Catch Me

She was bleeding. Okay, that was a start. She was leaping the gap, as Alan put it, that brief moment after extended periods of duress where her brain sort of... skipped, like an old record, as he would say. He always had a great way of explaining things, and right now, she could use an explanation. Black gloves. Blood. Not her own. Not even red. It was white-green, viscous and glittering. Whoever... or whatever she was fighting, this was a good sign. It meant that she was winning. She wiped the strange blood on the leg of her charcoal combat suit. Her hair drifted in front of her eyes. Was it... had it always been red? She had memories of it being different, maybe in her childhood. That part of her life was fuzzy to her, and everything she could remember was painful. That was why she joined the Front. It was like a dream. She was a wolf running through the snow, the thrill of the hunt, and she was good at it. Damn good.

Then, there was the psychic. The one she'd been tracking through the Siberian wilderness for days. She called in the others. No shame in calling for backup when you're up against someone who can evaporate your entire consciousness. They circled in, wounded him, brought him down, and she moved in for the killing blow. Then came the lance of searing, unfathomable pain that split her skull. That was when the 'leaps' started. Okay, her memories were back.

She stood up and wandered across the forest clearing. Twigs and leaves crunched beneath her boots. All around, tree trunks were littered with thick organic spikes that had been jabbed deep into the wood. In the center of the clearing, in a sliver of moonlight, sat her target. His green hood had been tattered. His right arm was hacked almost completely off. His stomach was spread wide open and his chest was riddled with bullet holes, all spewing that disgusting aloe blood. He stank of freshly cut grass and rotting meat.

Her finger pressed the communicator in her ear, "This is Liberator McCourt. Metahuman designation: Thorn has been terminated."

"Are you certain, Liberator?" Alan asked in response. The connection was patchy out here, but his voice was still comforting to him. When she had a leap, he always helped her reach the other side. He was the best field handler in the Front, but he had a habit of questioning her at the most obnoxious possible time.

She toed Thorn's body rather harshly, her foot sinking into the gash in his stomach and touching the bottom of his rib cage. "Possitive." she replied.

"You read his dossier. You know what he can do."

"He's got one of the weakest regeneration rates I've ever seen. There's no way he's coming back from this."

"He's come back from worse. McCourt, you've seen the pictures. You know what this thing has done to people. Remember the massacre in the Congo? Eighteen people strung up and skinned. It deserves this. Now, make sure he's down for good."

She ripped out the earpiece and reluctantly stepped over Thorn's corpse, standing over him, waiting for him to make it worth her while. He started gurgling. It was ugly, desperate. It made it easier. His eyes opened and locked with hers. She gritted her teeth and drew her pistol, aiming down at him. "Disgusting."

She fired and the gurgling stopped. She plugged him another three times, then put away the pistol and strode off into the woods. An hour later, she emerged onto the shore, walking straight into the tide. There was a fishing boat about a mile out. They put down the ladder and started applauding her like an American hero. She was an American hero. Everything the Front did worked to make the world just a little bit brighter, a little bit freer, a little bit better for the ordinary folks who couldn't stand up for themselves. That's why she was here. To stand up. To give some meaning to her life. It was a higher calling, and if tonight was any indication, she was damn good at it. One of the 'fisherman' put a towel around her and guided her below deck. Alan was waiting there, huddled over the radio setup in the corner. He leaned back and looked over at her with a sudden look of relief. "Hey! There she is!" he laughed, getting up to meet her. He was portly, but he had strong arms and a laugh that could make trees rumble. "What's the damage, red?"

"A few bruised ribs," she answered, rubbing her side, "My heads killing me and I have a few minor puncture wounds. The suit dulled those thorns of his, so they're basically glorified pin pricks, but they add up."

"The price of victory. You did a good thing today, Natalie. Thorn was an animal. They all are, but some need to be put down more than others."

"Some don't stay down."

"This one will. You made sure of that. I already took the liberty of adding him to your kill list. The higher-ups are proud of you. One of the most efficient recruits they've ever had."

"I still don't understand that," she said, "I'd never touched a gun or been in a fight in my life before I joined the Front. How did I pass the Liberator field test so easily?"

