Chapter 12:Gentle Darkness

Her eyelids fluttered open just as the vehicle slowed to a stop. She yawned and straightened, dazed from her nap. Damien was still behind the wheel, eyes fixed ahead as he undid his seatbelt.

"Stay here a minute" he ordered, opening the door to his left and exiting the SUV. Nicole was on the verge of protesting when the door sealed shut. Blinking, she turned to take in the landscape about her. With the exception of the unrelenting sunlight making its way to their location, the surroundings had changed completely. The barren desert and sprawling highways of days past had been replaced by thick foliage and a roughly laid out dirt road. The woman could only gape at the transformation.

Where the hell are we? She wondered. She knew she'd slept no more than a few hours. Perhaps we've traveled further over these last few days than I'd thought she mused.

Her thoughts were interrupted as the vehicle's rear storage doors were slammed closed. Damien then passed by her window, his arms full of supplies and a heavy pack across his back. He entered the shrubbery to her right and did not reemerge for several minutes. When he did, she gaped at what he brought with him;

A motorcycle.

Her mind was carefully blank as she noted their baggage attached to the back. When he opened her door and she began shaking her head, he smirked.

"Come on sweetheart, it won't be that bad, I promise." he offered.

"You don't understand Damien, I- I can't…I won't. Those things scare me to death. Who ever thought up a motorized bicycle anyway?" she protested, frantic "I mean, the thing only has two wheels for God's sake, and I'm supposed to believe it's as reliable as a car? No" she calmly repeated "I'm not getting on that thing and you can't make me."

He grinned.

Before she thought to even begin physically protesting, he had effortlessly slung her across his shoulder and began marching her towards the object of her apprehension.

She pounded her fists against his back and yelled her disapproval but the assassin did not so much as grunt.

"Honey, you're only making this more difficult on yourself" he stated calmly. She would not relent.

They arrived at their soon to be mode of transportation and he put her down. She halted her protests and tilted her head back to glare at him.

"I'm serious; do not make me do this Damien" she implored.

He gazed down at her for a moment in silence, struck by the real fear he saw lurking in those amber depths. He had no choice though.

"Listen, I shot a man last night. Although most people around these parts don't want to make crimes their business, I can't rule out the possibility that someone from that bar will talk. And if they do, it'll be damn easy to track us down if we're in the same vehicle." He paused. "I know you're afraid, but this is the only back up available…there's no choice." he finished, seeming almost apologetic.

Nicole sighed in defeat, knowing that she didn't really have a choice anyway. At least he's being nice about it she thought, casting a sidelong glance at the bike.

"You'll be fine" Damien reassured.

He quickly gripped her right wrist and handcuffed it to the bike. She looked to him and frowned.

"One last thing" he said, darting back to the SUV.

He slipped behind the wheel and started the engine. For one horrible instant she thought he was abandoning her to this place, that this was to be their separation and the engine's low rumbling his goodbye…not that she expected anything more. He turned the vehicle into the bushes though, its form disappearing behind the dense vegetation, and she understood. It had to be hidden lest local authorities discover it before his employers retrieve it. Damien returned a minute later.

"Ready?" he asked, undoing the cuffs.

She nodded stiffly and he swung his leg over the bike, mounting it. Nicole stood there for a moment, watching him. Sunlight bathed the man in a soft glow, warming the strong lines of his face. His thick, dark hair shone as he straightened in his seat, dismissing the kickstand with a strong left leg. He looked to her then, and the fierceness of his grey eyes startled her. He was mesmerizing.

The roar of the bike's engine broke her from her daze. She carefully mounted behind him. Only once she had done this did she realize the position she would be in for their travels. She stiffened, and he mistook it for fear.

"Relax sweetheart, I'll take care of you." he said simply "Just hold on to me."

She brought her arms up to encircle his waist, feeling the strong muscles of his abdomen beneath her hands where they rested. Still she did her best to maintain what little distance she could between them. He would not have it that way though.

"Like this" he advised, taking her arms and tightening her hold on his waist, effectively eliminating any gap between their bodies. She did not protest. He smelled of great cologne and yet she could not imagine when he would or might have put any on. No, it was just him.

"Here, put this on first" he instructed, offering her a black helmet. She complied and he did the same with one for himself.

