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The Ties that Bind

By Caro Roberts

One of these days, I'm going to learn how to read a clock.

Sierra pulled her coat collar higher up on her neck as she hurried down the street, ducking her head against the cold and hugging her precious books close to her chest. At the very least, I'll never go in a library against without supervision again, maybe if Flash is there to drag me out by my hair I'll manage to leave before they close and kick me out.

It probably also hadn't been particularly wise of her to take the bus instead of waiting for her car to be fixed or making Flash drive her, but... But he has enough to worry about with Trials coming up next month, I can't ask him to waste two or three hours being bored while I browse. And I have to admit, it is nice to be able to be out on my own without anyone fussing over me. Her broken leg was mostly healed but not quite, meaning she was still supposed to be "taking it easy" and could hardly move a step without someone hovering over her.

All the same, she would be glad when she got back home and was safe. Sierra had forgotten how bad bus service got after dark, and her line had ended five blocks before it should have. Even though she'd been raised in the Blade and usually didn't worry about taking care of herself, she still didn't enjoy walking the streets in a rough part of Keltor alone at night.

The mild nervousness she'd been feeling doubled when Sierra abruptly realized that someone was tailing her.

For a moment, panic took over and it required all her willpower not to just start running. She sucked in a few deep breaths, trying to clear her head, suddenly wishing she'd gone ahead with her training instead of dropping out as a Junior; having a little more experience would have been very helpful just then. Come on, come on, think. You can handle this. Just calm down and think--okay, I can't just keep going back to the Lair. I need to find a well-lit, populated place that I can call Flash from...oh, if that's all. Where am I going to find a well-lit place around here?

The vague memory of an all-night gas station a few streets down nudged her mind. Picking up her pace as much as she dared, Sierra ducked around a corner, almost running for a few paces while she was out of her follower's sight, then dropping back to a brisk walk when she figured he must have turned the corner. Can I make it there before he catches me? What if he figures out what I'm doing and finds a way to head me off? What if he's got someone waiting for me? What if--I have to stop thinking like this and focus on getting there. Besides, if he's just a street thug, when he sees me heading for civilization he'll probably drop off. He won't want to deal with that. She didn't let herself think about what would happen if he wasn't a common mugger.

She was close enough to see the lights of the service station when her tracker evidently realized what she was planning, because she suddenly heard his footsteps speeding up and getting closer. From the sound of it, he was bigger and heavier, and probably faster, than she was--and he wasn't going to let her get away. Giving up on subtlety, Sierra started running, hoping she'd at least get within screaming distance before he caught up with her--

There was a sudden, sharp pain in the back of her shoulder, like she'd been pricked by a syringe. Reaching back with her free hand, she yanked whatever it was out, and stared in horror at the dart that still had some kind of liquid dripping off the end. Poison, or a sedative...

Sierra made it another three strides before her muscles turned to water. Everything seemed to go into slow motion as she crumbled to the ground, too limp to even break her fall. Trying to get up was pointless, and when she opened her mouth to scream nothing came out. Even her vocal cords had been forcibly relaxed. Her vision was starting to blur around the edges. There was no use in fighting the sedative, so she threw all her energy into staying conscious for just a few seconds longer.

There was the scuffing sound of footsteps coming closer. Keeping her eyes half-closed, she could just see a pair of boots come into her field of vision. The toe of one of the boots prodded her over onto her back. Through slitted eyes, she could just make out the shadow of a hooked beak against the night sky. Mom...?

It couldn't be. The figured moved more fully into what was left of her line of sight, and she could tell by the outline of the body that whoever it was was definitely not female. Then he picked her up and threw her over one shoulder like a sack of potatoes--and her feigned unconsciousness ceased to be feigned.

*****

There was an annoying sound hovering somewhere, just at the edge of her consciousness, that was demanding her attention. At first Sierra thought it was her alarm clock going off and she tried to reach out a hand to turn it off, and it was only when she fuzzily realized that her arm wasn't moving that she woke the rest of the way up.

Immediately she wished hadn't. Her head was threatening to split apart, her mouth was dry, her stomach churning. Her shoulders ached, and after a moment she figured out that that was because her wrists were tied behind her back. She managed to struggle upright and lean back against the wall, trying to force her mind to work through the fog that was trying to paralyze it. Oh...ow. Where am I? What... No, she remembered what had happened. That dart...it's the sedative, that's what's making it so hard to think... And it was horribly hard to think; more than anything she wanted to just lay down and let herself drift back into unconsciousness.

No...No. Stay focused. Think, one thing at a time. First thing is get out of these ropes, then see if I can get out of here. I'm sure someone has noticed I'm gone by now so help should be on the way, but I'm not going to wait around for it.

Trying to move hurt, but Sierra didn't mind the pain. Focusing on it helped her push back some of the haze that was making it so hard to concentrate. As she writhed around, trying to remember how to get her hands in front of her, she looked at the room, taking in her surroundings. The room was mostly empty, but from the discolored spots on the floor it looked like some furniture had recently been moved out--in preparation for her arrival, maybe? The only fixtures in the room were a rickety-looking table and chair in the corner that might have been left because there hadn't been time to remove them. So whoever it was that grabbed me planned it out enough in advance that he had time to redecorate for me. How...comforting.

She froze and watched suspiciously as a door on the other side of the room started to open. Oh, wonderful, I have company.

The man who entered the room was probably about her age, perhaps a little older, tall and well built. He probably wouldn't have been quite handsome if his oily smile hadn't made her stomach turn--and if she hadn't known he'd just knocked her unconscious and kidnapped her. "Good morning, cousin," he said a tad too cheerfully. "I trust you slept well."

Sierra gave him a sharp look at the 'cousin,' but was determined not to ask anything from this man. That'd be what he wanted. As he walked toward her, she belatedly noticed the curve to his beak that said he was at least part Raptrin and--her heart skipped a beat--his mismatched eyes, brown and gold. Oh gods, oh gods, didn't Mom say that the marking for her clan was--no, don't be stupid. That doesn't necessarily mean anything. "Actually, I've spent better nights."

He leered, "I'm sure you have," then smirked as she felt herself blushing. He went on, "I didn't expect you to be awake this soon...that sedative should have kept you out for at least another three or four hours. You're either very strong-willed...or very used to large drug overdoses. I wonder which it could be." She refused to rise to his bait. After a pause to see if she were going to respond, he continued again, "You're probably wondering why I've brought you here."

"Not really, but I'm sure you're going to tell me whether I want to know or not."

He grinned. "Well, aren't you the sharp-tongued one. I can see life around you is never dull, cousin." He waited to see if she'd react to that, but she looked away, still refusing to ask the obvious question. He crouched down in front of her, catching her cheek and making her face him when she tried to turn away again. "Do you have any idea who I am?"

"Does it really matter? All I care about is that you're the one who has me tied up. Beyond that, I don't see how it makes a difference."

His face darkened in anger, which he visibly tried to control, and Sierra could see she'd pushed him too far. "So, you think you're so smart, you're not going to play that game. Well, let me tell you something, cousin. You don't get to make the rules here, so you would be well advised to watch your mouth. Do you understand me?" She nodded, deciding it would probably be a good idea to start cooperating. "Good. Now let's try this again. Do you know who I am?"

"No."

"Do you want to?"

"The thought had crossed my mind."

"Much better. First of all, since it's hardly fair that I know all about you and you know nothing about me, you can call me Adran. Now..." He stood up and stepped back, so that he towered over her. Sierra fought the urge to feel cowed and forced herself to keep looking up at him. "Do you remember when your mother killed Falcone?"

Involuntarily, Sierra shuddered. She definitely remembered all too well the gut-wrenching fear and worry that she would never see her mother again. "Yes, but I don't see what that has to do with--"

"Your mother killed my father."

