Simon fought to find the words in response, but they were just not coming. He just stared at her. She looked a little different, but God damn, she was still painfully gorgeous. Still the woman he'd known and loved. Even after everything, seeing her sent that familiar, ache flooding through his stomach. He'd faced down agony and death in his life, but it had been a long time since he was actually afraid. The reformed prizefighter couldn't help the flood of memories that rushed through him. Her laugh, the taste of good, expensive bourbon on her lips, that mischievous look in her eye when she was up to something...the curl of their bodies together-
Do not fall down that rabbithole, Simon. He shook his head just slightly, snapping out of it. Simon cleared his suddenly dry throat and finally managed to croak out. "Hey..."
"H-hi..." She was nearly shaking, and hoping he didn't notice. The clerk, wisely, had found something else to do, and was leaving them to their awkward reunion. Ducking her head for a moment, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. A tiny gesture, one he'd probably seen a thousand times.
No ring, on either of them, not that that was much of a surprise. Otherwise, she looked, surprisingly good, if likely a little paler than he remembered. Her curves were somehow smoother, hinting at even more muscle beneath. She couldn't help it, her free hand sliding over her ribs, smoothing over things he couldn't see. He did look good, himself. He'd always looked good, and she could just catch that all too familiar scent. But there was something healthier about him. Not covered with smoke, or the miasma of booze and drugs, just him, all the more intense for the lack of anything else.
She wondered if he tasted the same, if his arms would feel the same. Taking a sharp breath, she tried to shake it off, and stammered out something that sounded utterly inane even as she said it. "You're not dead..."
He wanted to look away from that appraising gaze, but his eyes just stayed on her as if she might lash out at any moment and rip his head clear off. Dry lips parted to say something, but they just curled upward, as a low chuckle escaped him. "No." He said, giving a little shake of his head. "Not dead.” Given his life, that wasn’t always a guarantee, he thought. “Not yet."
He brought a fist up, scratching lightly at the well trimmed beard along his jaw. He might have been dressed finely and lacked the haze and scent of booze and smoke, but some things didn't change. Those knuckles were still that distinctive mess they'd always been, the tattoos snaking out from under the rolled up sleeve of his shirt. There were even fresh red marks from Tessa's would-be abductor. Though, if he was still fighting in the ring, his face bore no signs of it, but for a little scratch or two.
"You look...you look fantastic." It felt lame even leaving his lips, but damn it, he didn’t know what else to say. It was amazing, even now, after everything, she still took his breath away.
"So do you. I mean, not that you ever didn't...but...jesus, Simon...it's been..." Almost a year. Almost a year, and she couldn't bring herself to say those words. There were so many questions. So many questions. She just...couldn't bring herself to ask them in the middle of a convenience store. "Do you...do you want to go somewhere?"
Her eyes fell to his hand, and her bottom lip was caught between her teeth. She remembered all too well what those hands were capable of - on her, and on anyone who dared to cross him. "Catch up, maybe?"
Life had become so hectic in the time after he'd left, he scarcely realized it had been so long. Again, that guilt came rushing on back. Finally, he nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, let me buy your drink." He wasn't giving her an option. He turned to the cashier and slid a bill to him, offering a wave to turn down the change again.
"You don't...thank you." She accepted, with an awkward grace that wasn't her usual MO at all.
"Uh..."He awkwardly stammered and then gestured for her to lead the way. It wasn't often someone caught Simon Toews completely off his game, but here, tonight? She was getting the full effect.
Catching the gesture for what it was, she headed out, pausing as the bell jingled over her head to make sure he was still there. Drink in one hand, she reached out to him with the other. A subconscious need to make sure this time he didn't disappear, and she quickly dropped it back to her side.
Tahlia walked past the cars, heading across the street to a small park, half hidden from the rest of the neighborhood by tall shrubs, and dotted with benches. Simon followed, suppressing that little voice in the back of his head that said "**** the car, RUN!" He busied himself, unscrewing the cap from his bottle and taking a swig. He found himself a spot across from a bench, leaning his back against a thin birch tree.
"So...have you been here the...I mean...since..." She stopped, no idea how to finish the question.
Thankfully, he made sure she didn't have to finish it, almost interrupting. "Yeah, I've been around. Uh...I've been at Corrine's place."
