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“The fuck were you thinking, bashing your skull into the goddamned concrete like that? Stupidest thing I ever fucking seen, can’t believe this shit. Should have known better, for fucksake, getting her into this. A goddamned cage...”

Deacon mutters under his breath while he works. It stings, little bite bite bites of the needle against her scalp, but unlike the versions of her that know a version of him who listens better, he doesn’t know he talks when he sews. It’s a gate unlatched, and he’s letting his truths out through the gap.

Cost/benefit analysis calls it worth it, and he’s got gentle hands, if and when he wants to.

...if and when he is.

“Stupid. Stupid fucking idiot, you knew it, you did it anyway. Fucking… useless.”

The edge in his voice hurts, and Jennifer watches her hand fly up to cover his mouth. “You’re hurting my ears.”

“The hell you talking about?” His beard prickles at her palm and his voice sounds half-smushed, but he doesn’t move her hand. It’ll do. Baby steps are steps, even when taken by very large men.

“You talk when you sew.”

“Do not.”

“Do too.”

“Do not!”

“‘The fuck were you thinking, bashing your skull into the goddamned concrete like that?’” Deacon’s voice isn’t as satisfying to imitate as Ramse’s was before Ramse wasn’t, but it’s still fun.

Fuck.” Guess he doesn’t think it’s all that fun. “Kiddo, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that shit, I just…”

“Have a lockbox where your feelings stick should be?”

He makes a face, just a little one. Oh. Right, he wants to talk about his dick.

“You can say it, if you want. Kid’s just a nickname, not an accurate representation of my chronological progression in life or ability to take a dick joke. I owned a company, once. Can’t expose a perv on the board if you can’t stomach a dick joke.”

His eyes fly open. “I don’t… what the hell are you saying to me right now?”

“That you can make whatever joke you want to about your penis being the feelings stick.” She waves downwards, eyes skating nervously over and away from his belt buckle then back up to his eyes. “Here, I can go first. Can’t deny a good dick joke when it walks right up and slaps you in the face, right?”

“You are making this so goddamned hard, you know that?”

The snort rips its way out of her throat by itself, tugging at the needle when she jerks with it. “That’s what she said.”

Jesus.” He laughs, too, a dragged out chuckle he tries to keep back behind his teeth. “Look, knock off the comedy and let me fucking apologize to you, all right? I made you a promise, and you pissed me off so I broke it, because I’m an asshole who does shit like that to nice girls who don’t deserve it. Kid, I’m sorry.”

“I’m not actually nice. You only think that because your standards were filled out wrong.” The rest of his speech makes tears start to punch the backs of her eyes with their little watery fists. He’s the talking-about part, not her. “I lied to you and I’m crazy. And I’m not even knocking it out of the park lately at being crazy, you and Jones just said so, so I’m not even good for—”

Her tongue flicks out and tastes rust and leather and sweat and Deacon’s flesh. His fingers sweep from hinge to hinge, mapping her jaw, but he doesn’t squeeze. “Shut up, I said. I did a bad thing, and now you’re gonna let me take the heat for it.” He grimaces when she licks his palm, wide and sloppy; because it’s there, and because he ate an orange, last time they did this when they were other people. If she’s quick enough, she might still be able to taste it. “Quit that, you little animal. Listen. I don’t know what you got waiting for you, or if you’re just running away, but whatever it is you deserve better than the shit we got here.”

It’s been easy to keep up the act that she’s lost the bag that held all her marbles along with the very last one, for good this time. Life in a cage is solely tiddly-winks territory, but Deacon being nice is the opposite of the cage, and he seems like he means it.

But he’d taken her to the cage himself, she remembers that part. He’d taken her and he’d promised never ever, not here, not ever again with her family. He’d promised and he’d lied, and he might do it again if Jones said being nice might make her crack when the cage couldn’t do it.

She looks down at her hands, picks at a hole in the weave until it’s a sad little frowny mouth. “‘kay.”

“Don’t wanna tell me the plan, huh?” She shrugs, diffidently, and he finishes off the crude stitches along her hairline and snips the thread. “Kid. Jennifer. Hey.” He crouches in front of her, making himself littler than her since he can’t wash away the smell of cordite or the bite of his fingers when he’d thrown her into Oliva’s pit. “Whatever it is, I swear to you I don’t give a shit. You really just want to go home, that’s fine. You want to take over the fucking world yourself, that’s fine too. Hell, sign me up for whatever that looks like. It’ll be better than this garbage.”

Nobody’s ever, not once, told her she’d be good at being in charge. Not unless they were crazy too, or there was no other choice, or they were just following her because her old self is good with tools she hasn’t found to fit her hands, not yet.

