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Out in the Light
#1
Noémi worked long hours, often staying beyond her prescribed shift to finish up a task to her satisfaction, else to prepare solid foundations for tomorrow’s work. She did that without being asked to, or requiring acknowledgement for it, but because of an insular pride and dedication that touched everything in the management in her life. Today in a rarity she was punctual leaving, though. She stopped by her tiny apartment to change from her work garments, shedding them with the careful precision of a mask; clothes neatly folded or hung away, jewellery returned to its box. Both things still felt too fine to really be hers. Like a costume.

The majority of her own wardrobe was carefully thrifted; refined in taste still, with a preference for clean lines and classic pieces dotted with unusual detail or embellishment: a subtle catch to the eye, not overbearing. Before her new job at the Consulate and the necessity of being presentable in a certain way, she couldn’t remember the last time she’d bought something new though. The coat she donned last was vintage, her mother’s originally, in a dark blue wool that nipped in her waist. A buttery satchel found possession of her camera and notebook before it draped her shoulder, the leather softened by use long before it had ever belonged to Noémi. She liked things with history. 

On the way back out she ran a light touch along the edge of a cold black petal, as she often reached to do when she passed the arrangement. The feelings stirred were both mournful and longing; a seed discarded in the dark, where it bloomed tenacious nonetheless, and all the stronger for the quiet shelter of its shadows.

Some time later the tube train plunged into darkness, and she watched her reflection distort in the windows. Delicate fingers balanced the weight of her chin. The scent inside her wrist lingered, a sensation that sometimes felt more like touch for the way it made her skin tingle when she caught it. She wasn’t a dreamer. She entertained no visions of a future, even a whimsical one steeped in nothing more than heady, private fantasy. It was backwards her thoughts drifted, as like something once captured and long ago lost.

She was halfway across the city when Rafael’s alarmed message suggested he had forgotten their meeting entirely. Amidst a slew of apologies he offered another location, which she accepted with an assurance he need not worry. They were not friends, exactly; Noémi had little time for a personal life. But they were long time acquaintances. She remembered him young and fresh-faced when he’d begun to work the bar circuit, with a cap full of blonde curls and an angel’s name to match. He should have been a performer, with the exquisite transparency of his emotions and the way they rippled across his face like shine upon water, but he’d always been a people person. A storyteller. Beautiful to photograph, either way.

Though she moved in different circles now, these old ties did not vanish, and if Noémi felt like she fit in neither sphere completely, the shadows were still a more familiar home than the light to which she reached. Her roots were made in poor soil; she grew upwards despite it, determined, but not because she wished to forget from whence she came. When she one day fell, which seemed an immutable fact to one such as she, it would be that same dank earth to which she returned. It was wiser not to forget.

She knew which church Raffe had named. It was large and dilapidated, as much in this part of the city truly was, though it was still nothing compared to the ruins of home. The intricate images in the arching stained glass windows were still whole, the graffiti on its walls recently scrubbed almost clean, but its roof was missing tiles, and while the doors were presently open wide, they were grilled with bars. Noémi found calm and silence in these hallowed spaces, though she had never practised as her mother had, like bookends to the tragedy of her life; first when Noémi was small and they struggled for food and shelter, and last when illness robbed her of future and security. God never answered that Noémi saw, but there was peace there all the same. In the belief beyond. A faith that comforted. Promises could be warm even when the hope they gave was cruel.

Inside the pews were over full, but not with the praying. There was an acrid hint of smoke in the air, as pervasive as the damp had been in her childhood home; clinging to the buoyancy of hope, making sure it never soared too high.

“Oh, mon Dieu, Raffe.” He caught up to her just within the threshold, smiling like the sun, but it was the scar she saw first, ugly across his throat. She touched her own, eyes wide in shock before the emotion settled. It pulled a little at her mouth, but she accepted how the underworld devoured. Even those who deserved it least. His grin only took a rueful cast, indomitable as ever, and he leaned to kiss her cheeks.

“I’m fine,” he assured, though his voice sounded charred in a way that only deepened the tragedy for him. She squeezed both his hands as he slipped away.

“Qu'est-ce que c'est?” she said instead. “Why are all these people here?”

“Evacuation. Sort of. No one’s hurt or anything.”

“From the undercity?” she realised.

“I couldn’t just do nothing,” he said. The harsh whisper made it difficult to hear him, and he spoke then as to himself. His brows knit, his jaw flexing. He had a phone in his hand, wrung as though it were a talisman. Pain marred his expression, and he didn’t cover the flash of it very well, but he carried on despite it. “Ezekiel is here.”

She nodded, lightly. “Another fire?” She could make a call; someone would be at the office still, and she was not sure Alexandrova ever really slept. But Noémi understood the blood of these people. They would not want the sort of magnanimous charity the Custody might choose to impose on a crisis, and this was not a throng of thousands as had been caused by the gas leak. A lighter touch might be needed. Especially with Ezekiel. “Tell me how I can help.”

[[This thread runs concurrently with the events of Into the Darkness]]
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#2
That night the heavens opened. None of the weather channels had predicted the virulent storm that followed. Raffe stood in the gentle slope of an archway and watched it light up the sky. Rain hit against the church roof like the pound of angry fists. The wind howled like a war cry. But inside it was warm and surprisingly dry. Refugees huddled, many drawn like moths to flame where Ezekiel sat amongst them. His mellifluous tones wrapped like warm honey, though Raffe couldn’t hear what he said. In the sky above the clouds gathered thick and roiling. When the lightning struck, it lit up the hollows like the cadaverous pits of a skull's eyes.

The rain buffeted his face, stinging. He stared. His skin was hot. That night the fever started again.

__*__

It passed in fits and starts and bad dreams. His senses returned before it finished purging its fire through his skin, eyes burning when they blinked open. Breathing felt the same; torturous. A blanket twisted up where Raffe lay, cold and damp as he pushed himself up and free of its grip. Ezekiel sat some careful distance away, chin rested on his fist. A faint smile curled his lips, his attention nothing but seemingly kind, but it made Raffe uncomfortable all the same. Around them the church hummed with the soft echoes of conversation. He could smell food; hear the clink of bowls and cups. Sunlight streamed brightly through the stained glass windows.

"I could help with that, you know."

The offer, or perhaps the knowingness of it, tightened in Raffe’s chest like a fist. He scraped a hand through his limp curls and offered a half-hearted smile, but said nothing. He felt like shit, and he knew the seriousness of his situation – the looming mortality – but truthfully it was the furthest thing from his mind. Instead he searched his pockets for his phone, limbs shaking and weak but insistent. He didn’t know how long the fever knocked him senseless. Worry twisted his stomach in knots, and the revelation of only a single waiting message plummeted him into something like panic. Insidious memories waited in the maw of that sudden fear. He barely remembered his mother, but sometimes, he remembered those five days with an alarming clarity. How he had waited, but it had always been too late.

Raffe fumbled a reply to Sage, felt the phone tumble from his grip, and the heat rim his eyes. He scraped a hand against his face, then pressed both palms tight against it when it wasn’t enough. He wasn’t accustomed to quashing his emotions, wasn’t very good at it either, but he didn’t have time for it now. Didn’t have time for the way his body was crumbling.

When he surfaced Ezekiel was still watching him, his luminous expression wrought with fascination.

[[continued in Calling Card]]
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