Saransk was cold in the winter, bitingly cold this close to Midwinter, and never hospitable, even at the best of times. It was one of the more lawless cities in Russia, thanks to its proximity to the unofficial divide between Western Russia and the place calling itself the Russian Free States; the Echelon still had control here, nominally, but the real rulers of the city were the criminal underground, led by a man styling himself the Prince of Scoundrels.
Sasha had never met him. She had, though, tracked Jack here, to this freezing medieval excuse for a city, and then had promptly lost the trail for five days before picking it up again: he'd been sighted three days ago in the company of one of the criminal underground, who lived in this beaten-up, abandoned-looking hotel.
And Sasha had studied the hotel for a long time before eventually concluding that, yes, Valentine would be an idiot not to have guards, but either they’d just kill her, or she could fight, or they’d turn her away or anything, but she’d never know unless she tried. So she straightened her fur hat (dark grey and flecked with light shades, thick and warm), and walked to the door.
She called herself Sasha, and asked to see Valentine, and to her surprise the guards agreed. True, she had to hand over her guns, and that involved taking off her heavy coat, and then the jacket underneath to get all three, but they let her keep the knives. The coat she left with them, the jacket she put over her shoulders, and her eyes never stopped taking note as she was lead further into the hotel.
Her escort, a hard-looking woman with white-blonde hair and stony grey eyes, led her up three flights of stairs and down a corridor that was papered in dark blue, lushly carpeted and hung with paintings that were, in all likelihood, stolen. The woman stopped her outside a set of double doors and rapped smartly.
"It should not be long," she said politely in Russian, as the door slipped open and a slender young man looked askance at Sasha. "Pietrov, the Prince has a guest, the woman we were told of. Is he fit for company?"
"Ah, the assassin is here!" The voice did not come from Pietrov, but issued from the room itself. "Send her in, Natassja, we mustn't keep a lady waiting."
Natassja shook her head, looking torn between amusement and disgust, and looked at Sasha.
"He is inside."
Sasha smiled faintly and quickly before the expression faded back into her normal doll’s poise. Pietrov looked at her for a long moment, nodded once, and held the door open for her. Sasha inclined her head, slightly, and walked through. Like the rest of the hotel, it was expensive and well furnished and ‘it’ was actually a sitting room, with a man with salt-and-pepper hair sitting in an armchair, and there was actually a tea service sitting on the coffee table.
Sasha didn’t even raise an eyebrow, just looked at the man with brown eyes that seemed warm and empty and oddly assessing all at once.
The man stood and bowed extravagantly, smiling warmly and yet somehow calculatingly, as though he was sizing her up.
He probably was, at that.
"Miss Lubimova, welcome. I do apologise about your weapons, but I don't allow firearms in my presence. I am Valentine, Prince of this fair city, and I believe you have come about a mutual friend of ours, is that right? May I offer you some tea? It's terribly cold today, and my people make an excellent tea."
For a moment, and just one, she looked a little off balance, and somehow even after her eyes stopped being that startled wide, her poise didn’t quite manage to come all the way back.
“How is Jack?”
"Our wastrel friend is rather foolish," Valentine sighed, sitting down and gesturing for Sasha to do the same. "I understand you helped in in Denmark, during that unfortunate incident with the patrol? Well, Jack has never learned that the body requires rest after being hurt, and he pushed himself far more than he should have, far too soon. I'm afraid he's quite ill at the moment, but being well looked after."
Sasha hesitated, but nodded stiffly and walked over to the gestured chair and sat down. Making her relax, of course, was an entirely different matter. Her eyes also never left his face.
“It’s hard to relax when one is on the run.”
"Relaxing and giving your body time to heal are entirely different matters." Valentine smiled, pouring two cups of tea. "And who is it that has him on the run, hmm, love? If you're here to take him, I'm afraid you'll have quite a lot of resistance. We're fond of our Jack, and it's bad practice to let the Echelon operate in my city."
Her eyes dropped.
And for Sasha, that said far, far more than she’d ever mean to say.
“I can hardly take him when he is, for once, so well protected, can I?”
Valentine's voice softened a little, for all his eyes were still sharp.
"It's good to see you've some sense. Would you like to see him? I'm afraid he's not allowed out of bed yet, but he can have visitors. I'd be sitting in, naturally."
