them on the little round table accompanied by a small, steaming tea kettle. "Anything to eat tonight, ladies?" he asked cheerily.
"Nothing for me, thanks," Auset said and Reese nodded in agreement. The waiter shuffled off to attend to a new couple that had seated themselves across the way, leaving the pair to their drinks. Reese tested the liquid with a timid finger before taking a sip. She let the nicely heated tea glide down her throat and into her stomach, savoring the comforting feeling of the warm tendrils that it caused to spread throughout her somewhat nervous body. When she looked up from the drink, she found amused, amazingly blue eyes staring back at her.
"Uhh...did I spill some?" Reese asked a bit hesitantly. Auset merely let loose a dazzling smile and shook her head.
"Nah...you just looked like you were really enjoying that," a pause. "I know how much tea calms me down and you did say it was like a comfort drink...so I'm thinking maybe you're a wee bit nervous this evening?" Auset finished, raising a thin black eyebrow in question.
Damnit. "Ah...well, a little, maybe..." Reese glanced down at her lap, realizing she was blushing...again. "I just...."
"It's all right," Auset assured her and then took a sip of her own tea. "You barely know me and 'ere you are at some out-of-the-way little cafˇ with me. I'll admit...it's a bit strange to me too...but to be honest...heh...I just..." Sure, words have never been your strong point, Auset, but get it together! "...well I feel like I really need...err...want to get to know you better." There, not so hard. Now breathe, you idiot.
Reese looked half shocked and half relieved for a brief moment and then slumped back into a more comfortable position in her chair, just then realizing how awkwardly she'd been seated before. She let out a long breath.
"Ditto. I have no idea why, but ever since last night...I, ah...well I feel like I really need to get to know you better too," she replied, shaking her head in wonder. You silly girl, she thought, what on Earth are you getting in to? "Truth be told, I came back to that club tonight cos I was hoping you'd...." she let the words trail off and just shook her head again, causing an errant strand of blond hair to fall in front of her eyes.
"I came back because I was hoping I'd see you there, too," Auset stated, quietly but reassuringly. Reese looked up and their eyes locked for one, very intense moment of blue meeting green in quiet understanding. Reese broke the gaze then and, upon regaining some of her tattered composure, glanced at her watch.
"Shit...I'm sorry...I have to be at work early tomorrow and it's..."
"Late. Yeah, I know. I'm sorry I kept you so long," Auset finished for her. Reese gave her an apologetic look and began to stand up.
"Look...ah...would you, maybe, like to hang out sometime again?" Reese asked a bit sheepishly. Auset gave her another dazzling smile and a very reassuring, "Yes, I'd love to."
Oh boy, you're blushing again. Get out while you still can! Reese fumbled around in her pocket, found a pen, and then when she realized there was no paper around, grabbed one of Auset's hands and scribbled her number on the dark-haired woman's palm. "Gimme a call sometime. I'll see ya around," she stuttered and then, after slapping some change down on the table for her tab, hurried off down the street feeling a little silly.
Auset chuckled and looked down at her palm where the girl's number stared invitingly back up at her. Interesting.
Reese turned a corner and headed towards the El station in front of her.
Damnit, damnit, damnit woman! What the hell is wrong with you? First off, it's friggen late and you have to be up at the butt-crack o' dawn tomorrow, and secondly you made a fool of yourself in front of her! You gave an almost complete stranger your phone number, too. Stupid, stupid...
Wellll, maybe she'll call you then! Oh that's it, Reese...you have truly lost your mind.
An old, grizzled looking man with very few teeth sitting across from her on the train cleared his throat and gave her an odd look as she realized she'd been mumbling to herself and probably looking rather frustrated. You have lost it. She sighed disgustedly at herself, unable still to shake the nice, warm, familiar feeling she got when she thought about Auset. Hmph.
Auset sat cross-legged in a comfortable chair in front of a large computer monitor in her apartment. The glow of the screen, in contrast to the dark interior of the room, cast ghostly shadows across her face as quick hands flew over the keyboard. Tonight's computer usage was strictly personal, nothing business related. She had been working on a legit security program of her own design for months now, hoping that maybe someday she could sell it--get some satisfaction out of having accomplished something concrete instead of the mostly behind-the-scenes hacking work that she normally did. (Already the program was being beta-tested by Luke, the guy she had delivered it to just the other day. He had been so impressed that he'd given her the car.) Besides which, she actually enjoyed doing it, computer nerd that she was.
