He heard a sound.
It rang right through his mind, sharp as a knife and equally painful, but lasted just for a moment, too brief for him to correctly process it.
The sound left an unpleasant sensation in him, one Jack could, oddly enough, perceive with more than just his hearing.
It was in his mouth, sour and unpalatable.
It was in his paws, a tingle that made his fingers twitch unconsciously.
And… it was in his eyes, a picture which refused to come into focus for at least two full seconds. “What…” He murmured, as the shimmering feeling vibrating in his whole essence slowly poured into wary, almost unsteady words, “What are you doing here, Walker?”
Cynthia was looking at him, not making a sound nor moving a single inch of her soft, beautiful body as she stood next to the window. The distances between them felt nullified by the way her amber eyes were focusing on him, piercing through his figure like pointy darts.
He felt nullified, and only pride prevented him from beating a retreat.
That, and the fact he was in his own office. “I believe I asked you a question,” he inquired, trying to sound firmer. “I would appreciate…”.
“I don’t care what you appreciate.” She suddenly spoke, with a voice that Jack had never heard coming from her; it filled the air around them, saturated every inch of him with subtle, mute anger. “We need to talk, Savage.”
“Not now, I’m afraid. I have a plane leaving for Mosca in four hours,” was his dry reply as he moved towards the desk, every single one of his steps feeling as heavy as ever. He dared not make eye contact with her a second time – the first had caught him unprepared and been enough to give him the shivers. He wouldn’t make the same mistake twice.
“I’m not planning to make this conversation last for that long.” Jack felt her glare all over his body and soul as she pronounced those bitter words. “But I’m also not planning to let you get away from this.”
“I believe you’re mistaking something, Walker. There’s nothing I’m getting away from in the first place.”
“Is that so?” Cynthia asked, but it sounded like an accusation, more than an actual question. “I beg to differ, Mr. Savage.”
“Beg all you want, but it won’t change the facts.” He now was in front of his desk, trying to remember what item he was supposed to pick from the drawer.
But it was hard, because his thoughts kept squirming out of his control every time he tried to focus on something that wasn’t Cynthia Walker’s existence.
Cynthia Walker, in his office.
Cynthia Walker, armed – maybe literally – with anything but good intentions.
And he knew why, but chose to confine that awareness in the deepest recesses of his heart as Cynthia retorted sharply: “You just can’t live without that condescension of yours, right?” A hint of frustration painted that question in rhetoric, a rhetoric that scraped the hare’s ears, making something inside of him bleed. “You’ve always been like this: haughty… full of yourself, and insensitive.”
“… Is that why you’re here, Walker?” Jack asked, as the first sliver of his heart pitifully crumbled under the blows of her verbal aggression, “To insult me?”
“You’d deserve it.” For a moment, Cynthia’s face twisted into a complex emotion, one Jack wasn’t even sure he could name, before returning to the stormy calm she had greeted him with. “But this is not my point right now,” she continued, before doing the only, the only, thing Jack had sincerely hoped she would refrain from doing.
She moved towards him.
“As I mentioned earlier, I don’t have much time for you. So, if you’d be so kind as to—”
“Then find it,” Cynthia replied shortly, closing the physical gap between them. “For there’s something I definitely have to ask you.”
“What kind of nonsense is this…?” he murmured, hardly keeping himself from gripping his jacket over the pounding muscle slamming against his chest. “Why would I…”
“Because it’s a request from me.” A blaze flashed in Cynthia’s amber eyes when Jack was foolish enough to meet her gaze.
Then, the blaze became a living fire when the two finally faced each other. “… So?” asked the vixen. “Are you willing to grant me a few minutes of your precious time, Agent Savage, or are you going to hop on your plane for Mosca this very moment?”
Jack laughed, joylessly, and lowered his head. “Well, it looks like you’re really narrowing my options here.”
“Sorry about that,” she retorted, arms crossed over her chest as she looked at him from above her muzzle, “but recently, I’ve started to find your choices quite… questionable.” She gave him a smile, sharp as the teeth she was probably making the effort not to bare.
“I regret that you felt that way,” he replied quietly, taking care not to look directly into the hypnotic, golden mirrors staring at him, “but personally, I believe my choices to always be cautious and appropriate.”
“Even this time?”
“That’s… correct,” he eventually stated. But still, it was a correctness soaked in pain, a pain so deep, the hare couldn’t see the bottom of it.
