A Dark Night in Fort Area
Mood music in links throughout.

Blood ran hot. It always did at these kinds of things.

Cheers, jeers and the shuffle of feet would not have qualified as music to any other ear, but Tej knew the steps to this dance. The ever-undulating mass seethed and pressed, framing the fighters whose feet moved in the impromptu lead to Tejra's supporting role. Sanguine spatter sprayed as a split-knuckled fist connected in a solid strike on the stubbled jaw of the opponent. Tej was far enough back not to add a red embellishment to her gauzy white shirt.

No one else in this crowd would notice the tiny dot on her collar, a stain bleached to a ghostly echo of what it once had been. As Tej ceded her position in winding retreat to the outside of the circle, her collar rubbed and she could swear she could feel that memento of a different day, a different fight and all that came after burning its brand into her skin the way his face was burnt into her memory.

She drank the thick perfume that was sweat-booze-and-worse pervading the knot of youthful humanity in the throws of fever and frenzied thirst for just one more hit, one more jarring blow to bone, for anything that prolong the high while it was still anyone's win, anyone's fat purse by dawn. When a hand caught her wrist just as she popped between two burly bodies into sweeter air, all she could think, all she could see as she turned was Savior.

He should have been blond, tall, with brown eyes, soft and sweet. He wasn't that he at all. It was Switch, her brawny once-counterpart.

"Ringer wants you."

"He can want all he likes, darling, but you know I've only ever had eyes for you," the slick lie told so authentically and those flirtatious lashes that batted effectively at so many - man, woman or other - never succeeded in getting a rise from Switch. She couldn't give him the win without holding the pouty-lipped pose for the length of another breath. She straightened, turning her melodic purr to something more business-like, something with more edge, "Fine. Fine fine. Where is he?"

A nod told her what she needed to know and with one last look back at the crowd that was a boisterous invitation to intoxication that was so readily accepted by those bored, ambitious, curious or simply in search of a good time, she strode across the space to the farthest stall of the barn they'd never rented before and never would again; repeats were a liability in the business of illicit gatherings that didn't toss a cut to any greater authority.

She kept her pace at a clip that kept her white long-coat flowing behind her, a streaming star made luminous green whenever she passed an uncovered glow. The man with his head bent over a ledger book didn't look up when she came into the bovine stall set to a different purpose for the night. The trick in white beside him took a step toward her, teeth bared as though she weren't impotent to do anything about Tej and her conspicuously twinned attire.

"You have a lot of nerve-" the baby began only to be cut off by a sharp, masculine, "Bait," that was command and reproach in one. That tone never failed to make something inside Tej wilt, but then, it always had. It was part of Ringer's gift. The right word, the right tone, the right born with it imperious bullshit and every lesser in the room would feel the weight of their worthlessness.

"You said you were out," he addressed her, finally looking up from his ledger book, pressing his glasses back up his nose. They did nothing to make him less devastatingly handsome, and everything to accentuate just how intelligent he had to be to pull all of this off and not get caught, as a fledgling organization that they must still be counted as with only three and a half turns behind them.

"I am, except for my investment, and coming to take advantage of what you offer." Tejra couldn't help the fidget that had her smoothing over her long plait.

"Then explain," he gestured once, up and down the length of her.

"It still fit," Tejra shrugged casting him a game smile. This was the moment when it could go well or very, very poorly.

A breath, two, three as he looked at her and then he threw back his head and laughed. Nerves sung with the relief that crashed through her and she quirked one of her most mischievous smiles at Ringer.

"You can go," he told the new Bait.

"But-" the girl protested until one slashing look from Ringer had her remembering her place and, meekly, she went. Switch was still outside the stall door, and Tej could hear the calm-to-angry exchange between the new team responsible for attracting the right clients, for securing the right locations, and finding the talent, be they fighters, musicians or whatever else Ringer required for the organization's pop-up events.

She swayed forward, deciding she dared to take herself nearer the sometimes mercurial ringleader and lay her hands on his shoulders, slipping behind him to begin a gentle massage. "I had some time," her melodic voice purred reassurance, "and I was curious how you were getting along without me. It's been months," at that she let just the smallest trace of a whine enter her sensuous timbre.

A hand reached up to touch but not stop her attentions. "You're missed. She's doing alright, but there's a curve. She nearly got caught the last ride and your stunt following her tonight put her on edge, even more than she already was for her failure." Nevermind that he had said 'nearly' caught, it was all the same thing in Ringer's perpetually balanced books.

"So they had two shooting stars to follow instead of one. I nearly caught her. She needs more practice with surprises. She freezes when she should keep moving. It costs her." The old Bait advised her former handler.

