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Cutting Ties

By Caro Roberts

 

I would dial the numbers just to listen to your breath
And I would stand inside my hell and hold the hand of death
You don't know how far I'd go to ease this precious ache
And you don't know how much I'd give, or how much I can take
Just to reach you
~~"Come to My Window" Melissa Etheridge~~

She saw the blow coming, but she controlled her urge to dodge and took the slap without wincing. It was just as well that she didn't avoid it, though. That would only have made things worse. Still,the slap was harder than she'd anticipated, and she reeled, seeing stars. She blinked and shook her head, the flashing lights that filled her vision fading just in time for her to catch another blow to the face. She stumbled backwards, holding her arms up in a futile attempt to ward away blows. She was so involved with watching for fists and kicks that she didn't see the plate flying in her direction until it shattered against her head. She fell to her knees, holding her temple, and her hand came away sticky with blood.

He loomed over her suddenly and she scrambled away just in time to avoid a vicious kick. She was backed into a corner now, no where to run and no way to dodge. He raised his hand, and she closed her eyes and braced herself--

And he stopped.

She looked up cautiously. Mercy? Mercy wasn't normal for him, she knew it, and it worried her. That meant he was planning something. Something much worse.

As if he'd heard her thoughts, he spoke for the first time. "I don't know why I'm bothering with you," he snarled. "You worthless, useless chit of a girl. You're not even worth my time. However, there are others in the Blade that I would like to--"

"NO!" The anger that had laid dormant when she was being abused flared in defense of her friends. She shot to her feet and faced him down. "I won't let you hurt them! You can do whatever you want to me, but I won't let you hurt my friends!"

He blinked, a little surprised. He hadn't really expected her to stand up to him. Beg for mercy for them, yes, offer herself in their place, yes, but not actually stand up to him. No matter, though. It didn't change anything, really, just deprived him off a little pleasure. He smiled cruelly and brought out his saber. Even in the dim light, she could see that it dripped blood. He didn't say anything, but he didn't need to. She knew. He'd killed everyone she cared about.

She began to sob, and she couldn't stop.

He started laughing. "Don't mourn, you foolish little weakling! You'll be joining them soon enough." He plunged his blade deep in her chest--

Estelle jolted awake just as she was sucking in her breath to scream. Unable to stop herself, she rolled over quickly and muffled her scream in her pillow.

She rolled back over and fumbled with the bedside light. The sudden brightness dazzled her eyes, but it was better than the darkness. Estelle realized that her face was wet, and for a moment her mind, still caught up in the nightmare, thought that it was blood. She shook herself free of the thought and wiped at the tears still streaming down her face. She sobbed helplessly for a few minutes, unable to stop herself.

Finally, her sobs started slowing down and she was able to breath again. She fell back and stared at the ceiling, her eyes involuntarily flicking around the room every few seconds. It had been a dream, she knew that, but the terror was still real.

She fought the uncontrollable urge to run to her mentor. No, no, and no, she told herself sternly. Your problems have kept him up enough lately, you will not add another night to that list. She forced her breathing to even out and her heart to stop pounding. Finally the physical signs of terror were gone, but her mental state was still far from good. She rolled over and looked at the clock. Four in the bloody morning? Blast. There's no way I'll get back to sleep tonight, either. She rolled out of bed and started pulling on some work out clothes. A brisk jog, a little time in the gym, and a shower, and I'll feel much better. It probably wouldn't help much, she knew, but it would get her mind off her panic, at least. Besides, if I'm up I might as well be doing something worthwhile.

Swallowing her fear, she walked out and let the shadows of the empty hallway close behind her.

*****

Slake frowned and lowered his sword. "Estelle, you're not concentrating. I could have killed you three times over by now. What's wrong?"

Estelle didn't have the energy left to be embarrassed or even contrite, the best she managed was a dull annoyance at herself. "I am? Sorry."

He folded his arms. "Sorry isn't going to work, Estelle. Now tell me what's wrong."

"Nothing."

"Stelle." He gave her a stern look. "You're lying to me. Again."

She flinched at the 'again.' "I'm sorry, love, I just had a rough night, that's all..."

His expression softened. "Nightmares?"

"Yes." She knew he was waiting for more than that, but she wasn't going to give him details. Not unless he forced them out of her.

He frowned and seemed to consider if he should just let it go at that, then sighed and shook his head. "You look half-dead, Stelle. I don't you practicing any more today. You could get hurt."

"Sounds good," she agreed, trying to hide how relieved she was at the suggestion. She deactivated her saber and clipped it to her belt in the same motion. He came up behind her and started gently massaging her shoulders.

"You're tense," he murmured, his hands seeking out the little knots of tension in her back and rubbing them until they relaxed. "You should have told me you were this bad off before we started practicing," he scolded gently.

"I know, I know," she admitted with a sigh. "I just thought it would take my mind off--" She stopped abruptly.

"Off what?"

"The dreams," she answered simply, reaching back and gathering up her hair to hold it out of his way.

"Tell me what they're about," he coaxed, pulling her a little closer.

Her mind raced for a lie, preferably a plausible one. He had an uncanny sixth-sense for telling when she was lying. "I...don't really remember much about what they were about..."

"Tell me what you can remember, then. It'll help."

She searched for another way to stall. "Not here."

If she'd expected him to be put off, she was sorely disappointed. "Somewhere more private, then?"

She turned to face him and forced herself to smile teasingly. "Are you sure you're just not looking for an excuse to get yourself into my quarters?" she asked playfully, winking. He grinned and touched his beak to hers.

"When have I ever needed an excuse?"

"Well...true." She managed a nearly-convincing grin back and kissed him. He returned the kiss warmly, but pulled back long before she was ready for him too.

"Now...are you done stalling?"

She blinked. "How--"

He smiled slightly and ran a hand through her hair gently. "I can always tell, Stelle, you know that."

"I did know, but I had rather hoped..." Or had I? Did I really want him to make me talk about it? She supposed the reasons didn't matter anymore. She was caught. He'd get the truth out of her one way or another. She permitted herself to be pulled close. "I love you."

"I love you too. But that won't get you out of this."

She surrendered. "I...just dreamed that I was getting beaten, and I couldn't fight..." she managed vaguely. Don't have to tell him everything.

Slake's expression darkened. "Falcone?"

