To Andrea, aka royalbk! Happy Birthday, love!


From the blizzard and into the fire… that was how the change felt to her. Outside, the storm of the century was raging, but within the confines of the small room, it was a different element raging on. Much quieter. Much more focused.

The man's hands were in her hair holding her head close as they kissed. She was pressed against something, a desk, or a chest of drawers, leg hitched up around his waist. Her cheap skirt was bunching up higher and higher, but he didn't seem in a hurry to remove it, choosing instead to explore her face with his mouth alone. When he moved down to her throat and gently bit above her pulse point, her head fell back and she groaned mindlessly.

It was too dark to see him, but underneath her fingertips, she could feel him burning up with a desire so different from his earlier melancholy that she welcomed it, embraced it even. Her head span with exhilaration, heat and confusion. It was beyond her comprehension how her clumsy caresses could elicit such a wild reaction from him, but he responded to her touch just as vividly as she to his. Their bodies moved together naturally, but not dancing, never dancing…

The buttons of his shirt came undone and she slipped her hands under, feeling the warm, balmy skin. He jerked her closer, until they were chest to chest, dipped one hand under her knee and pushed her up so that they were all but molded together.

But when he reached back for the strings that fastened her dress together, her logical side, the one which had been now reduced to the size of a pea, called out. She hesitated.

And, of course, he noticed.

"What's the matter?" he whispered, voice husky. She ducked her head and tried to recover her insanity – she had started this already. She was woman enough to see it through.

His fingers curled under her chin and forced her to look up. "I'm scared," she confessed. "I don't even know your name."

Those eyes were mocking her. "What difference does it make?"

Good question. From all the things she'd learned of him that night, did knowing his name even come close to the deal breaker category?

She had chosen to come here long before he'd put his spell on her. Almost from the time she had first seen him, she'd known this was where they'd end up, no matter what he'd said, did, or had done. "No," she admitted "but I'd like to know it anyway."

He smirked. His teeth, impossibly white, flashed in the moonlight. "Leon," he said. "My name is Leon."

She'd known of the club, although she had never set foot in it before that night. It was famous, or infamous, among the students as a textbook hole-in-the-wall café, where the alcohol was strong, the air was heavy and the music flowed in tune with your soul. She'd even glimpsed the paintings in the entry on her way to the Academy on occasion – floor-to-ceiling pieces deprecating all sorts of freaks and monsters and fantastic creatures. Some in bold color, others in smoky tones, the figures crowded the canvases and seemed to reach out to the passer-by, enthusing him to enter this cave of decadence.

Of course, she never had. Between classes, practice, costume fittings and shows, she barely had enough time to stay on her own two feet in the end of the day, let alone go and satisfy her curiosity. The other girls in the Academy were no different – each one of them was too concentrated on her career to give into temptation. Too many things worried them – their performance, their costumes, their figures. Everything, from the time they went to bed to what they ate, had to be strictly monitored and synchronized, otherwise they would not be able to get a role and then what would happen?

Sora used to be like them, beating herself over every mistake and taking account of every apple she ate, before the weight of it all was too much to bear. She'd tried to go on, to keep it up, but it had become too hard, and even her childhood dreams weren't enough to sustain her.

So when they had promptly decided to kick her out, she couldn't find it in her heart to be mad.

"Your footwork is sloppy," Madame Pinot had told her that day. "Your body type is all wrong. You don't pay enough attention to your diet. How do you expect to be cast?"

Sora had stood in the office, eyes politely bowed. Some quirk of the wood on the parquet made it look like a leering fox.

"I'm sorry," although she hadn't seemed sorry. "But the Academy cannot waste precious resources on a person with so little motivation. There are girls out there who would give anything to be in your place, Sora. It's not fair to them."

She didn't say anything, just let Madame Pinot go on with her monologue for a little longer, thinking back to the time when she had first gone to see "The Nutcracker" with her mother one Christmas. She'd watched the ballerinas in the pretty costumes, looking like sprites from another world, wishing she could be like them, wishing she could move just as beautifully. She thought back, when she'd first started training, when she had first put her dancing slippers, remembered the childish excitement, tasted the exhilaration of the first en pointe, the freedom of the flight.

She remembered all these times she had been victorious and wondered why that was not enough anymore.