Maybe because there wasn’t one.
“And do you expect me to simply accept your nonsensical decision?” The way her rage took on different shades every time Jack added something to the discussion, how quickly he was able to perceive that change and their inability to understand each other despite their efforts… there was a single word that could describe all of this: frustrating.
“I’m not expecting you to actually accept it… but it wouldn’t hurt if you could make the effort of respecting it, at least.”
“You…!” Suddenly she was on him, gold against ice, white canines exposed and strong, solid paws grabbing his shoulders and holding them tight.
He was sure his nose was twitching to the point he couldn’t simply pretend all of this wasn’t tugging on his heartstrings. Still, that was exactly what he tried to do. “That’s not how you hold a conversation, Walker.”
“Shut up!” She snarled. “Who do you think you are? Who do you think I am?” Her muzzle was just an inch away from his face. He could feel her breathing on his nose, heavy and slightly quickened, as more enraged words escaped her black lips: “You’re asking me to respect something that doesn’t respect me, and you even have the courage to act like you are the victim here?”
“You’re hurting my shoulders,” he replied instead, his tone as cool as he could pretend to be. “Care to let me go?”
“You’ve been avoiding me for weeks,” Cynthia continued, ignoring his protests. “Not a word, a gesture, anything that could help me find out what kind of contorted thought process you were going through. Nothing, absolutely nothing.” The grip on his shoulders weakened for a moment, only to become even stronger the moment after. “Is that how you treat a trusted co-worker, a partner?”
“I…” because he refused to look her in the eyes, his field of vision was entirely occupied by the view of her chest… where the moon pendant dominated proudly.
Even after a month of avoiding her in every possible way, she was still wearing it.
He asked why, silently inside his mind, words too powerful for Jack to actually voice them, too dangerous. A threat Agent Savage was completely unprepared to handle. “I just… was quite busy,” he mumbled, eyes fixed on her white-gold moon, almost hypnotized. “I wasn’t really avoiding you or anything.”
There was a pause. “… What are you looking at?” She eventually asked, a touch of uncertainty in her voice.
“Nothing,” he hurriedly replied, raising his head to finally meet her eyes – which, in all honesty, was a terrible idea. But he had had just terrible ideas in the past two months, so it was no actual surprise. “You should stop thinking the world holds a grudge against you, Walker. This is not the case.”
“Are you calling me delusional?”
“That was not my intention.”
“Your choice of words said otherwise.”
“I’m sorry; I’ve never been good with words.” Jack shrugged, paws carefully sliding in his pockets as an empty smile came to his lips. “There’s a reason, if you’re the one that has always talked, between the two of us.”
“Don’t get all sentimental now,” she said, but her reply came a little unsure compared to the tone she had used up to that point. “It doesn’t suit you, at all.”
“How so?” The hare asked in return. “Can’t I be sentimental, every once in a while?” He was surprised by his own, ever so slight, irritation that naturally came along the question. And even more surprised when he found new words on the tip of his tongue, words he swallowed back in his throat with a painful gulp.
The vixen scoffed. “Oh, please, anything but this farce.”
“The only farce playing in this office, Ms. Walker, is the one you started when you came here.” He expected the hold Cynthia had on his shoulders to become tighter after that; that’s why he shifted his gaze over one of her white paws when her grip turned weaker instead.
“You call this a ‘farce’, but…” Jack witnessed the slow, almost soft movement of her paws sliding down his shoulders, powerless against the tingles that ran through his whole body as she carried on what could look like a long caress down his arms. “I just… want to know, Jack.”
There was a plea in her voice, in her eyes, in the way her paws were now connected over her chest, just above the moon pendant. A plea that Jack, in spite of himself, found almost velvety, almost tempting. His paws, still secluded into the depths of his pockets, squirmed nervously and clenched around the fabric of his pants as he forced himself to ask: “What is it that you want to know?”
“The reason why you… don’t want me anymore.” Cynthia seemed to shrink when the sentence left her lips – lips she was now torturing with her own teeth as golden eyes darted nervously through the room. “Did I do something wrong? Something that… I don’t know, embarrassed you? Like…”
Jack couldn’t help but wonder why the vixen had chosen to phrase her complaint in such a way that it could seem like she had been his, once. Which has never been the case, of course. But…
It was amazing how desirable it sounded for a moment, and how stupid he felt for even remotely thinking it sounded desirable. “… You should really choose your words more carefully, Walker,” he managed to say, his voice so low it might as well have been mistaken for a whisper.