She stretched, causing her back to issue an audible popping noise, and yawned. Auset stood and paced over to the punching bag that was suspended from the ceiling, deciding on a little exercise instead of the sometimes agrivating inactivity of programming. Sleep had evaded her when she had come home from her job and tried to catch a few hours of rest. Instead, she had opted for her fairly regular nocturnal activities; jacking in and/or releasing some tension through martial arts. After a good stretch, the tall woman lowered her toned body into a crouch and balanced her weight over her centre of gravity, then laid into the bag with a series of well-executed kicks and jabs.
OK. So it had been two days since Reese had given her the phone number. Kick. That's standard waiting time for a phone call, right? Call too soon and you'd probably end up seeming kinda creepy. Left hook. All right then, call her tomorrow. Nothing scheduled in the evening, see if she can do something then. Round house. Sounds good...just avoid talking about work...it'd most likely bore the poor thing to death. Right hook, elbow jab combo. And of course, she doesn't really need to know about all that not-so nice stuff you do. Drop-kick. Right.
Auset paused her workout to remove some of the sweat from her body with a towel. She removed a beautifully crafted short sword from its wall hooks and twirled it around in knowing hands for a moment, reaquainting herself with its familiar weight. She watched as the light from a streetlamp outside reflected off the polished metal surface, the shine made more brilliant by the darkness of the summer night.
The computer issued a soft beep that indicated new mail.
"Open new mail," she spoke into the air and then waited a few seconds before continuing. "Read out loud."
The machine whirred and then responded with a computer-generated, Carl Sagan voice. She listened and started doing basic moves with the sword.
"New Message from Sera, IP faked," the program recognized the forged IP address and continued. "People are unhappy with you. One of them just found out who you are and is probably on his way over to do some damage. I'd keep that sword of yours handy, just in case. End."
She stopped, mid-drill, and blinked at the monitor. Son-of-a...
Sera was her mentor, of sorts, in computing matters. He, at least she assumed it was a he, had helped her learn all the tricks of the trade over the past three years. He was a bastard, everyone knew that, but everyone coveted his favor. He had rather disturbing amounts of power and sway in the digital world and no one knew him in person. Good trick to pull, and here she thought she had been doing a pretty good job at that herself. She was his favorite. That was why he had even bothered to send her the warning. Someone had found her out. Someone who was not happy with one of the many jobs she had pulled where she went in and basically destroyed someone's life. And now they were on their way over to pay her a visit.
An almost inaudible click. Her ears pricked in the direction the sound had come from. The front door lock, of course. She moved slowly and quietly towards the portal and glanced up at the small TV monitor that hovered above. Normally it displayed whoever was at her door, but now it was all static. Jammed.
She heard another soft click and then the main lock popped open. They moved onto the bolt, it too eventually turning into the open position. All that was left was the chain. She leaned casually against the wall and fiddled idly with the sword in her right hand. The door slid open an inch before the chain caught, and then a small metal rod slid through and around, lifting up the catch and undoing the chain. A feral smile stole across her face and she lifted the sword.
A blur of someone in black clothes coming through the door, and then a flash of silver as Auset flipped the sword so that she was gripping the handle with blade extending towards herself, intending to use the butt of the weapon instead of the razor sharp blade. She lunged forward and cracked the intruder across the jaw with the hilt and watched with a great deal of satisfaction as the person slumped to the floor, groaning and holding a hand to the aforementioned body part.
"May I help you?" she drawled easily and turned the sword so that the blade was now pointing directly at the figure's face. A pale, drawn, and now rather bruised man's face turned to study her with a look of thinly veiled contempt. His brow furrowed as he spat out a wad of blood onto the floor.
"Hawk, I presume? Or rather, Auset...sorry...your preditory handle seems so much more fitting," a raspy voice, muffled by the wound to the jaw, met her ears. The man was dressed in a black, hooded sweatshirt that concealed most of his head and black jeans. He shifted and sat up, still clutching a hand to his jaw. Auset cocked her head and peered down at him, trying to make out his features in the gloom.
"Hit the nail right on the head. Now, mind tellin' me who you are?"