Her friend Anna had said that it was all for the better that she didn't have to do something that killed her. Her friend Mia said that she just needed a break. Sora hadn't even bothered telling them that the problem wasn't in her desire to perform. On the contrary – more than ever, she wanted to dance. She was ready too, to give her all, to push herself to the limit, to tear her toe shoes and feet, if it could extinguish the feeling to complete and utter loneliness that had settled into her.

Because that was her malady, the deadweight – she had just woken up one morning cold and hollow as a tree struck by lightning. It was as if her magical prince had visited her at night, but instead of waking her up, his kiss had robbed her of all sensitivity. Sora had gone as far as to welcome the pain that her endless dancing brought – at least then she could feel alive.

That night, when the girls had gone out on their performance at the local theatre, she had sat in the dark, wondering where to turn to, and thought of the club, with its colorful freaks, a veritable den of Aladdin, inviting her in. She'd looked out the window, and just like that, decided to fall down the rabbit hole.

Sora hadn't even known what she had wanted, until she got there. She'd put on the only dress she had, a deep red sheath that fell to her knees with a slit that went to her thigh. It had been her official party wear for the last two years, and even though there was nothing to celebrate that night, she wanted to feel pretty and feminine. It also turned out the best clothes choice, because the club, for all its smoky reputation, was mostly frequented because of the music.

It had flabbergasted her, at first, to stand in the door of the low room and see it – the scattered tables, the oak bar, the bodies moving on the dance floor. Everything was in warm, earthy hues – chocolate brown and ochre, passion red and burgundy, yellow and gold. Even the music, a soft, heavy song, seemed to carry with it the flavors of a lands unknown, of bright days and heady nights, of jealousy, of anger and of love. Sora had had to pause, lest it overwhelm her.

Little did she know that even then, he'd singled her out.

Leon had noticed the girl before, albeit in passing. Her cherry hair made her stand out even admits the most colorful groups, and even in the middle of the crowded market, her happy disposition set her apart from others. He remembered thinking, off-handedly, that it took a special person to always see the good side of things.

He, on the other hand, was alone, always alone, even when he sought… female company. Sex, like social drinking, could be a terribly, terribly lonely business. He'd sometimes amused himself, fancying he went through life like a ghost, long dead and completely unimportant.

Morbidity, as it turned out, was but a strange kind of humor.

But even ghosts had their needs, or at least Leon did. Unlike Sora, he frequented the café every night, sometimes for the music, sometimes for the alcohol, often leaving with a woman. He hadn't been sure which one of the three would be his objective that night … until he had seen her in the doorway.

He'd recognized her, and it had surprised him. She had struck him as too… straight-laced to come to places like these. Too young. Too naïve. He waited, expecting her to turn red and high-tail out of the place. Instead, she had stood, transfixed, in the doorway. As if she had fallen under a spell, her body relaxed, her eyes dimmed and her cheeks turned pink. The way her lips had fallen open and her chest had risen, as if to breathe in and taste everything…. Delicious.

Before he'd known it, he was halfway across the room, trying to get a better look at her. Yes, she was beautiful. Maybe a little too thin for his liking, but there was a tired look around her eyes. Perhaps she had been sick? No matter – it didn't hurt her by a iota. The elegant way her shoulders stood, the line of her neck, the fall of her hair… the way she held her head like the world never ceased to fascinate her. She paused at the bar, unsure what to do, and gave him a chance to move in.

Sora barely had the time to register the heat of another body, before someone behind her hailed the barman, and then said in a low voice, "May I buy you a drink?"

She didn't turn around immediately, focusing instead on the hand that was lying right next to hers on the bar. Pale, elegant, with long fingers. Well groomed, but not manicured. She already liked him. "You already did," she said, and looked up. Her mouth fell open.

It wasn't his face (though, admittedly, it was a handsome one), that made her pause and gather her thoughts. It wasn't the freakishly long hair with the color of snow. It weren't the pale violet eyes. No, what really held her transfixed was the almost all-consuming sense of grief that he emitted.

Pale lips tilted upward slightly, a gesture that for some reason struck her as uncharacteristic. "And so I have. Perhaps, then, you will do me the honor of your company?"

A sharp intake of breath… and then that Mona Lisa smile was bestowed on him.

"Thank you."

