Welcome | What's New? | The Mainframe | The Hall of Archives | The Infirmary | The Lounge | The Office

No More Second Chances

By Quillblade

 

As Calhoun opened the door, a book flew across the room and crashed against the wall, sending the mirror onto the floor where it shattered. He took a step back, paused to listen to the shriek of rage and a clatter of things tumbling from shelves, then sighed and pushed his way into the room. The door slammed after him, and startled the young man in the far corner.

Darrell spun around, still holding a broken flashlight. One of his eyes was blackening, and there was still a smear of blood from his nostrils, but the feathers of his face were damp so he'd obviously found a few moments to clean himself up before starting the destruction. "What the hell are you doing in here?!" he growled, stepping forward. "Get outta my room!"

"No."

"I said--"

"And I said no." Calhoun's voice was definitely not its usual honeyed tones. "I saw what happened in the mess hall. And I saw you get exactly what you deserved for being such a fool." Darrell moved as if to throw the flashlight, but Calhoun was suddenly there beside him, had grabbed his arm and twisted it painfully around behind his back.

Darrell gave a yelp of pain, the flashlight dropping out of his hand. He tried to struggle, but in spite of his being a head taller it was Calhoun in complete control. "Now just listen to me for a moment, boy," the assassin said curtly. "I have given you thirteen years -- thirteen years -- to get your act together and sharpen up. I felt that perhaps you'd resent me even more if I tried to interfere in what you call your life..."

"And you were fucking right, you bastard! Get your hands offa me!"

"...But I have long since decided that leaving you to work things out on your own was one of the greater mistakes I have ever made. And with that in mind, I am here to interfere." With a quick wrenching movement, Calhoun threw Darrell against the wall, where he slid down to the floor, gasping for breath. "Sierra is one of the very few in the Lair who have tried to help you, and what do you do? You abuse her, you humiliate her and you hit her, right in the middle of the mess hall and in front of over half of the Lair -- why Flash and Ranger left any part of you alive, I don't honestly know. You probably have Sierra to thank for that."

Fingering the back of his head gingerly, Darrell scowled. "I don't want her help! She won't bloody leave it alone, she's always prying and snooping and then waving in my face whatever bits of the past she finds. I don't want anyone's help, Flockhart -- not hers, and sure as hell not yours!"

Calhoun shook his head. "And Haley--"

"Don't... mention... her... name," snarled Darrell, getting slowly to his feet. "You killed her."

"Tracker killed her."

"You let him!" Darrell shrieked. "You just fucking sat there and let him! Why the hell didn't you do as he asked? Why didn't you just go, damn you, why'd you let him kill her?!"

Already Calhoun could sense the pit of guilt lurking somewhere in the background of his emotions, even though he knew that he wasn't at fault; it was too sudden, no one could have guessed what was going to happen, let alone try to stop it. But there were times, usually around three in the morning, when Calhoun wondered whether that was true -- and perhaps, to an eleven-year-old boy, that second had dragged out for an eternity.

"You know I couldn't," he replied. "We'd all be dead now."

"It still ended up as a bloodbath," said Darrell bitterly. "A handful of survivors, some little kids too traumatized to think properly, one old enough to think of suicide a couple weeks later. Whoop-de-do. You couldn't save Haley; you couldn't save any of 'em."

He had walked this particular path many times, and knew Darrell's tactics. The young man was an expert at finding a person's tender points and scouring them with verbal sandpaper. Grimacing inwardly, Calhoun pushed his own emotions aside. "No," he said bluntly, "I couldn't save them, and I'll forever regret it. But there's a possibility that I could save you."

Darrell's lip curled in a sneer. "I told you, Flockhart, I don't want your help."

"I didn't expect you to welcome it if you had a choice," said Calhoun, with a touch of irony. "But in this instance, you don't."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"It means exactly that," he said blandly. "You don't have a choice. Kel, in fact, has even gone so far as to endorse the idea whole-heartedly. Your behavior, Darrell, has become increasingly destructive over the past few years, and if I can't do anything to stop that downward spiral then Kel is going to have to hand the matter over to the Loremaster who, I can assure you, will be far less sympathetic than myself. You're becoming a liability, and the Law is fairly strict on liabilities, or so I gather."

The sneer had vanished, replaced by incredulity. "You're lying."

"Ask them yourself."

Darrell's expression wavered, and for a moment Calhoun thought that he might have finally got through to the man. But then he fell back into the typical snide look, and Calhoun tried not to sigh out loud. "You know, I don't give a fuck what duCaine or the Loremaster think. They wanna chop my head off 'cos I got an attitude they might as well slaughter the rest of the Hood into the bargain. Read my beak -- I. Don't. Care. And if they do have a problem they can bloody come down here themselves because this 'talk' of yours was a waste of time! I'm not changing for nobody, you least of all! So take yer unasked for presence right outta E Level, Hunter!"

"One day," Calhoun told him, "you're going to regret what you've said here."

Eyes narrowed, Darrell asked, "You threatening me now?"

"No. Warning you." He folded his hands into his pockets, looking at the other seriously. "I'm not clairvoyant, boy, but your future isn't so hard to see, and if you continue as you are it's not going to be a happy one."

"Happiness doesn't exist," said Darrell flatly. "It's just a illusion people dream up when they don't wanna see how pointless their life is. Happiness ain't my goal -- wealth is." He snatched a couple of loose twenty-dollar bills from where they'd been sitting on the one undamaged shelf, and waved them in Calhoun's face. "Money's nice and tangible, you can see, touch, taste it, and if you've got enough of it you can buy whatever you want, because everything has a price, and everything is for sale. That's real life. Happiness is for the deluded."

Calhoun smiled a little, pityingly. "Well, call me deluded then, but I am happy. I have someone who I love very much, and who loves me back, and I could honestly believe that she is all I'd ever need in my life..."

"Spare me the romantic crap," the younger man groaned.

"So who loves you, Darrell?" he asked, deliberately cold. "You drug yourself into a stupor most nights and spend your days in the haze of the aftermath that follows harassing other people for money which goes into yet more drugs. You abuse and disparage those few who show the slightest bit of concern for your wellbeing, and then have the gall to claim no one has ever cared about you. Can you honestly think of anyone who'd love a person like that?"

Darrell had gone white under his already pale feathers, though whether in shock or anger Calhoun couldn't be certain. "Haley did," he said finally.

"Ah, yes. Haley did," Calhoun agreed. "Or at least she loved you as you were then. Are you so sure that she'd love you as you are now?"

"If you hadn't murdered her then we'd know, wouldn't we?" Darrell growled, turning his back on the older man, who watched disapprovingly as he took a lighter out of one pocket and opened the drawer where he kept his tins of hash joints. "But she loved everyone, Hunter, regardless of what they were... never figured out that some people just ain't worth caring for. Don't think you knew her better than I did."

Cigarette went to mouth, lighter went to cigarette. Calhoun's hand shot out and snatched the offending item away. "You're doing it again, boy."

For Darrell this was the last insult; he lost his temporary cool entirely, dove for Calhoun with enough force to send them both crashing to the floor. Darrell landed beside him, rolled, and aimed to get in a punch or two before the older man could get up, but, recumbent or not, Calhoun was still the faster. His hand shot out and seized Darrell's throat, holding him down against the floor. Darrell gasped, choked, both hands struggling with the one around his neck, trying desperately to dislodge the assassin's hold.

