The darker hall of the entrance opened up to a much larger and much more crowded space than anticipated; almost as long as a stickball field but only half as wide and much more packed. The ceiling was high, nearly disappearing into the shadows with the lights of the club just barely illuminating old pipes and aging metallic structure. Across the room was a column of what looked to be lava flow cascading from halfway up the wall and flowing into a basin behind the booth. Red orange and yellow lights flashed across the entire space while some neon greens and pinks and blues periodically cut through the monochrome hues.
The bar was situated to the right on a slightly raised platform and a drink wall outlined in white fluorescent light. Behind the counter were several bartenders, one of which looked to be a repurposed Vanguard bot. To the left, crowded booths with tables on which bare skinned performers danced. Above them was a level overlooking the club reserved for VIPs which was somewhat obscured from the ground floor.
The sound too was almost impossibly loud and even with Jin standing so close, Nelu knew direct communication was going to be difficult. He’d have to get closer.
With his arm still wrapped around their back and his hand hooked around their hip, Nelu leaned in again, this time close enough that they’d be able to feel his breath across their neck.
”What’s a good drink in the Underground?”
It was then that he noticed the dress they were wearing. The lights across the fabric seemed to respond to the music and pulsed with the beat. Each jump of the bass sent a wave across Jin’s body, dragging Nelu’s eyes across it with them and again, not just his.
Jin was going to have one monster of a migraine when this mission was over. 15 seconds in and they could feel themselves getting overstimulated. Bright lights, and colors, and Nelu at their side. Sound so loud it wasn’t music anymore, so loud they could feel it under their ribs, right where Nelu’s arm was. Bodies everywhere, anyone could be against them, anyone could have a weapon or be a weapon and Nelu’s touch on their skin. Lights on their front, Nelu’s breath on their back, burning heat in their middle, Nelu Nelu Nelu -
Jin was going to murder the Doc for this dress idea, it was fucking cursed, did pretty chicks have to do this all the time, what the fuck-
“Drinks? Let’s see… For me? An Empty Ember. For you? Water.”
”Why am I only getting water?” Nelu replied, sounding as if he were pouting. He carefully guided them both toward the bar where on the platform, he figured he’d have a better eye on the crowd despite how dense it was and could establish a place for them to start. They needed to figure out where to go and who to talk to and besides outing themselves immediately as another pair of Benders, the next and better option was to find someone to follow. However, they couldn't do that from the floor. There were too many bodies.
Nelu pushed through a section of the crowd with Jin in tow and as coincidence would have it, happened to find a recently vacated stool that Jin could occupy. He gestured for them to take it while he stood sentry nearby and waved down one of the bartenders. The repurposed robot came over and nodded them both a greeting.
”What. Can I. Get. You.” It said flatly.
”Empty Ember. Just one.” Nelu said somewhat loudly over the noise of the club.
”Just a water for me.”
”Zhu Li. Limited.” Jin interjected.
One of the patrons nearby half stifled a laugh. A woman in a blue cloak stole a glance at the two before turning back to her own drink.
”This. Only served. In. VIP.”
”Just water is fine.”
Nelu looked down at Jin, surprised that they were being serious about the water. Nelu hadn’t planned to drink, although he knew it could help his cover if anyone was paying too close attention. Water would have been fine and Lower Ring water was fine too. He was no stranger to it. Filtered water all the way down here, however, was expensive. Valuable even. They didn’t serve it to just anyone and he and Jin were… mostly nobodies. Jin’s dress begged to differ.
The robot nodded, grabbed a glass from under the counter and from a faucet, poured water into it. The water itself was polluted an odd gray color. It placed the glass close to where Nelu was standing and went about making the other drink. Nelu picked up the glass and downed half of the liquid before placing the glass back on the counter. It tasted like dirt.
He tried to ignore the way it left his mouth feeling as he scanned the crowd before him. It was chaotic to say the least. The noise itself was a blanket placed over one sense. The lights were messing with another. The warmth and the smells and the proximity of everyone was constricting his other senses making the task at hand difficult. To make matters worse, it was nearly impossible to tell who was ‘out of place’ in a crowd like the one in front of him.
”Here. You are.” The robot returned within the minute holding a dark hued, slightly orange tinted drink. The film of liquid layered at the top glowed slightly yellow as if it were ‘hot’ and seemed to dance in circles as the drink swam around the glass. From certain angles, it almost looked like fire. It was placed in front of Jin. ”Enjoy. Miss.”
Nelu glanced at the robot and then down at the drink as he fished in his jacket for another wad of cash. As he placed an amount more than what was needed on the counter for the bot to take, he again leaned into Jin.
”There’s too much going on here. We’d need a higher vantage point but I don’t think we’re getting into VIP.”
