Sometimes, Love IS Enough
"Gino's." Jack read the sign of twisted neon wire, knowing his voice revealed more surprise than he intended. He had been expecting ferns, soft music and, at this time of day, long lines at any restaurant Zach deigned fit to patronize. Instead they stood at the junction of the mall food court and the convention center, at the top of a short flight of stairs leading to a set of plain wooden doors. Surrounded by the pricey boutiques and very expensive jewelry stores positioned to catch the bored conventioneers' spouses, the restaurant looked like the entrance to a broom closet.
Zach noted his expression and nodded, once. "I know it doesn't look like much, but you can find good food in the strangest places. C'mon."
He led the way inside and Jack wondered at the comment. Maybe he didn't know Zach as well as he'd thought in some areas. He'd been under the impression that Zach wouldn't take the chance of being seen anywhere beneath a four star rating. Of course, he hadn't expected Zach to be out in public in jeans, either.
The narrow front room inside held only a cashier's stand and two long benches, but it gave the first hint to a trained eye of what waited beyond. Every detail, from tile to art to the intricate beaded curtain setting off the dining room, was an example of fine workmanship, well worn. One particular piece set in the left-hand wall was worth as much as the entire restaurant and Zach credited Jack with a good eye when his gaze lingered on it. It was a figurine of a dragon worked in dark jade and black onyx, and no price could part Gino from it. Zach had a bitter knowledge of how the old ex-spook had gotten the thing, and from whom. ~Damn her for risking a mission over some need to make reparations for fifty-year-old war crimes.~ But he hadn't thought of Arashi in ages, and this wasn't the day to start.
It was only a couple of minutes' wait for a table, but long enough for Zach to begin easing his guard down from habit of experience. Gino had been well paid by the local politicians and corporate executives for the last fifteen years to maintain an unobtrusive façade over a surveillance free environment. The place was flawlessly designed, frequently swept, attended by no one Gino did not personally know, and on its own self-contained electricity and phone. Two of his adult sons slept in the restaurant every night so that, while the physical introduction of bugs was not impossible, it would result in a confrontation that would render the effort pointless.
Zach led the way into the dining room secure that not even Three Eyes surveillance would follow.
Jack stopped in midstep just within the dining room proper and frankly gawked. Zach paused too, just at his shoulder, embarrassed by the child-like pleasure he felt at seeing his surprise so appreciated. "This place is the best kept secret in the state," he murmured, watching Jack's quick eyes taking in everything.
An intricately patterned wall hanging faced them down the length of the far wall, backdrop to delicate dark wood tables placed strategically amid brightly painted decorative partitions. Water in small fountains trickled down between bonsai into tiny pools where the bright flash of goldfish caught the soft light. All concept of the mall behind them retreated from thought.
"It's…beautiful," Jack replied after a long moment. Only to realize that Zach was a step away and getting further as he followed the waiter. He took a quick glance around as he turned to walk behind them and found a trio in business suits giving him questioning stares. Unprepared, he returned them for a moment, old emotions stirring, shaking the steadiness he had held so tightly through the morning. Not all humans were oblivious to the lambent threat in him. If these women sensed their danger on some level he had to be prepared to react against them.
Then the oldest of the group made a quiet comment, the other two laughed, and they went back to their conversation. Jack ducked his head and turned, forcing the old feelings away, letting simple embarrassment over his jeans come in to remind himself of the entire new set of feelings appropriate to this new life.
It was just hard, being among so many strangers again, trying not to allow the old dread and horror at the thought of what he might do erode his control over what he was actually doing. The last time he'd moved through crowds on a regular basis had been before Logan found him. Back when he was still a hunter, when every human had still been potential prey. And occasionally one of them had known it, and tried to eliminate him as a danger, and what he had done to them…
Jack took a deep breath and raised his head just in time to catch a tableful of young girls expressing loud appreciation for the passing Zach. Noticing the shorts and sandals on some of them, he looked around and realized that there was a healthy smattering of variously dressed mall-goers among the dark suits. He had to stop being so paranoid. Those women had been returning his undirected stare of surprise at the setting, not criticizing his attire. He had done so well at keeping things in perspective thus far, but it had been through a tightly focused determination to do so. The moment he was caught by surprise the old way of thinking returned.
