Highwater
Author: Peony Black

Chapter 22
22

 

The winds from the sea pressed curtains of fog against the windows. Her room, bathed in the sickly glow of a hanging lightbulb, was warmer than downstairs. Gunn scanned it on instinct: door, closed behind, the only exist; window, barred; gun - Soren's, she'd said, but no bullets, left in plain sight on a stained side table; open, messy suitcases; bed, large and clean, and tempting. 

All in all, it was ... serviceable. Very like other rooms he'd been in, with other occasional lovers he'd had during the war. He remembered how this went: Fast and messy, a few stolen moments of contact; and then distance, drowning emptiness and disgust. But he still had the drive, all right, after three years of Hellfuckinstan and whatnot. He resonated with her very human impulse to seek comfort in the face of imminent danger, also. For obvious reasons, Soren was out of the question, which left only him. He too, was serviceable. 

Logical though it was, the thought annoyed him. He realized that her hand had remained locked in his, and let it go briskly, turning on his heels to stare down at her. She tilted her head and looked back at him, an expression that was part confusion and part challenge in those grey eyes. Still in his personal space, with her hint of expensive perfume and lingering second-hand smoke, her body all but brushing his. Even through his winter clothes, the closeness burnt his skin. The negative space between them tightened, as if her gaze alone added heat to the air. The molecules bounced at increased speed, falling over him like bullets. 

"How do you want this, Brighton?" 

"Speaking from experience, overthinking is a bit of a bitch. How about just play it by the ear?" 

"No instructions from you? That's new." 

He regretted it as soon as the words were out of his mouth. Displaced aggression, and he expected her to call him on it, just like she'd had in the past. But she just shrugged, and raised her arm, releasing her hair from the bun. It felt down in a heap of curls, and he remembered the first time he'd seen her, back at the camp, and the sour feeling he'd had at seeing her slip her arm under that of the captain. "Fine, overthink it all you want. You'll just reach the same conclusions I did." 

So, then: not only serviceable. Also, patronised. "Stroke my ego, why don't you?" 

She huffed a brief laughter. "It's just that we're so very much alike." 

Right; provided 'alike' was some Brighton slang for dazed and confused. "Not in this galaxy, we're not." 

"Right," she drawled, and went to sit on the edge of the bed, busing herself with unlacing her boots. "Overachievers, struggling for approval they'll never get from an authority figure rings a bell? Your brother, the Colonel, my father, the General, you and I, the black sheep and the disappointment? All those people you meet that decide on the spot you don't measure up?" 

Once finished, she kicked the boots out of the way with perhaps more force than necessary, and pulled her sweater over her head. A wave of heat went through him, pooling low in his belly. She must have known how she looked, in that tight camisole and tighter pants, must have known the effect she had on him. She sighed deeply, and sought his eyes again. The grey irises had turned to steel. 

"Do you believe in synchronicity, S/L? They taught us in school how the brain recognises familiar patterns. One effect is we're usually attracted to people who resemble us. Or our family dynamics, our past. What believe is they had us profiled." 

All Gunn could do was stare at her like the fool that he was. His rational mind hadn't quite finished processing, but some visceral part of him resonated with her explanations. Fact was the army must have profiled him, and then some. And the General, surely. But her? This? If it was true, it was some fucked up mindfuckery. 

"Your own father would never have you profiled." 

"He would if it works," she said, with a dry laughter. "The mission comes first, and it brought us this far. Why did you really decide to work with me?" 

"Because you found all my goddamn buttons and pushed them." 

" Gunn ," she laughed, and the way she pressed on his name wasn't lost on him. She'd insisted on using it from the start, the oldest trick in the intelligence book, to make him feel more like a person and less like the enemy. "I wouldn't know how to find those buttons. My field is social psychology: persuasion, propaganda, aggression, stuff like that. Not behavioural. Come on. Can you honestly say you haven't felt it since the very first evening?" 

He shook his head angrily, feeling more and more like bumping it straight into the wall. It was like Pojina all over again, on the day of the Taskforce's attack, when the air was charged with static and the land lawless. Just like back then, he thought about Mara, and how he'd been chasing after her, ignoring that little voice that insisted he was playing with fire and was bound to get burnt. He'd never actively pursued Stella Brighton. He hadn't even imagined a world where he'd kiss her, not until she'd kissed him first. But there he was, obstinately refusing to think about her, yet talking to her, and doing her bidding all the same. Obviously, Soren, with his indisputable experience and straightforward grudge, would have been the logical choice of a frenemy; but fact was he hadn't even considered him. 

"I wanted to break your neck that first evening," he admitted gruffly. "I'd felt it since the camp, and what the hell were you even thinking with Marcus?" 

She bit into her lips. "Playing him." 

His gaze was drawn to her mouth. He'd always thought she had pretty lips, but they were really pretty now, caught between her white teeth, all plush and reddened from their earlier kiss. Gunn bit back a curse. Was she really flirting with him, right after dropping a nuke like that? Whatever was to happen here, he needed to make sure. 

"Are you playing me now? You said this wasn't a daddy thing, but daddy set it up, and here you are." 

"He's gone, Gunn." She pushed her hair back over her head, in a gesture of open exasperation. "I'm tired of trying to prove I'm better than his opinion of me. Or maybe I'm not, but he no longer calls the shots. Not now. Not tonight." 

He furrowed his brow, thoughts of stopping this battling the notion that he was, indeed, being the world's biggest idiot for even considering it. For the longest of heartbeats, she stared at him staring at her. For once, her expression was unguarded, and he felt like standing too close to an edge, as if he'd leaned too far over the rail and there was no way now but down. 

"Fine." It came out more gruffly than he'd intended. Out of spite, he kicked off his boots, tugged at the sweater, discarding it and the t-shirt underneath, and quickly stepped out of his jeans. Then he stood there, naked, raw-boned and scared, letting this woman who claimed there was a genuine fake attraction between them have her fill. The oxygen seemed to evaporate from the room, as her eyes travelled unhurriedly over him. 

"No tattoos. Every soldier I've known had at least one." 

She had a way of always finding him unprepared. Just how many soldiers have you  bloody known ? "They're identifiers. Less chances for special ops selection. I wasn't sure I'd qualify for the air force." 

"And after you qualified?" 

"Just how much thought have you put into my tattoos, Brighton?" Gunn said, with a frown. 

She laughed again, if a little breathless. "You really, really won't like the answer to that." 

He plopped on the bed next to her, leaning on one elbow to search her face with a serious, focused expression. "Then let's stick to something I'd like." 

He trailed his hand over her body, from ribcage to stomach, the pressure strong and deliberate, and took genuine pleasure at the way her breath quickened. Then he leaned in and kissed her again. Her lips were cold, soft, moving deviously under his. She ran her fingers through his hair, the touch light, as though he was suddenly this foreign, alien object as she chased his lips. Her other hand travelled the short distance between them, ghosting over the taut muscles of his belly, over his chest and shoulders, exploring with an increasing sense of urgency. Heat spreading from the points of contact sent jolts of electricity up his spine. And then, it turned suddenly frantic, just skin searching skin and bodies moving together, and his last conscious thought was that goddamn it, this was the best worst mistake of his life. 

 

 

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