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Cuts Like A Knife

By Caro Roberts and Starsong Lightwing

'Some say he was a good man
Some say he was a bad man
Some say he was just fighting to be free
Were those who judged him of his crime
As guilty, when you draw the line
Between the gates of hell, and liberty?
--Edward Kelly, Steve Grace

 

Estelle tossed her towel over her shoulder as she pushed open the door of the practice room, taking a deep breath and glancing down at her ankle anxiously. She'd twisted it the previous day, but was bargaining it wouldn't affect her. Too much, at least. She dropped her towel next to the practice mat and nodded to her mentor as she began warming up. "Slake. What's the schedule for today?"

Slake finished off his stretches and lit his saber, giving it a swing or two to limber up. "We'll warm up with a light spar, and see what needs work from there." His mouth quirked in what would have been an encouraging smile on anyone else.

Estelle activated her own saber, having finished off her warmup, and stepped onto the mat. "We could be in for a long day, then," she commented dryly. Instead of answering, Slake swung out swiftly, without warning. She blocked his swing and countered with one of her own automatically, narrowing her eyes in concentration.

Slake caught her counter on his own sword and then fell back slightly, nodding. "Good. Very good." He swung in again, at a lower angle this time.

She smiled slightly as she blocked his swing, enjoying the praise that came so rarely. She stepped back as he pressed in harder, then winced in pain as she put too much weight on her ankle. She stumbled a little, trying to compensate for the pain and regain her footing. She caught herself before falling and brought her blade up again.

He let up a little and frowned, but didn't put his sword down. "Are you all right?"

She tried and very nearly succeeded in keeping her face from twisting in pain as she forced her voice to remain steady. "Yes, of course."

His blade tip dipped towards the floor. "Estelle." His tone was warning.

"I'm fine!" she protested, stepping back again. She forced herself to put full weight on her ankle, gritting her teeth to keep from screaming.

Slake's expression didn't change. "All right then." He swung his blade, hard.

Estelle brought her own blade up and succeeded in blocking the blow, but in doing so she had to step back on her ankle. It folded under her and she was down, unable to suppress a gasp of pain.

He caught her before she hit the ground, slowing her fall so that she landed without quite so much of a jolt. "If this were real," he told her a little harshly, "you'd be dead. Don't ever hide an injury from me again."

She closed her beak around a cry of anguish and nodded slowly. "Yes, sir," she gritted through her teeth. "I know. I know. I really didn't think it would hamper me."

He sat back on his heels. "But it did, and you still insisted you were all right. That's dangerous for both of us, understand?" He reached out a hand to help her up.

Estelle sighed and nodded. "I understand." She took the offered hand and allowed him to help her up, staggering a little as she found her footing. She glanced in annoyance at the shoulder of her shirt, which had gotten caught on something and ripped nearly off. "Blast, not another one. I'll have to try and fix it later."

Slake turned her to look at it. "Well, it looks like it ripped at the seam, so it shouldn't be too hard to--" He stopped, and looked closer, moving the fabric apart with his fingers.

She glanced at him, surprised. "Slake? Is there a problem?"

"What happened?" he asked sharply, gently but firmly tilting her head away from him.

She froze, realizing suddenly what he was looking at. She pulled away a little, fighting a rising sense of panic. "Oh, that...Just a...childhood accident..."

He held her still. "Must have been some accident," he commented darkly, obviously not believing her. He pulled her collar down a little to expose the matching scars that marked her other shoulder.

"It was," she commented softly. "It was."

Slake frowned. "What, exactly, happened, Estelle?"

She frantically tried to come up with a plausible excuse. "It...it was a long time ago..."

His hand tightened on her arm slightly. "Estelle, I asked you a question. Answer me, and don't lie to me again."

"Well, let's see, those would be ones when I didn't get dinner ready exactly on time. Or maybe they're the ones when I couldn't find enough pockets to pick and I didn't bring home enough money. Or maybe when I was clumsy and almost set off an alarm. Or maybe they were punishment for just being alive. It all blurs together after awhile." She fairly dripped sarcasm.

He stepped back a little, frowning harder. "Who did this to you?"

"I was being sarcastic." Well. Mostly.

"Answer me."

Estelle twisted quickly out of his grip. "It has no bearing on anything."

He caught hold of her again. "It has bearing on your mental state and how you will react in given situations. Answer me."