Calhoun's grip was unrelenting. "I don't appreciate being attacked, my boy, and though I really don't want to hurt you, be assured that I will use whatever force is necessary to keep you in line. If violence is all that you'll respond to, then unfortunately violence is what I will use." Darrell's eyes were watering, but he kept his beak stubbornly shut. Sighing, Calhoun relaxed his fingers and released him; Darrell sat up, panting and rubbing at the bruises that were already appearing around his throat. He swallowed gingerly, regarding Calhoun with deep resentment.

Suppressing another wash of guilt, Calhoun stood up, and offered the younger man a hand. "You don't have to hate everything, you know," he said. "There's a lot to life that a person can learn to enjoy, even love."

"Not me," Darrell replied, his voice a little rough. Refusing any assistance he got to his feet on his own. "I don't have that ability any more. Face it, Hunter -- you can't change me, no matter what promises or threats you and Kel make. Now I got a job out in the city tonight, and I don't wanna see your face again 'til it's over with, preferably not even after that. So get out. Out!"

Deceptively obliging, Calhoun withdrew.

*****

The air was filled with a steady rain of sleet, which sprayed down at an angle and billowed in the chilling wind. It was a really foul night, Darrell reflected, shrugging his trench coat more snugly around his neck. Earlier, before he'd actually had cause to stand out in the cold, it had been snowing hard, and the streets were coated in two inches of snow. Rogue flakes piled up in drifts alongside his shoes, and he stamped on them irritably, rubbing his gloved hands together in an attempt to get them warm again. His contact was almost half an hour late, and Darrell was beginning to wonder if Grogan hadn't just left him there to freeze...

That'd be his idea of a laugh, he thought sourly, seconds before an ancient van pulled up just a few paces down the street. It was dented, rusted, and colored an absolutely sickening shade of puce. It had to be Grogan's, and as Darrell trudged toward it the door swung open and confirmed his guess, for the slick Nijhro who emerged was indeed his Greymen contact.

"You took your time," Darrell muttered, upon arriving at the van. He didn't wait for Grogan's response, instead leaping into the passenger seat and slamming the door shut. Immediately he started fumbling with the heating fan, and cursed as he realized it was broken. "Why the hell can't ya bring a transport that actually works for once?" he demanded of Grogan as the older man slipped back into his seat.

Grogan's expression was far too cheerful for eleven-thirty on a night like this. "It works fine, trickster. We just swapped a few luxuries for... other conveniences."

"All right," Darrell said, scowling slightly, "let's get straight to business -- it's too damn cold to muck about with small talk. Your Baroness wants me to help you steal some information disk from the Millennium Corp. What am I getting out of the deal?"

"A years' supply of some of the finest quality drugs available on the market, at a cut-throat price," replied Grogan easily. "Whatever you want. Hash, niobis, morphine... the Baroness is feeling generous about this one, trickster."

He sniffed, and wrinkled his beak at the musty aroma of the seats. "The offer's tempting," he admitted, "but I know you Greymen, your offers always got catches hidden somewhere. I ain't interested in getting duped into a lifetime's reliance on your Baroness' good will, Grogan. I deal in money and nothing else."

"If you insist." Grogan shrugged, as if he didn't really care one way or another. Already his ultra-easygoing attitude was starting to grate on Darrell's nerves; he really wanted to wipe that cocksure grin off the man's face. "In which case, we can offer you the equivalent sum of... thirty percent of the takings. About ten thousand dollars."

"I couldn't buy a years' supply of cheap shit off the streets for that," said Darrell, more sharply than he'd intended. The talk of drugs was making him restless; he never took hash less than six hours before a heist, and in this case his last joint had been at half past two that afternoon. On the other hand, where the high might have settled his jittery nerves it didn't help with his reaction speed, and he needed to be as sharp as possible. "Straight fifty percent and I'll help. Anything lower is a waste of my time and yours."

The big Nijhro man made another shrug, and started the van. "Fair enough."

Way too agreeable, Darrell thought. He knew that Grogan intended to cheat him, since he'd already done some research. That particular disk, so far as he could ascertain, carried the private details of every member of the Millennium Corporation, including home addresses, bank card numbers, passport details, classified records of everything the member had done, ever...

For blackmail purposes, the price, he reckoned, would probably add up to about seventy thousand dollars, maybe more. Ten thou ain't even thirty percent, you rat bastard.

The Millennium Corporation was something of an unknown. It was a business, that much everyone could say with certainty, and it was a business with shares on the stock market that were always doing well. But to ask what business they were in got only blank looks in response, because no one really knew. Some got so far as saying that it was to do with finance, and that might have been a reasonable theory. You just couldn't find any clients to support it.

Although Darrell had seen the building many times from various perspectives, even he had to admit that it was still pretty impressive. It stood out from the rest of Keltor like a spider in a mass of cockroaches, styled as something from the gothic ages, with sweeping lines and gargoyles snarling from the gutters.

The sleet no longer fell so thickly by the time Grogan parked the van, but the wind had picked up and blustered through the street. They were about a hundred meters from the dark entranceway, itself a stark contrast to the old-fashioned look of the building, an arch of glass and steel. Two marble firedrakes squatted on granite blocks at either side of the doors. Darrell ignored them, directed his gaze upwards. The department store on its right had a roof almost perfectly in line with a window on the Millennium building's third story. He pointed this out to Grogan. "That's where I'll go in. It's easier to take advantage of that than going in through the ground floor, there's always less security after the first story." He frowned, going over the layout of the building in his head. "Alarm system's controlled by the computers on level four. I deactivate 'em where needed, and you just walk on in as ya please."

"Sounds simple enough," Grogan commented.

Darrell gave him an irritated look. It is, like hell, he thought, but decided against saying it out loud. Grogan's disposition might be amiable, but his build suggested someone who was just as happy to break necks and bash heads together. Like a number of the guys on E Level, he thought cynically. Only this one knows what 'subtle' means.

"Good," he said, opening the car door and shuddering at the blast of cold air that ripped through into the cabin. Holding it open with his foot, Darrell paused to put on the headset. "Shouldn't take me more than half an hour... I'll contact you when I'm in or if I find any little surprises along the way, but you don't bug me while I'm working, got it?"

"Fine," said Grogan, affably.

*****

It ended up being almost suspiciously easy to break into the Millennium building, but Darrell decided to put it down to his own skill for the time being. He was too busy hacking into the security systems to need worry about anything else. Muttering curses under his breath, he had a brief moment to regret not taking extra classes in computer studies during his 'student days before finally the system acknowledged the newly programmed orders and shut down all the security from the front entrance to the main office level.

Smugly, he tapped the headset. "Okay, Grogan, you're clear. Make your way up to the fourth floor, I'll meet you at the stairs."

"Got it," was Grogan's casual reply.

Darrell sat back in the chair, smirking faintly. Asshole. Maybe before we leave I should set the alarms on the front door again... nah, then I'd never get paid. Although the idea was becoming more and more tempting as Grogan's manner continued to get on his nerves. I shouldn't have taken this damn job, really. Grogan's a miser. I gotta wring every penny outta him...

