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CasualCrisis

The After Party

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A continuation of A Star is Born...

 

Somehow they had escaped. 

 

Through carnage and wafting drugs in the air, they had all but swam out of a cesspool of blood and shit that the nightclub had become. And the comforting darkness that use to live in her veins, that soft and calming cold that numbed her to the horrors of the world, it was gone -- and she was reminded of the frailty of her new human form for she could not stop shaking or crying, even though she had no desire to shake or cry. Somewhere, in her mind, she knew it was a chemical reaction to the danger. It was an overproduction of adrenaline that had come about due to the fight or flight response that came into effect once the dancing people started to be torn limb by limb -- their laughter never stopping. 

 

Now she sat there on a cold metal bench and she was acutely aware of how uncomfortable it was to be actually cold, and how it did nothing to numb the wounds of her mind or heart. Trauma -- she knew she was suffering from trauma, and her body was in shock as much as her brain. She was desperate for control, but she felt like a small, drawing body in the vastness of a stormy sea. There was nothing to hold on to, nothing to use to stay afloat as the violent waves rolled over her again, and again, and again. Finally, after a deep and ugly sob, she doubled over the armrest of that lonely bench, placed so neatly under a cherry blossom tree, trapped in a small square of dirt, just outside the skyscraper building where her hotel room was housed. 

 

She threw up.

 

She threw up violently, coughing and gagging.

 

She threw up until her stomach was nice and empty and her throat burned with the frothy mixture of alcohol and bile. And then, with a trembling hand, she reached up and tucked some hair behind her ear and out of her face. 

 

Gone was the beautiful and put together woman that Arthur had mingled with in the nightclub. What was left was a pitiful sight. There were dark circles of makeup around her eyes. Her mascara and eyeliner had been smudged when she rubbed the blood out of her eyes, and the free flow of her tears had kept the mess wet and caused twin smears of black to run down her cheeks. Under her nose, her blood was still oozing out of her nostrils -- slowly now, thank goodness. As a human, she found the taste of blood to be rather repulsive, and ever since she struck the floor after being shoved down the stairs, a steady stream of blood had fallen from her nose down onto her lips, filling her mouth whenever she spoke. 

 

After somewhat fixing her hair -- a mess of tangles and knots, full locks pulled out of the once neatly done up braid -- she set out on trying to clean the blood from her top lip with the back of her hand. It took her some time to look up at Arthur, the orchestrator of her salvation. Although Marcelus had assured her that he would keep her safe, he had been nowhere to be found when the creatures started attacking. She knew the vampyre to be a man of both honor and loyalty, so her only thought on the matter was that he was dead or worse, dying. After all, it was a hard thing to kill a vampyre -- it required much effort, and sometimes, time. 

 

“I…” she began, but her voice cracked under the pressure and another sob broke from somewhere deep in her chest. It was hard to pull back from the hopelessness, harder still to control the spasms in her diaphragm. “I...I have to go back, Roen…Ilyana...Sarah…” 

 

Fresh tears welled up in her eyes. She reached up with balled up fists to rub at them, but the smeared makeup was hiding bruising and swelling from a strike on her left, upper cheekbone. Immediately she winced, and almost began to cry again.

 

Pain was unbearable as a human.

 

“I don’t know if they got out…”

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Time elapsed in a blur in the aftermath of the horrific melee at Isabella’s birthday party. It seemed like one moment they were calming Sarah down from her drug-induced hysteria, and the next the entire room was in a tumult as multiple party goers underwent gruesome transformations. Though Arthur managed to keep Isabella near him throughout, there was little the mage could do (short of attacking everyone) to prevent the throngs that were shoving and rushing to escape the night club. Undoubtedly, both he and Isabella received their fair share of cuts, bruises and scrapes in the maelstrom of bodies, though they managed to prevent themselves from being trampled to death (which Arthur knew there had to have been many who befell such a fate.) Arthur knew he could have grabbed Isabella’s arm and rushed through the mob of party goers, using his preternaturally athletic form to cut a path through the crowd and filter through the exit before the monsters fell upon them. But he also knew that if he tried, he might as well have pushed Isabella through a juicer as she would‘ve assuredly been crushed being pulled through that sea of bodies. Instead, the mutant prioritized simply surviving as he wrapped his arm around the woman, holding her tightly to his body as they were jostled about by the mob like the waves of the sea. Arthur placed all of his efforts in simply not drowning.

As the occupants began to squeeze through the exits in droves and many others were ripped to shreds by the beasts, Arthur and Isabella were no longer in danger of being trampled, but they were surrounded by six of the bloodthirsty beasts. The mage vaguely recalled summoning forth one of his javelins from his Materials scroll, using the shortened spear as a means to keep the beasts away as they slowly made their way to the exit. Arthur had done his best to stay between Isabella and the monsters, thrusting the javelin at-will as they came upon them from a multitude of directions. The creatures were more than senseless, rather they were cunning as they began to realize that Arthur was protecting Isabella, and the beasts adjusted their tactics to account for the mage’s weakness. 

Fortunately, he kept the beasts mostly away from the woman. However, he came away with deep wounds as their claws met the mutant’s flesh. The mage’s Nimbus provided effective protection from many of the beast’s strikes, his aura covering him like a roiling orb of power that absorbed the blows of his foes. Nevertheless, their claws pierced his magic armor on three occasions, tearing across his right pectoral, his left arm, and right hip. Their sharpened claws tore through his clothing, and bit deep enough that the mage’s suit was quickly drenched in his own blood. It was a nightmare. Without his magic, a monstrous roar that pushed the beasts away with a massive column of icy wind, they would have never found the exit. 

He recalled those first moments of freedom, wind buffeting them as they exited onto the street along with the rest of Isabella’s staff. His heart continued to pump adrenaline into every part of his body, even as the blood loss made it difficult to remain conscious. He had collapsed onto the steps outside the nightclub. The mage sat and rifled through his robes for a vial of healing potion. He popped the cork and knocked back the vial’s contents. The concoction, brewed himself, worked impressively fast. His balance and stamina returned, but the blood loss kept his heart rate low. 

As they walked to Isabella’s hotel, the mage recalled drifting in and out of consciousness as they walked. He recalled street signs, particular statues, but recollected little else of their route.

His potion went into full effect once they were settled into the small park, his bleeding staunched and his heart rate stable. Arthur took deep breaths as he calmed himself, still angry that he hadn’t been prepared to do more, and heartbroken by Isabella’s state. The mutant approached the seated woman as she began to speak, forcing the words through loud and uncontrollable sobs. He avoided the woman’s vomit as he pulled off the soft and velvety fabric of his robes. In a single flourish, the black garment settled upon the woman’s tiny shoulders. The mantle and hood of his robes, constructed from a dire wolf pelt, surrounded Isabella’s (comparatively small) head like the wickedly long mane of a lion. His robes would allow her to begin conserving some heat, especially as Arthur knelt low and stroked along both her arms with his calloused hands.

“That was no coincidence. It could still be dangerous,” Arthur replied, stopping his stroking motion to pull his pocket square from his dress jacket. Gently, the mage dabbed at the cuts on her face with the colorful cloth in his right hand. Meanwhile, he caressed Isabella’s cheek with his other hand, gliding the back of his index finger across her soft skin in a soothing fashion. Or, at least, he hoped that was the effect. “I’m sure they’re all okay. The only thing we can do now is stay safe. Drink this and let’s get you cleaned up.” 

The mage produced another vial of blue liquid. Another healing potion. He pulled off the cork and offered the elixir to Isabella. “It’ll help heal your wounds and numb the pain.”

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A heavy robe was set upon her shoulders, and the weight of it eased the thunder of her frightened heart almost immediately. It was made of some thick material (perhaps wool), and the warm, coarse fur that fell across her shoulders, and framed her small, bleeding and bruised face in the form of a hood seemed to have trapped not only the magician’s warmth but also his smell. It was sweet and spicy and reminded her of the swirls of steam that rose out of hot cups of tea back in Spain when the human servants had their evening meals, but there were undertones of something sharp and invigorating, like that feeling of having a chestful of forest air. 