Estelle ground her teeth helplessly as she tried to think of a convincing lie. "It was someone who no longer has power over me," she finally said firmly. Lies, lies, and more lies.... It wasn't true, not by a long shot, but she knew she couldn't tell him the truth.

He looked at her, measuring the words, then released her. "Let's hope that's true."

"If that's answered to your satisfaction," she told him icily, "then I'm leaving." She picked up her saber and walked away without waiting for him. It took all her willpower to keep from running.

"Estelle," Slake called, intending to continue the practice until he got the truth out of her. She ignored him and kept walking. He called her again, a note of warning in his tone. Her control, strained to the limit, broke and she ran for it. He took off after her on instinct.

Estelle was smaller and faster. She reached her quarters and slammed the door, locking it behind her. She knew a lock wouldn't do much in a society of thieves, but she also knew he wouldn't be stupid enough to break in.

She closed her eyes, feeling unexpected tears welling up. She slid down against the wall and put her head in her arms, trying to sort out her tangled thoughts and emotions.

The door clicked shut.

She jerked her head up, glaring dangerously as she rose to her feet. "I didn't hear you knock," she hissed.

Slake stood there with his arms folded, completely unintimidated. "You apparently didn't hear me calling your name either."

"Apparently I didn't." She folded her arms and glared back, even though she knew she'd lose a staring contest with him any day. Slake chose to prove that point and said nothing until she looked away. Instead she focused her eyes up and over his shoulder, her gaze burning a hole in the wall. "I was under the impression," she said icily, "that you knew enough not to go breaking through a looked door. Apparently, I was wrong."

Slake flushed slightly but stood his ground. "And I would have thought you wise enough not to run out in the middle of a practice session."

"You made it very clear that with this injury--" she nodded toward her ankle, which was now throbbing-- "practice was out the question."

He lifted an eyebrow. "I had thought I made it clear that that particular form of practice was not advisable. There are other things we can do."

Estelle turned away, unable to face him anymore, and tugged automatically at the rip in her shirt. She couldn't think of anything to reply, so she held her silence.

He stood for a moment, then asked again--gently, this time. "Who put those scars on you, Estelle?"

She closed her eyes, fighting the tears in them. She refused to let them fall. Not then, not ever, and especially not when he was standing there. "I can't tell you that."

"Why not?"

"Because...I...I just can't." Her voice came out a little higher than she'd wanted it to and she mentally slapped herself for betraying the emotions that were churning inside her.

"They don't have any power over you anymore."

"Maybe."

"You'll never make the higher ranks unless you learn to handle this, Estelle."

"I am handling it," she said tightly.

Slake's voice betrayed his anger. "I can't decide who you're lying to more--me, or yourself."

Estelle glanced back at him, about to say something, then turned away from him again. She turned to her desk, absently tracing the deep grooves left in the wood from her daggers. "I wish I could tell you," she murmured softly after a few moments. "I really wish I could. But I can't."

Slake stood there for a moment, then shrugged and turned on his heel. "Then I can't train you." The door clicked shut, and he was gone.

*****

Milantha tapped on the door frame as she walked in. "Stelle, did--" She stopped short and bit her lip. "What's wrong?"

Estelle stole a quick glance in the mirror, trying to see if she looked as awful as she felt. "What-- what makes you think something's wrong?"

Milantha glanced at the knife buried hilt-deep in her desk, the blade surrounded by several fresh grooves. She looked back at Estelle and raised her eyebrows pointedly.

Estelle sighed and patted the couch next to her wearily. "That... was nothing."

Milantha came over and sat next to her. "Doesn't look like 'nothing' to me, Stelle. Come on, what happened? You know I'm not going to leave you alone until you tell me."

Another one who won't take no for an answer... at least she won't call off our friendship over it. A bitter laugh welled up in her throat and Estelle had to work to keep it from coming out. She mentally experimented with ways to say it, then finally decided that it would be best to be blunt. "I'm no longer apprenticed."

Milantha's jaw dropped and she stared. "Excuse me?"

Estelle chose each word carefully before she spoke. "Slake... doesn't want to train me anymore."

"What?! Why?!"

"We... had an argument."

"And he's just dumping you?"

"Basically, yes."

"That doesn't make sense. Start from the beginning."

Estelle sighed and told her the entire story. "And... then he left."

Milantha fumed. "I can't believe he did that. That's so... so... so like a man!"

"It was my fault. I shouldn't have walked away from him."

