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Wolves

By Brasscat

 

"Your mother is worried about you."

Zakiya deSilver sat at the bar in the bowels of the Brotherhood, stirring her vodka and orange with a black plastic straw. "She sent you to try to reason with me, did she? No offense, Ender, but you're like a whipped puppy as far as my mother is concerned."

"I'm doing her a favour. I'm worried about you too." Ender McMallard was in his mid forties, but no strand of grey had yet managed to make itself known in his vibrantly red hair. His clothing, as always, was practical; his jeans were so faded that they were closer to grey than blue.

Zakiya, who felt overdressed by comparison, let her eyes drift from the red circle tattoo on his shoulder and studied his face. "I eat three square meals a day and take all my vitamins. I'm about as safe as someone living in a den of thieves can be," she said coolly. "Did she say precisely what she was worried about?"

Ender broke eye contact for the first time. Zakiya allowed herself a faintly triumphant smile.

"Oh, Ender. You're blushing. Don't you resent the fact that my mother sent you to tell a twenty-five-year-old woman that she's dallying with too many men? Let's face it, she didn't exactly choose the ideal messenger for the content, did she?"

"Kiya, she thinks you're out of control."

"She can come and tell me that herself."

"You refuse to talk to her."

"Precisely," Zakiya said crisply. "And she refuses to take a hint. I'm not a child anymore, Ender. I don't need my mother, and - no offense - I certainly don't need a babysitter." She slid off the bar stool, preparing to leave on that note, but staggered momentarily as the two vodkas she just had on an empty stomach made her head spin.

Ender looked evenly at her. "I'll walk you back to your room."

*****

Zakiya unlocked the door of E40. It swung open with a metallic groan. Her room was on Level E by choice, not necessity. In the Keltor Lair, seniority won out when it came to room selection; most of the members who'd been there when the Brotherhood first moved in twenty or so years ago were living on the first three levels. Level E was generally reserved for those who had only recently arrived, or those who had their own reasons for wanting to live apart from everyone else.

The fact that the doors down here still needed old-fashioned keys held an archaic appeal for Zakiya. She switched the lamp on, and it cast a dim glow over her neat room.

She heard Ender enter behind her. She turned to him.

"Is that what you want me to tell her?" Ender said calmly. "That you're a big grown-up now?" His voice was a flat as always, but his words faintly mocked her.

She took a step towards him. "You make me sound like a spoiled teenager, Ender."

"You make yourself sound like one."

Zakiya smiled and put her right hand on his waist, ever so lightly. Ender stiffened, but his face betrayed nothing. Zakiya lay her left hand flat on his chest. They were close enough to dance.

"Aren't you curious to know just how grown-up I've become?"

Very slowly, Ender reached out and took her wrists in his hands, lowering them away from him. "Go to sleep, Zakiya."

She felt him slipping away. "I can make it--"

"No."

Zakiya stared into his green eyes. Ordinarily they were inscrutable, and it startled her to see the emotion that filled them now - not anger, but pity. So much pity it hurt to look at it.

She took a step backwards, feeling the first sparks of anger igniting in her chest. "Don't look at me like that."

"Kiya--"

"Get out. Get the hell out!" And as she cast around for something to throw, he was gone, swallowed by the dim silence of the hall beyond her room. He didn't close the door behind him.

Feeling tears of humiliation prickling behind her eyelids, Zakiya stalked over and slammed the door shut, not caring if the sound awakened her neighbours. How dare he? Damn Ender, and damn her interfering mother. She wasn't going to let this ruin her night. Oh, no, her night had only just begun.

Zakiya stood before her mirror and checked her dark eyeliner, adjusted the hem of her skirt, straightened her tight, black top. Unlike her mother and half-sister, she prided herself on having an excellent eye for fashion; her chosen outfit for tonight revealed just the right amount of skin in just the right places, yet hid enough to maintain an aura of mystery. She gave herself an appraising look, up and down. An outfit wasn't enough to win over a man. Not a worthwhile one, anyhow.

She was tall, slim, her curves in all the correct places. Externally, she thought with a bitter smile, she was perfect. A faint downward curve in her beak, and perhaps some slight difference in the form of her head, gave an indication of her Raptrin heritage. The look hadn't suited her growing up -- she'd been a gangly, awkward teenager. It suited her now.

Her feathers were silvery-pale, her silky-straight raven hair and clothes all so black it appeared as though someone had cut holes in the world around her. Only her mismatched eyes broke the bold monochrome colour of her reflection. Her left eye was bright green, her right, deep blue. The effect was unnerving.

She ran a brush through her hair, cast one more glance around the velvet emptiness of her room, and left.

*****

The Brotherhood Lounge was unusually quiet. Zakiya sat on a tall stool down the end of the bar, in a quiet corner, looking around with growing boredom. It was a Frostday night, and for once the place was free of her idiot sister and those Stormwing buffoons. No music blared through the speakers strung up over the dance floor. Zakiya liked it that way.

The only other people in the bar were Fyan the watery-eyed bartender, who had been eyeing Zakiya all evening , and a few teenage boys clustered around one of the pool tables. It was a quiet game, the peace broken only by the clicks of polished marble and the soft murmur of conversation. Stirring her cocktail reflectively, Zakiya realised that whether she liked it or not, her night was probably over. The bar was always dead on Frostdays. She'd known it before she came back out. But still, she'd had to come out. She didn't want to be alone tonight.

A distinctly angry sound caught her attention. The great double-doors to the bar were closed, but the volume of the argument walking up the hall outside easily penetrated the thick carved mahogany. It escalated as it drew closer, though the words were hard to make out. One of the voices snarled something unpleasant.

The door flew open, and a twenty something man in jeans and a white jacket stalked in. His hair was blond and wildly curly, worn swept back in an apparent attempt to tame it. Another man closely followed him, his face flushed in anger. The blond turned, deliberately waited until the man had taken a step toward him, and slammed the door shut on the unfortunate drake's beak.

Zakiya knew him, if only by reputation. And quite a reputation it was.

Darrell Evenfeather hauled the door open again. "I said stop followin' me, ya stupid fucker, what'd you expect? Now get lost!"

Scowling, the other man fled. Darrell stomped into the lounge and headed for the opposite end of the bar. He dropped down into a seat and glared moodily at the wall.

Zakiya smirked. Thoughtfully, she inserted the straw in the corner of her mouth and sipped at her cocktail, studying the man sitting down the other side of the bar. So... Darrell Evenfeather. Con artist, goods trafficker, and drug dealer. Public enemy number one as far as her mother was concerned. He was a man who, even in the non-judgemental eyes of the collective Brotherhood, was criminal to the core. "Barman," she said quietly, barely taking her eyes off Darrell.

Fyan jumped to attention. "Aye?"

Zakiya gave him a five-dollar bill and a confiding smile. "Would you please supply my angry friend down there with a drink?"

She sat back and watched. When the drink arrived, Darrell eyed it suspiciously, grabbed the poor bartender by the sleeve and pulled him back. Zakiya couldn't hear a word from where she sat, but she watched as Darrell's lips moved with a quiet demand. Fyan pointed at Zakiya and Darrell let him go. Picking up the drink, Darrell walked over to her and dumped it on the bar in front of her. "And just what the hell is this?"

Zakiya looked down at the drink and back up at Darrell. "It's called a drink." She waved an indolent hand at their surroundings. "You do realise you're in a bar, don't you? Or did you get lost on the way to the bathroom?"

"I can see it's a drink," Darrell said, pleasantly enough. "What I don't get is your angle. What d'ya want?"

Zakiya slid the drink towards him. "First," she replied, her tone equally pleasant, "I would like you to drink it. After that, I'd like you to tell me what you want."

He pushed it back. "I ain't thirsty, so ya just wasted your money."

"No harm done. You're Darrell Evenfeather, correct?"

"Right," he replied. He hesitated for a moment, and then took a seat. "And you're deSilver's brat."

"So they say. You can call me Zakiya, it's a little less unwieldy."

"I like brat, but whatever." Sitting back, he leaned against the bar and studied her with a doubtful expression. "What did ya want?" he asked again. He had a slight Altairan drawl, apparent mostly in how he pronounced "I" as "Ah".

She let her stare drop, flicking her gaze around his jacket, his neck, his gloved hands, tasting him with her eyes. She looked back at his face once more. "To talk," she said noncommittally.

"And why should I wanna talk to you? What've ya got to say that's worth anything to me?"

Zakiya traced circles in the puddle of water that had developed around her glass. "I suppose that depends on how you define worth."

"I define worth in terms of dollar bills - starting in hundreds and working up from there." His eyes followed the movement of her finger.

Zakiya sighed. A businessman; the Blade was full of them. Ironic, really. "Shame. There are things in life that are so much more satisfying." She uncrossed her legs, and deliberately allowed her left ankle to brush against his right leg.

For a moment, Darrell froze. Zakiya saw incredulity pass across his eyes. He blinked once and the scowl returned. "Obviously, but on the other hand, money buys a lot of things."