He revved the engine and she tightened her grip as he had demanded. She could feel the strength in his back against her chest when he shifted. His deep breathing soothed her nerves, and as they sped off, she relaxed. The wind whipped at the exposed flesh around her neck and the sun heated the dark suede of her jacket, warming her arms. The beauty of the wilderness about her made it easy to forget the circumstances that brought her to this place. For now it was only her and Damien, and this, Nicole didn't mind.

She couldn't fight it any longer. They'd been on the road for several hours and as the minutes wore on, Nicole only felt progressively sicker. The sun was setting beyond the forest and the air was cool when she could no longer fight it.

"Damien..." she whispered against his back, her body drained of nearly all its energy.

"Hmm?" he replied. She did not hear him against the engine's rumble and the wind's barrage so much as she felt the vibration in his back that signaled his response.

"I don't feel too good…I-…" she paused, swallowing hard "I think I'm going to be sick" she shouted, abruptly closing her eyes in denial of her body's will.

Damien pulled to the side of the road and cut the engine. Nicole slouched against him. He quickly removed his helmet and disembarked, catching her as she fell forward and holding her upright. He slid off her helmet and was shocked by her appearance. She was extremely pale and sweat dotted her forehead. Her form shivered in his grip and her head fell against his chest as he lifted her from the bike. Her breathing was shallow.

"What's wrong?" he asked, concerned.

She did not reply at first.

"I don't know but…I'm going to throw up" she said quietly, raising her eyes to his apologetically.

"Hold on" he said, scooping her into his grip and sprinting to the woods. A moment later he kneeled so she was lying against him, her head and torso supported by his right arm.

She abruptly rolled from his hold and pushed herself onto hands and knees, her stomach heaving as she puked. Damien stayed beside her, holding back her hair with his right hand as his left softly rubbed her neck and back. Several tears ran down her face before she finished. When she had, she remained in the same position, her breathing erratic.

"Wait here a minute, I'll be right back." He instructed, tucking her hair into her coat so it would stay out of her face before rising to his feet and running back to the bike. He returned a minute later carrying a small bag.

He took a white cloth from it and handed it to her. She wiped her mouth and put it aside. He then handed her a flask of water and she rinsed out her mouth. She used the cloth to dry it, and then threw the soft rag away. Shakily, she rose to her feet, Damien following suit. When she stood to her full height though her legs gave out and she fell against the man. He caught her without complaint and carried her away from the mess.

"Sorry" she mumbled after a minute of silence.

He looked down at her, his eyes unreadable, and shook his head.

"It's not your fault" he responded, as though that were obvious.

She didn't understand what was happening to her. She felt hot, then cold, and her body was depleted of all energy. All she could think of at the moment was sleep.

"What's going on? This has never happened to me before" she whispered against his chest. Her throat felt raw.

"I'm guessing food poisoning, had to be something from breakfast…it's the only possibility that makes any real sense. You have all the symptoms; nausea, fever and chills, weakness. How's your stomach?" he inquired.

"Now that you mention it…hurts like hell" she said, pushing on it to lessen the sensation. It wasn't working.

He nodded.

"Figured. It's a good thing I didn't get it too…don't know what we would've done if I had."

He looked down at the woman in his arms. Her eyes were closed but he could tell she was in pain. He surprised himself when he realized he wanted to do whatever he could to alleviate her suffering. Shrugging away the thought, he took her to the bike, and grabbed the sleeping bag off the back. He then scoured the nearby foliage for a nice, flat area that would be safely hidden from the main road, and carefully laid out the sleeping bag before slipping her into it. She was asleep.

He returned to their motorbike and retrieved the rest of their supplies to make camp for the night, before hiding the vehicle itself away from the main road. He knew he could not make a fire as it was too dangerous within the forest, not to mention it would hastily lead passing traffic to their precise location. Darkness nearly reigned though and the evening was already very cold. Having no choice in the matter, he went to watch over Nicole.

She appeared miserable as he kneeled down to inspect her condition more closely. He tied her hair away from her face, drew back the sleeping bag's flap upon feeling the heat that radiated off her forehead, and removed her jacket. A moment later, her teeth chattering and her body racked with shivers, he enveloped her in the warm fabric once more and lay down next to her. And so it went from minute to minute, her body stirring in reaction to the extremes; Damien tended to her, equipped only with a small flashlight if he needed it, and the heat of his body.

Throughout the long night, amidst the silence of the forest, the assassin watched over the woman.