She stopped, her still fogged-over brain struggling to assimilate that. "Wh-what?" Mom never killed anyone, just Falcone, but--oh, gods. She stared. "You're--Falcone was your--"

"You figured that out all by yourself? Good job." He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her upright, his grip almost bruising her arm. "Your mother killed my father in cold blood. She stabbed him in the back--"

"He was going to kill her! It was self-defense--"

Adran cursed, throwing her away from him violently. She hit the wall, sliding down to the floor. "Your bitch mother killed him because she thought it was revenge--she ruined his life, she betrayed him, and then she killed him." His eyes narrowed. "So can you guess what I'm going to do to you?"

Sierra swallowed hard, her mouth suddenly almost too dry to speak. "You're going to kill me."

"Eventually, probably yes, I will kill you. But not right now. Right now I can still use you." He looked down at her for a moment, his face twisting in hate, then he viciously kicked out at her. She tried to dodge, but was too off-balance to avoid it and took the blow to her ribs. Gasping in pain, she crumbled on to her side, crimping up in a ball. Her vision grayed out for a moment from the pain of ribs that felt like they must be broken, then cleared before she could return safely back to oblivion.

"I--never--did anything to you!"

"No, you didn't, but you can do something for me."

"What?"

"You can suffer."

Adran paused to let his words sink in, obviously waiting for her to cower. Sierra set her jaw and forced herself to keep looking up at him, determined that no matter what happened, she would not, would not give him the satisfaction of seeing how terrified she was. They locked gazes for a moment, then he sighed and looked around until he spotted the chair that had been left in the corner. He grabbed it and brought it over, putting it down in front of her and dropping down onto it. He gave her an amenable enough smile that did nothing to ease the way her stomach was churning. "Now, let's have a little chat, catch up on family history. Tell me about who's leading Blade now--is it still Kel?"

Thrown off and confused by this sudden topic switch, Sierra only stared at him for a moment until what was he was trying to do clicked into place. He wants information for some reason...why is he asking me? I don't know anything! But he doesn't know that...and even if I don't know everything, I'm still the one who's here. Oh, gods, what do I say, anything I tell him or don't tell him could only make things worse. Her mind going into overdrive trying to find a solution, a section from one of her favorite books popped into her mind: "In our line of work, capture and torture is just a risk we have to take. If you are facing interrogation, there's only one thing you can do: lie. Lie so often, and so inventively, that when they finally break you--and they will break you eventually--they won't know what is really the truth when they hear it." Deciding not to wait to follow that advice until she was already in pain, Sierra said the first thing that came into her mind. "Oh, no, not anymore. He...he was killed earlier this year in a duel for leadership, the new leader is..." She cast about frantically for a name. What was the villain in that book she was reading named? "Ian...Ian Redbeak."

Her captor frowned. "Ian Redbeak? I never heard of him...or of any change in Brotherhood leadership. Why?"

"If you knew everything that was going on in the Blade you wouldn't need me me, would you? You asked me a question and I'm answering it. We're supposed to be keeping it a secret, Ian is feeling very unsure about his new position and he doesn't want anyone finding out and trying to take advantage of him."

He glared at her, frowning as he weighed what she'd said. "I don't know if I believe you, cousin. But I won't punish you for lying to me until I know you have."

She couldn't take it any longer. "Please don't call me cousin. I'm sorry my mother...had to hurt your father, but that doesn't make us related."

Adran stared at her, then cursed softly, seemingly more in surprise than anger. "Gods above--you mean you honestly don't know? They never told you? She's not only a murderer, she's a kinkiller--stabbing her own brother in the back."

It wasn't only her injuries making the room spin now. It can't be true, it can't be true, you're lying, you're lying-- She didn't realize she'd been speaking out loud until a sudden blow to the face snapped her teeth together with an agonizing click.

"Stop babbling, you worthless little bitch. I can make this much worse for you if you're going to be difficult. I want you alive for at least a little longer, but if you don't stop caterwauling I will just kill you and be done with it."

Sierra couldn't speak around the throbbing pain in her jaw, but she managed to nod.

"That's better. Now, back to business. Tell me about the Loremaster. It's still...Milantha, correct?"

She hesitated; she couldn't tell him another lie, he might believe that one of the major positions had changed without him knowing about it, but he'd never believe that both had. But... "Ye-es," she said cautiously, "but she's...she's not really very important anymore. She sided with Kel over Ian and everyone knew it, so when Ian won and the Council backed him, she lost a lot of her influence. They're the ones in charge now, the Loremaster doesn't have much to do besides dust the Archive shelves." Sierra watched Adran carefully out of the corner of her eye, hoping he was ignorant enough of the way the Law actually worked to not realize that what she was saying was total nonsense. If he knew anything, he'd know she was lying, and it would not be pretty. She held her breath, waiting, and almost fainted with relief when he nodded slowly.

"That...makes things more interesting...and a lot easier for me. So she doesn't even factor in to the equation, unless..." Unfortunately he stopped there instead of elaborating. Sierra held her breath--he couldn't be planning to take over Leadership, could he? He had to know better. But if he really thought that the Loremaster could be silenced just like that... He's either very crazy, very stupid, or very, very cunning...or I'm wrong and he's not wanting Leadership at all--then what does he want?

He was asking another question. Sierra reluctantly dragged her attention back to him, forcing her aching head to focus on keeping straight the appropriate lies. As she tried to keep her story straight, she wondered how long she'd been gone and how long it would be before someone noticed she was gone. She just hoped she could hold out until then.

*****

Querida honestly couldn't remember the last time Sierra had been late for work. She was usually punctual to the second, if not early. But she had never, ever been an hour late. "I hope she's okay," she said for the third time that hour. "If she's sick and needs her sleep, I don't want to wake her up, but maybe I should go check on her..."

Tarrin sighed, turning away from his desk to watch her pacing across the room. "Kerry, please. If you want to, go check on her, but please either make sure she's okay or stop fussing. I'm sure she's all right, but if you're not going to be happy until you know, just go find out."

Kerry smiled a little, accepting the gentle rebuke. "All right. All right, you're right as usual. I'll just go see, maybe her alarm just didn't go off." She came over and gave him a quick kiss, calling "I'll be right back" over her shoulder as she left.

Tarrin smiled and went back to work, trying to ignore the little knot of worry in his own stomach. In spite of what he'd said to Kerry, he was worried. Sierra would never be this late unless something had happened, he knew that, but he hadn't wanted to confirm his wife's nervousness and make it worse. Maybe Sierra had just slept through her alarm...

But deep down he knew that wasn't true, and in some way he wasn't surprised when Kerry came running back, pale under her feathers. "Tarrin, she's gone--"

He knew, but he had to try anyway. "Maybe she's just at breakfast..."

But Querida was shaking her head vigorously. "It can't be. She's gone, Tarrin, something's happened to her. If you just come see--"

He didn't have to see. He knew. "Let's go find Estelle and Slake. We should tell them before we talk to Kel." His wife nodded and they left hurriedly, Tarrin trying to fight off a sick feeling that the next time Sierra was inside the infirmary, it would be because she was a patient.

*****

Time had ceased to have any meaning. Hours had stretched out interminably, until Sierra had no idea if she'd been gone one night or three. Nothing existed except Adran's unending questions, trying to keep her stories straight, braced all the time for the blows that came whenever he thought she was lying, lost his temper, or just didn't like her answers.

Finally, when forming a coherent sentence, much less a coherent lie, became impossible, he left her alone. As soon as the door shut behind him, Sierra simply collapsed on her side, moaning. She was so exhausted, and moving hurt so much, she wanted nothing more than to simply close her eyes and lose consciousness for awhile. She wanted to--but she knew she couldn't, not if she ever wanted to get out. There was no way of knowing how long he would leave her alone for; he might come back any minute and not leave her alone again. This was her only chance to escape, she had to take it.