"Are they sending you back yet?" He asked, dark voice amused as he bent his head back to the ledgers and the all-important numbers therein.

"Nope. Apparently I haven't caused enough trouble yet." Tej kept her voice light, playful.

He shifted in his seat, "There's time."

She laughed, though it wasn't a sound that reached her heart, a useless organ she only knew she had because it had been more than once broken.

They worked in silence some time, her on his knots and him on his numbers.

"You'll take a profit tonight."

"Oh, aye?" She asked with uselessly lifted brow.

"You made a good bet." Ringer was distracted, as he always was on fight nights. There was a lot of math to be settled on those pages before the series of fights finished. She'd bet on a long shot and breathed a sigh in his ear as she draped herself like a scarf around his neck.

"Good, I've a purchase to make."

He shifted, slightly away from her. She frowned. "I'll cash you out now."

"The fight isn't over," she answered, too sharply and forced herself to gentle as she came around to face him, to lean on the crates that made the make-shift desk.

"You're making trouble being here. Now. Give it a turn, then come back." It wasn't banishment, then, but it didn't feel good. That terrible heart of hers twinged with the pain of loss. She could fight it, but that would only end poorly for her.

"Alright." Tej agreed, though it hurt her to do so. "You'll get me my marks from time to time?"

"I will." Ringer knew where to find her, how to get things to her, what name she really went by.

"Alright," she stood, brushing a hand down the white pantaloons to rid them of what grime the gesture could manage.

He caught her fingers, kissed her knuckles and pressed a small pouch into her upturned palm. "It can't be like you never left."

"It wasn't my choice to go." And inside, some part of her wailed that, railed against that, wished it were different.

"Be that as it may. You need to give everyone time to adjust before you come waltzing back in to dizzy things up." And just like that, he was done with her. Ringer went back to his ledger and Tej knew there would be no more goodbye than this.

Clenching her fist around the neck of the pouch, she moved out of the stall, pausing by Switch just long enough to say, "Well, always a pleasure, Switch," in her brusquest tone, lest she let tears slip out where they might be seen. Then she was away, to her runner, for a long, fast, hard ride in the dark.

It was dangerous. She could cost the runner its life, she could cost herself her own if the horse threw her or fell with her beneath, but she didn't care. She'd never cared. Her life was always a risk she could and almost always would take for the taste of feeling alive.

Her vision blurred, but the wind whipped the tears off her cheeks as fast as they came. With the stinging breeze hitting her face in a steady and numbing stream despite the warmth of the Northern summer night, she could afford to ignore them. What she couldn't ignore was the vision of Savior's face, the smell of his skin, the taste of his kiss that was all too real, too painful in her memory.

"You've something, just there!" He'd shouted to be heard over the thrum of the crowd. Bait assessed him with a marksman's eye. He had to fall into "the curious" as categories went. He was too fresh-faced, too bright-eyed, too sweet to fall into any other. She'd changed out of her long coat and traded her white corset for something darker, something that set off those few curves she possessed at the age of sixteen.

The he'd handed her a handkerchief, something tatted and clean. It was such an odd thing to see in the midst of a fight as the crowd jostled their bodies into a close press that she was frozen. She should have simply laughed and flirted and escaped into the crowd, but she was transfixed by him, by his eyes, by his simple speech and gesture. When she didn't move to use the handkerchief with every soft inch of her pressed to every long plane of him, he covered her hand with his and gently guided it to the place, wiping the fighter's blood from her cheek. "There," he called near her ear. "Beautiful."

And she had fallen. Just that fast. Just that carelessly.

"I'm Jaira," she told him without thinking, still staring up and him, and then she pressed to her toes and kissed him. It was a kiss fuelled not only by the heat and heady high of the crowd, but by lovestruck feeling that might never find her again. He was surprised and for a moment she thought he would laugh and pull away, never even giving her the kiss she suddenly, so desperately wanted. But in her next breath, his hitched and he was kissing her, not with the same intensity as her inspired kiss, but with enough fervor to encourage more.

She all but dragged him from the conjoined mass whose avid anticipation of a fight well-fought made them buzz, buoyed by booze and brawn. She didn't get half-way down the aisle of the barn before she ducked into an unoccupied stall, pulling him along and pressing him against the wall. She kissed him; her intoxication had nothing to do with drinks or displays of dominance- not that that did nothing for her, but tonight- she was drunk on him.

It was cold water to the face when he gasped, "Stop." And, "Jaira, stop," because she hadn't. She hadn't believed her ears when the first breathy word reached her as she worked her way down his neck, tugging at his tunic tails, trying for touch of flesh beneath.

