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Change of Heart

By Caro Roberts and Quillblade

 

The chain-wire fence jangled occasionally in the breeze, barbed top separating gusts into a dozen puzzled zephyrs, and rocking the faded sign slowly back and forth which once proclaimed the building beyond as the Keltor Municipal Pharmaceutical Labs. Outwardly, it was not one of the better restored buildings of Keltor, paint chipping under the eaves of the old-fashioned roof, but this masked the inner decor, through which you had to pass a thorough security system. A hallway lined with cameras that checked DNA patterns, made brain and retina scans, and ran an x-ray check over what was being carried led into a large, brightly lit room full of technology.

President Canard had been anything but incautious when it came to prospective knowledge; he had understood the usefulness of the medical sciences and let it progress under his wing, cultivating certain fields while letting others die unpracticed. Now Canard was dead, his remains lying in some unknown grave, but his policies and plans did not entirely die with him. The Pharmaceutical Labs still ran on, and while the entire field was brought back it had still been a severe blow dealt...

Querida Wingfield yawned and flexed her shoulders, spinning slightly around in her chair to take her eyes off the computer screen. It was late; very late, possibly around midnight although she hadn't bothered to check for a while. Her last remaining work associate, Mikell Holindrake, a tall Korsain with sandy brown hair and dark grey eyes that never stopped dancing, was packing up and heading home.

"Are you sure you want to stay, Kerry?" he asked.

"Mick, I haven't been so sure of anything since I made the decision to become a doctor." She smiled at him; she meant every word, and he knew it. For months now she had been researching the sap of a rare tropical plant that had abnormal healing powers, and she was only now realizing that the possible uses of such a plant were endless! Featherfall, MacQuacken's disease, fire-lungs... but now she was testing for side effects. So far there were none, but she was determined to stay put until the substance had been fully analyzed.

"Oh, all right," Mikell said doubtfully. "But just remember, you have got to get some sleep tonight. We all work best when we've had our rest. And something to eat," he added meaningfully.

Querida laughed. "Oh, you worry too much! I'll grab something from the vending machine in the other room."

He caught her arm and looked at her, concerned.

"That's because I care about you, Kerry. You work harder than anyone else here, even me. You're a good friend, and maybe my concern goes a little deeper than it should." Mikell stood back again, shaking his head slowly, looking slightly embarrassed at his admission. "Well, I'll leave you here then. See you tomorrow."

With a wave, Mikell left the room. Querida sat back with a smile on her face; Mikell was a good friend, and had been for almost a year now. She was beginning to realize his concern made her feel good, but didn't have the time to further think this over; she had work to do, and she was going to do it!

As she spun back toward her computer, Querida happened to catch a glimpse of her reflection in another computer's blank screen, and made a face at what she saw. Her mixed parentage was more prominent than most, her dark tan feathers showing her Mayalan mother, but the unusual black markings came from her Nijhro father. Her black hair was kept short and fuss-free, just barely reaching her jaw, and her big, rich brown eyes were soft and friendly. Querida wrinkled her beak at her reflection; she still didn't like what she saw. But enough of that. I've got to get back to work. If this sap does everything I think it can, think of all the people it'll help!

Switching all lights off except the one lamp facing her half-hidden corner, she sat back down at her computer. She worked meticulously, running AI simulations - a far better and more humane way of testing things than using live animals - and occasionally having to add a neutralizing agent to a particular component, which so involved her that she almost failed to hear the thudding of footsteps on floorboards.

Startled, Querida turned around in her chair and looked about. There was no one in the room. That's strange, she thought to herself, getting out of her chair with a frown. I know I heard something. Maybe another tile slid off the ro... There it was again, and this time it was followed by a thud, as if someone had dropped something small but heavy. It was coming from the storage room, where everything not vitally needed at that point, spare equipment and the safe was kept.

Her hand reached out almost by itself and grasped a rather heavy microscope, and she picked it up carefully, sneaking up to the storage room door and sliding it open with as little noise as possible. There were a pair of strangers in the room, masked and trying to hack their way into the titanium safe. She watched them for a moment, panic fighting for dominance among her emotions, and then twisted her hand around and flicked on the lights.

The two thieves spun around, each holding a bright glowing sword. The largest of them - a thickly built black duck with ginger hair - stepped forward, and then paused, nodding at something behind her. Someone hit her in the back and she fell forwards, rolling immediately onto her back and flailing her limbs, catching a lucky strike to her attacker's stomach.

Struggling to her feet, she was set upon by the other two thieves, and she whacked one of them over the side of the head with the microscope before it was wrenched from her hand by the third. Running was useless, the doorway slid shut again, and screaming was just going to be a waste of energy. But she did it anyway, dashing for the door and ducking under the arms of the three... stomping on the black man's foot and ripping off his mask as she did so. She slammed bodily into the door and pulled it to one side, but was grabbed by the arm and pulled back.

"Let me go you--" she did not complete her sentence but flung out her hand and tore the mask off that man's face as well, who shoved her roughly back into the equipment, swearing loudly. Querida felt a sharp pain lance down her back but it didn't stop her from thrashing as the black and remaining masked duck grabbed an arm each and hauled her to her feet as she screamed.

"Shut up you stupid little wench," the masked one began, when her flailing legs caught him right in the crotch. He sank down to his knees, letting go of her to hold himself, and that's when her other foot whacked him soundly across the beak and his mask also went flying. Pulling herself away from the larger third man Querida took a few hasty steps backwards toward the door, but hesitated with shock as she realized she was winning.

But then something heavy slammed into the back of her head.

*****

Tarrin Avias glanced up as the door to the infirmary opened and the large black duck came to stand in the doorway. "Yes? Who's the casualty this time?"

"Not busy, are ya Doc?"

"Depends, Keen, how many people did you nearly kill this time? Or did you finally get a taste of your own medicine and need me to patch you up quietly?"

The Blade Brother glared at him. "I'm never beat, old man."

"And I'm hardly 'old,'" Tarrin remarked mildly, "I'm only three years older than you are."

"In age, maybe. In mentality..."

"I'm obviously light-years ahead of you in maturity, is that what you're saying?"

Keen blinked and shut his mouth abruptly, realizing that he'd just talked himself into a corner. "Er... never mind. I need ya to fix someone up for me."

"Oh?" Tarrin raised his eyebrows and reached for his surgical gloves, anticipating bad wounds. With Keen it was always the same outcome. "And who might that be?"

"Her." Keen stepped back into the hall and carried in over his shoulder a young female duck, tightly bound and gagged. He tossed her roughly in the direction of a bed, but unfortunately missed, causing her to land on the floor rather heavily. He shrugged noncommittally and turned back to the bewildered and angry doctor.

"I don't know her name," he said, "she was in the way of the heist and she got, er, accident'ly knocked on the head. So I brought her back here, nothin' else to do with her. She saw all our faces, put up a damn good fight for a female." He looked at her thoughtfully for a moment. "Shoulda just killed her there, didn't think of it at the time."

"Out. Get out of the infirmary. Now," Tarrin ordered coldly. "Go report to Leila."

"Yeah, I'm goin' I'm goin'." Keen sauntered lazily out, not even sparing a backward glance at the young woman whose life he'd just destroyed. Tarrin glared after him, furious, before turning back to the injured girl.

He picked her up and gently set her down on the bed before attempting to untie the cheap wire that had been used to tie her wrists and ankles together. He found that it had been jerked too tight for untying and had to cut it. He muttered angrily to himself, seeing the cuts the wire had left in her delicate feathers. Her beak had been tied shut with the same wire, and she'd been blindfolded with some piece of rag, obviously whatever had been lying around. If she gets an infection from this, so help me I'll... what?

Knowing that there wasn't much he could do, except complain to higher-ups, he bit his lip in helpless anger and began to put salve on her cuts. He noticed that her fingertips, unlike the rest of her feathers, were black, and now he realized that, it became obvious that what he thought was black eyeshadow was also part of her coloring. It was unusual shading, to say the least. He checked her head, brushing back her short brunette hair to see, and found there was a nasty lump on the back of her skull, above and to the right of where her neck joined, but the skin was not broken.

She looks fairly healthy, considering, he thought to himself. Let's just hope appearances aren't deceiving. He scanned her quickly and was relieved to see that her only injuries were some bruised ribs and a concussion. As if that's not serious enough.

He took off her lab coat and bandaged her ribs over her grey shirt, hoping that it'd be tight enough to do some good, and also wondering about the coat. A doctor, perhaps, or a scientist? He was cut off from such musings as she moaned and began to turn her head.

"Where... what... ohhh... my head..." she groaned, moving one hand automatically to her forehead. As her fingers touched the bandage, her eyes snapped open and she looked wildly around. "Where am I?!" She sat bolt upright, ignoring the pain that had to be shooting through her body.

Tarrin held out his hands soothingly. "Now, calm down, it's all right, you're safe h--"

Her fist shot out of nowhere and connected solidly to his jaw. It was a poorly-aimed blow, with no real skill behind it, but it hurt all the same. "Keep away from me!"

He rubbed his jaw painfully. "I just--"

She slid off the bed and ran for the door, but he caught her wrist before she got too far; she tried to twist free but suddenly cried out in pain and fell, one hand wrapped around her ribcage and the other holding her head. "What did you do to me...?" she asked, sounding dazed but still angry.

"Nothing," he murmured. "I'm just trying to fix what those idiots did to you. Now hold still--"

"This could hurt a little," she finished for him as she saw him pick a syringe and fill it with a sedative. "Can I trust you?"

"Can you afford not to?"

She considered this for a moment, barely flinching as the needle slid into her arm. "I suppose you've got a point." She moaned again and hugged herself. "What did you give me? Will it stop the pain?"