So, doing her best to ignore the pain in her body, Sierra braced herself against the wall and forced herself upright, then got her hands around in front of her so she could examine her bonds. Well, finally, at least something's going right. She was tied with simple ropes in ordinary knots, nothing fancy. Oh, thank the gods. Getting free was one of the few things Sierra had learned during her short and ill-fated time as a Junior, and one of the even fewer skills she'd managed to hold on to. It took a little squirming, but after a few minutes she was pulling the last of the rope away and rubbing at her wrists and ankles, trying to get circulation back.

Once she felt the painful tingling that meant blood was returning to her extremities, Sierra pushed herself slowly to her feet, leaning heavily on the wall to support herself until she could stand on her own. I'm never going to make it out of here like this...if I confronted him like this, he'd take one look at me, laugh, blow on me and knock me over. But there's got to be a way, I am not wasting this chance. But there wasn't anything she could use as a weapon, the room was bare...except for the chair and table. Oh, gods, if I use a chair to beat someone off again, I will never live it down.

But there wasn't anything else she could use. She checked the welds on the table legs, hoping she'd be able to break one off, but they were too strong. She'd have to use the chair...an idea tugged at the back of her mind. It was crazy, maybe suicidal, but she was desperate. And at this point, what have I got to lose? He's going to kill me anyway.

So she pulled the chair over to within easy grabbing distance, lying back down with her hands behind her back, draping ropes over her ankles so it would like she was still tied. She closed her eyes, relaxed her muscles, and started waiting.

She didn't have to wait long. Before her muscles had a chance to start cramping, she heard the door open again. Sierra forced herself to stay limp, even when the floor vibrated under her as Adran walked over and crouched beside her, grabbing her arm and shaking her. "Naptime is over, time to wake up. Can you hear me?" When she didn't respond, he leaned further over her, unbalancing himself. "Come on, cousin, wake--"

He was leaning as far over as he was going to get. Sierra shot her arms out, hitting his shoulders and shoving him back. He stumbled back, recovering faster than she'd expected and charging at her again. Sierra rolled to her feet, grabbing the chair and swinging it around with all her strength. He threw up his arm to deflect it, but the chair broke, shattering against his shoulder and head.

Adran staggered back, one hand over the bleeding scrape the broken chair leg had left across his face. He cursed, then came at her again. Sierra scrambled away from him, groping desperately for something to use as a weapon. Her hand closed around a piece of chair and she brought it up just as Adran reached her.

The impact as he drove his body onto the jagged edge knocked her back a few steps. Sierra was driven against the wall, Adran's face only an inch from hers. Mustering every last bit of strength in her battered body, she shoved him away, sending him sprawling on the ground.

He landed on his side, snapping the leg of the chair off and burying the rest of it deeper inside him. Blood was gushing out from around the wood, leaving a spreading red puddle on the floor, making her medical training scream at her do something, anything to help him. It's a gut wound, he could die from that if he's not treated, and it'll be slow and painful...yes, and if I stay long enough to help him, he might wake up. He's not going to let me get away a second time. There was a moment in which she felt like she was being torn in two, then she firmly shunted her healing instincts to the side and stepped over his prone body, leaving him there.

It took everything in her to make it out the door. The rest of the house was just a blur to her, although somehow she stayed alert enough to rifle through some desk drawers for car keys and a wad of cash. Only adrenaline was keeping her going now--it wouldn't last long, she needed to take advantage of it while she could.

Later, Sierra couldn't remember anything about the drive back to the Lair. She fumbled with the key, trying to fit it in the ignition of Adran's car, and after that everything was a blank until she found herself in front of the Brotherhood. She was only vaguely aware of the fact that she'd made it home--her hold on reality was fuzzing as her adrenaline high wore off. The pain was getting worse, too, and that wasn't making it any easier to concentrate. She eased herself out from behind the wheel of the car, supporting her aching ribs with one arm as she staggered through the doors of the hockey rink. It was a contest to see if she could make it back before what was left of her adrenaline ran out. Just a few more steps, just a few more steps, just a few more steps... She clung to the mantra, repeating it mindlessly just to keep going. Just a few more...

She almost fell down the stairs from the rink to the Lair. She staggered the last few feet to the infirmary, and opened the door by collapsing against it.

For a moment, there was total silence. Sierra didn't say anything, just stood in the doorway and swayed. She opened her mouth, trying to remember how to speak, but nothing came out.

Then time sped up again as the doctors got over their shock and came running over to her. Tarrin got to her just as her knees buckled and caught her before she hit the floor. Querida came around to her other side, and between them they all but carried Sierra over to one of the beds.

"Lie still," Kerry told her firmly, overriding her feeble attempts at speaking. "Just lie still, don't try to talk. Oh gods, look at you--No, calm down, you can tell us what happened later."

"It looks like someone used her for a punching bag." Tarrin put a hand on her side as he helped her onto the bed and Sierra almost screamed as she felt something shift. "I'm sorry--it looks like her ribs are cracked."

"There's blood on the back of her head, that's head trauma too, Drake knows what else. And look at this cut, it must go nearly down to the bone. Tarrin, go get messages to Estelle and Slake, and Flash if you can find him, I'll get started here..."

It was then that Sierra's will to stay awake gave out, and she slid out of reality before Querida could even finish her sentence.

***

It had not happened again. It simply had not.

Estelle had been out with one of the search parties when she'd gotten the call that Sierra was back at the Lair, alive but in bad condition. Tarrin had refused to tell her just had 'bad' bad condition was, only saying that she needed to get back as quickly as possible.

Well, she hadn't needed to be told that.

But in the end it didn't matter that he hadn't given her details, because nothing, not even the warnings meant to brace her against the shock, could have prepared Estelle for what she saw when she made it to the infirmary and got her first good look at what had been done to her daughter.

"Great duCaine!" Her knees buckled and she might have collapsed if the doctors hadn't anticipated that reaction, each of them grabbing an arm and helping her sit down. "duCaine...oh, duCaine...what did they do to her?"

Querida was resting a steadying hand on her should, but Estelle couldn't accept any comfort yet. Slake, why aren't you here yet? She needs you...I need you! "I know it looks bad," Kerry was trying to explain, although Estelle barely heard her through the haze of shock and grief, "but she's alive, and she'll stay alive, and nothing was broken. That's the good news, and that's about all the good news I have. She suffered severe head trauma, she was bleeding internally, and her ribs are cracked all along one side... This was more systematic, more vicious than a simple beating. I think she was...she was tortured."

Estelle's head snapped up, all her energy focused on one burningly urgent question. "She wasn't..." She couldn't make herself say the word. "They didn't...?"

Kerry read the desperation in her eyes and shook her head quickly. "They didn't. I'm sorry, I should have told you that first off. No, there's no signs of anything like that. All they did to her was purely physical...if that helps any."

It was cold comfort, but at least it was one less trauma for Sierra to overcome when she woke up. Physical wounds would heal in time, and with help her daughter would recover from the fear that always comes with a kidnapping, but she would never have been able to survive the pain of--even thinking the word was hard--of rape. Estelle moved over so she could sit on the bed beside her daughter's mangled body, grimly taking in all the injuries. She didn't need the doctors to explain most of them; they were familiar enough. She'd seen them in the mirror enough times, tokens of Falcone's warm and brotherly affections. Her fingers curled into the blanket, clenching into a fist. Who could have done this to her, my poor baby? Why? She wasn't even a thief...no one ever had any reason to hurt her like this! She didn't deserve anything like this! But someone thought she did. Estelle reached a hand out and gently touched the bandages. Only someone who has something personal in it hits like that.

She would find whoever had done this to her child. She would find them, she would make them explain why they'd done it, what her innocent daughter could ever have done to make them attack her--and then she would kill them.

