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Dance With Me

By Caro Roberts and Starsong Lightwing

 

"Rainy...Rainy, hold still."

Rain made an effort to stop squirming, but it didn't last long. "Are you almost done, Stelle? Can I see?"

Estelle laughed and finished fixing the little girl's hair. "Almost, almost...there. Now you can look."

"Yay!" Rain bounded to a chair and pulled herself up to look in a mirror."Ooooh... thank you Stelle!" She hopped down and gave the older woman a hug."Can we go show Daddy now?"

"Of course." Estelle scooped up her up and carried her back to her own apartment. Slake opened the door almost before she could knock--which was good, because Estelle's hands were rather full. She set Rain down gently and she twirled to show her father her dress and hair.

"Do you like it, Daddy? Does it look pretty?"

Slake smiled and bent to hug his daughter. "Yes, sweetie, you look very pretty. Did you remember to thank Estelle?"

"Yes Daddy!" she chirped. "Can we go now?"

He chuckled slightly at her eagerness and stood up. "If Estelle is--" He stopped when he caught sight of Estelle's jeans. "Estelle, why aren't you dressed yet?"

"Because I'm not going," she said simply, shrugging.

He frowned. "Why not?"

"I thought I'd stay in my quarters and study my Lore," she replied, dodging the question.

Rain looked up, realizing for the first time that her Stelle wouldn't becoming with them. She pouted and hugged her leg. "Why not, Stelle? Come, please? Please?"

"No, Rainy, I don't think so. Not this time. You go ahead and have fun and you can tell me all about it tomorrow, okay?"

"But I want you to come !" Rain insisted, hugging Estelle tightly. Estelle looked to Slake for help, but he only glanced at Rain and lifted an amused eyebrow.

"Please, Estelle, do come. We'd enjoy your company."

"I don't know..." She looked doubtful.

"Please, Stelle! Please, please, please, please??" Rain begged.

Oh, hang it all. It looks like it'd about break her heart if I didn't go. It appears I'll be attending after all. "I don't have a dress--"

"I'm sure Nylessa will have one you can borrow," Slake put in calmly.

Well, there went my last excuse. "All right," she agreed. "I'll be there as soon as I can find something to wear. Now go ahead, I'll catch up to you."

"YAY!" Rain squealed and hugged her again before latching on to her father'shand. "Can we go now, Daddy?"

Slake smiled briefly at her before glancing up at Estelle. "We'll see you there, then."

"I'll be along."

*****

Fifteen minutes, Slake thought, looking at his watch. It'sbeen fifteen minutes. I'll give her half an hour, and if she's not here yetI'll go find her. It wouldn't have surprised him at all if Estelle had simply decided to hole up in her quarters after all.

The door of the Mess Hall opened and Estelle slid in cautiously, looking nervously around. She didn't see him at first, and for a moment it looked like she was going to bolt.

Slake tightened his jaw slightly. We'll see about that. "Rain,sweetie, I don't think Estelle sees us. Go get her, would you?"

Rain looked up, sighted her Estelle, and bounded off with a squeal that could be heard even over the music and laughter. "STEEEEEEELLLLLEEEEE!!!"

Estelle braced herself and received the brown blur hurtling at her with good grace, lifting the duckling up and smiling in spite of herself. She threaded her way through the crowd and Slake gestured to the chair he'd saved for her. She sank into it gratefully. "Thank you. I'd almost managed to forgethow busy these things were." She kept glancing around nervously, her entire body tense. Slake supposed he couldn't really blame her; every time she attended a festival something tended to happen to her. Something bad.

"You look lovely in that dress," he murmured, trying to get her to relaxa bit. She flushed slightly.

"Thank you. It's Lessa's but she was...'good' enough to let me borrow it."

And you probably wish she hadn't, don't you? Eventually Slake glanced at the clock. It was nine at night, scandalously late for his almost-five year old daughter to be up. She was trying to keep from looking sleepy, but she was practically falling asleep where she stood. "Come on, Rain, I think it's time to go."

"But Daaadddyyy..." Her whine was cut off mid-word as he lifted her up. She pillowed his head on his shoulder and fell asleep instantly. He got up and Estelle stood as well, looking relieved at the chance to escape. He held up his hand and she stopped. "Iliana's leaving the festival early as well, and she agreed to watch Rain tonight."

"Oh, but surely I--"

"Wait right here, I'll be back soon." His tone was pleasant enough, but she could tell that he would not be at all pleased if she wasn't there when he came back.

"I'm not going anywhere." She forced herself to smile, mostly for Rain's sake, and he nodded.

"Good."