Oh, yes, he had definitely underestimated her, Leon thought as he led her to the table, fingers lingering gently at the small of the back. Even through the fabric of the dress, he could feel the heat of her body, a blaze that was both threatening and inviting. Dangerous. Addictive. Even when they sat down, he refused to have the tabletop as barrier and settled on the chair next to her, angling his body in her direction.

"Do you come here often?" she asked after the waitress brought them their drinks. "You seem to know the staff well."

"I suppose I do. Not any more than a normal person, but not any less either," he shrugged. "It's a pleasant place, is it not?"

"It's beautiful," she smiled, and closed her eyes again. The band had taken up a new song, one with a heavy, hypnotic beat. She swayed in her seat slightly, humming along the melody.

How rare. When he addressed people, they either sputtered and tripped over themselves (the men), or they immediately put on their seduction faces (usually the women). Nobody was easy around him, ever. Not upon such a short acquaintance, anyway. That girl's ease made him uneasy, and he suddenly felt a desire to fill the silence. "First time, miss...?" he enquired.

Usually sentences like that have the habit of hanging in the air, but Sora ignored it. Her eyes still closed, she said, "Sora. And yes. I don't have the opportunity to go out much."

"Hard job?"

"You have no idea," Sora said, opening her eyes finally and looking at him. It was strange, but with this man, the longing somehow resided. "But it's over now."

"Are you sad?"

"I don't know yet."

Leon's hand splayed on the tabletop, fingers brushing against hers. Sora blushed a bright red, but did not pull away. "You won't be," he promised. "Even if it seems hard at first, you'll be surprised how fast the feelings fade."

"That's the thing…" she sighed "…I did not want them to fade."

He blinked, taken aback. She did not want the feelings to fade? That was preposterous. All he'd ever wanted, when he'd lost the most important person in his life, was for that pain to go away. What a curious woman.

"So what do you do?" she asked as she turned her hand over and let him touch the palm. He traced the faint spider web of lines briefly, considering his answer.

"I'm… between engagements." That was one way of putting it, at least. Thought it had been years since he'd actually taken on an assignment, the truth was, he never stopped taking pictures. No matter the time of the day, he had a camera on him. Sometimes he stood, rooted on the spot, looking at the world through his lenses, adjusting and readjusting the focus to capture the one perfect moment. Sometimes, he just photographed things when the fancy struck him – simple objects, nothing more, like the reflection of a building in a rain puddle, or the table of a trinket vendor; colorful snapshots of everyday life. Sometimes they sold, sometimes not – but the truth was, Leon had stopped working solely to pay the bills a long time ago. Selfishly, perhaps, he was now more interested in keeping his soul sane.

At this moment, oddly enough, it was calm.

"Are you a dancer as well?" the girl asked, taking in his broad shoulders and lean hips. Although he was bigger than most of her former partners, he moved with an inherit grace.

A smile tugged the corners of his lips, and his eyes warmed with amusement. "Is that an invitation?"

"Huh?" Sora blinked, not understanding what he meant. Then she saw him winking towards the dance floor and dissolved into apologies. "No, no, I mean, I can't… I don't…"


"No, that is, I do dance, I danced all the time…" she blushed.

"Oh…" he was taken aback "I'm sorry. I didn't know."

"It's not that I dislike it…" she hurried to say. "It's just that… well… I've never… danced like this before." She glanced at the couples moving against each other on the dance floor. The song was beautiful, with a flowing rhythm accented by the sharp sound of the claves, but it was nothing like the music she had ever danced to. The beat, 2/3, was not one she could execute arabesques and pirouettes on. She didn't even know what the dance was called.

Yet… there was something incredibly sensual about the way those couples moved together. They were not all perfect, or strictly following a form, but there was a strange kind of beauty in the way they flowed together. Her heart contracted.

And, of course, he noticed. "You've lost someone," he said.

Sora paused, contemplated his statement. She reached out and played with a strand of her hair, marveling at the color as if she saw it for the first time. "More like something," she admitted at length. "I wish I knew what it was, so that I could get it back."

"Maybe you can do without it."

She glanced at him, surprised at the bitterness in his voice. What am I doing, she asked herself, what am I doing? He could be anyone – from a simple man to a deranged murderer, and yet there she was, nearly spilling her guts out to him. Was she that lonely, that starved for affection, that she went on looking for solace in the arms of a stranger?