Very, very slowly.

Twice.

Where is Slake? She looked up, about to demand that, but Tarrin apparently saw the question coming and answered before she could open her mouth. "Your group was the closest, all the others were much further out, around the outskirts. All the teams have been called in, but it will take them awhile to get back."

Estelle sighed and nodded reluctantly. She wasn't happy about it, but there wasn't much she could do, although she wished there was someone here with her. Everyone close to Sierra had been distributed over the search teams, in case she was traumatized and needed someone there to calm her down when she was found. Well, I need someone here to calm me down! "How--how long until she wakes up?"

Querida shook her head. "I can't even give you an estimate on that. She should sleep for a day or two, maybe more, gods know her body needs the time to heal. But we're having a hard time keeping her down, she keeps trying to wake up and we have to keep re-sedating her."

"Why? Why would she be doing that? If she needs the rest..."

Kerry hesitated, bit her lip, and then turned to Tarrin, who didn't look any happier. The knot in Estelle's stomach tightened another few notches. Oh, duCaine, something worse...It has to be something worse, if they look that uncomfortable and don't want to tell me. What now?

Tarrin sighed, running a worried hand through his hair. "In some cases, if there's urgent information that only the...victim knows, they're unable to sleep until they've told someone what they know. It's possible that there's something Sierra feels she desperately needs to tell us, and her brain is telling her body it can't rest until we know."

"What could be that bad?" No one answered; it was a rhetorical question, and Estelle didn't think she wanted to know anyway. Heavy, painful silence descended, but only for a few minutes, before Sierra started getting restless, turning her head back and forth on the pillow and trying to say something. The doctors automatically moved to put her back under, but Estelle reluctantly held up a hand. "No," she said softly, after swallowing the tears that were threatening to choke her. "Let her wake up so we can hear what she has to say. Then maybe she'll really be able to sleep."

Neither of them looked happy about it, but at least they didn't protest. They all stood back and watched as Sierra fought her way back to awareness. Her lids fluttered a few times before she managed to open her eyes and focus. "Mom..."

"Ssh, it's okay, dear. I'm here, I'm right here." Estelle stroked some of her daughter's hair out of her face, then took her hand and squeezed gently. "You're safe, you'll be okay."

"I'm glad you're here..." She looked around, trying not to move her head too much, then frowned. "Daddy? Flash?"

"They're coming, they'll be here as soon as they can." Did they have to hear whatever she had to say? Or...did she want to make sure they didn't hear it? That idea more than the first made Estelle feel ill. Despite what Querida had said, there was only one thing she could think of that Sierra would not want her father or fiancé to hear...

"I...can't wait for them. I have something I have to tell you."

The sick feeling doubled. Estelle looked up sharply and exchanged looks with the doctors, then turned her attention back to Sierra. "Go ahead and tell me. I'm listening."

"The man who-- He was Falcone--" She had to break off to cough violently. Querida came running over to steady her, because Estelle couldn't move. The world spun and then started to gray out.

He couldn't have, he couldn't have, he's dead, I killed him myself, he's dead, he couldn't have survived that... She only managed to snap out of it when Tarrin grabbed her shoulder and shook her gently.

"Don't fall apart in front of her," he hissed in her ear. "Don't let her see you panic, it will make her worse."

He was right. With great effort, she forced herself back under control, just as Sierra was able to speak again. "Falcone's son...I think he...he... I was trying to get away, I think I might have killed him..."

Estelle hadn't thought the situation could get any worse, but it just had. 'I think I might have killed him.' The trauma, the shock of killing someone, even in self-defense, was horrible, and for someone as sensitive to violence as a healer... Oh, duCaine, no please no, not my little girl...my poor baby... She barely heard the rest of what Sierra said, responding on autopilot. She waited until she had drifted back asleep--which wasn't long, since she wasn't strong enough to stay awake for more than a few minutes--then looked up at Tarrin. "We have to go."

"I know." He was picking up some kind of first aid kid, and Estelle felt a stab as she realized she didn't know whether she wanted him to use it or not. She wanted the man who'd hurt her daughter like this to die, but--She can't be the one who killed him. I'll kill him myself before I let it come to that. But she didn't voice any of those thoughts as they left the infirmary and hurried toward the car. She didn't look back as the door shut behind them, but she gripped her saber in one hand, wondering if she would have to use it...and half-hoping she would get the chance.

*****

I didn't get away.

Sierra didn't want to believe it. She had to have gotten away--after everything that she'd done, after she thought she remembered seeing her mother--but every part of her body ached like she'd been put through a meat grinder, and there was pressure around her chest and wrists. She moved her hands a little, experimentally, and almost immediately felt the pressure increase as some kind of bonds tightened. She was still tied down, but it didn't make sense...her wrists were held away from each other, not together, and she was on something soft--a bed maybe? Why would he tie me to a bed? Unless--oh gods!

Sierra's eyes flew open and she tried to lunge upright, but she was caught and held before she made it even halfway up. The lights in the room were too bright and blinded her, so she just shut her eyes against the glare, jerking at her arms and trying desperately to break one of the ropes.

"Sierra! Don't, lie still!" Someone grabbed onto her from behind, trying to hold her down, and there was nothing she could do to fight back. The blankets were tangled around her, trapping her, and when she tried to kick free she realized her legs were held down too. "Sierra! Sierra, please, calm down!"

Something about that voice finally managed to penetrate the fear and pain, and she stopped struggling, opening her eyes. "Where--?"

"Ssh, hush, it's okay. You're safe." She felt someone helping her lie back down, and after a moment the stars of pain faded from her eyes and she could look around. Even then, it took a second before what she was seeing registered and she realized where she was.

The infirmary! I made it! Oh gods, I made it... Her mother and fiancé were hovering over her, looking at her like they weren't sure what she was going to do. "Sierra?" her mother asked carefully. "Do you know where you are?"

That's an odd question. Why would she ask me that? "I'm...home, in the infirmary." She tried to sit up again, but her muscles refused to cooperate, and the ties at her wrists kept her from using her hands to brace herself. She let herself fall back on the pillows again, tugging futilely at the straps that were holding her down. "How long have I been out? And why am I tied down?"

They exchanged uneasy glances, like they were debating what to tell her, but it was Querida, coming over with a pair of scissors to cut the ties, who actually answered. "You've been here for two days, in and out of consciousness. You've been...you've been having a lot of nightmares, fighting a lot, so we finally had to tie you down to keep you from hurting yourself."

Sierra frowned, trying to remember any of this, but everything after hitting Adran with the chair was hazy. Oh, gods--Adran! She pushed herself up, then winced and rubbed at her bandaged wrists. The ties hadn't been tight enough to hurt, but the ropes Adran had used on her hadn't been quite that soft, and moving her hands at all hurt. "Did you find him? Where is he? Is he alive?"

They didn't need to ask who "he" was. "We have him," Estelle said grimly. "He's in custody down in the cells, Tarrin is with him now. He's alive." She didn't look like she was happy about that, either, but Sierra was too relieved to care.

"Then I didn't kill him. There was so much blood, I thought I might have--I was afraid--"

"I know. But we found him before any permanent damage was done, and he's stable now. He's in better shape than you are, actually." Querida brought over some more pillows and helped prop her up until she was in a more or less upright position. "Try not to move too much. Your ribs are cracked and we had to give you a few stitches, so you need to stay as still as possible."

"Ow...no problem." Even the limited movement she'd tried so far had her head feeling like it was splitting open. "I don't think I'll even want to move for at least a week."

"You say that now, but in two days you'll be demanding we let you up and give you work to do. You've never been able to grasp the idea of days off, I wouldn't expect you to start now." Her mentor smiled and patted her hand, then stepped back. "If you're be all right, I need to run out for just a minute. I not only have an entire list of people who wanted to be notified the second you woke up, but I also want to get you some food. As fond as you are of intravenous feeding, I'm sure you want something more substantial than that right now."

