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Deals With The Devil

By Brasscat

 

Day One

J. "Cutter" Andrews, the Brotherhood's cracker - and security man by default - unlaced his fingers from behind his head and leaned forward, examining something. Specifically, he was examining the blurry but immediately recognisable figure being beamed onto his screen from Camera Four: the A Level Hallway.

On-screen, Duke L'Orange was walking purposefully up the A level hallway in the new Lair, headed right for the exit tunnel. He looked angry, and he looked defiant.

Cutter shook his head and spoke to no one in particular. "Ten bucks says he's going for the exit."

Duke turned left at the end of the hallway, not noticing the camera tracking him in his distraction.

The cracker sighed. "I win." Then he leaned over, picked up his comm, and dialled Leila's office.

*****

Duke had made it all the way up to the bay room and the last set of doors by the time Leila caught up with him. She had Marshall with her. Whether he'd just happened to be with her at the time, or whether she'd called him to come, Duke didn't know. He suspected the latter.

"What the hell do ya think yer doin'?" she snapped.

"Goin' fer a walk." He kept walking, ignoring her.

Leila looked downright furious. "L'Orange! Stop right there!" He didn't even glance back, just kept walking. "Hey! I told ya ta stop!"

At that, Duke turned. "Sweetheart, ya ain't in a position ta demand anythin' of me." He met her eyes, and they tried to stare one another down. "Ya know, if I wanted to I could fight ya fer leadership right now. Or any time. An' you an' I both know I'd win."

Marshall made no sound, and managed to keep an expression off his face.

"If you wanna fight, I'll fight," Leila hissed. "But I will not have ya holdin' this over my head!"

"No. I don't want to fight. I want to go fer a walk." And he left.

Leila stared after him as the outer door slid shut behind him. Then she turned to Marshall. "Have him followed."

Marshall watched her stalk off in the other direction, and sighed.

*****

Leila stormed back to her office, furious and trying not to be. He was supposed to stay in the Lair! If he wanted to leave at all, he had to be accompanied. She'd explained all that to him, and the reasons! Duke was a wanted man and a well-known face; night-time or no, he couldn't just go wandering around out there! For all their sakes.

She'd known this was coming; known that he wouldn't slip as easily away from his old status as leader as it had first seemed. He was too wild, too on-the-edge. Too used to following his own rules. There'd been a kind of veiled tension between them from the moment they met. This had just been waiting to happen. What Duke had said up in the hallway was quite true... He'd given voice to something the both of them had known the moment they saw one another.

For it was quite obvious that he did have the capacity to beat Leila in a fight. He was well known as being better than Falcone; and Leila had never properly managed to beat him.

"Damn ya, L'Orange," she muttered. She suspected somewhere deep down that what he was doing wasn't entirely due to his desire for freedom. He was testing her. Prodding her, seeing how far he could push her, seeing how she reacted to certain things. He had said from the beginning that he wasn't interested in taking leadership back; in fact, he'd sounded as if the thought was slightly distasteful to him. He'd certainly changed in the three years he'd been gone.

However, as uninterested in taking back the job as he seemed, he also apparently had a certain attachment to it. Or to the Brotherhood, anyhow. He wasn't going to be the Leader any more, but in an odd, almost possessive way, he wanted to ensure that the Brotherhood was being led as well as it could be under her. Yes, he was testing her. Annoyed at the thought, she had to wonder vaguely if she was passing.

He was doing it by pushing her as far as he could whenever he got the chance. The worst thing about it was that he was awfully good at it. He hadn't backed down to her on anything yet.

He was stubborn, that's all. Just damn stubborn. "I hate stubborn people," Leila said under her breath as she shut the door behind her. She determined then and there that if a battle of the wills was to take place, there was no way she was going to let the smirking chauvinist win it.

Fuming, Leila threw herself into her office chair and glared at the untidy desk. She stayed there, brooding uneasily, until a knock at her office door snapped her out of it. "It's open."

Nylessa wandered in and leaned on Leila's desk. "Hi."

The older woman raised an eyebrow. "Hi yerself. What's up?"

"Does anything have to be up? I just thought I'd pay you a visit." Nylessa's eyes were wide and as mild and innocent as could be, which immediately made Leila suspicious.

"Alright, now what's really up?"

The red-head sighed. "You have a very suspicious mind, you know."

"I know."

Nylessa hesitated, searching for a delicate way to broach the subject. "I heard about your little... ah... confrontation with Duke L'Orange earlier. It was all over the Mess Hall by halfway through dinner."

Leila silently cursed the Brotherhood grapevine - and the fact that she'd completely forgotten to have her own dinner. "Alright... so what're they sayin' about me? How'd I handle it?"

"Well..." Nylessa bit her lip. "A lot of people are on Duke's side on this one. They think you're being too harsh."

Leila bristled. "Too harsh?? He defected! A' course I gotta keep him close ta home fer a while; an' he should be damn grateful too - he's lucky he ain't dead!"

Wincing, Nylessa resisted the urge to put her hands to her ears. "I know, I know. But he is the ex-leader..."

"What the hell does that matter? I'm the current one!" Leila pushed back her chair and paced up and down beside her desk, unconsciously following a well-worn path. "You know what this is, don't ya?"

Lessa sighed and waited for it.

"It's because I'm a woman. They're lookin' fer every excuse possible ta criticise my actions, an' wit' the amount o' trouble he's been causin' since we got him back, they got plenty ta pick me up on. It's not fair - he breaks the rules, an' I'm the one made out ta be unjust!"

Sitting herself on the edge of the large desk, Nylessa watched her friend pace. "You care too much what people think."

"I know, I know." Leila didn't stop pacing, however.

"I should really stop telling you the things I hear."

"Sometimes I think so too, y'know. But that ain't the problem - I mean, I'm gonna hear the comments one way or another. I gotta figure out what ta do ta stop 'em comin'."

"Lei..." Nylessa touched the silver woman's arm, making her stop in her tracks. "I think you're doing a fine job. Perhaps you're not the one with the problem. In fact, I'd most certainly have to say that they are... You know, you're not perfect--"

"Boy, do they let me know that," Leila muttered.

"--and they probably shouldn't expect you to be, but they do. They're the ones with unreasonable expectations. You are still a bit new to this and you had no training... If it helps any, I think that you're doing wonderfully under circumstances like those."

Under circumstances like those, huh? Pity I can't just do wonderfully, full stop... Leila sighed. "Yeah, maybe." Her brow knitted again. "But it still don't help when jerks like l'Orange go outta their way ta make my job harder."

Nylessa shrugged. "I don't think he is. Maybe he's got his own motivation."

"If so, I fail ta see what it is. Besides, he doesn't like me. I can tell. An' the feelin' is more than mutual." Leila folded her arms.

The younger woman studied her for a moment, then smiled slightly. "The way you're talking, I almost wonder whether maybe you like him more than you're letting on."

To her shock, Leila felt a warn flush of blood going to her face. Scowling more ferociously than ever to hide it, she replied rather sharply, "A' course not! What kinda stupid idea is that?"

Nylessa quickly backpedaled, torn between her desire to laugh, and an actual real surprise at Leila's overreaction. Was it possible? She shook the thought away for a while, knowing that to push it any further with her friend - especially in the temper Leila was in - could be suicide. "I was just teasing, Lei," she smiled. Nylessa had never been very shaken by Leila's moods; she'd lived with them since she was nine. Although they had grown in frequency in the last few years - but then, everyone was a little screwed up since the war.

"Sorry... sorry, Less, I'm kinda on edge. Which ain't a good excuse, but..." Leila faltered, the expression on her face strangely worried and distracted. "I... kinda gotta get back to it," she added apologetically. "You wanna meet fer breakfast the day after tomorrow? We could go out."

"Day after?"

"I promised Zaki I'd take her out tomorrow." Leila smiled briefly, and sat back down at her desk, the worried expression still lingering somewhere beneath the smile. "But I'm free the day after."

"Alright, I'd love to." Nylessa grinned. "I'll see you then. Don't go having any breakdowns in the meantime, okay?"

"Promise." For a moment the two women looked at each other, feeling more strongly than ever the bond of strange solidarity that had grown between them, despite their many differences, since they'd met. Leila broke the eye contact by looking down at the papers on her desk. Nylessa suspected that feeling too close to anyone made her uncomfortable.

"See you then, Lei," she said quietly, and left.

Leila pushed away the papers the moment her friend had gone, and set to worrying in earnest. Nylessa's remark about Duke niggled at her. The fact was, she did have a strange interest in the man. At first it had been purely academic - he was the previous leader, after all - but the more she got to know him, and dislike him... the more she wanted to know. She made a face. THAT makes a lotta sense, deSilver.

Truth be told, she was... quite taken with the way he stood up to her, even while it was annoying her. Nylessa aside, very few people talked to her frankly and honestly any more. Her job always got in the way, and people were either overly polite or respectful, or as careful in conversation as a bunch of boozehounds around a cop. Conversation often seemed to dry up the moment she entered a room.

That wasn't to imply that everyone respected her; far from it. The problem was that the people who didn't like or respect her fell into two categories. She mentally classed them as "the skulkers" and "the malcontents".

The former group went around expressing their dislike of her and dissatisfaction with how she was handling leadership, but they never said a word to her face. They just went around behind her back, spreading Drake-knows-what rumours and conjecture...

The latter group, in a way, was worse. They were the braver - or perhaps just the more brash - of the first group, and they did express their dissatisfaction. Very vocally. Unfortunately, everything she did dissatisfied those particular people. They simply could not be made happy, no matter what she tried, no matter how many solutions she offered to their complaints. She had the distinct feeling that they didn't like her, and attacked her policies as an indirect way of attacking her. It was another form of cowardice, perhaps worse than the first.

She briefly wondered whether the discontent in the Brotherhood was due only to her actions, or only to theirs. She suspected somewhere in the middle.

Duke didn't seem to like her, yet unlike the others he didn't fall into either of those groups. He made no secret of it when he disagreed with her; but generally speaking he was quite reasonable. And when he did disagree, he did it fairly calmly and honestly. His outburst earlier that night had been the first time he's actually lost his temper, and Leila wasn't sure what to think yet. Nylessa had a point - Duke had his own motivation. Even if he was testing her, he certainly wasn't "out to get her" for no reason other than spite like some of the others seemed to be, and Leila hoped that in her temper she hadn't let Nylessa think that that was her opinion of him. Considering it further, she could almost understand l'Orange's anger.

Leila had known him vaguely, only from a distance, before he'd left them during the war. However, she'd known him well enough to see that he was a changed person now. Something was indescribably different. She got the sense he wasn't entirely happy about being back in the Brotherhood, but he knew as well as she that it was this life or none at all. They'd rescued him from in front of the firing squad, quite literally. But they'd rescued him only to take him back into a life that he considered (she was sure) that he'd grown beyond. Most thieves of the Brotherhood went through an inner struggle about the ethics of their lifestyle at some time or another. Leila got the distinct impression that he'd gone through his on earth, and had concluded he was glad he'd left the criminal life behind.

Except, of course, that he hadn't. He was probably - and understandably - bitter. In fact, she thought he was handling the adjustment pretty well for someone in his situation.

Leila sat back and frowned at herself. She wasn't in the habit of harbouring this kind of forgiving attitude. She'd been ready to strangle the man twenty minutes ago.