But he was not what he had been, and his newly won discipline had not even really been tested today. His satisfaction in the thought fought back the impending despair. He was beginning to trust himself, and with good reason, and it was time to start retraining those old responses as opposed to merely repressing them. He'd known it wouldn't be an easy day on his new outlook and had tightened down on the psionic link with Zach to keep what he'd known he would feel from causing him distress. And to prove to himself that he could handle the crowd without any help. Zach had cooperated with his much greater control, leaving Jack to master himself without witness. All that was left of the first hours' roil of emotion was this too quick wariness and Jack was pleased to realize that he was almost ready to reopen the link.
Attention focused inward, Jack found another surprise waiting for him in the far right corner when the waiter put his hand through the wall hanging.
A small dark wood table filled the alcove comfortably, separated from its neighbor by a floor-to-ceiling, delicately carved cherry wood partition. A fan of the same wood sussurated gently overhead, rustling spirals of origami swans hung beside it. When the curtain fell closed a perfect hush was sealed over the tiny area, all noise from the main room forgotten.
Jack sent a look of unadulterated gratitude towards Zach and had it met with pleased, gentle acknowledgment. This was a sanctuary within a sanctuary, exactly what Jack had needed after the bustle and crush of the morning, and Zach had known it without benefit of psilink. Jack reached across the table for his hand. "This is wonderful," he said inadequately.
Zach smiled as if they were merely discussing the restaurant, unwilling to accept the depth of Jack's gratitude over something so simple. "This place hasn't changed at all in a decade. The food's unbelievable or I wouldn't have chanced your thinking I brought you someplace shabby."
Jack kept looking at him the same way until the blue eyes were forced to cut aside to keep Zach from blushing. Then he answered lightly, "Are you kidding? If the food's half as good as the décor you're going to need a cart to get me home." He patted his nonexistent stomach and Zach rolled his eyes.
"I hope for once you actually mean that," he teased over real concern. "You probably lost five pounds in Greenland, as if you weren't still too thin already."
Jack tried again for lightness over his reaction to that underlying tone. "I'll eat everything you put in front of me. Unless it's sushi. I don't eat anything raw."
Zach picked up Jack's hand to kiss it, then glanced away again, surprised by his own response over the almost permanent issue. "Thank you, love," he murmured, too serious, knowing Jack would be embarrassed. But he'd spent the entire time Jack was in Greenland certain that he'd return with pneumonia if not worse, considering his not-yet-recovered state of health, and this was the first mention he'd made of it.
The unveiled emotion made Jack look down as expected, but Zach couldn't bring himself to regret the sentiment.
Jack was relieved when the waiter chose that moment to return. Zach ordered for both of them, without a menu, in Japanese either good or bad enough that it earned him a bright-eyed smile from the old gentlemen.
When he'd made his bow and gone Zach discovered that Jack's look had become so full of admiration and curiosity that it brought the color to his cheeks.
~This is ridiculous.~
"I didn't know you spoke Japanese."
Zach cleared his throat, trying to dispel the schoolboy feeling. "I can get by in it, that's all. Mostly because of Kai's help. Hers is nearly perfect."
"I guess languages come in handy, in your line of work."
That sounded like a general you-plural, and Zach thought it wouldn't hurt to talk shop just a little, if it would get that look out of Jack's eyes so that he could get the color out of his own face. "Languages can be a useful tool, but an understanding of whatever culture you find yourself in, and of human nature in general, always serves you better. Kai's amazingly good at reading people. For a psi-null."