 

For a brief moment it transported somewhere far away from this place, this moment in time, and the whole ugly, bloody, and miserable history that had led her to sit here, weeping and wounded. But when she caught sight of his blood soaked garments she was immediately brought back to the present, and the useless tears began again. Seemingly on the verge of some kind of mental breakdown, as was to be expected from anyone having suffered as much trauma as they had. 

 

Suddenly she couldn’t look at him, not anymore, and especially not as he took a knee before her and began to stroke her arms. It wasn’t until the heat and roughness of his fingertips began to work into her arms that she realized she had been trembling rather violently against the cold of the night. 

 

“That was no coincidence. It could still be dangerous.”

 

From crying to laughing, Arthur might have thought Isabella was still touched by the drugs that had been filtered through the ventilation system at the nightclub. There was a touch of madness in the sound of her heartbroken laughter. 

 

He couldn’t have been more right.

 

It wasn’t a coincidence. 

 

Someone had found her out and was either trying to kill her or trying to capture and deliver her back to her cousin. But it was cruel to laugh at his words without explanation -- or rather, without letting him in on the joke. She was Irene Gabriela DuGrace, the Black Queen of Orisia -- The Lady Mother of Umbra. She gagged on another sob, both rage and disgust crawling up her throat and threatening to drown her from the inside.

 

Arthur stopped and began to search for his pocket square, and she turned her golden eyes upward at the night sky. Here, in the center of the city, she couldn’t see a single star in the indigo-colored sky. Again, she found herself longing for her vampyric gifts, the ability to see more and in greater detail than any human could ever even imagine. 

 

“I’m sure they’re all okay. The only thing we can do now is stay safe…”

 

Warm hands were on her face and it caused her eyelids to flutter closed. The palms of his hands were wide, and she felt as if she could rest her cheek and the weight of her aching head into it and sleep forever. Without realizing it, she had tilted her head and had settled her cheek into his open hand. It wasn’t until the other set of fingers began to stroke across her bruised cheek that the pain jolted her awake. 

 

“Drink this and let’s get you cleaned up.”

 

She was upright now and had pulled away from his hands. As if newly awakened, there was some sense of herself back in the sharp edge of her golden glare as she regarded the small glass vial that was being held up. It was just like the Bliss that the bartender had offered to mix into her drink. It seemed an utterly ridiculous notion that she would take a second vial of poison from some stranger on the same night. 

 

“It’ll help you heal your wounds and numb the pain.”

 

“No, that’s fine,” she replied, sharper than she intended to sound. Her gaze then softened somewhat as she let her eyes look his kneeling figure up and down. Then, with some consideration, she added, “--you look like you need it more than I do. I just got a few cuts and scrapes…”

 

She began to recall then, with some level of mounting distress, how she had been locked within the cage of his arms as he tried to haul her out of the nightclub. He had done everything in his power to keep her whole, and had all but sacrificed his body to ensure her safety.

 

“Why did you…” she swallowed a mouthful of blood that had dripped from her nasal passage down the back of her throat and made a face. “Why did you help me? Why didn’t you just save yourself? Look at you now -- nearly shred to ribbons.”

 

“Isabella?! Isabella -- thank the blessed Gods!”

 

More than likely, in unison, both Gabriela and Arthur would look up in time to see the man she had introduced as her assistant earlier in the night, limping toward them from down the road. Gabriela got to her feet and wobbled a little before the weight of the heavy cloak on her shoulders settled her neatly on her bare feet. 

 

“Gustavo,” she said, uttering the name like a small prayer. 

 

The man, limping from what appeared to be a rather deep set of scratches across his left thigh, made his way to them and immediately threw his arms around Isabella’s small shoulders. He was in tears as he kissed the rough fur that covered her head, and she was clinging to him with equal might with her arms around his waist. When they finally untangled, perhaps Arthur would be in a better position to note the soft, feminine hue that clung around Gustavo. 

 

“You kept her alive, didn’t you?” Gustavo asked, looking at Arthur now, though he kept Isabella within his arms. “May the Gods bless you -- you can’t begin to understand the jewel that you preserved! She is the savior. She is…”

 

There was a touch of hysteria to the tall and slender man -- a touch of devotional madness. 

 

“Hush, Gustavo...hush,” Gabriela interrupted, a touch of color on her cheeks -- a blush she couldn’t hide. “We should get in, we need to clean up, all of us… We need to call, find survivors, gather our team. I need to make sure my people are accounted for.”

 

“Yes, yes -- of course. I’ll procure a room for our hero.”

 

“No!” she explained, and surprised herself a little with the desperation in her voice. “No -- he can stay with us, in my suites, I want him near me, that is…” she looked at Arthur, “...that is if you don’t mind.”

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Arthur’s fiery gaze observed Isabella closely, watching with a concerned look on his face as he attempted to warm the woman up. The turmoil within the woman was clear, and it seemed almost obvious to the mutant that the attack they just survived was only part of it. He had sensed it back at the party before the festivities ended in a bloody massacre. The woman before him was one of great mysteries and scars, and not just the visible wounds from the monster attack. She carried invisible scars of untold traumas, and the mage frowned as he wondered what she could have gone through to leave her in such a state. His expression only became all the more concerned when she laughed between her sobs. Arthur found himself quickening the pace of his stroking hands, forcing Isabella’s body to stop in its trembling. 

When his rubbing hands transitioned to cleaning and touching her face, Arthur couldn’t help but enjoy the process. Even through the bruises and blood, Isabella was a beauty of the highest order, and it hurt to see her in such pain. It followed that it felt quite good to sooth her. Not to mention how nice it was to feel her soft skin, feel her cheek melting against his rough hand. It was intimate and seemed almost cinematic with the skyscraper and cherry blossom tree in the background. Arthur didn’t protest when Isabella pulled away, moving his hands to his hips as the woman began speaking. At first, the mutant didn’t know how to feel about her rejecting his potion. However, as he thought about it, it started to make quite a bit of sense. Despite what he’d done until now, it didn’t change the fact that they’d just met. She had no reason to trust him and his elixirs. Nonetheless, the mage would still insist on it.

“Please, I insist. I’ve drank one already and drinking another won’t have much of an effect,” Arthur began gently, lifting his vial carrying hand again as he offered it to the woman. “Honestly, the only things that would help me at this point is rest or a blood transfusion. A potion won’t give me back the blood I lost, but it’ll take away your pain within minutes.” 

Whether Isabella took the offered concoction or not, the mage wouldn’t fight it beyond that. Instead, he concentrated on the words the woman had spoken next. She was questioning his motives, unable to reconcile his act of heroism with her beliefs of the world and the kinds of people that lived in it. It was yet more evidence for his theory that Isabella was hiding some trauma from her past. Arthur kept his reply light-hearted, choosing to forgo the seriousness and perhaps make an attempt at humor. “Aren’t I the one that bored you with a speech on the true meaning of being warrior?” The mutant asked with a silly grin, dabbing his kerchief against her bloodied face, wiping away the mess with the cloth’s magic qualities, “What made you think that someone like that would leave you behind?” 

He awaited her reply but Isabella’s assistant entered the scene, practically personifying the concerned devotee. Arthur was still mad that he took so long with the drinks, although he admitted that the feeling was childish considering what had transpired. So the mutant said nothing as Isabella stood and walked towards her assistant until they were locked in an embrace. At first, Arthur didn’t think much of their relationship. It felt like a fairly typical dynamic. Boss on one side, personal assistant on the other. However, when Gustavo offered the mage praise for his handiwork, the mage sensed a devotion to Isabella from the little man that bordered on the religious. She is the savior? What did that mean? 

Arthur’s gaze darted to Isabella with an inquisitive look. Who the hell was this woman?

“I kept her safe indeed,” the black mage confirmed with a curt nod, standing from his crouched position and walking over to the pair. Arthur turned his sights on Isabella when she mentioned that they should head inside. “Yes, I think that’s a good idea.” 

Arthur was about to begin his trek to the skyscraper of a hotel when the woman’s next request reached his ears. The mage stopped abruptly, mulling over the implications of such an invitation. Even so, Arthur recovered and gave Isabella a slight bow, “I wouldn’t dream of leaving your side.”

