4 : Rues and Ruses

"You serious?" Her glare should tell him her confusion just clouded her thoughts now. Veronica locked stares with him.

Kyle kept quiet while she waited for another answer—something that sounded more believable and sensible. But she got zilch.

She breathed out a sigh and did another mental count before she could say something sarcastic. 

He didn't even blink or move one bit.

"You think I'm gonna say yes, just like that?" she blurted out, incredulity loud and clear in her voice. She even cracked a joke, only to end up snickering at her dull attempt to sass her way out of the conversation. 

Perhaps to make her feel like crap,  Kyle kept his mouth shut as if he hadn't heard anything.

"What, you think I'll leave?" she questioned.  Why did he spark off an argument? Was he that worried she would just leave the band and forfeit their musical career just to be with Théo?

"I know he's not movin' here to live the suburban life," Kyle retorted with a self-assured smirk she found annoying.

"You think I'll just leave all this?" Veronica sighed. He's gotta be at least half a joint high, or maybe she was just imagining too much. "You okay? Are you depressed or somethin'?"

Her walking mood of a bandmate kept up his frown and till his brows creased more. "I know you're not just gonna say no."

"Oh? I won't?"  She eyed him, both hands on her hips. What the heck was his problem? He seldom sulked like this. Then she noticed his unusually droopy eyelids. "Were you smoking or what?"

"Seriously?" Kyle swore under his breath. "Why're you deflecting?"

"Not deflecting." She scoffed.  "Just...concerned it's bothering you this much." She put on a small smile. Maybe she didn't look or sound so convincing, but she forced a straight face. Talking to him about her relationship with her too-busy-to-be-around boyfriend was just the last thing on her mind.

"Why won't you just tell me?"

Her hands now clutched her hair.  She balked to think of a neutral response  as she tried to come up with something rational to say.

Then Kyle just started shaking his head.

Oh great.  Now he was genuinely pissed.

"It's not like I expected we would—  I dunno..." he broke off with another frown drawing small lines on his scruffy cheeks.  "I just...expected you'd think about where we're headed. Not just what he wants."

"What he wants?" she muttered. Seeing him so bothered by it all kind of made her chest hurt.  Like it was all her fault he felt extremely anxious about where their career was headed and their near-future plans.  But she did realize that she'd turned him down a couple times when he'd asked her out for a drink or something else—just to keep this very conversation from materializing.

"Cut the act." Kyle scoffed.

She stifled another sigh and kept her lips pressed together.  Crap.  He was definitely in the mood to argue about Théo.

Did he really dislike her ongoing relationship with her boyfriend?  Sure, Théo was almost four years her junior...but asking her to be in a serious relationship wasn't just a thoughtless whim on Théo's part. The guy wasn't that immature. 

"Sure you wanna have this discussion now? 'Cause I really don't."  Veronica stood still. Her feet now itched to dash to the door.  Kyle didn't say anything, so she kept her cool and tried to seem impassive. "Get some sleep."

"Get real, Veronica." His weary brown eyes went on staring at the ruffled covers. Dark curved lines around his lids made his eyes look deep-set. "I told you he's gonna do something like this, but you always take it as a joke."

She stopped her mouth from dropping open, but she couldn't hold in a specious retort. "Because I actually thought it was a joke."

His forehead furrowed. Kyle gaped at her as if she just told him she was actually an extraterrestrial being masquerading as a woman in her late twenties who sings in a band.

"Honestly, I don't wanna break up with him just to...I dunno—test fate or..."  Veronica expected for him to react a bit less negatively, but all he repsonded with was another disgruntled scoff. "It's serious.  He's quite stubborn, but he's not immature."

"Not serious enough to tell him everything," Kyle muttered curtly.

"Can we just drop it?"

"Why?"

Good grief. He was really in the mood.  "Look. Everything's goin' great. We'll finish the record, then the tours and...if he wants to get serious, it doesn't have to change all of this." She held his wrist to make him look her in the eye. She just wanted Kyle to listen and quit being so unusually argumentative.

Now it seemed he didn't even want to look at her.  Clearly, he was just trying to look like he no longer cared.  Typical Kyle.

They almost never argued about their personal issues. At least from what she could remember, they hadn't.

"When'd you last talk to her?" In a split second, she already had her arms around him. It helped that he just let her do it.

His grimace deepened. He lightly pushed her away. Then Kyle leaned against the wall facing the hotel bed, looking more ill at ease.

Awkwardness filled the room for a while.  All she did was watch him as he kept clammed up.  She glimpsed the wall clock above the TV.  It would be dawn in a few hours, and her back was killing her. "She called it off?"

"We broke up months ago," Kyle grumbled, disgruntled that they were talking about Harriet again, his ex-girlfriend.

"I told you to talk to her. It's not like she went to live in the mountains. It's just Canada."

"Yeah, and what if I don't care anymore?" His warm hand tried to push her arm away, the one loosely draped around his waist.

"What?" With a loud sigh, Veronica placed her forehead on his arm. She should stay calm and empathizing. Maybe he was just feeling particularly lonely lately.  "Go to bed; it's late. You're exhausted." When she held onto his wrist, she realized he'd lost weight. She was about to push him towards the bed when he pulled her in instead.