"I don't know, it tastes better than the stuff in the mess hall," Sierra managed with a levity she didn't at all feel. Querida gave her a look that let her know that she wasn't fooling anyone, but left without commenting. Sierra knew better than to hope she'd get off that easily.

"I see you haven't lost your sense of humor," Estelle said dryly. "But I don't think you're finding this nearly as funny as you're pretending you are."

Flash nodded, speaking for the first time, and Sierra realized why as soon she heard his voice. He was angry, and restraining himself only by the thinnest margin, but he was trying to pretend to be calm for her sake. "Don't pretend this isn't hurting you, Serra. You're home now, you're safe, you don't have to pretend everything is okay."

"Don't gang up on me. Flash, darling, I could have a nervous breakdown and cry on your shoulder for an hour, but that won't make things any better." And might push you over the edge. I'm being just as strong for you as you are for me, sweets. I'm not going to let you see me fall apart until I know you'll be able to handle it. "I'm just...glad to be home. And I'm so tired."

She hesitated, wondering if she should leave it at that. She was glad to be home, she did want to sleep, and she didn't particularly want to rehash everything that happened just then. But there was burning question she had to ask, one thing that she had to know before she could relax. I should wait until I'm feeling better and we're all calmer, they're so tense right now. But that wouldn't work, and she knew it; she had to ask now, while she had to courage, or she never would. "But...Mom, there is one thing I want to ask."

Was it her imagination, or did her mother suddenly tense up? "What is it, dear?"

"I...I don't know how much you know about what happened, or what Adran might have told you, but...uhm, he told me he was Falcone's son, and he kept calling me cousin. He said that you and Falcone were--were--" She couldn't make herself finish the sentence, but she didn't have to.

"Forget what he said," Estelle snapped. "He was just trying to hurt and confuse you, make you more vulnerable to him. Just try to forget it, forget all of it."

I wish I could. Sierra wanted to leave it at that and drop it, so she could start the process of getting over it. That would be hard enough without dragging herself through it all again. But something about the way her mother had answered that so quickly, without even needing to hear the rest of the sentence, and the way Flash was quiet again, not looking at her and squeezing her hand so hard it hurt, told her that she couldn't just let it rest. "Mom, I'm sorry, but I can't. I can't until I know if what he said was true or not. And you--" Sudden realization dawned. "You know what he said, don't you?"

"Sierra, dear, this really isn't the time to go into it. You're tired, you're hurt, you just woke up. You're probably still a little disoriented. We should wait until later..."

"No, not later, right now. It's not true, you can just tell me it's not true and then I never have to think about it again." Neither of them said anything, and each second in which they didn't deny it all made Sierra more nervous. Flash knew what was going on, too, she was sure of it. And if he knew, but wasn't saying anything-- It can't be. It can't be. It can't be-- "It's true, isn't it?" she asked softly. Please deny it, please, please, please...

"Yes," Estelle almost whispered, looking away. She hesitated, then looked up again, finally meeting Sierra's eyes for almost the first time in the conversation. "Yes, it is true. I should have told you before now, but..."

"But you didn't." Sierra took a deep breath, struggling to control her emotions and keep herself from saying anything she'd regret later. "It's true," she repeated, confirming it to herself, "and I had to find out from--from him." She paused again, knowing that she wouldn't be able to say much more before her fragile control shattered. "I want you to leave."

Flash protested immediately. "Serra--"

"No, Flash, I want you to go too. I really...need to be alone right now." He opened his mouth to argue, but she cut him off. "Please. I need to...to think. Please leave."

For a moment, he didn't look like he was going to listen, but Estelle put a hand on his arm and pulled him back. "Not now, Flash. Let's just go." She looked pained, as close to tears as Sierra had ever seen her, and she knew her rejection was hurting her mother. But what I'd say right now if we kept talking would hurt her more.

"If you see Kerry, tell her I don't want any food. I'm not hungry right now."

Estelle paused again at the door and looked back at her, as if there was something else she wanted to say. But then the moment passed, and she just nodded, then turned and left, hustling Flash out in front of her. The door shut behind them, leaving Sierra alone.

That was when she started crying, and once she started, she couldn't stop.

*****

Damn that man!

Estelle had left Flash outside the infirmary door, walking away without explanation, but that hadn't seemed to surprise him. He might go and tell Milantha what had happened, and then they'd have to deal with it, but until then, Estelle didn't have to think past just getting rid of the rage that was almost blinding her.

Damn him! Will he never leave me alone? Even dead, he keeps coming back to haunt me!

As much as she wanted to just get away, she didn't dare go far, in case something happened and her daughter needed her. So instead of leaving the Lair entirely and going somewhere where she just couldn't be found, she headed for B level and her old quarters. Although I don't know why I'm bothering. Right now, Sierra wouldn't call for me if she were on her deathbed.

Estelle almost charged through the door to her room without waiting to open it. There was a stack of books that she'd been using for some research lying open on her desk; she swept them onto the floor with one arm, her other hand drawing one of her daggers and bringing it around to bury it in the desk top with one smooth motion. This was how she'd always released her anger and frustration before, when there was no other way to let it go. The scarred and pitted desktop bore mute testimony to the mental anguish she'd gone through her first year and a half in the Blade, but she hadn't abused it like this in years. She thought she'd gotten beyond needing to take her anger out on inanimate objects.

She had evidently been wrong.

Why? Why? Why, why, why now? Why did this have to happen? Why did it have to come up again? Am I never going to earn any peace? She'd been living under Falcone's shadow for years--decades, now--and every time she managed to almost forget about it and move on, it loomed over her again. I'm going to be fighting him for the rest of my life! I thought it was over when I killed him, but I don't get even that release!

Killing her brother had been one of the hardest, most painful things she'd ever had to do, and if there hadn't been other lives in the balance, she would never have been able to bring herself to do it. But it had all happened so fast, she hadn't had time to really realize what she was doing, and in the end--when it came to the choice between submitting to the hold Falcone had had over her for so long, or surviving to return to the home and family she loved so much, the decision had not been a difficult one. I thought that meant it was over, that I had conquered him, left everything he did to me behind--and now he's back! When did he have a son? Zakiya never mentioned him...maybe she didn't know? But what does it matter where he came from, he's here, and he hurt my daughter, and she may never forgive me...

Wood chips were flying as she gouged hole after hole into her desk, tearing entire chunks of wood out as she stabbed and twisted her blade into the surface. With almost hysterical strength, she plunged her dagger down as hard as she could, leaving it buried to the hilt and wedged in. Estelle left it there, leaning against the desk and bowing her head, fighting a sudden need to cry. It's never going to end. I'm never going to be free, and it's going to follow my family forever.

She suddenly felt hands on her shoulders, and she realized that at some point during her tirade she'd vaguely heard the door open and shut behind her, but she'd ignored it. Even though she hadn't called him, in the back of her mind she'd known that once he found out, he'd come find her, needing her support as much as she needed his. So she didn't tense when he touched her, but remained standing for a moment, secure in knowing he was there when she was ready to talk.

After a few minutes of silence, she felt calm enough--or maybe just exhausted enough--to speak. Estelle turned around, going into her husband's arms and burying her face in his chest. "Slake..."

"I know. I know, Stelle." He started stroking her hair, gently, but stopped when she pulled back enough to look at him.

"I never wanted this to happen, I never wanted Sierra to be touched by this. It was bad enough that Rain had to go through all of that, I wish I could have kept her away from it, but I at least wanted to protect Sierra. I hated that one of my daughters had to live with this, but not both of them! I never wanted her to find out, but now she has, and she had to find out like--like this. She's never going to forgive us."