Estelle winced. How--Why do I bother? "Yes," she murmured, lowering her eyes.

He lifted her chin and gave her a gentle kiss. "Now I know why you didn't want to tell me about it," he sighed, his hold tightening protectively around her. "Not that I'm excusing it, but at least I understand it." He looked down at her silently for a moment, stroking her hair thoughtfully. "Go get some rest," he finally told her firmly. "You look exhausted."

"But--"

He held up a hand to silence her protests. "Go, Stelle."

She cocked a teasing eyebrow. "Is that an order?"

"If that's what it takes to get you to rest."

"Well, yes sir. " She winked, ignoring his playful growl, and walked out of the practice hall, successfully disguising how much the idea of a nap appealed to her.

Estelle had no intention of going straight to her quarters, though. Instead, she 'detoured' down to the Archives. Though how, exactly, I could explain how going two levels out of my way counts as a 'detour' I don't know...

She pushed open the door and looked around. She didn't see anyone, but that didn't bother her. They were there, somewhere. She walked over to one of the walls and let her hand trail along the books thoughtfully. As long as I'm not going to be sleeping at night, maybe I should pick up a novel or something...

"If you're looking for Milantha, she's here but she's working."

Estelle jumped and whirled, then relaxed visibly when she saw who it was. "Oh, Lady Iliana, you startled me. I should have been paying better attention."

Iliana looked at her critically, and Estelle felt uncomfortably as though the Loremaster was looking right through her. But if Iliana noticed how truly exhausted the Raptrin looked, or guessed the cause of that exhaustion, she chose to say nothing about it. Instead she smiled slightly. "Milantha is, as I said, working, but at the moment she's carrying books and cataloging them. It's a tedious chore for her, and I'm sure she wouldn't mind some help."

Estelle gave her a grateful smile. Iliana was not known for letting anything interfere with her apprentice's training, so Estelle supposed she must have looked really dreadful to get Iliana to loosen her restriction. The Raptrin murmured a thank you and hurried away.

Milantha was easy enough to find--she was seated at one the tables in the corner of the archives, surrounded by stacks of old books and scowling over the ledger in front of her. Estelle breathed a sigh of relief when she saw her. Surely she would be too busy to note or ask about her friend's emotional state. Here, perhaps, I'll be able to have a conversation that does not revolve around my health. "Lantha."

Milantha looked up quickly and smiled distractedly. "Oh, hi Stelle." She immediately turned her attention back to the record book she was making various notations in.

"Want some help?"

"Uh...yeah. Those books over there," she waved a hand at several stacks of books, "are done and ready to be put back. They're from the higher shelves and I won't be able to get them back up without a stepladder."

"I'll do that, then," Estelle agreed smoothly, gathering the books up and turning to put them on the shelves. Putting them up in the right order didn't need much concentration, but she focused on it and used it to drive her other thoughts out of her mind.

But not for long.

They worked in silence for a few moments, then Milantha glanced up. "You okay, Stelle? You look awful."

Estelle froze, her back still to Milantha, and tightened her jaw angrily. Going through this with one or the other of them would have been bad enough, but both--that was a bit much! Or is that why I came down here to begin with? To talk to her? The idea of going looking for help rankled her for some reason. It's a sign of weakness, and the strong prey upon the weak... And old habits die hard... She snapped out of it when she realized that Milantha was waiting on an answer. "Thank you, Lantha," she returned dryly, keeping her back to the younger woman.

"Come on, Stelle, you know that's not what I meant. What's wrong?"

Estelle took a deep breath, weighing options in her mind. If it was nearly impossible to get out of Slake's interrogations when he thought something was wrong, it was doubly so to get out of Milantha's. "Didn't sleep," she answered shortly, turning around briefly to gather up more books and put them on their shelves.

"Why not?"

"Dreams."

"Ahhh..." Milantha understood sleepless nights and nightmares all too well. "Falcone?"

"Yes."

That was all Estelle said, but it was all she really needed to. Milantha understood that as well as anyone could. "Slake know?"

"He forced it out of me." Estelle's voice held no anger, only weary, fond exasperation. "Wouldn't take no for an answer."

"Well, good for him. I wouldn't have either." Estelle threw up her hands hopelessly. "Well, it's true! Stelle, honestly, you can be so stubborn about admitting when you have a problem...."

"Stubbornness that has saved my life many times when I was out on the streets, I assure you," Estelle returned crisply.

Milantha understood that too. "I know, but Stelle...you're not out on the streets anymore. You're here, and safe, and you can tell us things!"

Estelle softened and she turned back to hug her friend. "I know that, Lantha, but old habits die so very, very hard..." Her voice wavered for just a moment.

Milantha hugged her back tightly. "You look dead. You should go rest."

She managed a weary smile. "So I've been told."

"Then go! Oh, and Stelle..." Milantha grabbed a book that had been sitting a little apart from the others and handed it to her. "I found it in a bookstore the other day and I thought you might like it. I was saving it for a gift but..." She smiled a little sheepishly. "I think maybe you need it now."

Estelle smiled gratefully and hugged her. "Thank you." Amazing. Simply. Amazing. "Well, then," she continued with forced cheerfulness, "I'll just be off before anyone else tells me that I look half-dead."

"Actually, Stelle, more than half."

"Thanks, Lantha."

"Don't mention it."

*****

11:58.

11:59.

12:00.

Estelle glared at her clock as if it was the source of her sleeplessness. She'd been watching the minutes change since 10:37, hoping to calm her jumping nerves. Reading hadn't helped, music hadn't helped, and all lying on her back watching the shadows had served to do was to get her more worked up.

It's going to be a very, very long night.

Oh, wait, it already is.

She sat up and propped her elbows up on her knees, resting her chin on her hands. Maybe I'll go out for awhile and see what's going on. Maybe some shop owner was foolish enough to leave the door unlocked. Stranger things have happened. She slid out of bed and got dressed, feeling better as soon as her saber and daggers were back in place. Though who I think I'm going to fight down here is debateable.

She let herself out into the hall, unconsciously stalking through the halls as if she expected to be jumped at every turn. She paused in front of Slake's door for a moment and wondered if she should leave a note, but disregarded the idea almost immediately. I'll be back before he wakes up, no point in making him worry.