It don't matter. He still irks me. Determined not to start liking him any more than she had to, Leila tried to think of all the things she didn't like about him. Top of the list of things she hated about the man was the way he swaggered around, oh-so-sure of his sexual appeal. More so than that, she hated the fact that she had to admit he was a little... appealing.

For Leila to admit that, even just to herself, was a big thing. She'd refused to look at a man in any way besides as an acquaintance and possible threat for three years. She hadn't wanted to; and even if she had, she'd thought she was unable to.

She felt herself flushing slowly again, and hated herself for the weakness. "Damn him," she muttered. "It doesn't mean anything."

"Mamma?"

Leila blinked and glanced over at the doorway. Her daughter was peeking in sleepily. Zakiya deSilver was almost four. She had distinctive light brownish-grey feathers, long, silky perfectly straight black hair, and mismatched eyes. One green, one blue. Leila still didn't know where that trait came from. Her beak, too, was unusual. Instead of curving upwards like a normal beak, it was almost straight, with very little curve at all. However, it was a lot closer to a normal duck beak than it was to a curved raptrin bill, thank Drake.

"You said you were gonna come to bed soon..." Zakiya said tiredly.

"I know, sweetie, I know," Leila sighed. "Give me ten minutes, okay?" She looked back at the unfinished work on her desk, and didn't see the disappointment on Zakiya's face.

"Okay," the child mumbled, and hesitated. "Are we still goin' out tomorrow?"

Leila glanced back up at her, a little surprised at the low tone of the question. "Of course we are, Zaki."

"'Cos you said that last time..."

"Oh, I know, sweetie... I'm sorry about that. I told ya how I got really busy that day, didn't I?"

Zakiya looked at her mother across the room, her mismatched eyes harbouring something that almost looked like resentment. "But you're not gonna get busy tomorrow, huh?"

"No way, baby. I made a promise an' I'm gonna keep it, okay?" Leila gave her daughter a fleeting smile. "You go to bed, an' I'll be in soon."

"Okay!" Zakiya replied, looking heartened, and slipped away.

*****

The next time Leila looked up, forty-five minutes had passed. "Oh, shit," she groaned, feeling immediately guilty. Zakiya was sure to be asleep by now; and she'd probably be resentful in the morning. She was strange, in that way - where most four-year-olds lost their temper and threw tantrums or cried when things didn't go their way, Zakiya could carry a grudge with the best of adults. Her mistrust seemed to be the downside of her intelligence. Leila sometimes found herself wondering if Zakiya hadn't taken far too much after her father; but it wasn't a thought she liked to pursue too far.

She stood up and her left leg, having gone numb, buckled beneath her. "Shit again." The cursing made it a little better.

Switching out the office light, Leila walked out into the hall and through the very next door - her bedroom. The lights were all out. Once her eyes had adjusted to the dark she could see an indistinct lump under the covers of her bed. Zakiya liked to sleep in her mother's bed whenever possible, but Leila generally moved the child into her own once she came to bed. She didn't want her nightmares waking her daughter.

Leila smiled fondly down at the blanket-covered shape, then pulled the covers down.

And choked in a harsh, shocked breath.

In place of her daughter were two pillows and some bundled up clothing. Of Zakiya, there was no sign.

A low voice, a man's voice, a smooth, cultured, and utterly terrifying voice let out a soft chuckle from behind her, in the darkest corner of the room. Sick to the heart and desperately afraid for her little girl, Leila slowly turned so that her eyes could confirm what her pounding heart already knew to be true; what her mind knew to be impossible.

"Hello, my dear. I have a proposition for you."

*****

Day Two

Early the next morning, Duke l'Orange rifled around in the well-stocked cupboard in his quarters. Although the setup looked primitive - all in stone - the room was well furnished and comfortable... aside from the temperature. Leila had mentioned that the heating system for the Lair had broken down. Duke had decided to warm himself up.

A flask of alcohol - he didn't particularly care what type - sounded very appealing right now. Duke didn't drink as often as some in the Lair, disliking the feeling of his sharp senses being dulled, but he was a little depressed at the moment anyway. Anyone would be, knowing that they could never safely show their face in public again.

Duke grinned wryly as he pulled out a flask of amber liquid. Of course, he really should be used to the feeling by now. In the years before the Saurian invasion, he'd one of the most wanted and certainly one of the most notorious criminals on Puckworld. But being on Earth for three years had spoiled him. There, he'd been a free man. He could walk the streets without being shot at or attacked... unless of course he was in New York at night... and had even been considered a hero of sorts there. And then he'd come home. And some "heroes welcome" he'd received. Arrested on the second day back, thrown into jail, and sentenced to execution for his crimes.

Duke took a couple of swigs from the flask, remembering the feeling of being trapped behind bars. Brought back why he'd been so diligently careful to avoid being caught all those years...

Even knowing the total value of what he'd stolen during his time as a thief, Duke couldn't believe the verdict at first. It was only later that he'd learned that the government had Enforcers scattered throughout it in the guise of police, judges, and politicians. He'd been told, too, that the Enforcers were the servants of Canard - the one and the same Canard who Duke had thought was dead. Apparently not. He'd returned to Puckworld after the Dimensional Gateway had dumped him somewhere in the West Keltor Provinces, and once back, had swiftly risen to power... a corrupt, paranoid and eventually bloody rule, where the law was so tight that speaking out against Canard could be punished with years in jail, and thieving by death.

And, of course, just his luck; the judge who'd taken his case turned out to be under the orders of an Enforcer. That was the worst thing about the whole mess - it wasn't just the Enforcers themselves you had to worry about.

Duke sighed and decided he'd really have to stop going by the jersey number thirteen one of these days.

Of course, it had been good luck that his old pals in the Blade had rescued him on the morning of his execution. Someone who really should have been his greatest opponent - the new leader of the Brotherhood, Leila deSilver - had been behind it, although possibly not very willingly. She was a hard, bad-tempered woman, and he could tell at an instant that she didn't like him. He didn't particularly like the woman himself, but she seemed to have at least a passable grasp over Leadership, for someone with little training for it. As long as she let him be, he'd leave her alone. But he did want to send the clear message that he didn't need to be controlled, and that the harder she tried, the harder he'd push back. He hoped she'd get the idea soon, because he was getting tired of pushing.

Apparently his brother Rance had played a part in planning the rescue, too. Duke felt a twinge of guilt. He had not yet seen his brother, and probably never would. Rance hated the lifestyle Duke led, and did everything possible to distance himself from it. Of course, he obviously cared enough about his brother to risk his job and freedom to have him rescued. That was a start.

It had been a further shock for Duke to discover that the old Brotherhood Lair in Ducaine Metropolis had been found and destroyed by the Saurians. Perhaps the biggest shock of all had come when he arrived at the new Lair - one of the older, abandoned Brotherhood bases - in Keltor and had discovered that, out of the four hundred or so thieves he'd remembered, only fifty or so had survived. So many of his old friends were gone... Slake was alive, thank the gods; and so was Lyric, who'd still practically been a child last time he'd seen her. Tristan had survived seemingly unscathed and unchanged - typical - and both Marshall and the lady Iliana had lived.

Nylessa had made it through, too, though he couldn't help feeling a little awkward about her. He'd declined an invitation from her on his second night back, leaving both she and he feeling confused and awkward. He still wasn't sure why he'd done that. Duke had been stuck on earth with no... female 'company' to speak of for three years, yet when he'd finally gotten back to the Lair he just hadn't felt right about bedding the first woman he came across. Or the second, or the third. The war, he decided, had changed him more than he'd realised.

Duke took a few more swallows of the burning liquid and grimaced - it had a slightly bitter tang to it. He allowed his mind to start wandering again, this time away from thoughts of his old friends.

The government had covered up Duke's escape, making out that he had indeed been executed as planned. A member, Jedar Stormwing, had filled Duke in on the Brotherhood's position in the eyes of the public. Apparently the Brotherhood had been the driving force behind the rebellion against Canard's tyranny; and it was Jedar himself who had fired the bullet which ended Canard's life - and reign - in the end. But the remaining members of the government had seen fit to vilify the Brotherhood, even to blame some of Canard's atrocities on them. There had been chaos under Canard, but he had had his supporters; those who benefited from his rule. The beneficiaries were those who were highly placed in society. Those who controlled the media; holovision, holoprint and radio. Those who controlled knowledge itself. They'd twisted everything, perverted the Brotherhood's mission in the public eye.

And Jedar and the Brotherhood had faded away again, had been made to hide like they'd been hiding for the last Drake-knows-how-many centuries; except this time, they shouldn't have had to...

So too did Duke have to hide away, for if he were caught again, this time there would be no mistake; there would be no rescue.

Fugitive. The word echoed through his head, and he said it aloud. "Fugitive." It rolled off his tongue. It felt easier to say than "thief" did.

When he'd found out that everyone thought he was dead, he'd wanted to let his friends know the truth, but even he wouldn't take that risk. Turned out later that he didn't have to. Rance actually notified the four remaining ducks of what had really happened... four only, because Duke soon had the fifth.

It had been a coincidence - Duke had been in the streets of Keltor City late one night, walking much as he had been last night (except nobody had caught him leaving that first time) and Nosedive had almost walked into him. Apparently the team had been summoned to Keltor to accept some award or other. Duke had been overjoyed to find his apprentice, and had taken him back to the Lair to introduce him and familiarise him with the Brotherhood's setup, and to explain a few things to him. He knew it was unlikely that any of his friends knew the full story of Canard and the government, as it was the government that was feeding and bedding them. High time he knew.

Of course, at exactly the same time, Rance was doing the same with the other four. But no matter - it was nice to have Nosedive around again; Duke had missed the kid. As always when he thought about Dive, he felt a twinge of doubt over what he had done. It had only been on impulse that he'd brought the kid back, and when he'd asked Dive at the door if he was willing to take that last step the kid had agreed, but now... impulse or no, Nosedive wouldn't be allowed to leave. Duke shook his head, not wanting to get into that argument with himself. Nosedive seemed happy enough right now. If that situation changed, he'd deal with it when it happened.

He checked the clock on the wall. In the eternal night of the underground Lair, Duke's new home and prison, the clocks were the only way to tell time. And this one said it was almost time for breakfast.

Duke took a final few swallows from the flask and stood up, grimacing at the definite bitter, almost metallic overtone of the liquid. He walked over to the cupboard and was surprised to find his step slightly unsteady. Funny, he didn't feel drunk...

After putting the flask away, he turned toward the door - and almost fell as the room suddenly tilted to the side. A stabbing pain hit him in the stomach and he winced. "Ehh... think I'll skip breakfast..." He changed direction at the door and headed for the bed instead.

Before he reached it, another spasm hit, this one stronger. Duke doubled over and groaned in pain, then slid to his knees and leaned against the bed. Sitting on the cool floor seemed to help a little.

The next knifing pain was the worst one yet, and he cried out in agony. He needed help - but it was so hard to move, and the world started to dim and darken around him...

*****

Nosedive walked down the hallway, whistling. "Man, I loooove the acoustics in this place!" he announced to the empty hall. He already knew parts of the winding passages well enough not to get lost every time he went to the bathroom.

He looked at the numbers on the doors as he passed each one. It was important to memorise room names in the Lair, as it had been built to house over two hundred if necessary and had four livable levels beneath the city... Impressive, but useless, considering that there were only about fifty Brotherhood members remaining.