Slake sighed and went back to stroking her hair, probably trying to calm her down. "She will, Stelle. It will take her awhile, but she will. She just needs some time to work through it, but she'll understand."

"I don't know if she will. After everything we've always told her about family, and then she finds out that not only have we been lying to her all these years, but everyone else around her has too, and she has to find it out from the person we've been lying to her about... I wouldn't blame her if she never spoke to us again. This is going to hurt her, and you know her, she's not going to ask for help." He didn't say anything to that, maybe because he had nothing to say, or maybe because he knew she was too upset to listen anyway. Tears were starting to choke her again, and this time Estelle didn't have to strength to stop them. "Slake..." she managed to whisper, just before she broke down.

"I know, Stelle," he repeated softly. "I know." He stood there and held her while she wept.

*****

Sierra signed herself out of the infirmary after two days.

She shouldn't have left that soon, and she knew it. She shouldn't have moved, even just down the hall to her room, for at least a week. She knew that, but she left anyway, because she couldn't stand the infirmary anymore.

It wasn't just the inactivity that was driving her slowly insane. Or even the lack of privacy, although that was certainly a factor. No, it was the caged feeling that drove her out even when she shouldn't have been doing anything more strenuous than sitting up. In the infirmary she was trapped, unable to refuse to see anyone who stopped by to talk to her. Pretending to be asleep had only limited use, and besides that, it was childish. But she'd found herself resorting to that more and more frequently, just to get away from her unending stream of visitors.

She didn't want to see or talk to anyone. It still hurt too much to know that the people she'd grown up with, the people that she'd trusted, had all been lying to her. At first she'd thought it was just her immediate family involved in the 'conspiracy' but as she slowly realized just how many people had known, and none of them had ever told her... That was what killed her. More than the actual news itself, it was the being deceived that hurt. She felt used, manipulated...betrayed. And that hurt. That hurt a lot.

The hardest part was, they all wanted to talk about it. Her parents, her sister, her fiancé, her mentors, her many surrogate aunts and uncles. Now they wanted to tell her the truth and explain themselves, but Sierra wasn't ready to hear their versions yet. She wasn't sure what to believe anymore, she didn't feel like she could trust what they told her anyway--was the "truth" they told her to make her forgive them any more reliable than the "truth" they'd told her to keep her from getting angry with them in the first place?

Why did this have to happen, especially now? After the island, and everything that happened there... I was getting over that. I was getting over Alex. I was just waiting for my leg to finish healing up so I could marry Flash. I was happy. And then this had to happen. It isn't fair.

That was a useless train of thought. Life wasn't fair. And maybe it was better to find it out now than to go on being lied to, and maybe find out another way, or maybe never find out at all.

That may all be true, but that doesn't make it hurt any less.

She should definitely not have been up and around this soon after the kind of head trauma she'd suffered, and moving was only making it that much harder for her already battered body to recover. Going down the hall from the infirmary to her room had been questionable, what she was doing now was insane.

Sierra was carefully making her way down to the cells on D level, keeping one hand on the wall as she negotiated the stairs, each step sending a fresh stab of pain through her ribs. Even breathing hurt, but she was not going to turn back now.

By the time she actually made it to D, her head was spinning, and she had to lean against the wall for a moment for support. Oh...ow. Maybe I should have waited a few days... But in a few days Adran wouldn't be able to answer her questions at all. He might not be able to tell her much now, but that would be because he wouldn't want to. In a few days, he wouldn't be able to. He'd be dead.

Sierra wasn't sure how she felt about his death sentence. Intellectually, she understood it. Adran was the son of the worst traitor in Brotherhood history, and with all he knew, he was a threat to the Blade. But he might have been forgiven his bad blood and offered the chance to join to reduce his security risk, if he hadn't compounded his offense by kidnapping, beating, and threatening to kill a Blade member. Practicing or not didn't matter, the penalty for attacking a Blader was clear in the Law. Cut and dried, black and white, no room for interpretation.

The lack of partiality should have comforted her, and in some small way, it did. Adran was going to die not because of who he was, or because of who she was, but because of the choices he'd made and the things that he, himself had done. But what difference does it make if he's going to die because he's Falcone's son or going to die because he hurt me or going to die because he did things that the Law says make him deserve it, he's still going to die. I wish Aunt Milantha weren't going to be the one to do it.

She was almost to the cells. Sierra took a deep breath, then pushed herself up off the wall, forcing herself to walk straight without leaning on anything for support. She was going to have to look fine to pull this off, even if doing so pulled her slowly-healing body apart again.

The guard at the cell wasn't anyone she knew well, thank goodness. Someone who knew her would not only have refused to let her in, but also probably would have alerted the doctors. Considering she'd only been released to her quarters after she'd promised to stay in bed, having anyone find out about this visit was the last thing Sierra wanted. He shifted nervously as she approached. She plastered a calm smile she didn't feel at all on her face, trying to sound calm and reassuring. Oh, what's his name, what's his name...something with an R...he was in two weeks ago with a bad cough, what was his name...oh! "Randall, hi. Let me in for a minute, please? I need to talk with our guest."

He hesitated, and she could feel him studying her, trying to match her up with the reports he'd no doubt heard about her being severely hurt and confined to bed. "I'm sorry, Sierra. No one's allowed to see the prisoner except Kel, the Loremaster, and the doctors."

"What do you think I am? I'm just here as a doctor, Randall, nothing else. I'm not going to slice his throat open or put poison in his IV. No matter what else or who else I am, I'm a doctor first. You should know that. Now let me in." She gave him her best smile, even though it made her want to gag. I can't believe I'm doing this, I can't believe I'm lying and trying to trick him just to get my way, especially when there are probably easier ways to do it...maybe I've been hanging around with Ranger too long.

Randall looked at her for a moment, pausing so long Sierra was afraid that he'd been warned against something like this and was getting ready to not only send her away but to call the Loremaster as well. And I'd really rather not try to explain this to Aunt Milantha. She would not be amused. But before she could get really worried, he nodded and turned to unlock the door. "All right, nurse. But, uh, try not to be too long. And call me if he tries anything."

"Thank you." She smiled again and went in, wondering what he'd meant by that. 'If he tries anything'? Had Adran tried something with one of the other doctors already, or was Randall just warning her as a precaution? Adran couldn't possibly be strong enough to have attacked anyone yet, not if what she'd heard about his condition was true--but she wasn't supposed to be walking around, either. I'll stay out of reach at all times, and if he so much as looks like he's going to move, I'll run for it.

As soon as Sierra got inside and her eyes had adjusted to the dimmed lights in the cell, she realized she needn't have worried; she was clearly in no danger. Adran was lying on a bed, hooked up to a few IVs and monitors, and for a moment she didn't even think he was conscious. He wasn't a threat to anyone right then, which made her wonder if the guard was more for his protection than anything else. She stood there quietly, waiting to see if he'd notice her on his own, and when he didn't look in her direction she cleared her throat softly.

Adran's head snapped around and his body jerked, like he was trying to jump up, but his muscles wouldn't obey. "Who are--oh. It's you." He relaxed again, evidently deciding she wasn't a threat--or maybe just realizing he couldn't do anything about it even if she was. "I wondered how long it would take you to come see me. I assume you're here to gloat."

"Not really." Sierra glanced over at the door to make sure the guard wasn't trying to listen, then took a step closer and lowered her voice a little. "I'm here because I want answers, and right now you're the only one who can give them to me."

His eyebrows shot up, then his eyes narrowed speculatively. "Answers, eh? I've already told your Loremaster everything I'm going to say. Why don't you ask her?"

"Because I...I can't. I want to hear your version, not her interpretation of your version...and besides," she added dryly, "I'm sure you didn't tell her that much anyway."

