The money felt cold and rough in his bare hands, coating them with a fresh layer of regret. He stared at the green payoff, hopelessly, wishing for a return from the hand of cards it'd dealt him. He wanted to turn back time, run into her arms with an embrace so powerful it knocked her off her feet, leaving only himself to catch her when she fell. But he feared that it was now too late to be granted such a gesture; that what he'd done had sealed his fate and then some.
At any other time in his gothic-romantic life he would have stood up, brazenly and unwaveringly, at the face of an offer like this. He would have slashed it down, left it whimpering in the streets for a coward to take. How could anyone be paid to stop loving someone? It's impossible, absolutely implorable – ludicrous on a level that even the vain could never understand. However, when a love soaks in risk and consequence for long enough, it becomes dangerously sour, bleakly desperate.
They had been a twenty-first century Jack and Rose but to entirely new proportions. They had exercised a love so dangerous, so fatal, it was unbearable to live without. It had drawn them closer, like a needle sewing their hearts into one; it had forced them to look at each other as if they mirrored the other's soul, the understanding running so deep it coursed through their veins, through their bloodstream, and straight to their hearts – pumping it full of life and, most importantly, love.
A love that hadn't been fought over by a good man and a bad man, but rather strangled by the clutches of two brothers who wanted nothing more than the best for a woman that deserved the entire star-filled Milky Way. A woman he loved with every ounce of blood, every teardrop, and every brain cell that made up his existence; a woman that made him whole; a woman that he loved wholly. A woman who had now been replaced by a briefcase full of compunction.
He closed the lid of the heavy leather with a light click that bounced around in his head, sealing more than the money inside of it. He slid it under the low bed frame, pushing it up against the moldy wall of the crummy motel. He didn't belong here, utterly alone, but she didn't belong with him, in downright danger, either. Beck had been right about that.
But Beck wasn't right about him. Beck had never been right about him; Beck had never understood his love for her, never believed he was willing to give up every bad habit, cut his addiction to danger, and give her a life in the blooming sun on a quaint Australian beach like she'd always wanted. He would have done anything for her; he did everything for her. He didn't care about the money, and his brother was a fool if he thought he'd chosen it over love. The money, the disappearance, the heartbreak – it was all so she could be happy, so she could be safe.
According to Beck, though, he was like a shadow to her soul, crippling her bright spirit and tunneling her towards a life she wasn't raised for, a life Beck had ventured from, a life he had held too close for comfort.
A quick wave of dizziness washed over him, punctuating his movements, throwing him to the left and back over to the right. He threw his weight backwards, stumbling towards the wall behind him, and leaned against it for support. The stress was getting to him; the stakes were too high. He didn't think he could pull this off; he didn't think he could get to her before –
A soft knock muddied his hearing, jumbling in his head as it entered his blurred mind. It took him a moment to anchor himself back to reality, to push through the swirling clouds and back to the dust-ridden, mold-covered room in which he steadied himself, readied himself. "Come in," he said, his voice confident and ready for anything that walked through that door, ready for the evil that he knew would cross the threshold at any second.
As the door creaked opened, he felt himself catching a breath. There were certain beauties in life that you couldn't turn away from, not because of an angelic appearance, but because they commanded attention, commanded the nearest eye to stop and stare. Beauties that baited you in, then tore you to shreds. Caterina van Houttum demanded that kind of attention, greedily devouring it like a blood-sucking parasite.
A cold smile perched on her lips as she entered the room, her combat boots muffled by the cheap carpet, her straight hair twisted back into a long French braid, her tight jacket stiffening her entire body, straightening her assertive posture. She made her way over to him, circling around like a vulture, her eyes never leaving him. She kept moving around him until they were face-to-face, her sharp, dark brown eyes locked with his glittering, light blue ones. "What do you want, Ace?" she asked slickly, her voice almost like a hiss.