"Maybe, but he shouldn't have broken into your room! I think you should have knocked him one for that."

"I can't just hit him!"

"Maybe not," Milantha conceded. But I can do worse.

Estelle caught her look. "No."

"No what?"

"No, don't do whatever you were thinking of doing to him."

"Come on, Stelle. Say the word and he won't be able to move for a week."

Estelle tried to hide that fact that she was just angry enough for that to be tempting. "I can't do that to him. If... if he doesn't want to train me, that's... his choice."

"That's his choice to just throw you away, training not even half-completed? Don't you have any choice in this?"

"He's my master, Lantha. I can't force him to train me if he won't." She sighed and closed her eyes. "This is all my fault. Maybe if I apologized--"

"Estelle, do NOT even start with that. It was his fault, at least most of it was. He's the one that owes you an apology. If you won't be happy until you apologize, then at least wait until he says something first."

"Why would he, Lantha? He's probably not even going to speak to me again, after this."

Milantha scrambled for a way to answer that. "Well if he's as noble as you're always saying he is--which, considering what he just did, I'm beginning to doubt--wouldn't he?"

Estelle felt trapped. No matter how she answered the question, it would come out wrong. "Oh... well..."

That wasn't really a fair question, I guess. "Okay, okay, I'll rephrase. What about Rain? She'll still want to be with you. He'll have to be at least civil for her sake. He won't want her hurt."

"I don't, either," she murmured. "If only I'd--"

"Stelle!" Milantha reprimanded her sharply. "Stop that!"

"Sorry..."

She sighed. "Do you know why I think we're such good friends?"

Estelle blinked at the apparent subject change. "No, why?"

Milantha would haven shaken the other woman if she hadn't been so much larger. "Because you're the only person in this whole base as stubborn as I am!!"

Estelle blinked again, then smiled slightly. "I wish I could refute that, but I'm really not sure I dare."

Milantha smiled back, relieved that she'd managed to coax at least a small smile out of the Raptrin. "Maybe you should just give it a few days and see what happens. If nothing happens, then maybe we can think of some other options," she suggested.

"I guess waiting is all we--I--can do."

"You're sure you don't want me to..."

"Yes, I'm sure. That wouldn't help, it'd only make things worse." Estelle sighed. "No, there's nothing I can do except wait." Her stomach growled suddenly and she blushed. Milantha grinned.

"Wait, and eat. Let's go get some food."

"I don't know..." Estelle looked doubtfully. "What if he--"

"Oh no you don't! You are not going to hole up in here, afraid to step out of your bunk in case you run into him. For one thing, that won't work. For another, it's silly. You can go anywhere you want, any time you want. He doesn't own the base, you know." She grabbed Estelle's hand and pulled her up. "So are you coming or not?"

Estelle managed a small smile. "I'm coming."

"Well come faster! Comforting you makes me hungry!"


They got their food without incident and found a seat at one of the back tables. Estelle finally felt herself beginning to relax. "You know, Lantha, this isn't so bad." She stopped suddenly and stared as a familiar figure entered the Mess Hall. "Oh, no."

Milantha looked up. "What? Oh. Well." She caught Estelle's glare and looked sheepish. "Don't look at me like that, what were the chances??"

"You just HAD to say that, didn't you? Maybe he won't see us. He certainly won't be looking for us." She sank down in her seat slightly and closed her eyes. She'd been told once when she was younger that sometimes just wishing hard enough for invisibility was enough to keep one from being seen. She doubted that it worked, but it was worth a try. You will NOT see me you will NOT see me you will NOT see me you will--

A high pitched cry echoed through the hall. "STEEEEEELLLLLLLE!!!"

Estelle put her head in her hands. "Rainy. I forgot."

A small brown blur hurtled across the hall and attached itself to Estelle before either of them could blink. Estelle couldn't help but smile as she lifted Rain up onto her lap and hugged her. "Well, Rainy, I didn't expect to see you here." Quite literally...

Rain hugged Estelle, and smiled innocently at Milantha, unaware of the chaos she was creating. "Hi."

Milantha smiled weakly, then mentally winced as Slake approached. "Rain. What have I said about running and yelling in the Mess Hall?"

Rain looked up and smiled endearingly. "Oops."

Oops doesn't quite cover it, Estelle couldn't help thinking.

Slake nodded at the two women. "Ladies." His voice was a little strained, but only someone who knew him would have noticed. "Rain, sweetie, let's go get our dinner."