Cynthia blinked, and then gave him a wary look. “Are you trying to derail the argument again?”
“I’m not. Just… no, never mind.” Jack shook his head and inhaled sharply. There was no way she could have meant what his ears had heard, therefore she couldn’t understand where his – apparently random – advice had come from. “So, you’re asking why I don’t want you anymore… as my partner?”
“I don’t know, are there other roles you also don’t want me to play?”
“… Of course not,” Jack replied, although he was aware of the lie concealed in those words. It tasted like gall, and he thought it was an appropriate flavor, given the current situation. “As for your question, I believe you’re overstating things here, Walker. You’ve never been officially partnered with me.”
“Even if it wasn’t official,” Cynthia insisted, “we basically had… I mean… oh, you know what I’m talking about.” She seemed to stumble upon herself for a moment, as her soft ears drew back and she growled a bit in obvious frustration. “Or are you gonna tell me you don’t?”
‘I do,’ said the voice inside his head, where no one but Jack could hear it. “Chemistry?” he suggested.
The vixen blinked, as if she wasn’t expecting him to come up with that specific term. “Chemistry… sounds fine,” she eventually allowed. “But I would use a different word. A more specific one.”
“And what might that word even be?” Jack asked.
“Connection.” She placed a paw over her chest and moved the other to point at him. “Between me… and you.” The two pools of gold sited above her muzzle glimmered when she said that, and Jack was sure he was going to have a heart attack because of how lovely she looked at that moment. “I… I can’t be the only one who felt this, Jack. I refuse to believe it.”
It took him a considerable effort to ignore the melancholic sweetness of her tone, the little twitches of her ears here and there, how vulnerable her figure appeared in his eyes – it wasn’t everyday one could catch Cynthia Walker in a weak moment, and he felt a sort of subtle pleasure in being able to witness such a rare event. ‘… What a fool I am,’ he thought, before shaking his head and replying: “I am sorry, Walker. I am really, really sorry.”
“What… what are you feeling sorry for?” Panic crept in her voice, worming its way between every syllable of her unsteady question. “I don’t like the face you’re making, Savage. Stop making that face.”
“It’s my face,” he said with a short sigh. “The only face Nature provided me with. If you don’t like it…”
“No, not your face, that face. Like… like you’re about to say something awful. Stop it!” She drew near again, quickly, both arms stretched towards his neck like she was getting ready to strangle him – which wouldn’t have been strange at all, whereas he was fully aware of Walker’s temper. Training prevented him from moving away, but did nothing to suppress the sense of fear that ran across his limbs in seeing a fox charging him at such close range.
But then… there was no pain around his neck, no claws pressing against his furred skin where he thought she had aimed at.
Instead, there was warmth on his cheeks, with a little pressure that only added consistency to the touch Jack was feeling all over his face. Two thumbs, one per side, pressed gently against his temples, rubbing them in a slow, almost imperceptible, circular motion. He didn’t know if she was doing it on purpose or unconsciously, but he certainly did know the effects of that little gesture on his nervous system.
“Stop… making that face, I can’t stand it,” Cynthia murmured, looking at him with an indescribable, bright gleam in her eyes that made every inch of his body quiver and caused his paws to finally come out of his pockets and grab hers firmly. The vixen showed no surprise for the motion, as if she was expecting it, but said nonetheless: “You know my hold is stronger than yours. You can’t free your face from my paws, unless you kick me in the stomach.”
“Would you let me do that?” Jack asked, the ghost of an amused grin trying to surface on his lips as he tested the strength of the new grip. It wasn’t as tight and painful as when she had grasped his shoulders, but it had the same solidity… and most importantly, it was warm. Which, somehow, managed to unsettle him more than her brute force could.
“Not a chance,” Cynthia replied, her tone neutral as she kept staring at him intently. “… You’re still making that face,” she added after a brief pause, frowning at him with eyes full of complaint. “I don’t know what is worse, your face or being ignored by you for a month.”
“Well, that was rude,” Jack was making no effort to release his cheeks from Cynthia’s clutches; it was pointless, and he detested struggling in vain. But still, there was a limit to how long he could stand the sensation of her paws over his body, any part of his body, without feeling the urge to… return the favor. Which was something he definitely couldn’t allow himself to do. “Now, let me go,” he asked, as firmly as his voice would permit him. “It was fun while it lasted, Walker, but I’ve exhausted my time now… and I believe we both have duties to perform.”