She walked out into hockey rink above the Brotherhood, looking around at the shadows cautiously. There were only a few lights on, so that the areas that lamps touched were only dim, and the other places were cast into deep shadows. Perfect place for someone to hide in...

Estelle mentally slapped herself. Now you're just being ridiculous.

She kept thinking that she saw movements out of the corner of her eye, but every time she turned, hand reaching for her saber, there was nothing there.Huh. And now I'm paranoid on top of everything else.

She paused in the stands, unable to shake the feeling that she was being watched. Well, that's it. If I'm going to be jumping at shadows I might as well go back to my quarters. Working myself into a frenzy certainly isn't going to calm me down.She turned to go back inside.

And she was jumped from behind.

There had to have been at least three of them. One holding each arm, and the other had a knife at her throat before she could blink. But if they'd expected her to be cowed, they had a very rude shock coming. After her first split-second of shock and panic, her training took over. Okay, do the unexpected. Get an arm free and go for the concealed weapon, right, right.

She twisted an arm free. Not her saber arm, though, they would have been expecting that. She had her dagger in a second and was using that as if it was an extension of her arm. Startled, they released her. So they weren't expecting a fight from a female, hmm? Let's see what other unpleasant surprises I can give them! Instead of backing away defensively or trying to run, she attacked them. They were so startled by being attacked by a vicious demon instead of being able to drag off a helpless female that it took them a few moments to retaliate. She smirked and took the moment to get another dagger in her other hand, going at them with viciously. She found to her surprise that she was actually enjoying herself and realized that she wasn't even looking for a chance to get away. Not that I could, of course. I couldn't get back into the Lair without showing them how to get in, too. Blast.

She pulled away, deciding to move for higher ground where she would have another advantage. She turned, sure that she could out-run them--

And found herself face to face with three more of their reinforcements.

Three she could handle on her own, four would have been a possibility, but six-- she knew better than to even attempt. She'd been raised to run when she got into situations she couldn't handle, but there was nowhere to run now. Oh, blast, was the last thing she thought before something heavy connected with the back of her head.

*****

Estelle woke up slowly--too slowly. She felt as if there was a weight on her head, keeping her from moving. Her temple throbbed. She was sitting up, and trying to fall forward, but something was holding her back. Ropes? her foggy brain wondered. Her wrists were together behind her back, bound so tight it hurt, and one ankle was bound to each front leg of the chair she was sitting in. There was tightness across her chest and stomach, too, so she could only assume that she was tied there as well. Thankfully, though, she couldn't feel a blindfold or a gag, so that much was in her in favor. Oh, yes, my luck is certainly holding, she thought dryly as the rest of the mist lifted away from her mind. Now where am I? She didn't want to let on that she was awake just yet. She held in a moan of pain and slitted her eyes open cautiously, trying to see as much as possible without moving or opening her eyes all the way.

"Ah, good, you're awake."

She made herself remain limp, hoping to fool whoever had been watching her. That voice....why is it so familiar?

"Don't try to fool me, Estelle. We both know you're awake, so you might as well admit it."

He knows my name? How? Funny, he sounds almost like--oh, great DuCaine! She lifted her head slowly, blinking. She looked up at her captor--and only great self-control kept her from screaming.

Falcone looked down at her mildly. "You're not screaming. Good. The only way I could convince them not to gag you was by promising that you would not scream. I'm glad that you didn't make a liar out of me."

You did that for yourself. "Where am I?" she croaked, her throat dry. "Why did you bring me up? And why am I tied?"

He conveniently ignored the first two questions and chose to answer the third. "Ah, well, my, ah--associates felt more secure with you tied up. I gather you gave them quite a fight and they thought you'd be dangerous."

Oh, yes, I'd really be a danger unconscious, wouldn't I? "Your associates?"

"The, ah, people who, ah, work for me."

She lifted an eyebrow. "They work for you, or you for them?"

"They for me!" he snapped.

"So you're their leader."

He puffed up with pride. "Yes."

"So you let your 'followers' coerce you into tying me up?" Were you afraid? She didn't say it, but it was as clear as if she had.

His eyes snapped, and she realized that she'd gone too far. He snarled, but before he could say or do anything someone else called to him. "Chief! C'me o'er 'ere fer a minute!"

Falcone snorted but turned away. "Coming, coming. Hey! Chase! Get her some water!"

One of the younger ducks detached himself from a small knot of thugs and left the room. He returned a few minutes later, holding a cup with some water in it. He carried it to Estelle and tipped it, letting her lap what she could out of the mug. The water was lukewarm and rather stale tasting, but she drank greedily, trying to slacken her thirst. She looked up gratefully, then froze when she realized that Chase was leaning much closer than she would have let him. He leered and grabbed her chin, jerking her beak so close to his that they were almost touching. "If yer still thirsty later," he smirked, "I can 'elp ya wit' that, too."

She couldn't punch, she couldn't kick, so she did the only thing she could do. She jerked her head back and bit down on his hand so hard that she tasted blood. He let out a rather undignified scream of pain and yanked his hand away, the outline of her beak imprinted on his hand. "Why you little--!!"

The taste of blood in her mouth made her want to vomit, but Estelle kept control of herself. She spit out the blood--directly onto Chase. He swore and slapped her, backhanding her with the back-swing of the same blow.

"Hey!" Falcone finally noticed what was happening and ran over, grabbing Chase's collar and jerking him around. "I told you not to touch her," he growled.

"Ah, cap'n, I wasn't gonna hurt her," Chase whined, all his machismo deflating when his target wasn't helpless. "I was just gonna have a little fun--"

"No one touches her unless I give the word, understand me?"

Chase gulped and nodded. Falcone snorted and dropped him, and Chase fled, his proverbial tail between his legs. Estelle breathed a sigh of relief and was opening her mouth to thank her brother when he whirled on her and slapped her so hard she thought her neck would crack. She felt dazed, unable to understand what she'd done to warrant that. He didn't make her wonder long.

"What was THAT all about?" he boomed, towering over her.

"I didn't have a choice! He--"

"He wasn't going to hurt you. You should have called for help," he reproached her.

And would you have helped me? She remained silent, though, eyes down. She knew that her health and safety relied almost totally on his good humor, and she couldn't risk making him angry.

"If anything like that happens again...." He let his threat hang menacingly.