A shadow flickered in the corner of his eye and he twisted around sharply, head snapping from side to side as he tried to pinpoint the source of the shadow. There was nothing, and Darrell frowned. Guess it was just my imagination, he thought, and chuckled nervously. It was time to get moving, however. Kicking himself out of the chair, Darrell walked out of the security office and into the hallway, just in time to see Grogan chuffing up the stairs.

"Good time," he commented, taking some satisfaction in the evil eye Grogan gave him. The man was built like an athlete, but in Darrell's experience hated doing any more exercise than was necessary to stay that way. "Alright. The main offices are at the other end of this floor. Try not to leave any sign that you've been here," he added, enjoying the position of authority he held, even if only temporarily. "Not a hair, ya understand?"

"I know how to rob a place, trickster," Grogan said, a little testily. "I'm not a novice."

Darrell smiled. "Course you're not," he said, and sauntered off down the corridor. The sound of the smuggler grinding his teeth was audible, and Darrell's smile widened. That one's for all the slights you've given me, you cocky sonuva bitch...

Upon reaching the offices, they hit a snag. Each room was exactly the same as all the others, with no mention of who worked where, not even an irregularly shaped ashtray to give an office some quirk of individuality. Darrell looked around with a sneer. "Feds. It's gotta be. No one else can run a phony business without raising government eyebrows and then ruin the whole thing with a lack of imagination."

Grogan had assumed that cheerful and just faintly superior expression he usually wore. "You'd be surprised," he said, but didn't even bother to look at Darrell when the con man spun around to face him. "We'll check them all. The disk should be in a file called 'Aravarua'."

Sounds like a Lianan cocktail, Darrell noted as they headed into the nearest office on his right. The filing cabinets were about five drawers high, and there were three of them; opening up one, he cursed under his breath as he files were in an incomprehensible order. Even Grogan seemed a little fazed by the task. This is gonna be a long night...

He was about halfway through that first drawer when he heard the call. "Help me."

Darrell straightened up so quickly his right hand whacked painfully against the top of the drawer. He hissed angrily, cradling it against his chest. "What?!"

"What what?"

"You just said..."

"Didn't say a word, trickster."

Frowning, Darrell looked around at the small, neat office. He knew he'd heard something, but now that he thought about it, the voice hadn't been Grogan's. Shaking his head slowly, and avoiding the smuggler's strange look, Darrell crouched down beside the drawer again and continued picking through the files. "Damn me, they've got a lot of files, probably everything from concerns 'bout global warming to who assassinated President Thunderbeak..."

Grogan made a rude noise. "Everyone knows who assassinated President Thunderbeak."

"Yeah, sure we do, but people feel better if there's a conspiracy theory around to shed doubts on historic fact..."

"Dal, where are you?"

This time Darrell just froze, his mouth drying abruptly. Holy shit. No. No, no, it's impossible. It's fucking impossible...

"I'm scared, Dal," the voice whispered. "Please don't leave me alone in the dark..."

"Evenfeather, what's up with you?" Grogan demanded.

Darrell stared at him wildly. "Can't you... you can't hear...?"

The voice was crying softly now. It was an achingly familiar sound, and it drove him slightly crazy. Stammering what was intended to be an excuse but was probably gibberish, Darrell scrambled toward the door and flung himself back into the hallway. "Hal? Hal?"

Some part of his brain was trying to tell him that it was impossible, that his sister was years dead and it was just some kind of freak hallucination, but when he saw the small, curled-up figure at the other end of the hallway, even that part went silent.

Haley...?

Then it looked up. Darrell saw its face, and started screaming.

He didn't know what happened after that. All he knew was that some indeterminate amount of time later he was crawling up the last few stairs leading to a lonely rooftop. Darrell blinked against the moonlight that was so suddenly bright, and staggered across to the edge of the roof, staring at the cityscape around him. In the distance, lit up like a Snow Festival tree, was the Millennium building. The police sirens could be heard even from this far away.

"Shit," he muttered, slumping against the low wall. Then he was quiet, because there wasn't anything else he could say.

More time passed, and eventually Darrell became aware that there was someone standing behind him. It didn't seem to register as anything important. He looked over his shoulder at Grogan with only a dull interest. "What d'ya want?"

Grogan smiled, but it was a smile profoundly lacking in warmth. "I just want to know something, trickster... something like what the hell happened back there?"

"Flashback effect," he said. "Or something like it. Wasn't my fault."

"The hell it wasn't. Face it, Evenfeather, you screwed up." Grogan pushed back his askew shades with one finger. "I've already reported back to the Baroness... it's her opinion that you're not fit to be trusted anymore. Recommends we cut our ties with you."

"Oh, come on!" snapped Darrell, startled into emotion -- and angry emotion at that. "I've been working with you Greymen on and off for a year now, and this is the first time it's ever happened! Ever! It was just dumb luck, ya can't blame a guy for that!"

"Not my decision," Grogan replied, but it was obvious that he didn't disagree with the orders he'd been given. Darrell scowled as the big man walked closer, and directed his angry glare at the distant Millennium building. "Besides," added Grogan, "how can we be sure that it wouldn't happen again? I'll get the disk on my own."

Darrell snorted derisively. "Oh yeah? An' who's gonna get you in, huh? Or do you just think you can punch your way through the walls?" He struggled momentarily to keep control of his tongue, but failed because, really, he didn't want to. "You know, you Greymen think you're the cream of the crop, but really you're just bureaucrats. Some old hag in tawdry jewelry sits around giving orders and you do her bidding like good little mobsters, but when you get down to it, you fellas don't do anything! It's the guys you hire -- guys like me -- who do all the damn work! You wouldn't have got a sniff of that disk if it weren't for me! And now you think you can just cut me loose... well, fine." Darrell laughed sourly. "Have fun, and don't come crawling back to me when you stuff up your own bloody business."

Grogan's expression hadn't changed an iota, the cool smile was still in place, and Darrell actually felt a twinge of anxiety. "That would be kinda hard, trickster."

The wall at his back seemed suddenly to form a cage, and Darrell was pretty sure it wasn't another flashback. It was about this time, in his experience, that a person should start running. Unfortunately, he didn't have the room to do so. "Why?"

"Well, you see," said Grogan, and his hand shot out, grabbing Darrell by the throat in one swift movement that there was no chance of dodging. "You'll be dead."

Oh, fuck.

Grogan shoved him backwards. There were a brief few moments of blurred sky and concrete, he smashed straight through some kind of metallic surface, hitting the unyielding ground in a second heavier impact, and a bursting pain through his shoulder was the last thing he felt for a long time.

*****

The Mess Hall was almost empty, which suited Ranger just fine that night as he sipped at the can of sweet cherry cola, one leg dangling over the back of a second chair. He wasn't tired enough to sleep, but just tired enough not to go in search of more active entertainment... A few years ago he might have gone to the lounge to drink himself unconscious, but the years of waking up with a bad taste in his mouth and having to face Sierra's disappointed looks every time he dragged himself to the infirmary had become too much to stand. The entire week he'd only had a total of four beers, two of which were light.

Damn you, Ser, he thought, with a twisted, but not unhappy smile. You'd try to redeem all us Brotherhood rogues if you had the chance, wouldn't you?

He paused briefly. And learned the hard way that some people can't be helped...