"Yes, it'll make you feel better." He caught her just as she slumped down, on the verge of unconsciousness. He placed her gently on the bed and pulled the covers up to her neck, then, knowing that she would sleep for awhile, stormed out to see about Keen, his lackeys, and what exactly Leila intended to do about this.

*****

Leila had her back to the three thieves, holding her hands behind her and rocking gently on her heels. When Keen finished his story, he waited a few moments for the eruption of shouting, but when it didn't come was brash enough to fling a smirk at the other two. And then found himself with a close-up view of Leila's saber.

"You did... WHAT?!?!"

Keen's eyes widened slightly and his voice rose a few octaves. "I... we brought her back. Wasn't much else we could do with her, didn't think of killin' her at the time..."

"WHAT ON PUCKWORLD POSSESSED YOU TA DO SOMETHIN' SO STUPID?!" Leila ranted at him. Her saber tip tickled Keen's throat but he didn't back down, not wanting to show he was afraid of having his windpipe slit. Especially of having his windpipe slit by a woman .

One of his lackeys spoke up. "We had the place well staked-out and it was planned according to the regulations. There weren't any lights on."

"Yeah, we dint know there was some doctor girl workin' late there!" the other said. "We just assumed..."

"You're a thief!" the Fury before them shrieked. "You don't assume, you FIND OUT!!" There was a timid knock on the door, and suddenly Leila was calm again. "If it's you, Doc, come in."

It was the Doc. "Am I interrupting something?" He cast a venomous glance at Keen, who would have returned it but Leila's saber-tip was still pressing lightly against his jugular area.

"Not really, I'm just drilling a couple of... sharp pointers into these three."

"Oh. Well, I just thought I'd report that the lady has awoken." Tarrin gave a slightly lopsided smile. "She was... in shock. I gave her a sedative to calm her down, she should wake up again in about ten minutes."

Leila nodded. "Right. I'll be there in twenty. Let me just finish this little talk with Keen an' Co. first."

"Of course."

She could have sworn that Tarrin was hiding a grin as he left her office.

*****

She opened her eyes and looked around rather dizzily, blinking a few times before her head cleared. "Where... where am I?' she asked out loud, but silence was her only answer. She sat up slowly, wincing every time she moved, and looked around the room she found herself in. Smallish, it had the definite appearance of a surgery with one wall entirely taken up with shelving containing medicines and books. There were three beds, and she was sitting on the one nearest to the steel cabinet and basin. The other two were empty, as was the entire room.

Slowly her memory of the last few hours came back and she moaned again, and this time not wholly from pain. She noticed a clipboard next to the bed she was lying on and picked it up out of curiosity. She read it over quickly. "Bruised ribs...concussion...wire cuts... well, I suppose it could be worse..." She stood up shakily and began to walk toward the door. "As long as no one's here, I might as well see if I can get out." She slid the door open and looked up and down the hallway cautiously.

"Ah, you're awake. Good."

She gasped and whirled around, bringing her hands up to her face in a defensive position. The young man who'd given her the sedative earlier took a step back and raised his own arms.

"Calm down this time, please," he said. "I'm not trying to hurt you."

"Where am I?"

He paused before answering, "I'm not sure that's a very good question."

"I think it's good, also perfectly answerable." A bout of pain shot through her chest and she doubled over, wincing, and then found herself being gently led back into the surgery again. "What...?" she began.

"If you stay here on this bed you won't aggravate your injuries," the man murmured, as Querida sat back down on the sheets. She had to admit it: he was right. She was accomplishing nothing by these escape attempts while she was bandaged and sore, save worsening the damage. The man left her side and sat down in one of the chairs, picking up what appeared to be a diary or schedule booklet and flipping through it.

Finally she took the time to study him better. A Mayalan/Korsain half-caste, she decided, light tan feathers, dark brown hair, red-brown eyes, plain clothes, and an unreadable expression... whatever he felt about her presence was not shown on his face, and normally Querida could read people very well. But he obviously felt her gaze and looked up quizzically. She averted her eyes.

"Are you going to answer me?" she asked of her earlier question.

"Pardon? Oh, yes, sorry." He sighed, putting the booklet back down on the table beside him. "You're with the Brotherhood of the Blade."

She stared at him. "The... That thieves ring?"

"To put it bluntly, yes."

"And you're a thief too?"

"Not exactly, I'm the doctor here."

As much as she was nervous, Querida also found herself becoming curious; the Brotherhood was something heightened to legendary status by the newspapers and less-reliable tabloids, and they had just kidnapped her. Keep your head on, girl! she chided herself. They could kill you on a whim and they aren't likely to be letting you escape easily, although this man seems trustworthy enough.

Her train of thought was interrupted as the door opened and a slightly older woman strode in, and Querida instantly brought herself to attention. Her feathers were pale silver, her hair jet-black, held back by a red headband, and her eyes were china blue, cold but... also... understanding? Even so, something about the woman suggested she expected to be obeyed. The doctor - whatever his name was, she hadn't found out yet - glanced up she entered. "Ah. Leila. Finished teaching those blockheads their lesson?"

"I'd hope so, 'cause if they haven't learned yet next time I'll slice a lot closer."

"I don't doubt it." He turned toward Querida. "This is Leila deSilver, our leader."

"Oh," she said. "Nice to meet you. Forgive me for not rising to greet you," she added dryly, "but I seem to be rather tied up at the moment."

Leila smiled slightly and raised her eyebrows. "So I see. Well, I hope you find your accommodations quite comfortable," she replied in the same slightly mocking tone.

"Oh, yes, the best I've ever had."

"Well, now that we've had our pleasantries, may I ask your name?"

Querida's mind raced; she couldn't let them know, they might try to find out where her parents were, even ask for a ransom, as nice as they might seem they were still thieves, she couldn't trust them! Inspiration presented itself. "Kerry. Kerry Cobelduck." Her mother's maiden name, perfect! No one would ever know the difference.

"Ah. Well, you already know mine, and I assume you already know Doc-"

"Actually," she cut in, "we haven't been formally introduced."

"Oh, right! Sorry." The young man extended his hand. "Tarrin Avias, but most everyone calls me Doc."

"How appropriate." She smiled, taking the hand.

"Yes. You've got a nice right hook, by the way."

"Oh! Sorry about that, I didn't mean... well, you did rather startle me." She smiled sheepishly.

"What's this about?" Leila asked, raising her eyebrows.

"Well... it seems Kerry here thought I was one of her... er... abductors when she first woke up. Her reaction was the expected." He rubbed his jaw ruefully. "I should have seen it coming."

Querida felt a tickling coming to her throat, and tried to force it away. But she started coughing, and her ribcage shuddered; she gasped for breath at the end of it and gave a groan. "S... sorry," she said softly.

"Don't apologize, you didn't do this to yourself."

While Tarrin stood up and walked over to the shelf of medicines, Leila sat down on the bed beside her. She offered her a smile, which Querida tried to return even though the pain meant it was somewhat forced. "Ya really didn't have a good trip, did ya?"

"No, but then, I can't remember much of it. I remember someone hitting me here," she reached up an arm and gingerly touched the large, sore bruise on the back on her head, "and then woke up here."

Tarrin came back and handed her a couple of pills. "Painkillers," he said. "I'm not sure about your allergies, et cetera, so I've had to use the basic." He filled a glass of water and handed that to her as well.

"Thank you." She downed them and settled back against the pillows.

Leila looked thoughtful. "I'll have to find you some quarters of your own once you're fit enough to walk around again, then we'll have to see about training. You're a bit old for a Junior, but we should--"

"Excuse me?" Querida cut, not able to believe she was hearing this. "I'm not staying here. I've got my fam... work to get back to."

"That's impossible," Leila said coolly. "Completely outta the question. We can't let ya leave, you'd be a risk now that you've been here."

"But... but I haven't seen anything!" She stared at the leader of the Brotherhood in disbelief, feeling a pang of hysteria rise inside her. "You can't just lock me up here like a... like a prisoner! I don't know where we are, how am I supposed to tell anyone? I wouldn't tell..."

"You're stayin'." Leila's words were like a slap across her face and she quieted down immediately. "I'm sorry, but we can't take the risk. The sole reason we're still in operation is 'cause no one other than our members an' a select few other underground associates know where we're based." She sighed. "I am sorry, Kerry, but ya gotta stay. And if ya won't stay willingly..."

"I'm not going to steal."

"Ya don't have a choice. You've gotta earn yer way here like everyone else."

"What are you going to do about it?" she asked calmly. "Cast me out?"

Leila looked momentarily lost, and Tarrin, who had been following the conversation mutely, took the chance to speak up and change the subject. "How are the babies, Leila?"

"Loud," the woman replied dryly. She smiled in a wry fashion. "Did I ever apologize for makin' yer life hell that day?"

"Many times," Tarrin assured her. "But, what are doctors for?"

Querida was feeling sleepy again, and she yawned, covering her mouth with a hand as she did so. Then she blushed as the two turned their attention on her again. Tarrin gave her a smile and then glanced up at Leila meaningfully. The leader nodded stiffly, bid them goodbye, and left.

"Doc," she said hesitantly. "You're the doctor here... do you steal?"

"I used to," he admitted, dropping back down into his chair. "Not any more, of course, I'm far too busy being the only doctor here. I used to have an apprentice, but he's dead now."

"Oh." Well, he's certainly blunt about it, Querida thought dryly. No beating around the bush here. She gave him a guarded look, attempting to read behind his three-word clause. 'He's dead now.' Did he really not care, or was he just trying to mask the pain? She looked at him carefully and finally decided on the latter reason. He misses his apprentice; he just doesn't want to talk about it. Wonder how he died... She nestled back against the pillows and pulled the covers up higher. Tarrin nodded briefly.

