Help Me Piece It All Together, Darling

Stoneridge Winery 
@"Yana Novik"

Having been more frequently in contact with Yana this week than perhaps any week before in their relationship, often coming along in person just to check in, it probably hadn't been much of a surprise at all when Levka had originally texted, asking after Mathis' condition. But when he'd been reassured that all was well, the demand had come in line:

Yana Novik was going to spend the evening kidnapped.

Lest she continue to spend her time between home and work, pointedly driven in keeping everything together, Levka had devised a plan that felt cunning but was ultimately simple. Ask the woman to dress nice, get the skeptical response of what he meant by 'nice,' exchange some slightly illiterate attempts at pouting...

But a good while before sundown, while the evening was still young, he showed up to drag her out the door, apparently pleased enough with her choice of dress that he ultimately didn't hesitate in ushering her to his car, and to his originally intended destination. With promises of having her home before her curfew or before Mathis needed to be tucked into bed, they didn't have far to go.

But that didn't stop him from leaning over during a stop at a red light, to drop his head onto her shoulder and tap her knee with a hand that then rested there for the minute they had to sit here and wait for traffic. "Not far from your home, I promise, see? But you cannot stay in your home every night until he goes. For all you know he will try to stay forever."

She was being nice enough to her second that he wouldn't blame the man if he did.


 It was hard not to feel the slightest bit irritated that she had been, in the end, sort of tricked into it. A bait and switch that worked, so she would claim, solely because she had gotten comfortable enough with him that she had not thought to take the time to consider it possible. One minute she had been cleaning up the kitchen from lunch and then the next she had been up to her neck in banter about the very relative definition of the word 'nice'.

 All the same, there was a selfish part of her (a major part of her, really) that wiggled and leaped at the idea of this brief escape. Indulged in the slight tinge of guilt as she had made the walk down the drive and to the car. Still diffusing as she settled in to the passenger seat, her hand slid easily over his and she kept one metaphysical finger on the pulse of Belle Vista.

 Relaxed, happy, but ever so slightly on guard all the same - braced for the other shoe to drop even as she took a moment to enjoy the view. "Considering I had to insist that he stay with me, I highly doubt that." Not so opposed to fresh air, but not exactly prepared with an arsenal of quips at the residual fatigue she felt in droves.

"What are you up to, Levka?"

"Problem with your assuming this is I know that the more he is around you, the more he will like you. This is what happened with me and now look at us."

Even if she didn't rise to the occasion of their usual verbal sparring, he didn't seem to mind. And it seemed that most of his taciturn surliness that had come on with Yana's situation had been put to rest. His mood was good, and unlike her, he didn't have someone he was regularly lending Queenly power to. Fact was, she was running on low, and she would be until she saw fit to let Mathis go.

Soon, everyone could hope. The fact that there had been no more repercussions outside of that initial night so far felt promising, but guards would be up for a while.

At her skeptical query, he merely gave her a catty smile, more amusement than offense. "Yanochka, please. You do not trust me enough to wait and see where this is going?"

 "I know you're teasing but you sound competitive and it's most unappealing when it's over me." All the same her voice was good natured, shooting him a look but saying not a word further as she leaned in and craned her neck to press a kiss to his cheek. Perhaps for some jealousy was appealing, but it had it's place and time and namely it wasn't in a set of circumstances that made her feel like a piece of prime real-estate.

 She stretched her legs out as much as she could, tilted her head back and watched the street signs curiously. "For what it's worth, I do believe I'm not his type." No outright confirmation there, none need it, just a theory that had only been solidified since his temporary residence in her home. "I trust you, but I'm not known to have much of a silent and submissive streak."

Teasing though he could be, he didn't truly fear any competition from Mathis or really any cheetah or whatever else Yana might associate with. At least, he chose to imagine he had no more reason to be suspicious of the men in her life than she did of the women in his. In theory, this was good enough for him. His potential for jealousy had never actually been tested in this capacity.

So, he chuckled, resisted the urge to ask how anyone could possibly not find Yana enticing, and instead let it settle with, "I am not actually worried." Simple sentiment, plenty of layers.

And as she continued to insist that she wished to know what was going on, he hummed. "Do I make you guess?" he ventured. "I will tell you this is not going to take you from Belle Vista, but this will be my first time going where we go."