"Instinct. Some people were just made to do the right thing. They're born with the skills, the talents. All that's left is the drive and the integrity to put it to use. The Front lucked out when you showed up," His salt and pepper whiskers brushed together and formed a smile somewhere underneath, "Now, get some sleep. We're due back at Command tomorrow morning."

"Yessir," Natalie said, giving a mocking salute as she walked off to her quarters. She kicked off her boots, let her suit slide down around her ankles, and stepped out, and examined her scars in the slotted moonlight coming in through the window shade. It was strange. Nothing in her memories explained them. It felt like a collection of lies on her skin. She slipped under the covers and turned on the small television. The news either encouraged her in her work or kept her angry. Either way, it reminded her why she had dedicated her life to the Front. Tonight's report left her... confused.

"Welcome back," the anchor said in the matter-of-fact tone they all had, "Today marks the second month of the worldwide search for director of U.N. Metahuman Affairs, Melissa Hannigan." Natalie perked up at the mentioning of that name. Something about it made her... hurt. "Hannigan allegedly disappeared from the organization's mobile headquarters somewhere in the Mid-Atlantic. There have been very few leads in the search, but Acting Director Blake Heller has promised that they won't stop until Director Hannigan is found."

Natalie turned off the TV. Her first instinct was to say, "Bitch got what she deserved," roll over, and go to sleep. But there was something wrong. Her head hurt. She tallied the facts again, reconstructing herself. She had never had a leap just resting before. It was like being shot. Suddenly, everything about her just felt wrong. Somehow, she put it out of her mind, settled herself, and let the boat gently rock her off to sleep.

She had a dream. She couldn't remember ever having a dream before. In it, she was falling. It wasn't the kind of falling dream she'd heard about so often. It was real, and it was a long, long way down. She felt the desert sun searing her bare back as she plummeted off the cliff. Her skin was torn and strewn with needles. Her feet were shredded from running on rocks. Compared to whatever had happened leading up to this, falling felt like a release, but she knew that at the end, she'd have to hit ground. It was drawing closer. She clenched her teeth, embracing the end... but the ground didn't come. She opened her eyes again and saw that the ground was backing away from her. She was ascending back up the cliff face. Her wounds were sealing up, vanishing before her eyes. She twisted in the air and looked up to see a figure waiting at the ledge, a hand extended out for her. She got closer and the figure gained a face. It was a woman, a woman who looked like her. But it wasn't her. This woman was blonde. Maybe... her sister? No. Her sister was dead. She died when they were children, that much she could remember, however cloudy the details were. Still, the woman was there, and she was extending a hand to Natalie. Whatever feelings of fear or confusion that she had felt now gave way to serenity and peace. She reached out to take the stranger's hand, but before they touched, it was over. A white flash enveloped her consciousness and she shot upright in bed, sweat streaming her entire body. She wiped her eyes. She wasn't entirely certain that she was wiping away sweat.

Natalie tucked her knees into her chest began breathing heavily. One by one, she started counting down her memories, her identity. There was no leap, but she tallied the facts anyway, to comfort herself. Her name was Natalie McCourt. She served in the Human Liberation Front. Her job was to kill metahumans.

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Natural Born Screw-Up

Melissa threw on her brown leather jacket and shut her car door as she walked up to the house overlooking the bay. The walkway was surrounded on all sides by thick greenery, and plants dangled from the rafters overhead. She came to the front step and reached out for the doorbell, but paused when she heard something rustling in the bushes.

"KYAAH!" a strange voice cried as a figure burst from the bushes, tackling Melissa to the ground. She struggled for freedom, but her attacker had the upper hand. Finally, she abandoned wrestling and simply shouted, "Grandma!"

Her attacker stopped to examine the young woman's face. "Melissa?"

"Yep. That's still what they call me in case you forgot."

"Sorry to startle you like that," said her grandmother, offering her a hand up, "Thought you were that Jehovah's Witness."

"For the last time, Grandma, the Jehovah's Witnesses are NOT stealing your mail."

"Well, somebody is! Now, quit doddling! Come inside! Come inside!"

Melissa obeyed and followed her grandmother inside, into the living room, where her mother and sister sat on the couch, drinking coffee. They both jumped up to greet her as she came in.

"Charlene!" Melissa exclaimed, hoisting her sister up in her arms, "How you been?"

"Well..." her sister groaned, "My ribs had almost mended."