Jin took their drink with a polite smile. They took a sip, and only Nelu would have noticed that no liquid actually left the glass. “We’re not getting in, no. I could, alone.” They paused. “It would be getting out that’d be the tricky part.” They looked around again, higher this time, scoping the building.
No cameras in the corners, at least none that they could see easily. That wasn’t really a surprise. Being anonymous was part of the appeal, after all. ‘What happens Underground stays buried’ and all that. But a place this fine had to have eyes. If they weren’t digital, that meant they were keeping tabs the old-fashioned way. Which left Jin with the same problem as before. The crowd and the lights and the noise made a proper recon absolutely impossible.
With the slightest look of defeat on their face, they leaned toward Nelu to speak as privately as they could manage. “And you get water because adding alcohol to what's already going on with you is a bad idea. I figured it out, by the way.” Jin smiled ruefully. “Sorry it took so fucking long. But don’t worry, once we’re outta here, it’ll be fine.”
...It’ll be fine…
And there it was. The consequences to a momentary lapse in judgment. Nelu wasn’t so sure about things being ‘fine’ when it was all said and done. There were layers to it that he’d considered that he would have to face again when they were back on the surface. But then again, maybe he wouldn’t have to. Maybe things would be fine, but that was impossible to know in the now and even more difficult for him to ruminate on. The club was obfuscating not only everything outside but his internal dialogue too. What he did know for sure was that besides the blushing and the very clear surprise in their voice from before, Jin was taking the realization quite well.
He bit his lip as he turned over his options for both their next steps and how to respond to Jin correctly identifying what his ‘issue’ from earlier was. He didn’t really have answers for either. For one, they were a needle searching for another needle in a stack of needles. For another, he wasn’t supposed to be in a compromising position… ever. And now he suddenly was.
The woman to their right reached for her ear.
”What!... Another?... Yeah… YEA- Well maybe you shouldn’t have been acting stupid hustling the wrong people. I thought you were supposed to be good at reading… You know what? I. Don’t. Care. Just send him in and I’ll take care of them.” She finished saying before removing her hand from her ear. ”For spirits’ sake I need a vacation.”
Downing the rest of her drink, she suddenly got up and began making their way through the crowd toward an odd looking individual at the other side of the room. The two were the only ones who really stood out in any meaningful way. One seemed alone but moved with too much purpose, as if the club was just a thing that was in their way and not something they were here for. The other looked lost. They met up and after what looked like an exchange of words, both moved toward a side path that cut into the dark and out of sight.
Nelu turned to Jin, both of them now quite close. The tips of their noses only a few inches away from each other. ”I’m not so sure about ‘fine’…” He said, again holding Jin’s gaze. For a moment, he tried searching their bright blue irises for something that told him how they felt too. It was one thing to react positively but it was another to say it. Acknowledge it. ”But first…” He nodded toward the other side of the dance floor where the woman had gone. ”We’re supposed to be on a date… Have a dance with me.”
As he straightened out, he held out his hand for them to take. On the counter, his glass of water was also suddenly very empty despite having only been touched once.
Jin's gaze slid just off of Nelu's, as the laughing woman in the cape caught their attention again. That little motion to the ear only meant one thing. That was at least one security member tagged. As the woman stood and slipped through the crowd, Jin found Nelu refocusing as well. Had he gotten closer, or were they just losing it?
Nope, he was definitely closer. They could see little golden flecks among the brown in his eyes. "I-" They cleared their suddenly dry throat, and spoke again, one octave higher and sweeter. "I would love to." Without looking away, they found their drink and tipped back half the Ember in two gulps. While it burned its way down their throat, they held the other half out to Nelu."Drink this. It'll get the silt outta your mouth."
Nelu took the glass and quickly downed the rest, thankful for the wash that cleared up the grit covering his tongue and teeth. It wasn’t perfect but the smooth, warm liquid helped and lit a small fire in his gut that seemed to burn away any small bits of uncertainty. It wasn’t alcohol but it acted like it was. An appropriate drink for their situation.
Once he was done, they grinned and put a hand in his. "I'll warn you. My dancing actually sucks."
A familiar electricity danced across his skin as they placed their hand in his. He tightened his grip around theirs and gently pulled them from their stool and toward himself as he backed into the dance floor.
”That’s alright. Just follow my lead.” He said, giving them a confident smile. Like falling into surf, Nelu slipped under and pulled Jin in with them. Releasing their hand, he placed both of his on their hips and pulled them closer as he began guiding them to the other side of the dance floor. He clocked their destination with a single glance, worked out a path and then turned back to his partner, holding their gaze with his so they wouldn’t get lost. Everything from here on was simple guiding nudges and careful steps.