"I hate resorting to old platitudes, but you know what they say... the best things in life are free." She lifted her hand from the bar and placed it feather-light over his. Her fingertips were damp. They left small dewdrops on the dark leather of his gloves.

Darrell stared at her mutely for a moment, then pulled his hand back so hastily he almost lost his balance on the chair. "Not for me!"

"What a shame." Vexed, Zakiya sat back. She felt amusement bubbling through her, and forced it down, knowing it would not be well received. So she'd taken the infamous Darrell Evenfeather by surprise? That was unexpected. "Jumpy one, aren't you?"

"Sorry ta disappoint," he replied sarcastically.

"Did you think I was looking for some sort of business deal?"

"Well, yeah." He eyed the drink she'd bought him, with a faint look of longing on his face. Zakiya watched him. What was this guy, a reformed alcoholic? "That or trying to poison me."

She smirked. "That's why you're not touching your drink? Precisely what is it you think you did to make me want to poison you?"

"I've done a lot things to a lot of people. Just 'coz I ain't done nothing to you yet don't mean you can't have been put up to it by someone else," he said cagily. "A slow acting poison, no one'd even know it was you, and frankly, I don't think anyone here'd be in tears if I just fell over dead one night."

"I've heard many things about you, but paranoia wasn't on the list," Zakiya remarked. She glanced at her own empty glass, and shrugged. "But if you don't want the drink, I'll have it."

"Go ahead. Don't like rum much anyway." He gave her a smile that entirely lacked humour. "And for your information, deSilver, paranoia's saved my life more times 'an I care ta mention. Ya don't make friends in my business. Don't tell me you of all people go through life thinking everyone's wonderful."

"I've yet to meet one person who qualifies as wonderful, actually."

Darrell smirked. "Glad to hear it; didn't have ya pegged as an idiot."

"Nice to know. So how did you have me pegged, hmm?"

Settling back against the bar again, Darrell let his gaze wander around the room. "Dark. Angsty. Ice queen. Probably a total bitch to cross." He looked back at her, still looking suspicious. "Not someone likely to hang out with drug dealers and con men."

"I live in a den of thieves. It's unavoidable." She found herself appreciating his boldness.

He snorted. "Maybe, but you're sitting here talking to me, when you could be out playing people's minds or doing whatever the hell you do for fun."

Zakiya shrugged noncommittally and studied the beer taps. "What makes you think I'm not doing that now?"

"I'm still sane?" he said dryly. "Or at least no more crazy than I always was."

"You give me too much credit," Zakiya said. She looked at him through her dark lashes. "I'm sure I'd need at LEAST an hour to screw with you properly."

And was it her imagination, or did he suddenly flush a shade darker beneath those pale feathers? He scowled and looked away. "Ain't interested."

Zakiya felt her chest contract momentarily. Why not? Two in one night was more than she could take. She successfully masked her reaction. "Shame. Is there a particular reason? I don't mean to pry -- call it market research."

"Yeah? Well, research your market somewhere else," he said flatly.

Zakiya sat back, annoyed. She thought for a moment, and suddenly smiled broadly; if he wanted to play nasty, she was more than willing to go head-to-head with him on that arena. "Oh! Oh, I get it," she said in a patronising tone. "You bat for the other team! I can't believe I didn't pick it sooner."

"Please. You too?" he sneered. "Can't ya even think up an original insult? Everyone falls back on that when they're outta options, it's gettin' pretty trite. You wanna know why I don't wanna fuck you, deSilver? Maybe I just don't like your eyes."

She almost flinched. He'd scored a point, and they both knew it. If she showed vulnerability at this point in the discussion, he could crush her. Zakiya smiled her best bird-of-prey grin.

"Well," she said, "You DO have balls. And just as I was starting to wonder."

Darrell briefly gritted his teeth, appearing to struggle with his temper, and made a mocking half-bow. "And you've got more than any other woman I've met."

Zakiya grinned. "Why, thank you. You're not quite the big bad boy they say you are, though, are you? Looks like everyone around here has a mushy centre." And then, seized by an impulse to see just how far she could push him, she pinched his cheek.

"Don't touch me!" he snarled, hitting her hand away.

For a moment, Zakiya was genuinely shocked. "I'm sorry," she said honestly, too surprised to continue the game. She rubbed her hand, which was tingling where he'd hit it away.

His eyes were wary. "Well... yeah... you should be," he muttered finally. "Just... don't touch me."

Realisation washed over her. It's not me he has a problem with. It's physical contact... And that makes MY plans rather more difficult, doesn't it? Zakiya, you sure know how to pick 'em.

"You are an interesting man, Darrell Evenfeather." It was an understatement. Zakiya found herself intrigued.

"Man of mystery, that's me," Darrell said sourly. He looked from the bottles to Zakiya and back again, and hesitated before adding, "And if you're really so keen on buying me a drink, I'll take a vodka and orange, two shots."

Zakiya smiled. "Good idea." She waved a hand for the bartender, barely sparing a glance for the unfortunate man. "Two double vodka and orange."

The drinks arrived. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, Darrell shifted position and gave her a sidelong look. "Okay, I'll bite. Why'm I interesting? For that matter, what'd I do to make you think I was interested in you? Don't think I've had two words ta say to you before now!"

Zakiya gave her reply some thought.

"This place is full of sheep," she said finally. "Supposedly the most skilled and dangerous criminals in the world, they live in a safe little hole in the earth and take up their time with petty interpersonal dramas. Who is sleeping with who? Who has their shocking dark past uncovered this week? It's like a fucking soap opera, and ninety percent of it is bullshit. All these supposed master criminals; they're all terrified of breaking the rules, not just the Brotherhood Lore but also the unwritten moral code everyone around here seems to live by. Frankly I'm sick to death of it, and I'm sick of them all trying to pull me into their flock. I find you interesting because, from what I hear, you don't buy into any of that. You're a wolf." She eyed him thoughtfully. "Or perhaps you're just a sheep in wolf's clothing. I haven't determined that yet. As for your other question..." she smirked, "An exchange of words wasn't exactly what I had planned, fun though it is."

"Nice rant, deSilver." He was grinning broadly.

"Thank you." She sipped her drink and allowed the silence to stretch for a moment. The situation they now found themselves in was overly ambiguous for her liking. She layered her voice with mockery. "So, what's your sign?"

Darrell smirked. "'No dogs allowed'."

Zakiya, halfway through swallowing a mouthful of drink, choked slightly as hilarity rose up her chest. She looked back at Darrell, fighting to keep her smile noncommittal, knowing that her appreciation was making itself known in her eyes without her permission.

And now she had a problem...

She hadn't actually expected to like this guy.

"Oh? No dogs? What about wolves?" She leaned in a little closer, her movement almost imperceptible, careful this time not to touch him. As she moved forward, he leaned back; seemingly unaware he was doing so.

"I... dunno. Wolves are better company," he admitted cautiously.

"Wolves don't ask much. They don't want to be your best friend, and they never outstay their welcome," Zakiya said quietly.

Turning to face the bar, Darrell picked up his vodka, removed the straw and took a sip. He didn't meet her eyes, and swallowed again well after the drink had gone down. "Wolves are known to turn on you," he said slowly, "if they don't like what they find."

Zakiya lowered her gaze to the mahogany bar top, more for his sake than for hers, and studied a set of knotholes that resembled a demented face. She chose her words with exceeding caution. "I think... that certain wolves wouldn't care. Most wolves like to leave expectations and judgements to the sheep."

"Wolves live for the now."

"Yes." Zakiya looked at her left hand, sitting flat on the bar near Darrell's right hand, a gulf of inches separating them. The heat of her skin left a misty condensation on the polished surface around her fingers.

Darrell closed his eyes briefly, breathing out in a short sigh. He took another sip from his glass before turning to face her directly. "Right now... this wolf wouldn't mind some company," he said finally.

Zakiya allowed herself, carefully, to look into his eyes again. She liked what she saw. She slid from the bar stool, reached out, and gently took his gloved hand.

This time, he didn't pull away.

*****

She had taken him back to her own room. When she woke up the next morning, he was gone.

Zakiya sat up slowly, looking around. Her room was a dim as ever. Unlike some of her colleagues, she had no need of the auto-lights to wake up in the morning. She groped around and switched on the bedside lamp, wincing in the sudden brightness.

Her lips felt tender. She could still smell him on her, a sharp tang of cigarettes and sweat.

Zakiya pulled back the covers and got up, tugging on her bathrobe. She looked at her own reflection in the mirror -- hair not as sleek as it should be, last night's mascara a little smudged -- and waited for the inevitable emptiness to hit. She sat on the edge of her dressing table and looked back at the rumpled bed. Darrell had been surprisingly passionate, but odd... very odd. When she'd reached out to pull his shirt off, he'd caught her hands in his, lowered them away. And the entire time, he'd never removed it, nor taken off his gloves.

She frowned to herself. There was no point thinking about him; he was in the past now. She wasn't going to start breaking Rule #1 over him.