Jack had seen her at work a few times and had to agree. He gave Zach a Logan-quote on human nature and got a look of pure dismay before he attributed it to the source. Zach asked after his former mentor and the rest of his friends among the X-Men and Generation X, actually listening to the answers this time. As he talked Jack was forced to reflect again on just how much more familiar Zach was with his life than the reverse.
The waiter came and went with the wine, Jack counting it a minor miracle that he wasn't carded. He'd never had much of a taste for alcohol, but trust Zach to choose something he would like. A long sip and a deep breath had him settling into his seat a little more easily. The silence that had fallen between them was comfortable, as always, but Jack knew this might be his only chance to really get Zach to reveal something of himself. Jack usually only chattered when nervous, but even in their calm conversations he was always the one doing most of the talking. His curiosity for the circumstances under which Zach operated in the world had gotten more intense by the day since he came back. There was so much they needed the freedom to talk about that he couldn't decide where to start. Finally he chose to simply bring the topic back around to the beginning.
"Kai sounds like a good friend. A real one, I mean."
Zach nodded, pulled out of his pleasant observation of Jack's face in the romantic light. "The best I'll ever have. And for a lot of years now." He picked at the stem of his glass, eyes suddenly far away. "We've covered a lot of ground together. Most of it bad." His next sip of wine was longer, and went down hard. He swallowed again, averting his face as he visibly struggled to reset it along its usual calm lines. "Sorry." He cleared his throat. "I'm sorry. The last couple of months have been…hard." He said it hoarsely and was obviously searching for more words when Jack shook his head.
"Hey. It's all right, love. I can only imagine." Not that he wanted to, not something that could have his unflappable Zach so upset at the remembrance. Jack simply sat holding his hand, more taken aback than he would ever show, and very glad that he had up 'til now restrained his curiosity. He would have to be careful not to blindside Zach with a topic again. The unexpected emotion seemed literally to shake him, and no information was worth that. When he seemed recomposed Jack tried to steer things towards shallower emotional waters. "You two work together, right? For the same company?"
Zach forced out a breath, his embarrassment this time having nothing of amusement in it. That was, well, if not business then at least a part of his professional life. Jack deserved better than histrionics in response to his questions. "Sometimes." The thought of Three Eyes as a company almost pulled a smile to his lips. "We've free-lanced together, too, mostly before the company…changed owners."
Jack nodded, missing the reference but getting the idea. "Well, I hope your outfit can get along without her. I think you've lost her to her new team."
Zach shrugged. "She's only been on a per-project basis with us for years. I'd honestly be surprised to see Kai committed anywhere. That didn't have rubber walls, of course." Jack hadn't mentioned anyone in professional terms since he'd gotten back, much less asked work-related questions, and Zach had to wonder suddenly if he'd guessed that the apartment was bugged.
"Oh, but her new team offers such tempting accommodations," Jack told him straight-faced. "The bed comes complete with Logan in it, and…"
"I noticed that," Zach cut in hastily. "I was surprised. Kai doesn't…attach…very easily. I hope your friend realizes what he's getting." ~He'd better.~
Jack tilted his head in consideration before saying firmly, "Logan's one of the good guys. And the two of them…watch them together sometime. They just seem right."
"I noticed that, too," Zach admitted. That turn of phrase, in that particular judicious tone, was as close as he'd ever heard Jack come to making a moral judgment. That was something he trusted. As much as he trusted his own brief observation of the two on Muir Island. Kai had been able to turn to Logan when she'd been turning away from even him. "And you can't fault the way they work together."
"Kai told me you were doing a favor, that night you met them out on Muir Island. Coming out on a field assignment. She said you mostly fly a desk nowadays." Since he'd known him Zach had alternated between keeping bankers' hours and disappearing for weeks at a time.
"And I'll bet that's a quote," Zach half-smiled. "She doesn't understand that not all of us want to run around with guns blazing all the time. No, I'm officially just an administrative troubleshooter these days."