He mimicked her small, cold, calculating grin, as if he meant to, as if he wasn't about to pass out or throw up. "I want you to get me into Beaumont Estates," he said, careful with what he asked, how he asked it. He couldn't show his vulnerability around her, not without repercussions.
Her chilling smile grew, baring teeth now, as she stared into his face. She placed her long, lean fingers on his cheek, trailing her nails down his carved jaw line, threatening to draw blood. "Your enthralling mien has never faded, you know that?" She probed, her voice quiet and tempting. He knew what she was doing; she was trying to bring out his shortcomings, his desires, his motives with seduction, with old, burned-out flames. It was a classic move that anyone could find in a movie, but this wasn't a movie, and he knew better.
"Beaumont Estates – I want to get in there by nightfall tomorrow. Can you help or not, Caterina?" He kept his voice firm and unwavering. He didn't want to play her games, he didn't want to let her use the fear and regret bubbling up inside of him against him. Because she would devour it.
"If you tell me this, my dear," she said, her voice turning into a manipulative whisper. "Is this a want or a need?"
"Why do you care?" he asked, lowering his voice as if others were listening.
"Because wants and needs come at different prices. You should know this by now, Ace," she said. "If I recall correctly, your need to save Ana from – " A wicked laugh rose up in her throat, escaping before she could stop it, if she wanted to stop it. He wasn't really sure, as her face turned from calculatingly cold to amused.
"Oh, Ace, can't you just see that some things aren't meant to be?"
"Opposites attract," he said, his voice rough as he held down his irritation.
"And why is it you can't get in by yourself? Shouldn't they recognize your face, considering your girlfriend lives there with your brother?" She said girlfriend with such vehemence it was like it was poison to her tongue, and she shied away, walking towards the space between the two beds, as if the word had damaged the air around him.
"Any other day of the week, just not this one," he said, willing himself towards her. "I know if anyone can get what they want, it's you."
She laughed, almost sounding a shade of flattered. "True, Ace, very true, but it's going to cost you a pretty penny. More than a chemical shipment I practically handed you on a silver platter. I want something substantial, something I can remember." She began walking towards the foot of the bed where he stood, mischief painted on her face like a mask. She locked her eyes with his again, seeming to beg for something that would break him, a token of capitulation. "What do you think I want, Ace?" Her voice came out raspy, and he instantly knew.
She wanted the one thing that would turn his regret into guilt.
She wanted the one thing that would drop him to his knees if he gave it to her.
She wanted the one thing that would show her everything.
He watched her unmoving eyes, her tranquil face, and he leaned in. Cold lips touched warm lips, ice burned out fire, darkness snuffed out light. And as he pulled away, he realized he was more than a disloyal lover; he was a goner, because now the snake knew where to strike.
His eyes opened heavily, tiredly. "Payment enough?" he asked, his voice coming out choked, weak.
She shook her head, clearly entertained. "Not what I asked for, Ace, but I'm glad you showed me your ultimate price. Now I know you can get me anything I want."
Ire rose up within him. He had given her the one thing he'd been saving, the one thing he'd been protecting with his life, the one thing he'd never fence. And now she had seen and felt all his susceptibilities. She'd made him think she wanted that so she could have the upper hand, the greater knowledge. She wasn't about to play a game with a bag over her head. "Tell me what you want from me," he growled, stepping back from her.
"A sizeable cash payment will do," she shrugged, apparently unable to wipe the amusement from her face.
He huffed over to the edge of the bed, dragging the briefcase out, and tossing it up next to her. She opened it and nodded. "Perfect," she mumbled. He didn't even ask, who knew who's life she was planning to control and ruin next. She jerked her head back up, her face suddenly modeling a new mask. It was one of business and seriousness. She had everything she wanted, now it was time to get the inconvenience out of the way. "Give me the details of the job."