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“I wouldn’t dream of leaving your side.”

 

Still within the grasp of Gustavo’s protective arms, Gabriela stood there with a narrowed stare set upon Arthur. The feelings of anxiety, of fear, of depression were all starting to melt away, and all that was left behind was a very hollow and very tired shell of a person. But even so, she had the mindset to stand there wondering if she could play the part of devil, just like Roen, and make the magician’s words a binding contract. Arthur was smart, strong, and useful -- and so she felt that the possessive nature of hers began to take hold. Would that she could pluck him straight out of the world and add him to her collection of people.

 

He would make a marvelous addition. 

 

Gustavo gave up his hold on her and settled just for linking arms with her as they began to walk toward the massive revolving doors that ushered them into the building’s stunning foyer. The entrance was a grand open space, with a ceiling that was barely visible through beams of metal and glass. Only the rhythmic click of her heels followed in the wake of their walking as they bypassed the rather busy front desk with only a few concerned looks from the staff and other guests. They headed toward the elevators but bypassed the set of 8 public lifts and instead stopped before the entrance of a private chute that required a card-key to open. 

 

They all entered wordlessly.

 

Gabriela had her free hand tucked into one of her dress’ pockets. She was gently fingering the small vial she had taken from Arthur. Now that the adrenalin was washing out of her blood, filtering through her kidneys and filling her bladder she began to feel more of her aches and pains. 

 

Gustavo had dialed in the number 58 and the elevator shot up at a frightful speed, which left her legs feeling a little wobbly. However, she caught herself before having to lean on her assistant, or the elevator wall, or worse yet, poor Arthur and so avoided the spectacle of her weakness. Instead, as she shifted somewhat on her impossibly high heels, she noticed a rather horrible ache on the side of her left thigh.

 

A wince and a lean, and then the parting of the heavy cloak over her shoulders and she was pulling the long hem of her little-black dress up over her legs. To her horror and disgust there were a set of teeth marks on her pale skin, just above and behind her left knee. Oddly enough, the irony of having almost been eaten alive was not lost on her and she couldn’t help but crack a bitter smile as she rubbed at the bleeding teeth marks. 

 

“Think I’ll turn into a zombie?” she asked the two men -- she imagined Arthur might laugh, but Gustavo was not amused.

 

“I’ll call for a doctor as soon as we get in.”

 

“That’s a good idea,” she reasoned aloud, and then, remembering what Arthur had shared, she glanced at the magician, “--what’s your blood type? You think it’s something the doctor might be able to get his hands on for a transfusion? Won’t hurt to ask…” 

 

Within a minute, or two, the elevator had climbed 58 stories into the night sky -- the stop, while graceful, was still sudden and caused her to wobble once more. This time she did fall into Gustavo, who apart from his rather lanky appearance, seemed solidly built and did not move much when her added weight hit his side. 

 

The elevator doors opened to the foyer of the executive apartments -- a large, square shaped space, with a lovely little seating section and a massive wooden table at the center, which carried upon it a glass vase so massive it seemed to hold more than a thousand white calla-lily flowers. If Arthur was observant enough, he would notice this same flower decorating the rest of the apartment. 

 

They walked on past this room, with Gustavo dropping the key card on the table as he headed straight through an opening on the right and into a formal sitting room. He picked up the phone that was sitting next to a white sofa and began to make his calls. Gabriela watched him before looking up at Arthur.

 

“Make yourself at home… The living quarters are through there,” she motioned with her chin for a hallway that led out of the sitting room. “There’s a few rooms to pick from, but feel free to use mine if you want to clean yourself up. I’ll have Gustavo order some clothing for you,” she looked him up and down, “I think I can guess at your size. I just have to make a few calls, then I’ll shower.” 

 

Slowly she was recovering herself -- slowly she was becoming more and more the women Arthur may have remembered from the tournament. But when she kicked her heels off and let her small, bare feet touch the marble floor, she lost a good five inches in height and limped off in the opposite direction toward the bar. There was another phone there, and while pouring herself a goodly measure of vodka, she picked up the device and began to dile. 

 

“Of course the club’s not answering,” she said out loud -- flustered. 

 

She was visibly worried, her mind still on those she had left behind to save her own miserable life.

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Arthur took one last deep breath as he started walking, following after Isabella and Gustavo as they departed from the tiny park and made their way to the hotel. The mutant could hardly believe what he had gotten himself into, and what laid in store if he followed Isabella into that massive building. At first, he had only suspected a nice night out with a recent acquaintance. He never could have imagined that he’d be spending the night with his hostess, not that he was complaining either. However, Arthur did find himself wanting to complain about something. From behind, the black mage narrowed his wolfish, orange eyes on Gustavo’s back, his sights set like a predator lying in wait. If anyone was escorting Isabella by hand, it should have been him. Now, the mutant had to play third wheel to a strange man whose devotion verged on the fanatical. A more territorial side of him wanted to take over, wrest the woman from her assistant. Sanity prevailed. It would have been immature to muscle his way in, and he didn’t like his chances if he was rude to Isabella’s staff. After all, Gustavo wasn’t exactly a rival. Though if he was, he admitted, it would have made things much easier. Had that been the case, Arthur could challenge the man, render him unconscious in moments, and then.....

Shaking his head, the mutant returned to reality as he continued following Isabella and her assistant. His eyes surveyed his surroundings, looking for threats with a grumpy look upon his handsome features. However, Arthur did manage to grin whenever Isabella spared him a glance during their trek, refusing to show any negative emotion. The mutant dug his hands into his pants pockets, and followed his companions into the hotel’s grand foyer. Arthur had expected luxury but he was floored by the extravagance before his eyes. His lodgings weren’t bad at all, very nice in fact, and the mage’s tastes weren’t exactly cheap either. Isabella has him severely beat. The mage’s jaw drooped ever so slightly, and his gaze explored the high ceilings in awe as he followed the other two towards the private elevator. He must have looked ridiculous. Homeless. Traveling wizard. Ever the tourist, staring all over in wonder and yet covered in dried blood and looking like he’d gone 12 rounds with a world champion pugilist. 

Arthur remained silent as they filed into the elevator, finding a wall to lean against as he watched his companions and stared up at the ornate numbers flashing while their lift ascended up the skyscraper. The mage observed with concern when Isabella began inspecting herself for wounds, feeling somewhat at fault for the amount of injuries she sustained. Perhaps she was alive because of him, but that meant that she was still wounded on his watch. To a warrior and mage that strives for perfection, the woman’s wounds and his inability to fully protect her only offered proof that Arthur had a long way to go on both fronts. The mutant pushed away those thoughts when Isabella finally spoke, and even managed to laugh at her joke. 

“Your wound would have festered, and you would have died and risen as undead by now,” Arthur shook his head with a chuckle, offering some of his own dark humor in return. His eyes darted to Gustavo as he offered to call a doctor before glancing towards the woman’s dress pocket. She kept his potion there where (aggravatingly) it could do nothing for her. When Isabella asked about his blood type, the mage met the woman’s gaze with a smile. “I’m actually O-negative, so your doctor might have his work cut out for him, but I wouldn’t decline your offer of help either. How about yourself? Please, take my potion. You didn’t bleed much but I know you’re in pain, and you don’t have to be brave anymore.”

When the elevator doors slid open, the mutant followed his new companions into Isabella’s lavish quarters. Once again, Arthur’s eyes move to and fro, admiring the extravagant aesthetic and the enormous wealth. The mage has always hoped that his renown would lead him to contracts so lucrative that sights like these would be a regular occurrence. When he wasn’t neck deep in a treasure hunt or fight, that is. Sore all over, the mage walked across the entrance room and entered the sitting room with Isabella. 

“I’d hate to commandeer your bathroom first but I won’t deny your hospitality,” Arthur bowed slightly, his gaze turned towards what Isabella had indicated as the way to the bathroom. The mage had intended to clean the blood and repair his clothing by way of magic, but he wouldn’t turn the woman down while she was trying to repay him for saving her. “Thank you again. I’ll be right out.”