"You look about dead. Go to sleep."

"But--" she protested sleepily.

"No buts. You need rest."

"I know, but..." She wouldn't have liked to admit it, but she was afraid of going to sleep in a den of thieves with a strange man in the room with her. Body won out over mind, though, and she soon fell deeply asleep.

*****

For a few blissful moments after she woke up, Querida thought she was home and in her own bed. Then she stretched, and the memories hit the same time the pain did.

"YEOW!" She sat bolt upright, nursing her ribs. "Ow ow ow ow...." she moaned.

"Ah, you're awake."

She glanced up rather irritably at Tarrin. "No kidding. I hadn't noticed."

He frowned sympathetically. "I take it the pain is back."

"What was your first clue?" she bit, leaning slowly back against her pillows, her arms still wrapped around her sides.

"I think it was the scream." He turned away for a few moments to root through the medicine shelves and she was left to lick her wounds.

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, she finally spoke up. "Sorry for ripping your head off," she apologized. "I don't know what what came over me... I'm not like usually like that..."

"You're in shock and in pain. I expect you'll be a bit on-edge for a few days." He handed her some painkillers and a glass of water.

"Thank you." She took the offered pills and swallowed them thankfully, praying that they worked quickly. "Well, what's the prognosis? How long 'til I'm able to move without screaming again?"

"A few days at worst. Tomorrow at best."

"Worst and best? Can you give me something in the middle?"

He felt her ribcage gently. "Probably two-three days, if you take it easy. And that includes not making any more escape attempts."

She looked somewhat sheepish. "Point taken. I'll be a good patient and stay put." At least until I'm well, she added silently.

"There's no point in trying, anyway," he continued. "You wouldn't make it out. You'd probably get lost as soon as you stepped out of the door. We often find Juniors wandering about in a bewildered daze as they try to find the Mess Hall."

"Surely you can't keep me in here forever!"

"Of course not. As Leila said, as soon as you're feeling a bit better you'll be relocated to your own bunk. You'll learn your way around the Lair, of course, but we can't allow you out until we're sure you won't try to escape."

Which will be never. Querida folded her arms stubbornly and gave him the most menacing glare she could muster under the circumstances.

"And don't waste your energy glaring at me. It's not my Law. And it's not being enforced just to spite you. You're here. You're staying. End of discussion."

Over my dead... er... maybe not. She grimaced and shrugged. "End of discussion, for now."

"I hope for longer than that, because we don't have time to rehash this argument every day. You don't have the energy and no one else has the time."

She lay back again and closed her eyes for a moment. "Tarrin?"

He glanced up from the clipboard he was working over. "Yes?"

"Do I... have to steal? Isn't there something else I can do, anything else? I can't steal. I just can't."

He turned and gave her a sympathetic look. "That depends on Leila. If we can... persuade her, shall we say, that you have something else you can do, maybe. Or..." He hesitated.

"Or what?" She cocked her head and blinked once or twice.

"Er, nothing. Just..."

"Just what?" she probed gently. She slid off the bed and made her way cautiously over to him, resting a hand on his shoulder.

"Just a thought, really," Tarrin said glancing at her hand, almost in surprise. "There are a lot of injuries here, from minor to major, and now that... I don't have an apprentice any longer, I'm the only one who deals with them. You were a doctor, weren't you?"

"Yes..." she said carefully. "In studying, anyway." More white lies, she thought, hating herself for lying but seeing no other choice. I have to protect my family.

"Well, in that case, I just have to tell Leila." He smiled slightly. "You're hired."

"I don't have to steal?"

"Not unless you change your mind about it."

"I doubt it." She gave him a quick hug, trying not to bend down too much. Her ribs complained anyway.

Tarrin's expression went funny, and he looked up at her, puzzled. "What was that for?"

"Thanks," she said, equally surprised at the reaction, and then curious. "Haven't you ever been given a huge before?"

Tarrin closed up. It wouldn't have been noticeable to most people, but Querida could read people the same way she read her textbooks, and what she could read now was that the Doc had very suddenly closed a door in her face and deadbolted it shut.

"You should stay on the bed, you know," he said softly, changing the subject. She let him. "Sleep is very good for healing, and personally I don't want to find you've been running about while I'll go see Leila about your being my assistant."

Querida was about to say, "But I've already been sleeping!" but changed her mind and nodded slowly. The more she rested, the sooner she could heal, and the sooner she could heal, the sooner she could find a way to get out. As she sat back down on the bed, Tarrin stood up, bid her good rest, and left quietly. All right, she decided, He's hiding something. I wonder what happened to him to make him like that? She sat quietly on the bed, listening to the silence. It had been silent at the Labs, too... although the silence had been beaten back by the whispering sounds of the computers, the tingling sound of the vending machine outside, the whirrs of electronics...

A tear filled her eye and she wiped it away. My life, gone, she mourned. All my work, gone. Mikell... he's gone too. I'll probably never see him again, or any of my friends. Oh, Mick. Why didn't I just take your advice and go home?

*****

Tarrin paused on the stairs, glancing back up toward the Infirmary. He ran a worried hand through his hair and let out his breath in a sigh. That had been... most unexpected. Oh, of course there was nothing behind it, just gratitude, but even so it had made him uncomfortable. It brought back memories both sweet and painful, and it always took him so long to hide them away again. But he'd just forget it. It was, after all, nothing. But...

"Hey, Doc!" The cheery voice floated up the stairs to him and he looked down to see Jedar standing there below him. His friend grinned. "Decided to take a break from the quiet?"

"Not exactly," Tarrin replied, heading down to him. "And it's been far from quiet. We have a new and rather unwilling resident." At Jedar's puzzled look, he quickly summed up the past day's events. "So I was on my way to plead some leniance in this case from our fearless leader."

Jedar blinked, and then raised an eyebrow. "Kerry Cobelduck... can't say I recognise the name."

Tarrin gave him a dry look. "I hate to break it to you like this, my friend, but you don't know everyone on this planet."

"I'd never boast that," Jedar protested. "Only half, at the most." And then his expression changed to one of speculation. "So, what do you think of her?"

"I... pardon?"

"Well, do you genuinely like her and are making this offer because you think it'll work, or is it just out of pity in your usual self-sacrificing way?"

He looked a bit indignant. "Of course I like her!"

"Ah. Good."

Tarrin gave him a sharp look. "What's going on in that sneaky little mind of yours?" Jedar gave him the innocent look and he sighed, understanding where his friend was directing the conversation. "Oh, don't be ridiculous, Jedar. I like her, but not that way. Besides, we've not even known each other more than a day... but in any case it wouldn't matter if we had."

A shrug. "Maybe. But... Tarrin, it's been almost five years. You know Felicity wouldn't want you to be like this."

Uncomfortable, Tarrin looked down at the floor. Jedar was the only person he could ever openly talk about her to, but even so, right now he didn't want to talk at all. "I know. But I am, and I can't change now."

"Anyone can change."

"Jedar, I appreciate your concern, but..."

Raising his hands, Jedar nodded. "All right, I'll shut up. But I'd like to meet Miss Cobelduck even so."

"You may need backup," Tarrin replied, almost, almost, smiling. "If she decides she doesn't like your face, she may try to rearrange it."

*****

Querida wiped angrily at the tears in her eyes when she heard the knock on the door, and managed to look composed by the time it opened. An unfamiliar man peered around the edge. "Hello?"

Forgetting herself, Querida sat up abruptly - a little too abruptly, as pain suddenly ripped through her body. "Hel--ow!"

He came around the door hurriedly, and she could tell from his expression that he was about to ask if she was all right. He quickly checked himself, for which she was grateful. Querida hated few questions more than "Are you all right?", especially when she obviously wasn't. "You probably shouldn't be leaping around like that," he said instead, with a hint of a grin. "Curtsies and bows aren't necessary."

Up until then, Querida had been busy, first with trying to compose herself, and then with trying to swallow down the pain. Since she'd mastered both of those, she was now at leisure to take her first good look at her visitor.

What she saw made her nearly fall off the bed. "S-Stormwing?!"

Jedar looked slightly dry. "Yes, I'm afraid that's me."

Querida scooted back a little. "I-I'm sorry, I didn't know you were a... I mean..." No, wait, wait a minute, this isn't fair. There's no reason to believe he'd hurt you. Calm down and get your head on straight, you sound like a frightened junior higher! She sighed. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to go off like that. I don't suppose I could convince you to blame the medicine?" She smiled slightly.

"Oh, you probably could, I can't abide medicines myself. Which is why I generally try my hardest to stay well." He grinned at her. "So. You'd be... Kerry, then?"

"I take it Tarrin briefed you?"

"You could say that," he admitted. "He gave me a basic rundown of events, yes." Holding out his hand with a smile, he added, "You already know my name, but I'll give it anyway. Jedar Stormwing. Pleased to meet you, Kerry."

Querida shook his hand a little timidly; she was rather in awe of the figure that had been heightened to a status equalling - no, surpassing that of the Brotherhood itself. "Likewise. Um. Should I call you sir?" She asked seriously enough, but there was a twinkle lurking in the back of her eyes. He laughed.

"Oh, I doubt that, since you'd probably put half the people here in stitches if you did. Though that might help the Doc's business." That seemed to remind him of something. Looking about for a moment, Jedar pulled over a chair and sat down. "You're going to help around here, he tells me. I'm glad, the kid needs someone around, even if he says he doesn't."

She looked down at her hands shyly. "I'll do what I can."

"I don't doubt it." He offered her a lopsided smile, but it faded as he looked down at the wire cuts around her hands and face. "You didn't exactly have the best of trips here, did you."