Wide-eyed she stared up at him, frozen a moment before that feeling of cold that spread through her turned into a blaze of embarrassment that lit her cheeks to a color that competed with her flame-red hair. She rocked back on her heels, staring at him like he had sprouted wings or spit fire or any other wholly unnatural thing for a man of flesh and blood. Maybe he liked men. Her eyes darted low. No, that wasn't it.

"Jaira," he said again, stepping toward her now, hand reaching for hers. She nearly jerked it away but surrendered it to his tenderly twining fingers, to his achingly soft caress of her palm with his thumb. "We've only just met." He murmured, half in apology and half in something else… bewilderment?

"Oh," was all she could manage as she looked at him, blinking her pale eyes, eyes that made her look too innocent, too sweet, too wholesome, despite the way her corset hugged her meager curves and set them to the best advantage they could manage. Slipping her hand from his, Tej wrapped her arms around her chest, lifting her breasts just that little bit more, unsure. She hated that feeling. Unsure.

"Do you…" He started, looking back out of the stall. "This is my first time here," he confessed instead. His eyes searched her face and she knew what he wanted to hear.

The lie dropped from her lips as easily as the name that wasn't quite her own, "Mine too."

The smile that blossomed was all the poisonous reward she needed to let the lies keep flowing as they bent their heads in intimate discussion. It was by miracle and Ringer's grace that she wasn't outed before the night was over, before he mounted on his runner after giving her his name, ways to find him again and his earnest hope that she would.

She watched long after he vanished into the night, long after she felt Ringer's eyes on her. One hand curved under her jaw and tilted her head that the older man could sink his teeth claimingly into her neck, just where it joined with her shoulder, just far enough down that conservative shirts would cover it when she went back to the Hall as she would shortly have to do, to sneak back in and avoid discovery by sources less friendly to all of this shady dealing than Farzi, who knew all about it, of course.

"Will you see him again?" Ringer breathed in her ear even as his other hand wrapped low across her belly and his fingers dipped lower still. His arms tightened and he pulled her slighter form against him roughly.

"I will," she didn't dare lie to Ringer, but nor could she bring herself to give him up that fast. Not a boy like that.

"He won't come here again." It wasn't a question.

"No," her tone wasn't wistful but resigned. "It's not the kind of place he'd come again." One of the curious that didn't find what they were looking for, not really.

"You'll end the game before you get in too deep." Also not a question.

Tej wilted against Ringer's larger frame, gasping out her words. "Of course." It wasn't a lie, not exactly. But how could she tell Ringer she might already be in too deep to get out unscathed?

"It's time to talk, Tejaira." Farzi closed the door to the studio after the last other student had left. Tejra was still at the bar, working through again and again, the movements that were too sloppy, too imprecise and wholly unacceptable. She flinched at the use of the name she had been born with, a name so few knew; it wasn't even in her records when she came to Harper Hall. Here was where Tejaira got to be buried by Tej, by Tejra, by anyone she wanted to be… or anyone Farzi wanted her to be.

"Talk." Farzi never wasted her words and Tejra knew what she wanted.

She began cautiously nonetheless, "There's a boy."

"Who is distracting you." Each word was punctuated by a tap of heel to floor as Farzi moved behind her young protege. The older woman's hands were firm on her frame as she adjusted angles until she was satisfied with every nuance.

"I love him," Tej couldn't help the words that fell from her lips, from the bitter truth that should have been beautiful but wasn't. Though her feelings were too real, his were built on a lattice of lies and fragile falsehoods.

The derisive noise Farzi made was really all Tej needed to know what was coming next. Dread pooled in her belly as she stared at her teacher in the mirror. "I allow you your friends, your life outside this Hall because that is where you thrive. I allow you more than any other master would allow any other apprentice. What is the rule, Tejaira?"

That name again. Her automatic flinch was met with a sharp slap to her hip when it moved too far from the correct place and she immediately corrected. "Nothing takes away from this," Tej whispered.

"Nothing," Farzi said with finality. The older woman turned her apprentice and Tej pivoted under her hands to face her master. Fingers stroked her cheek in a gesture that was tender, understanding even. "It can only end badly, Tej."

A tear slipped from Tejra's eye and she sucked in a breath, held it, held in the sob that wanted to rip free and nodded.

"Do what you need to do. I'll not have this slop in my studio again." One dismissive hand waved at all of Tejra, at all she had been doing for the past two months of clandestine meetings that were all too infrequent.

At first, she had floated through her classes, living for the next time she saw him — Savior. That wasn't his name, but that's how she would always think of him. He wanted — he wanted someone who didn't exist. Reality crashed around her; she could never buy into the fantasy long enough and the contrast between what was and what she pretended was too stark to ignore either in favor of the other, or see both and still maintain her balance between them.

