Standing on the balcony of a two million dollar penthouse suite with a cigarette between his fingers and a glass of cabernet sauvignon on the ledge beside him, Face took a deep breath of the warm night air. Moisture from the day's rain still hung in a haze over the city, sticking to his skin, coating him with a thin film. Leaned forward on his forearms on the cement half-wall around the balcony, he could feel the moisture there, too. It made the rough surface almost slimy. A strange feeling against bare skin...
Through the French doors behind him and across the spacious living room, a blond supermodel was sprawled on the sofa, asleep. He glanced over his shoulder at her, just briefly, as he raised the cigarette to his lips and breathed deep. Anyone who looked that beautiful when they slept couldn't be human. Her long hair hung down, half covering her face and her soft pink lips. A thin, white sheet half-covered her otherwise naked body, but hid nothing of her figure.
He stood up a little, the unclasped belt that hung in the loops of his jeans scraping against the cement wall. A sip of the wine and a slight smile. He would carry her to bed in another hour or so, once he'd had his fill of the night air. At the moment, he would rather commune with his wine and the lights of the city.
It was too much of a stretch on his mind to acknowledge - at least consciously - what this aloneness felt like. It was far too much of a stretch to call it loneliness. Solitude, peace, quiet reflection... all of those labels brought with them the connotation of confidence and sophistication. But loneliness... well... that label reflected too many other things that were not to be embraced or even considered. Loneliness ventured into "emotional" territory, and acknowledgement of such an emotion bordered self-pity.
This was not loneliness. He didn't have a name for what this was, and he didn't want one. Naming it would mean confronting it, and confronting it would lead to a battle for his mind between what he felt and what he thought. There was no place in his life for such battles. They were pointless. Meaningless. And dangerous.
He set the glass down again, and took another drag from his cigarette, using his other hand to rub the back of his neck. The muscles in his shoulders were tense and knotted, the way they were more often than not. Denise was supposed to be the cure for that, but she had been surprisingly ineffective tonight. It wasn't her fault, and he didn't blame her. Nevertheless, if he was going to sleep at all, he was going to need to relax.
He dropped his arm, still holding the back of his neck, and felt skin stick to skin where his arm pressed to his bare chest. It was too warm to be midnight. The sun had been down for hours, and still the heat hung in the air with the damp, sticky humidity. He should go back inside to the air conditioning...
But he didn't. Instead, his eyes drifted across the street, to the couple sitting down to a particularly late dinner on the other side of a translucent curtain. That man came home at 12:13 every night to a dinner that his wife prepared for him. Face had noted the pattern on the third night, and it had been the same every night since. He never had a day off, and she never went to bed without joining him for a warm meal first.
Every night he saw them, and every night, he had a different reaction. Sometimes confusion: Who would choose to do the same thing every night like that? Did they not even have the sense of adventure to go out for a midnight dinner once in a while? Sometimes disgust: That was all there was to "normal" life. Sometimes gratitude: He would go crazy if a meal at midnight was the most exciting and enjoyable part of his life. Sometimes anger: Nobody deserved to be that peaceful and content with their lives. Tonight, he felt something very different. Tonight, he felt envy. But he wasn't going to call it that. Better to leave it unnamed...
Whatever he speculated about the man sitting at that table, whatever he guessed he would think and feel in his place, the simple fact of the matter was, he had never felt what that man was feeling right now. He had never had the opportunity. And he probably never would. Part of him held firmly to the determination that he never wanted to. That man in there was bound to that woman like a dog on a leash. If he pulled too hard, there was always a choke collar to rein him in. He never wanted to be that. But a part of him wondered which came first: not wanting or not having.
The human mind was an amazing thing. It could convince itself of the strangest things. He knew that from experience. Desensitized to violence and pain, even torture, in the jungles of Vietnam... he'd seen more than one soldier go off the deep end. More than one mother's son had come to the invariable conclusion that life was meaningless and not worth having or giving. Once you were convinced - thoroughly convinced - that life was worthless... killing without feeling, without remorse, was easy. Maybe it was the same sort of thing, for him. Once he'd become convinced that what that man had was unattainable... he'd also become thoroughly convinced that it was undesirable. It was senseless, after all, to crave what he couldn't have. He knew that. He wasn't stupid...
The question of which had come first wasn't actually a real question. He knew perfectly well which had come first. This unnamed-thing-sort-of-like-loneliness-but-not-nearly-so-emotional was the same unnamed thing he'd felt in his earliest memories. Even as a child, he had lacked any sense of real commitment. The connection of a child to his parents was foreign to him. There were no fond memories of bonding, moments of happy connection with a caretaker...
Even a more basic and primal reliance on that figure was unfamiliar. He'd been fed. He'd been clothed. He'd even been talked to. But he'd never been a son. He'd never been a brother. He'd been a chore - and if he'd been an enjoyable one, that was to his credit. But the relationships ended there. He had no memory of his mother or father, and had never had any real expectation - not if he was really honest - that anyone would want him as a son. He didn't know how to be one anyways...
So an emotionally starved child had grown into an emotional predator as an adult. He smirked at that consideration a little as he took another sip of wine. Perhaps that was a bit harsh; it had an almost-negative connotation to it. But it was also true. He could smell neediness, vulnerability, and emotionalism a mile away. He didn't even remember what any of those things felt like, himself. But they set off all sorts of little lights and sirens in his head anytime he was within a hundred yards of an easily-manipulated woman.
