A/N: Well, here it is…the last chapter. Thank you so very, very much to everyone who came along with me on this journey. I appreciate every single reader and every single review more than anyone could possibly imagine!
Disclaimer: I own nothing...except Dara. She's all mine.
I love you.
Dara's mouth snapped shut with an audible clack. Wide, wondrous blue eyes sought his, and the stunned joy bubbling up from their depths nearly took his breath away. "Say it again," she whispered thickly, her heart in her throat.
Hand once more finding the curve of her cheek, V leaned forward until his forehead rested against hers. "Dara Turner, I love you."
Her entire body sagged against his until he could feel every inch of her against him. "I love you too," she whispered.
Now it was her turn to catch him by surprise. She pulled back, her hands lifting to catch his face within her grasp, and then—as she had done earlier on the train platform—her lips pressed against Fawkes' unmoving mouth. V's hands dropped to her hips, holding her to him. He nearly growled with displeasure when she pulled away too soon.
The determination in the gaze that met his sent a chill of foreboding through him.
"The mask, V…take it off."
Going utterly still, V prayed that he had not heard her right. "What?"
"You heard me," Dara shot back, the determination as thick in her voice as it was in her gaze. "I wanna kiss you—not Guy Fawkes."
His head had begun shaking before she'd even finished speaking. "No," he ground out, on edge in a way he had never thought to be with her. Why was she doing this? He had thought she understood.
"Yes," Dara retorted, lunging forward to catch his face in her hands again, forcing him to look down at her. "I love you, V. I don't care what you look like. I wanna kiss you…I wanna see your eyes."
"Please, Dara…I cannot…"
He tried to retreat, but she pulled him back to her. "You can. We can."
Dara reached up and swept her hair behind her ear, turning her face toward his. "Remember this? I showed you this…I trusted you with this…"
"Your comparison, my dear, is sorely lacking. You cannot possibly compare a single scarred ear to…" he paused and swallowed thickly, "…to my own defects."
"Scars are not defects, V. Wasn't it you who told me I should never be ashamed of what I am and that anyone who said differently was a fool? And wasn't there also something about exquisite beauty and strangeness in the proportions?"
Leave it to her to remember the details of a conversation that took place over six months prior. "Again, Dara, you oversimplify the matter egregiously. You cannot compare your situation to mine!"
"I can and I will," Dara shot back, nearly shouting. He attempted to turn away and she returned her hands to his face, forcing him to look at her. "And I'm not oversimplifying anything. My ear doesn't matter to you, what's under your mask doesn't matter to me. That really is all there is to it! All you have to do is trust me!"
"And that," V said with a sigh, "is something I cannot do."
She flinched, stung. "Why not?"
He closed his eyes, not able to bear the hurt and accusation staring back at him. "Because I know how it would be," he murmured. "You say that you do not care what lies beneath this mask, Dara…but what is easily done in theory would prove impossible in practice. You would turn from me."
Dara's expression morphed instantly into one of pure outrage. "I would not!"
"You would," he said, sad and more than a little heartbroken. "You would turn from me…you would leave me…you would…"
She let him talk, not daring to interrupt. He was distracted enough by the dark thoughts plaguing him that he had failed to notice the subtle downward slide of her hand. Nimble fingers found the edge of the mask, resting against it as lightly as possible, until finally, she had heard enough about what he feared she would do.
"Enough," she growled, fingers sliding beneath the mask and knocking it up and off his face before he even knew what she was about. He froze, all the air whooshing from his lungs in a single, shuddering exhale. She took full advantage of his momentary paralysis and took a long, lingering look into his eyes—blue, like a sapphire. "Why don't you let me decide what I will or won't do, yeah?"
And then her lips were on his.
This wasn't the time for her to go to pieces—if anything, this was the time for her to keep him from going to pieces. But oh...how she wanted to fall apart, to lose all semblance of control and allow her body to turn liquid, to melt entirely into him. She wanted to pull him closer, hold him tighter and never, ever let him go.
But V was still far too fragile for anything like that. In fact, he was likely to be furious with her for what she'd done—could potentially view her unmasking as a betrayal. It was a mildly disturbing thought, but not enough of one to move her to guilt. She was counting her blessings that he hadn't shoved her off the instant she foisted herself upon him like this—but she wasn't sorry for what she'd done.
She couldn't be...not when it was his cheeks that her thumbs were drawing delicate circles across, his lips that hers were pressed against.
When she finally pulled back, it was with no small amount of caution. His eyes were closed, his breath shallow and shaky, and every muscle in his body was taut with...anger?...horror?...fear? She'd liked to have thought that it was none of those; that he'd been so overwhelmed by her kiss that it was pure, wanton desire that left him in such a state, but that was a stretch too great even for her overactive imagination.