“Naturally,” her voice was an almost absent echo, and then she looked up again. “I would like to see him, yes.”
He stood, setting down his tea, and gestured for her to follow him, leading her across the room and through one of the oak-panelled doors, into a large, warm bedroom.
Jack didn't quite look asleep, but he did look sick - his skin was paler than normal, startlingly so amidst the dark blankets piled on the bed, and someone had set up an intravenous drip in his left arm. He was shivering a little, despite the warmth of the room, and Valentine made a clucking sound and fetched more blankets from a cupboard, tucking them over Jack with almost comedic solicitousness.
And Sasha just stood there, looking faintly awkward. Also faintly horrified.
"Easy, there," Valentine murmured, helping Jack sit up, supported by the headboard and pillows. Jack stared at Sasha, as though he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't hallucinating.
"Now," Valentine said, obscenely cheerful, "you two aren't going to just stare at each other, are you? That would be a wasted visit."
Jack was silent for a moment longer and then coughed harshly, managing to say after a minute, "it's -- good to see you, Sasha."
"You look terrible," and her voice was the same as normal - mild, cultured. Not even a shake.
"I feel terrible," he said candidly, and that in itself was an indication of how sick he was; Jack never admitted to feeling anything less than fine. His voice, in contrast to Sasha's, was weak and hoarse, and Valentine leaned over him, checking his temperature and shaking his head.
“I would say you look better than last time, but…” She gestured. “Oh, Jack, you’re a fucking idiot.”
"I don't have the luxury of taking it easy," he snapped. "I've got work that has to be done."
"You," Valentine said severely, "know better than this, Jack. How long have you been coming to me for medicine, and you still don't take care of yourself properly? I'd hoped Sasha here would make you realise that you're not invulnerable."
Oddly enough, that got Sasha’s stillness back in an instant. She still looked fragile (although if either of the two would point this out, she’d kill them out of principle), but she was back to Seeker rather than the confused Daria-Sasha.
Valentine seemed about to speak, but Jack stopped him.
"No. She still works for them."
Quietly, “I left you, Jack, didn’t I?”
He gave a harsh bark of laughter that turned into violent coughing - coughing that left his fingers, covering his mouth, flecked with blood. Valentine sighed and stood up.
"I'm sorry, Sasha, he needs to rest, and I have to have my doctor come see him. She worries about these episodes. I'll explain what I can, in the next room, and you may see him again once he's slept. Please, come with me."
“But-” Then she stopped herself, visibly if not altogether obviously, and nodded. “You are the Prince here.”
"I'm glad that somebody remembers," he said good-naturedly enough, shooting Jack a mock-glare and leading Sasha back into the sitting room. "Now, my dear, please do have some tea, and ask me whatever you wish. I'll answer if I can."
She sat down, same chair as before, and actually picked up a cup. Drinking it was still a little beyond her, though.
“What’s wrong with him?”
"Jack suffers from consumption," Valentine said heavily. "For the most part he manages it fairly well, with the aid of my doctors and the medications we provide him; with the use of the medication it's kept from being contagious, or I wouldn't allow him to leave the city, but the disease is progressive, and it was exacerbated by his injuries in Denmark."
Her eyes were wide again, but she just nodded. "I...I didn't know."
"No, I don't suppose you would have; Jack's not exactly honest about himself, as you may have already found out. He's been ill for some time, probably longer than you've known him." Valentine's smile was sharp, glittering like the edges of broken glass. "You seem concerned."
Sasha just tilted her head slightly, more cat than the normal bird metaphor. "I suppose I do."
"I suppose I find myself curious." His expression, while mild, was somehow dangerous. "You, Miss Lubimov, are an Epsilon, one of the earlier members of your generation, and have an acceptable risk of sociopathy, according to your record. You are, according to Jack, empty most of the time; I know how much that frightens him. Now, I don't claim to be an empath or a telepath or any other form of Engineered, but I've learned to read people over the years, and you are no mere assassin or bounty hunter, not here. So I'm curious."
She was still watching him, all that strung-wire tension back. "Does it really matter?"