Though focused somewhat on driving, he glanced over to her as often as he could.

 "You are more than welcome to wait for me to guess, but you'll be waiting for a while." She pinched the side of his thigh, barely anything in terms of strength as she still found herself making a mental, primitive map of her home.

 Begrudgingly she sighed heavily, laid it on thick like she was doing him some sort of a favor. "It's a restaurant? A museum? A ... what?" A little testier at the end though she played it off with a small burst of laughter. "A scenic drive about the neighborhood before you take me right back home?"

This was the point where he definitely should have fessed up and given her an answer since she had been kind enough to play along.

But no, of course not.

"Hmm, it seems you have me all figured out. If you wish, feel free to roll down the window and be putting your head out for some fresh air. If you smell something interesting perhaps we can stop and let you sniff around a little before I take you back to your yard."

It sounded like a very kind offer.

 She wasn't sure what had gotten into him - a fever, some sort of chemical, something. But whatever it was, the sarcasm threw her enough that she laughed even if it was (jokingly) offensive. At once she moved, reached out and jabbed the tips of her fingers sharply into his side. "Asshole." This one, it demanded English.

 "I refuse to stoop to your level but just know that I could hurt your feelings, Levka" The taunting enough to wake her up a bit, a little sliver of her usual self returned.

It hurt. Not his feelings, of course, but the physical contact of her angry fingers with his side. The yelp, and the quick throw-in of, "У нас будет несчастный случай," as if that was something he was actually worried about as she accosted him behind the wheel. Hardly so, though maybe he should be more mindful of baiting her when his attention was meant to be elsewhere.

Laughter on the cusp of that, tight but vibrant and he stole another look at her as she retorted.

"Could you?" he goaded, knowing full well he should not.

 You're an accident. She cleared her throat to mask a chuckle at the immediate thought, recomposed herself - not nice, Yana. Still he tested his luck, almost seemed to bait the hook as he dared to search for holes in her defense. She pursed her lips, unsure about aiming to offend one of the few friends that she had.

 "I absolutely could and then you'd have to run home to your bears and snuggle up with them instead." And that much at least, she seemed almost impossible confident about. "Я думаю, нам пашанцавала, вы едзеце, як бабуля." She faced forward for that one, tame in the face of the ammunition that they had on one another.

He made a noise of derision, as if he did not believe her. But.. all the same, he knew better. It was a blessing to him that he likely did not deserve that she had far better restraint than he often did. Given that same taunting, he would have snapped for the throat. Maybe not have held for long, but... well, there would have been plenty of room for regret if it got too viscous.

So... whatever she had said. Something about them collectively. Something about luck, which he only knew because he'd heard that word in her language several times now, with intent, and something about... perhaps grandmothers, but he swore that couldn't be right.

Eyes forward, he shook his head. "We would both be at least a small bit sad if you chased me off with whatever pale hurts you dig at my side." A little rub of his own elbow at the spot she'd left somewhat sore as a reminder of the lines he chose to cross.

 Pale hurts. Like a loyal pet dog that didn't quiet understand the concept of a glass door, he kept bashing himself against the rocks and waited for something to break. Normally the well of patience she had for it was astounding. But, faced with her life as a whole as of just recently, the corners of her mouth twitched the slightest bit but she held herself back.

 Still, there were other ways to be a torture, something she reminded the both of them by snapping her fingers beside his ear. "Focus. Where are we going?" She supposed she could have tacked on a please, but ... pale insults.

He flinched at the sharp snap near his head--sensitive ears and all. Might have snapped at those fingers if he wasn't both feeling the edges of her patience and making a left at an intersection. Focus, focus, right.

"Felt to take you to your sort of place. Go stalk the winery for a good dinner before the jaguars decide to rub their faces all over it."

Not that they had exactly talked about how or if that was progressing at all, since the whole... ordeal. But one could assume that the jaguars were getting along here. So unless they'd gotten cold feet... well, either way, it hardly made a difference to his decision tonight. It was not his scene, this place he was driving to, but he had decided to willingly subject himself to things outside of his personal scope.