Estelle swallowed hard, but successfully kept her voice from shaking when she finally spoke up. "Where am I? Why did you bring me here?"

This time he didn't ignore the questions, the way he had earlier. "I was tired of the Brotherhood's incompetence," he told her loftily, "so I've started my own thieves' ring."

She stole a stealthy glance at the other 'thieves' gathered around. It looked more like a motley crew of pick-pockets, amateurs, and hired thugs than an actual thieves' ring to her, but she didn't risk her neck by saying so. "And you brought me here because....?"

"I knew you were with the Brotherhood, and I assumed that you'd welcome the chance to leave and join a real ring."

Well, you assumed wrong. Again. Just like you assumed wrong years ago when you left me for dead. "I see." She paused just long enough to gage his mood, then asked somewhat hesitantly, "So will you untie me soon?"

"Oh, of course." He drew out a dagger and deftly sliced the ropes that held her legs to the chair. He walked around behind her, and she tried not to wince as he chopped away the rest of the ropes rather carelessly. Freed too suddenly, she fell forward and landed on her knees, trying to gather her strength. Without waiting for that, he grabbed her arm and jerked her to her feet. Her legs wouldn't support her, but it didn't seem to matter much to him. He half-supported, half-dragged her out of the room and down some sort of long hall, stopping finally at a door, though how he could tell which was which was beyond her. Everything looked the same. He kicked open the doors and shoved her in. She stumbled and fell again, but this time he made no move to help her up. "This'll be your room," he told her shortly. "Bathroom's down the hall. Galley's up on the upper level. You'll stay here when you're not needed. Get some rest, and I'll come back later to give you your assignment." He walked out and shut the door behind him without waiting for an answer.

Estelle gritted her teeth in pain and forced herself to her feet, grabbing a nearby desk for support. Her legs shook, but they held her that time. There was no mirror in the room, so she tottered down to the bathroom to check her injuries. She couldn't help but whistle as she got a good look at herself. And I only thought I looked bad before. Bruises everywhere, scratches, rips in her clothing...The last thing she remembered was getting hit with something heavy in the back of her head. She felt the back of her skull gently, wincing as her fingers found the bump. I wish I had some pain reliever...And while I'm wishing, I wish I was back home! She rolled her eyes at herself.

A few minutes later, she'd made it back to her temporary quarters. "No lock," she muttered after examining the door. "Blast." She looked around, searching for a piece of furniture heavy enough to barricade the door with. She finally settled with shoving a desk in front of the entrance, then collapsed on the bed, exhausted. It was little more than a pallet and extremely uncomfortable, but she was too tired to care.

How long have I been gone? she wondered as she lay there, waiting for sleep. The fact that her legs were so shaky indicated that she'd probably been tied up for a long time. Long enough for the night to be over? Long enough that someone at the Lair has realized that I'm gone? Or is it still night? How long will it take for someone to figure out that I didn't leave on my own? She felt for her saber automatically, partially to remove it so that she could sleep, and partially for comfort. It was gone. What? It must have fallen off during the fight! Which is good, I suppose. If anyone finds it, they'll know something happened. But how will they find me? I don't even know where I am! I could still be in Keltor, which is big enough on its own, but what if I'm in duCaine Metro? Or somewhere else even further away? She felt herself beginning to panic and she quickly stopped herself. Slake and Lantha will find me, she reminded herself. They won't give up. All I have to do is wait for them, if I can't get out on my own.

Feeling marginally comforted, Estelle finally drifted off into an exhausted sleep.

*****

"Stelle?" Milantha knocked again, and frowned. It wasn't like her not to be up yet. She tried the door, and found Estelle's bed empty and unmade. Her clothes are gone, though--huh. The younger woman thought for a moment. She wasn't in the practice room, or looking for me, and nobody's seen Slake yet this morning, so he must have slept in again. Maybe she went up top...It's still early enough that no one would have seen her if she decided to go for a whirl on the rink.

Deciding that must be it, Milantha turned and headed for the staircase. She entered the rink quietly, knowing Estelle would stop whatever she was doing if she knew she was being watched.

All her stealth turned out to be in vain, however--Estelle wasn't there. "Where in the world IS she?" She stepped out for a closer look--maybe Estelle was in the stands, for some reason.

Her foot sent a metallic object skittering across the floor, and it caught her attention. She bent and picked it up. Her eyes went wide.

She turned and ran back towards the staircase, calling for Slake.

*****

Estelle groaned and rolled over. Let it have been it dream, oh please, oh please let it have been a dream... She blinked her eyes open and stared at the ceiling. It wasn't a dream. Oh, blast.

She sat up wearily and looked around. Her mind was much clearer after a little sleep, clear enough that she could plot her course of action. I have to get out of here. She shoved the dresser away from the door and peeked out cautiously. The hall was empty, so she risked slipping out. She ran down the corridor, checking over her shoulder constantly. No one spotted her and she made it all the way to the ground level without being stopped. Either Ernest is a bigger fool than I took him for and security really is this loose, or else...

Or else I'm walking straight into a trap.

Much as she preferred not to think about that possibility, she forced herself to slow down and move more cautiously. Can't take the front door, or whatever passes for a front door in this place. What's the next quickest way out? She passed some sort of main room. The door was ajar and she could hear loud voices inside, arguing. Pausing for two seconds was enough to let her know that they were arguing about her, and from the sound of it only Falcone was on her side--and he was only grudgingly so. It's just as well I'm getting out, then. She snuck past and continued down the hall, finally coming out into a large storeroom. The boxes bore mundane enough labels, but she knew enough to realize that it was highly unlikely that the contents of those crates was anything legal. No matter to me. She made a quick check to assure herself that she was alone, then started searching for a way out.

She ducked behind a stack of crates and started prying up a window. There was a small alarm on it, but it was quite pathetic, really. A Junior could have gotten past it. But then again, I suppose if an 'ordinary' warehouse had incredible alarm systems, someone might get suspicious....

She crossed the wires and, using her dagger for a lever, managed to crack the window open a few inches. It let out a protesting squeak and she froze, tensed up and listening for footsteps. She didn't hear anyone coming, though, so she took the opportunity to keep pushing up the window. Just a few more inches, and I'll be able to squeeze out. Almost, oh, almost....