Left alone, she sat back in her chair and watched the dancers. She knew this song, as she knew most of the songs played. Her fingers moved unconsciously on the table, fingering either the guitar pickings or the keyboard playing, whichever instruments happened to be prominent at the moment. She knew the song, she'd danced to it before-- But that was a long, long time ago, and perhaps I'm better off forgetting it. So she glanced away from the floor, disguising her longing by giving the Look of Death to anyone who approached. After receiving the evil eye, anyone who'd thought to ask herfor a dance suddenly and mysteriously found reasons to go to the other sideof the room.

Speaking of the other side of the room, where's Jay? She glanced around, finally locating him leaning on the opposite wall, trying to make Jedar jealous by flirting shamelessly with Nylessa. Hmph, shes norted, folding her arms. Jedar isn't the only one he's irritating! She settled further within herself, her expression becoming even more dangerous, and sighed. I can't really blame him. After all, between Lessa and I there is no contest. I would have preferred some company, but he can't be at fault for seeking out greener pastures. Oh, hang it all, I'm going to bed! She started to stand up, but Slake appeared next to her suddenly, resting a hand on her shoulder as he sat back down.

"Sorry it took me so long."

"That's all right."

He leaned back in his chair and watched her without making it obvious thathe was doing so. She was watching the dangers stoically, a deadly look inher eye that would have scared off anyone who didn't know her well. But Slakeknew her better than that. He sighed and touched his wedding ring absently. I miss you, Sienna. You always loved these festivals so much...

He came back to reality when he realized that Estelle was humming softly to herself, her fingers moving on the table as she played some imaginary keyboard.

Dance with me
I want be your partner can't you see
The music is just starting
Night is calling, and I am falling
Dance with me

"Estelle," he said softly, careful not to startle her. "Did you dance?"

"Yes," she replied distantly, and he could tell that she hadn't really registered what he had asked, or what she was replying. "I used to... A long time ago. I used to love it." A slight smile played around the edges of her beak. "I was even told, once, that I was rather good...But I was self-taught, and those who are self-taught usually have idiots for teachers."

He sighed, hesitated for a moment, then, before he could think-- "Dance with me, Estelle."

"What?" She blinked at him, surprised.

"Will you dance with me?" he repeated, not really sure of what he was saying.

She eyed the dance floor cautiously, then glanced over at him. "I'm not very good."

He stood and offered her his hand. "It doesn't matter to me."

She looked at him for a moment, then put her hand in his and allowed him to lead her to the dance floor.

They say you can't go back, baby I don't believe that
Come along with me, come on and dance with me
Maybe if I hold you close
Baby we could just let go
Of these things that tie us down, we'll come back around
Do you remember we were laughing
We were so in love, we were so in love...

And the band played songs we'd never heard
But we danced anyway
We never understood the words
We just sang oh la la la la la la la la la oh
And we danced anyway...

She was a good dancer, he noted with mild surprise. She was, in fact, very good, once her restrictions relaxed enough to allow her to enjoy herself. After a while, she forgot to be afraid of anyone who might be watching her, and her nervous look eased into a genuine smile, then a laugh. She didn't laugh often, and he always enjoyed hearing it when she did. Her laughter managed to coax a rare, real smile from him. She was, as usual, oblivious the admiring or jealous looks aimed in her direction. Slake shook his head slightly; he'd been trying to come up with exercises to boost that pathetic self-esteem of hers, but so far, nothing seemed to be helping.

I am a man who will fight for your honor
I'll be the hero you've been dreamin' of
We'll live forever, knowin' together
That we did it all for the glory of love

"It's been years!" Estelle laughed as he twirled her. "I can't believe it all comes back to me so easily."

"It must be like skating. Once you learn how, you never forget."

"There are some things I'd rather forget," she replied, more to herself than him. He eyed her, but decided not to pursue the topic in public. She was touchy about her past, and he doubted very much that she'd want it discussed with that many people around. Instead, he gave a noncommittal "Mmm," and spun her around again.

A few minutes later, the song changed again. Slake didn't particularly notice, at first, but Estelle suddenly froze. He frowned slightly. "Estelle? Are you all right?"

"Excuse me," she muttered suddenly, breaking away from him and shoving through the crowd, making all possible speed toward the doorway.

Surprised, Slake hesitated and glanced around for Cutter. The younger man was still chatting with someone else and hadn't even seen Estelle leave. Slake blew out a frustrated sigh and headed after his apprentice on his own.

*****

Once safety outside, Estelle leaned against the wall and closed her eyes. Not that song, no, please... Tears formed in her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. I have to get control of myself, I have to focus, I have to go back in there-- The thought of returning to the crowd suddenly suffocated her and she left for her room abruptly.

The door to her quarters slammed shut behind her and she sank down on the bed, putting her head in her hands. I'm not going to cry. I refuse to. No, no, no...

There was a soft knock on her door. "Estelle? Can I come in?"

Her first instinct was to scream "GO AWAY!", but she restrained herself. She owed him an explanation, at least. "Come in."