B32....B33...B34.....B35 - Duke's room.

Dive was surprised to find Duke's door unlocked. It simply slid open when he hit the doorbutton.

Revealing Duke slumped motionless against the bed.

Dive's heart leaped into his throat, and he froze for a split second until Duke moved. "Duke? It's Nosedive.... You okay, man?" He crouched beside the prone form.

Duke doubled over as another spasm of pain crashed through his guts. "Ungh....Dive..." he managed, before sliding to the floor. The pain hit in a bigger wave, and he began to choke and convulse.

"Oh geez!" Nosedive gasped, jumping to his feet. He ran into the corridor. "HELP! Someone! Doc! Lyric! Even Nylessa! HELP!"

The sound of running footsteps echoed up and down the hallways of the Brotherhood Lair.

*****

Leila sat on the edge of the infirmary bunk, next to Duke's still form. "So he'll live?" she asked.

Tarrin Avias, the Brotherhood's doctor, simply nodded. "He was lucky. That, or the poisoner was rather inept. The dosage wasn't enough to kill a duck of his size." Busying himself with cleaning his workbench, he watched Leila out of the corner of his slanted eyes. She was pale, and looked so on edge that her expression wouldn't have been out of place on someone walking barefoot across razors. Of course, he knew better than to tell her that.

Sensing his gaze, Leila glanced at Tarrin. "Who do you think did it?"

Tarrin selected a thermometer from his case and tapped it thoughtfully against the edge of his beak. "When you work out the motive, you have your poisoner. There would be few here who had reason to hate l'Orange - unless the residual resentment of his desertion warrants poisoning. And I think not."

"But we can't rule it out," Leila sighed, "And in that case, everyone's a suspect - everyone who was a member when he deserted, anyway."

Doc leaned around Leila to slide the thermometer into Duke's mouth. Leila shifted a little to give him room.

"Why not interview those who fall into that category?" Doc asked, leaving the thermometer and turning back to his bag. "There can't be more than forty...."

"Thirty-two, including yerself," said Leila tiredly. "But you an' I don't count."

The Doc smiled and withdrew a bottle of pills from the black bag. "Actually, if this was a murder case we'd be the two main suspects - you, the new leader threatened by the old leader's return, and I, the doctor with the medical know-how to access and use such poisons. Here, give him two of these with water when he wakes up." Avias passed her the bottle.

Leila took it. "Painkillers?"

"No. They'll induce vomiting - we'll want him to get as much of that toxin out of his system as possible. If I had a stomach pump I'd use it, but unfortunately..." Tarrin gave Leila a meaningful look, and she sighed.

"I know, I know, you need more equipment. I'm doing my best, Tarrin. I mean, we can't even get the heating in here fixed, let alone..." Leila sighed again.

Tarrin handed her a metal pan. Leila didn't have to ask what it was for. "Are you okay with this? I could call an assistant--"

"Tarrin, I have a four-year-old kid. I think I can handle it."

Doc smiled. "Good, because I'm expecting one of the Presabers... Dalin, of course. He has an appointment in a couple of minutes - an apparent 'sprain' which won't go away..." He took the thermometer out of Duke's mouth. "Hmmm. It's a good thing he didn't ingest as much of the poison as they'd planted in that flask... he's a lucky drake."

"Lucky that Dive found him when he did, too."

"Nosedive? His apprentice? Yes, a decent kid, that one... if a little wild... Where is he, anyway?"

"Oh, he's with Nylessa - I didn't want him to be around if... y'know."

"I see." There was a knock at the door. "That'll be Dalin now."

Leila watched as Doc opened the door and ushered a somewhat tubby, dark-haired teen with a limp and a pained expression in. Dalin Mandrake - of course, she knew him. She gave him a tired smile and he blushed and almost tripped over his own feet. Tarrin grabbed his shoulder, steadied him, and firmly led him into the next room.

"Uh... uh... hi. Bye!" Dalin said over his shoulder. Tarrin shut the door firmly behind them.

Leila shook her head at nothing in particular, then absently tucked the blanket further in around Duke. The air was becoming chilly in the small room - the heating system for the enormous underground base had overloaded recently, and had not yet been repaired. Duke shivered in his sleep. Leila looked around for spare blankets, found none, and thought about asking Doc if there were any.

Soft voices filtered in from the next room.

"How's that feel?"

"Okay..."

"How's this feel?"

"A'right..."

"How about-"

"AAAAAHHH!"

She abandoned the idea of asking the Doc anything for the time being. Duke trembled again. Leila yawned, stretched, and struggled to keep her eyes open. The voices were no more than faint murmurs now, the words themselves indistinguishable.

Leila sighed and looked at Duke's still form. "Move over pal," she said softly, "I have to rest before I fall asleep standing up." She lay down beside him and closed her eyes. Just for a moment, of course. So many worries swirling around in her mind, tiring her out... Her head felt so heavy...

*****

Tarrin Avias stood in the doorway surveying the scene in front of him with some surprise. He wasn't certain whether to be amused or amazed.

Leila and Duke were fast asleep together on the cramped bunk, Duke beneath the blankets and Leila beside him, on top of the blankets. After his initial shock, Doc had decided it was innocent enough - they reminded him more of two very young children in that position than anything else - and had quietly gone about his business.

As the Brotherhood doctor, he was used to seeing people act in unusual ways. Illness seemed to expose the true nature of a person, stripping them of all their usual defences and false pretences and revealing many of their well-hidden weaknesses.

Tarrin liked doctoring. He saw it as his job to save lives, not end them, and although it was often a difficult and tiring job, Tarrin got more satisfaction from healing than he ever had from being a common thief.

When he'd been seventeen, still stuck in the Presaber rank, the old Brotherhood doctor, Will McWebb, had chosen the youth as his apprentice. No-one had been more surprised than Tarrin. As a kid he'd been somewhat of a practical joker, not the steadfast sort of character needed to be a doctor. But Doc, the old Doc, had changed his perspective on a few things - mainly that there were many ways to find amusement and joy in any job; and not all of them involved being a loose cannon or a smartass.

Like so many of Tarrin's friends, Doc had died during the final battle, the night the Saurians had finally discovered the Brotherhood's Lair in Ducaine Metropolis. Tarrin still missed him sometimes.

He remembered the night, some years before Doc's death, when Duke l'Orange had been carried into his surgery with blood pouring from the place where his right eye had been. McWebb had handled that case; Tarrin had just been a fresh apprentice back then. Strangely enough, Duke's hair had begun to turn white after he awoke to discover that his eye had been replaced with an ugly cybernetic substitute - as a young man he'd been almost obsessive about his appearance. That, of course, had changed after he came to terms with the loss of his eye... not much, Tarrin reflected with a smile, but a little.

Then there was the time a young man had stumbled in with a long dagger buried to the hilt between his shoulder blades. The old Doc had removed it and the young man had been walking again within a week.

And then there was the Saber Student who'd had his hand cut off by a vengeful - and probably mad - store owner; he and his friend had actually carried the hand back with him in the hope it could be reattached, for his life as a thief was over without it. Not that it had mattered, in the end. He died later of blood loss.

Then there was Leila. She'd first come to see him almost five years ago, with complaints of vomiting and dizziness. Tarrin himself had diagnosed her pregnancy, and later he'd aided in delivering the baby, little Zakiya - Falcone's daughter. The identity of the father was well known around the Lair, but most knew better than to ever speak of it. The fact that Falcone had abandoned Leila when he found out about the pregnancy still angered Tarrin. He would have liked children of his own.

And then there was a situation, only three years or so ago (Zakiya had been about eight months old, he recalled) which Tarrin still couldn't work out. Leila had been severely wounded in a duel with Falcone; what should have been a simple disarmament duel for leadership had gone wrong with a single saber-slash across her stomach. She was fortunate not to have been disembowelled. Tarrin had admired the way she'd handled it emotionally - she'd been as angry as her weakened condition could allow, but not self-pitying.... Yet that night he'd left her alone for only half an hour, and when he came back he'd discovered her huddled in the shower, seemingly terrified, and bleeding - she'd somehow actually burst a few stitches. She'd gotten a hold on herself almost instantly, and from that point on was withdrawn and vague, tense and jumpy by turn. That too had faded in time, but Tarrin didn't think Leila had ever been quite the same since.

Despite all his probing, she'd never told him what had gone on in that short space of time, and after a while he'd stopped asking. But he'd never let go of his suspicion...

Duke shifted and groaned softly on the bed, and Tarrin sat up as he saw the thief awaken. And freeze. His face was only inches away from Leila's, his arms loosely around her.

"What..." he muttered, and touched her cheek. Leila snapped awake and gasped, then promptly tumbled out of the bed and onto the floor, taking half the bedclothes with her. Leila and Duke both looked up to see Tarrin watching them, and, although he couldn't see it under their dark feathers, he imagined that they were both blushing furiously.

There was an uncomfortable silence, in which Doc tried to hide a smile, Leila tried to think of something to say, and Duke suddenly realised what pain he was in.

"Aaahhh... Oh, my stomach... Not ta mention my whole body..." Duke grimaced. "What the hell happened?"

"You were poisoned, and it's not yet out of your system. Leila has some pills for you to take," Doc said, unperturbed.

Leila had recovered both her composure and the bottle of pills, and she gave two of the latter to Duke, at the same time indicating the jug of water on the bedside table. Neither of them met the other's eyes.

Duke took the pills and tried to pull himself into a sitting position. "Who did this to me?"

Leila crossed her arms. "We were hoping you could shed some light on that. We're stumped. It could have been anyone."

"I've only been back a couple o' weeks, Leila..." he reminded her. "And I can't see how I've done anything ta make anyone want ta poison me. I'm not even the leader any more. I'm redundant!" Duke grinned just slightly.

Leila snorted and didn't deign to answer that one. Doc hid a smile and put he thermometer back in his black bag. For a while there was peace and quiet in the tiny infirmary...

"Where's Dive?" Duke asked suddenly, looking a little worried.

"Nylessa's taking care of him...."

Duke's expression didn't change, but his eye gleamed. "He's in worse danger than I thought."

Leila shook her head at him. You'd know.

He just grinned, having no idea what she was thinking. An odd twinge from his stomach turned the grin into a grimace.

Doc took his patient's temperature again. There was another short silence, which he broke with: "Now, you'll be in here for a few more hours at best, a day or two at worst--"

"Ahh, Doc?"

"--and, of course, you'll suffer some general weakness for the next few days, maybe some pain in the arms and-"

"Doc? I..."

"--legs, and you won't have much of an appetite for--"

"DOC!"

"What?"

Duke had broken out in a cold sweat. "I'm gonna need that," he muttered, and took the pan that Tarrin held out for him. "Bit of... uh... privacy?"

Leila turned to leave, opened the door, stepped into the hall and was almost knocked over by Nosedive coming far too fast the other way.

"Leila, there's something I've gotta tell--" A noise from the Infirmary caught Nosedive's attention. "Eww."

Leila took the boy's elbow, ushering him away from the door and shutting it behind her "It fer his own good. What was it you wanted ta tell me?"

"Well, there goes my appetite--" Dive caught the impatient expression on Leila's face. "Uh, um, it was... what was it?"

Leila turned to leave.