The thought of Darrell Evenfeather -- or more accurately, of the scene he'd caused here earlier that day -- soured Ranger's mood considerably. Evenfeather, you bastard. You got no idea the pains she went through tryin' to help you -- though only the gods know why she tried, considerin' everything you'd done to her. Too forgivin', perhaps.

Well, he's ruined his chances now, he thought then, recalling Sierra's expression after Darrell had limped off. Ranger felt a twinge of irritation. If it had been up to him and Flash (the two of them agreeing for once, wordless though it had been) Darrell would not have been able to walk away. Still, Sierra did have the right to tell them to stop, even if Ranger didn't exactly agree with her. At least she won't need to have anythin' to do with him anymore, he thought, with a grim sort of satisfaction. She can sit back and say he can go to hell for all she cares... Just wish she hadn't had to go through that first.

None of them knew why Darrell had exploded like he had; nothing Sierra said was inflammatory or offensive. Of course, Ranger had given up trying to figure out reasons for his rival's mercurial mood swings a long time ago, and concentrated on the warning signs instead.

A cellphone rang.

Rudely jolted out of his thoughts, Ranger stared blankly at the wall for a while, then cursed and fumbled for the phone at his side. He glanced at the caller number; it was irritatingly familiar, and he frowned. No. I'm not in the mood for tradin' insults with ya tonight, Evenfeather. You can just bugger off. He hit the cancel button.

Three seconds later it rang again. "Shit!" he muttered, and killed the call again, this time switching the phone to automated-response. "I don't want to talk to you, man. Go away and plague someone else tonight."

*****

It was raining, and the battery of his cellphone was slowly dying. Darrell winced as he tried to shift position and failed, frantically thumbing the redial button. He couldn't move his left arm; the pain was too intense, it was difficult enough even to turn his head so he could see what he was doing. Come on... come on, damn you, Stormwing... answer the fucking--

"Yo, this is Ranger Stormwing; I'm kinda busy right now, so if you wanna get in touch with me, leave a message after the gong an' I'll get back to you soon as possible. Ciao, babe."

Darrell swore loudly. "You bastard, answer the phone! This is important, Stormwing; turn off the damn auto-answer! I know you're there... I know you can hear me..." He swallowed his pride even further, and added, "Please. Please, I need... I need your help, will ya just an--"

There was a click, and Ranger's voice said, "What the hell did you just say?"

He let out a sigh somewhere between relief and frustration. "I need your help, Stormwing. Look," he added, as the silence threatened to deafen him, "I ain't got time to argue 'bout this... the heist went bad, and I'm lying here in some dark, trash-ridden alley bleeding to death. I need the docs, but I didn't have their damn number."

A snort of disgust. "Give me a reason why I should care?" Ranger paused. "How bad is it?"

Darrell closed his eyes; his head was spinning too much to concentrate properly. "Well, let's see, I've got a three-foot-long piece of metal sticking out of my shoulder, there's blood running all the way to the gutter, it's pissing down out here and I think I've got a concussion 'cos everything's kinda blurry. That bad enough for ya, Stormwing, or do I gotta be three-quarters dead before you'll do anything for me?"

"Again, why should I?" Ranger's tone was hard. "If the situation was reversed, I'm bettin' that you'd just sit here an' laugh. What's in it for me if you live?"

"I... don't... I don't care," he replied, stumbling a little over the words as a fresh wave of pain almost made him retch. He wasn't sure how long he'd been unconscious or how much blood he'd lost in that time, but it was enough to make him nervous. "Name it. I don't care." I ain't gonna die in some fucking alley... not like this, not like this...

There was another pause, a lot longer this time. "Alright," said Ranger finally. "I'll go wake the docs. Just don't hang up, we'll need to trace you. ...Evenfeather? You still there?"

Darrell was no longer listening. He stared numbly upwards, past the shattered walkway and the protruding rooftop, at the open sky beyond them. Rain stung his eyes, and he blinked sharply. It occurred to him, in a detached sort of way, that if it weren't for the decision of some prehistoric ancestor to trade in their wings, he wouldn't have had a problem.

Darrell sighed. Evolution is a bitch...

He was unconscious again by the time help arrived.

*****

Somewhere out of the darkness came the sound of people talking in a low murmur, mixed in with other sounds that altogether created a rhythmic bubbling murmur in his head. This bothered him, albeit in a distanced sort of way -- bothering like the buzzing of a mosquito from behind an impervious wire mesh. It bothered him for two reasons: because he couldn't hear what was being said, and because hearing anything at all meant that he was waking up again.

Awake enough, at least, to slowly discern the steady and familiar blipping noise from the rest of the background noise. Shifting position slightly, Darrell opened his eyes to slits, and immediately shut them again as the burst of bright fluorescent light hit him painfully. He turned his head away, tried to lift an arm to cover his eyes, and suffered a sharp pain from his shoulder so intense it made his head whirl. He almost blacked out again.

Eventually his eyes adjusted to the brightness, and he stared blearily at the heart monitor resting on the bench beside him. Several wires trailed toward him, like eager fingers. Closing his eyes again, Darrell sighed. He was back at the Lair. Okay, so he was stuck in the infirmary, but it was a step in the right direction. Practically my second home, anyhow, he thought.

The low voices were still talking; they were familiar, and Darrell lifted his head very slightly off the pillows, squinting to see. He promptly dropped back against the bed and tried to will his mind back into oblivion; it didn't work, and worse, he'd been spotted.

"He's awake," said Sierra quietly, her voice clearer now if not any louder, and completely unsympathetic -- no surprise there. "Will he need something?"

"I don't think so," Tarrin answered after a moment. "He should still be feeling the effects of the painkillers we injected into him earlier. If he complains of pain, there's nothing else we can do until the six hours is up." Darrell heard soft footsteps coming closer as the doctor walked over to stand beside the bed. "We know you're awake, Mr Evenfeather," said Tarrin. "You may as well stop pretending otherwise."

Darrell opened an eye. "Can't you let a guy sleep?" he grumbled.

"Be thankful we didn't, or you'd be sleeping permanently." With obvious reluctance, Sierra crossed the infirmary to join Tarrin, but stood back and a little behind him, as far away from the bed as she could reasonably get. "That's very nearly what happened, you came closer to never waking up again than I think you realize."

"Not for the first time," Tarrin reminded him.

"Yeah, whatever," he muttered, glancing blearily down at his shoulder. It was swathed in clean bandages, with a faint aroma of antiseptic and the incessant ache was more irritating than painful. Good painkillers, he thought muzzily.

It took him a little while to notice that the reason he could see the bandages so well was because he'd been undressed down to the jeans. They'd even taken his damn gloves. The scars he always tried to keep hidden were left in plain view -- crossing his chest and circling around from his back like livid white claw marks.

And Sierra had seen them. That sanctimonious Roguefeather bitch had seen them. Nausea swept through him, robbing him not only of speech but also of movement. If he'd been able to, he'd have thrown something -- something sharp. Instead, all he could manage to do was haul the top sheet up to his neck in a vain attempt to cover himself.

"This how you get your kicks, Avias?" he snarled finally, though the effort left him reeling. "By humiliating your patients whenever possible?"

"I don't think--"

"Gimme back my goddamn clothes!"