A rough hand grabbed her arm and jerked her back. "Caught ya, you little--" She winced at the uncomplimentary term he used. He didn't give her time to smart over the insult, though, just dragged her back, not even allowing her to walk on her own feet.

"An' what were ya sayin' about her bein' loyal?" he scoffed as he dragged her back into the common room she'd just passed and threw her down at Falcone's feet. "I just caught 'er tryin' ta escape!"

Falcone blinked, looking genuinely surprised. "Stelle? Why--"

"Because I can't stay here!" she broke in desperately, praying that there was still some shred of decency left in him. "I'm part of the Blade now, I have friends there! It's my family now, and I can't leave them! You can't keep me here forever, I'll find my way back, and even if I can't get out they'll find me, don't think they won't! I'm not a deserter--"

Wrong choice of words. Any shred of hope that she'd had that he would listen was snapped. Rage boiled up in his eyes and he cut her off with a punch. She'd seen it coming, and she managed to move backwards, taking the blow but removing its edge. Goaded to even further heights of fury by her 'insolence,' he set in on her, screaming at her and attacking her. She could have fought, she knew, but she also knew that that would just have made him madder. Instead, she allowed him to attack her, only moving to avoid the more fatal-looking blows.

Finally he seemed to run out of insults for her, something that relieved her greatly. He knew exactly what buttons to push, and she knew she couldn't have held back tears much longer if he'd continued on as he'd been going. But the worse was yet to come.

Falcone threw her away from him and she slammed against a wall so hard that she saw stars. She slumped to the side, not bothering to try to move. Better to let him think that I'm defeated, then maybe he'll forget about me. It's happened before. Too many times.

"Tie her up," Falcone bit. "We can't trust her not to run off again."

Estelle didn't bother to struggle as her wrists were yanked behind her back and tied so tight she could feel her feathers being shredded and her skin cut. She clenched her teeth to keep from showing emotion. Blast, I wish I'd left my gloves on. They tied her ankles together, as well, and she felt her circulation being cut off. So even if I did manage to get out of these ropes, I still couldn't run. That's so brilliant I'm sure they didn't do it on purpose.

She wasn't sure it could have gotten worse.

But it did.

Chase loomed up in front of her again, grabbing her arm and pulling her a little too close. He leered in a way that Estelle found distinctly frightening, then looked back at Falcone with a glance that was clearly asking permission. He shrugged as if to say, 'What's it to me?'. Estelle nearly had a heart attack when Chase turned back to her, grinning in anticipation, and she realized that several other of the thugs were coming close to her. For the first time in she didn't even know how long, she was terrified. She'd been afraid before, of course, but this sheer terror overwhelmed her senses and she froze. He grinned at the horrified expression on her face before smashing his beak up against hers in what roughly passed for a kiss. She felt the press of several others surrounding her and her last thought before abject terror took over was, Oh, Drake, I'm going to die.

*****

Slake was, for once, actually grateful to Dude. He didn't know how, exactly, she'd managed to find out where Estelle was, nor did he really want to know--nor did he even really care. She'd found out, that was what mattered. And she was inside right now, scouting it out.

I just wish she'd hurry...

Dude came hurrying back, chattering something excitedly. "Dey got 'er! Dey be under da warehouse!" She blurted out some hasty directions and the small 'rescue party' surged forward without waiting for further instructions. The security was practically nonexistent, and they had no problems at all reaching the entrance. Not bothering with subtlety, they didn't stop to pick the lock, just crashed through the door.

"Spread out an' search the place!" Leila yelled. "I want 'em alive!"

Some branched out to search the area and round up any strays, but most burst into the main room where most of the renegades were gathered. Slake didn't care about them, though, and barely noticed when the two sides clashed. His eyes scanned the room quickly, searching for Estelle. He found her, lying on her side in the corner, with a young man standing over her. When Slake realized what he was about to do, Slake's temper snapped and he charged. He had intend to yell something articulate and threatening, but it only came out as a wordless scream of rage.

The younger man looked up just in time to get a fist in the eye. Slake brought his other fist around in a follow-up and drove it deep into the other's stomach. His opponent flew backwards and landed a few feet away, stunned and winded. Slake was angry enough to have killed him, but at the moment all he cared about was Estelle. Ignoring him, Slake turned away and knelt over Estelle. She stared at him for a moment, her eyes wide with fear, as if she didn't recognize him. He reached for her and she shrank away from his touch. "Stelle," he murmured soothingly, pulling his hand back non-threateningly. "It's me." She blinked up at him for a moment, then recognition slowly flickered in her eyes and they lost the wild, terrified look of a few moments before.

"Slake...I knew you'd come..." Her voice was low and rasping, so faint he could barely hear it. "I'm sorry..." She closed her eyes and drifted away from him.

Slake sighed and stroked her hair back from her face, oblivious to the battle still raging around him. Her face was such a mass of scrapes and bruises that it was a wonder he recognized her at all. Moving very cautiously to keep from injuring her more, he moved her body until he got her into a position to cut the bonds on her wrists. His saber was far too awkward for that job, so after a moment's hesitation he took one of Estelle's own daggers and started using it to slice through the ropes. He swore softly as he got a good look at her wrists; they were chafed and bleeding from the ropes. It had been cheap rope, little softer than wire, and tied far too tight. Tighter than I'd tie most of my enemies...but not as tight as I'm going to tie Falcone if I get my hands on him.

He sliced through the cord on her ankles, as well, and saw that the twine had left imprints on the leather of her boots, as well. He felt another flash of anger at whoever had tied her and muttered something under his breath about in inadvisability of brothers and sisters marrying.

He became abruptly aware that the battle had stopped as Milantha came running over. "How is she? Is she--oohhh...." She drew in her breath sharply when she got a good look at Estelle. Her eyes flashed with anger and Slake knew that if there was anything left of Falcone after he and Leila finished with him, she'd charbroil the remains.

Not that he actually thought there would be anything left.

He scooped Estelle up carefully, hoping he wasn't hitting any bruises but not having any alternatives.

"Falcone got away," Milantha told him grimly. "Leila went after him, and she did manage to get in a few blows, but he lost her in some sort of passageway. He got away free."

Slake growled something very definitely uncomplimentary about cowards. "And the rest?" If he couldn't get to Falcone himself he felt that he should at least be able to deal with the man who'd been standing over Estelle.