Running her eyes over his face, trying to read his feelings but failing spectacularly, she decided to stay silent and let him work through the emotions that had gripped him on his own. Funny that she could read the mask like a book, but this, his true face, was a true mystery to her. Taking advantage of the moment, she gave up trying to read him and instead turned her attention to memorizing that which she had long ago despaired of ever having the pleasure of knowing.
His brow...his nose...his cheeks...his chin...his mouth...
Disfigured, of course, just as she'd known it would be; the skin was the same here as on his hands—reddened and rough, marked with the ridges and valleys of scarring that she suspected covered the majority of his body. But it was, surprisingly, far less disfigured than she'd imagined. Dara rolled her eyes at her own foolishness—the fact that it had thoroughly educated her in the proper way to perform a dramatic unmasking aside, she really had seen Phantom of the Opera one too many times. She almost laughed at the thought and wondered how V would take it if she shared the observation with him.
Not well, probably. At least, not yet. Someday though...
Yes, someday he would be able to joke with her about it. It was a promise that she made to herself and to him—especially to him. Someday, he would be comfortable enough with her and with his own skin to appreciate the parallel.
As it was, the face before her inspired none of the horror or pity that she knew he feared it would. It was a less than handsome face, yes...but it was his less than handsome face and that made all the difference in the world.
He had been silent and unmoving for far too long, she finally decided, the tiniest hint of worry beginning to worm its way into her. Had she truly gone too far? He'd thrown her out once before for far less.
"V?" She spoke his name with more certainty than she felt and made the split-second decision to seek refuge in humor. "Y'know, I used to think I was pretty good at the whole snogging bit," she quipped, forcing her tone to stay light. "Course...the way you're just standing there, I'm starting to wonder if I'm not a bit rusty."
And still, he stood there.
Frowning now, Dara swallowed down a lump of nervousness. "V? You ok?" A pause, another swallow. "You're...you're not angry with me, are you?"
His eyes flew open at that, and she would have given just about anything she had to be able to read him. As it was, considering the question that had finally goaded him into movement, she doubted she was going to like his answer. Feeling suddenly anxious, she clasped her hands together in front of her, fingers twisting about one another pensively.
"Look," she hurried to say into the silence, hoping to delay what she knew was going to be an angry response on his part, "I know I likely shouldn't have done that, but I couldn't help it. Hearing you talk like that, making all those assumptions about how I'd react...it pissed me off, yeah? Needed to prove you wrong, and kissing you seemed the best way to do it. And you were wrong, weren't you? No turning and no running to be seen, is there then? I'm still here, and I still love you and I'm not going anywhere, so you just go right ahead and be mad at me 'coz I just can't bring myself to care. And another thing..."
His voice was quiet but firm, commanding enough to shut even her up. Her lips snapped closed on the words she'd been about to say and she swallowed convulsively, feeling miserably close to tears. "Yeah?"
"Do shut up."
And once again, her lips were pressed to his.
But that was where the similarities between that first kiss and this second both began and ended. Because this time, not only had he actually initiated it, hewas also the one in complete control of it. One black-clad arm had wrapped itself around her waist, pulling and holding her firmly against him, his hand molded round the curve of her hip, leather-clad fingers biting into her skin even through the denim of her jeans. His other hand grazed the side of her neck before curving around the back of it, holding her to him while his thumb teased at the soft skin just behind her ear.
Altogether, it was nearly enough to bring her to tears. In such a short span of time she'd discovered so much that she'd never dared hope she ever would. She now knew for certain what it felt like to kiss him...and now, she was being made well and truly aware of how it felt to be kissed by him. On the surface, it was such a small difference--but to her, it was staggering.
He pulled away far too soon for her liking, but the intensity of his gaze as he focused it down on her sent butterflies of anticipation skittering through her stomach. If she read him right—and she thought that just maybe she was already learning how—she was going to have ample opportunity in the future to discover everything she could ever possibly want to know about kissing him.
V stared down into Dara's upturned face, burying his uncertainty beneath a veneer of confidence that he only half felt. She was helping more than she knew though—if he'd seen even a shadow of pity in her eyes...
But her expression was blessedly free of pity and positively teeming with tenderness and a healthy measure of wonder. And that, he could well live with.
"Perdition catch my soul," he said after a long, heavy moment, his eyes boring down into hers and his words vibrating with feeling, "but I do love thee, and when I love thee not, chaos is come again."
A beautiful line, that. But when it earned him a frown rather than the smile he had anticipated, he found his affection for it diminishing.