He was still shook from the kiss, his shoulders tense and his heart racing. But she didn't care; she'd never cared. It was all about the endgame for her, and he knew it was time for him to adopt that mentality. Relaxing his mind and body, he told her the situation like a commander giving instructions to his soldiers. "Beaumont Estates is like a fortress – the bobby station has a guard, but four more walk the front like a runway, equipped to the max. They're all dirty sons of guns – paid off by Beck to shoot on sight. The gate is also electric – shock you to your knees like a taser."
A moment of doubt crept over her face. "What are they waiting for?" she mumbled to herself in wonder.
"Me," he answered. "And the moment Beck paid me off to leave and never come back, well, I guess he didn't trust me."
"And that doesn't make you wonder?" she asked quietly, seeming to ponder out loud. "Why does he care so much? I mean, I get he's lovesick over Ana just like you, but why would a man want to live a life with a woman he fears will leave him at the sight of another?"
"I guess that's why he's caging her in, not for her protection but for his own."
Caterina shook her head, a smile so different from her others it glowed on her face. It wasn't cold or mischievous, nor evil or manipulative. It was one of admiration. "Ana got kidnapped because of her love for you, Ace. She stole for you, blackmailed for you, lied for you. She's wild, fierce, and a wild animal cannot be caged. We'd suffocate."
"What are you saying? I should let her come to me? She loves Beck, and he loves her. She couldn't decide who she wanted to be with, so I chose for her. Why would she try to escape that if she wasn't content with it?"
"First off, you'd be a fool to not see she loves you with a much greater passion than your brother, Ace. But, secondly, she acted on her instincts, like any human being. She chose her safe option – Beck, a way out that was handed to her when you left. If she loves you as much as I'm convinced she does, you don't need to break in to a mansion protected by armed guards to tell her how you feel, to tell her you just wanted to keep her safe. She'll never go with you if you don't let that fire for you rekindle in her alone…" She began to trail off, her eyes looking at the carpet, her confidence shattered. For the first time ever, she showed herself to Ace. All those emotions, feelings – they all came bursting at the seam. She wasn't changed, he was sure of that. She would always be the girl who got whatever she wanted when she wanted, but she showed that she had a past. A past that's perhaps all too similar to his own.
He placed his hand gently on her chin, pulling her back to Earth. The moment she refocused, she swatted his hand away like a fly. "I'll tell you what – I'll move this along for you, Ace. I'll get a message to her to meet you here, Room 202, at three in the afternoon tomorrow. A piece of paper can sneak into a fortress easier than you can."
He started to shake his head. "I don't know, I need– "
"Ah, well, wants and needs come at different prices, Ace. You paid me to get you something you want; needs are much too emotional, implying survival. Things become messy, complicated. However, I can get you what you paid for, if you just trust me." She seemed so sure, he really couldn't do anything but concede. He shrugged his shoulders, exhaling a breath he hadn't realized had bunched up in his lungs.
"Don't worry, Ace, I always get what I want," she flashed a smirk before pivoting on the heel of her boot, the briefcase in hand, leaving him completely alone.
Ace wasn't sure how long ago the sun had risen, how long he'd been wide awake for. Maybe he never slept; he really didn't know, but he refused to look at the clock. He just sat on the foot of the same bed he stood next to the day before while making deals with Eris herself. He fidgeted incessantly, moving his leg up and down so vigorously it shook the entire bed frame.
It had to be soon; she had to be here soon. He had booked the tickets to Australia the night before on the motel's old, dingy computer and had stopped by the bank that morning, cashed out everything he had. It was enough to last them a lifetime of happiness, maybe not like the kind of wealth Beck had accumulated, but he was sure their love was strong enough to make up for it. It had to be.
He jerked up suddenly at the sound of footsteps on the walkway outside. He raced to the door, only to open it and find a woman receding down the hall so fast he couldn't even make out the color of her hair. Letting out a sharp sigh, he began to close the door when a beautiful sound filled his ears. He looked in the other direction and saw her. Her fiery red hair pulled up into a tedious bun, her floral spring dress appearing to be tailored made just for her. She was exquisite.