Querida lowered her head and closed her eyes momentarily. "No... I didn't... I can't remember any of it, but..." She touched the cuts gently, trying not to relive the part that she did remember. "I think I should be glad." She shuddered and looked away. "I hope his kind aren't a majority here."

Jedar sighed. "He's probably the worst, but I'm sorry to say he isn't the only one. The Brotherhood has it's black shepers same as everywhere, unfortunately. But most of us have more sense, not to mention consideration for others."

Querida had to work pretty hard not to say something sharp, but she managed to restrain herself. "I hope so," she said softly. "I really hope so." She managed a very slight smile. "Otherwise I'd just have to lock myself in the infirmary to keep away from them."

Jedar hesitated only very briefly. "You could do that, I suppose, if you were that desperate to hide."

Querida smiled lopsidedly. "I may get that way if I run into him again." She noticed the sudden odd expression on Jedar's face and started trying to puzzle it out. She could almost see him hatching some kind of a plan, or something...What on Puckworld could be going on in his mind? And what did I say that's so amusing that he's trying very hard not to smile? Finally she decided to just ask him. "What's so funny?"

He blinked at her. "Huh?"

"You're trying really hard not to grin. What'd I say that was so funny?"

"Oh. Uh. Nothing. Well... Perhaps I'd better go and let you rest, all right? When you're feeling a little better, try to talk Tarrin into showing you around. Or, if he's too busy, I could do it." She started to say something, but he stopped her. "Ah. Better pretend that you've been resting, if Tarrin comes back and finds out I've been bothering you all this time he probably won't be very happy with me." With that and a wink, he let himself out.

*****

"...and this is the lounge." Jedar opened the door, and led Querida inside, pausing as he noticed the two occupants of the room. He raised his hand in his usual half-wave, half-salute. "Morning, all..."

One, a Korsain, waved him over to the couch, where she and a Raptrin woman were sitting. "Gonna join us?"

Querida took one look at them and turned to leave. Jedar, without looking, reached out and pulled Kerry back into the room. "We'll both be joining you," he said firmly, glancing sideways at the escapee. "Don't worry, these are friends of mine... well..." He gave the Korsain a dry look. "The term friend being used loosely."

She aimed a lazy kick in his direction, unoffended. "Remind me ta pay ya back for that one someday."

The Raptrin lady made a hushing motion at her and stood to turn to Jedar and, more specifically, the newcomer. "Hello... you'd be the new girl everyone is talking about, I take it?"

Querida smiled shyly. "Yes...I can only assume so." For the first time, she took a good look at the two. The one Jedar had been teasing was a short, slender Korsain, who nonetheless looked like she could take care of herself. The other, taller woman was a Raptrin with dark coloring who was obviously very pregnant.

"Anyone want a drink?" Jedar asked, nudging her toward a seat. "Of anything?"

The Korsain smirked at him. "Nah, I usually don't take anything before ten in the mornin', though I don't know about you, Jedar."

Querida looked a little scared and sort of slinked down in her seat, trying to disappear. She had the sinking feeling that this entire conversation was going to be confusing, and wished herself fervently back in the infirmary.

"Hush, Rio," the Raptrin cut in, "you're going to scare the poor girl." She turned to Kerry. "If she frightens you too much, just ignore her, she'll probably go away eventually. I'm Estelle Roguefeather."

Querida smiled shyly. "Q... Kerry... Cobelduck. Pleased to meet you..." She cast a wary glance in Rio's direction.

Jedar brought a small bottle of orange juice back from the bar and waved it in Rio's face before flopping onto the couch. "Don't worry about Rio, Kerry, she won't bite. Much."

Rio grinned. "Only when some annoyin' blue-haired Honor Blade gets on my nerves." She turned to Kerry. "Hey, this lug attemptin' ta show ya around? Better not follow him, he seems to get lost a lot. For awhile there he kept gettin' C25 and C10 confused." She aimed a mischievous glance in Jedar's direction.

Jedar grinned back at her. "That was hardly accidental."

Querida, by now, was hopelessly confused. She kept glancing toward the door, as if plotting an escape. Estelle noticed this and aimed a glare in the direction of Jedar and Rio. "Both of you, stop scaring her. You're going to make her think we're all as bad as you are."

Jedar gave her an innocent smile. "Whatever you say, Stelle."

Estelle rolled her eyes at him. "No Stormwing should ever be allowed to attempt the innocent look. It fails utterly."

Jedar stuck his tongue out at her and grinned. "I can't help that. Some people are just not born for it, and unfortunately I'm one of them."

"And so is your wife. But then I'm sure you knew that."

"You ain't the one ta talk, Stelle," Rio put in. "Yer innocent looks never carry off, either."

Querida had been trying to follow this banter, but she was now confused beyond hope of retrieval and feeling out of place and more than a little nervous. Finally she decided a retreat might be the best course of action and she touched Jedar's sleeve. "Would it be all right if I left, sir?" She hadn't mean to 'sir,' but it slipped out anyway. She was talking quietly, but the comment was still loud enough to be heard by the other two.

Estelle choked on her drink and nearly spit it out. She raised an eyebrow. "'Sir'?" Rio stared for about half a second, then started cracking up. Querida looked confused.

"What did I say...?"

Jedar winced and gave Rio an annoyed look. "You said 'sir'," he said dryly.

"Oh. And I shouldn't have said that...I'm sorry, I didn't mean to, it just slipped out..."

Rio was still laughing so hard she was nearly crying. "'Sir'...Oh, Drake, that was priceless." She wiped at her eyes. "Well, Stormwing, sir..." This set her off again. Estelle was also laughing softly, but for her, that was practically hysterics.

Jedar sat up and shook his head. "No, Kerry, it's all right...Oh, Rio, will you stop that?"

Rio was trying very hard, honestly...not. "Well, of course, sir, right away, sir."

A cushion came flying at her from Jedar's direction, hitting her full in the laughing face. "Do you mind? No, don't answer that."

Rio tossed the cushion back at him. She grinned, somewhat calmer now. "I'm never gonna let ya forget that one."

Querida looked rather dismayed. I knew I shouldn't have said anything... Estelle noted her expression and patted her hand. "Don't worry about it, they do this all time."

Jedar sighed and gave the ceiling a rueful look. "No, Rio, I bet you won't." He took a swig of his nearly-forgotten orange juice, picked up the pillow and deposited it back in its place. "Ah, Kerry, this is Rio deJeneiro."

Querida almost managed a dry look. "I gathered."

Rio grinned at her. "Ye're perceptive."

"I have to be. I'm a doctor."

Estelle leaned forward. "You'll be helping Tarrin, then?"

Querida looked a little uncomfortable. "As much as I can, yes."

Jedar nodded. "Yeah, the Doc's taken her on as an assistant." That slightly speculative look was back, but vanished when Kerry actually looked at him. "I offered to show her around, since Tarrin's busy, hence our being here. And for your information, Rio," he grinned at her. "We haven't even been to C Level yet."

Rio held up her hands. "Hey, did I say anything?"

"No, but you didn't have to. Besides," he added, "I don't see any problem with introducing her to my family."

"Just make sure ya don't get side-tracked." She grinned at him. "We all know how you an' yer wife are."

Having not met Nylessa yet, Querida didn't have any idea who, exactly, they were referring to, but she was piecing together enough to understand. "Well, I don't need to be shown around all that much, I'm sure I can find my way around on my own--"

Estelle stopped her. "Don't worry, Kerry. Yes, Lessa can be a bit unnerving the first time you meet her, but you get used to her quickly. If you can stand Rio for more than five seconds, you'll be able to stand Nylessa."

"Unnerving??" Jedar looked indignant.

She laughed at the look on his face and patted his arm. "I was only kidding, Jedar. You know she's my friend, I meant it in the nicest possible way."

Jedar sighed dramatically, but couldn't keep a straight face for long and started grinning again. "She does have a tendency to unnerve people, I suppose." He raised an eyebrow at Rio. "The not already corrupt ones, anyway."

"I'm gonna pretend I didn't hear that."

"There's no point in denying it, Rio, it's the truth. Anyway." He stood up and turned to Querida with a slightly apologetic look. "If you've seen enough of the lounge for one day..."

"Oh, we ain't that bad, Jedar..." Rio put in.

"Yes you are," Estelle contradicted. "If Kerry ever speaks to any of us again, it'll be a miracle."

Querida did manage a shy smile. "Oh, you're not that bad, but I really ought to get back to work." That was her solution to everything, it seemed to her, work. Work and not eat. Well, it got her through the day, at least.

Jedar nodded. "All right. I'm sure Tarrin will take you down to lunch today, so we might see you later."

"Oh, I don't eat lunch," she started to say, but stopped herself and said instead, "Probably." She got up and, after a shy wave, left.

Immediately after the door closed, Jedar picked up the cushion again at threw it at Rio. "Don't you ever mention that 'sir' again," he grumbled.

Rio grinned openly. "Of course not, sir." But her expression became abruptly shrewd - and just slightly suspicious. She knew him too well not to be, especially when he got that look on his face. "So what's this about, anyway? What're ya up ta?"

"I haven't any idea of what you're talking about," Jedar replied, his own expression just short of outright smirking. "I'm not up to anything."

"Jed, I've never known ya not ta be up ta somethin', an' now you're givin' tours?"

"I told you, Tarrin didn't have the time," he explained, though still obviously evading the real answer, "So I volunteered to show her around. She's going to be his assistant, so I felt she needed to know the layout of the place fairly soon."

"Uh huh."

Estelle looked between the two of them, raising an eyebrow. "She's the one who was kidnapped, wasn't she?" She glanced back at the door, looking sympathetic. "Poor girl."

