PART I: WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
Fexxfield Private Investigations
Atlantic City, NJ
"You know, darl…"
Watching the fan spin had become a more recent pastime for the redhead, coloured streamers fluttering softly with every lazy spin. Never seemed to make much of a difference – it was always a furnace or an igloo in the office. Not that its tenant ever seemed to really notice, either.
Unflappable. That was the word for it, Amber mused quietly as she leaned back knowingly in a chair that wasn't hers. Not because it was comfortable, but because the faces that the man across the room would make when he thought she wasn't looking made her heart swell a little more painfully.
"... In just a couple days, I'm probably gonna go out there and kill you for that title." Matter of factly, she glanced across the room while trying to ignore the faint wafting of burnt coffee that seemed to linger prominently, as though ingrained in the walls. A small smirk tracing across her lips playfully as she straightened, resting her forearms on the desktop and her converse trainers back on the floorboards accordingly. "Funniest part though? Nothing really changes…"
She'd been spending most of her free time here in the last six months or so, time an irrelevant construct in an industry predicated on sacrifice over endurance.
No one wanted to be the one to last forever and do nothing. No, it was better to burn brightly and supernova before anyone had a chance to tell you that you weren't good enough.
Even now, she wasn't really sure why… Why she cared, why she couldn't help but smile when he shook his head at her absurd perspectives. How he never seemed to flinch at her worst, yet stepped away at her best. How she'd fallen so hard so fast…
… How he drove her absolutely crazy without ever doing more than just being there.
Stepping through the doorway between an outer waiting room and his inner office, Fexxfield paused on a creaking floorboard underneath his worn loafer. He leaned forward and back, making the warped wood groan. Bringing a chipped mug up to his lips, the Gumshoe took a gulp and grimaced, holding the steaming … Something in some sort of limbo, trapped between an unceremonious return to the cup that bore it or reluctantly – very reluctantly – swallowing.
He chose the latter.
“That is godawful,” He breathed, bitterness providing uniformity across every single tastebud. Slapping his lips together, Terryl glanced upwards. “Make yourself comfortable …” He said, swirling the black poison in his hand around. “ … This stuff can’t possibly taste any better cold.”
Setting the mug down on the edge of his desk, Fexxfield dropped into the chair opposite and threw his legs up onto the tabletop. A handful of ochre-coloured folders toppled down to spill their loose-leaf scribblings across the scored floor.
“Probably will kill me,” He nodded, tipping his head up to watch the fan turn. “Be a real sad end for the longest-reigning Atlantic City Champion of all time …”
He laughed, running a hand through slick-parted hair. “Longest running. World must be taking a restful spell to ever make that a reality. About time someone put things back where they should be.”
He craned his neck to look backwards. The heavy gold symbol in question, the Atlantic City Championship itself, was awkwardly draped over the wooden hatstand off to the side and near the doorway along with a thread-worn fedora. Its shining weight threatened to tip the whole thing over.
Fexxfield looked back at Amber. “Could be you, I think. Been involved and around justice for a good while – think the poetic kind is always the most satisfying.”
"I don't think title reigns come with happy endings." Amber replied softly, thoughtfully as she turned her attention back to the fan. Perhaps the reality of their burgeoning situation was starting to sink beyond the surface that they so effortlessly chose to skate over. Both doing their best to avoid the growing cracks in the glacial facade they'd come to so comfortably wear. "Least not from any worthwhile experience."
Clearing her throat, she rolled her wrists idly in hopes that maybe her fidgeting could be passed off as a delightful quirk instead of the nervous energy that fed from her known destructive tendencies.
"Not that you haven't earned it. I mean, you’ve beaten almost everyone…" Punctuated with a cheeky smile, Amber gave Terryl a sideways glance as she pushed out of the chair. Unable to remain seated as she rippled with uncertainty from continually walking on eggshells.
She couldn't help but catch sight of the Atlantic City title, the big one. The one that had eluded her since arriving in the company almost two years earlier… The one that Terryl Fexxfield had wrested from the grasp of a politically minded Hydra and proceeded to decidedly reign with such a casual dominance that it made her head swim.
He had what she wanted, no doubt. However there was only one thing that she knew her heart needed more… The one thing that left her in direct conflict. Need. Want. Somehow they were bleeding into each other and she couldn't quite stem the flow.
Reaching for the nearby mug Terryl paused with his hand in mid-air, lost in thought for a moment, before slapping it down on the worn leather of the armrest and levering himself up to stand. He turned, watching Amber watch the Championship from behind.
Cracking his knuckles he closed the space, slipped past her and gingerly lifted the heavy belt up and off its unstable perch. The hatstand rocked, threatening to tip. He felt that weight for a second, the leather backing creaking with the strain of holding those heavy plates against gravity’s best effort. Not just a physical weight, there was so much more here at play than just the physical. Then he held it out towards her.