"Whoops... sorry." she laughed nervously, setting Charlene back down.

They all greeted each other and sat back down, sipping their coffee. Melissa simply stood with her back against the wall as they all updated each other on the goings on of the Hannigan family. She listened to stories about her father frantically trying to use super glue to reattach a few missing hairs and Charlene's kids gluing their dad's shoes to the floor. Her family was going through a glue phase, apparently.

That all came to an end when the focus turned to her. "So, Melissa..." said her mother, folding her hands in her lap, "Anybody new in your life?"

"As a matter of fact, there is." she answered proudly.

Everyone immediately perked up. They had sat down like this countless times, and every time, her mother would ask the same question, and without fail, her answer was always the same. This was a shock, to say the least.

"Well, what's his name?" her mother asked anxiously.

Melissa sighed. "This really the first question that comes to mind? Not, 'hey, Melissa, how's that promotion treating you so far?' or, 'how does it feel to officially be the most accomplished woman in your field?' We're just cutting straight to my love life?"

They all nodded unanimously.

"Fine... if you must know, his name is Paxton."

"What does he do? How'd you meet?" asked Charlene.

"He's, uh... he's a firefighter. We met on my last assignment with the CIA before I got promoted up. There was a shootout with a metahuman fugitive and I wound up trapped in a burning building. When I woke up, he was giving me mouth-to-mouth, and then, well... I was giving it back."

They all laughed, and when they quieted down, her mother spoke up, "So... when do we get to meet him?"

"That's a little more complicated." Melissa replied, "He's a firefighter, married to the job, ya know? There's always somebody out there for him to save. The only real time we get to spend together is when he gets hurt."

In perfect unison, they all sighed and shook their heads. "Oh, Melissa..." her mother whispered in disappointment.

"What?" she lashed back, "What the hell is wrong with that?"

"You can't build a serious relationship on occasional get-togethers. It's not gonna work." Charlene replied.

"And when did that become your decision, Charlene?" Melissa snapped, "Look, news flash, people... I've got a demanding job, too! The way my organization is set up, I'll only be stateside half of the year! If I've found somebody who makes me happy during that time, what's wrong with it? Also, when did everyone become concerned about all of my relationships being serious?"

Her mother raised her voice slightly as she pleaded, "Well, maybe if you stopped reading your comic books, you could find yourself a man who can give me grandchildren!"

"Sorry, Mom, but your grandchildren aren't my primary concern right now!"

"She's got a point, Melissa." Charlene interrupted, "You're not getting any younger. It's time to grow up and find somebody serious."

"Well, ya know what, Charlene? You got lucky! You met Dan when you were nineteen and never looked back. It doesn't work out that way for everybody, and that doesn't give you the right to play god to weak little mortals like me, so kindly shut up and let me make my own damn decision!"

"Back us up on this, Grandma." said Charlene, looking across to the old woman who had been sitting quietly in her recliner until now.

She shrugged and replied, "Tough to say. What's he like in the sack?"

"Mom!" Melissa's mother snapped, missing Melissa's subtle pantomime to her grandmother of her brain exploding out the side of her head.

"What?" her grandmother answered, "You think I don't know about the ol' hot potato? You're exhibit A that I do, deary."

Her mother and sister both turned their focus back to her. "The point is, Melissa, you need to trust us. If a man puts his work over you, no matter how important his work is, it isn't going to work. End this now, before you get hurt." said Charlene.

"Look, I don't need to defend myself to you guys. I'm out of here." Melissa replied before storming out the front door. She ignored the speed limit as she revved her engine and tore down the street.

A short time later, she pulled into her own garage and walked inside, all the pent up frustration and anger dissolving into nothing as her eyes met with his. He had perked up from his place on the couch when he heard her car round the corner. The anticipation got the best of him, just as it did her, and despite the sharp pain in his side and the stiffness of his legs, he stood up and received her as she came running into his arms, hands planted on is cheeks for a long, passionate kiss.

"You look tired." he whispered, brushing a lock of hair from her eyes.

"I could say the same about you." she replied, the faintest smile blooming as she planted a brief kiss on his lower lip.