She hadn't known it at the time, but the moment she told that first lie was the moment it was too late to make anything lasting with the perfect, kind boy who treated her with respect, with the kind of sweet adoration every sixteen turn old girl dreams about, reads about, pines for. Even if she'd never lied to him, he would have been too good for the likes of her. His parents would never have approved, and of course that would have mattered because not only was he a good man, but he was a good son from a good family.

Tej heard the door close and she knew she was alone. She stared at herself in the mirror and dashed the tears from her cheeks. She would not fall apart. She would not. She stared at herself, followed every line of her body and began again, working through the steps of the dance, the complex shifts from one position to the next and onto the next. She worked, and she worked until she was exhausted, until her vision blurred, until she got it right.

Then she finally went to her bed, to sleep a scant few hours before she would steal away under the guise of another errand for Farzi or for the other elderly, soon-to-retire master that she was assigned to assist as part of her senior apprentice duties. She should be straight with him. She should fess up to her lies, should apologize even as her heart went from fractured to broken.

She wouldn't.

She couldn't.

The plan was simple. The first part had gone off without a hitch. Tej's cultivation of the older man who could do things for Ringer and his operation had been weeks in the making before she met Savior. The hard part was done weeks ago when Tej's subtle seduction had led to a breathless, foul-breathed kiss where there was too much danger for a family man such as himself to do more. It had, by all accounts, been a happy marriage, before Tej.

She had had to make a choice when she realized this mark was too close to where Savior lived his life: personal or professional interest. Everything in her lessons taught her to set aside the former in favor of the latter… but in this, she was a poor student and set aside the pursuit of the marks it would mean for Ringer, the new connections, the new opportunities, in order to pursue Savior and the foolish yearnings of her heart.

It had been a simple matter to bat her lashes just right at the mark, even these two months later, to make him think she had shied away because of his family, his position, because of everything that had made him worth her time to begin with, and then to lure him to just the right place at just the right time. Every movement felt like a knife, like the next wound that would eventually bleed her heart dry and make it not hurt so much. Still, she pressed through the pain and wrapped her body around the stout man, in a mockery of ardor all too believable to both her partner and her victim.

He was supposed to see her with him, to assume the worst of her, to walk away disgusted with a bruised ego but little worse for ever knowing her. She did not expect Savior's rough and startled cry, the strength of him tearing her off her mark as a bandage from a putrefying wound; that strength had always been so gentle in him before. She had not expected him to haul back and hit the man who would shortly become his downfall.

She had meant to create a scene, not to make a scene. Those were two entirely different things. The first was an effective method for manipulating thoughts and feelings, the latter was to be avoided at all costs. It was a mistake, a costly mistake, and she wasn't the only one to pay the price.

In the immediate, Savior ended up with a split lip and a broken arm. The older man's reputation took a hit and his life imploded. In the short-term, Savior's family had to leave their small corner of the world and resettle elsewhere, a fact Tej heard second-hand because after that day where the mark had called her by a different name, Savior had looked at her as if he didn't know her, and could never want to.

Ringer docked her time, pay and flesh. Farzi assigned her extra drills, extra practice sessions, even extra apprentice tutoring. Everyone kept her busy. Maybe it was just punishment. Maybe they thought they were helping her through her heartbreak. Maybe they all thought it was her first. Maybe none of them knew what to do for a broken heart. Maybe no one in the world did. Or maybe, the simpler truth was that there was nothing to be done.

She poured her feelings into her dancing: her heartbreak, her guilt, her shame. She punished her body with practice, with impossible and painful demands for perfection and control. The only one who was happy was Farzi.

Eventually, Tej was numb. Her heart was not healing, not from this wound that was so much more than the loss of love. This wound was, in truth, the loss of a heart's hope long guarded and nourished by the smallest trickles of light, that there might be something for her wholesome and healthy outside of the life shaping around her. That there might be freedom, there might be escape. This wound would last, something that would crack and bleed at every brush of anything resembling a traditional kind of happiness, a traditional kind of love.

Tej was never one for tradition anyway, and her models were poor, at best. The closest thing she knew to a lasting love was what she held for Farzi, and even that… was far more complex than any word like love could begin to touch.

As Tejra rode hard down the familiar road with only stars and moons overhead for company, her thoughts flickered unbidden to Savior's opposite, to Torment. Torment was so exquisitely wrong that he might be right. It was hard to think about that, too. She let her thoughts slide to something safer, to Farzi and she let that familiar beacon draw her h — to the place she used to live and whatever next personal assignments and distractions awaited her there.

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