Jack curled his glass towards him in a prompt and Zach surprised himself by complying. He explained that in so large a 'company' there were some funds and resources that inevitably fell through the organizational cracks. His job was to track them down before they could get reallocated to anyone's personal bank accounts or causes. Or, when that failed, to find the culprit and minimize the damage. Most of his traveling only took him to other 'company' installations.
"It sounds fascinating," Jack told him, and meant the word. He was completely engrossed in this first real glimpse Zach had given him of his professional life.
"It can be." An elegant shrug. "When it isn't boring me out of my mind."
Jack wondered how anyone could look so polished in a sport shirt. "How can something as important as operational security ever be boring?"
Zach surprised himself by giving a relaxed chuckle. When was the last time he'd laughed over work? "I must really be explaining this wrong. It's only important the five percent of the time that I find something wrong. The other ninety-five percent it's all paper pushing and data-analysis. So much like make-work that I can't tell the difference."
"Well, Kai said that you're really good at your job. 'The best at what you do.'"
"If she did she was making fun of me," Zach supplied immediately.
"Wellll…she did crack up laughing afterwards." Jack tilted his head, remembering. "But she seemed sincere. Of course, she also said then that if I 'made it back from that frozen hell of a continent' she would have me committed on return."
"Kai can be strange."
Jack grinned. "She said you'd say that."
"Kai says a lot," Zach returned sourly. "She thinks she knows me so well."
"She knew you'd blow off the fact that she'd pay you a compliment."
That one caught Zach up short and Jack laughed. Finally Zach shrugged and managed an evil leer completely incongruous with his refined features. "Maybe I'm just very good at anticipating the criminal mind. Including hers. Imagine that."
Jack buried his smile in mock seriousness. "Fortunate for us all that you are one of the good guys."
"Who?" Zach faked a look around but that phrase, applied to him, brought him out of the playfulness. It reminded him of the one subject that still had power to come between the two of them, and that he had not yet addressed it. Before Jack left for Greenland their uncertain status had been his excuse. Since his return the apartment had been wired. But now he was out of reasons and the possible ramifications of confessing his omission crashed over him. The one thing that could send Jack away…
Zach tried to steady himself on a deep breath, wondering if the precious little world they had so miraculously pulled together was about to crumble just as rapidly. Those warm eyes were fixed on him, a fine wrinkle drawn above the dark brows by his own abruptly serious demeanor. The thought of those so open, so wise depths closed to him forever made his heart hurt until he couldn't breathe.
Zach's sudden distress made Jack reach for his other hand and ask, "Love, are you all right?" Zach looked as if he were almost choking, a flush in his cheeks and a bright sheen to his eyes, lips slightly parted over an unsteady breath. It was not a dramatic expression but on Zach's face, where most emotion was shown by the tightening of a muscle or the twitch of an eyelid, the subtle changes were enough to give Jack cause for concern.
"Jack, listen…" He'd rehearsed this a hundred times, but none of his practiced admissions would come. ~I get paid to do the one thing you've sworn never to do, by the worth of your soul.~ How could he tell him, and watch him turn away? Jack had been the first to reach out, to keep reaching, until one day Zach realized that it had taken, he'd been reached, and had started reaching back. But he could in no conscience reach after Jack now if he started away. He was everything Jack was trying so hard not to become. This was more than an 'issue' between lovers; it could be a deal breaker on their attempt to make a life together. ~I've let this go much too long.~ How could he tell him, and watch him go?
"Zach, whatever it is, if it upsets you this much it can wait." Twice in ten minutes he'd seen Zach's heretofore-impeccable composure come completely apart. No information, no question, could ever be worth that.