"I don't want you getting serious with him." As if admitting defeat, Kyle massaged his forehead with both palms. "I don't care what he thinks is best for you. Just think about this first, before making any huge decisions." He paused and pulled her closer, clasping both of her arms. "I can't keep doing this without you."

"You're being overdramatic." She chuckled and shook her head faintly. Okay. So he really thought she wanted to quit the band for Théo.

"You're not ready, and he's clearly far from it. It's a little too soon and casual, don't you think?"

"Kyle, he's not stupid," she replied, wriggling her arms free from his grip. "He's thought about it. The guy's got a steady paycheck and he's doing pretty well himself."  She matched his steady gaze, unable to just shrug the whole thing off and laugh. "Maybe he just wants some—" She scoffed.  "I dunno...formal commitment."

Kyle snorted at her explanation. His hands rested on his hips as he avoided her eyes.

"I don't know why he's been so worked up about it, but..." Veronica sighed and flumped on the bed. His bed. She glanced askance at him. Had he guessed what her frazzled mind had been pondering since Jamie broke the news?

They'd never dated nor tried.  From the onset, she dismissed the thought of having any personal involvement with him aside from them being good friends and bandmates, since he'd once told her he didn't want things between them to change.  Théo still doubted Kyle's word, though.

Some nights, she liked thinking of her and Théo getting more serious.  But she couldn't decide for herself if she was in love with him enough to take what they had to the next level.  Of course they wouldn't get married this year or anytime soon, but... 

Her head wasn't quite fixed yet on being with him for the next years of her life.  In all likelihood, Théo dated her because he was getting tired of dating girls he got to meet and work with on the job.  Maybe he now wanted something else for a change...something permanent?  

Then again, Théo was still in his 20s...   Everybody gets a little messed up in their twenties.

On the other hand, Kyle had been a friend she could always count on.  He helped her become a serious and successful musician.  Without him, she probably wouldn't be where she was right now.  Her career mattered the most to her at this point in her life, and she kind of owed everything to him. 

She looked up at Kyle. "We're still doin' this. Everything's set: the transfer, the tour's coming up—"

"Sure?" Kyle raised his dark brows and smirked. He stood by the foot of the bed. "You sure about that?"

"What d'you mean?"

"For one, you never say no to him."

She held his pale calloused hand. Some part of her felt relieved when he didn't resist, but Kyle gave her another curious look. "Actually, I don't know what to say to him," she mumbled.

"He can't wait a few years? You haven't been together long enough to jump into something like that," he argued. "I'm sure he'd understand if you'll say no. For now, at least."

Trying to look deadpan was impossible. Veronica grinned at his answer, or else she'd laugh and he might just get offended then. "Flattered that you're acting like the jealous ex, really..."

"I doubt you've spent enough time to really discuss it." He scowled and shrugged again.  "Marriage. Moving in. Kids."

"I'm just gonna set it all straight: I tried not to, but...it happened. I can't even think about it without—" She tutted. "I'm in some deep shit. With this guy. Sometimes, I-I think it could work out."

"Get real, Via. You're not set for something like that right now. Neither is he." Kyle backed away and paced around the bed.  "Just don't want you to end up getting hurt. That's all."  He left the lamplight on, then told her to go back to her room. 

They'd had a rough long day in the studio.  Earlier this morning, they even argued a little while at work.  Or maybe it was just because he was feeling unimportant and rejected these past weeks.  The breakup with Harriet was the main reason, she supposed.

"So we're done with this?" she droned on while she sat on the edge of the bed. Veronica budged to face him. Kyle was resting on his back now.  "A goodnight smooch sound good?"

Kyle shot her a blasé look after her attempt at humor.  Still, he grinned when she cracked up.

"Just might help you sleep better."

"I doubt that," Kyle sighed before he closed his eyes.  The nightstand lamp faintly lit half of his face as he snuggled to his pillow.

Sitting next to him now, she punched him on the arm. She chuckled when he simpered. For a moment, she just  stared at him while he pretended to drift off.

The dim light was hitting his face in all the right directions. His week-old beard didn't distract her from peeking at his lips. She'd forgotten how much she liked staring at his eyelashes. They were long and thick.

"Go back to your room," Kyle mumbled before turning to the side, his phone in his hand.

Holding back a smile, Veronica draped the wrinkled covers on him. She could sniff out his cologne that had a crisp smell and a tinge of an outdoors-y scent.  What if she slept in his room tonight? Would it make him feel less depressed and lonely?

They'd slept next to each other a dozen times before: in the backseats of their band van and trailer...in cold, backache-inducing airport benches (touring wasn't always fun)...in numerous, often cheap hotel beds...in cramped camping tents whenever they'd go hiking with friends...and so on.

But now that some things had changed, there was an infinitesimal part of her that wanted to make sure it still felt the same. Comfortable. No pressure. Just good ol' friends chillin'.

Curious and confused, she combed some tangled locks of her hair away from her cheeks, the thin clumps feeling slick between her fingers. "Kyle Declan Thompson," she sighed as she watchfully leaned over him, ignoring his indifferent demeanor.