"Uh, oh yeah! This Milantha chick ran tests on the bottles in Duke's room. The poison was in, like, all of 'em! Um, and it was something called, um..." Dive paused to read something scribbled on the back of his hand, "...Tan-a-see-tum Vul-gar-ee. He says it's made from a plant. Causes convulsions, violent spasms, dilated pupils... and some other stuff which I forgot. And it kills if you have too much."

Leila bit her bottom lip thoughtfully. "Thanks for that, kid. What happened to Nylessa?"

The big, dopey grin the kid got in response to that name told Leila everything she needed to know. "Aw... she's around..."

She sure is... Leila made a metal note to talk to Nylessa later... a lot later. "Go on, then, off wit' ya. No hanging around annoying your elders - even if you are good at it. Go on!"

Dive grumpily vacated, but brightened when he realised he was finally free to seek out Nylessa.

Doc was standing in the door. "Tanacetum vulgare," he said thoughtfully. "Yeah, that makes sense."

Leila turned to him. "Why is that?"

"Nosedive told you pretty much all you need to know," Doc said. "It's made from a common wildflower. In other words, anyone could have done this."

Leila nodded. "I guess we'll never know," she said.

"It's not like you to give up so easily, Leila." Tarrin chided gently.

She opened her mouth to answer, but a groan from Duke interrupted her. Tarrin and Leila both went back into the surgery.

Duke glared weakly at the both of them, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "You coulda warned me," he said reproachfully.

Tarrin took the bowl from Duke and washed it out in the sink. "Feeling better now?"

Duke sank back onto the pillow, wiping a cold sweat off his forehead. "Oh, yeah, I'm dancin' through the tulips..." he muttered.

Doc handed him a glass of water. "I'd like you to stay in here overnight, Duke," he said. "Not only for the reason that I'd like to keep an eye on you in case of complications, but it appears you've made yourself a dangerous enemy." Tarrin proceeded to tell Duke about the poison.

Duke listened patiently. When Doc had finished, he sat up carefully. "Well, I'm gonna find out who did this," he muttered. "I've lived through too much to let some jerk with a grudge finish me off."

"That won't be easy," Leila said. "It could be anyone."

Duke smirked. "I know. That's why you'll be helpin' me."

"Why me?"

"Because you know every one of these thieves as well as or better than anyone else in the Brotherhood."

Leila considered arguing, then gave in.

"I ain't gonna give up until I find out who did this," swore Duke.

"That's the spirit..." Leila muttered. "I got work ta do. I'll stop by tomorrow." Before anyone could reply, she was gone.

*****

Contrary to her words, Leila didn't go back to her office. She headed for her room. The pressure was getting to her, and she wasn't sure how much longer she could keep up the farce of normality.

Not watching where she was going as she entered the room, she almost tripped over one of Zakiya's stuffed toys. She sank to her knees next to it and slowly picked it up, hugging it tightly, her expression agonised. "I'm sorry... I'm so sorry..."

*****

Day Three

Early the next morning, two thieves made their way through the ancient, dusty halls of D level, peering into each room as they went, looking for any sign of recent activity.

Duke sighed and brushed a small spider off his arm, leaving a smear of the dust that had been on his fingers in its place. They'd been down here no more than twenty minutes and already they looked as if they'd been crawling around inside a vacuum cleaner bag. Annoyed, he brushed at the dirty streak and the pale grey dust just smeared further into the black material. He was dressed casually for this, in a black shirt and jeans - no comm, none of his usual artillery. He was wearing his gold belt, though, and today his saber was clipped to it. Casual or no, Duke l'Orange never went anywhere without his saber.

Walking a little ahead of him, Leila, of course, was in her usual outfit. Duke hadn't yet seen her in anything besides it. He had an inane picture of a wardrobe full of identical purple bodysuits, red vests and split skirts.

"Tell me again why we're looking down here," he said, breaking the silence.

She frowned and replied rather pointedly, "Because you vowed not to give up until--"

"I know! But why here?"

Leila turned. "Look, l'Orange, they scoured yer room and didn't find anything. Nobody saw anything unusual in the Lair. I figure whoever it is could be hidin' out down here, right?"

They were in the abandoned section of D level. The lowest inhabited level of the Lair was an odd case; the Archive Hall, the holding cells and a few inhabited rooms were on one side of it, but the other side was virtually abandoned. The exception to this rule was the weapons depository, located in about the middle of the level. That room was still in good condition, but other parts of D level were close to collapse, and though scheduled to be rennovated were considered off-limits for now.

Duke shrugged. "Seems like a bit of a stretch t'me. I mean, this place doesn't look as if it's been touched for decades!"

"I don't think it has. That's why it makes such a great hideout."

"Y'know, it could be dangerous for us to even be here," Duke pointed out, pushing a fallen beam aside. Leila didn't answer, so he continued. "And we should've brought someone else with us. It's not safe for only two people."

Leila was hurrying, now, pushing ahead.

Duke stopped. "I think we should go back."

She turned. "What are ya afraid of?"

"Nothing!" he replied a little snappily, thinking what a strange question it was. "It's just--"

"Well, then, c'mon! We started this, we may as well finish! There's just a few more rooms, and then we can go!"

"No. I don't think so," Duke said, annoyance written all over his features. He took a step back, still looking at her but ready to leave.

"Duke! Stop!" Leila grabbed his arm.

Duke resisted. "Leila! What in Drake's name are ya playin' at?! I said NO!"

There was a soft swishing noise behind him, and the world suddenly exploded into stars. Then nothing.

*****

Ernie Falcone dropped the heavy old beam with a clatter and dusted his hands off. He looked across Duke's fallen form, then up at Leila. "You did a wonderful job," he said, and smiled at her.

Sickened, she tore her gaze away from the cruel smile and stared instead at Duke, at the small bloody patch on the back of his head. "He's not...?"

"No, of course not. I have further plans for him."

Leila was silent for a long moment. "Where... where's Zaki? I did my part, I want my daughter."

"And you will have her. Pick him up and follow me."

Leila stared at Falcone for a moment, then down at Duke. Without argument, she crouched and managed to shift the unconscious drake onto her back. Staggering under his weight, she stood unsteadily and tried to keep up with Falcone, who was walking unnecessarily quickly. She kept her head down, and bore the very literal weight of her guilt without a word.

*****

The wall was nondescript, identical to every other wall in the endless rooms of D level. However, it was at this wall that they stopped. It was surprisingly close to the stairway that led to C level, not in the least hidden or mysterious. Perhaps that's why it was so effective as a secret entrance. Nobody would ever suspect it.

Falcone pushed his hand against an ever so slightly lighter colored stone, and the wall began to swing open, inwards. He glanced at Leila's astonishment from the corner of his eye and chuckled. "I'm sure you're wondering how I know about this when even you don't."

Leila looked down again so he couldn't see her expression of sudden anger. All I'm wondering is if my daughter's safe.

The raptrin didn't seem to mind the lack of response. "I have been planning this for some time... and I've not worked alone. This Lair is not quite as unexplored as you might think, my dear."

The door had finished its slow, grating slide, and Falcone beckoned her through.

There was a small landing directly inside, and then a narrow stone staircase leading down into the dark. A lever lay to their left, and the raptrin pulled it, causing the door to grate slowly shut behind them. Falcone took a torch of the old-fashioned kind - a thick piece of wood with an oil-soaked cloth tightly wrapped around the top - from the wall, and lit it. The thick, dancing flame lit the stairs better, and she followed him down carefully, not wanting to fall.

At the bottom, a single passageway stretched ahead into the darkness. Even through her worry for her child, Leila had to wonder what the original purpose of this place had been. As they walked, the torch lit the walls around them, revealing ancient light fittings that had burned out long ago. Finally they reached two rusty metal doors; one on their left and one on their right. Falcone opened the right-hand one to reveal a small office setup. The furniture - desk, bed, cupboard - was old but clean; it was quite plain to see that this was where the raptrin had based himself for however long he'd been in the Lair. He left her standing in the doorway, bent under her load, and pulled a large keyring from one of the desk drawers.

Back in the hallway he ignored the second door, and they kept walking down the hall, which opened into a large room only a few feet down from the doors. He held the torch up, and Leila saw dull light gleaming off bars. Bars everywhere. It was an ancient prison...

Falcone unlocked the door of the nearest cell. "Carry him in."

Leila glanced into the cell, then looked at Falcone, who was holding the keys. She didn't move a muscle. "I'd rather you did," she said coldly.

"You want your child back, correct?"

Gritting her teeth against a surge of anger, she ventured a step or two into the cell, then gently let Duke down onto the floor.

Falcone shook his head and pointed to the wall on the left. "Against the wall, right there."

What the hell is he playin' at? she thought, scowling. Falcone had made it quite clear that he was only interested in Duke, but nonetheless, Leila was in no hurry to walk into a cell to which he held the keys. More likely was that Falcone was forcing her to do all this for him because he got a sadistic pleasure out of doing so.

Regardless of his motivations, if she wanted to see Zakiya again, she had little choice.

Expressionless, Leila did as she was told, then stood back as the large raptrin knelt, lifted Duke's hands above his head, and shoved them into a pair of shackles attached to the wall, which he then closed and locked with one of the keys on the keyring. The shackles were set low on the wall, and when Falcone was done, Duke was in a sitting position with his hands shackled above him. His head lolled on his shoulder.

The torch, which Falcone had left on the floor, lit the room enough that Leila could see that the manacles weren't the only things breaking the monotony of the square cell. Other strange devices, some wood, some metal, some a combination, lay in disrepair in the small space, against the back wall. She caught a glimpse of hinges, frayed ropes, rusted spikes...

It was an ancient torture chamber. Suppressing a shudder, she took a step back.

Falcone stood, having seen her movement in his peripheral vision. He chuckled. "Don't look so disturbed, Leila. I don't plan to use any of those devices. They were here when I moved in."

Something suddenly occurred to Leila, something which had been niggling at her since she'd seen Falcone push on the stone that opened the secret passage.

Why did he let me see how to get in here? Surely he knows that once I'm out of here with Zakiya, I'll get help for... Oh no. The slow, sick realisation hit, and she knew her suspicions had been correct.

He wasn't going to give Zakiya back. And he wasn't going to let Leila leave.

Leila turned and made to bolt for the door of the cell, but Falcone had anticipated it and, quick as a rattlesnake, stepped forward and grabbed her around the waist as she tried to get past him. Shoving her back, he bunched his fist and punched her in the head even as she was starting to regain her balance. She staggered and fell, stunned, and could only struggle uselessly as the large raptrin grabbed her by the wrists and shackled her to the wall next to Duke.

She was too dizzy to resist much as he searched her, his hands everywhere, withdrawing from her clothing two sets of lockpicks and her saber. He moved his attentions to Duke, and came up with much the same result. Leila's head had cleared again by the time he stood, and she aimed a kick at him, which he easily dodged. "This wasn't the deal!!" she screeched. "You bastard! This wasn't the agreement!"

Falcone calmly tossed the keys up and caught them, just once, then smiled at her. "All's fair in love and war, dearest."

"You said I'd get her back if I brought ya Duke! Ya don't need her an' ya don't need me!"