"I don't think so…" she said quietly. "But perhaps it's different for me than for you." Her eyes dropped down to their nearly intertwined hands. Hers, small, with clipped, unpainted nails. His, strong and bony. No wedding band adorned his finger, nor was there a trace of one on the skin.

"I was never married," he said, guessing the direction of her thoughts.

"But you did lose someone," she said.

He held her eyes for a long, loaded moment, before nodding, "Yes. I prefer not to talk about it." Another first. He usually preferred to talk as little as possible, and he never, ever, shared personal information of any kind. Perhaps it was in his nature, perhaps it was an acquired habit, but he was a private person, and he liked to keep it that way. Whatever that woman was doing to him, he would have to put some ground rules first, whether she liked it or not. So he put that statement out there, and waited for her reaction.

Sora knew it all too well, that feeling. So instead of pushing into thorny territory, or running away, she took the third route, and laced her fingers with his, coming in contact with as much skin as possible.

Leon considered her, then gently lifted her hand and kissed the knuckles. At that precise moment, the music changed, and he smiled again. "Shall we?"

Wordlessly, Sora got up, letting her chair scrape back against the floor, and let him lead her to a spot between the dancing bodies. Then, without warning, he pulled her in and started to dance.

As dazed as she was, it wasn't hard to follow. She was very musical, and her body naturally picked up on the rhythm, but nothing could compare to the feeling of being in the arms of a man who could lead. From the first basic, through a myriad of cross-body leads and turns, she knew she could close her eyes and follow him blindly and she'd never falter. They danced very close to each other, not facing exactly, but rather, looking over the other's shoulder, legs intertwined, so they were constantly in some sort of a musical embrace. It was so much more intimate than what she'd danced before… and yet Sora found herself loving it nevertheless.

He bended her back and marveled the sensual sway. She let her head fall back to the side, and he saw her lips part reverently. Another surprise… no other woman had trusted him so easily.

Nor had anyone picked up so quickly. She could talk all she wanted about not dancing like this before, but her body told a whole different story. The woman flowed, threaded through the steps as easily as she would walk, and she gave herself to the slow burn of the dance as if she gave herself to a lover. He let her go, only to yank her back, and when she crashed into his chest with a giggle, he found himself chuckling as well.

They finished with her sitting on his hip, legs crossed, nestled in the crook of his arm. Her own arm was wrapped around his neck, and she was looking right up at him from under hooded lashes, eyes heavy with dreams. So much feeling… so much sensation. She threatened to overwhelm him, and he didn't mind it one bit.

His lips brushed against her, the briefest, most delicate touches, and yet she shivered at the intensity of it. "Please," she whispered.

"Do you…?"

"Yes," she nodded. "Yes. Let's go."

Later, much later, they were lying in his narrow bed, him on his back, she sprawled on his chest, both trying to catch their breathing. Clothes littered the floor, but she couldn't bring herself to mind the mess. From the back of her head, her sanity whispered weakly that she'd have to get up soon and leave Wonderland, but she could still afford to sink into blissful thoughtlessness. Her eyes scanned the walls lazily, taking in the pictures, full of so much life and color she almost thought she could step through them and into a sunny, festive day.

A particular one caught her attention, and she raised her head to look at it better. Leon followed her gaze, then, with a small chuckle, reached out and took it down for her to see better. "Is it that one?"

Sora sat up on her knees and took it gently. It was a very bright picture – on closer inspection, you could see that the film that been lighted before the picture could be exposed. She squinted to make out the outline of a butterfly perched on a single elegant finger. "It's lovely," she commented, but that wasn't what had made her look twice. All the pictures were beautiful, perfect even. For him to keep this one – crooked, wrinkled and lighted…

Leon moved until she was sitting between his legs and wrapped his arms around her waist. "Stay," he said, leaning his head on her shoulder.

"Stay?" she whispered, lifting a hand to caress his cheek. He moved and kissed the palm.

Leon had never asked a woman to stay the night, ever. He didn't like giving women the wrong ideas, even if it wasn't very gentlemanly of him. The invitation was an offering, one he wasn't sure she would accept. "Stay," he repeated. "And in the morning, I'll tell you about it."

She looked at him for a long minute, before angling her head to kiss him fully. "On one condition," she murmured against his lips.

"Name it."

"That you help me find what I lost."

Leon smirked and pulled her in, "I don't think you lost it to begin with."