Finding the Manhattan Center wasn't difficult. Like most buildings in New York, it had a basement. And if it had a basement, there was a good chance there was a tunnel entrance somewhere.
Lee tracked it down easily enough, squeezing through a series of unused access pipes that deposited her at the rusted grate in an equally rusty boiler room. A sharp kick granted her access, and from there, it was a straight shot to the exit door. Most boiler rooms possessed a single entrance and exit...at least that was her hope tonight.
Sweeping her pants and hair clear of dust and cobwebs, Lee picked a direction and went for it, still stuck in her head. She didn't want to be here, skulking around the in darkness like a rat, but at the same time, she felt she was owed an explanation. During her trek, she puzzled out the conversation to come like a student going over a presentation. Line by line. The accusations. The questions. The demands and reconciliations. She wanted truth without bullshit, and a month of stewing had fermented her anger. If she wasn't careful, she would ruin whatever this was before it started.
But with each mental pass, the razor's edge of her temper dulled against the blunt force of reason. Yes, she wanted to rage, but she also wanted to plead. What had she done wrong? Where did they go now? Had she lost Alex as a friend forever or was there hope —
Lee stuttered to a premature stop upon rounding a corner, tripping over her own feet. It wasn't the sight of Alex standing at the end of the short hall that arrested her and wrapped her entire body in bands of undulating chills. It was what she was wearing.
The dress was long and dark, possibly navy blue, though hard to tell in the low light, and so sheer Lee could make out every curve as if she was wearing nothing at all. The garment moved across Alex's frame like liquid, breaking open at one shoulder and sporting a plunging lace neckline that could punch its way to China if need be. The addition of heels made her even taller than before, giving her an ethereal look that matched the gentle curl of her hair pinned back with white crystals.
Lee must have made some type of noise — more than likely choking on air since she'd forgotten how to breathe — because Alex turned, and the earth rotated with her. Suddenly, it was like they had never been apart. Lee's fingers itched to reach out, every molecule screaming at her to move even as she stamped the urge down.
"Hey," Alex said attempting a relieved smile that was more hesitant than happy. Her own awkwardness must have caught her off guard because her next attempt at communication was a bit surer. "I'm so glad you came. I was worried Lucas wouldn't find you in time."
You look...Radiant. Magnificent. Beautiful. Stunning. Like a vision. God-I've-just-missed-talking-with-you-and-this-month-has-killed-me-please-just-tell-me-what-I-did-wrong...Wow.
Even at a distance, Lee caught Alex's cheeks reddening, the dip of her head telling her as much. "Thank you."
One hell of a date tonight. Lucky person. She almost smacked herself for her own lack of tact. That was not how she wanted to start things, and watching Alex's face fall was as bad as watching someone kick a puppy.
"I wanted to talk to you about that." Alex threading her hands together in front of her in lieu of approaching, leaving a visible distance between them. Brave as she might try to appear, her courage was flagging. "I've wanted to talk to you for a while about what you saw, what it meant, and how sorry I am for all of this...for how I hurt you. But I couldn't figure out what to say. We — I've been dancing around a lot of unspoken things, but I think it's time to clear the air."
Here it was, Lee thought. The bullet that was going to put her out of her misery.
"But I wanted to show you something first, if that's alright?"
Well...shit. Lee felt like she was teetering on a beam above the city. One strong gust would determine which way she fell, and if she was feeling this, she knew Alex was balanced right alongside her. That gave her some measure of comfort.
"Follow me?" Alex tentatively asked, fighting to keep from rubbing her bare arms.
Not trusting herself to speak, Lee nodded, shoving her hands into her pockets and tailing behind. The atmosphere hung thick like a quilt between them. This was the air before the storm, charged with the potential to do either harm or good. Exiting the boiler room but not the basement, Alex led her to what had been an old changing room, light peeking out from around the frame. She paused with her hand on the knob, nervousness making her tense.
"I want you to know there's no obligation attached to this," she said without turning. "If you want to leave, I'll understand. You don't owe me anything but give me one last chance to make this right. I don't know if you celebrate Halloween in the Underground, and I admit, I'm not one for holidays, but upstairs, one of New York's best dance companies is putting on a masquerade. If you'll have me, I'd like to share a dance with you."
That's right. It was Halloween. How had she missed that?
Intrigued as much as she was confused — a dance? Topside? How exactly? — Lee watched the door swing open as Alex stepped out of the way, backing into the shadows.
The room was colorful and small, packed to the brim with old set-costumes and props. A large mirror ringed with circular bulbs lit the space and the showpiece presented on a mannequin waiting for her when she stepped in.
It was a suit, but not just any suit. Dumbfounded, Lee approached with careful caution, afraid this was a mirage. Blue-black and silk to the touch, gold embroidery shaped like creeper ivy crawled around the edges of the cuffs and hems. Under the jacket and matching vest was a royal purple button-up so dark it looked like wine. Black shoes finished the ensemble, shined to a mirror finish. Lavish was a good way of describing the gift set before her, but it paled in comparison to the accompanying prop.
Delicately placed beside the suit on a purple cushion was a white half-mask. Nervous fingers ghosted across the delicate latticework of lace and leather, the design familiar, but the build-execution custom. Lee would have recognized the design anywhere, the songs of her childhood echoing like the call of distant spirits...music of the night...
Twisting around in mute shock, Lee looked for Alex but didn't see her, the journalist having taken her leave up the hall to give her time to decide. And what a decision this was turning out to be.
Out in the hall, Alex retreated as far as she could without returning to the boiler room, back turned, afraid to watch. A month away from Lee had been like suffering through the sudden disappearance of a limb. It left an aching void. She wandered the earth in a disjointed haze, wanting to reach out. Wanting to apologize. Wanting to scream how sorry she was for everything and that she finally wrestled the truth from herself. But her opportunity had come and gone. She missed her chance, or so she thought until Lucas sought her out. Only then did the seeds of hope rekindle like a fragile fire, held close to her chest for fear of it extinguishing before it could ever spread.
So, Alex kept her distance from Lee even now, not wanting her presence to sway her decision, but the underlying truth was, Alex didn't think she could stomach watching her walk away. It would break her like kindling across a knee. Time became a cruel master, suspending her in limbo. It both crawled and sped by, the evening slipping through her fingers like sand, each minute feeling like an eternity. It began to dawn on her the later it got that maybe she had fucked things up beyond repair. Maybe this was all for naught. Maybe this was never meant to be. And that broke her heart. If she could just rewrite time —
Alex tensed, electricity exploding up her spine. She didn't want to turn, fearing she would catch the back of Lee's head as she returned to the tunnels, and that would be it. The end of a friendship. The end of so many maybes and could-haves. Biting her lip so hard she left tooth impressions, Alex swallowed her fear and turned, ready to hasty grab the pieces of her heart before they shattered, but froze.
Towards...not away. Lee was walking towards her.
YOU ARE READING
Journalist Alexandra Bailey never believed she'd become another tragic statistic ripe for the front pages. Abducted off the street. Beaten bloody. Left for dead in the unforgiving winter. The article wrote itself. And her crime? Not even she knew, b...