"She gets on well with Tarrin."

At first Rio let that pass by, but she couldn't help noticing his tone. Finally she raised her head, directing a far more deeply suspicious look at him. "'Gets on well', eh?" He continued to give her that same smug grin that she found just a bit irritating, and her expression narrowed even more. "Jedar, tell me ya ain't playin' matchmaker."

"I ain't playin' matchmaker."

Rio rolled her eyes up to the ceiling. "Oh, Drake, he's serious..."

"Jedar!" Estelle said with a frown. "You can't be serious."

"Why not?"

"You barely even know the poor girl!"

"And?"

"And... and... Jedar, I'm surprised at you! What about Tarrin?"

"I'm doing this for Tarrin."

"Have you considered that perhaps he mightn't see it that way? He might not appreciate your efforts."

"He will if they work," Jedar pointed out.

Estelle turned to Rio helplessly. "You try to talk some sense into him, he's not listening to me."

The petite Korsain leant back and tapped a finger against the end of her beak thoughtfully. "I dunno, maybe that ain't such a bad idea after all..."

Jedar looked gratified. "Thank you."

"You're both crazy!"

"Well, yes, of course."

"An' it took ya this long ta figure that out?"

*****

"Damn that deSilver," Keen muttered as he stormed down the street, hands shoved in his pockets. "It wasn't my fault that that girl was workin' late. What, now she expects me to check the personal lives of everyone who works at the places we're knockin' over, too?"

He shoved against someone going the opposite way and they growled at each other and continued going. The man had a newspaper tucked under his arm, and Keen snatched it as they passed. The man continued on, oblivious.

Keen smirked to himself and flipped the paper open to the front page idly.

And froze.

He hadn't looked at her face much, but he still recognized the photograph that was plastered all across the front page. Only one person could have had those markings, anyway.

He'd known the girl they'd kidnapped had been a doctor, not some janitor or repairman. What he hadn't know is that she was - had been - the foremost researcher for the Labs. Nor had he known that her disappearance would cause such instant uproar.

deSilver WILL kill me for this... not that I'm afraid of her, of course. Besides... he added as a sudden thought occurred to him. Who says she has to find out?

That's right, he reassured himself, There's no reason that anyone should find out about this. It'll just be my little secret. And who knows? Maybe it'll come in handy as blackmail over that doctor someday... Keen grinned and stuck the paper under his arm, patterning after the man he'd stolen it from. He struck off at a jaunty walk toward the Brotherhood, whistling as he went.

*****

Keen dropped down at the lunch table with his tray, dropping the paper onto the table beside him. His various cronies - "friends" was a bit of a strong word - were off on other errands, so he was eating alone. Not that he really cared, though. He scanned the article as he ate, searching for the description of the heist and smirking to himself the entire time.

"Ah, I see you've picked up the paper for us. How thoughtful."

Keen glanced up, irritated. "Get yer own, Stormwing."

Jedar was about to reply when he happened to glance at the picture. He promptly did a double-take. He snatched the front page, stared for a second, especially at the caption under the picture, and then frowned. "And when, exactly, were you planning to share this with the rest of us?"

"I was gonna get around to it."

"Of course you were. Well, we'll just 'get around to it' right now, shall we?" Jedar heaved the man out of his seat and started marching him down to Leila's office.

*****

Leila didn't even glance up at the knock on her door. "If it's important, come in, otherwise, keep movin'."

Jedar opened the door and all but hauled Keen in by the scruff of the neck. "It's important."

Leila sighed and put down her pen, finally glancing up. Her lip curled in slight distaste when she saw Keen. "What'd he do now?"

"Seen this morning's paper yet?"

This seemed rather a rather idiotic question to her. "Yeah, Jedar, I stayed in bed a whole extra hour just ta read it."

He ignored the sarcasm and dropped the paper on the desk. "Look at the front page."

Leila raised her eyebrows and looked down, then raised her eyebrows even further. 'Kerry Cobelduck,' eh? Doctor-in-training, eh? We'll just see about that. She didn't appreciate being lied to, especially about things as important at this. She stood up, crumpling the paper in one hand. "I'll see about this." She stood up and walked out, leaving them behind as she strode down to the infirmary, shoving the door open roughly. 'Kerry' had her back to the door, humming to herself as she cleaned a table from the last patient. Tarrin was across the room from her, filling out some paperwork.

She slammed the door and they both looked up.

"Leila!" Tarrin recognized the look on her face. It was always a bad sign, though he had no idea what had caused it this time. He put the clipboard away and turned to face her. "What brings you down here?"

Leila turned toward 'Kerry,' who was watching her with a slightly confused look on her face. "You did, Doctor Wingfield."

Tarrin blinked. Querida's eyes opened wider than she would have thought possible. How...how did she find out? What am I gonna do now? How can I explain this? Oh, I'm in so much trouble... "D-doctor Wingfield?" she repeated, as if she didn't quite understand.

"Don't play dumb wit' me. Now give it to me an' give it to me straight. Why'd ya lie ta us?"

Querida hesitated, ran her options over in her mind. Well, it can't get much worse than it already is, I might as well tell the truth. "Because..." she began haltingly. "Because I wanted to protect my family. I was afraid you might look for ransom money, threaten my family..."

"The Brotherhood of the Blade does not accept ransom money," Leila told her crisply. "Once yer here, yer stayin'. So ya might as well have told us the truth."

"I didn't know that at the time."

"An' what's this about you bein' the top doctor at the Labs?"

Tarrin raised his eyebrows even further as he followed the conversation silently, not sure he should get involved. "In studying," I believe she said.

Querida shifted uncomfortably. "I don't know. I was just being cautious, I guess."

"Really."

"Yes."

They regarded each other silently for a few minutes, then Leila snorted and turned away. "I got work ta do." The door shut behind her, but without a slam this time.

There was quiet after Leila left, not a 'deadly' quiet, more a thoughtful and just slightly injured quiet. Eventually, Tarrin gave her a look that was a little wounded. "Querida?" he asked.

Querida turned to him, looking at the floor and fiddling with her hands. "I'm sorry... I should have told you..."

Tarrin sighed and shook his head. "I would have appreciated it," he said wryly, his former hurt expression vanishing, probably behind a locked door. "It would then have been a little less of a shock to have Leila thundering in with her most murderous expression."

"I... I only wanted to protect my family, Tarrin," she said softly, trying to hold off a wave of guilt. Guilt at a lot of things. Guilt at not having told them. Guilt at having lied. Guilt at the hurt expression on his face, or, worse, the way it had suddenly disappeared. How can he ever trust me now... "I didn't know... didn't know I could trust anyone... for all I knew, I was going to be killed."

"I understand." His expression softened a little. "I can't say I blame you. It would have been frightening for you, I can sympathise. But I think Leila understood, too."

"You... you really think so?" She tried not to look too hopeful.

"Well, you're still in one piece... sorry, that was uncalled for." He nodded in response to her question. "But the fact remains, that if she didn't understand, you would probably be in her office right now having your head bitten off."

"Oh... I suppose you're right..." She sat down and rubbed her forehead. "In a way, I'm glad that's over. I hate pretending--" She cut off abruptly and went back to her cleaning. Tarrin raised an eyebrow, but didn't press. Instead, he picked up his paperwork. Silence reigned again.

*****

Six weeks later...

"Now if you'll hold on for just a second, let me find that pill for you..." Querida turned and started routing through the medicine cabinet, searching for the perscription she wanted. She was starting to learn her way around the infirmary, but the medicines didn't seem to be in any particular order that she could discern, and finding the right pills always seemed to take awhile. I really should talk to Tarrin about rearranging these... She almost slapped herself for the thought. That made it sound like she was getting used to being here! I'm not used to it, I won't get used to it! I refuse to. This isn't my home, I won't start thinking of it that way.

She pushed a few more bottles out of her way, finally finding the one she was looking for. As she pulled it off the shelf, her eye caught on another bottle, shoved far into the back of the cabinet, dusty and forgotten, its label turned to the corner. Curious, she reached in and pulled it out as well. Her expression froze as she read the label and recognized the most lethal poison available. Tarrin...? The idea of him feeding this to a patient was so ludicrous it would have made her laugh, if she hadn't been holding the bottle in her hand. No, no, he couldn't, he wouldn't... Then, with a flood of relief, Querida remembered the other use for the poison. Very small doses of it could be used to treat certain forms of cancer, similar to radiation therapy. She moved the put the bottle back - then stopped as an idea clicked into her mind.

"Kerry?"

Her patient was waiting. Schooling her expression into calm neutrality, Querida slipped the bottle up her loose sleeve, then turned back to her client.

Once her patient was gone and the infirmary had been straightened up again, Querida sat down on one of the beds and pulled put the bottle, studying the label intently. She'd taken a course on the consequences of overdosing on various drugs while in medical school. Contrary to common belief, ODing on sedatives was not an easy or pleasant way to commit suicide. One's stomach cramped, capillaries burst, eyes haemorrhaged, and a host of other excruciating problems before actual death. But this poison... it was perilously easy to overdose, and it was actually a painless death. It was nearly impossible to even tell when an overdose had been given. The victim would be fine for an hour or so, then begin to feel very tired. They'd want to lie down and sleep - if they didn't lie down, they'd faint - and would never wake up again.

The course had been designed to help young doctors recognize and treat symptoms of accidental or on-purpose overdosing. Querida had special attention in case she ever wanted to use the drugs on herself some day.