"Save the Shakespeare for another time, yeah?" Her voice was firm, but gently teasing—not angry, just mildly annoyed. "I wanna hear it from you, V. It doesn't have to be perfect, and it doesn't have to be pretty...it just has to come from you."
He couldn't help himself—he laughed. She was arguing with him. Even now, in the face of his declaration of love, she was arguing with him. And arguing as only she could, charming him even as she criticized. It was so typically and beautifully her that it warmed him in ways that few things ever had. How he loved this woman...how he utterly adored her—sharp tongue, biting wit and all. "Well that is rather high-handed of you, my dear, dismissing Shakespeare so ungraciously."
"Oh, I don't know," she retorted cheekily, "the old sod could probably do with the set down. Far too puffed up with his own importance, that one is—do him a bit of good to realize he's not the only one as can string together a memorable line."
"You would truly take my words over those of the Bard?"
"Every second of every day," Dara responded without even the slightest hesitation. "I'm not in love with Shakespeare, V. He's fantastic enough...but he's nothing to you." She smiled, and it was a slow, gentle thing. "Least, not to me."
It was surreal to hear those words and know that he was the object of them; he vaguely wondered if it would ever be as easy for him to hear them as it seemed to be for her to say them. "Take care, my dear," he said, not meaning to delay, but unable to do anything but, "else you shall make me quite arrogant."
"You already are," she shot back, "it's part of your charm. What woman could possibly resist a man who thinks he can change the world single-handedly?" She lifted her hand, laying it over his where it still rested against her neck, squeezing gently. "But that's really neither here nor there, is it? I know you've already said it, but I wanna hear it again. And I wanna hear it from you. Your words, V." Her smile changed then, lips quirking up devilishly to match the glint in her eyes. "And do try to make it good, yeah? Don't plan on having any more declarations like this, y'know, so you'd better make it memorable."
He took a moment to think, to consider his words, charmed by her flirtatiousness but wanting to fulfill her request despite the fact that he knew she hadn't been full serious. "I confess," he said quietly, "that I do not quite know how to say what you wish me to. I could recite you poetry that would express my feelings much more eloquently than I ever could—God knows I have dedicated volumes of it to you in my mind over the past year. But you have said that such will not satisfy..." He took a deep breath, eyes dropping from her momentarily. "I have no experience with words of love, Dara, save for those in writing or on film. I have never given them, and I certainly have never received them. And while you claim that the quality of them matters not to you, it most assuredly does to me."
Lifting his head again, he met her eyes once more, falling into her gaze in a way that he had never been able to before. She had always been beautiful to him, but seeing her clearly, without the gauzy insets of the mask between them, he was able to see the true extent of her loveliness for the first time. "For twenty years, I saw nothing but my vengeance—I lived for nothing but my vengeance. Nothing else existed..." The hand at her waist lifted to mirror its twin, her face now cradled between his palms, "...until I saw you. After that moment, everything changed." He leaned forward, resting his forehead against hers. "I fell in love with you, Dara, as I had never believed I could, and as I never shall again."
Her eyes slid shut once his words stopped, and he waited for her reaction somewhere between fear and anticipation. The very last thing he expected though, were the tears that began to roll down her cheeks from beneath her lowered lashes. "Dara? My dear...what is the matter? What has upset you?"
Feeling his hands begin to fall away from her cheeks, Dara caught them in hers, pressing his fingers back to her face. "Nothing," she assured, "nothing. I'm not upset...it's just...I just..." her eyes opened and the pure joy shining out of them took his breath away. She never completed her thought; instead, she surged forward, throwing her arms around him and pressing her cheek to his. "I love you so much."
It took a very long moment for V to respond to her embrace. But eventually—and oh, so tentatively—his arms came up and around her, hugging her close. Eyes sliding shut, he walled off every rebellious thought and focused entirely upon her delightful warmth in his arms. "And I you, my dear."
Her response to that was a kiss, delivered not to his lips as he would have expected—hoped prayed longed for—but to the highly sensitive skin behind his ear. V gasped, every muscle in his body going rigid. She pulled away from him almost immediately, but did not go far, her hands settling on his shoulders and her face close to his. The expression she wore was a far cry from the joyous exuberance of only moments before, and V cursed himself for being the cause of that change.
"I made you uncomfortable," she said quietly. "I'm sorry...I didn't mean to..."
"Not uncomfortable," he interrupted hastily, hand lifting with surprising ease to cup her cheek, "merely unaccustomed. You must remember, my dear...this...is new to me, and more than a trifle alien."