"No, it can't." ~Breathe, Zach. Either tell him or don't but don't sit here gasping like an idiot, scaring him.~ He calmed himself by force of will and moderated his voice. "This has waited too long already, Jack. You know something about my job, my level of commitment to it. What I don't think I've led you to understand is exactly what that commitment means. I have put all my skills at the disposal of my…employer." It wasn't fair that it should be this hard, with that clear unjudging gaze on him. It took all his resolve to continue. "I do whatever I have to do to fulfill my assignments. Very seldom, but sometimes, I actually have to use all my skills." He was breathing as if he'd been running for miles. "Do you understand? What I'm saying, I mean." He could never ask Jack to understand what he did or why. Just the fact, and whether he could stay with the knowledge of it.
Jack's expression now was very still, bright eyes unreadable. What a stupid, clumsy way of getting this out. But how could he continue meeting those candid eyes with a deceit of silence between them?
One of Jack's hands slid away from its hold on Zach's and his heart froze. But Jack merely reached for his water glass. He took a slow sip, set the glass down precisely back within its ring. His palm flattened on the table, tapped twice, made a fist.
"Zach, there's something we need to talk about."
~Oh god, he does understand. He understands me and he's leaving.~
"Something I haven't told you."
Jack couldn't be unaware of the moment's blind panic but he kept talking, and slowly Zach's fear loosened enough for coherent thought to return. The words started making sense, only they didn't. This was nothing to do with him or psipowers or assassins. Something about a man he'd met in Greenland.
"…I think they were some kind of poachers. Whatever they were, they were set to kill me if he hadn't come. He saved me, and then all the way back to the pickup he looked out for me." Jack reached for Zach's hand again, catching his eyes directly at the same time. "I was, well, farther gone than I let any of you realize when I left. Really, Zach." That, amazingly, was said steadily, but then the low voice began to crack. "And when they attacked me, Zach, I almost…I don't know, but I don't think… No. I do know. I wouldn't have made it out without his help."
This touched the life and death serious and Zach found relationship issues, of whatever depth, fading in importance. Jack had returned from Greenland into an entirely different niche in Zach's life from the one he'd left. That difference, in the set of his shoulders and the tone of his voice and his discipline over the hunger had made Zach willing to allow it. Jack had come to him as a stable-minded equal and had asked for terms. Zach would still train him in the use of his powers, but it would be as his teacher in that specific area and no more. Zach had found no reason, given the change in Jack, to disagree.
Before Jack left Zach had been the one showing him the way back to life and to living. He had distanced them personally, counting it a noble sacrifice to ensure the progress of his pupil's training, one that had hurt his heart and given him nightmares. A mentor/student relationship ethically precluded a romance. So when Jack had returned with that first impossible hurdle not only cleared but disappearing behind him, Zach had not found a place in his delight to question it. He had trained Jack well and after a month alone testing the limits of that training Jack was a different man. It was a simple assumption. It made sense. But the rawness in Jack's voice now told him that it was also wrong.
Jack had chosen Greenland's wilderness because it was one of the few places on earth he could yet be trusted to be alone. Zach had assumed it had been a personal trial. Jack had never suggested that anything more than his discipline had been called into question out there. ~Like maybe his sanity, or his ability to live for the long haul as what we are.~
Jack's eyes held a wealth of emotion it would take a year to sift through, and Zach would not invade the link Jack was trying so hard to keep locked down, but his overall sense of his lover now was…anguish. ~Stupid, self-involved, bastard.~ And he had let himself be driven to panic over the thought of Jack simply leaving?
Finally Zach found enough of his courage to tempt the storm behind those shuttered eyes. "What do you mean 'wouldn't have made it'?" Unwilling to guess among unthinkable possibilities.
Jack's careful attempt at dispassion cracked a flicker and Zach bit his lip to still words of comfort. Words could never reach that level anyway.
"It means the one time I would have been forced to…use my powers…he made it unnecessary. And then he was so hurt, and I had to help him. He kept me…there, I guess. Otherwise I think I might have just…I think I would have…" He took a quick deep breath that would have been a smothered sob if Jack had been one for tears.