He'd made the decision long ago not to exploit that intuition to the detriment of such women. At least, not in such a way as to permanently scar them. It wasn't his goal to further damage anyone who was already hurting. It was a give-and-take that he sought; if he had nothing to give that they needed then he had no reason to be with them. The simple fact was... there were enough needy, vulnerable, and emotional women out there that he could easily find the ones who wanted what he had. Some of them hid their insecurities well. Some of them didn't. But none of them could hide from him.
That was not to say that every woman he'd ever approached had been a manipulative effort on his part. In fact, it very much went both ways; they targeted him as well. He wondered if they were conscious of it, like he was. If there was something inside of their heads that said "man who understands what you want to feel on your 3:00." It had to be something like that because otherwise, there was no sensible reason why he was so damned successful. He was attractive, and he knew it. But he'd been wrapping women of all ages around his little finger since he was ten-years-old.
He could read them, as easily as the words in a book. And he was willing to make an exchange: emotional, intimate foreplay for sex. He'd tell them anything they wanted to hear - and mean it, too - in return for a few seconds of relief from all of the tension that plagued his existence. It was never just a line he gave them. And it was never just sex that he took. He never said anything he didn't mean. They were beautiful. They were special. They were chosen, and deserved to be pursued. And ultimately, that was what every woman wanted to hear; he'd never found a single exception. Ultimately, it was what he wanted to give, and he took satisfaction in the fact that he could do it so very effectively.
Unfortunately - or fortunately, depending on how closely he was guarding his emotions at any given point - those kinds of relationships had very clearly marked expiration dates. Because at the moment he stopped believing all those things, he could no longer say them. It was far better to end the encounter on good terms, long before it got old. And long before there was a chance for too much attachment to develop.
He didn't know what it felt like to be loved. He knew what it felt like to be wanted - and any woman who wanted him would find that "emotion" returned. But that was as deep as he'd ever gone. Maybe as deep as he could go. A few failed attempts at anything more hadn't really ever gotten off the ground, and had only served to harden him further. He couldn't afford to love. If he ever did - and heaven forbid if it should ever be returned - it was only capable of leading to pain and heartbreak. That was something he had no desire to experience, thank you very much. And yes, he realized that love and pain and heartbreak were all equally important parts of life as, say, success and confidence. Pain built strength and character. But what he genuinely lacked in those, he had learned to cover over very well with a perfect mask of self-assured confidence.
But perhaps more important than the result was the journey to get there. The journey that every normal person took through their first crush, first kiss, first sex, and the first time that any of it meant something. For a few people out there - he'd read this somewhere - the action and the meaning had gone hand in hand. For him, they had been completely different concepts. He'd gone through all the motions... but none of them had really touched him way down deep inside where it was rumored that love was born.
Lucky for him, he'd accepted a long time ago that he wasn't normal. From birth until now, he'd never had a single shred of normalcy in his life. His only saving grace had been the other people around him who were just as screwed up as he was. The people who went through it with him. The army, first. And now... the team. But he had to accept the fact, if he was going to be really honest with himself, that even they weren't quite as "abnormal" as he was. Even they had their memories, and the memories in and of themselves were enough to substantiate the claim that they had never been truly alone. Someone, sometime, had loved each of them. They knew what that felt like. They knew they were capable of feeling it. That they could someday feel it again.
He didn't have that kind of assurance. He didn't know what he was capable of feeling, and to what extent. He'd lived his entire life alone, disconnected, almost sociopathic. Inhuman. The human soul craved someone to bond to: an infant to a mother, a boy to a girlfriend, a man to a wife. But he'd never felt any such bond. And if he'd ever craved it... his awareness of that craving had faded away long ago... To him, it was like a food he'd never tried; he didn't know what it tasted like so how could he crave it?
His connections were brief and sensual or, on occasion, practical. Or platonic. There was, in fact, a tense sort of friendship that had developed in fifteen years of working with the other members of his team. But there was also that dark part of him - the part he would deny until he was blue in the face and certainly never give voice to - that realized he had kept a fair amount of emotional distance between himself and all of them. Any one of them could die at any moment. Or worse. And when that happened - it would happen someday - he could not afford to let it crush him. He would be sad to lose someone who'd been in his life for so long, but he'd get over it inside long before he allowed his recovery to show on the outside. It would be a ratio of minutes to days. Public mourning would be made... but it wouldn't be for his sake.
The fact that he would never admit to those thoughts didn't mean that he didn't recognize he had them. They were wrong - maybe even evil. But they were also real. They were his thoughts. There was no one in his life so precious to him that he "loved" them. And there probably never would be. Love was a deep emotion, intimate. He didn't feel anything that deeply. He couldn't. The closest thing he'd ever felt to love - what he called "love", for lack of a better term - had ended almost before it had begun. Was he even capable of love? What did it feel like to love and be loved? To know someone and be known? To truly trust?
The man at the dinner table knew.
He would never know.
He turned and flashed his signature smiled at the figure standing in the open door, wrapped in the white sheet, holding it up over her chest. "You're awake," he observed taking a step forward. "I was just about to come and tuck you into bed..."
She smiled as he slid an arm around her waist, pulling her close. She moved the sheet, carrying it up as she draped her arms over his shoulders, encasing them both in it. "What are you doing out here? It's much nicer inside..."
"Just thinking," he murmured into her neck, between soft, gentle kisses.
He smiled as he pulled back a little, enough to look into her eyes. "About how absolutely gorgeous you are..."
If that statement hadn't been entirely true when he started speaking, by the time he'd closed the sentence, it most certainly was. He brushed her hair back from her face as he leaned in to kiss her lips, letting the last of his unnamed emotions slip away into the darkness of the LA night.