"I'm always tired." he said, wiping the dark circles of scarred flesh that surrounded his eyes. He wore a tight black t-shirt, his left forearm wrapped in bandages, as well as his right bicep. He had a few fresh marks on his face, overlapping the tapestry of scars that consumed him. His lip was split and swollen slightly. She slipped from his embrace and walked toward the kitchen as he limped back onto the couch, wrapping himself in blankets.

"How are your legs doing?" she asked, looking over her shoulder as she walked.

"Better." he replied, digging himself deeper into the couch, "I've gotten all the sensation back. The muscles are still weak and partially unresponsive."

"Well, that's what you get for fighting a guy called Frostbite."

"Yes. How foolish of me to save an entire city from the next ice age."

"Just kidding," she replied, coming back into the living room. "Besides..." she leaned over the back of the couch and kissed him on the cheek, "Why would I complain about having you all to myself?" She smiled and wandered back into the kitchen.

Paxton craned his neck and listened curiously. "Melissa... are you... cooking?" he asked.

"Yeah!" she answered excitedly, looking at him over the island counter.

"I thought you didn't know how to cook."

"I learned! Well... I learned how to cook ONE thing. Look, do you wanna eat or not?" She turned back to the refrigerator and picked out the rest of the ingredients, beginning her work as Longshot closed his eyes, content, warm, and, for just a brief moment, happy.

About an hour later, they sat across from one another at the dinner table, eating their spaghetti and stealing the occasional glance at their opposite, smiling.

"So..." she began, tangling her fork in pasta, "How long do you need to heal. Or, put another way, how long can you stay?"

He paused, chewing his food before he finally answered at a whisper, "Wednesday."

"Next Wednesday?" she asked excitedly.

"No." he replied, looking down at his plate, "This Wednesday."

The happiness immediately flushed from her face, left only with wide-eyed surprise and crushing disappointment. "But... but that's not long enough to heal all the way."

"I can't afford to consider that." he answered callously, "By that time, I'll have healed well enough to fight again. It doesn't matter if I'm all the way mended. If I can stand, if I can shoot, I need to be out there."

"Why? Why can't you allow yourself to take it easy once in a while?"

His eyes finally rose to met hers, but his expression had hardened as he coldly responded, "You know why."

"Actually, I don't." she said assertively, "Paxton, I understand. Unless you're out there, having a positive effect on the world, you're tortured by the memory of what you've done. I understand that every life makes a difference to you. I do. But you don't deserve this kind of abuse, especially not from yourself. And ya know what? Your memories aren't all you have anymore." Her hand rested on his, and she suppressed her reaction when she found that it was ice cold. "Paxton, you've saved more lives than you destroyed, countless times over. I know that doesn't undo anything. I know that doesn't make it right. But you deserve to rest when you need it. You deserve... you deserve to stay with me."

She noticed a slight warmth rushing into his hand. Not enough, but warmth nonetheless.

"I..." he stammered and looked away from her, "I wish it didn't have to be this way."

"It doesn't!" she yelled, jumping up from her chair, "You can be with me without going crazy from guilt! You've fought enough to deserve that!"

He stood up to face her as he replied, "And you're certain that you're only concerned with me right now?"

She bit her lip. "Alright, fine!" she shouted, slapping the wall and turning away, creating some distance between them. "I'm sick of this! I'm sick of trying to help you, and only making you guilty! I'm sick of sitting around and waiting for the day when you can forgive yourself for being with me. I'm sick of hoping that you get hurt because it's the only time I ever get to see you!"

She wrapped her arms around herself, a pained expression on her face which softened slightly as she felt Paxton's hands on her shoulders. "I'm here now, Melissa." he whispered in her ear.

"I know..." she sighed, glancing at him from the corner of her eye, "But for how long?"

His hands, now warm to the touch, slowly moved down her arms, coming to rest on her waist as he answered, "As long as I need to be."

She turned to face him, her eyes drifting shut as their lips touched and her shirt was pulled over her head.

The two lovers lay side by side on the hardwood floor, staring up at the ceiling. They were both silent. The only sound was the nigh-undetectable tapping of Paxton's finger on the soft blanket that covered them, in perfect rhythm with her heartbeat. Suddenly, his finger froze. "This isn't gonna work, is it?"

"No." Melissa sighed.

"It's over, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

Their eyes descended from the ceiling and connected. Melissa always felt helpless in situations like this, but there was something she saw in his eyes, a certain... vulnerability, and it was present now more than it ever had been. "Just remember, Melissa..." he whispered, "I love you."