"Yeah, I know." She leaned into his caress. "And that's why you're gonna have to tell me if I do anything you don't want me to—anything even the least bit unwelcome. I don't wanna upset you."
Mesmerized by the way her cheek fit perfectly into his palm, he marveled at the contrast between pale skin and black leather. V would have laughed at her words had he not been so wholly astonished at the very notion that her touch could be anything but utterly and perfectly wanted. "Unwelcome?" He brushed his thumb along her cheekbone. "Your touch could never be unwelcome, my dear. Never believe that my reticence has anything at all to do with you." His hand slid downward, fingers seeking out the pulse point in her neck, thumb irresistibly drawn to the bow of her lips. "But do please know that my eagerness to overcome it has everything to do with you."
Her lips pursed beneath his touch, bestowing a kiss through his glove. "Good to know," she murmured around his thumb. "And we've got plenty of time to figure out how to do just that. But I don't wanna rush it. This is new to me too, and I'm absolutely terrified of pushing where I should pull or charging in where I should hold or retreat."
V smiled gently, adoringly. "My dearest Dara, while I have no doubt that you will invariably both push and pull me in whatever direction you so chose, I cannot believe that you could or would ever retreat. Indeed, I pray you do not." He dipped his head toward her, voice dropping to a whisper. "Please, my dear, never retreat from me, for that, above all else, I could not bear."
She tipped her own head forward slowly, touching her forehead to his yet again—rather liking the habit that it was quickly becoming. "Same to you, luv. I know it'll be hard for you at first, but please...please try not to pull away from me. Because no matter what the cause and no matter how well I understand the reasons, it still hurts."
How simple that request sounded, and how agonizingly difficult he knew it would be to fulfill. A lifetime's worth of instinct cannot be overcome in one night, regardless of how much he wished that it could. Even now, her proximity—while a consummate delight—made the darker, more primal parts of him as taught and tense as a bow string. She had made astounding progress at breaking through the outermost of his walls over the past year, but there were still so many left to be dismantled. How could he ever make such a promise? Was he doomed to suffer the guilt of causing her pain with every instinctive flinch?
"I'm not expecting miracles, V," she said as if sensing his thoughts. She pulled back to look into his eyes. "I'm not asking you to get over two decades worth of instinct in one night. There's no time table on this. I'm just asking that you try. That's all…just try."
Part of him was moved by her words, expanding and filling with so much love for this woman before him that it was staggering. But another part of him was disgusted by the pleading in her voice and the unreserved acceptance in her eyes. It was wrong to see her as she was now—on her metaphorical knees before him, like a supplicant begging scraps from a King's table, beseeching him to try to give what any other man would have without hesitation.
Angry at fate for the circumstances that had made him what he was, and even angrier at himself for being unable to overcome them with the very haste that she was forswearing, he pulled away from her, seeking to put distance between them.
"This is wrong," he muttered, giving voice to the thoughts tearing him to pieces inside. "It is a mistake, a colossal and monstrous mistake. I am not...I cannot be what you need, Dara, and I was a fool to believe even for a moment that I could be."
Annoyed by the sudden shift in his mood, Dara crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him as he paced restlessly along the length of the room. "How about you let me be the judge of what I need, yeah?"
He stopped, his back to her, the set of his shoulders relaying his tension. "Perhaps you are unqualified to make such decisions."
She was not going to get angry. She was not going to let him push her—manipulate her into an argument that he didn't really want, but would eagerly engage in nevertheless. He really was absolute rubbish at dealing with his emotions. Deliberately ignoring the goading hostility of those last words, she blew out a long, slow breath. "Ok, I'll bite. Let's say I'm not. Let's also say you are—so tell me then, V, what do you think I need?"
"More than this," he snapped, "more than death and vengeance; more than a dark and silent tomb. More than a shadow of a man who must struggle to give you anything of himself, and who shies from your slightest touch. There can be no future for you here. You need a real life...with a real man who will be capable of loving you as you deserve to be loved—wholly and without reservation." He stopped, head dropping and voice cracking. "I...I cannot be that man."
Repeating to herself her earlier determination not to get angry, Dara let his words hang between them. Finally, she huffed out a long suffering sigh.
"No," she said at last, "I guess you can't."
The fall of his shoulders, despite the assertions he'd just finished making, made her shake her head. Stubborn, ridiculous, impossible man...
"But I really couldn't care less."
His head jerked around toward her, and she couldn't help but smile when she saw the expression on his face. So many months worth of prayers answered in that one look—to be able to see him and not the armor he'd donned to play the role that fate had assigned him. A tiny part of her mourned the loss of the tilt that would certainly have accompanied the look he was giving her then, but a much larger part of her reveled in the knowledge that this, surely, was the look that the angled mask had hidden from her for so long.