Tarrin's face was a carefully sculpted mask of cool professionalism. "You'll get nothing with that attitude, Mr Evenfeather. As it is, I needed quick access to your injury, and your clothes would have only got in the way. If you didn't get yourself into serious situations quite so often I wouldn't need to. Now," he added, as Darrell stared at him mutely, "you'll be feeling lightheaded for some time -- the result of the pain killers and loss of blood, which was quite extensive, I should say. Sierra is right, you are very lucky to be alive. A little pride should be worth that, at least."

A little pride, Darrell thought bitterly. 'Pride'. You have no idea, doc. "Spare me the lectures," he growled. "How long is it gonna be 'til I'm outta here?"

The two doctors exchanged glances, and Darrell didn't like what he saw there. "It may be a while," said Tarrin, evasively. "Medically speaking, your arm should be on its way to healing after a week or so here. However, when you leave is up to Kel, not us."

"Kel? What's he got to do with this?" he demanded.

Tarrin checked the clock on the wall. "I expect that you'll be finding this out in another, oh, ten minutes or so. I won't spoil the surprise," he added, and Darrell wondered when the doctor had picked up this apparent streak of cruelty.

He managed to prop himself up on his good shoulder with moderate success. "Look, I can heal on my own," he told them, attempting a persuasive tone. "Just gimme back my clothes, and I'll get outta your hair. That way ya won't have to look at me any more," this with a vicious glance at Sierra, whose gaze quickly shifted, "and if Kel really wants to talk, he can damn well come to me. I ain't hanging around here on his say-so."

"I'm afraid you are," Sierra said firmly. "You're certainly not well enough to walk, and if you try, we will sedate you."

"I didn't ask you," he snapped.

"Well I'm telling you anyway, so you won't do anything stupid -- oh, excuse me, anything else stupid," she snapped right back. "We don't have the time or the resources to pamper you, and while we could just restrain you until Kel has the time to come up, I don't really feel the need to hear that kind of language."

Yeah? Too damn bad! But before Darrell could start swearing at her as he intended to, Tarrin sidestepped neatly back into the 'conversation'. "I'd appreciate it if you did not yell at my apprentice, Mr Evenfeather. Now, are you hungry?"

His mouth worked for a moment, as the sudden change of topic caught him off balance. The doctor's expression was bordering on stony, and after a beat Darrell scowled and dropped his glare to the floor. "No."

With great effort, Sierra forced herself back into an appropriate clinical attitude. "I'm not surprised, but you do need to eat -- your body needs the nourishment to heal. So this is yet another thing you don't get a choice about." She brought a tray over and sat it on the bed in front of him. "Eat. Or we could do this with an IV if you prefer."

"I've had enough sharp things stuck in me for one day," he said, pulling a face. Scanning the tray without much interest, he picked up the fork and poked at a bowl of mashed vegetables. So, docs, did you get this straight from the mess hall, or have someone regurgitate it for you?

"Nothing too exciting for convalescents, I'm afraid, so you'll have to get used to this."

Darrell put down the fork and went for the soup, instead; it was only lukewarm, but at least looked more edible than the mash. He didn't say anything. Oh, there were plenty of things to say, enough snide comments to last him until evening -- and if that was an accurate time up there, it was only half-past ten in the morning. He just suddenly didn't feel like saying any of them. The doctors were happy enough with this arrangement, and went back to their business. Two or three minutes later, the door opened, and a Saber Student came rushing in, babbling about his sparring partner lying unconscious on the floor, and after a brief and inaudible conversation with Sierra, Tarrin left to deal with the injured young man.

Sierra busily began organizing the room, plumping cushions, tidying workspaces, taking away Darrell's tray once it became obvious that he wasn't going to eat any more, and basically doing everything possible to avoid his gaze. And, because it obviously unsettled her, he watched her closely the whole time.

When Kel duCaine finally arrived, he wasn't alone. Darrell scowled as Hunter entered the infirmary behind the Leader, and pointedly didn't look at him. They proceeded to ignore him as well, and spoke quietly with Sierra instead. He tried to overhear what they were saying, but only caught a brief snatch of it, and it wasn't at all comforting.

"...I think you know what my decision is already."

"It won't be pleasant, Kel," Hunter warned him.

"I'm not going for pleasant. I've already tried pleasant, and it didn't seem to have much of an effect. Now I'm going to be stern and unbending."

Shit. What's the Old Man planning now? Darrell thought nervously, shifting so that he lay back against the pillows. He continued to watch, as Sierra made a hesitant comment.

"Yes, that's been confirmed," said Kel, speaking normally again now. "It doesn't help."

Hunter shook his head. "Well, we might as well get this over with," he said, walking around to the far side of Darrell's bed and ignoring the openly hostile expression that Darrell leveled at him.

"Get what over with?" he asked suspiciously.

Kel had also left Sierra and come to the opposite side of the bed, standing with his arms clasped behind his back. "Good morning. Sleep well?" he asked. Darrell stared at him. "It never hurts to be polite, Evenfeather... there's another lesson you could do with learning. As it happens, you'll have to learn this one the hard way. I tried being nice about the whole thing," Kel added. "Hunter even persuaded me to give you a chance; that was the offer he made last night, the one you so emphatically rejected. I think he warned you about what would happen, so you should know where I'm leading with this."

Scowling, Darrell said, "If you're gonna kill me then why bother letting the docs bring me back, huh? Wanted to do it in person?"

"Killing you is not my intention, Darrell. Rehabilitating you, however, is."

The scowl slipped into shock. "Wha'?"

"Simply put, we've had it with you. It was unofficially agreed upon that as long as your dealings did not endanger the Brotherhood or its members we would turn a blind eye. Obviously, this was a mistake on my part. A mistake I plan to rectify." Kel brought his hands around in front of him, finger spread and steepled against one another. "The doctors have kindly agreed to set aside A17 as your personal rehabilitation center for the next four weeks. Food and water will be brought to you as you need it, magazines or books if you request them. Hopefully you won't need to be tied up until you reach the dangerous stage, but if you behave badly or try to attack anyone then you'll be chained to the wall without question."

The man paused there, expecting some sort of response. Darrell's head pounded, and the dizziness was sickening. This ain't happening... this ain't fucking happening! "You... you can't do that..."

Kel fixed him with a hard look, red eyes glinting. "Oh, can't I?"

Desperately, Darrell turned to face the assassin. "Hunter, you... he... you ain't gonna...?"

"I am in complete agreement with him, Darrell," said Hunter. "You probably won't ever thank us for this vocally," he added, "but at least you might have a slightly better chance of killing me if your brain isn't half-dead from drugs."

Sudden, furious rage took over, and Darrell lunged at the assassin. "Damn you, Hunter! I am gonna kill ya, I'm gonna rip yer-- aargh!" His shoulder, which so far had been almost placid, objected to this violent movement with a wave of pain that blew away his balance and left him collapsed halfway over the bed, gasping. He barely had enough strength to protest when Hunter carefully helped him back up onto the pillows.

Eventually, Darrell looked up at him again. "I hate you."

Hunter didn't react. "That's very sad," he said quietly. "Because I don't hate you. Pity you, yes... but not hate." Darrell's reply was incoherent and unrepeatable. "It's time to face facts, my boy -- there are no more second chances."

"It's either this," Kel added, "or the sword. At least we're giving you a choice. It's more than you'd get from the Greymen, as I'm sure you noticed."