The music fell over them both; vibrations in the air creating a bubble of space that was open for just the two of them. In that space, isolated from the sea of bodies all around, only the two of them existed. Orange lights further drew out the golden spark in the brown of Nelu’s eyes. They glistened and beckoned Jin to follow.
In that space the club disappeared and the music changed.
Jin hadn’t been lying about being a lousy dancer. They were self conscious when moving to music. Crowded places made them paranoid. Alcohol usually skipped the "fun buzz" part and landed straight on the "dizzy and puking" part.
Somehow, this was completely different. All they could see was Nelu’s eyes gazing down at them, with a look they couldn't quantify at all. It wasn’t the hungry sweeping stare they’d caught hours ago at the Underground steps. Jin knew what lust looked like in a man's eyes, even if it was new to be the direct target.
Nelu’s eyes, warm and brown and glittering gold, weren’t looking at Jin like that at all. Everything felt like it was falling away. The noise, the lights, even the mission…
Jin smiled up at him, blue eyes dreamy and lost. Their hands gently drifted up his chest to link around the back of his neck.
Jin’s touch drew warmth and fire on his skin as their fingers carved a trail up his chest and hooked themselves across his nape, anchoring their body to his. In that moment, as their hand came to rest against the back of his neck, his whole world became that patch of skin.
It was different, their hand touching a part of him other than his own hand. It was a pressure that he was incredibly aware of. A spot of heat that spread to his shoulders and slid down his spine. A yearning for those hands to explore further and introduce other parts of him to their touch. He realized too in that moment that this was the closest the two of them had ever been, and as they continued to move around each other, that sliver of space between them only continued to shrink. Every now and then, Jin would press themselves firmly against him, describing the shape of them against his chest and abdomen and impressing a desire to know that shape more. To feel more, for in those brief moments of contact, despite the music drowning the air around them in vibrations and the sea of bodies pushing from all sides, he could actually feel Jin. He could feel their heart beating against their chest.
He’d always been able to feel it, but this was vastly different. WIth blue eyes latched onto his, hands clasped around his neck and their body pressed against him, it was as if they were giving that information to him freely.
His guidance remained gentle; soft steps in response to their more clumsy moves so as to catch them and reel them back in before they fell into the wash of bodies. Moves disguised as intentional instead of correcting so it never seemed like either of them were making a mistake. All the while, he continued to direct traffic. As he found a small crack in a wall of bodies before them and carefully pulled Jin through it, his hand slipped from their hip to their lower back and a small amount of pressure was applied. Jin’s hip was pushed forward as Nelu continued his backward step, effortlessly rotating the both of them so that Nelu was now moving toward Jin and they were moving backwards. From Jin’s perspective, as they continued dancing, it would be as if they were simply falling and Nelu was guiding the descent.
”Your dancing does not ‘suck’.” He began, leaning in so he could whisper into their ear and also so he could steal a glance ahead to make sure he was still steering them in the right direction. ”I think you just needed a better partner.”
One hand remained on their hip. The other began to crawl slowly, deliberately up their spine.
Jin was weightless. Adrift in an endless sea of nothing but an expanding heat that wanted to swallow them whole. Any other day, they would have scrabbled back to the surface of control and order. Any other person would have found themselves on the business end of a pistol for invading Jin’s personal space.
Jin remembered, almost against their will, the first time they had been close to this man. They’d been cold and still - he'd been the one going in circles. The intense energy, ironically, was of an equal level. But the difference between the situations was so wide it might as well be antipodal. Even brushing against the memory of that day was like having the icy muzzle of a gun at their back-
And then Nelu was whispering, so close Jin could have counted the gold flecks in his gaze. The warning klaxon sounding in their memory was swiftly smothered.
"Well, I haven't really had partners. Kinda been dancing solo."
”Not a single partner?” He asked, holding their piercing blue gaze with his.
”I find that a little hard to believe.” Then his gaze shifted ever so slightly, becoming less watchful and more searching. ”Although maybe it really isn’t. I guess anywhere else it’d be impossible to keep up with you. But what about the other way around?”
The fingers gliding along her spine hooked gently into the bottom edge of their shoulder blade, coaxing them to arch their back ever so slightly and drawing them just a little closer. Their weight would shift just so onto that hand, further adding to their weightlessness. ”Was there ever a lucky someone you wanted as a dance partner?”
Jin's mouth opened to respond, but Nelu's carefully roaming touch caused a chain reaction up their spine. All that came out was a shivering gasp, in an octave that Jin didn't know they had. Their face went an intensely red shade. "Hey!" Jin seemed to recover in short order, though Nelu could likely still feel the flighty pace of their pulse.
"You first! You opened the door…"
Even while under duress were they quick enough to turn his ask back around on him. He was impressed and only slightly disappointed by the reflect. He was, however, quite pleased with the sound that had escaped their lips. It spurred him forward.