Since her failed relationship with Luck l'Orange, Zakiya had made it her aim to never get deeply involved with another man. A relationship would imply some sort of need, and she needed nothing from anyone else. Thus, Rule #1: it was all right to sleep with a man once -- and only once. Anything more than that was dangerous. Even giving them undue thought after that point was dangerous.

Many of her men had tried for a second time. She'd turned them all away.

The unfortunate result of this was that she was running out of worthwhile men. She had fairly specific standards. She would never sleep with a man who pursued her, for that would mean missing out on the thrill of the hunt. She would never sleep with a shy man, or a weak man, or an embarrassed man. She admired only strength, and little else. She wanted only the unobtainable men, the arrogant men. The cold men, even. They were the challenge.

Her second-favourite thing in the world was the hunt: starting with a man who was strong, self-reliant, even distant, and drawing him gradually under her thrall with words and body language alone.

Her favourite thing in the world was the kill: the moment at the end of the night when that strong, unobtainable man collapsed, gasping and helpless, in her arms. There was no power in the world comparable to this.

And perhaps, she thought sourly, you could overanalyse it and say it had something to do with the absent father and workaholic mother of her childhood; something to do with a need to be loved, but Zakiya didn't care a whit for the reasons behind it. She was addicted, plain and simple. She knew it. And she had decided long ago that she had no interest in being "saved".

*****

Half an hour later, Zakiya re-entered her room, still in her bathrobe but now damp and clean. The towel she'd wrapped turban-like around her wet hair made her head feel heavy.

It was odd: the usual emptiness had never hit her. Yet, she didn't feel normal either. This was something else, a strange, nervous energy that made her drum her fingers and chew her lower lip. Her mind seemed unusually fuzzy this morning. Was it possible Darrell had slipped something into her drink? No... Zakiya was not a complete stranger to drugs; she knew enough to know that she'd not been drugged last night.

Darrell.

Butterflies rose in her stomach, and Zakiya gripped the sides of her dressing table and stared at her reflection in the mirror. What the hell is wrong with me?

*****

For the next two weeks Zakiya waited for the feeling to fade. She waited to start feeling normal again, bewildered by the fact that every time she spotted someone with curly blond hair in the distance, her stomach jumped. She was furious with herself. Never before had she found it so hard to simply walk away from a man.

And so it was that, two weeks to the day after she'd met Darrell in the Lounge of the Brotherhood, Zakiya found herself back on that bar stool waiting for him to happen by. She would have gone looking for him but she didn't know his room number, and there was no way she was going to ask around. So she waited, for him to chance by. Perhaps she needed to have him just once more, to get him out of her system. Drug dealer indeed... He was a drug, it seemed.

For three consecutive nights she waited at the bar, and drifted home at one in the morning each time, empty-handed.

On the fourth night, a Sunday, a familiar face walked into the bar. But it wasn't Darrell, and it was actually three familiar faces. And to say that they walked in was to give them too much credit; their entrance could have more accurately been described as a small explosion.

"Come on, Tas, give us a bit!"

"No way! You want it, you come an' get it!" Tasmin held a bottle of beer high above her head, just out of Bayard's reach. He leaped for it and the pair of them started to scuffle.

Ranger Stormwing ran past both of them and vaulted into the empty DJ's booth. A second later, loud, tasteless dance music blared across the dance floor.

Zakiya winced and hunched down in her seat. She never listened to anything but classical music, and she didn't appreciate having her quiet evening split by this hideous cacophony.

At this point, Bayard finally snagged the beer bottle off Tasmin, only to discover that it was empty. Laughing uproariously, Tasmin made her way to the bar. She dug around in the pocket of her baggy jeans and withdrew a few crumpled notes.

"Hey! Fyan! My esteemed pals an' I are after some tasty beverages, whatcha got?" She spotted Zakiya and did a comical double take. "Sis!! What's a girl like you doin' in a place like this?"

"Hello Tasmin," Zakiya said icily.

Tasmin grinned, turned to the boys and hollered, "Hey guys! GUYS! Check out who's here! It's yer favourite girl, Ranger!" And to Zakiya's disgust, her sister wolf-whistled and catcalled at the longhaired teenager. Bayard started laughing, and Ranger gave Tasmin the finger and avoided looking at Zakiya.

Zakiya was aware that at some point Ranger had had a small crush on her, and quite possibly still did. As far as she was concerned, Ranger actually did have the requisite personality, but he was still too young for her, and frankly, he lost points for hanging out with her sister.

Waiting for her drinks, Tasmin leaned back on the bar and looked curiously at Zakiya. "So why ARE ya here, Kiya?" she said in a more normal tone.

"Up until just now, I was having a nice, peaceful drink."

"Yer dressed nice," Tasmin observed.

"Tasmin," Zakiya said shortly, "Subtlety isn't your strong point. If you continue to pry into my business, I might be compelled to start asking what you are doing buying alcohol for a seventeen-year-old."

Tasmin went slightly red, but to her credit, she didn't let Zakiya scare her away. "Y'know, I'm not spyin' for Mom, Kiya," she said flatly.

"I never said you were." Zakiya let her eyes rove over the two boys by the pool table. "Why do you waste your time with those two?"

"It's called enjoyin' life, sis."

"You're not stupid, Tasmin. You should be above that." Zakiya had been referring to the general drinking and carousing, and it took her a moment to realise that her words had come out wrong.

"Zaki, The day I find myself 'above' enjoyin' life is the day I'll shoot myself." The beers arrived, and Tasmin smiled and clapped her older sister on the back. "Ya only live once. Lighten up, okay?" She scooped up the three mugs of beer and rejoined the boys on the dance floor.

Zakiya was left with a horrible feeling she'd come off second-best in the exchange. She looked at her watch with impatience. It was half past eleven and she didn't think she could stand waiting around here, in present company, for another hour and a half.

A loud chant rose above the music: "CHUG! CHUG! CHUG!!" Ranger was gulping down the entire contents of his glass. He finished with a grimace and put the glass upside-down on top of his head with a triumphant grin, to the cheers of Tasmin and Bayard.

With little else to occupy her, Zakiya continued to watch her sister and the Stormwing boys from the corner of her eye. It was impossible to hear what they were saying over the pounding music, but Bard was sitting on the edge of the pool table and Tasmin was tugging at his hand, apparently trying to get him to dance with her. He shook his head sheepishly. Tasmin tossed her hands in the air, grabbed Ranger, and hauled him out on the dance floor instead. The two of them started dancing, being both silly and provocative in turns.

Ranger spun Tasmin around, swept her low to the floor, and hauled her upright again. She was laughing helplessly. Bayard's expression was thunderous as he watched his brother and his best friend dancing. Zakiya raised an eyebrow.

The door to the bar flew open with a loud enough bang to be audible even over the music, and all eyes turned to see Darrell stalk in, looking preoccupied.

It abruptly occurred to Zakiya that Darrell Evenfeather's entrance into a room that contained herself, Tasmin, Bayard, Ranger Stormwing and a large quantity of alcohol was akin to lighting a match in a fireworks factory. She suppressed a groan and began to get up, in a useless attempt to prevent the now inevitable disaster.

Darrell stopped short, taking in the sight of the four of them. Zakiya froze, halfway off the barstool. If it hadn't been for the pounding music, a dead silence would have fallen. As it was, complete stillness came over everyone in the bar.

It was, of course, Tasmin who broke it. She let go of Ranger and slapped her forehead. "Aw, great! A gatecrasher!" There was still laughter in her voice, and Zakiya thought perhaps she was trying, in her own way, to diffuse the situation.

Zakiya didn't like how the people in the room were arranged. The Stormwings and her sister were clustered around the pool table, and she herself was sitting at the bar close by to them, which left Darrell standing opposite them all, looking isolated. She fought the urge to walk over and stand with him, to even things up a bit. Instead, she sat back and watched carefully.

Darrell's gaze wandered around the room. He paused momentarily at Zakiya, but he didn't make eye contact, and turned instead to glance at Bayard and Tasmin by the table. "Still hanging with the butch and the halfwit, eh, Stormwing?" Darrell asked lazily, turning to face Ranger. "Ya never really did have much taste in friends."

Although Ranger's expression didn't change at all, the temperature around the pool table seemed to drop several degrees, and Bayard put a restraining hand on his brother's shoulder.

Ranger shrugged it off and moved a few steps toward Darrell. Zakiya was undeniably reminded of a Western she'd seen once. "At least I have friends, Evenfeather," the teen replied coolly. "Those junkies you surround yourself with barely even qualify as avian."

Darrell smirked. "Friendship is overrated."

Tasmin snorted. "So speaks a truly friendless loser," she said, but only loudly enough for the two Stormwings and Zakiya to hear.

Zakiya studied her sister's face. She's afraid of him.

Darrell may not have heard the words, but he heard the laughter that followed them. "Y'know, Stormwing," he said - and his tone might have been mistaken for casual if his attitude wasn't so obviously tense, "I still owe ya for that stunt you pulled with Roguefeather. Ten grand ain't a light sum to lose out on."

"I don't see why you're so pissed off," Ranger replied, grinning slightly. "It's not like you lost anythin' you actually had."

"I had a sweet deal going 'til you screwed it up..."