"About half are dead," Milantha told him blandly. "The rest are injured and being dealt with right now. A few escaped, but we got most of them."

"Good," Slake said shortly. He looked down at the limp, battered body in his arms and swallowed a curse. "Let's get her home, then."

*****

Estelle clung to oblivion desperately, not wanting to regain consciousness. She was sure that when she did, she'd open her eyes to find Chase's cruel face looming over her, feel his hands on her body--

She'd rather die.

Maybe I did die, she thought aimlessly. Maybe I'm really dead and this is how I'm going to spend forever, just floating around in nothing.

It was ridiculous, and she knew it, but her head was still spinning a little too much for her to think rationally. She realized that she was waking up, and with awareness came pain. She groaned and moved her head slightly, trying to find a more comfortable spot on the pillow.

Pillow?

"She's waking up!"

She realized abruptly that someone had been holding her hand, and that grip tightened suddenly and nearly crushed her fingers. She blinked her eyes open, then shut them again as the infirmary lights blinded her. She groaned again and moved one hand to touch the bandages on her head before it hit her-- She was home.

Her eyes snapped open again and she looked up at Milantha and Slake standing over her. Slake sighed in relief. "You're awake."

Estelle groaned and felt her head painfully. "I almost wish I wasn't."

Slake stroked her face gently, moving his fingers carefully to avoid the bruises on her cheek and around her eyes.

Milantha managed a smile. "At least you're home."

Estelle closed her eyes painfully. "Thanks to you both. If you hadn't..." She stopped and swallowed hard, then quickly changed the subject. "Anything broken?"

Slake shook his head. "You're going to be okay." In time. His eyes took in the bruises, cuts, and bandages that swathed her body and he tightened his grip on her hand.

Estelle didn't look as if she believed that, but didn't respond for a moment. She sank down against the pillow, her eyes closed to shield her expression. "Tell me what happened."

Milantha looked at Slake, who smoothed Estelle's hair back gently as he tried to decide how to tell her. "We found your saber. Dude managed to figure out where you were; she scouted the place out for us. We got some of them." He kissed her gently. "But Falcone got away."

Her face twisted a little, as if she couldn't decide whether or not she was glad about that. She turned her head away. "He was going to let them rape me," she murmured, her eyes filling up with tears. "He wasn't going to stop them. He didn't care. I never, never thought that he'd..."

Slake scooped her up and held her tight against him, but couldn't think of any comfort to give. Milantha squeezed her hand gently.

Estelle squeezed Milantha's hand back and buried her face in Slake's chest. "It's true," she choked. "You tried to tell me before, but I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to remain loyal to him. I wanted to believe that he still cared, somehow. I wanted to think that he had some shred of decency and honor left. But I was wrong, I was so, so wrong." Tears started seeping out of her tightly closed eyes.

Slake cradled her and stroked her hair gently. Her voice was shaking, but she struggled on. "I was such a fool," she managed bitterly. "I thought he loved me. I thought I could trust him. I was willing to do whatever it took just to please him. I should have known better. But I stayed and let him beat me down. He nearly killed me--oh, duCaine, I wish he had, I wish he had!" She didn't mean the last words, but they came out anyway. She couldn't control herself any more and started sobbing.

"Don't say that, Stelle..." Milantha stroked her hand a little awkwardly. She knew her friend didn't mean it, but it still unnerved her to hear it.

Slake kissed her. "It's okay. You know better now. You're safe."

I don't know if I can ever feel safe again. Estelle tried to swallow down her tears, and she very nearly succeeded. Slake held onto her as if he was afraid that she'd disappear. Again. Estelle winced as his hands brushed against her bruises. She did her best not to show how it hurt, knowing that it wasn't his fault. He could hardly help touching them, considering how many there were.

Slake felt her flinch slightly in his arms and tried to remind himself to be gentle, but he just couldn't make himself let go.

Estelle couldn't have stood being let go, anyway. She took a few cautious breaths against the pain and held him tightly. "I've never felt so helpless in my life," she murmured, her eyes shut against the memory.

Milantha touched her arm gently, understanding as only another woman could have. "I know." She got up reluctantly and started to leave. "I'll tell the others she's awake."

Estelle turned to look at her. "Lantha." Milantha paused and looked back as Estelle managed a smile and held out a hand to her. "Thank you."

Milantha squeezed it. "It's gonna be okay."

Estelle appreciated the comfort, even if she didn't believe it. She gave Milantha another weak smile and squeezed her hand again before letting her go.

Slake held Estelle in silence for a moment, rocking her gently and trying to convince himself that she was really there. Estelle kissed him gently, then rested her head cautiously against his shoulder. "I'm sorry..." she whispered. "I'm so, so sorry."

Slake stroked her hair. "It's not your fault. Nothing you did was wrong. You have nothing to apologize for." He tightened his hold for just a moment. "I'm sorry I couldn't stop them sooner."

"I'm sorry you had to stop them at all! I shouldn't have been there to begin with! It was my fault I got captured, my fault I couldn't fight them off, my fault I was almost--" She stopped, unable to continue.

He shook his head violently. "It wasn't your fault, it wasn't, Stelle."

Estelle didn't believe that for a second. "It was. I shouldn't have left that night, and I certainly should have been able to fight them off." All six of them? Well, I should have been able to at least do something, instead of letting myself get dragged away like some helpless 'damsel in distress.'

"Listen to me." He cupped her head in his hands and made her look at him. "It was not your fault. They would have found another way."

She looked into his eyes for a moment, then glanced away and asked cautiously, "What happened to Chase?"

Slake frowned. "Who?"

Belatedly realizing her mistake, she looked away. "No one important. Forget I asked."

"Who?" he asked again, tilting her chin up gently.

She kissed him for a moment, trying to reassure herself that she was really safe. "He was the one trying to--to--" She couldn't bring herself to finish and cut off abruptly.

He brought her closer, his grip tightening slightly on reflex. "Oh." He kept his voice carefully neutral. "He's dead."

Estelle's head snapped up. "He's what? Slake, you didn't..."

He shook his head. "I didn't." His tone was still neutral--he didn't want her to know that part of him wished that he had. "I don't know who did, in fact. I knocked him down, but someone else must have finished him off."