Zach held to his hands, letting him work through the moment without leaving him alone in it. The emotions of a decade old struggle were in his voice when he spoke over Jack's further attempt at explanation. "You don't have to say anything else, Jack. I do understand." This wasn't a desire in Jack to share his experience or his pain, and Zach wouldn't sit through the self-torment passively. Something was driving Jack to explain whatever revelation he was heading for.
Jack accepted the empathy and the support as if it were a lifeline. He sat very still, clearing his mind of memory. It was the future that mattered, in this.
Zach watched the pale face warm slowly back to its usual fairness before Jack spoke again. "I believe you," he said finally. "I believe you do know what I mean. So maybe you can understand what I owe this man, what it's going to take just to make it all even."
"What I owe him." Zach surprised them both with his fierceness. He lowered his eyes. "If he saved your life, Jack, if it was through him that you changed in the way I've seen since you came back, then whatever he wants, whatever you say he needs, it's his if it's within my power. And if it's beyond me I'll still find a way. "
Jack's head was up, eyes bright, lips pressed firmly against a need to tremble, too many emotions coming from too many directions for him to get ahold of them or himself. "Thank you," he managed at a whisper, knowing neither of them knew exactly for what. He shook his head a little, stared down at his glass, and let his hold on Zach's hands speak for him until he could regain control.
The waiter came and went in a silence that slowly lost its tension. When the beads stilled again Jack had actually found a smile, faint and wry. "I am sorry, Zach. I didn't mean to pile all this on you one after the other. But I can't take your help for a promise until you've heard the rest. You may change your mind."
The lover's response was a reflexive 'Never,' but the Three Eyes agent knew there was no such word. Zach settled for raising an eyebrow expectantly.
After the intensity of a minute ago Jack's expression now was…strange. As if he'd stepped away from the moment to become an observer to the conversation. "Zach, the man's name is Victor Creed."
Zach reflexively glanced around, though he knew the conversation was secure. So much explained in two words. Why he had come under Three Eyes surveillance only on Jack's return. Why he'd been debriefed again on his mission to Muir Island the day before Jack came back stateside. Why he'd been denied a report on Jack's status until he'd actually been presented at his office door with a guard on either side.
Even as his mind processed the logic of it something was tightening his guts, so cold it took him long moments to register it as horror. "You…you were out there…alone…with…"
"He was hurt, Zach, damaged. In so much pain, and crazy with weakness, and so angry! And I had to touch him every day, to clean his wounds."
Understanding of that was cell deep and instantaneous, as the hunger gave a small surge within him at the very imagining, and Zach finally began to get a feel for the truth.
"I had wondered how a walk in the woods, even in the harshest country, could have brought you back so hard-tempered. You've crossed in a month ground it took me half a year to get over, under rather…harsh, conditions. But you don't owe that animal for the accident of his presence."
Jack shook his head. "It doesn't matter what he was, Zach. I would have died. When those men came."
"If it was for your life, Jack, out there with no one else within range, you could have…"
"No." The hardness in his voice was directed inward. "No, Zach, not and ever have been able to come back."
That far gone. ~Stupid, selfish, blind, bastard.~ Three Eyes had demanded a lot of his time in the last three months, and Jack had spent only about three weeks under his direct tutelage in the two months prior to his trip. And in that time there had been long, increasingly moody silences, places in the link Jack had used his new control to tighten down on without explanation. He had been progressing well, by objective standards, giving no hint that his bright determination had been replaced by rote obedience. Zach could blame it on the physical and mental toll of his work, his respect for Jack's privacy, too little time spent trying to accomplish too much. But the real reason he had never pressed into the shadowy distance growing between them was that he'd thought he'd known the reason for it, and had been too much of a coward to want to find out for sure.
~Jack was about to go over the edge and I was too busy agonizing over whether he was sharing Jubilee's bed when I wouldn't let him share mine to notice. Stupid, selfish, cowardly, bastard. ~
But that was past and Jack, whole and stronger solely through his own efforts, was here with him. Their definitions of risk were different from the rest of the world's, sanity always more at risk than life. Yet in body they were still only human. Zach knew Creed by reputation, and how naïvely certain Jack was that he was the killer in any company. The miracle was that Creed hadn't slit his throat while he slept.
