The door of Valek's office swung open just as he was beginning to clear away his work. He set the weapons back down.
"I got hit by a love spell, Valek." Yelena placed both hands on the desk.
He briefly gave her an odd look. But he ultimately shrugged and continued to organize the files, a playful smile touching his lips as he did so. "In that case, so have I. Shall we discuss how you intend to cure me over dinner?"
"Why do I get the feeling you're not taking this seriously?"
Valek finished and went to wrap his arms around her. "If you wanted me to tidy up faster, all you had to do was ask, love." His lips grazed across the side of her face.
Yelena pushed him way. "That newly promoted lieutenant from MD-2. The one with the mysterious promotion after scandalous rumors regarding him and the General's daughter?"
"You are serious."
She nodded and went to sit at the conference table.
"When did you begin to feel the symptoms?" He was pacing circles around her now.
"This afternoon when I first ran into him. The magic was faint. But I felt it."
"What specifically did you feel?"
"I wanted him to distraction. That's probably all you really need or want to know."
He paused, eyes widening.
Yelena read his mind and added quickly, "Nothing happened."
He relaxed slightly and resumed his brisk walk. "Antidote?"
"It's not a poison, Valek."
"But still something akin to it. Which means-"
The door banged open. Janco charged in first. "We have a problem. A big problem."
Ari followed close behind. "Even Yelena isn't safe. This is-" He stopped beside Janco, his expression growing as perplexed as that of his partner's.
"We know." Valek and Yelena said together.
Janco considered the picture before him: Yelena dutifully sitting at the conference table and Valek stopped mid-pace. "You know." He confirmed slowly as approached and rubbed his chin.
"What were you expecting?" Yelena propped her head up with one hand.
"Perhaps," Ari stammered as he joined them, "as you did come into contact with him…and of course it wouldn't be your fault, Yelena...but we thought that you might have...already..."
"Jumped a supply closet with him at this point?" Yelena suggested with a facetious smirk.
Valek groaned and covered his eyes with one hand.
"Sorry." She said quickly, genuinely contrite.
Janco shook his head. "The point is, how are you not going gaga for this guy the way everyone is?"
"I am. But I don't have to act on it." Yelena looked at Valek. "Some things are unforgivable."
He smiled faintly in appreciation.
"Well, that's a relief." Ari decided.
"Yeah. It's been getting scary out there." Janco jerked a thumb towards the door. "Maren's been beating up anyone thinking of going head to head with her over him. It's so unlike her."
"Wait. Maren?" Yelena said with amused incredulity. "So she's been doing her cat prowl around him too, hasn't she?"
"Her what?" Janco leaned forward, a mischievous smile growing on his face that promised at least a season's worth of material for his deliberately obnoxious rhymes.
The chair scraped against the stone floor as she stood. "Her cat prowl." She slipped behind Valek. "It's where she fakes several jabs from the back…" Yelena demonstrated. "...before doing a not so accidental sweep towards the end..." The tips of her fingers deliberately brushed across his shoulder blades. "...that promises a bit more should they choose to follow." She turned away with a sly smile over her shoulder.
Valek didn't follow. But he openly held her gaze with a hooded one of his own.
"Amazing." She crossed her arms. "It actually works."
The corner of his mouth tilted up. "Your arousal alone seduces me, Yelena."
She grinned back at him from across the table.
Janco rested his jutted elbow on Ari's shoulder. "Those two are so much fun."
Ari stepped forward. "What's the plan?"
"We figure out how he's doing what he's doing and stop him." Yelena said simply.
"He's a magician. We neutralize him and it's over." Valek said.
"I really doubt he has any idea what he's doing. But in the event that he does…" Yelena shrugged. "He wouldn't be the first magician to have tried this on me."
"How could he not know what he was doing?" Ari asked.