Surprised, Falcone studied her. "You honestly didn't realise? Duke isn't the one I wanted! At least... not entirely. While revenge against him is a concern of mine, my first objective is to claim my due - the leadership of the Brotherhood. Now that I have both you and he out of the way, I can simply step into my rightful place."

Leila just stared at him, feeling the blood rush to her face. "You lied ta me," she whispered. "We had an agreement."

His gaze hardened. "Yes, and unless you want me to break that agreement further, I recommend you don't cause me any trouble. The child isn't only yours, she's ours - and I'm no monster. I shan't hurt her unprovoked."

I don't believe you, Leila thought.

"The girl is safe. For now." He turned, his cape flaring out behind him, and stepped out of the cell, easily sliding the heavy barred door closed after him. It clanged shut, the heavy, hollow sound reverberating through the stone room.

Falcone lifted the torch and used it to light an oil lamp that hung next to the door to the long passageway. Turning back to face them once more, he swept a sarcastic bow. "Enjoy your stay." With that, he departed.

*****

It was around midday when Lyric Swiftwing paused in the old corridor of D level, tapping her foot anxiously. She'd been looking for Leila the past half-hour and hadn't been able to find her. Of course, the Brotherhood Lair was a huge place, impossible to look through in anything less than three hours, but Leila never went far into the dark recesses of all the hidden corridors and secret rooms and whatnot that lay covered with dust. It was very unlike her; Nylessa, on the other hand, often went down there, but Lyric didn't need to look for her. The groaning and whispering sounds coming from her quarters were telltale of what was happening there.

Somebody however had mentioned that they'd seen Leila with Duke disappearing down to D Level... So where were they? Lyric sighed. Leila and Duke were both missing? Surely that couldn't be coincidence...

She looked around the halls. It was incredibly quiet down here; peaceful was the right word. All the tables and benches and other furniture pieces shoved down here to make room were covered in a snowfall of white, white dust. It looked like the streets of Keltor on a nice day, or like someone had thrown a lot of talcum powder around. Lyric smiled; it even smelled like "Pearls & Lace". Then she frowned. Hunkering down, she wiped the floor with her fingers and sniffed the powdery dust.

That was probably because it was "Pearls & Lace". And it was masking something; shoe marks - only faint but still able to be made out if you looked hard enough. Three distinctly different types of prints: two large and the other child-size. The smaller of the two large types dragged a little and were close together, as if the person had been taking small, heavy steps. All three led toward a wall where they just... vanished.

"Don't meddle in affairs that aren't your business." Lyric barely had time to recognise the voice coming from behind her when a silenced gun fired. She leapt to one side but the bullet hit her in the upper arm and she gave a small scream, clutching the wound to stem the blood now pouring out.

Lying on the ground as she was she could only see the boots of her attacker; they matched the larger footprints perfectly. But the voice was familiar. "I am very sorry about this," Falcone said as he reloaded the gun. "Believe me, I don't want to shoot you." There was a click, and she imagined the barrels pointing at her. "But I haven't much of a choice now."

She twisted around and kicked him in the stomach. As he doubled over in pain she scrambled to her feet and ran down the corridor, sliding on the dust as she turned the corner and then racing for the stairs. Hearing the furious yells from behind vanish as she continued dashing for the top floor, Lyric didn't heed the growing dizziness she was feeling at the same time.

Arriving on C level she stopped, panting, and looking around. The world spun like her favorite child's toy and she clutched at the railing, screaming as icy pain lanced through her arm. It seemed to reach her head and she stumbled backward, tripping over her feet to land heavily on the cold stone floor.

"Lyric? Lyri-HOLY BEAK OF DUCAINE!" The voice was familiar but now everything was going dark and swirly. "Hey! Hey! Tarrin! Doc, get your feathers down here right now!"

Lyric sensed more than saw someone kneeling down beside her. "It's okay, Lyric, Doc's coming. Who did this? Did you see?" She opened her beak to tell but at that moment the world fell away and she passed into the realms of unconsciousness.

*****

"'Become accustomed to my leadership'... the nerve of the bastard."

"Tell me about it, he needs that cloak wrapped around his throat and pulled tight."

Tarrin Avias sighed, and turned away from the door, heading back to where Lyric still lay unconscious. The talks had been going on all afternoon since Falcone's speech; the same things were being said over and over but he knew nothing was going to be done about it. Too many people supported Falcone - those, mainly, who disliked being led by a woman.

He sat down beside Lyric, keeping a careful eye on the monitor; her heart was steady, thank goodness, but it had been touch and go for the first few hours. Damn good thing it had hit her arm; a few inches across and she'd have had a hole right through her heart. The bullet sat on a small tray beside the bed, glinting in the somewhat bad light; it was rather unique, but there would be no way of finding out who fired it unless they had the weapon. Despite his own views, Tarrin knew it was all too easy to lay the blame on Falcone.

He turned around as the door opened and found Nylessa peering worriedly around the door. She smiled weakly at him and then walked over to Lyric's comatose form, sitting down on the opposite side of the bed.

"Is she going to wake up?" she asked softly.

"It depends. She lost a lot of blood, but otherwise she's quite healthy. It's a fifty-fifty chance."

Nylessa nodded sadly. "You know what's scary?" Tarrin raised an eyebrow but otherwise didn't answer. "What's scary is that now Falcone's leader, there are going to be some major changes, and I'm worried part of those changes might mean a restructuring of the Brotherhood. And I'm worried about Leila, and Duke. Where are they? Falcone didn't say. For all we know they're dead."

Again, Tarrin didn't reply. There was nothing he could possibly say. They sat and listened to the angry voices filtering through from the next room, voices that now seemed to be tinged with doubt. It was like he'd suspected. The talks would do nothing - were designed to do nothing - but persuade the talkers that everything would turn out all right in the end.

*****

Blackness. Darkness. Nothing. Duke gave a pained moan as he struggled from the haze of unconsciousness that threatened to drown him even as he fought against it. Only the throbbing of his head kept him grounded enough in reality to finally force his eyes open.

He didn't recognise where he was. It was dark - not entirely dark, but dim. The small amount of light in the place was orange-tinted, and danced against the walls, throwing down high, eerie shadows.

The throbbing in his head faded a little, only to be replaced by a slow ache in his neck... then his arms and wrists. He tried to pull his arms down only to be met with resistance and a soft clinking sound. Carefully, Duke twisted his head around to look up at his hands. They were shackled to the wall he was sitting against.

"Duke?" someone whispered.

He turned his aching head to his left to see Leila in the same position he was. "Lei... what happened?"

She opened her mouth to reply and he heard her voice catch strangely. Duke wondered vaguely if she'd been crying. It was too dark to tell. He doubted it. Leila didn't seem the crying type. "Falcone happened," she finally replied, her voice cold and angry.

That woke him up properly. "Falcone? But we left him--"

"--on Earth, I know, ya told me."

"It can't be..."

"Well it is!" she snapped. "And he's here. Obviously it CAN be. I don't know how, but it CAN be." She was understandably edgy.

Duke straightened slowly, and the pain in his muscles eased up. He remembered the distant, airborne black shape he'd glimpsed from the window before the Aerowing had entered the dimensional gateway to leave Earth. He also remembered the report they'd received, a month before leaving Earth, that Falcone had been "given bail". Probably after bribing some judge, he'd decided at the time. And Ernie never had shown his face again, so after a while of listening intently to the news for any reports on major robberies, the team had stopped worrying. It was distinctly possible, Duke decided, that the raptrin had managed to lay his hands on some kind of aircraft and had been watching them since he left jail. And had followed them home.

Then he remembered the reports of a mysterious crash of an unidentified aircraft that had come in over the radio that the guards listened to, while he himself was in jail in duCaine Metro. He'd thought nothing of it at the time, but perhaps... Duke frowned and shook the thought off. Right now, how Falcone had gotten here didn't matter.

"What's he want wit' us?"

Leila sighed. "Leadership, apparently," she muttered. "In yer case, jus' good ol' revenge. ...How's yer head?"

The question had had a tone of real concern in it, and Duke looked over at Leila again, surprised. "As good as can be expected, I guess. It's got a lump or two more than it used ta have."

She glanced back at him and quickly looked away when she saw he was looking back. She'd been more than a little worried. "I'm guessin' it's night, outside."

"Drake duCaine." Had he been out that long?

Leila hesitated. "Falcone's... got Zakiya too."

"He has? Geez, Lei... I'm sorry. Why... why'd he take her?" He regretted the question the moment it was out, wondering if Falcone's interest in the child could possibly be a fatherly one. Leila must hate being reminded...

But she just hesitated again, a strange look in her eyes. "He took her to... get to me." It was a half-truth; phrased in such a way that he would understand it in one way, even though she knew it was meant in another. Leila didn't like lying to Duke, especially not when he was the only person she had now. But how could she possibly tell him the truth - that she was responsible for all this?

Leila closed her eyes. Her companion had been unconscious for hours as the day wore on and, sitting alone in the dark, she'd teetered on the brink of panic for most of that time. Even now she was trying not to think about the terrifying reality of the situation they were in, and trying not to think about what she knew Falcone was capable of. She'd vowed long ago never to be at his mercy again, yet here she was. She kept her eyes closed, acutely aware that Duke was staring at her with curiosity but also aware that he wasn't the type to pressure for information. She was going to speak, when a sound made her jerk her head up.

Footsteps, and voices, from the hallway.

Falcone appeared, rubbing his hands together with a self-satisfied smirk on his hooked beak. "Well, my dear old friend, you've woken! How nice!"

"Yer no friend o' mine," Duke growled, straining against the manacles.

Leila spoke up, interrupting. "Where's my daughter, where's Zakiya?"

"Why, she's right here!" Falcone checked himself quickly. "In this building, anyway." Another figure came to stand in the doorway behind him, and Leila squinted to make him out. "I'm sure you'd like to see your daughter again, wouldn't you?" the raptrin asked, leaning forward.

"What happened to 'our daughter'?" The words were out of her mouth before she thought about it and she instantly regretted them. "Yes. I would."

Falcone frowned. "I don't think you're in a position to talk to me like that!" he said sharply. With a swirl of his cape he left the room, but the second man stayed behind, just watching them. He was silent for a long time, and stayed in the shadows. The gas lamp flared up, and Leila saw him for who he was.

"Well," Gaudeamus Downey said finally. "You're in a predicament."

Leila narrowed her eyes. "Why am I not surprised that yer in on this?"

"Perhaps you should be; it surprised me enough." Gaudeamus looked up as Falcone came back into the room, with Zakiya in tow.

"Chatting with the prisoners?" Falcone asked lightly, then gently pushed the dark-haired child forward to the bars. "Say hello to your mummy."

"Momma! How come you're tied up?" Zakiya didn't sound afraid, just confused.

Leila strained against her shackles to see her daughter better. "Zaki! Baby, are you okay?" she called

"Sure, mamma. I got ice-cream!" She looked up at Falcone, then took his hand and clung to it. "Can my mom come an' have some too? Please?"

Leila's mouth fell open as she saw the full extent of Falcone's treachery. "You bastard!" she yelled suddenly. "You stay away from her!"

Duke caught Leila's eye and gave her a warning look, but didn't say anything.

Falcone smiled sweetly and picked Zakiya up, holding her with comfortable ease. The child looked to him for reassurance; worried at her mother's tone of voice. Falcone gave her the reassurance she needed. "Your mummy isn't really free to have ice cream now, little one. She's... testing this little prison. Someone needs to test it to make sure it works, isn't that right, Leila?"