"Hey, that's what us Rangers do best!"

"What Rangers do best should be keeping their snotty little beaks the hell out of other peoples' business," Darrell snapped. "You watch your step, Stormwing. Keep pushing me and one day you're gonna wind up in a ditch somewhere, stone cold fucking dead."

Ranger's grin slipped only a little. He leaned forward. "Yeah, now, that's kinda funny. 'Cause I'd be more scared of Bayard in a dress than I am of you ever beatin' me, Evenfeather. I am the best, and I can defend that title."

"Wanna test that theory?" Darrell's reply was inaudible over the music to anyone but Ranger, but his intentions were clear to Zakiya. Apparently they were clear even to Bayard, who was not famed for having the world's brightest mind, because he quickly stepped forward and got between them.

"Now hold it, you two. You're perfectly capable of existing in the same room without wanton bloodshed; I've seen it happen before. Come on, Ranger," Bayard said, almost pleadingly. "Tas and I were thinking about a game of cards."

Darrell barked a harsh laugh as Ranger was reluctantly tugged away. "Saved by the brother, Stormwing!" he taunted.

Zakiya slid off her bar stool and walked over to where Darrell was standing. His fists were clenched at his sides. She wordlessly offered him her hand.

He looked at her, at first quizzically and then with something else... something indefinable. He took her hand. She felt smooth, cool leather wrinkle against her skin. In unspoken agreement, the two of them headed for the door, which was sitting partially open. Darrell vanished through the gap with Zakiya right behind him. She turned and began pull the huge door shut. In the shrinking gap, she saw her sister standing there with her mouth hanging open.

Tasmin shook her head like a wet dog and yelped, "Kiya and Darrell?? Oh, MAN!"

Then the heavy wooden door clicked gently closed, and the music and Tasmin's voice were cut off, leaving Darrell and Zakiya standing side by side in blissful silence.

*****

Lying back against the pillows in his room, Darrell realised that he didn't feel remotely tired. Zakiya had been drifting in and out of a doze for the past hour. They were spooned together, her back curled into his stomach, and after an hour of lying there like that he still had an arm tucked around her. Neither of them had spoken a word.

He rested his mouth against her shoulder, and wondered if she'd want to do it again when she woke up. He felt Zakiya shift slightly. He couldn't see her face, but the rhythm in her breathing was one of wakefulness. When had that happened? Darrell waited for her to speak; she remained silent. He tried to see if her eyes were open. Her face was turned too far from him to tell.

Darrell would never admit it aloud, but he was grateful to Zakiya for what she'd done that night. She'd offered him a way out of the Lounge that wasn't a retreat. Everything after that had been a bonus.

Finally, Zakiya spoke. She appeared to address the wall when she stiffly began, "Is it... It seems convenient..." She hesitated, and after a moment, started again. "I hope it won't bother you if I... stop by occasionally."

Darrell blinked, staring down at her. Did she just ask...?

But that was crazy - practically unthinkable. He had already had enough trouble trying to accept the fact that she'd actually wanted to sleep with him without tackling the idea that she might want to keep doing so, even on an occasional basis. Part of him was desperately searching for a reason, one he could understand -- what was in it for her? Why him? But every question was turning up with a single, puzzled question mark.

Finally he shook his head, and gave up on trying to work it out. "Yeah... I mean, sure. It's no bother." Oh, geeze, yes, that's articulate as hell!

"Oh. Good." There was an uncomfortably long silence. Her back was pressed hard against his chest, and he could feel her heart beating. Or was it his? "Darrell?"

"Yeah?" Not nervous, is she? The ice queen? Not that she was all that icy a few hours ago...

Zakiya was very still. "Why haven't you taken off your shirt and-- and those gloves?"

The question had the same effect on his thoughts as a spanner thrown between a couple of gears. Darrell tensed automatically, searching for something to say, some cutting remark, some snide response intended to change the subject... but for once, no inspiration came.

Come on. You knew she'd ask sooner or later. Ain't like it's normal practice.

But he couldn't tell her. It was a matter of pride. Who would she tell? How long before everyone knew? And what would she think if she...? A sick mix of fear and self-loathing shot through his stomach and he shuddered. "Don't... ask me."

Zakiya breathed out, and it was almost a relieved sound. "Can I ask you another question?"

The silence dragged on for a few moments as Darrell slowly regained his composure. "What?"

"Have you got any cigarettes around? Because I could really use a smoke."

His relief came out as an audible chuckle. "I could probably lay my hands on some. Regular or extra crispy?"

"Whatever. I doubt I could tell the difference." She rolled onto her back and watched him.

"Hm." He sat up, reaching for the drawers beside his bed. Flicking open one, he pulled out a slim black case and a silver lighter, both of which he handed to her. "These ones taste better."

Zakiya sat up, pulling the sheet around her. She lit up, inhaled, attempted not to cough, and failed miserably. Catching her breath, she gave Darrell a self-deprecating smirk. "You know, Mr Evenfeather, you're a terrible influence on me. My mother would pitch a fit if she saw this happy little scene."

Darrell snorted and, settling back against the pillows, watched Zakiya appreciatively. "Yeah, I'll bet she would too..." Halfway through the sentence, his natural instincts of self-preservation kicked in, and he was suddenly besieged by a mental image of Leila deSilver coming after him with her saber swinging wildly. He grimaced inwardly. "But I got a lot of people after my skin; one more won't make any difference."

"One more? As far as I can tell, she's already been on the warpath about you for years. Your very existence drives her insane." Zakiya paused to blow a stream of smoke at the ceiling, and passed the cigarette to Darrell. "If only you could teach me how to irritate her that much, perhaps she'd actually leave me alone at last."

Her words sank into Darrell's brain one by one, like ice bricks thrown into quicksand.

"That's why you're hanging around, then, huh?" His voice was as cold as his insides felt.

Zakiya gave him a puzzled look. "What?"

"Taking revenge against mommy, right?" he mocked. "So what made you pick me? The wheelin' or the dealin'? Which annoys her more? Or is it kind of a package deal?" For the first time, he saw some visible emotion in Zakiya's mismatched eyes: distress. It gave him a small, bitter twist of satisfaction.

"No. No, it's not like that."

"Right." Darrell waved a careless hand and drew his knees up beneath the sheet. "Don't let it bother you, I ain't got a problem with your vendetta. I'm all for vendettas."

"But it isn't--"

"I gotta get my sleep, anyhow. Big day tomorrow."

Darrell was furious with himself. Of course she had an ulterior motive, everyone always did, and he cursed himself for having forgotten that. Women had never been his weakness; that was the Stormwing kid's territory. For a second, the horrible thought hit him that perhaps Zakiya had been put up to this whole thing by Ranger. Sweet Jorah...

Even if that wasn't the case, Zakiya had gotten closer than anyone he could remember. And he'd only been with her twice. Ranger would laugh his ass off if he knew.

Zakiya had taken the hint. She slid from the end of the bed and gathered up her clothes. "It's... it's three in the morning," she said.

"So it is."

She pulled on her clothes and stood facing him. Her clothing was rumpled and her hair dishevelled, and she looked more disoriented and somehow more real now than she ever had at the bar in the Lounge. Darrell's chest contracted strangely, and for a moment it was hard to breathe. The feeling passed.

"I didn't do this because of my mother," she said.

"Really?" he said flatly. "Why, then?"

"I... don't..." Zakiya trailed off and just looked at him for a moment. "Sorry," she said abruptly, and headed for the door. She slipped out, and the room was left silent and somehow empty without her in it.

Darrell sat staring at the wall for some time, his thoughts in an angry, confused jumble. If he'd just said no at the bar, none of this would have happened. All that bullshit about wolves...

The cigarette, still held loosely between his fingers, dropped ash onto the bedspread. He didn't notice.

*****

"Hair o' the dog, kiddo?" Duke smirked. He jerked a thumb towards the little bar fridge in the corner. "There's some light beer in there, a little vodka."

"It was multiple dogs, Dad," Tasmin said dolefully. She stood in the doorway of her room, clad in tracksuit pants and a tank top and altogether looking about as hung-over as it was possible to look while remaining upright. She rubbed her already dishevelled head and squinted at the fridge.

"Duke, don' encourage her. It's nine in the morning." Leila lay on her stomach on the maroon couch, her nose buried in a Harlequin romance paperback that Nylessa had insisted she try.

Tam, who was sitting across from Duke at the small breakfast table, glanced over his shoulder at his sister. [You look like shit,] he signed with gentle amusement.

"Good mornin' ta you too," Tasmin said / signed back sourly. She went over to the bar fridge and pulled it open, inspecting the contents. It had been Tam's idea to put a little bar fridge and a breakfast table in the living room of the l'Orange quarters; it saved them the trouble of going to breakfast in the morning when they didn't feel like it. Tasmin rifled around and emerged with a carton of milk. She tossed her head back and drank straight from the carton.

"Tasmin..." Leila said warningly, her eyes never leaving the page.