“I’m already performing mine,” she replied. “Knocking some sense into that thick skull of yours was supposed to be my job, no?”
“Cynthia…” Finally, her name left his lips as a sigh that had both torment and exasperation blended together. “I’m serious: let me go.”
“You refuse?” Jack scoffed and forced her paws to release his face, but to no avail. “Shall I consider this a full-blown aggression, then?”
“Take it as whatever you want, but I’m not going to leave this office until you give me an explanation, a real one this time.”
“Wasn’t the one I gave you last time real enough, for you?” He asked, slightly upset by the strength difference – both physical and mental – between him and the snow white, beautiful and stubborn vixen, determined to draw an answer from him at any cost. “What else must I tell you for you to understand? What else do you need to hear from me in order to…”
“You just told me we couldn’t work together anymore!” Her voice suddenly pitched high, her muzzle moved closer again. “What was I supposed to gather from that sentence?”
“You weren’t supposed to gather something, but to get its literal meaning.”
“… I’m aware that the existence of an actual brain inside your skull is still an issue of ongoing study and investigation by the scientific community,” Cynthia eventually retorted, taking care to articulate every word with her palpable anger – and every one of those words seemed to add further pressure to his temples – “but even you must realize what you’ve just said is stupid as hell. Right, Jack?”
“I had my reasons,” Jack stated, a sentence that caused Cynthia’s claws to dig into his cheeks. He ignored the pain and added: “It was not your fault, Walker.”
“Excuse me?” Anger mounted in him at that immediate retort. “How do you know?” He asked, his voice quivering with untold exasperation. “You make questions; you want answers… but can’t accept them. I might not be the best of interlocutors, but neither are you the best of auditors.”
“Buying your blatant excuses wouldn’t make me a good listener, but a fool. It was…” She sighed, clicked her tongue after a short pause and moved her gaze below his chin, on the black tie hanging on his neck. “It was… all going so well,” the vixen murmured. “We were doing great, weren’t we?”
Jack closed his eyes; he wanted to tell her to stop talking as much as he wanted to agree with her, but couldn’t do either, for completely opposite reasons. “But then…” Her voice interrupted his train of thoughts, “then… that mission happened, and you–”
“And you started avoiding me. I tried to reach you in every possible way after that, only to get rejected with nothing but evasive sentences. And now… you tell me that it’s not my fault!”
“Because it isn’t!”
“Bullshit!” She barked. “Tell me… tell me what I did wrong. I deserve to know that much!”
“You did nothing wrong, Cynthia!” Jack shouted, unexpectedly. He saw surprise flashing in her eyes, but didn’t really register it, because his thoughts were entirely occupied by his own emotions, at last having a chance to get the better of him. “Cut this nonsense out! I told you it’s not your fault, so be done with this! Be done with me!” Jack was now holding her paws, forcing them to release his face. He was so upset, to the point he didn’t even realize Cynthia was no longer putting strength into her grip. So, when those white, now surprisingly weak paws left the hare’s face, Jack suddenly felt the emptiness in his and he was dismayed. Something was off, but he couldn’t tell what.
“…” Cynthia stepped back, silence surrounding them like heavy smoke. However, her whole figure was… vibrating. She needed to make no sound at all, because she was the sound. Everything about her was communicating, speaking of something beyond Jack’s control and comprehension. It was like listening to a foreign language, but being able to perceive the weight of that indecipherable speech nonetheless.
Jack opened his mouth, moved his lips to form a word, but that world collapsed and vanished. And so did the others that he tried to speak, engulfed in the void. Then, he realized it weren’t the words that couldn’t be voiced; it was his whole mind that was being swallowed in the absolute, dark and cold nothing. He tried to gulp, but even that action felt almost impossible to accomplish.
Just then, a movement passed through the vixen’s face. Jack caught it and stared at her, his thoughts reduced to a white portrait as he followed the slow opening of her muzzle, until her voice poured from it. “So, it seems… that I made a fundamental mistake.” Cynthia closed her eyes and covered them with both paws as a short sigh left her muzzle. She stayed like this for a while, until she unveiled the pale gold and met his gaze again. “I thought you were different,” the vixen simply said. “Being so distant, so reserved… I thought it was just a facade. You know,” she chuckled, not the slightest hint of amusement in her, “a professional semblance, or something of that sort. It’d have been appropriate, for a mammal like you. A professional – which is what you are. But it turned out… that the mask was your face, all along.”