Seeing a twinge of worry in her daughter's eyes, Leila didn't voice the objection she'd been about to. Scaring Zakiya with the truth when there was nothing any of them could do about it wouldn't accomplish anything. "Yeah," she finally said softly. "It's okay, Zaki."

The child hesitated, then nodded solemnly, believing as most very young children do that adults are rarely mistaken. At Falcone's quiet urging, she waved to Leila. "Bye mamma..."

The sight of his hands on her little girl made her want to vomit. Falcone took a step back from the bars and Leila realised Zakiya was about to be taken away from her again. Her resolve of a moment ago weakened and she opened her mouth to shout, to warn her daughter what danger they were all in, to tell her that Falcone was lying, but the same pointed look from Duke stopped her once more. "...Bye sweetie," she finally whispered. "I'll see ya soon."

Falcone smiled rather unpleasantly at Leila. "That's more like it." He handed Zakiya to the older thief, who took her with obvious distaste, holding her at arm's length. "Take her back to the room. Lock the door."

Gaudeamus nodded, looking a little annoyed at being called upon to perform such an inconsequential duty, and left with the little girl. "Bye-bye!" Zakiya's voice piped from the hall, and for a moment Leila looked as if she wanted to burst into tears. The moment the child was out of earshot, she began struggling.

"What are ya playin' at, Ernie?!" she asked, her voice high and tense.

The raptrin, who'd watched Gaudeamus and his precious load leave, spun around with an evil smirk and walked up to the cell door, slipping the key in and opening it. He practically sauntered up to her, standing directly in front of her, uncomfortably close. Once again, he was enjoying the effect his presence had on her. "Don't worry, my dear Leila, the girl will come to no grief. I am not quite the monster you think I am. I would not harm my own daughter. However," and he leaned close to her, "I have no qualms about harming either of you."

Leila spat at him, and he reeled backwards, wiping at his face with a strangled cry of disgust. His fist bunched and pulled back, and she turned her face away and half closed her eyes in expectation of the blow.

"FALCONE!" Duke burst out, pulling at his manacles and distracting Falcone's attention from her. "Falcone, don't you even touch her!!"

The raptrin gave him a startled look - as if he hadn't expected him to defend her - and then lowered his fist with a forced laugh. "Well, well. In the face of such vehement opposition to my actions, I must submit." Then he cast an irate glare Leila's way. "You will pay for that... but later."

He left suddenly, and the grating of the barred door being pulled shut echoed in her head. Leila released a sigh and slumped. There was absolute silence for a few moments, and then footsteps faded away down the hall.

Leila lifted her head and met Duke's eyes.

"What the hell was that about?" Duke said angrily, glaring at her.

"What was what about?!"

"What were ya thinkin', Leila? He's treatin' yer daughter well, she's safe, an' yer objectin' to it!"

"Damn it! L'Orange, he's tryin' somethin', he's tryin' ta win her over somehow!"

"What does it matter? Fact is, right now she's very safe, an' if it stays that way until we get outta here and rescue her, all the better! But if we make him angry every time he comes in here, she'll be put in danger! So just watch yer temper!"

Leila stared at him, speechless, not used to being berated like that. She got her sudden anger under control, and knew that he was right. "Alright," she said finally.

They fell into silence, which neither was inclined to break.

*****

The oil lamp burned lower, and within an hour it had burned out, leaving the two prisoners in darkness.

They had no way of telling the time, but it felt late. Although neither of them knew it, they'd been down in the cell for almost twenty hours by then. Both were exhausted. Eventually, they each drifted into their own uncomfortable, uneasy doze, and within an hour, another day had gone.

*****

Day Four

A quiet clanking sound woke them both up, eventually. Their eyes by now well adjusted to the darkness, they could see the hulking raptrin standing near the doorway, apparently refilling the oil lamp. A match flared, and the oil lamp was lit again. Orange light danced off the walls and the scattered torture instruments once more, and threw bars of shadow across the two prisoners. Falcone picked up the small can of oil and turned to leave.

"Where's my daughter?"

Pausing, Falcone glanced over his shoulder and laughed. "As I said, I'm not quite the monster you make me out to be, Leila. She's perfectly safe..." he smirked, and added almost sweetly, "...with her daddy."

Duke could see the cords in Leila's neck standing out. "Why are ya doin' this?" she asked, her voice forcedly calm.

The smile dropped from the raptrin's face. "I've just come for what I deserve."

An' you'll get it if I got any say... Duke thought angrily.

"You got us two now; ya don't need her anymore. Let her go!"

"To oblige you? I'm afraid not. She may come in useful yet." With a dismissive wave, Falcone stepped back from the bars. "I haven't got the time to chat, I'm afraid. I have a Brotherhood to run." He strode off, leaving the two occupants of the cell in silence.

Eventually, Duke broke it. "Listen... we gotta get outta here," he said in a low voice.

The look the Brotherhood's leader gave him was positively withering. "Really. I don't suppose ya got an actual plan of action ta go wit' that assertion?"

"I was thinkin' we could work somethin' out together, but if you'd prefer ta hang around here an' tear strips off me while he takes yer job an' yer daughter, that's fine by me."

Leila glared impotently at him for a moment, then shifted her glare up to the shackles that held her. She pulled her arms down suddenly, gritting her teeth as the metal circlets cut into her wrists. "Shit..."

"That won't work. What about the locks?"

"I was about ta try that."

"Right." Duke studied the padlock above his own head. It was clunky and old, but also very thick... and very strong. The situation called for finesse. "I don't suppose ya managed ta get away wit' any lockpicks, did ya?"

"You were very unconscious when he searched us, weren't you?"

"I'll take that as a no. Calm down. Ya think better when yer calm."

"Speak fer yerself," Leila muttered. She was silent for a moment, and then abruptly yanked against the manacles again, shaking her arms up and down and making the whole structure rattle. "Shit! SHIT! You goddamn SHIT!!"

*****

A short time later, Nosedive was walking through the hallways. He had no idea where he was going or why, he just wanted to walk. Despite the fact that it was about four in the morning he was restless, agitated and downright furious, but he walked quietly, trying his hardest not to make a sound that would disturb the sleeping thieves. At least, some of them were sleeping... he chuckled to himself... quite a few would be out plying their trade under the cover of the pre-dawn darkness.

He couldn't sleep. He didn't even want to try, even with Nylessa's invitation for a second session in her room. That was where he'd been yesterday, shortly before Lyric had been shot. It was purely chance that he'd been walking by that particular staircase after leaving Nylessa's room that he'd found the wounded girl. Now, with Lyric still unconscious in the Infirmary, Duke, Leila and her little girl missing, and everyone miserable or angry about Falcone's takeover, even spending the night with Nylessa wouldn't have been much of a comfort. She was as agitated as he felt anyhow... although she had her own methods of dealing with it.

He sighed as he approached the stairs where he'd found Lyric yesterday. The corridors below had all been checked thoroughly, but whatever incriminating evidence might have been there was clouded with nauseatingly perfumed talc. Now, all he had to do was figure out exactly why he had come down here...

The soft echo of voices from downstairs alerted him that someone was coming up his way. Curious, but not curious enough as to want to be seen, he looked for a place to hide and then clambered up to the air vent, just pulling the grating back into position as the two figures emerged from the staircase.

"...pull this off, sir," the first voice said, in deadpan tones that were easily recognisable as Gaudeamus Downey's. Nosedive knew the mottled duck only vaguely, but he did have a very distinctive voice.

"Sorry to bust your bubble but I can and I will." The second voice belonged to none other than Ernie Falcone. "No one but you and I know about this; who is going to be able to stop me?"

"It's not right."

"Of course it's not right old chap! It's politics!"

The quiet voices vanished down the hall, and slowly Nosedive unfolded himself from the shaft and landed on the floor below, quietly placing the grate back into place. Well that was a puzzling conversation to say the least. What were Gaudeamus and Falcone doing wandering about the lower corridors of the Brotherhood at 3AM? Okay, so he was also wandering around in the wee small hours but it still didn't make any sense. And what were they talking about politics for, of all things?

Shaking his head he began to walk away, and then paused, and looked back at the staircase. It seemed to beckon him to walk down into the darkness. A frown touched his brow, and then he waved it away. The earliness was getting to him; he was beginning to imagine things.

He couldn't really have heard a little child laughing, could he?

*****

It was a shame that Nosedive hadn't been able to hear the rest of that conversation, because it soon turned to a subject he would have found very interesting.

"What are we to do about the Swiftwing girl, Falcone?"

"Nature may well take care of her for us."

"But if it doesn't, and she wakes up and points the finger at you..."

"I'm aware of the risk, old boy." Falcone reached into the pouch at his side and pulled out a tiny bottle with an eyedropper cap. "This is undiluted. A few drops should finish her off." He pushed it into Gaudeamus's hands.

The older man looked uncharacteristically startled. "You want me to poison her?"

"Of course I want you to," Falcone said impatiently, completely missing the emphasis of Downey's words. "I have other matters to attend to. Now do hurry up old boy - we only have a short time until morning."

Gaudeamus looked at him for a long moment, very nearly scowling, then took the bottle and walked away.

*****

Tarrin awoke from a light doze in his room shortly before dawn, a sixth sense tingling at the feathers on the back of his neck. Something wasn't quite right.

Sliding as quietly as possible from his bed, Tarrin crept barefoot across his bedroom, grateful for the first time in years for the small amount of thieving skill he'd picked up before being apprenticed to McWebb. Silently, ever so slowly he opened the door to the darkened infirmary.

Standing over Lyric's still form was a person, silhouetted and unidentifiable in the dark, but the silhouette showed quite clearly that it held something over Lyric's beak...

With a cry of alarm, Tarrin launched himself at the attacker and they both went down in a heap on the floor. There was a short scuffle; Tarrin was the younger and fitter of the two but the other was more experienced. They rolled around on the floor, throwing and ducking punches. The other person crashed into a cabinet and there was a sound of breaking glass. Tarrin swore uncharacteristically and managed to tear himself free from the other man and slap his hand down on the light switch.

The bright, fluorescent lights flicked on, and Tarrin stared down at Gaudeamus Downey. Then the man pulled himself to his feet, still wielding the full eyedropper, and Tarrin realised what danger he was in...

Abruptly there were footsteps and shouts in the hall, growing closer. Gaudeamus met Tarrin's eyes for the first time, his expression trapped, then took a step back and let the eyedropper fall to the floor, where it shattered.

*****

It was seven in the morning and Falcone was lounging back at his desk in his office, A15, when someone knocked on the door. He stood and unlocked it, ushering his visitor - Iliana - inside. "Welcome, Loremaster," he said warmly.

Her voice was cold, but her disapproval was well hidden. "We seem to have captured our poisoner," she said, watching him like a hawk. "Gaudeamus Downey was discovered trying to administer poison to Lyric Swiftwing. The toxin used was the same that was used on Duke two days ago."

Falcone affected a look of horror. "The poor girl! Is she alright?"

"She remains in a coma; but the poisoner was unsuccessful."

"Wonderful work, then, old girl." He clapped Iliana on the back, and ushered her to the door. "Do let me know what sentence you decide upon for him, hmm?"