Disappearing into the woman’s quarters, Arthur walked straight into the bathroom. Detaching the scroll case from the back of his leather belt, the mage envisioned his haversack daypack and the object materialized from his materials scroll. The mage disrobed gingerly (his clothes stuck to his wounds) and discarded all of his clothing into his bag, trading them for a fresh pair of underwear, a simple t-shirt, and his hygiene kit. The mage brushed his teeth quickly before he inspected his wounds. All three claw wounds had stopped bleeding and were just starting to close. In a matter of an hour, the mutant’s preternatural healing had turned a hideous set of wounds into a disturbing set of rakes on the mend. The flesh was still raw and pink, and was scabbing around the edges while green pus oozed within. At this juncture, it itched more than it hurt. He traced his wounds to alleviate that itch for a moment as he waited for the shower to get steaming hot.

The mage showered quickly, taking extra care of his wounds and making sure they were clear of pus. Under his breath, Arthur whispered an incantation and worked the fingers of his right hand into a series of mudras. He worked his will in a fleshcrafting spell, his fingers gliding over his wounds as his flesh knitted itself back together in their wake. In the end, Arthur’s wounds were closed, leaving behind only nine new scars that joined the myriad of other scars and occult tattoos that covered the mage’s body. 

Arthur turned off the shower head and dried himself off. Out of the shower, he donned his underwear and t-shirt before adding an extra set of clothes that were set out for hotel guests. The mage pulled on a white, terry cloth robe and slipped his feet into a pair of slippers that didn’t quite fit him. Combing his wet hair neatly for good measure, the mutant gathered his things in his bag and exited to wherever Isabella decided to leave out his new clothes.

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She slumped forward, losing all sense of decorum. Her small form was mostly hidden under the heavy robes that she was still wearing over her shoulders, with the firm trimmed hood that she had pushed back, but which had bunched up around the back of her head like a thick, warm scarf. Slowly, she was sipping her vodka and listening to Gustavo, who was on the phone with the doctor that had been scouted out for her team even before their arrival. While there had been no expectations to use the man, Gabriela preferred to be prepared, and so made sure that she was always housed near a hospital and with a preferred medical provider on her roster. The doctor was on call, and by the sounds of the conversation, would be arriving in half an hour -- he had to try and search out the rare blood type he had been charged with bringing. 

 

When she heard at last that Gustavo was done talking she called to him and asked that he get some clothes for their guest.

 

“Yes, right away -- any preference on what type of garments?”

 

“Just something comfortable. He’s wounded.”

 

“You’re wounded,” the personal assistant countered.

 

“And so are you,” she replied, not bothering to look up at him but sounding agitated. 

 

“He mentioned a potion…” the sharpness in his voice eased up. Regardless of his relationship with Isabella, he never imagined himself worthy of actually telling her what to do. But the truth was simple. She was hurt and the man  had saved her after all. After a moment of nervously biting down on his thin, bottom lip, Gustavo mustered up the courage to go on, “...maybe you should take it?”

 

“I am not going to take it, and I am not going to let the doctor examine me, and I am not going to do anything for myself until we have a full body count of our people. I threw that party for myself. I put you, and the rest of our team, in that god forsaken place and look what’s happened…” she shook her head and poured herself another drink, at the same time waving away the fretting man, “...just go, do as I asked, and then clean yourself up. We have to be ready in case there were any survivors.”

 

Not willing to argue with her the assistant left to do as he was bid. 

 

Meanwhile, Gabriela picked up the phone again having been newly inspired. She dialed zero and once connected to the hotel’s operator requested to be put through to the local Peacekeeper office, or whatever it was called. She figured if anyone had any information on such a public attack in the heart of the city that surely it would be them. And she wasn’t disappointed. She found out that officers had been dispatched to the club but that the scene was not secure yet.

 

“Do you have a list of casualties? Of wounded individuals?”

 

“No ma’am, not yet...and we wouldn’t really be able to disclose that information.”

 

“I am looking for a man with a tail -- a devil’s tail. He was in the club. I need to know if he’s alright or if…”

 

“Ma’am, I can’t disclose…”

 

“Please,” Gabriela whispered into the phone, clinging to the receiver with two desperate, small hands. 

 

“Lady, I don’t know. From what I’ve heard it’s a fucking mess in there. So if your friend was there, chances that he got out alive are -- slim.”

 

At some point in all of this -- perhaps when she went to Patia, under the pretense of finding funds and military might from those who had once seen her as their queen -- she had made the decision that Roen would survive it all. She would do everything in her power to keep him safe. She would convince him to go away, to fly off into the night sky and to another world. Somehow, she imagined herself convincing him that he had to do it because he carried in him a precious portion of what had been Philippe. True enough, she was the other half, but she was destined to die when the final curtain dropped. 

 

And now the thought of him being dead.

 

It wasn’t love.

 

It wasn’t hate.

 

It was sorrow -- by losing the father of her child, she felt like she was losing her baby all over again.

 

This is how Arthur might find her if he dressed and came searching for her. Still in the same dirty, black dress. Hunched over a phone with a line that had gone dead, with an empty glass in front of her and a half full bottle of vodka in full display. And once again, she was weeping quietly.

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Stepping into Isabella’s quarters, the mutant took his time charming his ruined suit. The battle back at the nightclub had drained him, but he had finally recovered a decent amount of his mana. Arthur flashed a small series of mudras as arcane formulae crossed his vision. As he found the formula he needed, the black mage held his last mudra and whispered a short incantation. His power surged momentarily as his auric egg surrounded him, forming a multi-colored barrier that enveloped Arthur. His aura formed into tendrils that extended from the barrier, stretching out towards the clothing he’d laid out on an expensive rug (as he didn’t want to get blood on Isabella’s bed.) The tendrils of energy touched the various parts of his suit, erasing blood stains and causing tears to rejoin seamlessly. Fully repaired, the mutant folded his clothing and stored them in his day bag, then tied the belt that contained his scroll to one of the straps of the bag.

Arthur tied his terrycloth robe together, obscuring his t-shirt and briefs as he lifted his day bag and exited out into the hallway. Crossing the hall, the mutant entered the sitting room and found Isabella on her own. Even from the hallway, he could hear the woman crying. She was as quiet as a mouse with her emotions, but the mutant’s beast-like hearing had picked up on the subtle noises the woman was making. He froze in place as he watched the woman, huddled in the corner with only liquor and her sadness as company. Arthur had no way of knowing all of the things that weighed on the woman’s mind, but he knew enough to know that any sane person would be devastated under similar circumstances. She was something of a social butterfly, had invited so many to her party, and only to barely escape with her life whilst leaving all of her guests and friends behind. Arthur didn’t have many friends but he knew that abandoning them would destroy him. A sense of regret filled the mutant in that moment. Had he invited his crew along for the ride, as opposed to leaving them behind in Chesterfield, they could have done more to protect the attendees and perhaps resolve the situation without having to escape.

Isabella wouldn’t have been hurt. She wouldn’t be crying with worry, her mind wondering which of her friends were gone. 

Arthur had to become stronger. Strong enough to protect everyone around him. 

“Have you heard any news?” The mage asked, leaving his day bag on a table near the entrance before approaching the distraught beauty. He knew the answer to his question, but Arthur didn’t know what else to say. At least until he reached the seated woman, and crouched low so that his animalistic eyes were level with Isabella’s own gaze. He noticed that she was still bleeding. She still wore her torn dress under the warm folds of his mage’s robes. She’d done nothing to help herself. Arthur frowned sadly, his eyes softening with sympathy as he watched the broken woman. “It hurts me to see you like this, darling. Why won’t you drink my potion? It’ll ease your pain, let you relax before you clean yourself up. Please, let me help you...”

As he spoke, Arthur’s hands slid over the woman’s own hands, rubbing them reassuringly for a few moments. Soon after, he lifted his hands and cupped the lovely woman’s cheeks, holding her dearly in an effort to offer her some comfort and warmth. His thumbs wrapped around to the front of Isabella’s face, brushing along the path of her tears to wipe them away. Meanwhile, his other fingers caressed Isabella’s cheeks gently, enjoying the softness of her skin even under those terrible circumstances. He wished the occasion was more pleasant, but he was pleased to be there for the woman in her time of need. 