 "I suppose that's wise." She chuckled, watched the approaching winery with a fresh perspective. Some baseline primitive part of her, annoyed at the idea of shared land. Some immature and undiplomatic voice that wondered if it would dilute what she had here. Wary but far from stupid, she pushed all of that down and focused on the hard and indisputable facts at hand.

 "Even you have your bright moments." A backwards compliment as she patted his arm like he was a child caught in the middle of doing a good deed. "When all the dust settles I'll need to reach out to Asha again and see how this procurement is going so far."

Wise wasn't necessarily what he was going for, but he would take it. Just as he would take the backhanded praise, desperate as he often was for any sort of acknowledgement. From her, though, it was a good thing. Every little slip of being praised for good traits just made him want to push them up more. Being considerate, forward-thinking... not his strongest suits over the years of his bear life, but he was reaping benefits now.

"They seem to have done a good impression so far. Asha--" he used her real name only because it was easier to echo after Yana had just used it, and he hardly noticed, somewhere along the line having internalized it, "--and the others."

Frankly, he still favored Frank. He would have kicked Frank straight out of the house if he had shifted that night, without a stroke of sympathy about it, but the fact could not be denied that the doctor had held it together better than nearly anyone else. A perplexing young cat, but a good cat. And of course he liked Nika, even if she'd threatened to rub him wrong at first.

Jury still out on most of the others. That included the snitch better known as Abraham, sometimes known as Cactus. His assistance with Mathis was appreciated enough, but first impressions had been muddled by time and Levka wasn't really sure what to bet on in the face of that backpedal.

 She shrugged her shoulders at the mention of Asha and her ragtag gang of jaguars, laid her head back and closed her eyes long enough to watch the flicker of sunlight from behind her eyelids. "They're not the most ... composed group, but I suppose that doesn't matter as long as they're effective." She didn't need to like every choice and opinion, as long as it wasn't a threat to her own - a fact she tried to remind herself of at every turn and twist, before every interaction.

 "I imagine a lot of that will come in time." She turned her head, looked back at him and cracked a smile as she moved to nudge his arm with the backs of her fingers. "Look at you, you used to be, well - you know. And now you're almost socialized." She didn't even know what she was referring to, simply trying to get some sort of a reaction out of him.

To be honest, he wasn't really sure what 'composed' implied. Like... as individuals? Maybe. He could see that. But then the same could have been said about--

Hey. He eyed Yana for a moment, resisted matching her smile in any way. He figured insult was implied, so he squinted a little as if figuring it out. Set his teeth together and mulled with a hum. You know, she said... and threw on 'almost' like he nearly measured up but was missing the ledge of perfection with the tips of his fingers.

"Is this for my whistling at you the other night?" The other night. The big one. But it was easy to remember a giant cat grumbling at you for not using your words.

 "Oh, you mean the part where you all but dangled a little bell collar? Got me a few feathers on a stick?" Her voice raised the slightest bit, making a show of pressing a hand to her chest as if the sheer idea was offensive. "What would ever make you think I'd hold that against you?" Nevermind the whole business of having a title, a group, some members of which were present at the time.

 All the same the offense was marginal, truthfully. Mostly a plucked nerve that radiated into a scoff-worthy bit of humor. "Perish the thought, bear. Next time we'll make some porridge jokes and I'll grunt at you."

Having to bite his lip to keep from smiling, they were coming up on their destination, so he focused forward but gave her the majority of his attention regardless. A brief mental image of trying to collar the beastly cheetah queen was nearly too much, even for him. Insults like that were definitely for lesser creatures. Not her, not ever.

Though he wouldn't have minded wrestling her cat to the bed and getting a better look at her paws and claws. She hadn't stuck around like that for long, and even he knew there had been a decent chance of his getting bitten. Maybe another time he'd test some waters, but that night had most certainly not been ideal.

"When there is a very large bear trying to smother you, you are welcome to make every joke that feels right." Now the smile, lightly constrained, as he turned right into the parking lot of the rolling estate that was the winery.

"You are a very striking cat, but I did not mean to treat you as a pet."

An apology, maybe?

 She was deathly silent for a while, listening to him build a defense and an apology all at once, keeping to herself and nodding along even as they turned onto the property. "Thank you." And while the years meant that she had come to blur the lines between one voice in the other, she was still familiar enough with the early days to know she was never one for false modesty.