"Sorry, ma, won't do it again," Tasmin replied automatically, and replaced the carton, wiping her mouth on her forearm. She spotted the playing cards scattered across the table between Duke and Tam. "Oh, glacier? Deal me in."

"Only if ya got the moolah, kid," Duke said promptly, and indicated the pile of money in the middle of the table.

Tasmin, grumbling, fetched her purse from her room and upended it on the table. "Lessee... okay, yeah, I'm good. Deal me in, c'mon."

Duke shuffled the deck with consummate ease and dealt out. For the next few minutes there was peace in the stone-walled room, broken only by the tap-tap Tam made on the table whenever he wanted to be dealt another card, and the soft swish of the cardboard playing cards on the plastic tabletop.

Tasmin put a card down, drew another, grinned abruptly and pushed all her money into the pile in the centre of the table. Most of Tam's cash was already there.

Leila watched over the top of her book, smiling slightly, as Tam and Tasmin laid out their hands for Duke to see. From where she was lying, Leila could actually see the cards in Duke's hand, and Tasmin's groan a few seconds later when Duke laid his cards flat on the table confirmed Leila's suspicions. Duke swept the pile of money towards him, chuckling at his childrens identical scandalised expressions.

"Old age an' cunnin', kids. Every time."

Tam pulled a face, sat back and signed, [I'm broke. How was your night, Tas? The bits you remember, anyhow.] He gave her a wicked smile.

"Oh fine," Tasmin said drily, both signing and speaking. "I showed the guys the mods I made ta my '23 Wildfel until they got bored. Then we went to the Lounge an' ran into Zakiya."

Leila looked up from her book at precisely the same moment that Duke glanced across at her.

Tasmin continued, heedless, "So she's just sulkin' at the bar and we're kickin' around on the dance floor, an' everyone's more or less havin' a good time when Darrell freakin' Evenfeather shows up. Him an' Ranger start their usual gig an' Bard's gotta haul Ranger away before they go fer each other's throats." She smirked. "You'll never guess who hauled Darrell away though."

Tam plainly just had. His eyes widened slightly and, very subtly, he ran a finger across his throat. Tasmin closed her mouth with a snap, but too late – Leila was lowering the paperback, staring at her.

"Who?" Leila demanded, and her voice carried an undercurrent of steel.

*****

THUNGG. THUNGG. THUNGG.

Zakiya snapped awake to the very distinctive sound of a person banging the flat of their hand against her door. She sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes. Her hair smelled vaguely of cigarette smoke. The clock read 9:45; she'd overslept. For a moment, she was disoriented to find herself alone; then last nights events came crashing back to her with depressing suddenness.

"Who is it?" she said with an undue bite to her tone.

No answer. Zakiya scowled and threw back the blankets. "Who IS it?"

When no answer was forthcoming, she got up and walked toward the door in her nightgown, frowning. "Darrell?" Reaching out, she pulled the door open.

Leila stood there, saber ignited. Zakiya immediately tried to slam the door, but Leila was faster -- she thrust the blade of her saber into the gap, and the door crashed against it with a distressing clang and bounced back open a few inches. Zakiya swore rather uncharacteristically, and Leila easily pushed the door the rest of the way open.

"I wanna talk ta you, Kiya," she said quietly, and stepped inside. She doused the saber and closed the door behind her, then went and sat on the edge of the bed, the saber hilt across her knees.

"Make yourself at home," Zakiya said sarcastically.

Leila just looked at her.

Zakiya waited. "Well?"

Leila folded her arms.

"Oh, for Drake's sake, mother. Your grasp of basic psychology is disgraceful. If you're waiting for me to blurt out some kind of confession into that nice big silence you're laying down, you'll be waiting a rather long time."

"Tasmin said something interestin' this mornin'."

"Well that's a first."

Leila ignored her. "She tells me that yer runnin' wit the Evenfeather boy nowadays."

"You just don't get it, do you? This is why I don't let you in, you know. Every time you turn up at my door, you're here to meddle."

"That's because I--"

"Oh, don't start that, mother. If you cared about me you'd have paid more attention to me when I was five and I actually needed it."

Leila gritted her teeth and stared down at her saber hilt for a second, visibly pulling her anger under control. "I don't wanna open up that old argument," she said shortly. "Right now I'm jus' worried about one particular thing, an' that's Darrell Evenfeather. Tell me, Zakiya, why?"

"Why not?"

"It can't be his personality. I seriously doubt it's his looks."

"What's wrong with his looks?" Drake duCaine, what possessed me to blurt that out?

Leila gave her a speculative look of the type that made Zakiya feel just slightly uncomfortable. Her mother was no genius, but she did have a certain brand of dogged suspicion that occasionally passed as perceptiveness.

"Is he givin' you drugs?"

"Mother! Gods..."

"It's a valid question."

"No," Zakiya said icily. "No, he is not giving me drugs."

"Do ya owe him money?"

Zakiya felt hot anger rise up in her. "Is it entirely inconceivable to you that I might simply be with him because I want to be?"

Leila looked at her flatly. "Are ya doin' this just ta make me angry?"

The anger snap-froze into jagged icicles inside her chest. "Yes, mother, that's why I do everything. Everything in my life exists for the sole purpose of angering you."

Leila suddenly looked very tired. She brushed her thick hair back from her face. These days she wore it loose over her shoulders, and streaks of white were creeping out into the black from the temples. "Zakiya. Can ya blame me fer askin'? After what happened wit' Ender?"

Zakiya felt the blood drain from her face. She controlled her expression with a masterful effort.

Her mother was watching her closely. "Oh yes," she said quietly, "he told me."

"What makes you think," Zakiya began stiffly, "that there aren't two sides to that story? He's lonely, mother. What makes you think that he didn't touch me first?"

Leila stood. Her eyes were sad. "You really wanna know what makes me think he's tellin' the truth? I trust him. I don' trust you, Zakiya."

Zakiya swallowed with difficultly, cursing herself for her weakness. "Well bully for you," she said, and her voice came out slightly husky. "Thank you very much for the charming pep talk. You can leave now."

Leila tucked her saber into the back pocket of her jeans. "All right. I can see yer mind's made up. I hope Evenfeather's worth it, Kiya." She went to the door, pulled it open, stopped. "If he ever hurts you, or you ever find yerself alone, don' be afraid ta come ta me, okay?"

Holding her chin high, Zakiya neither nodded, nor shook her head. After a moment, Leila turned away, and slowly closed the door behind her.

Only then did Zakiya let her shoulders slump. She stared at the closed door.

I've been alone my entire life, Mom.

*****

Darrell dropped the parcel carelessly on the floor and kicked the door shut. The slam it made was barely satisfactory. Rather than mess around with the key, he walked over to the pile of cushions and beanbags and fell back against them.

When he'd told Zakiya he had a big day ahead of him, he hadn't been lying. It had been a long afternoon of business deals with whiny jerk-offs and psychopathic lunatics. There was a new designer drug about to go on the market, and sales of it were expected to go through the ceiling and take the roof with it -- if you listened to the designer.

He was, he had to admit, wary. The designer was Herrington, the man behind "Flight", which had killed four people and left several more comatose for weeks, all within the first month of it being available. It was subsequently renamed "Blight", and taken off the market by all but the most unscrupulous dealers.

Darrell did not deal in Blight. Those who did, he thought cynically, had nothing to worry about if a few buyers keeled over unexpectedly. But if Blade members started to drop like flies, Darrell's life expectancy would go from average to bye-bye.

Nevertheless, because Herrington was offering the drugs at a discount, Darrell had bought a small supply with an order held back for several more in the event of the sales being good.

On a whim, Darrell hooked his foot into the string that tied the brown paper wrapping, and drew the parcel toward him. Stripping the carton and opening it, he pulled out a packet from the cardboard mess. It contained small and anonymous pills, which would have looked harmless had they not been that sickly pale green colour...

Now, what was it he said? Something 'bout the size an' concentration... Take according to... body mass, wasn't it? It was difficult to remember; Herrington's instructions had been vague, a problem only increased by the opium smoke drifting through the basement. The fresh air had cleared Darrell's head a little, but he'd been in desperate need of a good high, and had been since...

...Since last night.

He pushed the thought aside. It's in the past now, he reminded himself. She won't be back. So forget it, it never happened. Like everything else...

Darrell stared down at the pills in his hand. "Screw it," he muttered, snapping out two of the small pills. He made a practice of never selling anything he hadn't tried first, and besides, he badly needed the promised high.

He tossed back his head and downed the pills dry. They left a sharp, minty flavour in his mouth. Flopping back against the cushions again, Darrell closed his eyes and cleared everything out of his mind, listening for his heartbeat. Within seconds the pace had accelerated, and his breath quickened to keep up. His skin tingled. Euphoria washed over him.

There was no thought after that, no time and no form. The trance left you floating in a void where nothing was everything and everything meant nothing.

So the sudden pain that shot through him took him by surprise. Dully, he flicked an arm over his stomach to brush off whatever had fallen on him; he touched nothing. Then another spasm hit, and it left him gasping. His mind rose from the high, sluggish and bewildered, as he realised something was wrong. Wha'...?

