oOo

He haunted her nights for long weeks afterward.

She drove herself hard to forget him, to forget the unrelenting cold of his eyes, to erase the casual, brutal honesty of his voice. Throwing herself into embracing life—her work, her father, the friends she had until this point never really gotten around to knowing—she strove to remove from her memory the events of that one flight, of that one evening when everything in her world collided and came to a screaming halt. It was hard to forget the enormity of what she'd endured, harder still to try and pretend that for the span of several hours one man had controlled the fate of everything she held dear in life—something she had sworn would never happen. She had triumphed in the end, and after the climatic events that transpired in her father's home she had discovered that the old Lisa, the Lisa embroiled firmly in fear, had died. And rising from the ashes of her old self she had been remade anew, and she had been strengthened and tempered by the tribulations to become something more, something greater.

But even this newfound sense of self wasn't enough to take the remnants of Jackson Rippner from her mind.

When she woke most nights bathed in a sheen of cold sweat, her blankets wound about her limbs in the aftermath of her frantic thrashing, she would lie still and force her heart to slow and her pulse to calm, and would try to convince herself that she was safe. Jackson Rippner was dead; it was her father's finger on the trigger that had seen to that. Why then this unrelenting barrage of memories night after night? Why then this inability to simply let go of irrational fear? She had no answer and knew nobody else would either, and so Lisa continued to live her days with exuberance and her nights tangled haunting fever dreams.

In order to stave off the nightmares she began to pursue other avenues of distraction, going out with several coworkers most weekends and occasional week nights. The clubs they attended were always loud, the obnoxious music punishing and incessant and the crowds almost violent in their eagerness and intensity. While part of Lisa loathed this scene, the other half of her embraced it, for here amidst so many others, amidst those looking to forget their daily lives and simply exist for pleasure, she was able to pretend she was as they were: merely someone without a past of terror, there to enjoy the night.

And for a time, it worked.

Nights blended together, mixtures of thumping bass, exotic drinks and the spasmodic flashing of lights. She never drank to the point of inebriation; some part of her loathed the loss of clarity that came with it. Neither did she engage in the oft-times fierce sexual interactions that many of her coworkers did. She smiled and genuinely enjoyed her time, but was unwilling to succumb entirely to the standards of the scene. And when the last of her coworkers would take their leave with a wink and a soft, sultry whisper, hinting to her what they hoped lay ahead, she would wish them well with a laugh and begin to wind her way out of the thick crowd towards the entrance where she'd hail a cab to take her home. It became—almost—routine.

And so it was that one night, when someone caught at her arm as she stepped past them, she merely shook them off; perhaps someone thought they recognized her, or maybe it was a man liking the way she looked. The crowd worked to her advantage; as bodies suddenly surged in rhythm to the beat the hold on her was broken, and she continued resolutely onwards, pushing past while murmuring meaningless apologies. When she broke free of the dance floor she paused for a moment, mildly disoriented, before beginning to walk again, heading down the small corridor left of the entrance in order to use the bathroom before leaving. A woman with smudged eyeliner lurched towards her, tottering on heels far too tall to be deemed safe; she bumped into Lisa with a muttered apology before stumbling past. Lisa smiled and shook her head, watching as the man ahead of her lunged for the men's bathroom, holding his hands over his mouth in order to stem the tide that was no doubt rising within him. She reached out to push the bathroom door open, one hand coming up to brush ineffectually at wayward wisps of hair, and had stepped halfway through before she realized one of the voices among the many she could hear was in actuality saying her name.

She turned around, a gentle, mocking rebuke on her lips for what was most likely a co-worker looking for a wayward date. What met her gaze, however, was the face that had haunted her every night for four long months. Impossible! Her brain screamed as vivid blue eyes both cool and implacable met her own. A smile slowly crept across features so familiar, and with her heart in her throat she shook her head desperately.

Somebody bumped into her then on their way out of the washroom, sending her stumbling into the hall. He caught her as she reached him, his hands fastening around her upper arms; he used her momentum to swing her about and slam her against the wall. He leaned in close, so that his face was a hairsbreadth from her own; to anyone passing by, she knew dazedly, it would look simply like they were entertaining each other's company …

She said in a noiseless whisper, "You died."