She felt a moment of relief before guilt and horror hit. She struggled with her emotions. A part of her--a very small part, but still a part--was glad that he was dead, glad that he couldn't hurt anyone else. But most of her was sickened and frightened. You got him killed. Murderer. "I might as well have killed him, when it comes down to it. Everyone who died or was injured is dead or injured because of me."

"They're dead or injured because of the choices they made. If they're dead now, it just means that they won't do that to someone else."

This was easier to deal with when I was unconscious, Estelle thought dryly. She moved closer to him, ignoring the pain, and closed her eyes, trying to block it all out. "I love you," she finally managed to whisper.

Slake nuzzled her hair. "I love you. I'd move the world to keep you safe." He kissed her and shut his eyes, closed everything out, all the fear and the worry and the hurt, and concentrated on nothing but her. Finally he felt her relaxing in his arms, exhausted. He cradled her gently and sighed.

"I'm so tired..." she groaned softly. He shifted her more comfortably against him but didn't put her down.

"Go ahead and sleep. I'm right here."

She nestled against him. "Just don't leave," she almost begged, terribly afraid of being left alone.

"I won't. I promise." He settled closer as if to prove his point.

She smiled softly. "Thank you. I love you. And I'm sorry." She relaxed and closed her eyes.

"I love you," Slake murmured. "And I'm sorry." Estelle started to respond but slipped into sweet oblivion before she could.

*****

Well. This is it. Estelle finished her warm-up exercises and tossed her saber from hand to hand rather anxiously as she stood in the gym, trying not to display how much pent-up energy and anger were boiling inside of her.

Slake glanced at her, but figured she was just ready to go because she'd been out of training for the past two weeks, and tossed her a quick salute and a wink before starting.

She forced herself to smile and wink back, though her mind wasn't really focused on the task at hand. She forced herself to concentrate and block out the guilt, zeroing in on her "opponent." Focus, idiot. Not focusing is what got you in trouble to begin with, don't let yourself go again. She concentrated on him as he feinted and lunged, working her expertly back and forth on the mat. She parried and thrust as well, trying to work around him. Her skills were good, much better than they'd been a year and half ago, and they hadn't been too shabby then--but he was still much better. She had to jump backwards to avoid a sudden slice. Focus, focus, focus... She narrowed her eyes and tried to picture him as the object of all her guilt and anger, hoping that that would help her.

It honed her skills all right, a little too well. She forgot who she was really fighting, seeing only an enemy, and lunged viciously.

Slake jumped back, surprised, and ungracefully slapped her blade away. "Careful, Stelle."

Estelle wasn't hearing him anymore. Her eyes flashed murderously as she fell back and attacked again, swinging her saber in both hands. The blow nearly took off Slake's head, and the backswing almost cut his legs out from under him.

He dodged and was forced to be purely defensive until he could regain his balance. Finally he was able to get his footing and fight back, trying desperately to disarm her before either of them got hurt. He blocked her and dodged, trying to get close to her without coming into range of her blade. She dove for his throat suddenly, foolishly leaving her entire side exposed. It was a stupid move, driven by anger, and one she would never have attempted had she been thinking. He wasn't going complain, though, if that left him a way to get her in control. He ducked under the blade and tackled her as gently as possible to the ground.

Estelle lost her grip on the blade as she flew backward, the saber spinning across the room. She landed hard and gasped in pain, desperately trying to get her breath back and get into a position to fight.

Slake grabbed her arms and pinned her down. "Stelle, stop! It's over, love!"

Estelle snapped back to herself and stared up at him, finally realizing what she had been doing. She gasped and shrank back. "Slake! I'm sorry, love, I'm so, so sorry, I wasn't even thinking, I wasn't seeing you, I--" She forced herself to stop babbling excuses and looked away, ashamed of herself. "I'm sorry."

Slake gathered her up and held her. "It's okay, love. You weren't ready for this."

Will I ever be ready for it again? "Love, if I had hurt you..."

"I would have loved you anyway." He stroked her hair back gently, brushing the tangled strands out of her face.

She gave him an uncomprehending look. She couldn't forgive herself, and how anyone else could was out of the question.

Slake looked in her eyes, sensing her doubt. "I love you."

She closed her eyes and moved closer to him. "I love you too," she murmured, then paused. "That's why..."

He nuzzled her hair. "Why what, love?"

Estelle pulled her engagement ring off her finger and held it out to him, whispering, "I can't ask you to marry me after all that's happened."

He blinked at her in disbelief for a moment, then took the ring. "I'm asking you to marry me, then. Again." He got on one knee and took her hand.

She blushed and moved next to him, pushing his hand away. "Slake, please. I can't expect you to live your life with me after this. It's asking too much. I'll let you go."

He put his arms around her waist and pulled her close. "Too bad. I'm not letting you go. Ever."

She tried to hide how relieved she was. "Are-are you sure?"

He put the ring back on her hand. "Never been more so." She smiled and slid into his arms, kissing him as hard as she could. He pulled her close and returned the kiss with equal intensity. "Don't scare me like that."

"I didn't think it would be right to expect you to stay after all of that..." she managed around the kiss.

He broke away to take her face in his hands. "None of that was your fault. None of it. Not one bit. I love you, Estelle. I am going to marry you, and we are going to be very happy." She started to say something, but he cut her off by pulling her closer still and kissing her again. "Don't argue, Stelle," he managed. He got one arm under her legs and stood, lifting her up cautiously. He felt her flinch and pulled back quickly. "Are you all right? Did I hurt you?"

She gave him a tired smile. "Just hit a bruise, that's all."

He frowned slightly and shifted to hold her more comfortably. "Come on. Let's get you back to your quarters. You weren't ready for this."

"I know..." She closed her eyes and rested her head against his shoulder. "If I had known..."

"Well, you didn't. Stop blaming yourself, love."

"I can't--"

"You can. And you will." He carried her into her quarters and shut the door behind them.

*****

Cutter didn't look up as someone knocked on his door. "Come on in."

Estelle stepped inside and shut the door after her, standing with her hands clasped nervously behind her. "Cutter."

He looked up briefly and flashed a grin. "Estelle. How can I help you?"

She hesitated. "I...need you to do something for me."

He set his tools aside and wiped off his hands. "Yes?"

"I have a...piece of jewelry that needs to be sold. It's rather distinctive, though, so you may have to recut it." She reached into her pocket and held something out to him.