The horror of might-have-beens only deepened for Zach as Jack continued. An alpha-class mutant who'd lost his powers, near mortally injured, emotionally and mentally on the fine edge of control. And Jack forced to play medic, already on that terrible edge himself.
~No, the miracle is that Jack didn't let go and take him one night and just lose his mind.~ Any gratitude he'd felt was being replaced by a deep resentment that Jack had been so harshly tested.
When Jack finished Zach sat in thought for several minutes. This was the explanation for Jack's evasiveness concerning his lateness to the rendezvous, for all his hours spent searching online for Zach hadn't known what. For how the inexperienced young man had known they were under surveillance. Zach knew he would probably be a year now getting anything resembling a sensitive mission. His job would be a lot easier, if a lot more boring.
~He was out there alone with a madman.~
"Why…" He had to clear his throat to find a normal register. "Why did you wait until now to tell me?"
The eyes went down again and Zach tried to prepare himself for further revelation. Instead he got a tight murmur. "What you were saying, Zach -- you know, I used to think I was…evil. I think maybe somewhere that you believe that you are, even now. Because when we think of a person in terror, or agony, or rage, the first response is…a savoring. But Zach…"
He looked up and caught the older man in a determination so intense it silenced any hope of response. "That's the hunger's joy. It's pleasure at the thought of what it needs to be sated. It’s the craving and relish of a starving man contemplating a gourmet meal. Even mastering all your disciplines, Zach, we'll always be…starving." His voice cracked and he reached for his wine. Zach could only stare, freed hand lying limp on the table. When Jack spoke again it was into the depths of his glass.
"I know what evil is now, Zach. Up close, in thought and emotion and desire until I thought it might take me. There was one moment…"
The last was a whisper and Zach got a flash of himself tracking Jack across that frozen wasteland, to the kill. His resentment was rising towards a particularly vicious brand of hate. Twice in his life, once at Jolenia's command and once on the initiative of his conscience, he'd been forced to hunt others of his kind, out of control beings who'd given over to the hunger and so could not be permitted to live. When Kai had brought him word of a boy on Muir Island Zach had not allowed himself to think it would be any different. But there had been something in that almost faded soul that made him give Jack just one opportunity to become like him instead of joining the others. Jack had found impossible reserves to rise to that challenge, that chance, and now Zach learned that an animal had almost cost him the hard fought battle. "And after all that, knowing he would have killed you in an instant if he hadn't needed you, you still believe you owe this…man…"
"Yes." Simple statement of fact. "His intentions don't change the results of his actions. And at the end there we almost…well, that wasn't the point." He reached and caught Zach's hand again. "What you said…"
It still mattered, god did it matter, that Jack stay with him, but Zach's earlier panic was gone. Jack had been put to the forge and had come off with body and soul and sanity intact. Just to know that Jack was alive and whole was more than Zach felt he deserved at this point. He had abandoned his pupil to face madness alone due to his own cowardice, and wherever Jack went now his existence was a gift Zach would count precious. He prepared himself with all his will not to flood Jack with his feelings as the end came.
Jack held tighter to Zach's hands. "The point of all this was to try to make you understand. I may not know what all it takes to make a good person, Zach, but I sure as hell know now what goes into making an evil one. I don't know all you've done in your…job…in your life. I probably never will. " He drew up with a deep breath, steadied himself, and let go his defenses from their link. Let the warm flow rise between them so that Zach could know that there was no change in it from that perfect moment of awakening. He spoke with quiet knowledge, not trying to convince. "And I know that this man, right here, whose heart I can feel, has nothing in him that makes a man evil."