She rolled the bottle back and forth in her fingers, thinking. This could very well be the chance she'd been looking for. She was beginning to realize that it would be nearly impossible for her to get out of the Blade, and even if she did manage to escape, she'd be hunted for the rest of her life. She couldn't leave, but at the same time she couldn't stay. She couldn't steal, she couldn't condone the stealing, and the constant knowledge that she was essentially a prisoner, and a fairly useless one at that, was shoving her deep into depression. I won't be missed... it would be so easy... so... very... easy... I'd probably make everyone happy, they'd be glad to be rid of me. They probably won't be able to tell that it was suicide. Oh, of course, Tarrin might figure it out, but what would he care? He wouldn't constantly have to be worrying about me anymore. I'm just another set of hands, that's all, and I'm sure they'll get on just fine, if not better, without me. Yes. I'll do it.

She opened the bottle open and tapped six pills out into her hand. They were small and fit easily into the palm of her hand, looking deceptively innocuous. Two pills was the maximum doseage to survive. Four was definitely suicide. Six was just making sure. Querida didn't like to think of the kind of punishment she'd have to endure if she survived the attempt. She got a glass of water, glancing over her shoulder as she did so to make sure she was still alone, then took the first two pills. Once they were swallowed, she hesitated slightly. It wasn't too late, she could survive that dose. She'd have to sleep it off, but she'd survive with no ill side effects. All she'd have to do would be lie down and rest, she wouldn't even have to vomit the pills up.

No. I've made my decision, and I'll stand by it. It's for the best.

She picked up the next two pills and raised them to her mouth. Fortunately, her moment of hesitation was all that was needed for Tarrin to appear at her side and grab her wrist.

"Kerry! What are you doing?" He looked down at the pills in her hand and blanched. He recognized them as well as any other doctor would have.

"I'm just--"

"How many have you taken?" he demanded, already directing her back toward a bed.

"Well..." The pills were taking effect much more quickly than she'd bet on - probably because she'd lost so much weight since she'd joined the Blade, and the heavy dosage was taking its toll.

He grabbed her shoulders and made her face him. "Tell me!"

"Why?" She stalled for time. A few minutes more, and she'd be unconscious, blissfully unconscious, and she wouldn't have to bear the hurt in his eyes...

"Why are you doing this?" he countered.

"Why don't you let me?" She took a step away from him. Her legs buckled, but she righted herself before he could move to steady her. "I'd be gone and out of the way."

"I won't let you do this."

"Why not? Why do you care?"

"Because--"

He stopped short and she gave him a measuring look. "Why?" she pressed, now honestly curious. "Why do you care if I live or die?"

"Because I care about you," Tarrin said softly. "You're my friend, my assistant... and perhaps it goes a little deeper than it should," he finished in a rush, "now tell me how many you took!"

"Two," she whispered, staring at him in shock. She'd heard words similar to those before, what seemed years ago to her now, but she couldn't place them. The world was starting to fade away before her eyes, and she swayed to one side, reaching for the edge of the bench. She missed, but Tarrin caught her before she fell.

"Damn it, Querida," he muttered, placing her on the bed, "why? Why, why, why?"

"I thought it would be better... that no one would care..." It was harder and harder to form a coherent sentence. Her mouth didn't seem to want to work properly.

"I'd care."

"I didn't know. I'm sorry.." The world slipped away into darkness.

*****

Querida opened her eyes and found herself staring at the infirmary ceiling. What the... Why am I here? Then it hit her and she groaned at the memory.

Tarrin had been sitting next to her, half asleep in his chair, but he heard the groan and jumped immediately to his feet. "You're awake," he said, relieved past words. He managed to grin at her. "I seem to be saying that a lot lately."

She propped herself up on her elbows and blinked up at him, still a little foggy from the drug. "And it mostly seems to be my fault." She looked down. "I'm sorry."

"If you're apologizing for waking up, don't, please, I'm very glad you did." He plumped up the pillows behind her and gently made her lie down again. "I'm afraid my advice to you is going to be tediously repetitive: stay here, don't get out of bed, and rest. Give your body time to recuperate."

I've heard that a few times before... Said it once or twice, too. She laid back and half-closed her eyes. "I know." Doesn't mean I'm going to listen, of course, but I know. "That wasn't what I was apologizing for, though. Well. Not totally, at least."

He picked up a clipboard and proceeded to note down the time she woke up, returning to the chair beside her as he did so. "I'm still glad you woke up. But, Kerry, why?"

She looked away. "I... I didn't think it would matter."

"It matters to me. It matters to Estelle and Milantha, and Rio, and Jedar, too, they were all in here earlier asking about you. It matters to all the people out there who like you, and there are many more than you might think."

"It's just... Tarrin... I can't live here, I can't live like this. And, even worse, I'm useless." There was desperation in her voice. "I'm just so much more dead weight. I refuse to steal, I'm not.. not a good doctor, and everyone will always have to be watching me, for as long as I'm here! We both know that I shouldn't be here, and probably the only reason that I'm alive is that Leila stepped in, and she probably shouldn't have done that!"

He frowned. "Kerry, you are not dead weight, or extra baggage, or any such thing. The Lair's a better place for having you, you do such a great amount to help others, here and everywhere. If you hadn't lived, I..." He stopped and went quickly back to his clipboard, turning the page and starting on someone else's record.

Querida rolled over onto her side and looked up at him, curious. "You what?" She paused, then added dryly, "Would have celebrated?"

Tarrin looked at her sternly. "No, that's not right at all. I'm not sure what I would have done. I'd never have known you long enough to... to know. Or decide."

She looked at him for a long moment, started to say something, and then changed her mind. "Am... am I going to be in trouble for this?" she asked timidly.

He sighed and shook his head. "Not officially."

She forced herself to sit up slowly, rubbing her head. "And what about unofficially?"

"I'm afraid you'll be subject to many hours of having Estelle, Rio and Milantha alternately chastise and fuss over you." He smiled slightly. "They care about you, you know. I've had to ban them from the infirmary, they've been by so many times to check in on you."

Querida groaned and sank down under the covers, fighting waves of guilt. "Oh....right." Deciding that she might as well face the music, she started to get up. Tarrin calmly pushed her back down.

"Didn't you hear what I said before? You're to stay in bed."

She waved him off and stood up quickly - too quickly. "Nonsense, I don't need to--" The room spun and she stumbled forward, directly into his arms. He caught her, surprised, and nearly toppled back in the chair before managing to fling out an arm to grab the edge of the bench. Steadying the both of them, he gave her a dry look.

"You were saying?"

She didn't move from where she was lying on his chest, giving him a rather wide-eyed look. "I was saying... uh... I was saying..." She blinked and tried to snap out of it, wanting to blame the residual effects of the drugs for her sudden warmth but doubting that they had anything to do with it.

Tarrin realized their position suddenly and turned slightly pink, but he stood up carefully and helped her back to the bed. "...That you were going to take my advice and stay there," he finished for her.

Querida was still a little dazed, but allowed herself to be lead back to the bed, trying to hide her emotions. "Uh... right..."

Tarrin helped her up and put the pillow back in place. "Good." He gave her another almost-grin. "I'm happy that we finally agree on something."

She almost-smiled back. "Am I that argumentative?"

He pulled the chair a little closer to the bed before answering. "Only sometimes, Kerry. For instance, whenever I ask you to do something that's for your own good."

"Aheh..." She looked down at her hands. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have..." I shouldn't have gotten caught, is what I shouldn't have.

He sighed. "No, you shouldn't have. But as you're never going to try it again, are you, we needn't have to worry any more. Promise me you won't attempt suicide again, Kerry, please."

She looked uncomfortable. "I don't know if I can, I mean..." She looked up at him. "I can't promise to do something if I don't know if I can keep my word..."

Tarrin took her hand almost unconsciously. "Then believe you can keep it, Kerry. Because I... next time, if you don't promise.. I don't want to ever be too late."

Querida squeezed his hand almost without realizing what she was doing. "I... I'll try. It's just..." She stopped and shook her head. "No, never mind, it doesn't matter now."

He lifted her chin up gently. "It matters to me."

"Why?" She sat up a little and reached up to touch his face very gently, searching his eyes with hers. For once, his expression wasn't shielded from her, and in his eyes she read only genuine concern and...

"Because I love you."

Her jaw dropped. "You..." She took a second to collect herself, then smiled. "I love you too." She paused; yes, she did love him, it wasn't just a reciprical phrase. Why hadn't she realized it before? No, she had, she'd just thought it was the normal caring that comes from a friendship and tried to ignore it, because she hadn't wanted to love a thief. "But this wasn't how I had planned on expressing it."

He raised an eyebrow. "Really? How had you planned it?"

She blushed. "I hadn't. I just meant..." She struggled for a way to put it into words. "This isn't quite the setting I would have wanted." She gestured to the infirmary, then smiled slightly. "Although I suppose it's fitting, considering how much time we spend in here." She struggled into a sitting position. Her ribs were still healing and protested, but she ignored them.

He gave her a slightly dry look. "Kerry, just because I love you is not an excuse for disobeying doctor's orders."

She propped herself up on her elbows for a moment to get her breath back. "I'm in the process of getting comfortable. Give me a minute." She sat the rest of the way up and panted, waiting for the room to be steady again. She started to swing her legs out of bed, but had to stop and clutch the bedside for support. "This isn't working." She sighed and leaned back a little. "Fine then, you come here." She beckoned to him and he moved to the edge of the bed to help her sit up.

"If you weren't continuously moving around," he commented mildly, "the sheets might not get quite so rumpled."

She promptly put her arms around his neck and kissed him. "There. Now I'm comfortable."

Tarrin blinked hard, a slightly goofy expression on his face. "Oh... well... that's nice.." She smiled at him, pleasantly surprised at herself for taking the first step like that, then suddenly thought she might had crossed a line and pulled back quickly, making herself dizzy and nearly falling off the bed in the process. He sat back as well, going a little red under his feathers, but still smiling. "I... uh. Sorry, I..."