"I know." she replied.

"That isn't going to change. No matter what, you'll always be the woman who helped me, whether I wanted it or not, and... I owe you my life. But I owe you a lot more than that. I owe you the chance to find somebody who can make you happy in the ways I can't. I love you." He leaned in close as they shared their final kiss. She looked at him, his scarred face and unfathomable brown eyes, and she smiled.

"See you around, Robin Hood." she whispered. And with that, he put on his clothes, activated his teleporter console, and walked out of her life.

Melissa looked down at the place on the floor where it had happened. It was only a few months ago, but it felt to her like a lifetime. "What is it, Melissa?" Mike asked, looking to her and pulling her closer to him.

"Nothing..." she said, finally breaking eye contact with the spot, "Just a ghost."

"You know how I hate when you get cryptic like that." he teased, kissing her on the cheek.

"Oh, come on," she laughed, nuzzling up alongside him on the couch, "You know you don't hate anything about me."

"You're right," he said with a smile, giving validation to something intended as a joke, "I don't."

Melissa pulled up once again in front of her grandmother's house and walked inside, greeted the other women of her family, and listened as the conversation went around to each of them, finally falling upon her. "So, Melissa..." her mother began, "Anybody new in your life?"

Melissa almost wanted to pounce on her mother for the little smirk of self-satisfaction she'd worn ever since she found out she was right about Paxton, but she restrained herself. "If you must know, there is."

They all perked up once again. "Well, what's his name? Wait... it's not another firefighter, right?" She and Melissa's sister both laughed.

"Hilarious." Melissa replied in the most deadpan fashion possible, "His name is Mike. And..." she paused, deciding not to divulge the fact that he had a son, instead finishing with a smile, "He's pretty great."

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That Man I Used to Know

Melissa stared out at the world passing her by. The green and brown of pine trees blended and mingled as they raced by her window. She turned right and drove the car up a narrow dirt path shaded beneath the canopy. She drove up to a clearing and put her 1970 Mustang in park, then stepped out, spreading her arms wide and letting the mid-morning sunlight send a feeling of blissful warmth through her skin and down to her very core. "It's called sunlight, slick." she called out jokingly to her passenger, "I know it's new to you, but you ain't gonna burn. Trust me."

The passenger door opened and out stepped a man dressed in jeans and a plain white t-shirt with a brown leather jacket, face clad in a plain black mask, two white slits for eyes. "I don't like this, Melissa." the man replied, scanning the surrounding woods.

Melissa crossed her arms and chuckled, "Look, Robin Hood, mowing down tacos on the deck of the ship for the twenty minutes you allow yourself between cracking skulls does NOT count as a date."

"No, I mean... every minute I'm not out there--"

"You're taking a deserved break." she interrupted, "You're having a life for a change. You're recovering from the downright stupid task of making everyone's safety your responsibility. Besides, how many bullet wounds are you shaking off right now?"

Longshot averted his eyes and answered bashfully, "Two."

"And how many stab wounds?"

"Uh... more than two."

"That's what I thought. Now come on. You can't be there for everyone. You're gonna run yourself into the ground if you blame yourself for taking a day off. Let go of the damn guilt trip and let's have a little fun."

"Fine." Longshot shrugged, following Melissa through the clearing and into the woods. They walked together in the shadows of towering redwood trees, pine needles crunching beneath their feet. They would stop along their path for the passing deer or rabbit. She shared with him stories of herself, of the world she came from where bloodshed wasn't so commonplace, and once more, she asked him for his real name, a request which he denied once again by saying he didn't have one. Every time he gave her that answer, it killed her inside. Still, she stayed upbeat and tried to show him what it was like to be, for lack of a better word, normal. She had always envied the heroes, the masked men who risked their lives for others and expected nothing in return. But now that she had seen what living like that did to a man, how accountability and self-sacrifice wore away at him and made it impossible for him to grasp even the concept of a normal life, she found herself disillusioned about the glamour of heroism. Still, she had an admiration for someone who could endure that.

"Melissa..." Longshot began, running a gloved hand down his face, "Thank you."

"For what?" asked Melissa, sitting down on a nearby rock.