The door opened and Slake let himself in, easing the door shut behind him."Are you all right?"

"I'm sorry I left so suddenly," she replied, dodging the question. "But thatsong...brings back a lot of bad memories."

He came over and sat next to her on the bed. "What sort of memories?" heasked gently.

Estelle paused, seeing no point in trying to hide it from him. He'll find out eventually, anyway. "That song was...you might say it was Ernest's and mine. When I was a baby he'd sing it to me sometimes...he was always trying to protect me. And when he left I'd listen to the song over and over again...trying to hold onto his memory, I guess. You know what happened when I...met up with him again. Well, I must have been about 16...and I'm 26 now, it must have been almost exactly ten years ago. At any rate, one night when I was sixteen I found a recording of that song and stole it. I brought it home to him that night, hoping it would bring back some of the better memories. He...I had been supposed to pick up some food for dinner, but I was so excited about the recording I just...forgot. He was less than pleased when me when I got home." Her eyes were wide and staring, seeing it all again. "I started playing it for him, he asked where the food was. I realized I'd forgotten it, I tried to apologize...and then...he started beating me again...it hurt so badly, so badly...He started screaming at me, calling me things I can't repeat and then, and then...just before he went out, he yelled at me for staining the carpet with my blood, said I'd better have it cleaned up before he got back, and then he left to...drink and wench his night away..." She cut off, tears gathering in her eyes and threatening to slip out no matter how hard she tried to hold them in.

Slake was silent for a moment, white-hot rage flooding his veins, the way it always did whenever he found out something else Falcone had done to Estelle. To do that to anyone would have been atrocious, but...To his own sister... He knew better than to say anything, though, and instead rested a hand on her shoulder. "When was the last time you cried, Estelle?" he asked softly. She lifted her head proudly.

"When I was a baby. I didn't cry when Ernest...left the family, I didn't cry when my parents died through something that was my fault, I didn't cry through ten years of beatings when it hurt so much I thought I was going to die, and later wished I had, I didn't cry when he half-killed me and left me for dead...It's been twenty years."

Slake looked faintly shocked, then shook his head. "What have you done to yourself for all this time... Estelle, tears were created for a reason. We need them sometimes. Keeping all that on the inside will rust you from the inside out, Bright Blade."

"It doesn't matter. I'm already ruined. He told me himself. With great frequency." She didn't even try to keep back a bitter laugh.

"And you really believe that?" he asked rather sternly.

"He had no reason to lie to me. If he'd lied, it would have meant he was trying to spare my feelings. And he never saw a reason to dothat ." Before he could think of anything to say, she got up and moved to pick up her guitar. He watched silently as she strummed the strings a few times.

I was standin' at the counter, I was waiting' for some change
When I heard that old familiar music start
It was like a lighted match had been tossed into my soul
It was like a dam had broken in my heart
And taking every detour, gettin' lost and losin' track
So that even if I wanted I could not find my way back
After driving out the memory of the way things might have been
After I'd forgotten all about us, the song remembers when

Over all the miles between us, and for all the time that's passed
You would think I haven't gotten very far
And I hope my hasty heart will forgive me just this once
If I stop to wonder how on earth you are
But that's just a lot of water, underneath the bridge I've burned
And there's no use in backtrackin' around corners I have turned
Still I guess some things we bury are just bound to rise again
For even if the whole world has forgotten, the song remembers when
And even if the whole world has forgotten, the song remembers when

She finished the last words in a sob, as tears finally over-flowed her eyes. She put the guitar down, not wanting to get the strings wet, and struggled to get herself back under control, but it was too late. Slake came to her and, after a moment's hesitation, gathered her up and held her as she sobbed uncontrollably into his shoulder. He sat her down on the bed and held her, stroking her hair a little awkwardly, and trying not to think about the last time he'd held a crying woman. He was amazed--no, shocked was a better word--at how long she'd held this all in. He'd cried for a week straight when Sienna had died, then gotten himself drunk and cried some more. He couldn't even imagine what it would have been like to hold that all in. And as a ten year old girl, watching both her parents die and being left utterly alone in the world-- Estelle, Estelle, why did you torture yourself like that? he asked silently. She wept on and, as he felt her tears soaking through his jacket and into his shirt, he mentally prayed that Rain would never have cause for this kind of grief.

After ages, he felt her tortured sobs finally slow down, then stop altogether. She'd exhausted herself utterly and had literally cried herself to sleep. He shook his head and lowered her gently down on the bed, pulling the covers up over her. He brushed away some of the tears still on her face, but she was too deeply asleep to feel it. He sighed and let himself out silently.

Once out in the safety of the hallway, Slake took off his dinner jacket andexamined it carefully. The shoulder was totally saturated, leaving even his shirt damp, but he thought that a dry cleaning bill was an acceptable sacrifice.