"Ana," he said breathlessly, nearly choking on the sound of her name in his mouth. It didn't deserve to be there; he didn't deserve her. Yet, he couldn't let go. He walked up to her, slowly but jubilantly, and took her small face in his hands. "I'm so, so incredibly sorry, Ana. I – I…." He just shook his head as the tears welled up in both their eyes, choking their words. He wiped some falling droplets from his cheeks with his sleeves and cleared his throat. "I want you to know, Ana, that no amount of money in the world could ever make me stop loving you. Ever."
She nodded quickly, her head bobbing hard on her shoulders as the tears flowed at a brisk rate. "I know that, Ace. You always just wanted to keep me safe. That's all you ever wanted. But we can't control our fate, and mine was just to get in the middle of your trouble every single time." A tiny laugh escaped her throat as she leaned forward, kissing him with a bright, powerful warmth.
He pulled away after a moment and looked into her light eyes. "If you want to stay with Beck – "
"No, Ace, no… I never wanted to be with him. He told me… he told me you'd died. So I gave in to that little part of me that had always cared for him but all that was a long time ago. And some fires can't burn again, Ace. Not when another is still smoking."
"Ana… I love you," he said as tears unashamedly rolled down his face in heaps. "And I-"
He froze. In a second so abrupt, so changing, he dropped to his knees. He glanced down at his chest – the blood poured from it mercilessly. He looked up at Ana, who held the knife firmly, her face as hard as stone, as cold as a glacier. "What did – did you… do?" he choked out, dropping to his side as the pain absorbed him, became him. He gritted his teeth to fight back a moan, clenched his eyes shut to stop the nightmare. The tears stopped rolling as his body used the rest of its strength to fight the wound, but he feared it was too late.
She shrugged her shoulders, a look of victory filling her eyes. "I don't care about Beck; I don't care about you. But you two – together you had more money than Caterina or I have ever seen in our lifetime. And we needed it, but, unfortunately for you, needs come at a high price. And since you wouldn't fall in love with Caterina like you were supposed to, but she was falling in love with you, I had to end this before things escalated," she drew in a deep breath, her face victorious as she gloated over his dying body.
He opened his eyes slowly, looking up at her as the new revelation settled in. The day before, Caterina's emotional appeal, her declaration of Ana's love for him… it had been her true feelings. Caterina van Houttum did care; she'd always cared.
"It wasn't supposed to turn out quite this gruesomely, Ace. Beck got hogtied in the bedroom the moment after I shoved a gun in his face and demanded full access to all his money. And my sister gave you just enough hope to be as predictable as usual. Except, I knew you wouldn't give up as easily as your brother, so someone had to take you out after we got your money. Since she refused, I did what I had to do, Ace. I hope there are no hard feelings." She gave her speech like an actress giving a monologue, the theatrics playing painfully out before him.
A welt of sadness encompassed him, numbing out the pain. "How could you?"
"I'm a girl who, when I want something, I get it," she practically spat the words in his face, squatting down in front of him. "I don't give in to the weakness of love."
He shook his head vehemently, the blood pouring out of him faster than he could think of what to say in his final moments. The longer he laid there, the more clouded his head got, and the less he could figure out. All he knew was that he had loved her, with every ounce of blood, with every tear drop, with every brain cell. She made up the whole of him, and he loved her wholly. And, even in those final moments, he couldn't break that bond, erupt those feelings. He couldn't shake the love that welled up inside of him in those final few seconds.
And, as his eyes glanced at the Earth once last time – the towering green trees and the bright cars, the dirty motel and the beautiful girl - he saw someone lurking in the shadows. Her eyes no longer filled with darkness but rather despair. The girl who loved him, who was too cowardly to kill him, so she sent the one he loved to literally break his heart.
As his body slowed down, and his vision began to blur, he locked eyes with her. Sad and alone, she would never be the same after watching her love die. And he felt a sudden sense of relief wash over him at that final, human thought as the life flickered out of his body, once and for all.