"For... how do I put this? When I'm with you, I feel like... I feel something I've never felt before. I... I dunno. I feel almost..."

"Human?"

"Yeah. Yeah... that's what I was gonna say. Seeing the world through your eyes, it's the greatest feeling I've had in a long time... and I wanna return the favor."

"Could you phrase that in a way that's less vague and potentially creepy?"

Longshot walked up to her and offered her his hand, helping her to her feet. He held her close and whispered, "I'm going to give you a rare view. I'm going to show you the world through MY eyes." Without warning, he picked her up and flung her over his shoulder. She shrieked and turned herself upright, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his torso. They both undid their belts and looped them together to harness her safely to his back. Safety, of course, being a vague concept to the both of them. "Ready?" the archer asked.

Melissa placed her chin on his shoulder, hair brushing against his ear as she whispered playfully, "Born that way." The archer nodded and jumped up, repelling off a rock as he took hold of a branch and flung himself higher into the trees, the screaming, laughing girl coming along for the ride. He ran along the high branches, leaping with silence and precision. Screaming and laughter mingled in her voice, and only grew louder as Longshot dove out of the treeline and into the open air. He turned and fired the grapple gauntlet hidden beneath the sleeve of his jacket, the bolt sinking into supple wood without resistance. The steel line went taut and they swung on a long, sweeping course over the forest floor. Melissa was tempted to throw her arms out wide, but she knew that might mean an uncomfortably close relationship with a body cast, so she kept them clamped tight around the archer's chest. He retracted the line and landed with grace on a soft patch of earth.

Melissa climbed down, her she tried to contain her laughter and steady her heart. "Oh my god!" she exclaimed, brushing the hair from in front of her eyes, "Oh my god... my legs are shaking. I can't even... and down I go." She toppled over, landing not in the dirt and brittle old pine needles, but in the arms of the archer.

"It's okay." Longshot whispered, giving more of a laugh than she had heard in all the time she'd known him. He pulled her upright and held her steady as he said, "It's alright. I've got you."

"Yes, you do." she answered with a smile. Their eyes locked and she reached up for the edge of his mask, but he flinched and pulled his head away. "Don't be afraid, Longshot." Melissa whispered, "The entire reason we're here is to convince you that there's one person you don't have to hide from."

"I'm not hiding, Melissa." Longshot replied, "I'm not afraid. This is who I really am. What's underneath is just hollow. This is what I'm meant to look like."

Melissa's smile faded and she whispered plainly, "Not to me."

The archer surrendered and let her pull the mask from his face, his scarred, ugly true self feeling the light of day. He bowed his head and shadows fell upon his face, but she lifted his chin and brought him back into the light. "Let me save you for a change." she murmured before touching her lips to his. He didn't resist. For once in his life, he simply let everything else fall away and lived in the moment. He allowed himself to be happy.

Melissa stared down at the picture, the memory of that day encased and frozen in time. She sighed and set it back down with all the other pictures on the table. Rain streaked down the window, pelting the sidewalk and the roof over her head. She remembered lying next to him, listening as he described how he heard the rain. He told her how he could smell the slightest difference in the air, see details of a sunset that should only exist on an artist's canvas, and how he could feel her, sense her and connect with her more closely than anyone she had ever known. He showed her what it did to him every time her heart beat.

But those days were over.

She turned around and dropped down on the couch and started cleaning her gun. The TV started blaring and she looked up to see the streets from the view of a news helicopter. Someone was doing a play-by-play of the events below, but she didn't listen. All that caught her attention was the image of Longshot and a few other heroes taking on some pack of gunmen sporting some cutting edge weapons in the middle of the city. The camera was too shaky and the shootout was too chaotic to make out any details, but the image was crystal clear in her mind. Even from high above, she could tell that Longshot was hurt. He dropped down and crouched behind a broken chunk of concrete as gunfire rained down on the other side. She could see that he was short of breath, bruised and ragged. He rolled to new cover and shot at the same time, striking one of the gunmen in the shoulder. He ran up the length of an overturned bus and landed down like a hawk on his prey. She turned her head and almost turned off the TV. It had gotten too hard to watch over time. Still, she set the remote back down and continued cleaning her gun.

She calmed herself as she remembered that he would always be okay. He would always walk away in one piece. He would always come home.

Just not to her.

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