 "You know, way back when - before I could even risk going out to close to the full moon, I would fight most things for far less than a whistle." Then again she supposed a giant polar bear that was mostly feral wasn't exactly sociable. "I still can't tell if you even like wine." Sure, there was what now felt like a signature bottle, but that was half sentiment as far as she was concerned.

Listening to her point, the thing that could have been taken as a warning--don't push your limits, bear--he nodded anyway, smiling softly to the prospect. Found himself idly wishing he'd known her in the early days, or at least had a way of witnessing it. The breadcrumb trail of stories she'd told him over the months painted a decent enough picture, but he would be very curious to see a less seasoned Yana Novik in action, if only for a moment.

His own track record was less than amazing, and she knew as much, so it wasn't as if he would judge her for violence or aggravation.

The point about the wine, though, made him laugh, short and actually rather sweet as he found a parking spot on a second aisle and turned in. Putting the car into park, he looked at her and shook his head. "Only with you," he said, quite sincerely. It wasn't that he hated it, but...

Well, his cabinet at home could tell enough of a story at a glance.

 Well you don't have to pretend for my benefit. As if, by some strange sort of witchcraft, he could look more like the locals if he enjoyed a dry red and folded his shirt sleeves neat enough. There was no dressing him up as anything but he was, the tiny things she scolded more so for personal improvement than any desire to truly mold him away from himself.

 By the other side of that same coin, she didn't make a habit of spending weekends out in the woods - particularly on two legs instead of four. Not when she wasn't with him, at least. It wasn't a disservice to herself, it was just ... meeting in the middle. An imperative part of keeping this as close to organic as possible.

 "Well fine then, you can follow my lead and smile and nod when the time comes for it." She reached out, squeezed his fingers before she pushed her door open and slid out of the car. "Hard to imagine how different this place might be soon enough ..."

He smiled and nodded for great effect at her as she moved to get out, then joined her with a bit of an enthusiastic tilt to his movements. This wasn't his scene in the least, but being with her did make everything a strange shade of 'much better.' Preferred to be here in Belle Vista, entertaining her for the moment, over going home and living a life more suited to him as an individual. Proof that certain compromises didn't really feel even close to sacrifice.

He looked at her across the top of the car and shrugged, then came around to join her. "Do you think they would think to rename it?" A genuine question, undermined immediately by, "Redo the upholstery in jaguar."

Was it morbid to decorate in your own patterns? He didn't think so. There had actually been a pretty nice (actual) bear pelt back home, but he'd always felt like that was a twisted bit of humor by his own former King. The reminder that while they were bears, they were not animals. Animals were still well beneath them.

 She lifted and dropped her shoulders at once, smoothed out her skirt and adjusted the strap of her bag as they started the walk to the front entrance of the winery. "I have little control over what they do, but I choose to believe Asha is smart enough not to do ... that." The upholstery, of course, little in the way of a strong opinion on the name of the present winery.

 "I just worry that something will fall to the wayside and be exploited." She realized almost immediately it was vague, wiggled her fingers at her sides to keep from fidgeting. "I mean, plenty of chef's in the kitchen sometimes makes for chaos, let's things burn." He owned a diner, he had to get it.

As they crossed the parking lot, he listened to her thoughts on the matter, found he didn't have either faith or a lack of faith in Nika and her tastes. For all he liked that girl's moxie, he didn't really know her. With any luck, Yana already had a better read on the situation.

But with Yana fidgeting slightly, he reached over to take her hand as they approached the front walk to the wing of the winery where the dining tables were quietly bustling with the dinner scene just beyond glass doors. "Just have to be loudest chef, Yanochka." When there was chaos, everyone was listening for a voice to take charge whether they know it or not.

"Burned food happens, but what is done after is what counts the most." He shrugged, sincerely... not so worried about her, about Belle Vista. The jaguars he could take or leave, but so far he felt like they were not an incredible risk. Not the sort that the cheetahs could not counter effectively.