The bright, chewing on the rind taste of Deacon’s words sours until it feels like she pounded a bag of Warheads, one brightly colored pain after another. Jones might tell him to say that. Jones saw, when she yelled at Cole in Paris. She might know. Might understand that it would matter, hearing that.

“Christ, you can’t—please, Jennifer. Look at me, kid.” He shakes her knee back and forth like a dog with a shoelace until she looks at him. “You tell me you wanna splinter right to Cassie and Cole’s side and throw their kid a ‘isn’t it swell you’re going to end the world’ party, I will still walk you right out there to Jones and pretend I don’t know shit about it. Whatever you’re doing, you’ve earned it after all the crap you’ve been through.” His throat bobs on a swallow she feels in her own chest. “After what we put you through, you hear me? Fuck what the rest of them are doing right now, this is about you.”

She wants to believe him. She always wants to believe him, no matter which him and which her.

Still.

“Not what you said last week.”

He laughs, low and bitter like the dregs at the bottom of a coffee pot. “Last week, I was being a fucked up old man. Pissed off because no matter what I do, James goddamn Cole always does seem to get what I want.”

Deacon looks through things, most times. His eyes are good at being two places at once.

Now he’s just here, and his eyes aren’t looking through her. It makes her want to barf on his shoes and tell him not to stop.

“I only kissed him once.”

It might have been better to barf on him, as it turns out.

“Fucking seriously?” he howls, face screwing up in disgust. “Is everybody in love with that guy?”

“Kissed,” she clarifies, because specificity feels important. “Not in love with. And he didn’t even kiss me back.”

Asshole,” he swears, and it makes a blush prickle up and stay.

“You can’t be mad both ways. Either you’re mad about too much kiss or not enough kiss. It’s kind of a binary choice.”

“You have a nickname for him,” he says, like a child refusing a hug he desperately wants. “You don’t have a nickname for me.”

“Deacon.”

“What?” he snaps, looking up at her, pupils yawning wide in fear like she’s the one with a gun on her hip and too many knives hidden in her boots.

Maybe his ears aren’t the best or most elegant handhold but yanking on them makes him move, because he’s too low to lean down and close the distance on her own without falling. It’s a clumsy kiss; not that she’s an absolute authority, given her limited sample size, but his chin bumps hers hard enough to hurt and mostly, she just smacks her closed lips against his when he won’t cooperate and open his mouth.

She tries not to be disappointed. That’s not any of the ways it’s happened before, but at least now the first one is through with. The first is always the hardest.

He’s frozen still, eyes wide, so she pats his shoulder to bring his attention back from wherever it’s gone. “There. Now if you want we can do it again, and then you beat Cole.”

He exhales, brows snapping together. “Yeah… look, I can’t believe I’m saying this and if you tell people I’ll deny it, but I think I’m gonna need to pass on that one.”

“Oh.” She deflates, feeling her smile twitch and fracture around the edges like crumbling clay. Deacon not wanting to kiss her hadn’t ever been an element to her calculations. She should have known better, she really should. That’s the kind of omission that can sink a study. She twitches her lips up into what’s supposed to be a smile but feels like a wound, flashing him a thumbs-up because that’s what a Jennifer who hadn’t missed an obvious variable would do. “That’s okay. It was just an offer, you don’t have to. I think my head’s probably fine, couple more bumps aren’t gonna make it any more confusing up there. You can take me to Jones, now.”

“You’re killing me here.” He shoves her gently back down when she tries to get up. “Kid… Jennifer. I don’t fucking want to kiss you so I can beat that asshole.”

“So… what does that mean.”

“It means…” He inhales. “It means… y’see, you’re… ah, screw this.”

This kiss isn’t clumsy. This kiss feels like chocolate with pop rocks and cayenne and splintering if splintering were a bath and not a waterfall. Deacon’s hand cradles the back of her head like one of those really good HBO sex scenes, and he kisses just as greedily as he does everything else.

Even if this time being them doesn’t mean being them, this one is for the record books. None of the other second kisses had been like this, either, but this time she’s the gold medal Jennifer.

Deacon’s mouth is bruised-fruit wet when he pulls back, and she tastes citrus at the back of her tongue when he smiles and the fruit splits open. “That. It means that.”

Most times when people don’t make sense they are, she just can’t tell because the voices are too loud to piece together their words without noise breaking up the signal. Deacon doesn’t make the voices go away like Cole does, but the secret she hasn’t told any of the men he’s been just yet is that he does something better. Cole makes them shut the hell up; Deacon makes them happy, and when they’re happy they’re easier to listen through.

None of them know what ‘that’ means either, so this time it has to be Deacon.

She laughs, giddy on the feeling of being the sensible one for once. “I mean, I know I’m the crazy one here, but ‘it means a kiss’ doesn’t make any sense.”