She looked down at her hands, embarrassed. "No, I'm sorry, if that was inappropriate... I shouldn't have... I don't know what came over me, I'm not usually like that..."

He shook his head and took her hand again, looking into her eyes. "I didn't mind."

She cautiously moved closer to him again, but stopped before they were touching. She started to say something, stopped, and then changed the subject. "When can I be up and around?" She knew the answer, of course, but she asked anyway just to cover her embarrassment.

"Later this evening, if all goes well. You were asleep a long time."

Querida sighed and looked down at her rumpled clothes. "I can tell." She glanced at him, looking embarrassed. "Um... Tarrin... could you help me up? I feel disgusting from sleeping in my clothes, maybe if I wash my face and hands I'll feel better."

Tarrin got the hint, helping her get up and over to the bathroom. "Don't trip on the tiles, a couple of them are loose.." He paused. "But you know that, sorry."

Querida steadied herself against the wall. "It's okay. And thank you. I love you," she said again, then gave him gave him a quick kiss on the cheek before shutting the door.

*****

Two weeks later

Tarrin let out a worried sigh as he scanned the medicine cabinet one more time, checking to make sure that all the most dangerous pills had been removed. Since Querida's suicide attempt, he'd been steadily removing the lethal compounds and storing them in other locations, just in case. Querida had noticed, he knew it, but made no comment and seemed to accept his vague replies to her carefully-worded questions. Still, he was worried. If she go really desperate, there were plenty of sharp instruments she could use in the infirmary alone, but he couldn't just go through and remove everything that she could possibly use to hurt herself. Not only would it make their jobs nearly impossible, it seemed almost insulting to her.

Admitting their feelings for each other had infused new life into her briefly, but Kerry was going downhill again, he could feel it. Those feelings were only confirmed when he opened the door to her quarters and surprised her in the middle of pacing the floor. She covered the motion up well by pivoting on her heel and going into his arms, but he'd seen the distraught look on her face before it was covered up with a smile. "Kerry..." Tarrin stroked her hair gently. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Querida didn't meet his eyes. "Nothing's wrong."

He tilted her chin up and forced her to meet his gaze. "Querida."

She flinched slightly under his hands, then paused to gather her thoughts. "I... I've never been claustrophobic before, Tarrin, but I feel like I'm getting that way now. I feel like I'm gonna scream if I don't get out soon, but I know I can't. That's what makes it so awful. I feel so... trapped. I'd do anything to see the sun, or the moon, or the stars, or even rain. But I can't go out, not alone, and even if I'm with you we could still be seen. But these walls... for two months, I've seen nothing but endless corridors and rooms that look exactly the same, I feel like I'm suffocating! Tarrin, I love you, you're the only thing that makes this bearable for me, but I can't live like this." She stopped and blinked hard; she evidently hadn't meant to say that much. He brought her closer carefully and kissed the top of her head.

It was almost painful to him to see her in such misery, and he stroked her hair carefully, smoothing back the dark strands. "It's okay, Kerry," he murmured, knowing that it wasn't. A somewhat rebellious thought flashed through his mind, startling him; once such thoughts were common, now they were rather a shock. But... why? Why make her stay? What good would it do to let her waste away to nothing here, as nothing more than a prisoner? A well-treated prisoner, maybe, and one he was head-over-heels in love with, true, but still a prisoner.

She knew that too, and it was killing her. As a doctor, he thought, rationalizing desperately, he of course wanted the best for his patients. And being in love with her, he couldn't stand to lose her to depression. "Kerry.. Querida.. if we hurry, I can get you out of here."

Querida looked up at him, startled. "What...? Tarrin, you can't be serious."

"I'm completely serious."

"But... but..." There was hope growing in the back of her eyes, but she tried to push it away. "But if you got caught..."

"I'd be reprimanded," he admitted, "But not severely punished. They wouldn't be able to survive without a doctor."

"I don't want to get you in trouble," she said faintly, but it was obvious that she wanted desperately to take him up on his offer. "And we'd never see each other again..."

Tarrin smiled gently. "Probably not. But.. as long as I know you're happy, Kerry.. then I'll survive. I love you too much to see you like this."

She reached up to touch his face gently and whispered, "Thank you," then turned and started hastily shoving her things into a duffel bag. She didn't have much, and it all easily fit inside. She looked around the room one last time, feeling an unexpected pang, then went over to him and took his hand. "I... guess... I'm ready."

He smiled at her and squeezed her hand, gently pulling her out of the room and down the hall toward the exit. Querida had to fight the urge to run; that would only have made them more obvious. Instead, she dropped Tarrin's hand, slipping her arm around his waist. If I never see him again, I have to make our last moments together count for something...

She kept looking around the hall as they walked, thinking about all the people she'd never see again. All the people she'd never have a chance to say goodbye to. Rio, Jedar, Estelle, Milantha, Nylessa, Dalin... It was in her nature to love, to form bonds quickly, to care deeply for people after only knowing them for a few hours. And I'll never get to say goodbye to them. They'll think I'm some kind of traitor. Tarrin will tell them, though... I don't really have a choice. Do I? Of course I don't. Tarrin will... Tarrin...

Was leaving him really the best thing to do? When it came down to a choice between freedom and Tarrin, was freedom really better? If only he could come with me... I know he can't, but maybe... maybe...

And then they were outside.

She actually had to blink as they stepped out into the sunlight, her eyes having become so adjusted to the weaker artificial light of the Lair that the brilliantly strong light of the early afternoon made them sting and water. Running a hand across them, she looked up at Tarrin and gave him a faint smile. "Are.. are you sure about this? What will--"

"I'll be fine," he said softly. "Kerry, wherever you are, I just want you to be happy. And.. and if that means I have to lose you..."

"Don't. Please." Her eyes weren't watering just from the sunlight now. She reached out to hug him, but froze as she saw a couple of familiar figures walking toward them. "Oh no... Tarrin!"

Leila noticed them about a half second later, and her eyes narrowed suspiciously. Leaving Duke to eat her dust, she quickened her pace until she was nearer to them. "What are you doin' out here?"

"Querida was getting a little claustrophobic," Tarrin replied immediately. "I was just bringing her topside for a while."

"Uh huh. So what's wit' the pack?" she asked, pointing at the satchel.

Kerry unconsciously clutched it tighter. "Um..."

"Tarrin, Kerry, there you are!" They actually jumped as Jedar's voice carried across from the opposite side of the street. He sauntered over casually and put a hand on each of their shoulders. "You two have been so long trapped inside the Lair that you've lost all sense of direction... I said meet outside the C Level entrance, not front."

Tarrin stared at the older man as if he'd gone raving mad. In fact, he was about to ask this, when Jedar, his back turned toward the leaders, winked at him. "But never mind, I've found you now," he continued, turning his attention to Querida. "You've brought the refreshments?"

Her mouth dry, she managed a rather weak, "All here, s--Jedar."

Jedar winced. "Not sir, remember that. Anything but sir."

"What in the name a' duCaine is goin' on?" Leila demanded, indignant at having suddenly been tuned out of the conversation. "Jedar, whatever you're plannin', ya know that Wingfield can't go outta the Lair wit'out--"

"A Blade Brother or higher with her," Jedar finished, turning to her. He gave a wry grin. "Oh dear, have you demoted me already, ma'am?"

She looked at him suspiciously for a few seconds, before throwing her hands in the air. Duke, trying to hide a grin, stepped up to Jedar. "Where y'all goin', anyway?" he asked curiously.

"There's a hockey game at the park, I managed to, ah, acquire five tickets there. I tried to ask Nylessa along, but she didn't want to come." He grinned. "So I decided that these two needed a bit of fresh air and bullied them into agreeing.."

"You didn't bully," Tarrin put in quickly. "You just.. outlined alternatives." Jedar laughed.

It was obviously a joke between them, but Querida didn't understand it at all. She hovered silently in the background, holding her bag close, and hoping no one would ask to inspect it. Then Tarrin gently squeezed her hand, and immediately she felt better, smiling at him.

"Five, eh?" Duke said thoughtfully. He glanced back at Leila. "Say, y'know, we ain't exactly had a trip out anywhere since.. well.. a long time ago. We could do wit' a relaxin' evenin'. Ya mind if we come along?"

Just as suddenly things were not quite so all right; she clutched Tarrin's hand tighter. But Jedar didn't seem bothered at all, and Querida wondered if he really did understand what they were doing up here... no, he was more perceptive than that. "Of course not, we'd be glad to have you along. Ma'am?"

Leila didn't look particularly thrilled, but after Duke and Jedar gave her their most charming grins, she finally gave in and even smiled a little. "Ah, okay, okay."

*****

Querida had been to her share of hockey games (what Puckworld native hadn't?), but this one seemed to surpass them all for the sheer numbers of people there. It was a fairly exciting game; at least, the crowd around her surged up to cheer and scream every few minutes. At first, she jumped every time someone next to her yelled, but after awhile Leila started looking at her suspiciously, and so Kerry just sat still, clutching Tarrin's hand and trying to look like she was having a good time.

The game dragged on for what felt like an eternity, and it wasn't until the end, when everyone was packing up to go home, that Tarrin managed to grab Kerry's hand and pull her away in the crowd. It even looked like an accident; another group pushed in front of them, cutting them off from the others, but instead of trying to catch up he took the opportunity to pull her around a corner and out of sight. And then, suddenly, they were alone. Well, not alone alone, but away from Leila's eyes.

Querida looked at the crowd pressing around them, knowing that their absence would not go unnoticed for long, then turned back to Tarrin, squeezing his hand. "I... guess... this is... it."