The room stayed quiet and motionless until Kyle sat up. The next second, they were eye-to-eye, and she pulled away a little as the bed tilted slightly.  "Let's not keep secrets anymore. Okay?" he murmured with a slight frown.

Darn.  She wasn't used to seeing him this gloomy. Grim. Dejected.  It was unnerving to some degree and just left a bad feeling in her gut. "Yeah. Sorry. We good now?" 

Instead of answering, Kyle leaned in to give her a hug. A long overdue goodnight hug.

"Always here if you wanna talk." She hugged him back. "But let's can it for now."

•••

Paris, France

Four months of radio silence. 

Four months of no correspondence. 

Four long months of waiting.

If he didn't know any better, he'd say the higher-ups just didn't give a shit about him or his family.  Or his loyalty and contributions to the agency for the past couple of years. 

Théo took out his lighter and took a long drag, his attention centered on his phone screen. 

No new emails.  No new chats.  Not even a single auto-reply to the latest inquiry letter he sent the previous month.

The big bosses probably thought the payments for his services (roughly 200,000 euros per annum over a five-year period, low to high-risk surveillance operations) would be more than enough for him.

What they didn't take into consideration was the threats it presented to his family here in Paris.  Particularly security risks that once threatened the safety of his only sibling, Clara, and her son, Tristan.

Did the big bosses think the money was going to be enough for him?  Théo scowled. Some nights, he still felt like that horrific incident just happened yesterday.  He would've sent his sister and nephew to another country (to a remote island, preferably) by now if only they would listen to his advice. 

Problem was, Clara didn't want to leave France or just leave their grandmother behind in some care home.  "Of course I'm scared shitless for Tris, but I'm never going to do that to Mamie," was her insistent reaction a few days after the incident.

Théo understood his sister's sentiments, no matter how much he believed they would be safer in another country.  Somewhere away from him and his undercover assignments.

"We understand that you just want to find out who did this to Tristan, but, at the moment, we just have to be vigilant.  Wait for new leads.  Unfortunately, the team had to be broken up this quarter.  Budget cuts and all that."

Théo still recalled that quick phone call from his former  boss.  It was the closest-to-honest response he got over the phone the last time someone in a superior position gave him updates on the investigation.

Or the lack thereof...since it was obvious they had to close the case.  No one was charged for the crime  because Tristan had eventually been found in the playground where he was abducted from just a couple months ago.

Like most parents of abducted children, Théo never really imagined it would happen to his own family.  He had been keeping his distance over the past decade, in fact.  He would visit them once or twice a year, send them financial support, but not from a bank account under his name. 

Sometimes he would even ask Tomek to bring Clara some cash for utilities and groceries.  Risk reduction and all that. 

"You guys are just weird," was his best friend's remark every time.  Tomek didn't have to know he'd been working part-time for the government.

When the local cops in France couldn't give a name or figure out who snatched his nephew from that playground, Théo had to step up.  It might be one of the people he helped put behind bars the past few years.  So he tried to seek help from the agency. 


But his request wasn't really met with enthusiasm.  The heads didn't allocate time or resources to properly reinvestigate the incident.  They weren't keen to find new leads to figure out who orchestrated Tristan's disappearance. 

Théo couldn't help but feel neglected and unimportant.  No higher-ups from the agency had paid attention to his request.  They probably thought:  "Well, the kid's alive. Just chuck him into therapy. Give it a year. He'll get over it."

Get over it.  Huh.  As if Tristan just got lost in the mall or something. 

Scowling to himself, Théo stomped on his cigarette butt and thought of his girlfriend.  Via must be busy at the studio again with her bandmates, working on the band's new songs.  She had not a clue about his latest dilemma or about his secret other job.  She didn't have to know.  Not yet.

Some days he plainly regretted ever signing up to become a confidential informant.  Perhaps he should've just stuck with modeling.  Modeling was easier and paid better—luckily in his case—but it was definitely not a longtime career.  Which was why he thought of being an informant as a side-hustle. 

So far, working for the government had been enjoyable.  Difficult and riskier, sure...but much more fulfilling.  Rewarding.  To his logic, he was doing his part in making the world a better place.  He was helping the authorities get rid of those self-serving scums who worshipped money and power no matter how many innocent lives it cost.

His mother, the ever-excellent Claudia Reynaud, didn't encourage him to join the program, just as he'd expected.  But he wanted to prove to her that he had the guts and the skillset for the job, and that he could do it well.  That he could attain his objectives.  Cross every goal off the list. 

He had to secure a bright future for Clara and Tristan—sans any help from the selfish, spineless bastard who got Clara pregnant out of wedlock.  Théo sighed to himself and pushed the negative thoughts aside. 

He planned to quit modeling before he turned 30.  That's if he would last that long in the business.  Very big "if".  A couple more years of hard work, he would have enough saved up to be able to take care of Veronica.  He'd start a business and live with her permanently somewhere in France.  Or America.  Whichever suited her preferences.

That's if, he wouldn't end up shot dead on the streets at 26 by some vindictive drug lord's hitman.  Also a big "if".

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