Iliana's mouth was quite taut now, the only outward sign of her feelings. "According to Brotherhood Lore, you're required to have some input on the sentencing yourself." She paused. "And... there is the matter of some accusations."

"Accusations?"

"Yes, against you. Gaudeamus insists he was working under your orders. He also claims he isn't responsible for the poisoning of Duke l'Orange, or Lyric's shooting. He attributes the latter to you."

Falcone frowned. "Why, I barely know the man! He must be mistaken. That, or..."

Iliana waited.

Falcone smiled smarmily. "The leadership position comes with its share of dangers, and jealous senior members trying to usurp the role is surely one of those risks. I'll have a word with him later and see what I can find out about this."

Iliana nodded crisply. "As you wish." She left, glad to be going.

*****

"You think they'll find us?"

Leila shook her head bitterly. "How would they? Even I didn't know about that passage. Chances are, Gaudeamus was the only one who did. An' that's only because he spends so much damn time down there."

"But they've gotta be scourin' the place lookin' fer ya by now, right? I mean, a Brotherhood Leader goin' missin' is no small thing... You were around the time I was arrested, weren't ya? A team o' Blade members snatched me from one of the biggest high-security prisons on Puckworld. If they can do that, they can find us in our own base." He was trying to comfort her, and not doing very well. "They won't give up."

Leila was silent for a long time before she spoke "You've only been back here fer a few weeks. Ya don't know what it's like, yet." She looked up at him. Her black hair, now falling loose from the usual ponytail, was hiding her eyes. "I'm not well-liked. I'm not the kind of leader people'd take bullets for, y'know?"

Duke didn't reply. He had noticed a different "feel" to the organisation when he'd come back, but part of that was due to the loss of so many members, and the war, and the new base, he was sure. Perhaps part of it was the new leadership, though. She didn't seem to be doing a terrible job to him � despite her inexperience, but he could tell a lot of the older and more traditional members detested being led by a woman.

Nonetheless, he couldn't think of anything to say to her remark that would make her see things differently. Maybe she was right.

*****

In a newer cleaner cell, elsewhere in the Lair, Gaudeamus Downey sat looking flatly at the stone wall. It was bare, dark stone like everywhere else in the Lair, and not particularly interesting, but it was the only thing available to look at other than the bars or the single flickering candle beyond them. Footsteps from the hall made him look up.

Falcone stepped into view, scowling. "What is the meaning of this?" he thundered, and his voice echoed down the hall for the benefit of the single guard listening outside.

Gaudeamus was about to defend himself when he noticed Falcone beckoning to him, very subtly. He stood and crossed to the bars.

"Listen, old chum," the raptrin said quietly, "it's a frightful shame you've landed in here, but we both know that there's not much either of us can do about it right now. Play along with the situation and I'll have you out in no time, without a sentence, just as soon as I'm sure the leadership situation is under control. Do we have a deal?"

Gaudeamus looked dark. He knew full well that Falcone wasn't doing this for him. If the raptrin could have had his own way, he'd have had Gaudeamus killed for betraying him. However, he knew that Gaudeamus would reveal the location of the secret passage if he was sentenced badly, and if the members found the tunnel and the prisoners, Falcone would go down just as badly as Downey himself.

Falcone was negotiating to save his own skin by keeping Gaudeamus quiet, not out of concern for his supposed ally.

However, Gaudeamus would take what he could get. "Relax," he said coldly, "I won't tell them about the passagewy. I would prefer not to spend any longer than a week in here, however."

"Done." Falcone grinned and slapped him on the shoulder through the bars. "Well done, old boy. I'll stop by later, hmm?"

Gaudeamus shrugged and turned away from the bars. Falcone smirked and left without another word, privately patting himself on the back for his cleverness.

*****

The heavy silence of the cell was split when Duke's stomach growled.

"I'm starvin'," he said, as if to justify the sound.

"Me too."

"Wasn't really in the mood ta eat after the poison thing."

Leila was silent.

Duke picked up the conversation again, preferring the small talk to the depressing silence. "Did you have anythin' ta eat recently?"

"Jus' a coffee while I was waitin' outside the Infirmary." She winced and shifted a little. "Thanks fer remindin' me; I was tryin' ta ignore that..."

"Huh?"

Leila shook her head. "Never mind." Her expression one of growing discomfort, she crossed her legs. "Damn it."

"Oh."

*****

The lamp finally burned out again a short time later, plunging the two captives into darkness.

It was difficult to stay awake when there was nothing to look at or listen to. Duke managed to stay more or less aware. Every now and then he'd hold his breath and listen to Leila's breathing, trying to determine if she was asleep or not. It wasn't like they were talking much when they were both awake, but just the knowledge that someone else was awake and aware in the dark beside him was reassuring.

Right now her breathing was slow; she'd been drifting in and out of wakefulness for a while, but apparently she was asleep now.

Duke kept himself from drifting off by mentally reciting all the nursery rhymes he knew; then all the pieces of Brotherhood Lore and legend he could think of; and he finally resorted to mathematical problems. A soft sound from beside him made him catch his breath and listen carefully.

Leila's breathing had changed. The rhythm was still deep, but fast. She didn't sound awake... Perhaps she was dreaming. He smiled slightly into the pitch-dark and hoped she was dreaming herself somewhere a lot better than here.

*****

Falcone stepped into the cell, holding the flaming torch ahead of him. As Leila watched, the flames danced higher and became thinner, and gradually they changed to a bright golden snake. It slithered down the wooden handle of the torch, down the raptrin's arm, his waist, down one of his legs, and came toward her.

She gasped - Leila rarely screamed, even in her dreams - and drew herself into a ball as well as she could, chained to the wall, and tried with all her being to avoid letting the slithering fire touch her. It turned at the last minute and slithered toward Duke, chained next to her. His eyes were wide - both of his eyes, he had both eyes. He didn't draw back, though. He shouted something at it, something in a strange language that Leila understood on some deep level, and she thought nothing of that.

The shout made the snake rear back but Falcone urged it on, flinging forward his arm, pointing at Duke and laughing. The snake struck the grey drake's face and he writhed like a trapped rabbit and a scream tore unwillingly from his throat. The snake dissipated into flames all over the floor, all around Falcone, but not touching him. And Duke had a neat, dark hole where his eye had been; but there was no blood.

Falcone chuckled again and raised his arms, and the flames leapt higher at his bidding. Leila couldn't breathe, but it wasn't just the smoke - on some deep, primitive level, she hated fire. Detested it.

Her shackles opened and dropped to the floor with a clatter, releasing her hands. There was no pain, this time. She stood up and the hulking man standing in the centre of the room beckoned to her. There was nothing she could do but go. The flames leapt ever higher, ever hungrier, but they parted as she walked through them.

He reached out and took her in his arms. "I have a gift for you."

She allowed him to lead her to the back of the small cell. The flames died down a little, but they still lit what was there well enough. The torture instruments, rusty and ancient, lining the back wall... There was one in particular in the middle that he was leading her towards. It was a round, wooden thing with four pegs equally spaced around the edges, and frayed ropes hanging from those pegs.

"You first," the raptrin-voice echoed behind her, "and then Zakiya."

The first surge of fear hit and she tried to turn away, but Falcone no longer stood behind her. Or, to be precise, he did - but he was no longer Falcone, he was something dark and monstrous, unidentifiable as avian... A wall of darkness with a jutting, sharply curved dark beak and huge, devouring eyes...

There was nowhere to run, and she backed away from him/it, towards the back wall. The ropes on the wooden stretching rack - for that was what it was - suddenly came to life, like the fire/snake had, and wrapped around her wrists and ankles, pulling her back against the wooden disc, lying flat on her back on a slope, unable to move, spreadeagled. Her clothes dissolved and she tried to scream, but her voice was gone too. The Falcone-eyes were looking at her, and there seemed to be fire in the centre of them. And across the cell, Duke was looking too, but now both his eyes were gone and it was plain he couldn't see.

The flames flowed down into the fiery, burning snake again, and it was part of the darkness that had been Falcone. The whole mass slid towards her and she screamed soundlessly, again and again and again, and at the last moment turned her face away and to the sky-

--oh gods no it burns it burns it burns gods help me IT BURNS--

*****

For the last five minutes Duke had listened, growing more and more alert and concerned, as Leila's breathing pattern had gotten faster. She was almost panting now.

He was about to call out to her when she shot awake with a choking gasp. He couldn't see her clearly; it was still black; but he could tell from the sudden sound her body and the chains made as she jerked forward.

Covered in a cold sweat, Leila's first reaction was momentary terror at where she was, at the total blackness around her and the knowledge that in wakefulness and in sleep, she'd been in the same place. She jerked her arms down and felt her wrists bitten by metal, not rope, and almost wept in relief. Her next urge was to give into her nausea as she usually did. But her habitual trips to the bathroom after her dreams were generally more a comfort thing than a necessity - she'd been able to stem the sick urge before, and she did it now, burying her face in her shoulder and wiping at the icy sweat, fighting her clenching stomach.

Leila finally leaned her head back and took a deep breath, and knew that, from that point on, she'd be okay.

Duke had been waiting, listening into the dark and trying to interpret what he heard. "Are you all right, sweetheart?"

She was too weary to pick him up on the familiar name. "For someone locked in a dungeon, I ain't too bad." She thought back over her words and the tone of voice she'd just used, and was pleased with herself. She'd sounded almost normal.

"What were ya dreamin'?" he asked quietly.

None of yer business. "I don't remember," she lied.

Duke's voice was still quiet. "Y'know... it's easier ta talk about... things... in the dark. Ya ever noticed that?"

"No," she said coldly, "An' I tol' ya, I don't remember. So stop pushin'."

"It must be tough ta be the Leader an' have ta deal wit' personal problems an' raisin' a kid all at the same time."

Leila was momentarily thrown by his change of subject. "It is... But who says I have personal problems?"

"My eyes," Duke said dryly.

"That's remarkably cocky comin' from a guy who only has one," she said in return, needlessly scathing.

"Hey, jus' havin' one doesn't make me blind," Duke coolly replied. "You don' like Falcone much, do ya?"

"An' that makes me unusual?"

"No. That makes ya a survivor."

"Yer reasoning?" Leila found herself genuinely curious.

"He don' like leavin' the people who don' like him alive."

Leila glanced around rather redundantly in the darkness. "We're alive. What does that make us?"

"Special cases, I guess," Duke said. "I was a close friend o' his fer a while there, before we both ended up in competition fer leadership an' he... went like he is an' knocked my eye out. But he was a friend, once. Maybe that's why he ain't just killed us already; maybe he isn't the monster he seems like..."

"He is. Believe me," Leila said coldly, "he is."

The drake shifted position with a rattle of his shackles. "So. What's yer story? Wit' Falcone, I mean."

"Getting' a bit personal, ain't we?"

"I told ya mine. Fair's fair."

"I don't recall hearin' myself agreein' to anythin' like that."

The silence from his direction was reproachful. Leila had never known before that moment that a silence could convey an emotion in itself, but this one was definitely reproachful.

She sighed. "Alright. I'm sure you've heard all this through the grapevine already, an' you were around fer most of it anyhow. Falcone took me off the streets an' apprenticed me, an' eventually I had his kid. He wasn't interested, so he took off. Happy?"

There was a short silence from Duke's direction. Suddenly: "Why'd you take leadership?"