“Take it for a spin,” He shrugged as if handing over that mug of pseudo-coffee. Amber paused, almost jerking to a stop like a physical record scratch – unable to process in that moment that everything she thought she ever wanted was just right there… In the hands of someone she never knew she needed.
"I don't think that's how it works." Resistantly, she folded her arms loosely as though straitjacketing herself in resistance to temptation. "It wouldn't be right… Not until I win it."
Words tumbled out before she had any way to stop them, the train of thought so casually derailing that both of them seemingly shrugged it off as a daily occurrence. More rational passengers lost in the throes of a moment's madness it seemed.
"Besides, for now… I like the way it looks on you."
Shaking his head, Terryl smiled. He looked at the title, then Amber. “Suspect you’re wrong on that one …” He said and the smile widened just a little bit. “Think it’ll look better on you.”
Folding the waist straps underneath the main plate, he walked back over to the desk and dropped the weighty thing down onto the folders and documents so it landed with a muffled thump.
For a time, he looked down at it, fingers drumming against wood scored with thousands of indentations, scratchmarks and gouges. Eventually, Fexxfield nodded to himself, flattened his palms on the tabletop and looked up.
“Real sorry to drop this on the eve of hurting each other for money, glory, power … Good coffee, but think I’ve gone and fallen for you.”
A small scoff, something Amber found herself almost immediately regretting for fear that her inability to react within social etiquette might simply fuck up something she'd been holding back within herself.
"That's really quite unfortunate." Amber declared with a distinctly less sarcastic smile than anticipated. Her tone was as deceptive as it was truly genuine it seemed. "Cause I think I might feel the same way…"
Sheepishly, Amber tried to flick some of the errant red from her face. Perhaps in some vain attempt to save a reputation that has no standing in these walls. Instead it only served to reveal more of the blush growing in her cheeks, quickly obscuring the freckles dotted across her features and resembling a shade not far off the scarlet cascade that fell alongside.
"Yeah, I think it's a problem… Especially ‘cause we still gotta go out there and punch each other's lights out – and all for…" Amber gestured vaguely towards the belt she refused to touch, as though her fingers might burn if she grazed the surface. As though she might be afflicted with something darker than what was already possessed because she craved something that was never supposed to be hers.
"If I win… It doesn't change anything between us. Right?" In hopes of reassurance, Amber paced slowly while the wooden floorboards seemed to creak in tune with her racing pulse.
Everything was happening so quickly, her emotions quickly slipping out of hand. Cool, calm and collected was becoming a quickly distant memory.
Fexxfield dropped his head down – not to look at the title, that never entered into his mind. Not really. Not right now. Instead, the eye of said mind conjured up another woman, previously the preserve of dreams, to join this one taking up his waking world.
“Changes everything,” He said. Puffing his cheeks out, Terryl dropped down into his chair … Or at least, his chair on temporary loan from its apparent new owner.
“Forget the misery we’re scheduled to inflict on each other real soon,” Fexxfield continued. “Before we take another step down this road … Something’s been sitting on my chest a long while that might just be thinking about getting off. But …”
He hesitated, scratching at the stubble under his chin. “Got to tell you about it in case it doesn’t go quietly.”
Reaching forward, he picked up the mug and swirled its rapidly congealing contents around. “I’m …”
He took another deep breath and fingers squeezed enamel tight. “I used to be …”
“I was …”
It didn’t come naturally. What tense was he supposed to use? But he knew the answer. The past tense. Because she wasn’t coming back. Not ever.
“Was married once,” He finally spat out, pressure of expectation firing the round free of the thinking space it had lodged inside. “Not for long; she was poorly. Had a bad heart that couldn’t keep her ticking …”
Fexxfield put the mug down and pushed it away, fingers flexing together. “Wasn’t sure I could make peace with that, get over it. Made me poorly for the longest time too. Made my heart bad. Until …”
“Until I met a Painted Hurricane. And then all that changed.”
Slowing her pacing to a halt, for the longest time Amber couldn't bring herself to look Terryl in the eyes. Unsure why, something twinged inside her chest, as though she occupied a place in the world far removed from anything she deserved – standing where someone else was supposed to, denied by cruel dates and replaced by a spiteful god.
"That's certainly a lot." More stumbled words, jumbled syllables falling out like toy soldiers on a pretend battlefield. "Never been one to be the positive change in someone's life… Usually it's the opposite, only everyone comes to realise it a little too late."
Scratching at her temple, the sigh escaped long and slow.