One corner of his mouth quirked upwards. "Did I?"

She stared at him, unable to put pieces together, unable to perceive that Jackson Rippner stood before her now, alive, real. His voice was different—there was a breathlessness to it, a huskiness that was to be attributed, she knew, to the wound she'd given him.

"My father—" she said falteringly.

"Yes, yes. Shot me." He interrupted her almost impatiently; his eyes had yet to loose their hold on her own. "But you didn't follow my body to the morgue, did you, Li-sa?"

He stretched her name out, emphasizing the syllables almost playfully. He continued, one hand coming up to firmly cup her chin. "You see, Lees, I'm resilient. I'm resourceful. And while your father did a good job of screwing me over, I wasn't quite ready to cash in my chips just yet."

Lisa surged abruptly to the side, trying to break his hold; he pulled her back roughly, throwing her back against the wall and crossing her arms over her chest, effectively pinioning her. Her eyes darted up and down the length of the corridor; except for the crumpled form of an unconscious man half in and half out of the emergency exit at the end of the hall, they were alone.

"And here I went to all this trouble of catching you alone," he said, shaking his head with a soft tsking noise.

"What do you want?" Lisa ground out, glaring.

Jackson smiled, a slow, malicious curving of the lips that made her blood run cold. "All in good time, Lees," he said. "I thought we could get reacquainted first."

She saw his intentions shadowed in his eyes before he moved; she twisted her head to the side and his mouth landed against the length of her cheek. For a long moment he didn't move, and she pushed out against him only to have his grip on her wrists tighten to the point of bruising force. When his lips wandered down to the line of her chin and then followed the curve of her neck, she stiffened in shock and dismay only for an instant. She felt his breath warm against her pulse point and reacted, raising one foot and stomping down hard on his shin. He reared back with a muted sound of agony and she wrenched her arms free before delivering a backhand that would have made her father proud. Jackson staggered back into the opposite wall and fell hard against it; he stared at her through eyes bright with both anger and amusement.

"Ouch," he said softly, wiping at the trickle of blood escaping his mouth with his forearm. He straightened and Lisa tensed, prepared to bolt or fight or both—

"Is there a problem?"

Lisa felt weak with relief; one of the bouncers, a huge man with impressive musculature, approached slowly. Lisa opened her mouth to accuse, but Jackson beat her to it.

"My bad," he said laconically, pushing himself away from the wall and brushing past the bouncer. He held Lisa's eyes for a moment longer before he turned around completely and making his way to the club exit.

"You alright?" The bouncer asked her as she stared wide-eyed after Jackson.

A million replies ran through her head, but she knew that to use any of them would be pointless. She had a suspicion that while Jackson was in reality alive, he was to the rest of the world legally dead. It was a part of his job, after all, to be able to shed one skin and adopt another, to reformat himself, chameleon-like, to whatever situations arose. Jackson Rippner was alive and had found her, and she was now faced with a myriad of possibilities, each more unpleasant than the last.

The bouncer repeated his question, and Lisa nodded weakly. He didn't look as though he believed her, and he escorted her to the club's exit. Outside, she searched the small crowds lingering around for a glimpse of her tormentor but found nothing. She hailed a cab numbly, climbed inside and mechanically gave her address. The entire fifteen minute ride she spent in frozen silence, and upon arriving at her condominium complex she headed inside with great haste. Once within the confines of her apartment she turned every light and made a beeline for the metal cabinet standing beside her bookshelf. With hands that shook she entered the combination on the lock; it took her three tries to do it correctly. When finally the door swung open she made a sound of relief, reaching within to take hold of what was, after tonight, a veritable lifeline.

She cradled the semiautomatic in a firm, confident grip, ejecting the magazine to check the rounds before sliding it home again. It was a Browning Hi-Power, 9 millimetre, and she'd been practicing with it almost daily at the local range for the last three months. Staring down at its reflective metal surface, she felt an odd sense of ease flow through her, and a moment later she made her way over to her couch and sank down onto it, never once releasing the gun.

Jackson, she knew, would be here soon.

oOo