“Walker…” Jack called her, and she stared at him.
But not to listen, as she immediately made clear by the brisk shaking of her head. “You will refrain from saying more that you already did, just as I’ll refrain from asking more than I’m willing to suffer. I already had enough for the rest of my life.” She sucked in a deep breath that seemed to deprive the room from all the oxygen and embraced herself with both arms as to protect her figure from the threat he was, most likely, posing. “Up to this point,” she continued, “I don’t even know why I came here, today. What I had in mind when I thought that facing you was the right thing to do, what I was hoping for. Maybe… I really am delusional.” She laughed, and it sounded like pieces of glass shattering on the floor. “Quite a spectacle you’ve been offered today, huh? Your ego must be over the moon right now.”
“You’re wrong,” he finally managed to say, his first words after a silence that seemed to last longer than his very life. The pathetic way those words sounded made him realize that he was short of breath – which, in turn, advised him that his heart was slamming fast, too fast, against his chest.
“I was wrong,” Cynthia corrected him. “Wrong, when I thought you were worth any of the shame I was about to bring upon myself by coming into your office. But now, I’m right. And you,” she hissed, quietly and scathingly, “you’re wrong. Everything about you is wrong, and you try to reflect your wrongness on others. You always did; I just was too much of a fool to realize it. Or perhaps… I pretended to not realize.”
“Why…” He tried to ask, even if he was suffocating with the weight of her accusations, “Why would you do something like that?”
There was a change in Cynthia. It was… nowhere, and in every place at the same time. Her face changed, despite staying the same; the light in her eyes took on a different shade of amber, despite them looking at him like they always did: fiercely, with a small hint of sadness that gave them a peculiar aspect he couldn’t quite put into words. Even her voice changed, for the umpteenth time during that conversation, now wearing a veneer of heartbreaking heaviness that left his soul throbbing and sobbing. “Because I wanted to be by your side,” Cynthia admitted – and Jack was sure there were tears somewhere in her eyes while she said that, just as he was sure there were knives driven into his chest – before wiping her own, mortifying confession out with a chipped chuckle. “But it’s okay; you don’t want us to operate as a team anymore? Fine, let’s just revert our relationship to the way it was before, when we both minded our business with no connection whatsoever, when you were the lone wolf and I was convinced that no one could reach you at the pedestal you had put yourself over. Heaven forbid I ever become a nuisance for the great, talented and living-for-his-job Jack Savage.” Her shoulders trembled slightly when she vented the last piece of that long, stifling sentence, but the vixen composed herself very quickly, massaging the basement of her muzzle with two solid fingers as she locked eyes with him again. “I hope you’re satisfied now, since you got another victory to add to your perfect record. I wonder how many others you’ve enjoyed watching as they proceeded to be crushed beneath their own foolishness.”
“Do I look like I’m enjoying any of this, Walker?”
“Do I look like I care?” Cynthia shrugged. “I’m done caring about anything that concerns you. And now, you’ll excuse me, but I should really go. You have a plane to take, and I have matters that demand my full attention. Thank you for finally spelling things out clearly, Mr. Savage.” Cynthia offered him a sarky bow, then stalked towards the door. She passed by him, her majestic tail barely brushing the floor around his feet. That made him feel like he was nothing but dust, a sensation which perfectly matched with his urgent need to be blown away and cease to exist.
He knew he had to say something. Tangled sentences started to crowd inside his mind, shoving each other in an attempt to earn the right to be expressed. But none of them made it to his mouth and he just stared blankly at the wall at the other side of the office, feeling empty inside, feeling like he was falling down, crushed under the pressure of his own, fatal mistakes. Again, he was incapable of articulating a single word.
Cynthia’s voice reached him from behind his back. It sounded distant, like it belonged to another dimension. So, Jack turned to her to confirm she was still, somehow, part of his world. “I strongly discourage you to try to interact with me in the next future, Savage,” the vixen suggested, her back turned to him as she kept moving towards the door. “I cannot guarantee your safety in that case, and, honestly, I don’t want to ruin my career because I accidentally tried to murder a co-worker.” Cynthia pulled the handle down, and the door opened, revealing the empty hallway. She stepped outside, as silent as a shadow could be. However… Jack could hear something every time her feet-paws touched the floor.
It was, probably, the sound of his heart being shattered piece by piece.