At a loss Zach whispered, "Jack…"
"Zach, your mind and heart are pleased by the good things, they flinch at the thought of harm. It’s the hunger that enjoys the idea of what it takes to feed, and if sometimes that overflows and overrides the rest, well…" His chin went up in seeming defiance of some inner voice. "We're starving men thinking of ambrosia. It isn't the same as if we were enjoying people's suffering, it's not." He forced himself to calm, all the way inside where Zach could feel his absolute conviction.
Zach did feel it, the belief and so much more. He was awed that this could have come out of the soul-conquering confusion and self-loathing of the boy on Muir Island. The man who looked back at him now was rock steady despite the distracting roil of Zach's own emotion at the edge of the link. Then the intensity mellowed into a very gentle humor.
"You are one of the good guys. Like it or not."
In the warm flood following the link it took Zach a full minute to find his voice. When he could speak it was almost in wonder. "Then how can I describe you?"
Jack held to his hands so fiercely that his own shook. Nothing in all that he'd struggled so hard to decide and understand meant anything if Zach didn't share the knowledge. But he wouldn't take his praise. "As the one who loves you for everything that you are?" he suggested softly, and Zach swallowed a laugh that sounded too broken even to his own ears. ~Hopeless. Truly hopeless.~
When he'd gotten ahold of himself he asked seriously, "This…" and he sent his own flood of emotion across the link, no less passionate for all his fine control, "Can make you so sure of all that?"
Jack nodded, body language for a moment that of a man basking in sunlight.
"Then what do you learn when you sense what I feel, looking at you?"
Just as quietly but voice now completely undone, Jack told him. "That there's someone out there almost as in love as I am."
Falling into the link and those dark eyes, Zach wondered briefly if there was a word for beyond hopeless.
A long, still silence later Zach shook himself back to the reality of the restaurant and raised Jack's hand. He leaned to kiss it, and was rewarded with gentle fingers in his hair. They brushed down his cheek, feather light, along the line of his jaw to rest against his lips. Zach lightly caught the slim wrist and kissed the fingertips before guiding Jack's hand back to his chopsticks. "All right, love, your food's getting cold. And you did promise."
"So many things," Jack returned cryptically. But he smiled and gave a little salute with his chopsticks before turning to his plate.
And then they were laughing again as Jack failed miserably with the chopsticks. They were giddy as only people on the far side of an ordeal could be, determined to hold on to the time of peace and laughter that they'd made for one another.
Jack insisted he'd get the hang of the things as they ate, but Zach flagged the waiter anyway. "It doesn't qualify as eating if it lands in your lap. Besides, I love Japanese food, and we'll probably be in here all the time. You'll have a hundred other chances to practice. Today, eat."
Jack obeyed with mock indignation when the smiling waiter handed him a fork, but his thoughts were briefly far away.
\\ People'll tell you 'there's always other chances,' kid, but that's bullshit. It's a lie weak people tell themselves to get outta makin' decisions. With the really important shit there's always only one chance. And a smart man knows it, and when to realize that he's fucked it up and it's time to move on. //
Move on where, though? ~Where are you, Victor?~
Zach's head was cocked questioningly at this return to thoughtfulness, obviously willing to listen to whatever Jack had to say. Just as obviously hoping that they weren't going for another trip into revelation. Jack gave him a wink, coming back to the moment. Enough had been said today. Some things would just have to wait for their own good time.
Jack's last thought of Victor Creed was as much prayer as declaration. ~That doesn't mean there aren't different chances waiting out there for you, Victor. And I'm not going to let you run from them forever.~
Jack raised his nearly full wineglass and Zach mimicked him, surprised. "Here's to taking the right chances. And on the right people." He let his belief in it warm the link and felt the swell of Zach's response. Glasses clinked, then Zach kissed his hand again with that helpless soul-in-the-eyes look, only without the fear this time, and Jack whispered a song lyric that melted something in them both. In a mall restaurant in California, two gay psivamps with a thousand dangerous secrets between them were living in a moment they would die for.