The third ripping pain didn't stop. He felt like something was raking small bits out of his insides. Darrell cried out and instinctively curled up, wrapping his arms around his stomach. The room seemed to morph around him as the trip turned bad, carrying him back into memory to another time he lay huddled on the floor, terrified and hurting, babbling in his panic... Please I'm sorry I'm sorry I'll do better I promise I will just don't please don't I'll do it I promise I promise I promise--

No, no, no, NO, NO!!

He tore his mind back from the memory, but the nightmare stayed with him. His heart was dancing erratically, with a pounding in his ears that left him dizzy. He was on the floor now, sprawled, as blood ran from his nostrils. He followed the dark red trail with his eyes. A drop slid from his beak; he watched it splash against the stone, and started retching.

Even though his mind swirled, Darrell recognised the pattern. Herrington had not made a new drug. He'd just repackaged his Blight, and Darrell had taken a double dose. Damn... son of a... he thought, gasping. Gonna... gonna kill him.

He raised himself to his hands and knees, tried to stand, but his body may as well have been immersed in treacle. Neither his arms nor his legs would respond. And now the hallucinations were returning. There was blood all over the room -- a room that was fading swiftly into darkness. His arms buckled and he collapsed onto his side. His thoughts were jumbled and largely wordless, but he realised the irony of the situation. He wondered if anyone else would appreciate it...

Blackness covered him. Time passed, as slow as the setting of the sun.

From the darkness a pair of eyes stared at him, piercing and mismatched.

*****

The day was passing by with aching slowness. Zakiya's stomach growled with hunger, but she couldn't bring herself to leave the room to go to the Mess Hall. What if Darrell was there?

What if he wasn't?

Lunchtime came and went. Zakiya tried to read Morgan's 'Elthesar', one of her favourites, and found herself reading the same passage three times without absorbing a word. She lowered the book and looked around her room. Every spare inch of wall space was lined with solid, no-nonsense bookshelves; fiction around the bed, non-fiction by the door. Her collection encompassed all the great classics - Morgan, Webb, Drake, to name a few - some in Latin, some copies so old that their leather bindings hung together by the most meagre thread. Yet none of the books caught her attention for a moment. She stared past them, to the boxy timber wardrobe in the corner of her room.

I am deceiving myself. I'm no better than the sheep.

She stood, letting the book slide to the bed and lie open, its pages spread helplessly before the ceiling. Distracting herself had not worked. She needed to face the problem head-on. She opened the wardrobe, leaned in, felt satin and denim and velvet brush her face.

It rested, as always, down beside her shoes. Lifting the black case onto the bedspread, she opened it and reverently drew out her violin. The smell of sandalwood filled the dim room. While it was neither as expensive nor as beautiful as the one her father had sent her for her thirteenth birthday, it was a good, solid instrument. She loved it beyond all else she owned. Zakiya sat on the bed with her back against the wall, tucked the violin into the crook of her shoulder and drew her knees up. She placed the bow to the strings. The silence around her was like a held breath, full of anticipation.

You can only know the minds of others if you know your own.

Zakiya played only rarely, but she tuned the instrument every day. Today she would play. It always helped her think.

I thought I knew my own. Something has changed.

She closed her eyes and drew the bow across the strings, creating a soulful C major that filled the silence of the room like the cry of a nightingale. It reminded her of the opening of Danthurst's 6th Symphony and, taking a deep breath, she began to coax the core melody out. The single note stretched, multiplied, divided, and became something divine.

Immediately, the tangled threads of her thoughts began to unravel and lay themselves out in straight lines. She grasped a loose end.

You barely know him.

Ah, but that's the point. I want to know him more.

What of him, though? Does he want to know you?

I believe he does. I believe I saw hurt in his eyes last night. He's an intelligent man. We can get past the misunderstanding.

Or you could let it lie... walk away. And everything would be just the way it was before. No complications.

I can't let it lie. It wouldn't be the same because something is different inside me.

You're afraid to use the word. You're afraid of the thing itself. You know it'll weaken you.

Yes. I don't believe in romantic love. Why should I? I've never seen it, never felt it.

What do you call what you're feeling now?

No. That's ridiculous. I barely know him.

You know what he is.

No. I know what he does. It's not the same. I wonder... what violins does he have in his closet?

He warned you... You might not like what you find.

I'll never know if I don't look.

The melody trailed away. Zakiya opened her eyes.

*****

She stood before his door.

This goes against everything I stand for, she thought wearily.

She put her hand on the chill metal doorknob and was surprised to find it unlocked. She pushed. The door swung open. Darrell was there, lying in the middle of the floor, crumpled like a rag doll with blood on his face.

Zakiya's throat locked up to prevent a cry of shock escaping her. A sharp odour worked its way into her consciousness; the smell of vomit.

Is he drunk? Unconscious? ...Dead?

He was twisted around, his hips on an angle, his back flat against the stone floor. One arm was flung out, the other curled across his chest. His jacket fanned out around him.

Run. Run away. You don't need to buy into this. You were never here. Nobody need ever know.

But her legs moved of their own accord, and she took a couple of stiff steps into the room. She stood over him. He was completely still... so still that she could see the tiny, rhythmic movement of the fabric of his shirt. It marked the beating of his heart.

Her paralysis broke and she crouched beside him, put a hand to his cheek. His eyes were not entirely closed. The sight of his clouded irises frightened Zakiya. She tore her gaze away, looked around the room. It looked as though he'd managed to crawl a few paces before collapsing. He'd been sick on the floor, and his beak was streaked with dry blood from a nosebleed. And over by the cushions... Zakiya saw the parcel, and then saw the plastic packet, and understood.

"Darrell... what did you do?" she whispered. She leaned over and snagged the little packet with her fingertips, pulling it towards her. The strip of plastic was marred by two empty spaces.

Oh Gods. Did he do this on purpose? Did he know what he was doing?

Was it because of me?

Turning back to Darrell, she patted his face and got no response. She pulled off her jacket, used the corner of it to wipe at his mouth, then discarded the jacket and brushed his hair back from his forehead. He was damp to the touch. Zakiya bit her lip. If she took him to the Infirmary, he could be in serious trouble when he recovered. Everyone in the Lair unofficially knew how he made his money, but to confront them with proof was another thing entirely.

The report that Darrell Evenfeather had overdosed would give Kel enough reason to authorise a search of his room. Lately, Kel had been waging war on the underground trades that had sprung up within the Brotherhood. Perhaps Leila was partially behind the push to clean up E Level; Zakiya didn't know. Whatever the case, she had a feeling that a search of this room would turn up more than just that one parcel. What would they do to Darrell?

Sliding two fingers down into the collar of his turtleneck, she felt for his pulse. It was there. That was about the extent of her medical knowledge. Zakiya put the fingers of her other hand against her own neck and compared, with alarm, the differences in their heartbeats.

He needed the Infirmary.

"Don't hate me for this later," Zakiya muttered, and hooked her hands under his armpits. She hesitated as a thought struck her. Whoever was on duty in the Infirmary would need to know exactly what he'd done to himself.

She pocketed the strip of pills. Then she lifted Darrell under the arms again and started dragging him, with severe difficulty, towards the door.

By the time she had him out in the hall, she knew she'd need help. E Level always looked deserted, but at this time in the evening there was sure to be someone around. She lowered Darrell carefully to the floor and stood over him.

"Help!" she said, and it came out weak and flat, echoing dully down the empty stone hall. She took a deep breath and screamed, "HELP ME!!"

Within moments, a couple of doors had flown open. Heads poked out, one only a few doors down, the other down the far end of the hall. They stared at the sight of Zakiya standing over the crumpled form of Darrell Evenfeather. And then, to her shock and fury, the far one vanished back into his room and slammed the door shut. The closer one stared a moment longer, shook his head, and ducked back into his own room. His door closed with a click.

"No," Zakiya hissed. "I know who you are. I know who you are!!" She raised her voice and screamed it down the hall. "I know who you are, Jin Byrd!! I know you, Alan Feathershea!!"

She gritted her teeth, crouched by Darrell, and pulled him awkwardly onto her back. Getting back up on her feet under his limp weight was one of the hardest things she'd ever done. Zakiya stumbled down the E Level hall, occasionally leaning against the wall to rest her trembling legs. But she didn't put Darrell down once. She knew if she did, she wouldn't have the strength to pick him up again.

At the foot of the stairs, she stared upwards and laughed shakily. "You... owe me... for this," she panted. "You complete... idiot..." The first few stairs were the easiest; after that, it rapidly got harder. "Promised myself... I'd never... carry... anyone..." she muttered. "Wasn't meant to be... literal. You... ass."

She tripped, almost stumbled, and grazed her hand catching herself on the rough wall. "What... were you... thinking?" Zakiya snarled in Darrell's general direction, gripping the banister and hauling herself onwards. She still hadn't eaten yet today, and her hunger wasn't co-operating and taking a backseat to the emergency at hand. She felt light-headed, and willed herself not to pass out on the stairs. A fall down this old stone flight would probably end with her in the Infirmary too.