He knows... oh, sweet fucking Jorah, how the hell does he know?! He swallowed carefully against a dry throat, half wishing that he could just black out right now. Kel just smiled coolly, and continued. "Feel flattered, Evenfeather; I'm not normally so tolerant of traitors."

"It was just a business deal, damn it," he snapped. "I ain't a traitor!"

"You dealt with our rivals and enemies," countered Kel. "That makes you a traitor. That you went behind our backs and ended up getting yourself hurt for your trouble makes you a stupid traitor. As yet I haven't told Milantha of this. If you want, I could call her in here and ask for her opinion on the matter. Or we can settle things the other way. Your choice."

Darrell sank back against the pillows, closing his eyes in a wince. Some choice, you sonuva saurian bitch... you think you're so damn smart, you gotta threaten me with execution before I do anything for you... Even his thoughts weren't particularly coherent anymore, and Darrell struggled to get them into order. There's gotta be a third way. Gotta be something... damn you, Kel, ya don't have the fucking right...

"Well?"

There was a long silence, during which Darrell came to the inevitable conclusion that he had no other options that wouldn't, sooner or later, end in his death. And despite all evidence to the contrary, he didn't want to die. "Fine," he snarled, "I'll take your damn rehab -- but I can tell you now, duCaine, it ain't gonna work."

"It had better," said Kel seriously. "Because if it doesn't, door number two is the only choice you have left."

*****

The infirmary was empty, and Darrell was left to reflect in silence. He stared up at the ceiling, good arm tucked behind his head. Half of him still refused to believe that this was happening; the other half was soundly cursing everyone who played a part in it. A small part of him lamented that he had survived the fall to be in this situation.

It was past one, and his stomach periodically complained about the lack of food over the last several hours, but he ignored it, too wrapped up in his own private misery to consider being hungry. Since Kel's last, very final statement, no one had spoken to him, not even the doctors. At some point both of them left the room; either to go to lunch or to attend another patient elsewhere, Darrell didn't know. All that mattered was that he was left alone.

The door swung open and Zakiya stood framed in the doorway for a moment. Her gaze fell on him briefly before sweeping across the room, scanning every corner. Satisfied that no one else was around, she closed the door and crossed the room slowly, a sway in her hips.

She stopped by his bed, not bothering to pull up a chair, and they looked at one another silently for a few moments.

Finally Zakiya spoke. "We've got to stop meeting here."

He managed a small, bitter smile. Looking up at her face, Darrell tried to discern something in her face, some kind of emotion to let him known what to expect from this visit. He found nothing; her gaze was implacable. "What are you doing here?"

"You know, I'm asking myself the same thing."

It was not a promising start. Darrell narrowed his eyes slightly. "Yeah?" he asked, keeping his tone as neutral as possible.

"Yeah," Zakiya replied shortly. "You know, Darrell, I'm getting really tired of you ending up in here every time I look away for five minutes." Something unreadable surfaced in her eyes, and she quickly rested her gaze on his injured shoulder instead. "At least you're getting more creative with your methods."

"I don't do this on purpose," he said with a scowl. "If I was really interested in suicide, I wouldn't go and throw myself off a tall building. And I wouldn't botch the job, either."

It was Zakiya's turn to frown. "You're too contrary to consider killing yourself," she told him, and changed the subject. "I hear Kel came down on you hard this time."

Darrell lifted his eyes to meet hers, angrily. "Oh, so it's already running through the gossip channels, huh? Yeah. In case the grapevine wasn't specific enough," he spat, "Kel's ordered me off drugs. Cold fucking turkey, the sonuva bitch!"

"How does he plan upon enforcing that?" she asked quietly.

"Oh, so that part of the sorry tale ain't got out yet." He chuckled humorlessly. "I'm gonna be locked up. In there," he said, flicking his good hand in the direction of the bathroom, "not the cells, but I can't see much difference. And I'll be stayin' there 'til I'm 'properly rehabilitated'."

His last words came out as a sneer, but his shoulder chose that moment to send a shooting pain along his arm, abruptly scattering his anger. Darrell winced, and pulled irritably at the bandages. "They won't even gimme any more painkillers!" he added, exasperated. "Look, I got some K in my room -- that's if they ain't cleared everything out by now. If ya could..."

He trailed off at the utterly flinty look in her eyes. Silence fell for several heartbeats, before Darrell's own expression hardened. "Oh, so, you're not gonna help me either, huh?"

"I'll help you," Zakiya said. "But not like that."

He glared at her, suspicious now. "Like what, then?"

"Kel has me red-listed. I can't visit you." Zakiya looked evenly at him. "But I'll be here for you when you get out. Things are going to be different for you. I'll be the same."

Anger boiled up inside him. "Damn it, deSilver, I should've known you'd side with the Old Man. Everyone else has -- now you!" He saw a flicker pass her eyes, and pressed on. "If ya ain't gonna help me, then maybe you've outstayed your welcome."

Clearly, his words hit their target. Zakiya actually flinched. But she composed herself swiftly, and their eyes met again.

"Outstayed my welcome? I've outstayed my welcome?" There was low fury in her voice. "For three years I've given you my companionship, my time, my body and--" she broke off, quickly looking away, shaking her head in frustration. "I did it willingly. I asked nothing in return. For this you use me, you lie to me and you ignore me, but gods help me Darrell, I still didn't walk away! Because buried under all that dross, very deeply buried, I know there's a good person. And if Kel's meddling has a chance of bringing that out, I'm all for it. I've watched you undermine yourself for as long as I've known you and I've let it happen, but I will not start actively helping you do it. If that means I lose you, so be it."

Darrell's face had grown pale during her tirade, his eyes wide as he stared, speechless. Lose me? What do you mean, lose me? His throat was dry, and when he finally spoke his voice came out hoarse. "Ya never had me."

Zakiya turned for the doorway, hesitated, and shook her head again. She seemed torn between staying and going -- for the first time, at least since he'd known her, flustered. "You know what? Fine. Just... fine. Do... do whatever you want. You always do."

With a scowl, Darrell rolled away from her, deliberately fixing his gaze on the opposite side of the room. Still, he could feel her eyes on him.

"I'm on your side, Darrell. I think I'm the only person in this room right now who is." Zakiya hesitated, drawing a breath. "Darrell... when this is all over, I'll still be here. But I'm not crawling after you anymore. If you want me, this time you'll have to come to me."

He heard her open the door.

A horrible sensation welled in his stomach. It was a mingling of many emotions -- some of which Darrell didn't want to put a name to. Most powerful of all, however, was a feeling of loneliness so overwhelming it terrified him. With a great, painful effort, Darrell pushed himself up onto his elbows in time to see Zakiya step out of the room. Wait... he thought, but his beak remained firmly, stubbornly shut.

She didn't even turn around, and her footsteps quickly faded down the hallway.

Darrell was left alone.

*****

Three Weeks Later...

The infirmary was quiet when Calhoun entered, and Querida was on duty alone, sitting at the desk sipping a cup of coffee. She looked up as the door opened, and smiled a little at him. "Good afternoon, Calhoun," she said, pushing her chair back.

He returned the smile briefly. "I just came to check in on Darrell," he said, and the expression that fleetingly crossed Querida's face told him more than words would. "I heard you had to sedate him last night."