Now he staggered to his feet and eyed her warily before answering. "You should know, stupid bitch, you ruined by whole fucking life. Oh, but I forgot you don't ever really see the people you dick over. Just going about your job with cozy detatchment."
"Excuse me?" her voice dropped an octave and the blade in her hand twitched slightly. He didn't answer, opting instead to grab for something inside his coat but having the action stopped abruptly as Auset executed a swift kick that knocked the item from his hands. He stood, bewildered, and blinked at her a few times before lunging forward. Auset merely side-stepped the flying body and stuck out a foot that caught his legs and sent him sprawling onto the floor again.
"Yes, well, we've already established that," her voice resonated, charged with adrenaline. A quick movement and she retrieved a wallet from the man's inside pocket, then bent to pick up the object that he had dropped. "Mister...David Hougland...ok, I remember you," she continued, fiddling with the safety latch of the sleek black gun she now held. "Did a right thourough job on you, that I did. But I do what I'm paid, no questions asked, right? I did, however, take the liberty of investigating why exactly the party that hired me wanted you messed with. Know what I found out?"
He glared at her, still crumpled on the ground and gripping his injuries, which now included a sprained ankle.
"You're a weasly little snitch. Got hired to one company still harboring loyalties to another, one that was in direct competition with the new one. You were sent to get inside info and, well, my employers couldn't have that. So they sent me in because I can take care of business. Peons like you are no big thing. Easy pickings, as I've just demonstrated. But you made a fairly large mistake in coming 'ere, especially with a gun. I don't much like people trying to kill me. You got a beef with all this? Take it up with the company. Now..." she leaned in close, putting her intimidating presence to good use. "...get the hell out of my house."
With that, she grabbed him by the scruff of his jacket and hauled him out the door, down the stairs, and then into the dimly lit street where she dumped him with a final solid punch to the face.
When she walked back into her apartment, she closed and relocked the door behind her and then slumped down against it and onto the floor. The gun was still in her hand, which was now shaking ever-so slightly. She looked at it disgustedly and then tossed it into a nearby trash bin.
I hate alarm clocks.
Reese's fuzzy mind grumbled at the loud buzzing noise that the small clock radio was producing. She reached out an arm and slapped the off button and then rolled onto her back and stared at the ceiling with sleepy eyes.
Work. I hate work too.
Slowly, she hauled herself out of bed and stumbled across the floor towards the bathroom where she splashed some water in her face. Hazy green eyes peered back at her in the mirror from under sleep-tangled locks of hair.
Add mornings to the list of things I hate.
A quick shower and then she pulled on some decent looking clothes. The only good thing about her job was that, unlike a lot of waitresses, she didn't have to wear a set uniform. The only requirement was no jeans.
And then the telephone rang.
Who in the hell would be calling her this early? She wandered over to the phone and pressed the button for the speaker phone.
She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the speaker.
"Uh...yeah. Auset?" she asked, her voice almost cracking. A pause.
"Yes...I, ah...I'm sorry, is this too early to call? I forget sometimes that not everyone is an insane morning-lover like me," Auset asked a bit sheepishly.
Reese blinked. "No...not at all...I was already up getting ready for work."
"Oh good," a barely audible sigh. "So, um...."
"You doing anything tonight?" Reese cut her off and asked, having no idea where the question had come from. She made a frustrated face and waited nervously for the reply, surprised when it came back almost immediately as a solid,
"No," Auset chuckled. "I was gonna ask you the same thing. You wanna do something later then?"
"Yes!" she cut off her own enthusiasm with a touch of embarrassment and then continued in a more subdued tone. "I mean...heh...yeah, let's do something. I get off from work at five, you could meet me there...there being the Annex...around then?"
"Sounds good. I'll see you then, eh?" Auset finished.
"You gonna work or keep starin' at the clock?"
Reese shook herself out of a daze and faced the redheaded woman standing to her left.
"Sorry Maddy. Little distracted today," she apologized. The woman gave her a lopsided grin and winked.
"Not a problem, just so long as it don't get in the way of my customers an' their food, ok? 'Sides, I'm sure this handsome stranger will show up no matter if you're lookin' at the time or not."