”I guess that’s fair.” The gold in his eyes seemed to sparkle as he answered. ”Yes.” He said simply. ”I have. Now it’s your turn.”
His other hand left their hip and scooped lightly into the curve of their lower back, holding them so that they were now anchored securely to each other.
"Wha-" Jin started, before letting out a tiny, slightly indignant huff. Then they giggled, giving Nelu a painless whap on the chest. "You tricked me! I can't believe you- well, I can, it's you, but-" They whapped him again, before going very still. Calculation was briefly visible behind their blue eyes.
Without taking another second to think again, or second-guess it, Jin gently lay their cheek against Nelu's chest. They spoke in a low, secretive tone, despite that being wholly unnecessary in the midst of the pounding noise.
"...I was 14. She was an older woman. Which meant she was 15." They smiled a bit, unseen. "Freckles. Brown eyes. Sweet as a summer apple. We were best friends. Then one day she laughed and hugged me, like she always did, and-" Nelu could likely feel Jin shrug slightly. "Guess I discovered girls a couple years after everyone else on the block."
"Lady Cho said some people were like Doc. Wouldn't dance if they wanted to, and they don't. And then there are people like me."
Nelu felt his chest tighten. If he thought the thicker, dirtier air of the Underground was already difficult to breathe, he found it significantly harder with Jin so casually placing themselves against him. He was positive they could feel or even hear the rate at which his heart was jumping in his chest, despite the thumping of the music. Despite the images flashing in his mind’s eye of the other girl, their hug… Jin’s life before.
He realized that while he knew a lot about Jin, there were layers and layers of them that he didn’t. A whole life lived, no matter how short, before their time as the Flying Frog and before their time with him on the LSF.
He looked down at them, his eyes falling on the top of their head as they rested against him. He could feel the isolating bubble of space surrounding them shrinking as they remained connected to each other.
”What does Lady Cho say about people like you?”
"That music is…" Jin paused, frowning slightly. "The dancing-" Another stop, as they mentally sorted through words. The metaphor was rapidly escaping them. Laughing softly, they pulled away just slightly, enough to look up at Nelu again. Yet they were still as close as possible.
"Fuck it, I'll just say it straight. What she says is, ⁵the bit that most people feel first, I guess she called it a spark? That happens for most people and it just means 'hey my body likes your body' I guess. But people like me don't feel sparks. Not unless, and until, someone becomes truly important." Their gaze darted aside. This was very suddenly too close to the truth.
"Don't ask me for the details in between, but instead of a spark, well… y'know what a Tiru Coil is? Bigass electrical conductor? Instead of a spark, you get hit with one of those."
Nelu raised an eyebrow. ”That sounds scary.”
Jin snorted faintly. "Scary? Try disturbing. Waking up in a sweat, an hour past sin, realizin you were dreamin' of-" In the half-second silence between one word and the next, Jin's train of thought reversed so hard they could almost hear brakes squealing. "-things that can never happen." They continued to meet Nelu's eyes, as if they hadn't just yanked the truth away like a purse-snatching amateur.
The pause was short enough that it was as if it never happened, but the words were still there. They hung in the air and continued to float around Nelu’s head long after Jin had stopped and corrected themselves. They’d given him enough that he could almost finish the sentence for them.
Jin… was dreaming. Of things that couldn’t happen. Of him?
”That does sound... pretty disturbing...” Nelu said, his mind split between the realization of what that could mean and the latter half of the sentence. ”...Not knowing whether or not you can have what you want. Especially after getting your spark.”
Suddenly Nelu stopped moving and his hold on Jin tightened just a little.
”I can’t speak for whoever it is keeping you up at night, but at least for me… dancing with you is...” He smiled and leaned a little closer to Jin’s upturned gaze. That bubble of space surrounding them shrunk further. They were close enough now that they could almost taste each other’s breath.
”I like it… so maybe it can happen.”
Nelu fought the urge to close the small gap between them and steal for himself something he wasn’t sure was his. Instead, he pulled away and as he did, the world opened up once more. The noise and chaos of the club returned and with it, the realization that everything around them had shifted. They’d left the dance floor and the sea of people behind and were now standing next the path they had to take.
Nelu’s hands slowly slid down the length of Jin’s back, retreating from where they had hooked themselves onto their body. They came to rest on Jin’s hips. ”As much as I would love to dance with you all night like this...” Nelu nodded toward the corridor.
For a brief second, Jin just stood rooted to the spot. Like someone waking in the morning, trying to cling to the scraps of an already fading dream. Their eyes were half shut, because Nelu had almost… almost…
Then they exhaled as everything came invading back. Sound. Light.
"Got it. I'm right behind you."