Because the furrowed brow and tightly pressed lips cried confusion even clearer than the tilt of the mask had.
Crossing the room, she stepped past the boundaries of polite and insinuated herself directly into his personal space to give him a challenging look. "I'm gonna say this once and only once, V, and you're gonna listen and accept it whether you want to or not. I don't want anyone but you."
There was a flicker of something unnamable in his eyes, but it was quashed almost immediately by a thick wave of something far too close to despair for her tastes. "Dara..."
"No," she ground out. "Don't you dare argue with me, V. I'm not a child and I'm not a fool. I'm telling you that you're the one I want and I expect you to respect that."
He sighed, and she could see his anger and his self-imposed boundaries both beginning to waiver. "I...I cannot help but fear that you are being too hasty—that you are overlooking the bad of the situation in your single-minded determination to elevate the good."
"Are you kidding me?"
He frowned, confused yet again by the unrepentant mockery in her voice. "I assure you that I am not, Dara."
"You think I've got some idealized view of you, V?" She shook her head and let out a tight, snort of a laugh. "You really couldn't be more wrong, luv. I think you're the most wonderful man alive, yeah...but you're still a man. You're arrogant and opinionated and far, far too self-righteous for your own good sometimes. You've got enough emotional issues to send Freud into a bloody tailspin and you've got absolutely no idea how to deal with them in a healthy, constructive way. You've got an awful habit of thinking you know what's best for everyone around you when the truth is you don't even know what's best for yourself. You're stubborn and obstinate and you have a tendency to wall yourself off if you feel the least bit threatened. You..."
"All right," he cut in, the frown he wore swiftly turning from confused to mildly affronted. "I believe you have more than made your point, my dear."
She mock pouted at him, though her eyes were dancing. "But I was just getting started! Took me a minute, I know, but now I've really warmed to the subject."
Once more, he let out a long, heavy sigh—but one of resignation this time. "You are going to refuse to see sense in this, aren't you?"
"Completely," Dara admitted, almost bouncing on the balls of her feet. "You're stuck with me."
The barest hint of a smile played about the corner of his mouth and he shifted his gaze up to her almost shyly. "There are, I do believe, far worse fates."
It was a compliment, after a fashion—not nearly so obvious as some he'd paid her over the course of the evening, but it somehow managed to feel far more intimate than any of the rest had. "Better believe it," she tossed back at him, feigning indignation as she jutted her hip out and snapped her hands to her hips. "This is a prime piece of real estate, I'll have you know. And you, luv..." she smiled, "are currently the high bidder."
He still quietly and firmly believed that she would be far better off without him, but was hardly foolish enough to push the issue. On this, he decided then and there, he would yield to her judgment. The time would likely come when she would see the error of her decision, but until then, he found that he was perfectly content to give himself over to both her playful mood and his own desperate want.
"Are you then implying, my dear," he intoned gravely, "that there are other offers on the table?"
That earned him the impish grin that he had fallen so very in love with from almost the first moment he met her. "Would that make you jealous?"
He hid his own, answering smirk. "Desperately."
"Then yeah," she said smugly, "there are. Lots. In fact, there're so many that I'm thinking about converting to a time-share if the right offer doesn't crop up soon."
"Indulging in blackmail now, are we?"
She shrugged. "I'm not above a bit of extortion every now and then if it gets me what I want."
He sobered then, swallowing down every shred of doubt and lingering fear that plagued him. Facing her squarely, he breathed out a long, slow breath. "And what is it that you want, Dara Turner?"
Sensing the change in him, reading the sudden seriousness in his gaze, her own levity fled. Imbuing as much feeling and certainty as she could into her answer, she raised her arm, palm down and fingers reaching out toward him. "You. Just you. All of you."
"And that is your price?"
A nod. "Not too high is it?"
"Oh no," he slid his gloved fingers around hers, squeezing tightly before he yanked her forward, his arms fencing her in. "For you, my dear...for this," he tilted his head, brushing her lips with his, "I would pay that and more."
Her smile then was enough to light even the darkest corners of his mind and heart. "I love you," she whispered, her voice low and rough with emotion.
"And I you," he replied before once more leaning down to capture her lips, this time in a far deeper kiss than any they had yet shared.
It would not be easy. There would be misunderstandings. There would be arguments. He had barely even begun to sort through the myriad issues that plagued him and neither of them had any doubt that his past and the damage it had done would be an obstacle that they would have to overcome on a daily basis.
But the past year had taught both of them a very important lesson.
As long as they were together, there was no obstacle big enough to stop them.