"Hm. So I assume, cousin, that the questions you want to ask are along a more--personal line, then?" She nodded reluctantly. "I thought so. And if I do you this favor, what will you do for me?"

"There's nothing I can do for you," she answered honestly. "I can't interfere with your execution, which is what you really want, and I certainly won't help you escape--not that you'd get very far even if I did, in that condition. If you were being mistreated in any way, denied medical treatment or food or something, I could help with that, but you aren't, so I can't. So I can't pay you for it, but it's not going to cost you anything to tell me."

"What, you want me to just tell you out of the goodness of my heart?"

"Do you have anything better to do? Would you rather I left you here alone with nothing to do but think about how much fun the execution is going to be?"

He growled but didn't move; he'd probably learned the hard way that trying to lunge for someone hurt him more than the person he'd been trying to attack. "Damn you. All right, fine, ask your questions. I'll choose which ones I answer, though, and when I say I'm done, I'm finished, and you're gone."

"I understand. But I'll probably be ready to end before you are." Sierra paced up and down the tiny cell once, trying to get her thoughts in order, and finally turned to face him. "Why me?"

He blinked. "You'll forgive me if I think the question seems a little broad, cousin. Why you what?"

"Why did you do this to me? I never did anything to you, I never even knew you existed until you came out of nowhere and grabbed me! I didn't know about--about Falcone until you told me. So why do this to me, why hurt me when I never did anything to you?"

"You're alive, and that's enough."

That answer did nothing to comfort her. "What kind of revenge is that? So, so what, I was just there, so you decided that I was a good enough target? I was just...accessible, so you took everything out on me?"

"One thing I learned from my father's mistakes was to pick reasonable targets. I hate you, cousin, I hate you and your whole damn family, especially that bitch mother of yours. I hope you all rot in hell, and if I can send a few of you there myself, then my life will be complete. But wanting all of you dead in as horrible a manner as possible doesn't change the fact that most of your family would carve me up into ribbons if I tried anything. You were the only one stupid enough not to learn how to take care of yourself, so you were the logical target. It wasn't for any deeper reason than that, so don't flatter yourself."

Sierra restrained herself with difficulty, reminding herself that she'd asked him, after all. It isn't fair to demand the truth and then slap him when he gives it to you. "But that's what I don't understand. Fine, I can accept that I was the easiest one for you to strike out at, because it obviously worked--but how did you even know I exist? How did you know I didn't go into thieves' training?"

He smiled a little. "That, my dear cousin, would be telling. But I will say this, my father told me enough over the years that after he died, I was able to take what I knew and put a few things together, but it still took me these whole damned six years to get at you. He never told me much--" His face twisted, like the memory hurt. "I think he thought if he told me too much, I'd go to the Blade myself and betray him, like everyone else he'd ever cared about had. I don't suppose I can blame him."

She'd promised herself she wouldn't rise to any bait he dangled in front of her, but she couldn't let that pass. "'Cared about'? Adran, are you delusional or just stupid? He never cared about anyone but himself, I doubt he started with you, he probably just didn't want to give you enough rope that you could hang him!"

Adran snarled like an animal and tried to lunge for her, but was checked sharply. He fell back, cursing the bonds that held him down and the injury that kept him from breaking them, but especially cursing her. "Idiot bitch! You don't know what you're talking about. I'll be damned if I'll tell you anything else--get out! I'll see you in hell!"

Sierra pulled back, then hesitated. "But I just have--"

"Go to hell!"

"Fine. You first." He spit at her. She avoided it and took a step toward him, her hand going up of its own accord. Sierra stopped herself at the last possible second, curling her hand into a fist and forcing it back down to her side. Not trusting herself to say anything else, she turned on her heel and walked out the door.

She almost ran into Tarrin. He caught her by the shoulders as she tried to hurry past him, making her turn around and face him. "Sierra? What are you--no, I know what you're doing here. You know better than this, you shouldn't be moving around this much for days yet."

"I know, I know. I just...I had to see him. I wasn't here long, and I'm going straight back to my room to lie down. No harm done."

"Except for the three flights of stairs each way," he said dryly. "Sierra, if there's anything--"

"Tarrin, don't. Please. Not you too." She took step back away from him, breaking his hold on her shoulders. "I'm fine, really, I promise. I just...I just need a few days, and I'll be okay."

"Sierra--"

"Not now." She turned around walked away from him, as quickly as she could manage, before he could call after her, or see the tears that she was fighting.

*****

The day of the execution, Sierra left the Lair.

She wasn't supposed to, and she knew it. It was medically stupid to put her body through this; she was risking breaking her stitches or worse. She'd promised--repeatedly--to stay in her room and rest, and she'd actually intended to keep those promises. Moving was too painful and too dangerous, and she wasn't going to torture herself like that without good reason.

But she hadn't been able to sleep at all the night before the execution. She'd tossed and turned all night, and finally she'd given up. She left well before dawn, when no one was awake to catch her, leaving her cell phone behind to make sure she couldn't be found or contacted.

She knew what would happen if she stayed in the Lair. Even if by some miracle she managed to hide from everyone before the execution and wasn't actually forced to go to it, she wouldn't be able to avoid everyone who came to see her afterwards. It was just easier for everyone concerned this way.

She'd already decided how she was going to handle this. She'd known all along that she wasn't going to Adran's execution, even though it would probably be good for her; it might give her some kind of 'closure.' But everyone else that she'd been avoiding would be there as well, and they'd all want to talk to her, see how she was doing, find out how she was handling things. That was the last thing she wanted, especially since her strategy for 'handling' things involved not talking about them at all. She was fairly confident in her ability to shelve everything that had happened and go on with life, but only if she didn't talk about it at all. Talking about it only brought up all the emotions she was intent on suppressing, but as long as no one mentioned it, as long as she pretended it had never happened, she'd be fine.

She wasn't sure how her friends and family would go along with that plan, but she'd cross that bridge when she came to it. She was having a hard enough time convincing herself this was the right thing to do, she wasn't ready to try to convince anyone else.

Time dragged. Sierra didn't dare go back to the Lair until well after it was over, but staying away was almost as bad as being there, and she was beginning to wonder if leaving had been the best choice. Maybe she should have gone and faced him one last time, maybe seeing justice done would have helped in some way. Maybe if she'd gone, she would have gotten up the courage to talk to her parents about it and found out the truth, the real truth. Maybe there was more to what had happened than she knew; she couldn't really take what Adran had said at face value and discount everything her family told her. Maybe...

She shoved those thoughts away. She couldn't keep dwelling on it. She had to forget it, put it behind her, deal with it. Maybe there was more to the story than she knew, but finding it out would probably hurt more than it would help. And it meant dragging herself through everything again, hearing things she wouldn't want to hear. No, it was easier, and better, this way. She had to keep believing that.

Finally, she couldn't stay away any longer and started heading back. It was a little sooner than she'd planned on, but the execution would be underway by the time she returned, and it would be too late for anyone to try to force her to go. She'd be safe, at least for a little while, and after that... She could always deadbolt her door and pretend she wasn't home.

The halls were empty and silent as she hurried up to her room from the garage. That was a relief; everyone must be at the execution, so no one would see her and say anything...

That feeling of relief evaporated as soon as Sierra opened her door and saw Flash sitting on her bed, waiting for her.

She stared at him, for a moment too startled to speak. Automatically, she stepped the rest of the way inside and shut the door after her, and that broke the spell. "Flash Featherstone! How dare you--"

"When I came to see you, I thought you were ignoring me, so I let myself in. I figured you had to be here, since you'd promised you weren't going to move anymore than you had to." He lifted an eyebrow. "And when I realized you'd run away, I decided to wait for you. Serra, we need to have a talk."