“Is it okay if I hold you like this?” Arthur asked with some trepidation, realizing that his intimate approach might have been inappropriate. If she answered in the affirmative, the mage would lean forward, lightly pressing his forehead against her own. He stared directly into her eyes, continuing to caress her face. “I’ll hold you just like this until you see that all I want to do is help you right now.”

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“Have you heard any news?”

 

Isabella lifted her gaze and saw that he did not expect an answer, which was just as well because she didn’t have any to provide him with. But seeing the expectation diminish from his face eased the momentary panic that had started to creep up her throat. 

 

He came and crouched low so that he could level his gaze with her, but she toppled under the weight of his savage stare. Certainly he wasn’t accusing her, but to her it felt like every set of eyes that laid on her did so with the full weight of condemnation. Thankfully, his renewed presence allowed her to grapple some minimal form of control over her emotions once again, and the sobbing eased away into quiet sniffles. 

 

And while she could not lift her gaze to meet his, she could feel how he was examining her. The animalistic nature of his eyes cut through her like a predator might do with prey. He was taking her in, counting her wounds, making notes of her injuries…

 

“It hurts me to see you like this, darling. Why won’t you drink my potion? It’ll ease your pain, let you relax before you clean yourself up. Please, let me help you…”

 

Had anyone entreated her more sweetly than this? 

 

At long last she looked at him.

 

Arthur’s face, though hard of angle, was softened by the sincerity of his concern. It made no sense to Gabriela why he should be so worried for her, but there was no denying the apprehension that touched the edges of his lips. She must have been a hideous sight with her bleeding nose, her blackened-eye, and disheveled hair -- she must have looked like some pretty little songbird that was dragged through the dirt and grime of the world, broken of wing and heart. 

 

“You saved my life,” she whispered softly as his hands covered her own and rubbed the back of her knuckles. She followed their path with her eyes, much less apprehensive than she had been at the nightclub. Though her expression was weary she seemed accepting of this unexpected show of affection. “How more could you help me?”

 

She tried to smile but her lips couldn’t quite curl and instead just trembled and threatened to break into another sob. 

 

His hands were up and around her face, cupping her cheeks and holding her in place. He was terribly warm but she enjoyed it and so she found herself sighing out a long and trembling breath before her eyes closed. He was wiping away her tears, drawing them back and drying them with the wide expanse of his thumbs. And under his careful care, and now that he had her so very close, would he notice how ridiculously soft and youthful her skin -- the patches that were not botched with dry blood or marred with bruises and scrapes -- was? Like that of a newborn babe. 

 

Gabriela was weeping for those who had been left behind. For the possibility of Roen’s demise. But also for the pain, for this was her first experience of true pain as a mortal and she didn’t know what to do with it. It was all encompassing -- the aches, the throbs, the sharp pangs, the tiny tweaks and twists -- her body would not quiet, and would not stop reminding her that she was hurting badly. 

 

“Is it okay if I hold you like this?”

 

Her eyes opened, full of fresh tears just as he pressed his forehead to hers.

 

“I’ll hold you just like this until you see that all I want to do is help you right now.”

 

Up went her hands, her small trembling hands, and they wrapped around his wide wrists. She had the intention to pull his hands off of her face, but she didn’t have the heart to follow through. Instead, weeping, she rested her forehead more heavily against his. 

 

“It hurts so bad…” she whispered, “but how can I accept comfort when the others didn’t have any?”

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If not for his honest concern, Arthur would have noted that his evening was one unexpected event after unexpected event. He’d thought it before but he had suspected a fun yet uneventful night when he accepted Isabella’s invitation to her birthday party. Now, the mutant had fought to keep her safe, had escorted her all the way to her rented quarters, and was now a guest in her most private sanctum and locked in an embrace with the distraught woman. His fingers continued to explore the soft features of the brunette woman’s face. At that point, no longer was he just attempting to soothe and comfort Isabella, the mage was enjoying the feeling against his calloused fingertips. His hands were hardened by long sessions of weapons training, pugilism, and even harsher grappling. Isabella, however, seemed kissed by the lavish conditions of life as a high noble. She was soft and splendid and posed quite the juxtaposition to his hard, muscle-bound nature. 

He would have never guessed that Isabella’s flawless skin was thanks to her rebirth.

Arthur watched Isabella observantly, noting that while she didn’t push him away or denied his worry. She wasn’t quick to oblige him in imbibing the potion he’d given her. The mutant frowned though he wasn’t angered or annoyed by the woman’s decision. After all, he couldn’t blame her lack of trust of a stranger, even one so heroic, and he could understand her feelings of guilt. It was a universal feeling among those who survived tragedies, whether they were responsible for the carnage or not. In many ways, Arthur had expressed similar feelings of guilt within the privacy of his mind. He should have protected Isabella better, protected all of her guests. The black mage didn’t want to dwell on it, especially when Isabella implied that he’d already done more than enough to help her. 

“Well, for one, my potion could ease your pain and heal much of your bruising and scrapes,” Arthur answered in a matter-of-a-fact way, for it was more than clear how the mutant was intending to aid Isabella. Saving her life wasn’t enough for Arthur, not when he had more to offer the dark-haired beauty. “And I can close the rest of your wounds with my magic after you’ve thoroughly washed yourself and irrigated your wounds. Look, I know that I’ve already saved your life, and to you that seems like I’ve done more than enough. But if that were true, I could have left you with your assistant once we reunited outside. But I didn’t and you didn’t want me to either, so please accept my offered help.” 

Then, the mutant pressed his forehead against Isabella’s own; his heart breaking when his hostess leaned into him in kind and she broke down in tears. His thumbs maneuvered to wipe newly made tears, utilizing the tiny space between their faces to keep her cheeks dry. Meanwhile, he kept the rest of his fingers glued to the sides of her face, cupping Isabella’s cheeks with his caring grasp. “You have to accept the comfort,” Arthur replied after some thought, having grappled with such feelings during the war so long ago, “If your friends have indeed met their end, then you need to survive and continue living on their behalf. You need to live so they can continue to live on in your memories. You wouldn’t want your friends to mourn you so destructively. I doubt they’d want you to succumb to your grief.” 

Pulling his head away from Isabella, the mutant stood to his feet and seated himself next to the woman on the couch. Arthur pressed his right hip against her left, letting his right arm slip over her shoulders. He held the dark-haired beauty close, offering his warmth and concern for her well-being. As he held her, the mage’s left hand took hold of Isabella’s far hand, and lifted the woman’s dainty fingers to his lips. He pressed a short series of kisses to her knuckles before leaning in to press another pair of kisses to Isabella’s cheek. 

“You’re safe with me, my darling.”

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It was a strange thing how quickly pain and sorrow could lead the way to curiosity, wonder, and attraction. In her past life, it had been said, and so it made sense that while wearing the same face, the same principal would hold true -- Gabriela wore woe like other women wore jewels. And as the noble mage held her face with every intention of easing her hurt, he slipped further and further into his own mind and his own fascination. She was, after all, a fascinating sort of thing. Yes, she was beautiful and elegant, but she was also obscenely “fresh” looking, and the blemishes she had gained from the struggle to escape the nightclub only seemed to make the point more painfully obvious. Along the boundaries of bruised flesh under her eyes and the pristine skin that traveled the high crest of her cheekbones, or at the meeting of the swollen bow of her lips against the pretty, pale indentation between them -- that’s where it became more and more apparent. Although she was the height and weight of a typical young woman in her early twenties, perhaps a bit on the petite side -- physically speaking -- Gabriela’s body did not reflect the wear and tear it should have. And while such a thing might have been explained away with an easy attribution to the easy-paced life of a noble-woman, surely the magician would find it eerie if not a little uncanny. 

“Well, for one, my potion could ease your pain and heal much of your bruising and scrapes.”