Estelle nodded faintly. "Sir." She let go of Rain and was about to set her down when she looked up at her pleadingly.

"Can we sit with you? Please??"

"Now, Rainy, I'm not sure..."

Rain looked heartbroken. "Please Stelle? Please?"

"Rain..." Slake sighed. She looked up at her father and pouted adorably.

Estelle smoothed back Rain's hair. "Do what your father says, Rainy."

"Come along, Rain." Slake looked about out patience, obviously as anxious to get away from the two women as they were to have him leave.

Unfortunately, his escape was cut off by the untimely arrival of Duke, who came up and slapped Slake on the back. "Slake! Good ta see ya."

Rain screeched "Uncle Duke!!" and hopped off Estelle's lap to attach herself to Duke's knee. Slake signed and pressed his hand to his forehead.

"Rain..."

She winced. "Sorry Daddy."

Duke chuckled and picked up Rain. "Ah, don't worry about it, Slake. She's got some handle on the volume, at least, and that's an improvement." He looked over to the two women and nodded. "Ladies."

Milantha nodded back nervously, then glanced at Estelle, who looked ready to get up and leave. She grabbed the older woman's arm. "Don't move," she hissed. "We're in for it now, you've got a full plate, they'll ask questions that you don't want to answer."

Slake smiled weakly as Duke glanced around at them. "Plannin' on joinin' the ladies for dinner, Slake?"

"Yes!" Rain piped up before Slake could answer.

Duke chuckled again. "Well, Slake, ya've got an enthusiastic one if nothin' else. Come on, let's go get our food." Slake couldn't think of a convincing reason not to, so he nodded and went with Duke, stone-faced (though it was so close to his usual expression no one could really tell). Rain skipped happily along with them, overjoyed to have gotten her way.

Estelle grabbed Milantha's arm as soon as they were out of hearing range. "They're getting food, I'm leaving. Tell them I... didn't feel well! It's true!"

"But--"

She stood and picked up her tray, balancing it on one hand while she held half a sandwich--the only part of her dinner she could eat on the run--in her hand. "It would be bad enough with Slake, but with L'Orange too?! I can't stay! I can't!"

"All right, if that's really what you want." Milantha looked nervously back toward the kitchen, then gasped, her eyes widening. "Stelle, they're coming back!!"

"I'll talk to you later! Thanks for covering for me!" She walked away as fast as she could without making it obvious that she was running away.

She quickly found herself unable to walk as Rain ran up and latched onto her leg.

"Stelle!" she yelled in a whisper. "Where are you going? Don't you want to sit with me?"

Slake made a mental note to have a talk with Rain about accosting people like that as Estelle sighed deeply and knelt, swallowing what was left her sandwich quickly. "Rainy, honey, it's not that, I was just..." She looked in the child's eyes and knew she was doomed. "Getting rid of my trash. I wasn't leaving."

Milantha looked sympathetic as Estelle came back to the table. Slake's own expression was unreadable as he took a seat and set down his food and Rain's. Milantha nodded to Duke, a little shyly, and glanced nervously at Slake. She wanted to glare at him, but didn't quite dare. Duke glanced over at Estelle.

"If I didn't know better, I'd swear ya were avoidin' us."

"Oh! Sir! Excuse me!" She hastily stood again and bowed.

He shook his head. "I've told ya before, Estelle, you don't have ta bow."

"Yes, sir."

"And ya don't have ta 'sir' me, either."

"Yes sir."

Duke looked skyward. "Why do I bother?"

"I don't know, sir."

Estelle and Milantha barely made it through the meal, forcing weak conversation and strained smiles. Estelle ate as fast as she could without making it obvious that she was just trying to get away. Milantha did her best, considering that she spent the whole agonizing half hour on the verge of hysterical nervous laughter.

Estelle looked down at her tray, pleased that it was finally empty. "Oh... well... if you'll excuse me, I have..." She realized that she couldn't use the time-honored 'practice' excuse and stopped, at a loss. Milantha stood up quickly.

"To help me carry some stuff down to the archive."

Estelle sighed as Rain starting pouting. She's going to be my undoing. She quickly hugged the child. "I'll see you soon, Rainy, you know that. You be good now." She bowed to the other two. "Sirs, if you'll excuse us."

Rain turned to Slake. "Daddy, can I go help Stelle? Please?"