It took her another eight minutes to reach the Infirmary; eight minutes in which not a soul showed up to lend a hand. "If you live... through this..." Zakiya muttered, staggering towards the door, "I'm going... to kill you."

And then she was in front of the Medical Bay door, banging on it with the flat of her hand.

If Sierra is on duty, I think I'm going to stab myself with a scalpel.

But it was Tarrin Avias who opened the door. His almond eyes widened and, as Zakiya's legs buckled, he caught her, shifted Darrell from her back, and carried the young man over to a bed, showing surprising strength for someone his size. He lowered Darrell down, checked his pulse, and turned to face Zakiya.

"What happened?" he asked urgently.

Zakiya found she couldn't answer. Something strange was building up in her throat, something she'd not felt in a long time.

Tarrin grabbed her shoulders as she swayed. "Zakiya?"

She burst into tears. Almost immediately, she put a hand to her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut, muffling the sobs and forcing herself under control. She wiped her eyes roughly and pulled the pills out of her pocket, handing them to Tarrin. "Two. I think he took two. I wuh-- wasn't there."

The doctor studied the pills and frowned. "These are new. When did he--"

"I don't know. Sometime today." Zakiya watched as Tarrin turned his attentions toward Darrell once more.

The doctor lifted Darrell's eyelid, looked, let it close. He crossed the room to a large stainless-steel door in the wall, pulled it open and extracted a small plastic bag of clear fluid. "Tell me anything you think might be relevant."

"His nose was bleeding." Zakiya felt foolish for saying it; that much was quite obvious. "He threw up. I don't know what else. I think it happened quickly, he didn't get far."

"Where was he when you found him?"

Zakiya's tongue suddenly overtook her mind. "In his- ...the hall. He was in the hall. I assume he tried to come here." She blinked, too tired and overwrought to be entirely sure what had motivated the lie, but she trusted her instincts.

"Would you mind giving me a hand?" Tarrin asked as he strung the clear bag up on a wheeled metal stand by the bed. "I can call Sierra if you--"

"No, I'll help. What should I do?" Zakiya joined Tarrin by the bedside; he started tapping air bubbles out of a syringe full of some amber liquid.

"Get his clothes off. The jacket should be easy, and there's a pair of scissors on the tray there for the shirt."

Zakiya hesitated. "Why undress him?"

"I need access to his chest and arm. We also have to remove anything metal he's wearing in case he goes into cardiac arrest. That includes his watch, any jewellery, belt, boots, anything with metal studs or buttons. The gloves too."

"No," she said, but it came out barely as a whisper. Her heart was pounding in her head. Tarrin hadn't hear her. "No," she repeated, louder this time.

Tarrin looked up at her inquiringly, his hands still busy.

"Not his shirt. He wouldn't... approve," Zakiya said, shifting uncomfortably.

"I have to insert a drip," Tarrin said, his tone gentle but firm. "And place heart rate sensors. My job is to spare his life, not his feelings."

She got her calm façade back into place and looked evenly at him. "Fine. Then let me do it."

With Tarrin's help, she removed the jacket from Darrell's limp body. She picked up the scissors, began to cut his shirt off from the waistline up to the neck. The shirt split like curtains drawing open at a theatre.

Oh, no.

His torso was a network of old scars. And as she pulled the shirt off his arms, she knew before she saw them uncovered that they would be the same. She was unprepared for the nauseating horror that roiled through her.

Who did this to him?

From the corner of her eye, she saw Tarrin glance down, then continue what he was doing with no change of expression. He slid the needle into Darrell's arm, stuck it down with surgical tape, and connected it to the drip.

Zakiya swallowed. Darrell had been right. She didn't like what she'd found. Damaged goods, she thought sickly, and now his words from that first night in the bar came clearly to her.

'Wolves are known to turn you on you if they don't like what they find.'

"Not this one," she said under her breath, and resolutely pulled the remains of his shirt out from under him.

*****

The gentle beeping of the heart rate monitor was oddly soothing. Perhaps the comfort lay in the steady strength of the beep, her only reassurance that Darrell -- lying so still and pale in the sick bay bed -- was actually alive.

She had drifted off for a while, sitting upright in a hard plastic chair next to the bed. She wasn't sure how long she'd dozed, but when she'd awoken, she'd found that someone had tucked a blanket around her.

Tubes and wires connected Darrell to the machines surrounding the bed, and it looked eerily as though they were feeding off him, though Zakiya knew the reality to be quite the opposite.

Nowadays, the Infirmary was unrecognisable as the same place it had been in her childhood. One of Leila's final acts as Leader had been to fund expansion and modernisation of the old sick bay, which was apparently something Tarrin had been pressing her to do since she'd stepped up as Leader.

The tiny room that had originally served as the Infirmary was now a storage closet. Zakiya remembered that it had only been large enough for four beds, something that was no longer practical now that there were over five hundred members of the Brotherhood of the Blade. It had been a box of dim stone with one cramped bathroom in the back, and had been witness to many of the secrets of the Blade.

Here, instead, was the new Infirmary: all stainless steel and white tiles, relentlessly flooded with bright fluorescent light, filled with complex pieces of equipment whose functions remained a complete mystery to Zakiya.

She could hear the tap-tap of someone typing in the back room. She got up and walked to the doorway, ostensibly to stretch her legs, but actually to check who was in there.

Querida looked up from her computer and smiled. "You're awake! Any changes?"

Zakiya shook her head.

"These things take time," Querida said kindly.

She's trying to cheer me up, Zakiya thought with distaste. "Where's Tarrin?"

"In bed, I hope. His shift's over."

"Oh." Zakiya took another step into the room, looking at the monitor. Something was bothering her. "What are you typing?"

"P.I.R... It's a Patient Intake Report, for our records."

Records... Zakiya stiffened with a sudden realisation. "What time is it?"

"Almost six a.m. Is something wrong?"

"No, nothing. I just remembered something." Zakiya backed out of the room. "I'll be back soon. If he wakes up... tell him." She made sure not to walk too hastily to the main Infirmary exit, but once she was through the door, she broke into a run.

Kel usually got up early, she knew, and the first thing he did was check his incoming calls and emails. Tarrin would have sent him something about Darrell at some point in the night, so it was only a matter of time... And the Leader really had been on the offensive lately as far as the E Level black market was concerned. Kel had the power to authorise an immediate search of Darrell's room.

She had half an hour at the most before they came. They would not, Zakiya thought grimly, find a single thing.

*****

Half an hour later, Zakiya was standing by Darrell's bedside once more, calm, composed, and by now very tired. The urgency that had driven her as she searched his room had subsided, leaving her feeling drained. She watched his scarred chest rise and fall.

She wondered if this constituted outstaying her welcome.

I've earned the right to be here.

And, because she could no longer resist, she reached out and touched one of the long, thin scars on his stomach. The marks were tough beneath her fingers; no feathers grew on the pale scar tissue. She leaned forward slowly. She kissed his stomach. The layer of skin across the hard muscle beneath was incredibly soft, except where the scars wormed their way across it. Her hair tumbled onto his chest, black on white.

She drew back again and studied him. How was it that sleep could put such innocence in even his face?

Oh, Zakiya. Mother was right to be worried. This man is a drug dealer with whom you've probably only exchanged a couple of hundred words in your entire life. And you are in love with him.

His blond curls were untidier than ever. She brushed them back, pushed her fingers through his hair, leaned in close to his face. She breathed in his scent; musky with a hint of sharpness... almost unpleasant, but not quite. He smelled like fresh rainfall on cement.

Zakiya closed her eyes and kissed him on the mouth. Felt his intake of breath. And when she opened her eyes again, his grey eyes were looking back at her, wide and startled.

*****

Leila slammed a hand down on Kel's desk in frustration. "Nothin'?" she snapped. "You found nothin'?!"

Kel watched her calmly. "Absence of evidence isn't proof of innocence."

"Oh, very droll," Leila snapped, unconsciously using one of Falcone's expressions. "Unfortunately that ain't gonna be enough fer Milantha. Didn't Tarrin say he had a sample?"

"One packet. That's not enough to charge him with dealing, it's a personal amount. Under the Lore, he's actually within his rights to do this to himself."

"Damn it!" Leila clenched and unclenched her fist around the hilt of her saber. Kel watched her warily. He liked his desk the way it was.

"We can wait," Kel said in a soothing tone. He shrugged. "Evenfeather will be out of action for a week or two. We'll keep our eyes open, wait for an opportunity. If it gets out of hand, we'll step in. Just like we discussed with Hunter." He watched Leila pace. She was too emotionally involved in this one, and quite honestly, more of a hindrance than a help to him as far as the matter was concerned. Of course, he understood why. The Brotherhood grapevine was remarkably effective, and it was already widely known that Zakiya deSilver had brought Darrell Evenfeather to the Infirmary.

Kel glanced down at his hands, debating whether or not to show her what they had found. If he didn't show her now, and she found out about it later... He sighed.

"Can you make me a promise?" he said.

Leila turned to look at him.

"I need you to promise me that if I show you something," Kel said, "you won't go and do anything... unofficial."