Reese blushed visibly and lowered her eyes to stare hard at something interesting on the floor. Someone had spilled mayonnaise. Maddy just chuckled and patted her on the shoulder before moving on to the back of the little cafˇ. It had been a good day, the Annex having drawn a decent-sized crowd to keep her busy with but not too crazy. Maddy, the usually ornery owner of the place, was even in good spirits that evening.
She finished cleaning off a table and then retreated to the back room to clock out. The Annex sported a rather cozy back room area for the staff to lounge in during their down-time. Reese claimed her favorite chair and waited...impatiently.
Sexuality, she decided, was a very strange thing. Not once could Reese think of a time when she had been attracted to another woman in anything more than a platonic manner. Yet, with Auset, there was this little voice in the back of her head that was screaming at her to pursue! pursue! The sensations that shot straight to the more nether areas of her body when she allowed herself to become lost in thought over the tall, dark woman were disorientating if not frightening.
I'm straight, she thought, always have been. What is going on? What about Dade? Sure you don't love the guy or anything, but he's great. What does it say about your character that you've basically been blowing him off for the past few days for someone you just met? And a woman nonetheless!
Reese lowered her head into waiting hands and sighed deeply. Nothing had been run-of-the-mill since she'd moved to the Windy City, that was for sure. But it was what she had come here for, right? To get away from the small town mentality of Flora--to be herself. Perhaps this was a part of herself that she had just never allowed to surface before? It certainly would not go over well in her home town. Her dad would...well, he'd flip to say the least. And that was one of the main things that had driven her away from Flora.
Well, she decided, whatever this all means, whatever it is that I'm feeling, it's scary and confusing...but I will not cut myself off from myself, whoever I may be.
Auset stood within the confines of a shadowy door niche in the alley next to the Annex, casually leaning against the cool brick wall and watching the sheets of rain that gently washed the city around her. The overhang under which she stood shielded her from most of the rain, but even so, her black vinyl coat sported a thin layer of moisture. An errant droplet of water fell from her hair and slid down her nose. She lifted her wrist to glance at her watch, noticed that it was five o'clock, and decided that it was time to make an entrance.
The dark-haired woman moved into the alley and towards the side door of the cafˇ, ducking her head slightly in reaction to the steady downpour. The rain and the shadows of dusk made her normally keen awareness less sharp and prevented her from noticing the man who had been following her since she had left the apartment. He followed her now through the alley while her mind was occupied with thoughts of the little blonde woman inside.
As Auset was about to reach out and pull the door open, she felt someone grab the collar of her jacket and yank her back, knocking her off balance and sending her spilling to the wet ground. Gathering her wits, Auset quickly whirled around and nailed her assailant with a low, sweeping kick that landed the man soundly on his bottom. She jumped to her feet just as the man leapt for her legs in an attempt to bring her down again. Seeing that he had missed his target, the rather large man rose to his feet and cracked Auset across the jaw and then allowed a satisfied grin to appear as he saw blood trickling out of her mouth.
"Son of a--" Auset started, dabbing a finger to the open wound on her mouth. "What the hell is with you? Want my fucking wallet or something?"
The man merely smiled and pulled back to hit her again, but was stopped mid-motion by someone landing a solid kick to his groin from behind. Auset watched him slump over, face red with pain, and fall into a puddle. She looked up into stormy green eyes and was rendered speechless.
"You all right? What was up with that?" Reese asked as she slowly let her heart rate return to normal and her body relax out of attack stance. Well that was rather out of character for the girl who usually preferred a non-violent exchange of words to solve conflict. Something inside her had just snapped when she'd looked out the door to see Auset being attacked.
"I don't know yet," Auset replied and patted the man down for ID., finding nothing. She shrugged and got to her feet just as a wave of vertigo swept over her and sent her reeling. Reese leapt forward and grabbed her around the shoulders and lead her towards the parking lot where her car waited.
"I think maybe you need to lie down, that was a nasty punch he landed," Reese suggested as she helped Auset settle into the front seat of her Volvo. Auset merely nodded and hunched down in the seat, still clutching her jaw and closing her eyes.
The rain continued to fall steadily down, blocking the city from the sun's final display of brilliance for the day. The ride back to Reese's loft was carried out in silence as she worried over the fact that she was about to take this relative stranger back to her place--and that it didn't bother her one bit. Auset was thinking about the fact that this relative stranger was taking her back to her place and that it didn't seem to bother either one of them one bit--and that her jaw was killing her.
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