Cutter took it and looked it over, then nearly frowned. It was exquisite workmanship, probably among the best he'd ever seen. The ring was large and ornate, the size of a high school class ring, and very heavy. It looked and felt like solid gold, with delicate, intricate designs engraved all around the band. In the center was a large ruby, in and of itself priceless, with the outline of a Raptrin's head etched on the top. Lacy gold filigree surrounded it, and when he looked hard enough Cutter thought he saw the initials "A.E.S." entwined with the decoration. "This looks rather valuable..." His tone suggested that money wasn't what he was referring to.

Estelle's eyes hardened. "It was. Once. But not anymore. It has ties I'd rather not remember."

He gave her a steady look, and touched the necklace he wore with a bit of a distant look. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," she said firmly. "I thought I could live two lives, Jay. The one I have here, and the one that's tied to my past. I can't have both anymore. And this ring...is the last tangible link I have." Her voice softened. "It was my mother's."

Cutter's grin was more of a smile than usual. "So was this." He tapped the necklace. "It was the only thing I took that was hers when I left home. I keep it to remind me of the good times."

She sighed. "I don't have anything else. Not even a picture. I can't even remember what they looked like any more. I'm not sure they'd be exactly proud of the life their daughter's chosen."

He shrugged. "Perhaps not. But regardless, I'm sure they'd be proud of who their daughter has become."

Estelle finally gave him a genuine smile. "I'm not sure about that. But...thank you, Jay." She sighed again. "It's solid gold, you know. Family heirloom. Just like the necklace I gave to Leila when I came here. Did you notice the initials? A.E.S. Alina Emerald Stormcrow. It was tradition, you know, in the Stormcrow family. Women's middle names were always jewels. Jade, Diamond, Sapphire...Emerald. Ruby was the middle name of the first Lady Stormcrow, and that's been the family jewel ever since. Set in every piece of jewelry. The ring, and the necklace that I gave to Leila, were the last pieces. They're...very, very, valuable." Her voice dropped with each word.

Cutter weighed it in his hand for a moment, and then he took her hand and placed the ring back in it, closing her fingers over the gold. "Think about it a little more. If you haven't changed your mind tomorrow, then I'll recut and reset it. Although...you might want to consider making it a gift to someone. I think you'll have a hard time setting a price on this piece."

"I've paid the price for this," she returned sardonically. "Many, many times." One hand went unconsciously to rub the scars on her neck and shoulder. She held onto the ring, though. "I will think about it, though. Thank you, Jay. You may have saved me from something I would have regretted later. And I, frankly, don't need any more regrets." She managed a slight smile.

Cutter nodded. "I don't need to know I've caused anyone anymore regrets."

Estelle turned to go, but glanced over her shoulder and gave him another smile. "Thank you again, Jay." She left, still holding the ring tightly in her hand.

*****

Estelle poked her head in Milantha's quarters tentatively. "Lantha?"

Milantha looked up. "Hi Stelle."

Estelle let herself in and shut the door. "Are you busy?"

"No." She immediately closed her books.

Estelle didn't want to bother her. "Are you sure?"

Milantha nodded and made room for her on the bed. Estelle sat down next to her and hesitated, trying to decide where to start. Finally she decided to be direct. "I have something for you." As Milantha blinked at her in surprise, Estelle took the younger woman's hand and placed something small and heavy on her palm, closing Milantha's fingers over it.

Milantha looked at the ring and her eyes widened. "Stelle--I can't take this!"

"I want you to," Estelle told her firmly. "This was something passed down from woman to woman in the Stormcrow clan since the first Lady Stormcrow, before the first Invasion. I'm the last of my line, now. Soon I'll be a Roguefeather, not a Stormcrow. I want Rain to remember her heritage, not mine. This piece was my mother's. I found it on her...after she died. It was really a minor miracle, I suppose. It was the only part of her body that survived the flames when the car exploded." She has to close her eyes and breathe deeply for a minute to calm herself down. Milantha hugged her tightly, speechless, and after a few moments Estelle managed to get herself under control again. "I kept it with me until...Ernest pawned it. You remember when we stole it back. After...what has just happened...I wanted to cut ties to what I have left of my old life. I was going to just get rid of it, but I reconsidered. I want you to keep it."

Milantha looked at it thoughtfully. "Stelle, what about your own children? Might you want to give it to your daughter, if you have one?"

"I wish I could, Lantha," she replied, looking wistful. "But I want my daughter, when and if I have one, to think of herself of a Roguefeather, not a Stormcrow. There's little honor in that anymore, not matter how much there once was. We're a dead clan." At the word 'dead,' she lowered her head and closed her eyes, fighting tears.

Milantha blinked back sentimental tears of her own. "I'll keep it safe, Stelle, I promise. And if you ever change your mind, I'll have it for you."

Estelle took Milantha's hand again and held the ring against one of Milantha's fingers. "I'm afraid it might be a bit big for you."

She smiled. "I'll manage." She looked down at the ring, still not feeling quite right about taking it. She spotted what she thought were some letters entwined in the decoration. "What are those? Looks like A...E...S?"

Estelle tried not to look pained. "Those were my mother's initials." Her voice soft, she forced herself to explain. "For a...long time...," she finished, "we were one of the most prominent families in our entire area. And now look at us. The sole direct heirs to the entire Stormcrow name are a traitor and a thief."

Milantha put her arm around Estelle's waist. "A thief, and a wonderful friend and sister, and you're going to be a wonderful wife and mother, too."

Estelle looked at the ring for a moment. "What would my parents think, if they saw how I let them down..." She hugged her friend, trying not to cry.

Milantha hugged her tight. "You know they'd love us no matter how many wrong choices we make."

Estelle flopped back and stared up at the ceiling thoughtfully, still holding Milantha's hand. "Do you think that joining the Blade was a wrong choice, Lantha?"

"I don't know. I don't think it's one I regret." She sighed and shrugged. "I don't know if that makes it right or not, but..."

"Some times I regret not coming sooner. But others..." Estelle sighed and sat up. "But there isn't much point in speculating, I suppose. We're both here, and we're both happy. Past is past, and we can't change that." She put her arm around Milantha and hugged her. "And, even if this was the wrong choice, I wouldn't trade this for anything else."

Milantha smiled and laced their fingers together. "Nor would I, Stelle."

 

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