There were a thousand things she could have said, from scathing remarks about moving just to get away from him to demands that he leave, but she knew he wouldn't listen to any of them, not if he'd gone this far. She could just turn around and walk out, but he clearly wouldn't let her do that either. There was no way out of it, but she tried anyway. "Maybe we do, but not now, I'm not ready yet. I just need some time--"

"You've had time. Now we're going to talk. You can't keep pushing everyone away, Serra, especially not me. It'll kill you. I'm not going to let you do this to yourself."

The anger that she'd been fighting so hard, the anger that came up every time she tried to talk about what had happened, came bubbling up and she couldn't keep it in check. "I wouldn't be doing 'this' to myself if you'd told me the truth! You, you all lied to me, you didn't just not bring it up you lied to me. And now I'm supposed to forget all of that and tell you everything, when part of this is your fault? I don't blame you for Adran kidnapping me, no one could have prevented that, but that I had to find out my family history from someone who was trying to beat the life out of me--why didn't you ever tell me?"

He sighed, like this was a well-worn argument. That probably meant he'd already been having it with himself. "I wasn't supposed to know either, but I found out some things I wasn't supposed to accidentally. It's one of the hazards of being the Loremaster's son, I know lots of things I'm not supposed to." He smiled wryly for a moment. "But I promised I wouldn't tell you until it was time."

"Time? A good time would have been before I was getting my ribs cracked. When was it going to be time? I've already studied as much about Falcone in the Lore as I was going to, that would have been a good time. Or maybe when Mom had to go with him and killed him, that would have been an even better time. Maybe even when Alex left. Those would all have been good times! Now all I can assume is that you all would have let me go through life blissfully ignorant, waiting for the 'right time' that would never come. If this hadn't been forced out--gods, it makes me wonder what else you're all not telling me for my own good.

"But this isn't really even a conversation I should be having with you. Maybe I should be asking my parents all this, asking them why they never trusted me enough to tell me. Maybe they're the only ones I should be mad at, maybe I should be talking to them."

"Maybe you should. Serra, what did you expect me to do? Decide it was time for you to find out and just spill the whole thing? I couldn't be the one to make the decision of when to tell you, you know that. I know it hurts that you had to find out this way, I wish you hadn't, I wish none of this had ever happened to you. But it has, and I want to help you, but I can't if you won't let me."

Oh, no. The tears were going to start again, Sierra could feel them coming. This was exactly why she hadn't wanted to talk to Flash. She'd start to cry, he'd come over to hold her, she'd admit that he had a point and agree to talk to her parents--actually talk, not having a shouting match. She wasn't ready for this yet, she didn't want to hear what they had to say, she just wanted to be left alone to deal with this her own way... She tried one more time, even though she knew her defenses were falling fast. "Flash, you know, you know what my family means to me, but now I feel like everything has just been yanked out from under me. I feel like I've been manipulated and betrayed, I don't know who to trust, what to believe--everything I've based my whole live on is now up in the air. You're right, I'm probably not being fair, especially to you, but right now I just don't know what to do."

"I know what you need to do." He crossed the room to her and took her hand, touching her for the first time. It was probably a good thing he'd waited; earlier she wouldn't have let him, but right then she couldn't pull away. The anger she'd been relying on to get her through was fading, replaced with hurt and, unfortunately, a desperate need to get everything right again. "You need to stop running away from everyone who cares about you and not letting us help you. You need to stop making your injuries even worse by trying to do way more than you're supposed to. But first I think you need to talk with your parents and find out what really happened. You're smarter than this, Serra, you know I'm right."

He was right, curse him. And, as much as she didn't want to go through what she'd have to go through to get past what had happened, she knew she had to. The pain was killing her, eating away at her, and as a doctor she knew that cancer had to be cut out, even when the operation sometimes hurt more than the tumor did at the moment. She smiled a little for him, and to her surprise realized it was genuine. "Do I get a choice?"

He smiled back, evidently relieved that she wasn't screaming at him or slapping him. "Sure. You can have them come to you, or if you're so set on trying to make yourself worse, you can go to them. But that's about it."

"I don't even get a now or later?"

"If it's not now it won't be later."

He was right about that, too, but she wasn't ready to admit it yet. Instead she looked up at the clock on the wall. "It's over by now."

"Yes. That's why you came home, isn't it?" She ignored that. "This would be a good time to get it over with."

"I know."

"So, what are you waiting for?"

She paused, started to say something, then stopped herself. She could stand there and banter with him all day, but that wouldn't help her. So instead of letting herself reply, she turned and walked out. He didn't try to stop her; he knew where she was going.

*****

Estelle had held out some vague hope that maybe somehow watching Adran die would help her in some way. Give her a sense of closure, make her feel like justice had been done, cut the last possible ties Falcone's memory could have had to her.

It wasn't doing any of those things.

Instead, as she watched him being lead out and prepared, the only emotion she felt toward the man who hurt her daughter so badly, her nephew, her last blood relative, was pity. As much as she wanted to hate him, to blame him for everything that had happened, she knew that wasn't fair or right. Estelle had had enough 'bad blood' comments directed at her over the years, and she knew they weren't true. Being Falcone's sister hadn't made her like him, just like being Falcone's daughter hadn't made Zakiya evil. And being Falcone's son alone hadn't been what made Adran the way he was. She couldn't hate him just for that.

And living with Falcone for all those years... she'd suffered his tender mercies for ten years, and that had been nearly enough to kill her. To be raised by him, with no other influences, nothing good to look back on and hold on to--Estelle couldn't even imagine it.

But no matter what else had happened, no matter what he'd been through, he'd still made his own choices in the end. He hadn't had to kidnap Sierra, torture her and threaten to kill her. No one had been holding a gun to his head and making him do it. He could have stopped at any time, but he hadn't, and that was what he was being executed for.

So even though it almost broke her heart, Estelle stood there and watched impassively, not letting herself look away or close her eyes even for a second. She figured she owed him that much, at least.

In the end, it was quick, although not quick enough. As the body was covered up and carted out, Estelle let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding, and became aware that Slake was trying to pull her away.

"Love, it's over. Let's go."

As gently as possible, she freed her hand from his. "Go ahead, darling. I'll--join you in a minute."

"Are you sure?"

She forced a smile, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm sure, I just want a minute alone. I'm all right, I promise."

He didn't look like he believed her, but didn't argue. In some ways, this had been even harder on him than it had been on her, and Estelle knew that, so she let him go even when she would have preferred to have him stay with her. But later they would have deal with what had happened, just like she and Milantha would have to handle it, so maybe it was better to have a moment alone to collect her thoughts...

A hand touched her shoulder, tentatively, but Estelle didn't turn until she heard the hesitant "Mom...?"

She spun around. "Sierra!"

Her daughter didn't look like she wanted to be there; in fact, she looked ready to bolt at any moment. She must have just come in, because Estelle knew she hadn't been in the room for the execution. She was on the verge of tears, her control obviously on the verge of snapping. "Mom, I... I wanted to..." Then she broke, the tears she'd been fighting welling up and spilling over.

Estelle didn't wait for her to force anything else out. She stepped forward and pulled her daughter into her arms, letting her cry out all the hurt and anger she'd been pretending not to feel. She held her as the room emptied, leaving them alone. Finally, Sierra managed to slow her tears enough to speak.

"Mom, I'm sorry..."

"I know, I know. I'm sorry too, I never should have--"

"I want you to tell me the truth. All of it." She wiped her eyes, then managed a wavering smile. "I promise not to run away until you're finished this time."

Estelle hesitated, not sure Sierra was in any shape to hear the truth--the whole truth. "It will hurt..."

"I know. But I--I have to know."

"Yes, you do." Taking a deep breath to steady herself, Estelle started talking, starting as far back as her own memories went. That time, she didn't leave anything out.

It hurt, but it was the only thing that helped.

 

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