"Cori....oh! The one-armed cop you had..." Yeah, that thought wasn't going to end anywhere good, and she flushed, unscrewing the top of her drink and taking a sip.
Immediately he knew how that would sound, his hands reaching up defensively. "Not-not like that. It's..." He stammered trying to explain it better. "We're roommates is all."
There was NOTHING between Simon and Paige. Hell, they were BARELY friends, but he knew how their arrangement looked. They worked together lived together. Two attractive , single people under one roof...it was almost expected.
"Good. That's...good. That you have someone. To watch your back." She was normally so smooth, and now she was acting like a tongue-tied teen. He'd always been able to do that to her.
"Oh! Hey....um...before I forget..." Reaching for her purse, she rifled through it, pulling out a business card from the First Goblin Bank of Rhydin, with a number scribbled on the back. "I...didn't know where to find you. McAllister gave up, after a few months. But I thought...maybe..."
His brow furrowed as he took the card, studying it a moment. "What's this?"
He asked, grateful for the change of subject.
"It's...I sold the apartment. After you left. I couldn't..." There was no safe ground for them, was there? "It's in an account, in your name. Probably a decent amount of interest. Close to seven hundred thousand, maybe..." She hadn't checked the balance recently. It wasn't, as far as she was concerned, her money. Tahlia let go of the card, her fingers hovering as if she wanted to touch him, before drifting back.
His brows rose in surprise, his eyes flicking up to her from the card. "Holy ****. Are you serious?" He knew the penthouse was expensive, but DAMN. That kind of money was a massive windfall. It could be his ticket out of Paige’s place and a step toward one of his own.
A million thoughts ran in his head, a million ways to say it, but it just came out. "Well...damn. Thank you."
"I bought it for us. I have the penthouse, anyway. Two apartments didn't make sense." For now. Who knew how much longer she'd be able to keep her Seaside aerie if things didn't work out. Waving a hand, she turned pink, and focused on the water.
He smiled and tucked it into his pocket, taking another swig of his water. "How've you been?"
"Ok, I guess. It's been a crazy year. More time on my own than I think I've ever spent before…”
Tahlia didn't much like feeling vulnerable, and he had clearly moved on. Not that she hadn't, on the surface at least, but there was still a dull ache that she didn't think would ever go away. Her hand found her ribs again. "So. Anyway. You look like you landed on your feet."
There was something in that sentence that hit him somewhere deep inside. It felt almost like an accusation. There was a time when he'd have taken offense and immediately jumped to the defensive...but he just didn't feel it tonight.
"It took a while." He muttered, scratching lightly at the back of his neck. "A long while."
Now it was her turn to look away, stung, and trying not to lash out. He was the one who had left her, and hadn't even had the courage to tell her to her face. She'd thought she was over it, but she could feel the salty burn of tears against her lashes. "Figured you took off back to that dust bowl..."
"No." His head gave the slightest of shakes. "The last thing those people needed was me." For a long moment, he just stared, letting the silence hang between them. That guilty ache in his stomach tore through him. There were times it came and went. He could just bury it and forget it. But tonight… he just couldn’t. "Tahlia..."
"Yes, Simon?" She looked up before she could blink away the sparkle of tears. Dammit, she hadn't wanted him to see how much she hurt. And yet...part of her wanted him to know about every sleepless night, every time she'd cried until she was exhausted...
He didn't know exactly what it was, what he could say...but he had to say something. There would always be feelings there. Even after all this time, he still felt...protective of her. Close to her.
Say something, you dumb redneck!
It happened before he knew what his body was doing. Quickly, his arms wrapped around her, pulling her into a tight embrace. The words wouldn't come, so he did the next best thing. He held her like she might float away if he let her go. He'd missed her far more than he'd let on.
Far more than even he knew.
For her part, she had held back, since she'd seen him in the store, the moment they'd gained the relative privacy of the tiny park, from the desire to reach out and touch him. But he'd made the choice for her, and she buried her head in his chest, soaking through the front of his vest with a sudden burst that surprised even her. Her arms wrapped tightly around his ribs, one hand knotting into the fabric across his broad shoulders. Clinging to him like he'd disappear if she so much as breathed funny.
"Jesus...killer...I've missed you." There it was, the little nickname she'd given him that first night, and held to ever since. She'd never given it to anyone else, and never would. And missed was so much easier to admit to than the rest.