 She had exhausted just enough of her ample reserve of pride, that she didn't even want to shake his hand off of her own. Tired enough to turn her wrist and lazily lace their fingers together, she tried to settle who she was with elements of the past that were hard to shake. In the beginning there had been this grandiose idea in which she would keep an isolated fortress. People could visit, they could work and they could shop - but when it was time to go home it was not going to be in Belle Vista.

 And then there was vampires and news that shook everything loose and an unexpected but well timed business meeting turned hand-to-hold. And while she acknowledged it was an improvement (and one that probably saved Mathis' life by association). There was a question of how far was too far. There was also the very real possibility of fatigue making her a little too cautious and hyper aware, but she chose not to think about that as she bumped the side of her head against his arm.

"It is good to have you then - no one is more loud and obnoxious."

He laughed as they went up the walk, clearly proud enough to be both those things. "For you, it is easy." In both this context, and in others.

Though he did not envy her and her position, having to decide if another group on her land was worth it after all. They had hit good points, he had no doubt, he had seen much of that for himself. But the fact was, it was a vulnerability. One she could handle? Yes. One that would be all fun and cooperation? Almost certainly not.

They got to the front door and he pulled it open, less holding it for her and more ushering her through as if he went through first she might just stay outside and leave him to fend in high society on his own. But before Yana could assume that perhaps he was so out of his element that he could not do this himself, when the host approached, it was made clear there was already a reservation under Orlovsky. Expected, and to be seated immediately, as they might have been... just a fraction late.

 She assumed that Levka and high society was a lot like a well-tailed tuxedo and most people. A suit he perhaps owned, but for the most part, it stayed tucked away in the back of his closet. Something he could do if the need arose, but not something that he favored. She supposed half of her way of life was that she liked nice things, the other half was the simple and universal fact that nice things tended to humble some people.

 After he gave his name, she tilted her head back, whispered near his ear and gave his arm a squeeze. "Look at you, ..." Impressed but with no real intent to be anything besides complimentary. As they were led to the table, she let go and moved to settle in across from him, muttered a thank you to their hostess.

 "If I never hear the name Margaux or the word Cordova again, it would be too soon." A not so subtle way of banning the matter altogether. "How have you been?" Eager to sweep her own dirt under the rug for the time being.

Truth be told, if she hadn't turned up wearing something sufficient for this venue, he would have gone to plan b and taken her somewhere relatively nice on Restaurant Row and absolutely would have disregarded calling to cancel the reservation. So it had all worked out for the best and no one had to be any the wiser to that, and she could flatter him for occasional foresight.

Settled in with promises of a waiter before long, he raised a brow at her as she banned certain topics and... while there was that petty part of him that wanted to make light of it, attempt to breech that immediately just to be an ass, he thought better of it.

"Fine, actually. No fuss in the Glenn." Maybe too quiet, but given what Yana had just been through--and was still going through--it felt like asking for actual terrors to confess boredom. Better to cling to his own streak of luck and act as a life line while he could.

"I think Kroc is moderately annoyed at all my time in Belle Vista, but she has yet to be shooting me."

Which meant that his guardian was actually totally fine with it, of course.

 She liked his little collection of polar bears, valued them for what they were - old friends, souls that had something in common besides just a beast. She smoothed her hand over the plastic sleeve of the wine menu, pursed her lips and looked up enough to shoot him a look. "You don't have to spend so much time down here." And she worked hard to sound indifferent, uncharacteristically sensitive to little remarks such as that once in the face of all that had happened and continued to evolve.

"If it becomes a hindrance, I mean ... you're not obligated to me or Belle Vista for that matter."

Content to let her pick their drink, should she want anything at all, he neglected menus in favor of watching her for that moment. Just a drawn second where he really observed her and the way she presented herself.

His own eyes dark, speculative in the dim atmosphere of first class dining, he tilted his head a fraction and offered, "I know."

He'd not signed any contract, hadn't even really made any directly binding promises that he could remember. But still... "If I was fussy for it you know I would not be here. Relax."

 "Don't tell me to relax." It was a knee-jerk response to even the most well-intentioned of one word commands. Face hard as she stared up at him but kept her face down and towards the menu. There was a serious pause, the slightest moment of quiet before she moved beneath the table to set her feet on top of his. Some wordless way to lessen it, or so she hoped.

"... Just can't stay away."