She nodded grimly. "We thought we'd removed everything sharp," Querida noted. "But he smashed the front of the shower in, and when Tarrin and Sierra ran in to see what the noise was, Darrell tried to break out." She glanced quickly to where a syringe lay drying on the side of the sink. "Tarrin managed to stop and hold him until Sierra came back with the sedative, but it was a close thing. He's been more coherent this morning, although," and the doctor winced slightly at the recollection, "some of the things he's said I could have done without hearing."

"I'd like to talk with him again, if it's possible," he said. Querida sighed. Unaccountably, Calhoun felt the need to be slightly defensive. "If he's more coherent today, then maybe it's a good sign."

She regarded him for a moment, head tipped to the side. "It may be. But really, Calhoun," she said, "you know he never appreciates your visiting him... do you really think this is going to accomplish anything?"

"I will get through to him eventually," he answered, "even if I have to do it by hammering the point in through his skull."

Smiling gently, Querida said, "You care about him, don't you?"

Calhoun frowned, defensive again. "I feel responsible for him," he said. "And for not having acted on that earlier. In any case," he added, "I doubt that Darrell would accept 'care' from anyone, least of all from myself."

"Hm." She looked at him a moment longer, that knowing smile playing around her lips, then turned away and fetched the keys for him. Calhoun took them from her with a grateful nod, and unlocked the door to A17, stepping inside quietly.

The room was a bit of a wreck, but not to the point where he couldn't move. The tiled floor was covered by rumpled mats and magazines tossed into corners, and the boxes labeled as containing clothing were open, shirts and jeans spilling onto the floor around them. Shoved into the far corner was the portable bed -- a creation of creaky springs and an old mattress with blankets thrown over the top of it. Darrell sat in his usual place, pillows rammed up against the wall to provide a backrest as he stared blankly into space.

Sighing, Calhoun closed the door, deliberately louder this time, and approached him. Darrell looked up sharply, his eyes narrowed. "Shit, you're not here to preach at me again, are you?"

Because there was no chair, Calhoun simply sat on the end of the bed. "I wouldn't have to if you actually bothered to listen to what I'm saying."

"It's bullshit."

"How do you know? You tune out as soon as I start talking."

"So why d'ya keep coming back if you know I ain't gonna listen?"

"I have a lot of free time." Calhoun kept his face completely expressionless, as Darrell studied him to try and work out whether he was serious or not. "How are you doing?" he asked suddenly, and Darrell blinked at him in surprise.

"Surviving," he muttered, wrapping his arms around his chest and glowering at the floor. "Not much more than that, though. I feel completely fucked up."

Glancing over his shoulder to the row of three shower cubicles, Calhoun's eyes rested on the closest, where the glass from the front panels had been removed. "I'm told that you tried to break out yesterday..."

Darrell scowled. "Yeah, well, I went a little crazy. Jorah's tears, Hunter, I ain't been outside this room for three weeks, my insides feel like someone's shredding 'em layer by layer, I can barely use my arm and it's driving me nuts, I haven't slept in four fucking days, what do you expect?!" For a moment he lifted his glare from the floor and sent the full force of it at Calhoun, but it must have taken too much effort because Darrell soon turned away again.

"Is your arm any better?" he asked.

"Will ya shut up with the stupid questions already?" Darrell yelled. "I ain't interested in talking, I don't wanna hear anything you got to say, so why don't you just piss off and not come back?! What do you care, anyway? Just leave me alone like everyone else does..."

"Is that what you want?"

"Yes!"

"Why?" Unable -- or unwilling -- to answer him, Darrell stayed silent. Calhoun also didn't speak, and just sat watching him for a while. He wasn't, Calhoun had to admit, looking very well. His blond hair was messier than usual, his eyes bloodshot and surrounded by purple shadow, and, judging by the weight he'd lost, was eating only enough to live on. "You're only making this worse for yourself, you know."

Darrell continued to stare at the dark stones.

Risking an earful, Calhoun put a hand on his shoulder. The man moved slightly to the side, but didn't throw a fit, which was a good start.

"You'd think," said Darrell finally, "that twelve years would be long enough to wipe a memory outta your mind. Or at least blur it a little." He laughed shortly. "You know why I took up drugs, Hunter? 'Cos there wasn't anything else that could make me forget. Time didn't do shit. And the only dreams I had were nightmares."

"It didn't really help, you know," said Calhoun quietly.

Darrell shrugged. "The nightmares stopped. That's all I cared about."

But they're back now, Calhoun thought, and you're too scared to sleep.

He didn't say it out loud, but Darrell whirled around as if he had heard them anyway. "Your mom never tried to drown you, your dad never made you run laps with a busted leg 'til you collapsed and could just manage to crawl into bed at night. He didn't get drunk every Sunday and carve patterns in your skin for the crime of existing! And you didn't see," he continued, his voice raising to a yell, "the only person you'd ever loved slaughtered right in front of you! When you can tell me you've been through all that, you bastard, then you can sit there and think 'yeah, he's just scared'!"

Calhoun leaned back slightly, feeling a twinge of guilt. He almost got up and left then, almost walked right out of the room without looking back -- almost. But as he rose, Calhoun stopped, and considered this action. Leaving would accomplish nothing; it was only what Darrell wanted him to do. And what Darrell wanted, he reflected, was almost never what he needed.

"I am very sorry that you had such a disappointing childhood, my boy," he began, "and I know it was traumatic to go through. But that doesn't give you the right to run around trying to ruin everyone else's lives in order to make up for yours being miserable. Instead of dealing with what happened to you you've been wallowing in it for years, using it as an excuse for your behavior because you're too scared -- yes, I said scared -- to do anything more positive with your life."

"I'm not scared!" Darrell snarled at him.

"Darrell, you're terrified. That's why you hide down on E Level where you are completely unchallenged, and where no one is sober long enough to ask questions you don't want to have to answer. That's why you try so hard not to associate with anyone who might be able to convince you to do something better with your life. That's why you've been drugging yourself into unconsciousness all these years -- because you fear to live."

Darrell's face was ashen. "Shut up," he whispered. "Shut the hell up."

"I am not finished yet," said Calhoun coldly. "For all your tales of woe and misery and why everyone should leave you be, you don't seem to realize that almost everyone else here has been through similar ordeals. Rio, Leila, Tarrin, Ender, Brindon, Estelle... they have all lived through violence just like you, my boy, and yet they have managed to leave their pasts behind them and are living as well as they can. They have suffered through nightmares, living and otherwise, and they have beaten them. Instead of doing the same, you took the soft option -- and now look where it's got you. Holed up in a bathroom with only a few outdated magazines for company, completely alone and ruled by your fear."

"That... I can't. I can't..."

"Can't what? Can't change? Everyone can change, boy," said Calhoun, his expression softening a little at the panicked confusion in the younger man's face. He didn't know whether it was the shock that made Darrell's emotions more obvious, or whether his barriers were starting to break down after three weeks of isolation. "Some people just need a hand along the way. You're not completely beyond help, you know."

Darrell closed his eyes. "I can't," he said viciously. "There's nothing to change for. If... if Haley was alive... then maybe. Or maybe I'd never have gone so far to begin with. Damn it." There was a wet gleam at the corners of Darrell's eyes, and he seemed to realize it, looking away quickly. "She shouldn't have had to die, Hunter. I could've..."