He frowned. "Well, I--"

"Come on, Slake," Duke cut in. "She can't do any harm over in the archive room."

Estelle and Milantha left with Rain in tow, Estelle wondering how they were going to explain to the four year old why they weren't going to do what they'd said they were going to do. As it turned out, Milantha had only been half lying, there were books to be carried, although Estelle had not previously planned on helping.

Duke watched them leave, then turned back to Slake. "You gonna talk ta me now, or are we still pretendin' nothin's wrong??"

Slake kept his face carefully neutral and stayed silent. Duke looked annoyed.

"What am I gonna hafta do ta get it out of ya? I ain't blind, Slake, I can tell somthin's wrong."

"The problem has been solved, Duke."

"Like hell it has."

Slake chose not to reply. Duke stood, annoyed, and tossed his fork on his plate and picked up his tray. "I'll see you in the Hall in ten minutes." He dumped his food and walked out.

The two drakes faced off, blades out and ready. "Ya know, ya could make this a lot easier on yerself," Duke grunted, swinging. Slake blocked and returned the blow wordlessly, lunging in and whirling out as Duke followed up and sent another swipe his way. "But ya just gotta be stubborn."

"You should talk," Slake growled, blocking and countering. It went on for several minutes--jab, block, counter, jab, block, counter. Neither one of them gained an advantage. Finally Duke made it through Slake's guard, and scored a touch. Slake looked grim but resigned. Duke leaned on his blade, giving his old friend a piercing look. One touch, one question, one answer. That was their agreement; always had been. He chose his words carefully.

"How soon do you think Estelle will be ready for the trials?"

Slake stiffened. "She's no longer my responsibility."

"Why?"

Slake lifted his blade in answer, and Duke let out a hiss of frustration through his teeth. "This'd be a lot easier if you'd just talk ta me."

Jab, block, counter, jab, block, counter, jab, block, counter--touch. Duke again.

"Why isn't she your responsibility anymore?"

"We've run into difficulties that she's not willing to work through, and I'm not willing to ignore."

Jab, block, counter, jab, block, counter, jab--touch. Duke, for the third time. He grinned slightly.

"Either yer slippin', or ya really want ta tell me what's goin' on."

Slake's eyes were ice. Duke sighed.

"What difficulties?"

So it went on, and bit by bit, victory by victory, Duke dragged the whole story out of him.

"Of all the stupid," Duke panted, rubbing the sweat from his face, "stone-headed, blind--"

Slake deactivated his saber and started to walk out, breathing heavily himself. Duke caught up with him and put a hand on his shoulder. Slake's expression would have been enough to make anyone back off, but Duke held his ground, angry and frustrated. "You care about her. That's it, ain't it, you're gettin' soft for 'er and you think--"

The next heartbeat, he was on the ground, rubbing at a sore jaw. "Dammit, Slake, you ARE going to listen to me, you stubborn sonuva--"

"You don't know what you're talking about!" Slake exploded.

"Don't I? Ya think I ain't seen the way you look at her?" Slake whirled, saber raised. Duke blocked the blow with his own saber, leaving the two men standing eye-to-eye. "Okay, Slake, have it yer way. Say ya don't care about her, that ya didn't notice how scared an' hurt she was. That it don't matter ta you that she's upset an' blamin' herself for this. You win. You don't care. Not about her, not about Rain--"

"Leave my daughter out of this," Slake growled.

"Not about the fact that Rain's gonna be heartbroken by alla this," Duke continued. "She's a smart kid, she's gonna figure out somethin's wrong, if she hasn't already. An' yer gonna put her in a position where she's gotta choose between you an' Estelle, do ya want that? But go ahead, Slake, ya don't care about Estelle an' ya certainly don't care about Rain. Sorry I misjudged ya so badly." He deactivated his saber and walked away. Slake glared after him, breathing heavily, and not from exertion. After a moment, he turned on his heel and stomped off to his quarters to fume.

*****

Estelle wandered down the hallway, barely even noticing where she was going. She'd never realized how much time she spent in training before, and now it was as if her schedule was gone and she was simply at loose ends. More than that, she was lonely. Her apprenticed friends were all busy, and she was... well. Not.

"Estelle! Wait for just a moment, please."

She paused and turned, hiding her surprise behind a smile. A smile that was so genuine it surprised her. "Cutter, hello. What can I do for you?"

Cutter eyed her but knew better than to say anything just yet. "I was wondering if you would care to join me for dinner later this evening?"