He didn't particularly love being told off, just as she didn't love being told what to do. But she didn't do it often, so the pause on his part was mostly waiting see if he'd caused actual offense or...

Not. It seemed not. Nothing lasting, anyway, as he felt the soles of her shoes over top of his. A familiar gesture that took him back... many weeks. Months, this point. During the period of time where he'd been riling up the chase and she'd been dodging his grasp. Different times, similar feelings.

He flexed his foot up into hers as an acknowledgment and then dropped his hand to the table between them, palm up. A wordless bid for her hand. "Cannot, indeed. Or perhaps this is do not want to." Same results, either away, and not mutually exclusive.

 A personal weakness that was too large to ignore, she didn't do apologies - even as a child, finding her own words difficult to swallow. It wasn't that she didn't think she had the capability to be wrong, it was just ... easier to apply affection over it. Smooth over the cracks in her composure as she eventually moved her foot from over his and slid her hand into his.

 "Stay here then." Not permanently perhaps but a reminder that the door was open, that the key had been presented to him and would stay that way. "So, do you even know what you're looking at?" She tapped a nail against the sizeable wine list and didn't bother to mask her doubts.

Staying here, forever a temptation. He sometimes wondered if she realized just how much of a temptation that was for him. Perhaps so... but he couldn't be sure without asking, and that just wasn't what they did. Especially not right here, right now. Public places were not right for those little flashes of forward vulnerability.

So he squeezed her hand just enough to settle a thought then chuckled dryly at her--or more like at himself.

"If I tell you this is all nonsense to me, will you read the whole thing out loud to me?"

 "Not out loud, never out loud - that insults your intelligence." The appearance of weak in any prospect, not one she wanted to propogate for him. They were, after all, in Belle Vista, there were expectations to be had. So instead she turned the menu round, showed it to him as if he didn't have his own and leaned further into the table. With one quick glance about to make certain they hadn't earned anyone's explicit attention, she started at a whisper.

 "What you'll enjoy depends a lot on what you intend to eat, if anything at all." She like her lips, tapped beside the name of a particular Malbec. "A personal favorite."

He'd expected her denial of his suggestion, ridiculous as it was, but her particular reasons for it had him further amused. Appearances were important, after all, and he was prepared to let her cling to that as long as it made her comfortable. Half the reason he was dressed rather nicely, even by his own moderate standards, was because he knew she'd expect as much if they were going to muck around her city, in daylight.

He tapped the same name of the same wine like he knew anything of what she was on about. "That one, then. Or whatever one you are wanting for yourself. Or you think will work with food. You pick, I buy."

To him, a symbiotic relationship for the evening. He had gotten them here, he would get them out fair and square, but she could make a few gestures to ensure they had a nice duration.

 It was as good as a man behind the wheel of a ship, slowly putting his hands in the air and splaying out his fingers. A universal way of showing that he was entirely out of his depth where the realm of fine wine was concerned.

 That was fine, she imagined between the two of them there was more than just one or two things she would happily defer on, should the need arise. There was a temptation to make this into an ordeal, a proper date after what felt like a week birthed straight in the center of hell.

 But the fact of the matter was that she stayed very much aware of what she had left at home, the sort of worry that spanned past fretting about the stove and whether it was still turned on or not So, a meal would be nice - peace of mind held a value that was hard to put into a number. "Then we’ll split a bottle, take our time and head back after." Less interested in rushing through her time with him, very interested in not being forced to dwell on Mathis and his half-healed wounds.

"This sounds like a plan I can support," he agreed. There had been some consideration, previously, of trying to steal her for longer. Maybe literally break into the orchard after dark, take a walk... but he felt like such suggestions would need to come from her tonight, or be gauged around the time of their finishing up here. Purposefully keeping her to himself felt selfish in a way that didn't seem satisfying. Less worried about Mathis himself, more considering her feelings. He could coax her into a great number of things, confident that it was for the best, but this did not feel one of them. For once.

Stretching a leg under the table, he let his heel settle back around behind one of hers and rested there. Idle contact was like a lifeline, even when you weren't casually drowning.

"Can you imagine if I came into here on my own?" As much as he considered himself a man of quality, there was such a difference between this place and his own upscale haunts. Something about delicate glass and fragile manners would never suit a bear, no matter how well groomed he might be.