"Yes," he agreed quietly. For a few moments they just looked at each other, before he pulled her into a hug. They'd already said everything they could, but... "I'll miss you."

She hugged him back tightly and buried her face in his shoulder, trying not to cry. This IS for the best... it has to be... "I'll miss you too. I love you." She pulled away, wiping her eyes. "I... wish you could come with me," she said so softly that it was almost inaudible.

"You know I can't, no matter how much I love you too." He stroked the side of her face for a moment, then stepped back. "But you can't tell anyone about the Brotherhood, Querida," he said seriously. "It'll only put you at risk. Please..."

"I... know." Though how she was going to explain her absence for the previous two months was beyond her. What was she going to say, they kept her locked in a dark room? How would she explain her perfect state of health? Well, near perfect, she thought guiltly, remember how much the number on the scale had dropped the last time she had stepped on it. She looked Tarrin in the eyes and almost forgot the whole thing, but she knew she can't stay. If she hesitated a moment longer, she knew she'd break down sobbing and refuse to leave. She kissed him one last time, then left quickly, before he could respond.

The press of the crowd was suffocating. Querida's chest seized up, and she felt as if she couldn't breathe. A part of her wondered if that had anything at all to do with the crowd. Is this really the right thing to do? Someone bumped into her and nearly knocked her down. She dodged to the side and kept going without waiting for the mumbled apology. Some instinct was driving her to keep moving, and she obeyed, for lack of a better plan.

This is ridiculous. The thought mentally doused her with cold water and woke her up. I have to think. There was a bench off to the side, stuffed in an awkward alcove, and she went over to it. The stone was cool and comforting, almost the same color as the stones back at the Lair - she realized with a pang that those were stones she was starting to miss.

Am I insane? That's not my home! I'm going home! The thought wasn't as reassuring as it should have been. I can be free. I can just leave and go back to life.

You know that's not true, her rational side whispered. You know too much. They'll hunt you down and drag you back. It's unlikely that they'd kill you - but it is possible, and you know it. There's going to be no normal life for you, not now.

And what about Tarrin? the same unwelcome train of thought continued. You love him.

I adore him.

Then why leave him? You won't be happy without him. And what about him? He's risking everything for you, because he thinks this will make you happy, but he doesn't want you to go!

I'm not sure I want to go...

The thought seemed almost sacriligious. Not want to go? Hadn't she been plotting for a chance to escape for the past two months? But that had been before... before he...

The stadium doors were within sight. A few steps, and she could be out that door. She was running out of time to make a decision.

"KERRY!"

Querida jumped off her bench and whirled, the voice yelling her name all too familiar. It can't be--

Then she was lifted off the ground and hugged so tightly that her ribs screamed their protests. She gasped in surprise and not a little pain. "Mick!"

"Oh Kerry, Kerry..." He spun her around, then gently set her back on her feet and held her at arms' length to look at her for a moment, then hugged her again. "I never thought I'd see you again."

"I...never thought I'd see you again, either."

Mikell stepped back and gently brushed a strand of hair out of her eyes. "When I got to work that morning, the entire place was a wreck. I knew there'd been a robbery, but I didn't realize they'd gotten you until I found a piece of your lab coat caught on a machine. I was so worried...who kidnapped you? How'd you get free? Are you all right?"

She licked at lips suddenly gone dry. "Well..."

"No, let's not stand around here. Come on, we'll go back to my apartment--"

"No."

He stopped and blinked at her. "'No'?"

"No. Mick...things have...changed. Here, sit down." He eyed her warily as they sat down on the bench together. She took his hands, trying to decide how much to tell him. Surely the truth couldn't hurt, at least not part of it. She trusted Mikell more than she'd ever trusted anyone, and thought of him as family. Maybe, a stray thought wandered through, if I hadn't been kidnapped, he would have become family. "I... was kidnapped by the... Mick, you have to swear you will never tell anything I'm going to tell you to another person, including the police or my parents, all right?"

He blinked again. "Well..yeah...okay..."

"Swear, Mick. Lives depend on it."

"Well. Okay. I swear." He looked bewildered, but nodded obediently. Querida took a deep breath.

"I was kidnapped by the..." No, she couldn't tell him, much as she wanted to, if for no other reason than that she'd promised Tarrin. "A thieves' ring."

"What thieves' ring?" She didn't answer, so he hazarded, "The Brotherhood?" He grinned, sure that that was too outrageous to be true. When she stiffened and sent him a startled glance before looking away again, he felt his jaw drop open. "WHAT?!"

"Mick! Keep your voice down - and sit back down!"

He sat down again, still seething. "Why I oughta--"

"Mick. Listen to me. We're running out of time."

"Keep going, I'm listening."

"I've been with them the past two months."

"Oh, Kerry, I'm so sorry..."

"I was too. But... Mick... I've never... I mean... There are people there who... who didn't want to be... who aren't bad people... and I...I've been making friends..."

"Querida, you've been making friends with thieves?"

"I... I know it sounds awful, but Mick... some of them don't want to be there any more than I did."

"You can't tell me you're happy there." He put his hands on her shoulders gently, then pulled back, alarm written all over his face. "Kerry, I could practically feel your bones! How much weight have you lost? You're not--"

"No, Mikell," she told him firmly, "I am not relapsing."

"Well it sure feels like it."

"I'm not. That was.. that was a long time ago, well over ten years ago when I started, and I've grown up. I've changed. And I can control it."

"Don't feed me that 'I can control it' bullsh--"

"Mick! Please watch your language."

He sighed. "Right. Okay. Sorry. But Kerry..."

"Listen," she said again, more urgently. "Tar... two of my.. friends... they were going to set me free tonight. But..." Her negation stopped the joyful look on his face before it even got halfway started. "...I can't leave."

"Why not?!"

"I... I don't know. If they get caught helping me escape, they'll be punished--possibly even put to death, though I doubt it'll be that severe. I never asked them to do that, they're doing it because...they want to. And.. Mick.." She hesitated, then told him simply, "I love him."

"Who?"

"One... one of the men who was going to help me get free. I love him too much to leave."

"You've only known him two months, Kerry, you can't love him that much yet." She didn't see the crestfallen, longing look gathering in the back of Mikell's eyes as he realized that he was losing her.

"I know, but I do. I can't leave him. I just can't. I have to find them again." She started to stand, but he caught her hand and tried to pull her back down.

"Querida, please. Think about what you're doing. You'll never get another chance like this. You're throwing your life away to be with an outlaw."

"An outlaw I love. I have thought about it, Mick, and I thought I'd grab the chance to leave in two seconds flat. But..I can't." She tried to smile. "Tell you what, Mick. I'll name our first baby after you."

Mikell grimaced. "I'd rather you didn't."

"Suit yourself." She stood the rest of the way and put her hands on his shoulders. "Mick, you'll probably never hear from me again. I won't be able to contact you, it'd be dangerous for both of us."

"I don't care," he said brashly, standing with her. She started to pull away from him.

"I have to go. I have to find them."

"No!" His hand reached out all by itself and grabbed her wrist. "Stay with me, let me take you away, somewhere, anywhere - we can start again, change our names, stay safe - stay with me, Kerry, because I love you."

Querida stopped and blinked at him. "Mick...you...you don't mean that, you don't know what you're saying."

"Of course I know what I'm saying. Look in my eyes, Querida. You know me better than to think this is just some random babbling. I love you, I was going to tell you but I never found the right time... and I can't let you go without telling you."

"Mick... please..." She pulled away weakly. "You don't know what this is doing to me... I care about you, very deeply, and if you'd told me this two months ago--"

"You would have gone with me," Mikell finished grimly. "I tried to tell you, but it didn't come out right. If I'd told you then, you would have gone with me, and you wouldn't have been there when they came--"

"Mick, stop it! Don't blame yourself, I won't let you! Listen... I have to go, right now." She stood on her toes to kiss his cheek. "I'll miss you. Goodbye, Mikell."

"Kerry--" He tried to hold on to her, but she'd already slipped through his fingers. "KERRY!" She'd melted into the crowd already. Cursing, he shoved after her, but she was gone. He searched until the crowds dispersed and everyone went home, but he never found her again.

It wasn't hard for Querida to find the others. They were gathered near the exit, Jedar and Tarrin with their backs to the wall as Leila got in their faces. She couldn't make a scene with that many people around, so she screamed at them in a whisper, looking ready to strangle them as they stood there with pretend looks of sheepish concern on their faces. Much as she want to run up to Tarrin, throw her arms around him and tell him that she loved him too much to let him go... she doubted that that would go over well with Leila.

"But Leila," Jedar was trying to explain for the third time, "she got lost in the crowd--"

"An' who's idea was it ta bring her out here?!" Leila growled, looking as if she wished for her saber.

"So much for a relaxin' evenin'," Duke muttered from the sidelines. Leila ignored him.

"How could ya LOSE--"

"They didn't lose me, Leila," Querida said softly, coming up behind them and slipping her hand into Tarrin's. "I just got separated for a moment." She could sense both Jedar and Tarrin's shocked stares, and she gave Tarrin's hand a warning squeeze. Don't give us away, please, I'm saving your necks here.

Leila gave them all a suspicious look, as if she suspected it was all a conspiracy just to annoy her. "All right, let's get outta here." She grudgingly allowed Duke to pull her away. Tarrin and Jedar stayed a few paces behind, with Querida in between them. There was silence for a long while, and when someone finally spoke, it was in a very soft whisper.

"Kerry..." Tarrin began.

"I couldn't leave you," she replied simply, her grip on his hand tightening.

Jedar looked sideways at the two, and hid a grin. Finally...

 

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