Estelle did a double take and looked around, almost as if she thought he was speaking to someone else. "I... Of course, I'd love to."

Cutter's grin widened. "Excellent. Until tonight, then." He bowed slightly and headed off without waiting to see her reaction. That was just as well, though, as Estelle put her hand on the wall to support herself, feeling as if she might faint.

*****

Estelle straightened her dress--red, and borrowed from Nylessa, of course--and opened the door at the knock. She smiled shyly. "Evening, Cutter."

Cutter flashed her his trademark grin and offered his hand. "Evening, Stelle." Estelle hesitated for just a second before taking it shyly, keeping her eyes nervously down. He pulled her into the corridor and twirled her around. "You look absolutely stunning."

Estelle blushed deeply, but finally found the courage to lift her eyes. "Thank you." She didn't look as if she really believed him, but was willing to let it pass. She took his arm, feeling a little dizzy. "This is a nice change of pace," she added, nodding toward his attire; slacks and a button-up shirt rather than his usual jeans. All still black, of course. "I believe I like it better."

Cutter grinned. "I shall have to keep that in mind." He escorted her down the hall.

*****

Cutter pulled out her chair for her as they were seated at their table. "I hope the food here is to your tastes."

Well, I'm not likely to eat much of anything, anyway, so I don't suppose it really matters. She gave him a smile, though, as she sat down. "I'm sure it will be."

Cutter sat as well. "Can I offer you a drink?"

She shook her head. "Thank you, but no. I don't drink." She was a little embarrassed by this, since it gave her enemies another target, but she managed to hide that and gave him an almost 'you-wanna-make-something-of-it' look.

He nodded, with another of his lopsided grins. "I'm afraid I don't hold liquor terribly well, so I don't ever have much more than a sip. Something else, then?"

Estelle desperately needed something to moist her throat. "Water is fine for me, thank you." Cutter expertly flagged down a waiter to order their drinks, and Estelle felt a flash of admiration at the way he seemed so at ease in this restaurant, which was fancier than she'd ever been to before.

"You seem to know your way around here," she commented. "But then I imagine you've been here fairly often. With a different lady friend each time, no doubt." She stopped immediately and blushed. She hadn't meant to say that, and she certainly hadn't meant for it to come out sounding the way it had. "I'm sorry," she apologized quickly. "I didn't mean--"

He waved it off, apparently unperturbed. "My reputation precedes me everywhere, it seems, and that's one of the more tactful comments on it." He grinned.

"Most would think I'm not capable of tact," she returned dryly. "Or anything else worthwhile, either."

Cutter's grin turned mischievous--more so than usual, rather. "I prefer to think I'm not like most."

She raised an eyebrow at the mischievous look and wondered what he was thinking, then wondered if she really wanted to know. "Well, since you're talking to me and not trying to stab me in the back, I would rather think that sets you apart to begin with. There aren't many of the higher members who would pay me the courtesy of asking my name before they beheaded me."

"Now that," he commented, reaching over to tilt her chin up slightly, "would definitely be a shame. I rather like that lovely head where it is."

Estelle blushed and tried to look away, but found her eyes locked on his. She felt bewildered and was unable to say anything. She tried to remind herself that he didn't really mean anything, and that she was just the latest in a long line of 'female friends', but it didn't work.

He gave her the slightest hint of a genuine smile before turning to signal the waiter again. "Shall I order for both of us, or do you know what you'd like?"

Beyond to get out of here? "Order for me, please, if you would. I don't get out enough to know what I should order. Generally the only food I eat, if anything," she added dryly, "is whatever Marshall puts in front of me. Getting a choice isn't quite something I'm used to."

He chuckled. "Perhaps you should." He didn't give her time to respond to that cryptic comment before he turned to the waiter and gave their order, handing back the menus. Once the waiter had left, Cutter leaned back in his chair. "Do you dance?"

Estelle's blush, which had just started to fade, instantly doubled. "I--I--N-not really," she stammered. "I mean, I used to, a little, but I don't really remember how..."

He managed to turn his chuckle into nothing more than a charmed smile, as if her innocence captivated him to no end. "All right, I'll change the question. Would you dance?"

She got a look very similar to trapped animal and put a hand on her cheek, vainly trying to cover up the flush that was spreading over her face. Her eyes widened a little, but somehow the idea appealed her. "I don't really remember how," she said again, "but I'd try..."