"Because he's too obvious about it." She idly flipped through a book on the table. "He basically thinks himself extremely talented and attractive. But if it was deliberate, he would be more discreet because I doubt that anyone with at least a shred of self-preservation would try to do this in Ixia, under the Commander's nose in the castle itself, unless there was something more to be gained than just being able to tell your friends that you slept with the Soulfinder...which didn't happen!" She glanced at Valek again. "Did. Not. Happen. Nothing even close to it."
"But you thought about it?" Valek looked pale.
Yelena gave him an impossible look and began to straighten papers.
"So any theories?" Janco interrupted abruptly, not so subtly bending over the table to get between them.
Grateful for the reprieve, Yelena set the papers down and continued, "You know how magic has an uncanny way of attaching itself to inanimate objects?"
"You think that he could be wearing something?" Valek was pacing again.
"Yes. And the best way to know for sure would be to take off all his clothes." She balked and, not daring to look at him again, immediately added, "Or we can just interrogate him first; figure out how much he knows."
"Good plan." Ari decided. "Let's go."
The men stood to leave.
Yelena tapped the table with her fingernails. "I should probably stay here."
Valek seemed indecisive but finally sighed, suppressing whatever else may have been expressed in the candles he was extinguishing. "No, you would know if he was lying and would be able to help us to pinpoint the source."
Janco smirked and crossed one leg over the other as he leaned against the wall. "And what that basically translates to is, try to behave and to keep your thoughts clean...unless they pertain to Valek. Otherwise, someone could easily die tonight."
Yelena chuckled and walked with him out the door. "Behave or get someone killed. Got it."
Ari paused as their laughter faded into the corridors. "I doubt you need this many people for an interview. I could go do crowd control. Keep things quiet. The fewer people know about this, the better."
Valek nodded in assent and he was gone. A thought grew in the back of his mind as the rest of the room darkened. He allowed himself to focus on it for the briefest of moments before setting it aside to address the more pertinent issue at hand.
"I swear I didn't know!" The lieutenant threw his manacled hands up. "I always just assumed that I had this effect on women!"
Yelena stepped to the side and they followed. "He's telling the truth."
Janco shuddered. "Just when I thought magic couldn't be creepier. Now you can force someone to love you."
"Technically, no." Yelena explained. "Even the most powerful of magic can't create love. The most it can do is generate the symptoms that could be taken to be the real thing. And if you have someone in, say a forced marriage, who is blissfully unaware of the influence they're under..."
"They'll defend their own captor." Valek finished as he examined the white gold pendant in the dim light. It hung on an ordinary chain and was bent tastefully into the shape of a serpent. "It appears that all the speculation over the King's effect on the Queen were accurate."
"Like a poison." She teased, taking the charm from him.
He frowned but she hadn't looked at him long enough to notice.
"This makes me worry that there could be more enchanted items, carelessly sold from the coffers, circulating Ixia as we speak." She returned it.
"Barbaric." Janco decided, kicking a stray pebble across the dungeon floor. "Shouldn't this kind of thing be against the Ethical Code and whatnot?"
"It is today. But the scenario I just described is really the exception rather than the norm. Historically, many couples have chosen to be enchanted out of their own free will."
"Why the hell would anyone want that?"
"Well, think about it. If the two of you were in an arranged marriage and the peace of two or more clans were relying upon your union when you knew for a fact that you can't stand each other… at the very least it might make things slightly tolerable if not for a few hours every once in awhile."
Janco stuck his tongue out and shuddered again. He shook his head and jerked a thumb toward their prisoner. "Anyways, what are we supposed to do about him? You can't arrest him for sleeping with a bunch of consenting adults."
"Which explains all the sudden promotions." Valek voiced his chagrin.
"You probably could." Yelena corrected with quiet intensity. "It's not true consent if there was an influence of some kind."
"Right. Of course. I only meant…" Janco stopped, flushing.
"That it doesn't feel right to punish him when he was just as unaware. It's alright, I understand, Janco." Yelena said gently. But her face hardened again. "Still. Brief flirtations might be harmless but I can only imagine the kind of damage he might have already caused in the districts that he's been ejected from."