"Well, well, well..."

Slake turned around at the sound of a familiar chuckle behind him. Duke eyed him, an amused smirk lurking around the edges of his beak. "Havin' a good evening, Slake?"

Slake looked down at himself and realized that his shirt was rumpled and nearly untucked in places. He looked up and glared at his old friend. "It's not what you're thinking."

"Really? Then what was it, then?"

Slake tried to think of something that wouldn't compromise his student's privacy. "She was upset. Crying." He held up the damp shoulder of his jacket as proof. Duke's grin became even wider.

"Ya were too much for her, eh?"

Slake grabbed Duke and slammed him up against the wall. "You have no idea what you're talking about," he growled through gritted teeth. Duke held up his hands, surrending.

"Okay, okay, Slake. Have it yer way. I was off base."

Slake growled again and dropped him, storming off.

Once Slake had disappeared down the hallway, still fuming, Duke chuckled to himself and tossed a small gold object in the air. "It's time ya got over it, old pal."

*****

"Estelle! Hey, Stelle!"

Estelle froze in mid-step, then turned around slowly to face the former Strike Force hero. "L'Orange, sir?" she asked uncertainly, trying to remember if she'd done anything wrong. She came up with nothing, but that didn't stop panic from welling up in her chest. He shook his head at the 'sir' but let it pass.

"I--ah--Slake has somethin' for ya. He meant ta give it to ya last night, but he forgot. Here." He handed her something, then disappeared. Puzzled, Estelle looked down at the object he'd left in her hand.

Sienna's wedding ring? she thought in astonishment as she turned it over in her hands. There was an inscription on the inside of the ring,and she squinted to read it. 'One life, one love'... How sweet. Why on earth did he give it to me? Confused, she slipped the ring on her finger and went to find him.

*****

Estelle hadn't really wanted to come to breakfast that morning after thesemi-scene (scene in her mind, at least) of last night, but she saw no otherchoice. Slake nodded to her from his table, and she smiled in acknowledgement.She retrieved some food--a few of the leftovers from last night that couldpass for breakfast--and went to sit down across from him.

The light flashed across the ring she was waiting as she set her tray down, and Slake's stomach suddenly twisted. "Where'd you get that?" he demanded before she could even sit down. She looked down at the ring, obviously confused, then back up at him.

"Duke gave it to me this morning...he said it was from you. I was going to ask you about it."

Slake's hand went automatically for the chain at his throat. The chain was there, all right, but the ring wasn't on it. He swallowed hard. "You say Duke gave it to you?"

"Yes..."

"And he said it was from me?"

"Yes..."

"Did you read the inscription?"

"Yes, I recognized it was her's, that's why I couldn't understand why--"She stopped at the look on his face.

"I'm going to kill that drake," Slake snarled, taking the ring back as shetentatively held it out to him and slipping it back on the chain. "I'm sorry he had to drag you into this, Estelle," he growled. "Come with me, please." He took her hand in an iron grip and dragged her with him, not leaving her much choice. She followed silently, too frightened and bewildered to protest.

Slake practically kicked open the door to Duke's quarters, not even bothering to knock. On instinct, the one-eyed thief jumped up with his saber in hand. He blinked. "Slake--" He didn't get any further before Slake's black blade flashed out and sent his sword spinning.

Slake tossed his own blade aside and slammed Duke against the wall, one hand holding him there by the collar and the other around his throat. "You have played games with my feelings for the last time, l'Orange," he hissed. "And what's worse, you got Estelle involved in your little game. That was unfair and unwise and I will see you punished for it!"

Estelle looked back and forth between them. "Slake...please Slake, don't!"

Slake was shaking with rage. Duke was still too stunned to even struggle."Are you still so jealous after all this time?" Slake demanded. "Why can't you understand, Duke, that I think it was worththe sacrifice? When I was with her I was all I could be! She didn't hold me back, she drove me forward! Who of us is the weaker man, l'Orange, the one that has the courage to love, or the one with the cowardice to leave?"

Estelle was shaking, but she forced herself to step forward and lay a hand on Slake's arm. "Please, Slake, stop!"

Slake closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, his face was calm, though he still held Duke tight. "Her memory just saved your life," he said calmly, in a voice that forestalled any disbelief. "And so did the lady you used so casually." He dropped his old friend and retrieved his saber, turning on his heel and stalking out.

Slake was halfway down the hall before he realized that he'd left Estelle in there alone with someone she was already in awe of. With a groan, he turned around to head back, but before he could take a step Estelle emerged. She glanced in his direction, though he couldn't tell if she saw him or not, before turning and half-running down the hallway in the opposite direction.

Slake sighed and put a hand to his forehead, saying the only thing that seemed to fully encompass the situation.

"Damn. "

 

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