"Don't patronise me, kid. What is it?" Leila said flatly.

"We did find something else." Kel opened his desk drawer and pulled out the jacket that they'd found crumpled in a corner of Darrell Evenfeather's room. It was a woman's jacket. Kel was fairly certain who it belonged to. The expression on Leila's face -- recognition, then alarm -- only confirmed what he already knew.

"She said she found him in the hall," Leila stammered. "When-- when Tarrin asked her..."

"She lied," Kel said simply. "I think someone cleared out Evenfeather's room. Based on this, I'd say it was Zakiya." It was ironic, he thought, that she'd so thoroughly emptied the room of drugs and then forgotten her own jacket. Even the smartest people slipped up sometimes.

Leila was very still. "What are you going to do?"

"Evidence isn't necessarily proof of guilt. There's more than one way that jacket could have ended up in his room."

"Right," Leila said softly.

"We're just going to keep an eye on her, that's all. Nothing more than what we're already doing with Darrell, Ranger and a handful of others."

"Right," Leila said again. She walked to the door, pulled it open, and paused. "Don't worry," she said tiredly. "I'm done interfering."

*****

"Mmf... 'kiya?" Darrell was faintly surprised to find his mouth not working properly. He felt as though he'd swallowed a desert. Zakiya's face was directly above him, wide-eyed. He felt faintly puzzled. Did she just...? Wait, where the hell am I?

"Darrell?" Zakiya stared for a moment longer, then pulled her gaze away and glanced left to right, looking for something or someone outside his field of vision.

He stayed very still. His head was throbbing gently, and he sensed a lot of pain being held at bay, just waiting to leap on him the moment he moved a muscle. He blinked once, muzzily, and looked past Zakiya to the bright fluorescent ceiling lights. Infirmary...

He found that he had to concentrate to make his words come out right. "Wha... ugh... what happened?"

Those unnerving eyes flicked sideways for a second, evasive. "How do you feel?" she asked.

Darrell tried not to think too hard about it. He was feeling more awake by the second, but his returning awareness was accompanied by increasing pain. "Like... someone put me in a Hessian sack and kicked the crap outta me," he grunted, wincing as he gingerly tested his arms and legs. The sheet was smooth against his stomach. "Any morphine around? 'Cos I..." Darrell trailed off as a horrible realisation set in.

He could feel the sheet against his stomach.

Raising his bare arm, he stared at it and felt a sick swoop of horror roll down him. "Where are my clothes?"

"Tarrin said--"

"Where the fuck are my clothes?!" he shouted, hearing panic in his own voice. His eyes hooked Zakiya's for a moment, then tore away, skittering into every corner of the room. Where had the bastards put his shirt? Clutching at the sheet, he struggled upright. Zakiya had taken a step back, her eyes wide, and he wanted to tell her to stop looking at him. To hell with this, he was getting dressed and getting out of there.

And Zakiya... she was reaching out for him, damn her, was she trying to stop him? He swatted her hand away, fury driving hot tears into his eyes, and she stumbled against a plastic chair, which toppled over backwards and bounced on the linoleum floor with a hollow clatter. He pulled the drip tube from the end of the needle in his arm and thrust it away, felt lukewarm drops patter across his torso. Frantically, he ripped the wires from his chest, and the heart-rate monitor emitted a piercing, steady shriek in response.

Someone else appeared in the door of the room. An older woman... Querida? How many goddamn people were hanging around here? He was halfway off the bed when Zakiya's hand shot out and grabbed his wrist in a steely grip.

Darrell tried to haul himself from her grasp, and it was only then that it struck him how weak he felt; he was trembling all over with it. The pounding in his head increased tenfold. Her hand was warm on his wrist, skin on scarred skin. Furiously, unwillingly, he brought his eyes up to meet Zakiya's, expecting to see anger, or worse yet, pity. But what he saw there was something else, something he couldn't recognise.

"Lie down," she said quietly. "Lie down and I'll get you some clothes."

*****

Querida had found an old button-up shirt that a previous patient had left behind. It hadn't been washed, and still smelled faintly of Old Spice -- which, ordinarily, Darrell wouldn't have put near his body for love nor money -- but it had long sleeves and a collar that turned up, and she'd given him back his gloves. He did up the last button with fumbling fingers, and finally allowed himself to slump back against the pillows. His head was spinning, and the aftermath of his panic had left him with a faint nausea.

He asked for water, and Zakiya brought it. He took it and drank, sitting propped up against a couple of pillows, glad for the excuse to avoid her eyes

Zakiya broke the silence. "Kel authorised a search of your room."

He choked on his mouthful, and a dull horror wormed its way up his spine, but all in all, the news didn't hit him as hard as it should have. He'd already had so many nasty shocks today that he seemed to be growing numb to them.

"He didn't find anything," Zakiya continued calmly, "because there was nothing left to find."

He couldn't keep the surprise out of his voice. "You..."

"--flushed it all down the toilets on E Level," Zakiya said. "And believe me, that took a while."

"Flushed it??" Darrell yelped, and sat bolt upright. A moment later, hideous cramps caught up with him, and he grimaced and sank back down onto the pillow. It was a moment before he could speak, and he said through gritted teeth, "You... you fucking flushed it all? You couldn't have just hidden it in your room?"

"I didn't think of that," Zakiya said coolly, looking directly into his eyes. Clearly, she was lying through her teeth, and she wanted him to know it.

Through his severe annoyance, Darrell felt a begrudging respect for her. Had it been anyone else, he might have lost his temper. He found himself grasping at the scurrying tails of his anger, sighed, and let it go. He looked at Zakiya.

So. She had saved his life twice that day, because he was fairly sure that Leila deSilver's saber would have had his name on it if Kel's search had unearthed his supply. On the other hand, she'd deliberately flushed forty thousand dollars worth of stock down the drain for... what? Revenge? Or was she attempting to teach him a lesson?

His original assessment of her had been right on target: she was a total bitch to cross. And gods help him, he found himself admiring her for it.

He handed the cup back, but didn't lie back down. "Don't expect me to thank you," he said roughly. He watched for a response from the corner of his eye, and was infuriated to see Zakiya smiling faintly.

"Expectations are for the sheep," she said.

He turned and looked directly at her. "What do I owe you?"

Her smile faded. "What?"

"Nobody's told me a damn thing yet, but I'm figurin' that aside from clearin' my stock, you're also the one who found me and got me up here. So. What do I owe you for that?"

"Nothing."

"How'd you find me?"

"I went to your room."

"Why?"

Again, those eyes slipped to the side. She seemed on the verge of evading the subject. And then she looked directly at him, her gaze hawklike. "Why don't you ask me what you really want to know?"

Darrell's offensive had suddenly been turned right around on him. He scowled. "What're you talking about?"

She raised a hand, ticked the points off one by one on her fingers. "Yes, I came back because I wanted to see you again. No, for the last time, I've done none of this because of my mother. Yes, I saw your scars. No, I don't expect you to tell me anything. And yes, I'm still here." Zakiya lowered her hands, but not her eyes. "I don't plan upon walking away. You don't have to understand that, but you might as well accept it."

Abruptly, she picked the cup up and took it to the sink across the room. She stood with her back to him, rinsing it out for an unnecessarily long time, perhaps waiting for him to speak.

Darrell swallowed. He wondered if the Doc would give him morphine if he feigned enough pain, because right now, passing out into semi-delirium would be a relief. Anything would be a relief if it got him away from this conversation. He couldn't work out how to feel.

Get a grip.

He defaulted to anger.

It was easier to think now that he was out from under her pinning gaze. The back of her head was far less challenging. Most people's eyes were like wells; you could look into their depths, divine their feelings and, in Darrell's experience, use what you found there against them. But Zakiya's eyes didn't go inwards; they went out. They looked into you before you had a chance to do the same in return. If most people's eyes were wells, Zakiya's were fountains.

She turned back to him once more. Darrell fought for the control he'd lost and finally, finally found it.

"Let's get one thing straight," he said coldly. "I don't need you."

"Good." She walked back to the bed and leaned over him, bracing herself with an arm either side of him. She was close, too close for comfort, her eyes flashing with something unidentifiable. "Good," she repeated. "Excellent. Perfect. Because the day you start needing me will be the last day you ever see me."

He fought the urge to lean back from her proximity. There was less than a breath's space between them. Anger helped him stay stone still. "Fine," he said. "Just so long as we're clear."

"We're clear." She straightened, looked down at him. Her eyes revealed nothing, yet there was an odd aura of satisfaction coming from her. "I'm going now." She smirked. "Unless you need me to hang around."

He gritted his teeth, his temper rising. "Sweet Jorah, Zakiya, ya heard what I said!"

But she was already walking away. He found himself watching the swing of her hips. She paused at the door, looked back at him. "I heard." She smiled slightly. "I'll be seeing you." And she was gone.

Darrell blinked, wrestling with the strange feeling that he'd just been duped into something. He looked around the silent room. Thoughtfully, he turned up the collar of his shirt.

"Guess so," he muttered at last.

Return to the Library...