Cutter had a little smile on his face, rather than his usual wide grin, as he commented, "I think you'd be good at it." The waiter set their food between them, and Estelle was spared having to answer.

She looked down at the food and tried to ignore her churning stomach, wondering how on earth she'd be able to eat it, or, alternately, hide the fact that she wasn't eating. She picked up her fork and started playing with her food a little nervously, forcing a bite every now and again. It was delicious, but she restrained the urge to eat a normal meal for once.

Cutter glanced up from his meal. "I can order something else, if you'd prefer."

She looked up quickly and flushed. Again. She was getting quite sick of it. "Oh, no, thank you. It's wonderful."

He grinned. "Good. Red is a good color on you, by the way," he couldn't help but add. She flushed a bit more at that.

"I didn't used to wear it quite so much," she managed dryly.

He chuckled. "I never realized I was so embarrassing."

"It's not you. It's... well..." She stopped, not really wanting to go into it.

He feigned dismay. "Not me? How disappointing." He grinned.

Estelle rolled her eyes. "Disappointment not being something you're used to, I'm sure."

Cutter's grin deepened, and his eyes twinkled with mischief. "I don't usually settle for less than I set out for, if that's what you mean."

She raised her eyebrows and said dryly, "I meant nothing of that sort, but I'm sure you'll hear it however you want to."

He chuckled. "Already you know me so well."

She smirked back. "And is this a good thing?"

He lifted an eyebrow, still grinning. "You tell me."

Estelle raised her glass to him in a mock-toast. "Touche." She took a sip before setting the glass down and returning to her dinner, wishing that she didn't get the feeling that he was laughing at everything she said. She reminded herself that he did that to everyone and finished off her dinner, or at least as much as she intended to eat.

Cutter tossed his napkin carelessly onto the table and stood, offering her a hand. "Well, Miss Stormcrow, the moment of truth has come. Would you dance with me?"

She blinked and hesitated, looking for the him to the dance floor and back again. "All right," she finally agreed reluctantly, taking his hand. "But I warn you, I'm not very good."

He grinned. "And I warn you, I don't care in the least." He helped her up and lead her to the dance floor.

Estelle fought the urge to run and forced herself to look at her ease. "Ah, but what would that do to your reputation? After all, it would hardly do for you to be seen with anyone less than your standard of perfection..." Another wave of panic hit and she had to stop and fight it off. Memories, memories, too many memories...

Cutter gently circled her waist with one arm and took her hand. "You let me worry about my reputation. You're supposed to be having a good time."

She flushed and averted her eyes shyly, fighting both her instinct--dismantle anyone who laid a hand on her--and her nervousness. Yes, she thought dryly, such a good time that it'll be a miracle if I make it out of this alive. She put her free arm loosely around his shoulders, ready to break and run if necessary.

To her surprise, it wasn't nearly as awful as she would have feared. In fact, it was rather enjoyable, and she was feeling happy enough to allow him to hold her close. He'd been a good friend to her, and although she hadn't thought he'd want to be anything more, maybe...

When the dance was over, he offered her his arm and led her back to their table. "There, you see, that wasn't so bad."

Estelle hoped that in the dim light he couldn't see the flush that was spreading over her face and neck. She shook her head and smiled shyly. "I'd forgotten how much I used to enjoy dancing..." She cut off and looked away.

His expression was actually less of a grin and more of a genuine smile, for once. "I'm glad to remind you, then."

I'm not so sure I want to be reminded. "Yes, well... it's been a long time." But not long enough.

Cutter dropped enough money on the table to cover the check (with a generous tip) and flashed the kind of smile that could melt a glacier at her as he escorted her out the door. "That is most definitely a shame."

"I suppose so," she said noncommittally. He glanced at her but wisely chose not to pursue the subject.

*****

Cutter grinned smoothly as they stopped outside Estelle's door. "I do hope you've enjoyed the evening."

Estelle folded her arms but gave him a nearly genuine smile. "I did, thank you."

He gently took her hand and kissed the inside of her wrist. "Then perhaps you'd be willing to do it again sometime. Good night, Estelle."

Her smile was soft and very real this time. "Good night, Jay." His answering smile was also surprisingly genuine, as was the almost soft look in his eyes. It was gone after a moment, though, and was replaced by his usual grin as he headed off. Estelle cocked her head, wondering at his sudden change of expression, then shrugged and went inside.