 She felt the proximity of his leg near hers, a small comfort that was a consistency, a habit between them by now. She slid her own foot back a bit, nudged against him properly and waited for the waiter to pass in order to set to order for the both of them. A part of her doubted he could or would go without food, but that wasn't worth the commentary. Instead, she honed in on the idea of Levka Orlovsky, left to his own devices here of all places - a sore thumb if there ever was one.

 "Официант, где меню ликера?" The Russian was choppy but more or less understandable, voice deep and mocking as she motioned, threw her hands in the air as if agitated. "If it was last year, I would have paid money to see it. And then I would have made you pay for the waiter's time being I kicked you out of Belle Vista."

Some part of him insisted that he could have made a proper go of it on his own. The reckless voice that knew nothing of failure, repeated or otherwise. But in reality a black sheep was still a black sheep, no matter how you dressed it.

And her, speaking Russian, however choppy, however intended for mockery it was, still did nice things for him, which softened any implications of this particular 'what if' answer. Biting his own lip softly to keep from laughing outright, he shrugged a shoulder and looked across the table to her in that way that meant he was thinking, but it did not last long.

"I am glad to be here now instead of then. You would not like me so much if first impressions were my putting heels into the floor over your being top."

Really, something of their first interaction was miraculous. Her, without reason to show him who was boss. Him, not even King yet, but looking to make a good gesture for when he was. An unexpected but true alliance from the start, which had paved their path, surprising as it was, to be much easier.

 She was quiet for a moment, still as she held her hand over one of the candles on the table, hovered over it and waited to feel the growing heat on the center of her palm. "Mm, first impressions can be deceiving. You've turned out a good deal different from what I had anticipated." A good deal different as an individual, and in the sense of the value that he held within her life.

"You're lucky." More ways than one, a tug of her sleeve to show more ego than she would normally allow.

They'd had this conversation before, to some degree. The fact that first impressions had been unexpected, and from there on out had been moreso.

Luck, too, factored into it quite nicely.

"We're lucky," he corrected, his own ego rising to the occasion.

He glanced up then, hoping to catch the eye of some waiter or something, feeling tired of waiting. With his eyes off of her even as he summoned the attention of a man dressed in the usual manner of the establishment, he commented, "And we are smart enough to be getting what we deserve."

With the waiter finally coming over, his gaze dropped back to the menu, already having forgotten what it was that she had suggested.

 She bent at the waist the slightest bit, leaned a little further into the table and brushed her hand against his as the waiter approached. Some gentle way to steady him so that she could handle the ordering part of the ordeal at least. She waited for a beat, helped stack both of their menus before handing them off, went through the motions and looked back at him properly.

"For the sake of clarity, what is it that we deserve?"

There was something about just existing with her, no matter what they were doing, that felt good to him. He might even go so far as to say it felt right... It was different than the rightness that existed in the same preternatural presence of others werebears, less inherent, less expected. He hesitated to even consider the fact that that made it better, being something outside of his definition of ordinary, but, well.

Many years of life later, this was a novelty in a world where those had become few.

So his mind had wandered, but when she returned her attention to him, order made and decisions outside his realm of expertise set, it didn't actually take much to remember the context he'd had for his own previous statement.

"Mostly? Each other. Other things... yes, but mostly for not letting each other get away."

Could have happened, easily. They'd already played with plenty of excuses to not do this in the past, but they weren't stupid enough for that and such was his point.

 She supposed that was a well-fitted way to look at things, that they were a reward to one another in a way. In a time and a life where everything was kin and beast and leader, she'd set aside a small sliver of her life. Once in a blue moon, irritable from hunger or the proximity of a full moon, she'd feel the prickle of unease. A not-so little voice that was pure beast and was quick to remind her that he was no cheetah, no cat for that matter. Yes, I know - a quiet and internalized barter as she threw herself into work to keep them afloat and safe.

Yes, she knew.

 Knew why it was enough to give pause, even when people were too polite to outright ask. Knew how it sounded if it was typed out in an email or sent in a text message. "Согласен." She bowed her head, the slightest nod before she smoothed her palms over the surface of the table.

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