While his gentle, physical exploration of her face had not rendered the least bit of pain out of her, his words did remind her of the fact that her face was black and blue. She couldn’t help but wince suddenly as the beaten flesh under her eyes throbbed, as her body meant to agree with Arthur’s words. 

She was in pain and her appearance must have been horrific. What kind of security or comfort would she ever be able to convey (should there be any survivors) looking like she had gone toe-to-toe in the arena against someone who had clearly bested her. Appearances meant everything, especially in her line of work, and especially for the achievement of her special goals. 

Between them, now that their bodies were turned to face each other, Gabriela sat with the small glass vial in her hands -- fingering it while Arthur continued to speak.

“And I can close the rest of your wounds with my magic after you’ve thoroughly washed yourself and irrigated your wounds. Look, I know that I’ve already saved your life, and to you that seems like I’ve done more than enough. But if that were true, I could have left you with your assistant once we reunited outside. But I didn’t and you didn’t want me to either, so please accept my offer to help.”

There were tears then, when he pressed his forehead against hers, and more tears even as he drew his wide thumbs across her cheeks to try and wipe them away. The tears came more freely now that the vodka in her system had seeped through the membrane of her stomach and into her bloodstream. The liquor burned warm in her veins and released the knots she had tied into her joints. She melted right then and there, just as he urged her to accept comfort. 

“If your friends have indeed met their end, then you need to survive and continue living on their behalf. You need to live so they can continue to live on in your memories. You wouldn’t want your friends to mourn you so destructively. I doubt they’d want you to succumb to your grief.”

He spoke like a man out of a fairy tale. He spoke like a man of goodness -- a man who walked a line of honor armed with kindness and compassion. Was there even a world where such statements as he had just made could be heard and not viciously mocked? Not in the world she belonged to, and most definitely not in the world she came from. 

If she grieved and mourned now it was for selfishness sake -- for the difficulty that would come from having to arrange for a new team, for her plans being sidetracked, for the potential ramifications this tragedy might have on her career and her goals. But of course there was more. There was the fear of Roen’s death that still gripped at her throat from the inside, threatening to choke her with a lump of emotion. She didn’t care about anyone on her team -- not the stylistic who had come along to make sure her makeup stayed on point, or her secretary who was chasing around behind Gustavo ensuring that the party was marching forward without a hitch. She hardly knew these people, and she would hardly consider them her friends. She paid them and they followed her around. A handful of them saw her for what she was, and they followed her like lambs might a shepherd -- but she had never asked for that. 

She had never asked for the responsibility of people’s love and their devotion, but now she suffered under it along with cuts, bruises, and bites -- and it hurt, it hurt so bad. 

Lost in her woe, a fresh set of tears blooming across the bottom of her eyelashes, crystalizing there like droplets of glass, she was hardly aware of Arthur as he adjusted himself to sit besides her. There was no complaint made as he drew his arm around her and pulled her into the safety of his side, and not a word of protest was said as he lifted her hand -- the one holding the vile -- and he kissed across her small, bloodied knuckles, and she didn’t give him a doubtful gaze when his body shifted and his lips were on her cheek.

This was normal.

She was use to this.

It came naturally -- being taken, being held, being protected.

But where were the threats? Where were the insidious words that's were surely meant to follow -- like Roen or Raphael would have done -- the proclamation that this was all her fault, that she could only do harm, that because she escaped from them and ran away, she caused pain to all those around her. Where was the emotional torture she had become so accustomed to?

With sad eyes, she peered up at Arthur and found only a man intent on caring for a stranger and she did not understand it. But the kindness was so foreign in the end that it seemed impossible to doubt his intentions.

“Very well, my champion…” she whispered before pulling the small cork off the vial and drinking down the contents with a slight frown. 

“Doesn’t taste very good,” she complained, meekly up at him.

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Isabella was correct and the mutant eventually proved astute indeed. In a caring manner, Arthur continued to stroke at the woman’s soft features, tracing the edges of her bruises generally, though when he did touch her injuries (like when he wiped her tears, necessitating his calloused fingers grazing against her bruise-rimmed eye) the mage treated the woman even more delicately. At first, her beauty and the sympathy he felt for the woman had proved enough to quell any suspicion he might have had. However, as time lapsed and his physical exploration reached every corner of Isabella’s pretty (and injured) face, it became impossible to miss. He couldn’t explain it and didn’t want to pose a theory, but he couldn’t attribute the freshness of her flesh to an easy life and access to expensive skin creams and poultices any longer. Arthur smiled at the woman, brushing his thumbs gently over her brows as he admired her doll-like features. The descriptor seemed apt. It was almost like Isabella was a doll, only just removed from the woman’s packaging before she was attacked. 

Arthur wouldn’t pry. He was curious indeed. How could he not be? He was a wizard after all. But he was also a man and he had no desire to begin interrogating Isabella, forcing his way into the knowledge. It wasn’t any of his business but he imagined the mage would soon be privy to such information and more if he remained by her side, gradually peeling away from the mystery that was his hostess. The mutant would allow time and the building of familiarity between them to take its course, deciding wisely that it was a better plan of action than pressuring Isabella into elucidation. If he pressured her too hard, she would undoubtedly toss away his potion and spurn his aid. 

As the mutant attempted to comfort the grieving woman with his kind words and gentle stroking, he was met by silence, rather she spoke no words for Isabella still sobbed against the mage’s gentle grasp. He couldn’t pierce her true thoughts, still thinking that the woman was saddened by the possibility that members of her entourage were dead. If Arthur knew the truth, that Isabella cared not for her ‘friends’ but rather was saddened by the inconvenience of having to replace them. Arthur would have been disturbed, finally understanding that the politician wasn’t who she made herself out to be. He’d know that the darkness within the woman was great. Meanwhile, if he knew why she was so sad about Roen, there would have been little Arthur could do to prevent the tinge of jealousy that he would have certainly felt. After all, he hadn’t been around Isabella at the tail end of the party, and had nothing to protect her when the attack commenced. Arthur did and he had the scars to show for it.

Just a tinge, however. The latter revelation wouldn’t have been nearly as jarring as the former. 

That said, Arthur knew nothing of the truth of Isabella’s turmoil. He only suspected what he already thought was the case. The woman was distraught by the loss of her entourage and the pain that undoubtedly assailed her in that moment. It drove the mutant’s feelings of sympathy, guiding him onto the couch and into the embrace he wrapped the woman in. For a moment, Arthur felt self-conscious as he brushed his lips against Isabella’s fingers and cheek. She didn’t reject his approach but she didn’t offer her approval either. Instead, she remained quiet, deep in thought and entirely unreadable by the mage. However, his doubts soon lifted as he grew to enjoy planting his kisses on her delicate skin. Each time, Isabella’s pretty scent wafted up Arthur’s nostrils pleasantly, and her preternaturally soft flesh practically urged his continued display of affection. If only he’d known what she was thinking, or that she simply voiced her concern. She was waiting for the other shoe to drop, dreading the violence that no doubt would follow the pampering Arthur bestowed upon the woman. 

If only he could prove, once and for all, that she had nothing to worry about. 

The mage met Isabella’s sad gaze with a concerned look. It was starting to become difficult, seeing his lovely hostess in such pain. The arm that wrapped around her shoulders reeled somewhat; his strong grip framing the nape of her neck in a gentle squeeze. Arthur worked his fingers into her tight muscles, moving upwards along the sections of Isabella’s cervical spine. When he reached the base of her skull, the mutant dug his fingers into her hair, massaging her scalp with his fingertips which moved in tiny, roving circles. Meanwhile, he leaned into Isabella, kissing her nearest temple before descending to her cheek once more. He continued to brush his lips against her soft cheek, hopefully soothing the woman as she provided her acquiescence and drank his potion. 

He chuckled lightly at her words as he pulled away, though he didn’t cease his gentle scratching of her scalp. 

“I didn’t say it was a gastronomic delight,” Arthur joked back. His words made him think of food, realizing just how hungry he was as his stomach rumbled somewhat. He’d only ate two sugary crepes before making his appearance at Isabella’s birthday party, after all. “Just that it would ramp up the healing process.” 

And it did!