"What do you suggest we do, love?" Valek asked.
She considered. "He can't stay here. It would be too much of an insult. I suggest an immediate transfer to MD-1 and a demotion back to rookie status. He'll have the opportunity to work his way back up. If, that is, he's even capable of doing so on his own merits."
"Doubt it." Janco smirked. "He fights like a greenie with the bow."
Valek hid the pendant away. "Make sure the whole country knows."
"You got it, boss!" Janco saluted with his most serious face. "Captain Loud Gossipmouth at your service. I will also be sure to subdue Captain Ari by whatever means necessary should his strong-and-silent-type behavior ever threaten to sabotage the mission."
Yelena burst into laughter as Janco marched - without neglecting the full four steps to make the turn - out of the dungeon.
"I just ordered him to talk nonstop. I'm never going to hear the end of this from Ari." Valek rubbed his temples. "I'm sorry we had to miss dinner due to this oversight. I'll see you later tonight."
"Don't be too hard on him." She said, touching his arm briefly. "He behaved badly but his soul is still intrinsically good."
He smiled at her compassion. The thought resurfaced.
Yelena walked into the suite some time later to find Valek working at his desk. She closed the door behind her and approached.
"If you've actually thought about it, I wouldn't be completely opposed to the idea of 'jumping the supply closet' so to speak." He watched her but drummed his fingers against the desk. His restless gesture. "Perhaps just once. Or twice."
She stopped. "Why would I want a supply closet when we already have a suite?"
"The novelty?" He suggested, standing up too quickly. "Or perhaps there may come a day when you'll realize that there's actually scant difference between the two. Both can be equally desirable rooms at the right time and place."
Yelena approached him but kept a comfortable distance between them. "But there are noticeable differences already. They - supply closets - would be impersonal, cold, and smothering at best."
He didn't move closer. "They would be accessible, in ways the suite couldn't. If there was a particularly harsh night or you were just exhausted…" He paused briefly when she pursed her lips. "...my point is I would understand if you just needed a place to take shelter in until the storm passed."
She gasped and he turned his back.
A moment of still silence hung between them. He never flinched but she could feel his heart race.
Yelena spoke. "They still wouldn't be home. I'd feel even worse if I tried finding that in a poor substitute."
Valek turned back to her, his sharp eyes hunting for something precious in hers. "The suite requires a key. That means you will be obligated to keep it locked at several points. You don't consider that smothering?"
She only smiled. "Hardly. You said it yourself, there's a key and since I do have a copy…" She slipped the diamond marked key out and twirled it in the light. "...it means that locking it each time is still a choice. So if anything, those locks only make me feel safer."
He shook his head but had moved closer. "It may also trouble you to stay in ways a supply closet wouldn't, even when you're disinclined."
Yelena raised her chin in challenge. "How so?"
He shrugged and glanced about as if making a proper assessment. She didn't miss the uncharacteristic hitch in the movement. "Complicated repairs, tedious maintenance...your mere presence just so it can feel lived in."
"Lived in and loved?"
Valek held himself still. "Yes."
"I'll admit," she deliberately walked back and forth in a safe, lateral line across from him, "that caring for a suite won't always be easy. But for all the immeasurable ways it gives and sustains me, I couldn't imagine doing anything less in return."
Another step closer. Only two more.
"I meant it. I wouldn't mind."
"You would." Her perceptive eyes met his, teasing him with that most becoming sparkle in them. "You'd be good at hiding it though."
"If there was ever something else out there that could complete you in ways I couldn't, I would never want to be in the way of that, Yelena."
A touched tremor passed through her as the play concluded and the pieces were being neatly cleared away, revealing the vulnerable, painstakingly built backdrop that lay beneath.
Sweet. So sweet.
She closed the gap between them. "You complete me."
Emotionally awkward Valek is too much fun to write. Stay tuned for more and as always, dear readers, please review. :)