Second-hand Smoke

by llamajoy

author's note: takes place concurrently with Touch and Go.

i fall into bed
the whole horizon's turning red
writing our names with a needle and thread
stitching the clouds
as if the wounded sky had bled
all of these words that will never be said

-Over the Rhine, "Whatever You Say"

Never in her professional life had Elena been so glad to turn her back on her employers.

Not that she hadn't been given leave to go. The nod of Tseng's head and the barest movement of Rufus' fingers were a dismissal, and a mercy. She had done her job, and admirably; for now, no one was asking any more of her than that. Not even Reno had smirked when her voice trembled, just that once, on delivering her report. Tseng hadn't met her eyes.

But she knew that if she took time to look at the ID card in her hand (her own, and still darkened in a way she couldn't think too closely about) she might start shaking, and once it started she suspected it might be a long, dark night before she had hold of herself again. And while it was probably inevitable, and she didn't doubt they'd be sympathetic, the very last thing she wanted to do was fall all to bits in front of Tseng.

She'd been strong; they both had. Back to back and later side by side, when standing on their own feet hadn't really been an option anymore-- stop. No regrets. She was a Turk, and simply did what she was required to do. Job done.

Somehow she stumbled outside and her feet didn't falter, hand on the doorknob and boots on the steps just like any other day. Walking. The porchlight fell across her shoulders, shining off her hair in the ruddy twilight. Nothing quite filtered through the fog behind her eyes. She wasn't sure she'd ever be able to see light the same way again, after too long blinded by those unearthly, luminous trees.

Stop, again. For now, she'd promised herself she wouldn't think about it. The scars would heal-- the physical ones, at least. And the mental ones: well, who in her line of work didn't have a little baggage? Not a big deal.

"Elena." It wasn't a question, and when she turned she wondered dizzily just how long Rude had been standing at the gate and watching her, motionless.

She tilted her head in a fair approximation of her usual smile. "Glad that's over with," she confided, trying to sound airy and just hearing the thinness of her own voice.

He crossed over to her, only the smallest lift of one eyebrow that might have been construed as a question. She realized he was pulling a battered package of... Golden Ochus from his jacket pocket and holding it out to her.

"Oh god, yes please," she said. Not quite what she'd been intending to say, as she hadn't smoked since college and hadn't really missed it. But at the moment the crumpled gold foil and the hand that offered it made more sense than anything else had, in days. Her fingers faltered on the filter, though, as she peered into the package. It was his next to last cigarette. "...You sure?"

"Take it." Rude cocked his head, and flicked open his lighter. The point of flame was oddly comforting. Suddenly her hands were shaking; with his other hand he held her fingers steady and got the end of the cigarette lit. "You need it more 'n I do."

All the answer she could muster was a "thank you" that was less of any actual speech on her part, and more breathing intake of sweet, sweet smoke.

After a moment, and a few long drags off the cigarette stopped her hands from trembling, Rude said, "You headed back to the inn?"

"Hmm?" Until that moment, she had had every intention of finding some dinner and then making herself useful, somehow. There was much still to be done, wasn't there? But the thin veil of carefully maintained busy-ness began to draw back, and though she hastily tried to restore it, the exhaustion beyond it was compelling. She realized that no one had given her any kind of orders, no assignments. Abruptly heavy on her feet, Elena found herself sagging.

"Nearly dark, anyway." Rude shrugged eloquently, and she watched the porchlight reflecting from his sunglasses.

"...Yeah." For a second she stood by him, as she fought for her balance and her composure. He didn't say anything, but he didn't move away, either. The cigarette in her fingers flared with tiny brightness against the faded day, and she stared at it until it made glimmery afterimages in her eyes. "Yeah," she said again, and with her sigh she rested her forehead briefly against his lapels. "Sorry."

If she'd looked up she might have seen his faint smile. He put an arm around her, then, a brief and unexpected squeeze. "Don't be."

It was easier than she thought it would be, walking down to the inn-- her shoulders still warm, and her own small light carried in her hand.


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