As he spoke to Isabella, the mage’s potion worked its wondrous magic on the woman. A warm sensation would spread from her core, moving every which way in a pleasant buzz that would hopefully put her at ease. In that instant, the physical pain that she was feeling would cease abruptly, almost as if it had never existed. It was nothing that a typical opiate wouldn’t have done; however, as time progressed, Arthur’s potion would display its fantastical capabilities. 

The woman’s swelling became reduced in real time, her cuts rapidly scabbing over and new skin beginning to form. The bruises across her frame would lighten, if not disappear entirely. The more significant cuts would heal as well, raw flesh covering the inside of the wound, and staunching any bleeding as yellow pus took its place. Nevertheless, the cuts remained open, parted by claws and rending teeth. She could let it close naturally over time, or Arthur could close it for the woman with a spell. Either way, the woman would have to wash the wound. He wouldn’t want to close it if some gunk remained.

“How are you feeling?” Arthur asked patiently, running his fingers through her hair, attempting a bit of humor along with his caring questions. “Do you think you’re ready for your shower? I wouldn’t advise sleeping in such a state. Think of the poor sheets, huh?”

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Arthur was not a bad man. 

It became apparent to her in the way his eyebrows pinched together when new tears formed in her eyes. He was full of concern. His worry nearly edged on a parental sort of care that she found refreshingly honest. Both Raphael and Roen had attempted to portray themselves as such -- both lover and father, master in all regards. They sought, desperately at times, to be the opposite to her nurturing nature. Raphael was known as the Lord Father, and he had bestowed upon her the title of Lady Mother, and so they were called within the Empire of Umbra. But what did a man like him know of the unconditional love that came with fathering a child -- half the time, even when a man did spill his seed and help in the creation of a child, they were poorly matched for the job. Roen called her Little Mother, and had sought, at one point in time, those within the expanse of his city, to call her the same. 

But they didn’t know what it meant to be this…

“I didn’t say it was a gastronomic delight. Just that it would ramp up the healing process.”

For a moment the sadness faded -- or rather, the disappointment that so much of her work had been undone in a single night. Instead, she saw him for the first time, beyond just the worth of his potential usefulness to her cause. He was foolishly selfless, to the point of risking life and limb for a near stranger. And he was earnestly invested in her sorrow, which again seemed like a horrific mistake to make in a world where goodness and kindness were so often devoured by the wickedness of greed, lust, and pride. But he was also a powerful man, both in form and mind, and surely that provided certain privileges that allowed him to keep his good heart while someone like her…

There was no goodness left in her. 

But she didn’t mourn the loss.

“You’ll make a very good father someday,” she said quite suddenly, just as his fingers curled and his nails scrapped the tense portion of her scalp. She felt a tingle cross the arch between her ears, over her head, and then melt down like crackles of electricity. It felt good. It had been ages since anyone played with her hair, or touched the sensitive parts of her body. She thought it was his touch, but little did she know it was the potion she had ingested. The magic was working its way through her system. It was soaking through the walls of her stomach, infiltrating her bloodstream, and floating away to the damaged parts of her body. The swelling was reducing, the bruising was clearing up, and the pain was melting away with those sparks of electricity that she so easily confused for the budding petals of affection. 

I wish I would have met someone like you sooner…

“It’s too late now,” she mumbled softly, a whisper to herself -- a warning to keep her distance. But she just wouldn’t be the new and improved version of herself if she didn’t see this as a possibility. He was strong. He was smart. And he could keep her safe. He was exactly what she needed. 

“How are you feeling? Do you think you’re ready for your shower? I wouldn’t advise sleeping in such a state. Think of the poor sheets, huh?”

“Gustavo will be back soon… with the doctor hopefully, and something more fitting for you to wear. I feel better -- remarkably so. I’ll go shower.” 

Gabriela bit her bottom lip and paused for a moment before moving to get up off her seat. She was thinking, or rather, planning how to manipulate the situation. Surely there wasn’t much work to be done. Arthur was eager to help and so good at it. She had to keep him invested and involved, at least until she could sell him on the idea of joining her on her trip to Yh’mi. 

“You were right about that potion… it’s remarkable. I know, just a moment ago I was refusing anymore of your help, but...I am a tad bit vain,” she lifted her gaze shyly before lowering it once more to the small space between them, where their knees were almost touching. Carefully she reached down and pulled the hem of her black dress up and over the dirty, scrapped flesh of her knee to reveal the ugly bite marks that were already closed, and turning white as scar flesh tends to. “I don’t want scars...I can’t really have them, not in this line of work. Do you think there’s something that could help? Someway you could help?”

She was up on her feet then, standing before him as if she were preparing to climb right back down, but on top of his lap. It was that sort of positioning that is a little too close to be completely innocent. She was still holding her dress up, showing off a lot more than just the bite mark -- far more of the smooth, pale flesh of her thighs.

“I’ll pay you of course. I intend to reimburse you for all of your many kindnesses. But let’s discuss that later, after I’ve showered.” She turned from him, pivoting just enough to continue the slight tease, while she plucked her drink off the bar and polished it off. There was no sense letting good vodka go to waste. And then she was off, but not before her bare knee brushed his.

“I’ll be out in a minute, unless you’d rather treat me in my bedroom…”

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Arthur smiled genuinely, the tension lifting from his muscular frame. Though the last few moments had been pleasant insofar that the mage had been locked in an intimate display, stroking Isabella’s soft skin and massaging her scalp, he had certainly grown nervous at the thought that the woman would deny his alchemical aid and would remain in her injured, traumatized state. The mutant grew significantly calmer when Isabella drank the potion and began to feel the effects of the medicine. She melted against his massaging fingers and the black mage knew immediately that Isabella’s pain had been wiped away, replaced by a dull euphoria that dampened the dark-haired woman’s pain signals. 

The mage was fully at ease, his heart beat dropping to its preternatural and seemingly impossible slow rate. He was finally making some headway, not only in his attempts to calm and cheer up Isabella, but in endearing himself to the woman as well. It was a slow sort of seduction that Arthur was performing on his charming hostess. He wouldn’t be too assertive just yet, but the forwardness of his subtle touches couldn’t be described as anything other than daring. As he worked his fingers into her tense flesh, the mutant continued to watch Isabella with his fiery eyes, wondering what the woman was thinking inside that mysterious little head of hers. If he had known that she was comparing his nurturing nature with that of her previous lovers, Arthur’s self confidence would have swelled internally. After all, if he made her think of her exes, then it meant that his slow seduction was working indeed. 

Of course, Arthur knew nothing of what thoughts were racing through Isabella’s mind. So he only watched her curiously until she spoke up, complimenting him.

“I doubt I’d ever become a father. My choice to commit myself to sorcery runs contrary to fatherhood,” Arthur replied with a nonchalant shrug of his impressively broad shoulders. It was a matter of fact that the mage’s mutations made him incompatible with a majority of mates, and it even truer that the life of a wizard was too dangerous to raise a child in. That said, the mutant took Isabella’s words well, no signs of hurt feelings crossing his features. On the contrary, he seemed fairly glad that she saw his protectiveness in such a light. Arthur chuckled as he continued to speak, interjecting in his forward manner as the mage was often wont to do, “But thank you. Though I’m not sure if I want you to view me in a paternalistic light, I’d rather you think of me in much more intimate terms.”

His eyes darkened in a suave look, a dangerous half-grin curled the left side of his lips in a smirk as he flirted quite shamelessly with Isabella. The mutant watched his hostess while she was lost in thought. Like before, it seemed like Isabella was locked in a mental tug-o-war with herself, debating some undisclosed topic within the private confines of her mind. Arthur had theories though none he desired to mull over at length. He didn’t want to make any assumptions either. Once she did speak, however, it was clear that the mage wasn’t close to solving the mystery. Isabella had whispered quietly to herself, hoping that Arthur wouldn’t hear. The mutant’s augmented hearing picked up her whispered words, though he didn’t know what she meant by it being ‘too late,’ nor did he reveal that he’d been listening. Instead, he played dumb, continuing to thread his fingers through Isabella’s pretty locks as her mystery deepened. 