"In the grand scheme of things?" Valentine shrugged. "Perhaps not. I find there's very little that truly matters in the end, but that doesn't stop the pursuit of knowledge, does it? Besides." And now that dangerous expression was back, the one that said this was a man who could have almost anything done, if he really wanted it done. "Jack is very dear to me, Miss Lubimova. I make a practice of knowing everything there is to know about threats to those who are dear to me."
"And so you know my name. Read my file, Prince?"
"I've read far more than your file, Daria Dmitrievna."
Her jaw clenched, briefly. "That name doesn't matter."
And Valentine smiled.
"On the contrary. Names are always important, wouldn't you say? There's a reason, after all, why you call yourself Sasha when your real name, the one given by your biological parents, is Daria Dmitrievna. Just as there's a reason Jack calls himself Jack or Johnny instead of his real name, and just as there's a reason I call myself Valentine, Prince of Scoundrels. Names form us, form who we are, and separating the two...? I would say that name matters a lot more than you'd have me believe."
"Daria Dmitrievna does not exist. She was taken from her parents and had her heart carved out by the Echelon. I am Sasha."
"I don't think that's entirely true." Valentine picked up a cup of tea, inhaling the steam. "If you were just Sasha, you would have turned Jack in long ago. And you likely would have buried a knife in my heart by now."
She put her cup down, and put her hands in her lap. Not clenched, just neatly folded and ladylike. "I was never suicidal."
"You'll have to try a lot harder than that to avoid the point with me, my dear."
Icily, "What, exactly, do you want me to say?"
"What I want," he said calmly, sipping his tea, "is for you to drop the mask, Daria. I'm much better at reading people than even Jack, empathy notwithstanding, and I am very, very tired of talking to masks."
"I am Sigma Delta One Six Three Episilon. I can. Not. Feel. Concern." Sasha's (Daria's) voice was tight and angry.
"You are Daria Dmitrievna." Valentine's voice was implacable. "A part of you is Sasha, yes, just as a part of the man who calls himself Jack is actually Jack. And you are a sociopath. But you aren't as far gone as you like to think."
Softly, almost inaudible, "Fuck you."
"I call it as I see it, my dear."
"And so what does this mean in relation to Jack?"
"Simply this: I will no longer allow you to hunt him." Again, his voice brooked no argument. "His condition has worsened, and I won't allow it to be further exacerbated."
Valentine fell silent, sipping his tea and looking at her.
Amazingly, she laughed. Softly, but with a condemned criminal's genuine delight. "They'll kill me."
And he smiled.
"You do remember who I am, don't you? I've helped more people escape the Echelon than you've killed."
Smiling faintly (I'm walking on the air, her mother used to sing), "Why?"
He spread long-fingered, elegant hands.
"It is what I do, my dear. Snubbing the Echelon is one of the delights of my days."
"Siberia would be easier, yes. A good friend of mine has a Court there, in Lena. It would be chilly, but Lukas's Court is very comfortable, and he'd integrate you quite well. There's plenty to do, for him, that should satisfy your boredom."
"Well. I'm used to working for people. Knowing who would make an interesting change." Another laugh, this time softer and more incredulous, and she looked away. "What about Jack?"
"That would be up to Jack." Valentine's tone gentled. "I'm going to put as much pressure on him to take it easy for a while as I can, but I've never been able to control him, not completely."
"Handcuff him to the bed." Now her voice was faint.
He stood and crossed over to her, feet almost silent on the lush carpeting, and tilted her chin up gently.
"What would you like, Daria?" he asked quietly. "What would you want with Jack, if not the chase?"
He seemed honestly curious.
Her first instinct was to hit him, kick him and twist away, grab the tray and –
DariaSashaDaria stayed very, very still.
“I…I don’t know.”
"Well." This time his smile was gentle. "Stay here for a few days, while I get things with Lukas organised. Spend some time with him. Maybe you'll be able to convince him where I can't."
"Jack? Listen to me?
"You'd be surprised."
"Why do you say that?" And her tone was honestly wondering.
"You're an odd influence on him," Valentine said bluntly. "He was delirious earlier, rambling about how you'd be angry with him and he should have been more careful. He cares about what you think."
And her eyes went very, very wide.
Valentine smiled again and stood, patting her hair.
"Get some rest, Daria. You can talk to Jack in a few hours."