"There wasn't anything you could have done, boy," he said, shaking his head. Definitely the barriers breaking down, he observed; Darrell had always been emotional, prone to extreme mood swings, but apart from his sudden bursts of anger they were never this obvious...

"How do you know? Maybe if I'd been there with her like I should've, she wouldn't be dead!" Shuddering, Darrell hugged his coat closer, rocking back and forth on the bed. The tears were loose now, and he wasn't able to hide them. "Damn it, it should've been me, not Haley... she didn't deserve that... if I'd just been there like I promised..."

Darrell's voice ended in a slightly strangled sob. Uncertainly, Calhoun shifted closer to put an arm around the his shoulders, and Darrell leaned against him, for once accepting the offer of comfort -- although he'd hate himself for it later. Awkwardly tousling his curly blond hair, Calhoun just sat there, saying nothing, and waited for the tears to stop.

*****

Sierra took over Querida's duties shortly after lunch, and when Ranger entered the infirmary she was fussing over a young junior whose elbows appeared badly scraped, as if from a fall. She half-turned as the door whisked open, raising a questioning eyebrow, but her expression was softened by a faint smile. "Hello, Ranger. I'm surprised. Usually we have to drag you in for a checkup."

"Ah, I'm not here about me, babe," he hastily explained. Checkups were something he tried to avoid, even when Sierra was doing the checking. "I'm here to see Darrell."

Her other eyebrow rose for a moment, and then she looked reluctant. "I don't know, Ranger... we're not supposed to be letting anyone other than Calhoun and Kel in to see him." She spent a few moments swabbing the junior's elbows with antiseptic lotion. "He's been quiet so far," she added. "--A relief for me, I must say. I haven't had to speak to him yet. But I don't want to risk having to sedate him again, and you know how he acts when you're around..."

Ranger smiled in a lopsided sort of fashion. "Five minutes is all I need, babe. You can even stand at the door if you like, just to make sure he doesn't try to strangle me -- or vice versa." She frowned at him, and he regretted his lapse of black humor. "C'mon, Ser, this is kind of important. I gotta talk to him. I promise I'll be quick."

Sierra sighed and shook her head, not entirely convinced. But she stood up and took the keys down from the wall, handing them to him. "I'm not sure I should be doing this, Ranger, so I hope you know what you're doing."

"Trust me," he grinned.

The Look she gave him needed no words.

After locking the door behind him, Ranger took a good look at the room that held his old rival captive, and could suddenly appreciate why Darrell had lost his mind the other day. Bare of everything but the necessities and a few personal items, the room, with its cold floor and dim lighting, was little more than a prison cell. An admittedly well kept prison cell, but still a cell, with the same atmosphere of suffocative confinement.

Its occupant was over by the sink, leaning on the porcelain basin. Ranger wasn't sure the man had even heard him enter, until Darrell spoke. "Whattaya want, Stormwing?"

Ranger walked over casually, hands in pockets. "You owe me your life, Evenfeather, and I've come to collect..." He grinned. "Well, sort of."

Turning around, Darrell leaned back against the wall, and rubbed some water out of his eyes. At least, Ranger assumed it was water. His face was wet. There was no other explanation, since the idea of Darrell crying was completely absurd. "Just get to the point, kid," he grouched. "You're here to finish the deal with me. Name your price."

"Well, that's part of it," said Ranger, unruffled. "I've had a few weeks to think that offer over, and believe me, a lot of interestin' possibilities came up in that time..."

Darrell's eyes narrowed. "If ya ask for all the money I have, kid, I'm gonna kick your ass, and I don't care if they hit me with a tranq again."

"That was a possibility," he admitted, leaning against the wall. "Unfortunately, Sierra's managed to hammer certain ethics into me over the years, an' one of them is never to put a price-tag on a person's life. So I can't really ask for money, or she won't talk to me for a month."

Surprisingly, Darrell didn't make any snide comments. Ranger carried on. "So I was thinkin' that somethin' in the nature of a favor might work out."

"What kinda favor?" Darrell asked warily.

For just a moment, Ranger had a vivid flashback -- sitting in his room, Sierra rather nervously asking him just the same question. Back when they first 'met', he remembered, or at least first became friends -- years ago now. And, ironically, it was all because of Darrell. Life, Ranger thought, had an odd sense of humor.

He shook his head slightly, to clear his mind, and shrugged. "I don't know. There's nothin' I really need from you right now. But I might one day, so I wanna keep this debt in reserve."

"So you're just gonna bloody leave it hanging over my head?" Darrell's voice was stunned and indignant. "Think of something else, you idiot! I ain't gonna spend my life worrying whether today is the day you're gonna come up with some fucking expensive method of payback."

"It's only one life, man, and I don't charge interest," Ranger pointed out wryly.

"Huh. I would," the man said, almost absently. Then he scowled. "Damn lucky I ain't in the mood to argue, Stormwing. Fine. Keep it in reserve if it makes you happy. Deal done."

"What, not even a 'thank you'?" Ignoring Darrell's glare, Ranger pulled a hand out of one pocket, holding a folded scrap of paper. "There's another reason I came, Evenfeather. I thought you might be interested in this... it wasn't a very big mention in the news, but it was there."

"What is it?"

Ranger shook the paper. "Read it and see."

Skeptical, Darrell took the scrap from him and unfolded it. He skimmed the first two paragraphs, paused, and reread them with more care. Ranger watched him. He could practically recite the article from memory now, anyway. Two nights ago, the Millennium Corporation building had been broken into again. The thief had got in the same way as before, through the windows on the third story. Main security had been switched off.

What the thief hadn't realized, however, was that in the last couple of weeks security at the Millennium Building had been upgraded and that, in the event of a shutdown, the entire system would reboot in backup mode...

The expression on Grogan's face was full of thunderclouds as he was escorted to prison by half a dozen armed police officers. Darrell's smile, however, was almost beatific.

"Told ya so," he murmured.

*****

Sierra juggled the tray on one hand as she twisted the handle, and heard the lock click. Nudging the door open with her hip, she stepped into the room, looking around carefully. Although by all accounts Darrell was 'feeling better' and 'easier to handle' today, Sierra still half-expected him to be hiding in the corner with a shard of glass in his bloodied hands...

Instead he was back sitting on the bed, up against the wall, and didn't seem to notice her as she entered the room. However, rather than staring at nothing as usual, he appeared to be busy scribbling into a notepad that was balanced against his knees.

Sierra announced her presence with a polite cough, and he looked up. "Your lunch," she said simply, placing the tray on the table beside him. Not wanting to wait around for whatever smart comment she knew was coming next, she turned and walked quickly for the door.

She had just reached the door again when Darrell said, "Uh... thanks."

Her fingers froze on the handle. Sierra turned around. He wasn't looking at her, keeping his gaze fixed on the paper in front of him. "You-- what?"

Darrell winced. "I... said thanks," he muttered. "Never hurts to be polite, after all."

By your expression, I'd say that it did, she thought, with a touch of amusement. Sierra regarded him carefully for a moment, trying to decide whether he was serious or not. Then she nodded. "You're welcome," she said quietly, and locked the door as she walked out.

 

Return to the Library...