“I’m happy that you’re feeling better,” Arthur responded with an honest grin, and knew then that Isabella had cast quite the spell on him. A spell in which Arthur had no defense. Because of the mystery that surrounded the woman and the darkness that surely engulfed her emotions, it was impossible to trust the woman fully. Nevertheless, the mage couldn’t help but feel deeply attracted to Isabella. Perhaps the danger itself acted as a figurative magnet, or the mutant had a thing for broken yet beautiful creatures. Either way, Arthur felt as if he was stepping close to the precipice, and Isabella was acting to pull him the rest of the way off the ledge. 

“What can I say? My skill as an alchemist was renowned among my people. But nonsense, you’re not vain. You’ve dealt with a traumatic experience better than most would have,” The mutant responded, partly braggadocious of his own skills and partly encouraging of the woman’s temperament. His orange, animalistic eyes followed Isabella’s own gaze, staring at the voluminous folds of the woman’s dress that pooled around her legs. Suddenly, his hostess hiked the skirt of her dress, revealing the pale skin of her thighs that were healing but now marred by scars caused by the gnashing teeth of their attackers. 

“I personally prefer to keep my scars but I do have a spell that’ll return your flesh to their original state,” Arthur replied, a particular arcane formulae crossing his vision. Avenzoar’s Molding of the Flesh wasn’t a healing spell per se, but it allowed the caster to shape a person’s flesh as they pleased. The mage’s pondering was interrupted as Isabella stood to her feet, turning to stand directly in front of him with her skirts still held high. Arthur’s heartbeat picked up at the sight of her delectable flesh, knowing quite well that she was teasing him. After all, with its position, she could have hidden those scars during political functions and ritzy parties. Moreover, she could have lifted her skirts in a more careful manner, and just displayed her wound. She wanted to show him more than what the modesty of her dress provided. Isabella wanted to tantalize and tease. 

And it worked.

Using her scar as an excuse, Arthur’s calloused fingertips glided over the soft flesh of Isabella’s shapely thighs. He followed the shape of the lovely woman before inspecting the scar tissue with his hand. The mutant looked up at Isabella as she spoke, nodding in agreement in regards to his compensation. He would have normally denied attempts at rewarding him, but after everything he had done to convince her to accept his help. It seemed wrong to deny her help in return. 

“After then,” he spoke, watching her as she drank her liquor and made to depart.

But then came her invitation and the mage responded without missing a beat. 

“Your bedroom would offer us the most privacy, and I would see you fully recovered before the doctor arrives to help me,” Arthur stood to his feet as well, pulling his terry cloth robe around him tighter as he walked across the room to retrieve his day bag and scroll. “I also imagine you wouldn’t want the physician and your assistant to see you standing so close to me with your skirts hiked up so delectably high.”

Regardless, Arthur would move to follow Isabella into her quarters once she granted her permission.

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“I doubt I'd ever become a father. My choice to commit myself to sorcery runs contrary to fatherhood. But thank you. Though I’m not sure if I want you to view me in a paternalistic light, I’d rather you think of me in much more intimate terms.”

She wore a bit of a smile on her lips, which had some color returned to them after the healing potion did its miraculous work through her body. Padding softly on bare feet, she could hear him following behind her in the wide hall that led to the bedrooms. She considered turning, asking why he didn’t just wait, but the looming presence of his touch on her flesh haunted her mind and enticed her to the possibility of what might occur if she pretended not to notice that he was coming after her. 

She thought, for a moment, to question the magician on the strongly held belief that individuals were naturally more inclined to be attracted to those who reminded them, both physically as well as temperamentally, to their parents. But surely he didn’t know about that, or else he would have responded differently, perhaps craving that she did see some reflection of paternal potential in him. He’d be wrong though, if he did manage to read so deeply into her comment -- but that was the thing about Arthur, wasn’t it? He certainly wasn’t like the run-of-the-mill cretins that flocked after her affections, to have or to take by force. The fact that he could not be a father made him infinitely more interesting and attractive, and to have come to such a destiny by choice? Men often seemed to weigh the success of their legacy based on the offspring they could produce and corrupt. It was oddly refreshing that Arthur only saw the whole of his legacy within himself -- refreshing and by far a more accurate representation of reality. 

Children were often disappointing. 

Gabriela opened her bedroom door and gently pushed it closed so that a single sliver of light poured out into the dark hall behind her -- a beacon for Arthur to follow. Inside, she went about the task of slipping the straps of her dress right off of her shoulders and letting the whole of the garment fall off her body to a pool of black satin and taffeta onto the floor around her feet. Stepping out of the mess, she plucked a silken robe off of a chair -- where she had so carelessly tossed it while getting ready for her catastrophic birthday party. Just as Arthur entered, he’d catch a peek of the lovely, pale skin between her shoulder blades as the robe was pulled up and adjusted, bound loose around her waist.

Although she had not granted her permission, perhaps Arthur attributed it to her not hearing him -- and perhaps that's why he followed. Now that he had come and stood framed in the open door, she regarded him at long last. She didn’t appear surprised or upset, but a wall had come back up, perhaps due to the distance between their bodies. 

“Just a moment,” she spoke softly as she fingered the loose knot she had made of the robe’s sash. “I’ll take a quick shower -- don’t follow me into the bathroom.”

She smiled, but there was a warning in her tone. Arthur was a bold man. He hadn’t minced words or actions, and there was no doubt in her mind that should she drop her robe and stand naked before him, demanding the full satisfaction of his services, he would provide them. But not yet. She had to secure him first -- his love, his loyalty, and most importantly, his value. There was more to learn about this man, and the choices that had led him to gain power. 

Her smile faded as she turned and disappeared into the bathroom. 

She turned the hot water on in the shower -- as hot as possible, and waited for a moment for steam to fill the room. When she could no longer see her reflection in the mirror, she opened a cabinet under the sink and pulled out a small wooden box. This was carefully set on the marble counter-top. Fresh tears had come to her eyes. Bodies were being dragged out of the club. They were lying on the asphalt, a medical blanket thrown over them to give them some margin of dignity in death. They were counting the dead and taking careful notes of wounds -- tomorrow all of this would be plastered all over the city in the newspapers, and then beyond. Everyone, who cared, would know about the great disaster that came about the celebration of her birthday. And should her picture be shown, and should a newspaper find its way to Genesaris and into Raphael’s hands…

“Fuck,” she spoke the curse firmly -- angrily. 

She took a small plastic bag out of the box. There was a small amount of white, shimmering powder inside -- like iridescent sand from the white beaches of Orisia. Wiping a portion of the counter clean with the back of a small hand, she poured the contents of the small bag out onto the cool marble and bent over. Using a slender, golden straw, Gabriela lined up the powder into a messy sort of order and inhaled the substance through her right nostril.

The burn was instantaneous but wonderful. All the tension of the night, the horror, the un-recognized sadness for those who died, all of it melted away as the cocaine hit the back of her throat. A wince was the only thing that denoted her discomfort, but she did away with that with a drink from a wayward, forgotten, glass of whiskey that someone had left behind.

“Fuck,” she repeated after she wiped the mirror clean and looked upon her reflection, “...fuck, I am fucked, so fucking fucked. Fuck.”

Steam claimed the mirror once more. 

Riding a strange high that edged on anxiety and exhaustion, Gabriela disrobed and entered the shower (after adjusting the water’s temperature of course). Just fifteen minutes later, she stepped out of the bathroom, wrapped in the same robe, but with dripping hair, which she clearly hadn’t bothered to dry. Her eyes were red from crying, but glossy now as if she were sleep-walking.

“Aright, let’s see what that magic touch of ours can really do...I don’t think I can stomach any scars on my body. Fix me.”

She could have said please. She could have smiled. But she only stood there, working the knot of the robe’s sash free, and letting the garment fall away. She stood there, naked. Giving a little shrug, she looked over herself as if examining something -- not herself. She looked over her shoulder, peering at the swell of her bottom while also pushing her bare breasts out and sucking her already flat belly in all the more. 

“I am riddled with scratches, bites, and cuts…”

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