"I don't know much about love… Loss, I understand, but love. It's a commitment… Giving a piece of yourself to someone else and hoping they don't just throw it in the bin cause it weighs too much." Amber shrugged, resuming her pacing with a deliberate, methodical cadence. "I don't think I can ever fill her shoes… I don't ever wanna try. What you had was special. Still is…"
Amber trailed off thoughtfully before finally drawing her gaze back to Terryl. To the title. Back to Terryl before settling somewhere in between.
"I can't promise much. I actually can't promise anything in truth. All I know is the way I feel… And how much I don't want that to change." Sincerity gave way to uncertainty as Amber played with the ends of her hair as they trailed over her shoulder. "What was her name… If you don't mind me asking? Feels kinda impersonal to dance around the details I guess. Hell, I thought I was in love a few times before… Never what you had though. That I can tell."
Standing, Fexxfield came around the desk and perched on the corner facing Amber. “Don’t ever expect you to fill her shoes. You aren’t her; this isn’t a comparison and there’s no road you could walk that’d bring you two together. Besides, we wouldn’t be here now if she hadn’t snuck her way out of this big gilded cage we’re all stuck in like some sort of songbird.”
He shook his head. “Definitely been in love, know what it feels like. Recognise the signs. Feel the stomach drop down to squeeze the gut hard. Feel it now …”
“Right now,” He smirked, pressing a palm against his side.
Letting his hands hang loosely in his lap, Terryl looked up at the ceiling fan. “Her name was Annabelle – she was a Doctor. I know, really punched my ticket up there. Used to tell people we met while she was patching me up in an emergency room after a dispatch call gone bad. That never happened. Just a fun story.”
After a few seconds watching the jerking blades struggle to turn, Fexxfield looked back down and held a hand out.
“May I? Rather see what it feels like before it becomes a closed fist in a few hours’ time.”
Amber crooked an eyebrow inquisitively before slowly making her way over, each step somehow landing heavier than the last. Echoing longer, the lead weights unseen around her ankles dragging her further back towards reality. Towards inevitability.
"Only if you promise to tell me the real story later on."
Until her hand met his. Smaller, gnarled and scarred from too many fights and not nearly enough care – it seemed almost out of place in his and yet somehow never closer to home.
As though her palm suddenly radiated the thunder in her chest, each beat coursing out through her fingertips.
"If anything…" Amber remarked as her fingers curled reflexively. "I think you just downgraded. From a doctor to… Well, a carny. Can't say anyone will ever accuse you of having a type."
Closing the distance, her freehand found his and allowed their fingers to entwine. Lock and key, one as misshapen and broken as the other.
"You're really starting to make me question whether I've ever really been…" Her words fell away with her stream of consciousness. Unable to express beyond what little could escape the tightening in her throat. In a few hours this would be a distant memory… in a few hours she'd have to pretend that none of this mattered. "... Loved? In love? Not really sure where I was going but, I think I'm in trouble…"
“Seems like it’s time for my Red Lady to take a risk,” Fexxfield mused, bringing her hands up and kissing the scarred knuckles. “Can’t say I feel totally confident about the plunge it feels like we’re about to take. Like a skydive. Who jumps out of a fully serviceable aeroplane anyway …”
He shook his head. “Maybe you have, maybe not. Thing about the heart is it’s unique to everyone. Not sure they all speak a common language. Not even sure we get what they’re saying most of the time.”
“Can only make you a promise,” Terryl nodded, and he brushed some of that red out from her eyes. “If this leads to some beautiful disaster, I’ll be right there to go down with the ship, aeroplane, wherever this bad metaphor takes us.”
Then, he gestured with his head towards the Championship on the desk. “You knock me right on my mouth to win that tomorrow night, I’ll be there to kiss you congratulations on the morning after, right after they put my teeth back in. Far as I’m concerned, I hold the only thing I’d give everything for in my hand right now.”
He squeezed. “Going to follow a hurricane for a spell, think it’ll be the rest of my life, give or take. Hoping not to be blown about too badly …”
“Still …” Fexxfield smirked. “Got a feeling I might just find the winds favourable this time.”
Returning the squeeze with one of her own, that usual apathetic smirk designed to keep the world at bay softened into something… Real. A peek behind the curtain, a show of something tangible still living in the wreckage of Mother Nature's worst creation.
"You know I can't make the same promise, that I can just put everything aside… After everything I've worked for. I need this stupid belt in the same way I need my next breath… In the same way I think I need you."
Clearing her throat, Amber continued softly.
"Whatever happens though… No matter what we do to each other, no matter what we say. You'll be there afterwards." Amber glanced at the title again, knowing his eyes would follow hers. Unable to deny the longing that fought for purchase in a heart that had lied dormant and unwaveringly for so long. "No matter what… You promise?"
He nodded. “Promise like my life depends on it …”
Sucking in as much air as his lungs can manage, Terryl let it all blow out. All except enough for three little words.
“ … I love you.”