*****

Slake was waiting further down the hall when he saw them coming back from--wherever they'd gone. He felt strangely relieved that they didn't kiss good night, just stood talking for a few minutes, then parted. He took a long breath and walked up to Estelle's door, trying not to look too gruff. You're here to apologize, not scare her off. He knocked.

Estelle glanced up, surprised that someone would be coming to see her that late in the evening. Must be Lantha. But why would she bother to knock? "Come in."

Slake stepped inside, closing the door shut behind him. "Estelle."

She looked up, startled to see him, and stepped back cautiously. "Slake. What can I do for you?"

He paused, unsure how to answer. "You look nice."

She raised her eyebrows nearly off her head. 'You look nice?' 'You like NICE?' He's barely spoken a word to me in ages, and he comes all the way over here to tell me I look nice? Something's up. "Thank you," she returned guardedly, waiting for him to tell her exactly what he wanted.

He went straight to the point, never one for awkward silences. "I came to apologize. I was impatient, insensitive, petty, and extremely rude."

Estelle stared openly, thrown off-balance. She'd never actually had a man apologize to her before, and she was instantly on her guard. There's got to be a catch. She looked at him suspiciously, waiting for him to add something else. "I'm sorry things happened the way they did, sir," she replied stiffly.

He had to work to keep his gaze steady. She's not going to make this easy... but then I'm not sure I blame her. "Please understand that I've never been anyone's master before. I consider what happened to be a rather drastic mistake, but probably only one of many that I'll make. But if you can accept and forgive that, I would like to continue teaching you."

She really couldn't believe it then. That's it? No excuses? No blame? Just..just like that? "I... I thought, sir, that you didn't..." She stopped herself and shook her head. "I would like to continue as your student, if you'll have me."

He glanced away for a moment, looking rather uncomfortable. "I apologize if I'm... harsh. I'm afraid my social skills have gotten rather rusty."

"I haven't even noticed," she said dryly. "I assure you, I'm used to much worse treat... ment..." She realized mid-sentence that she'd said too much and looked away.

Slake set a gentle, if a little stiff, hand on her shoulder. "When you're ready, I want to listen."

She took a deep breath and forced herself to look at him. "I think I owe you at least an explanation." She paused. "But it's a very, very long story."

"I'm comfortable."

She forced herself not to pace and moved over so he had room to sit next to her on the bed. He sat down, ready to listen. She took a deep breath and started, choosing her words cautiously. "Ernest was... always very particular about how I did things. If I didn't do them exactly right... well. He punished me. He probably thought he was doing right by me. For the first several years he just used his hand or a chair or whatever else was around. When he got his saber he used the flat. And then, the last year or so, he... He used the blade. That's where the worst of the scars came from." She pulled her collar away so that he could see more clearly the scars on her shoulder. "They're everywhere, from the neck down." She shuddered involuntarily.

He was silent for a long moment, considering. "I see."

Estelle looked down at her hands. "I hope you understand why I didn't want anyone to know," she managed finally.

He nodded. "Anything you tell me won't go any further. But at the same time, I have to be able to trust you to tell me things like this. I don't want either of us getting hurt or killed because we couldn't be honest with one another."

She couldn't stop herself from giving him a skeptical look. And can I trust you? She kept herself from saying it out loud, though, and merely nodded. "I know."

Slake gave her the barest hint of a rare smile. "I doubt that. It's something we'll have to learn together. Give and take. If it'll make it easier..." He hesitated just slightly. "You can ask me something."

She raised her eyebrows and warmed to him just slightly, knowing what that must have cost him to say. She mulled it over seriously for a moment, then shook her head. "I can't think of anything right now."

He nodded. "Let me know if you do. I can't ask of you what I'm not willing to give myself."

She smiled slightly. "Agreed, then." She held out her hand to him.

He took it and squeezed it warmly. "Rain's missed you," he added a little gruffly.

Estelle cocked an eyebrow and read between the lines. So only *Rain* missed me, hmm? I'll just bet. She smiled. "I've missed her, too. Very much."

He did smile that time, and stood to go. "Well, it's late, and I'll leave you. I'll see you for practice tomorrow."

Estelle smiled a little wider at that. "I'm looking forward to it." She stood as well and opened the door for him. "Good night, Slake."

Slake nodded as he left. "Good night, Stelle."

She closed the door behind him and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes. For once, everything seemed to be going her way.

She had to wonder how long it would last.

 

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