He groans and drops his chin to his chest, then looks up again and bites out with agonized precision, “It means, I want to kiss you because you want me to. Not to settle some bullshit score with Cole. Not with you.”

Not with you. She turns the words over and over in her head, admiring each angle and trying to read the messages scrawled inside. Distracted by the puzzle, she nods and returns the gift he’d given her while sewing up her head. “...oh. Well, duh then. Of course I want you to kiss me.”

He swallows hard, hope gleaming like something infinite and fragile as a soap bubble in his eyes. “Now you’re the one not making sense.”

In for a penny is worth two in the hand, like they always say. She smiles down at him and watches him go red and bashful. “I always want you to, even when I don’t. It’s a timeline thing.”

“But I’m not on your little wall of weird.”

“So? Neither am I.” She fumbles for the meaning of it all outside the unspoken and nakedly obvious if he’d just take a step back and look at it from above, inarticulate with the import of delivering this message. “It’d be weird and vain if I drew a bunch of pictures of me. Everybody would be like ‘oh, Jennifer, you’re so self-obsessed, your hair doesn’t have that much volume’. Way too Carly Simon to work for somebody like me.”

Jennifer,” he says, but it’s not like everybody else when they want her to shut up and get to the point, so she smiles before she does.

“You’re not in them because you’re with me.”

He blinks hard, looking like she’d hit him with a brick and not declared time’s intentions in the clearest way she knows how. “Now you’re just trying to get in my pants.”

Well.

“Is it working?”

He kisses her again, deeper, hand resting comfortably on the swell of her ass like now he knows they’ve done this a million times, before and after the people they might or might not be.

“Kid, if it worked any better I’d have to figure out how to work in a quickie before you go… do whatever it is you’re doing.”

Her pulse picks up. “Does that mean no quickie?”

Deacon laughs and gently bumps his forehead into hers, rolling it a little like a cat marking its favorite shoe. “It means, if you’re up to the kind of thing I think you’re up to, a quickie might tip off Jones that our broken baby bird’s been playing up the damage to her wings.”

Trust me, his expression says.

“I’m supposed to save somebody.” He nods, instantly supportive, and the rest spills out like an avalanche. “I keep drawing him, and seeing him, but I don’t know who he is—I swear I’m not lying just in case you’re still team Break Up The Band With Bullets with Jones, I really don’t. All I know is I have to be there, or he’ll die.”

“And if he dies?”

Her stomach drops down to her knees, toes, then through the floor and her older self’s croak comes out of her throat when she answers. “If I don’t save him, then none of us will live to save anybody.”

Deacon nods seriously. “All right, then. So we go on out there, I keep my mouth shut and pretend you’re just heading home, then you save some guy so we can all save the world.”

Warmth floods her and drags her stomach back up to where it’s meant to be. “Sooooo… does that mean for sure no quickie?”

“You’re killing me.” He kisses her again, hard and fast. “No quickie. You got shit to do.”

Pride wars with disappointment she doesn’t have to fake. “Sucks to that.”

A filthy grin creases his cheeks, and she starts to tingle in advance. “Nah, that comes after the quickie.” Before she can ask if he means her or him Deacon kisses her one more time, like he can’t not do it, then helps her off the table. “Time for you to go save the world.”

“I’m not an action hero like Cassie and Cole,” she whispers out of the corner of her mouth like a spy in a bad movie once they’re outside the last corridor between her and the dying man. “So... I’ll be back soon, probably. Can’t take that long to save a guy.”

“You are so not subtle, but I appreciate it.” Clearing his throat, he stiffens up a little and resumes looking through everything, all iced like he’s waiting for a blow.

“Oh, you’re good. Actor to actor, those one man shows would have gone much easier if I had you along to play Edward.” A laugh breaks through his mask and she cackles. “Gotcha! Okay, all right. Let’s think… Meryl doing her latest Oscar smash, the primary who just tried to scramble her own eggs.”

Remembering the cage is all it takes to make the act real, and Deacon’s eyes reflect the pain back.

He really would have pulled off Edward.

Jones tries to apologize without apologizing, and it doesn’t feel bad to let her inner Meryl really dig into the post-solitary scene. Jones flinches away and she feels a little mean, but behind Jones’ back Deacon winks and all she can do is remember not to wink back, Jones fading into a bitty mental speck because when they get back, Deacon owes her so much more than a quickie.

The chair feels as good as ever, and she wiggles her toes a little getting ready for the rush of time pulling her apart and putting her back together in the world’s best orgasm-slash-roller coaster.

They really should market that.

The rising vibration and hum start to rattle her bones. “Hey, Deacon?”

“Yeah, kid?”

“I forgive you.” She raises her voice to be heard over the roar of the wild blue yonder. “Don’t forget about the quickie.”

His laugh follows her down the rabbit hole.