Leila was on her guard instantly. "Why not?"

Duke released a sigh softly, but loudly enough so she could hear it. "Do ya think ya can answer jus' one question wit'out wonderin' if I have a hidden agenda?"

Her temper flaring up, Leila replied, "Do ya think ya can stop interrogatin' me fer jus' five minutes?"

"I'm tryin' ta create conversation! If we don't talk we'll go nuts. We've got the fortune ta be stuck down here together; we might as well get ta know each other."

Leila wasn't sure if his last sentence was sarcastic or not. "I took it because..." she trailed off, realising for the first time that she wasn't entirely sure why she'd done it. "Well, it was a combination a' things."

"Such as?"

Stubborn son of a bitch... "Well, after the fire in the old Base I was the most senior person on the scene. People kinda expected me ta say somethin', so I gave the order ta break up and regroup in a certain amount o' time. People listened." She shrugged in the darkness, setting her shoulders burning, forgetting that he couldn't see the gesture anyhow. "When we got to the new base Marshall unofficially gave the job ta me, jus' like that. A' course there were other contenders, eventually, an' I fought them all. Falcone wounded me an' then disappeared before I could get well ta challenge him again. There were no other challengers, so..." she hesitated. "So I took the job. It just sorta seemed the thing ta do."

"Why'd you fight 'em? When Marshall gave ya the job, did ya really want it?"

She laughed a little hoarsely. "Did I want the job o' puttin' back together a fragmented an' disheartened organisation of thieves? Not particularly. I think..." she hesitated again, and said rather quickly, "I think I was tryin' ta prove somethin'. To Falcone." Instantly berating herself for revealing even that much, she fell silent.

"You an' he got a pretty bad history, don't y--"

"Duke, I'll talk, but I don't wanna talk about Falcone. Okay?"

Duke almost nodded, then caught himself and replied aloud, "No problem."

Leaning back against the wall, Leila closed her eyes. "Anythin' else, O Curious One?"

"Why don't you ask me somethin'? Just fer a change."

"All right. What's wit yer attitude these past two weeks? What're ya tryin' to achieve?"

He was caught by surprise at the blunt question; it was the last thing he'd thought she'd ask so openly. "I... my, eh... behaviour..." He frowned, a little defensive. "It ain' like I've really done anythin' major."

"You haven't. An' yer avoidin' the issue."

Duke knew full well that not only was she giving him a taste of his own medicine, but in her way, she was probably relishing it. "Y'know, sweetheart, regarding my behaviour... the harder ya push people, the more they resist."

"It's Leila. An' I know. I wanna know why ya felt ya had ta resist so vehemently."

"I wanted ya ta know you can trust me - that I don' need ta be watched like a two-year-old. That I can go outside when I feel like it an' you can know that I won't be caught because, damn it, I'm good enough!" He scowled into the darkness, feeling afresh the sting of everyone's mistrust of him since his return. "I was the Leader an' I'm a Red Circle, fer cryin' out loud. Nobody even gave me a chance!"

"You left," Leila said a little angrily. "You got yer chance - yer chance was that we brought ya back here alive, despite you leavin'!"

"An' now that I'm here, yer gonna keep me prisoner fer the rest o' my life, is that right? If so, yer no better than Falcone."

That got to her. "Did ya ever think that maybe trust has ta be earned?" she snapped. "That maybe I don' work the same way you used to? Yer a risk-taker, Duke, ya jump first an' ask questions later; an ya seem more likely ta trust someone until they break that trust than wait an' see if they're worth trustin' in the first place! That worked great fer you, but you expect me ta work in the same way, an' I ain't like that! I'm too careful. So it might take a while ta win my trust, but when ya do, I'll trust ya wit' my own life an' know that I'm safe ta do so."

Her companion was silent for a while after her short speech. Finally he said, "Hey, I'm sorry."

Taken aback, Leila blinked. "What... what for?"

"Y'know, I think I might've... underestimated ya just a little," Duke admitted. It was something his pride usually wouldn't have allowed him to say. His earlier observation had been correct, though - it was easier to say things in the dark, where you didn't have to meet the other person's eyes.

Leila took a while to find her voice. A number of replies went through her head, ranging from the smug to the grateful to the amazed... "Oh," she said.

Seeing it as an opening for him to continue, Duke elaborated. "Yer style of leadership... isn't mine, I guess. I was kinda lookin' at everythin' from the framework I was usin' when I was doin' the job."

"You didn't think I was doin' a good job?" Leila asked quietly.

"I wasn't sure," Duke admitted. "At times... yeah, I didn't think so. But I gotta give ya credit where credit's due. Ya did a pretty good job of pullin' this organisation back together, Lei."

Leila was positively blown away. To hear Duke first apologise then essentially admit he was wrong about something turned her view of him upside down. "I... think I was wrong about a few things, too," she said slowly, shaking her head in the cover of the dark.

In the dark Duke's grin was invisible, but she could hear it in his voice. "Thought I was too stubborn ta ever see things from another perspective, huh?" He'd hit the nail on the head. "I guess I can be that way sometimes. But then, so can you."

Leila's slight smile turned dry. Shoulda known it was too good ta last. Of course, he was right.

The conversation trailed off soon enough, but the silence that was left behind was companionable. Neither of them said it, but they both knew that if they made it out of this place, they couldn't possibly go back to being adversaries.

*****

Falcone came in to relight the lamp some time later. As if by some mutual, silent agreement, both prisoners simply ignored him until he left.

*****

Absorbed in her favourite evening holovision show, Zakiya deSilver barely glanced up when the door to the small room she was in opened. "Hi."

"Hello..." Falcone stood behind her for a second, then crouched next to her, eyeing the moving cartoon shapes on the floor before the child. "What are you watching?"

"Fel Flyers," she informed him. "That one there is Niouta, see?" She was pointing to a white fel, standing on it's back legs, walking with another. The holographic picture changed to a close-up of a different fel, the illusion of three-dimensionality perfect on the face. "And that one's Rhabi. He's the leader. I usually watch this show with Rain," she added as an afterthought.

Falcone watched for a moment, not particularly interested, as the cartoon fels climbed into some sort of fighter spacecraft. "Zakiya," he said casually, "I'm afraid I have some bad news."

"Mmm?" She wasn't paying much attention.

He went on regardless. "Your mummy says she isn't going to take you out today."

That caught her attention. Zakiya stared at him, dismayed, the holovision show forgotten. "Huh?? Howcome?"

Falcone put on a sad, disappointed look. "I'm afraid... she says she's too busy for you again. I'm to keep looking after you a while longer." Yesterday, when Zakiya had asked him why her mother hadn't taken her out, then innocently detailed Leila's promise as well as the past ones she'd broken, Falcone had spotted an opportunity too good to pass up.

Zakiya's little beak was open now, and sudden tears welled up in her eyes. "Again?" she whispered. "But you said she was busy yesterday, too... an' she broked her promise! Again..."

The raptrin almost felt sorry for the little girl for a moment. He shook it off and continued, "Yes, she has done it again, hasn't she? I suppose her promises really mustn't mean all that much. My... It's rather unkind of her, isn't it?"

Zakiya balled her little hands into fists and wiped at her eyes, frowning unhappily. "Mamma doesn't like me anymore," she said finally. "She never spends time with me!"

"It seems that way, doesn't it? It's awfully mean, I think."

Zakiya stood up and turned the holovision off, staring at the empty floor where the cartoon had been playing out a moment before. Her mouth was trembling.

"Zakiya? Is there something you want to say?"

"I hate her!" the child shouted suddenly, and burst into tears.

Falcone held out his arms and watched with satisfaction as the little girl fell into his grip and clung to him, sobbing her heart out. He hugged her gingerly and patted her back. "It's all right... you've still got me, and I'll never break a promise to you... Never."

*****

Leila jerked upright and stared around. Silence. After a while she glanced across at Duke, who was wide awake. "Did ya... jus' hear somethin'?" she asked him.

He looked across at her. "I'm not sure, sweetheart. Maybe voices."

"Yeah... I guess. An' don' call me sweetheart."

"Sorry. Say, ya think it'd do any good if we just yelled at the top of our voices from down here?"

Leila glanced up at the ceiling. "I don' think so. If ya'd seen the passage we came along..." She shook her head. "Besides, I did a little yellin' of my own while you were still knocked out. I think the only person who can hear us down here is Falcone. An' that, we don' need." Relaxing a little and leaning back against the wall, Leila tried to ignore the almost intolerable aching of her bladder.

Duke was silent for a long time, his expression strange. He looked at her, and didn't look away. His fixed study started to make Leila uncomfortable.

"What?" she finally asked tersely.

"You saw the way we came in?" he asked slowly.

"Ye--" Leila broke off as she realised her mistake.

Duke's voice was carefully neutral. "How is it that he managed ta get the both of us down here if you were conscious an' had yer saber right up until he frisked us?"

Her heart seemed to stop for a minute. Very pale under her feathers, Leila just stared at him. "What're ya accusin' me of?"

Duke never got his chance to answer, because suddenly Falcone was standing in the entrance to the hall.

They both looked at him.

He was holding a bowl of some sort. "Well, now... you must both be famished," he said quite cheerfully. "Who wants a little soup?"

The only answers he received from his prisoners were matching glares, but he opened the cell door and stepped in anyhow. "I can't have you two starving on me, now, can I? It wouldn't be much fun at all."

Duke stared at the soup and hoped to Drake that Falcone would be clueless enough to unlock them to let them eat it. Unfortunately, the raptrin was a little more careful than that. Crouching beside Duke, he put the bowl to his mouth. The drake hesitated, feeling his stomach aching dully with hunger, then began to drink the soup. Wounded pride or no, if any escape attempt was to be made, he'd need the energy. He hoped Leila would realise the same and take some when her turn came.

Falcone let him have half the bowl, then withdrew it and moved to Leila. She turned her head to the side, and Duke cursed inwardly.

"Take it," Falcone said threateningly, "or you won't get another chance."

Leila looked him directly in the eye and said in a low voice, "What I really need is ta use a bathroom. If ya let me do that, I'll eat."

He chuckled. "Are you threatening me? I really don't mind if you starve, personally. And I'm not fool enough to unlock you. If you need to do that, you can do it right here - I'm sure it isn't beneath your pride." He turned to leave.

Leila's face burned with fury and embarrassment.

"Falcone!" Duke snapped. "That ain't fair!"

"It's all right, Duke," Leila interrupted before the raptrin could reply. "Ya can't blame him fer bein' scared ta let either of us off, can ya? If I were him, I'd be scared too."

Falcone's back went stiff. "Excuse me?" he said, and turned to stare at her.

She looked him in the eye. "Ya heard what I said."

He was plainly furious. Leaning close to her, his hooked beak practically in her face, he hissed, "I have every power over you, and you know it."

It took every last shred of Leila's self-control, but when she replied, her voice had just the right amount of a light, mocking tone to it. "An' yet yer afraid ta take me to the bathroom."

"Afraid, am I? Must I prove everything to you?" He started fumbling with his keys, and had her unlocked in no time. Grabbing her wrists in his powerful hands, he pulled her to her feet and held her there, not releasing her wrists from his vicelike grip.

Leila hadn't realised how weak she was until she had to stand on her feet. The sudden change in the position of her body sent lancing pains down her back and legs, and she cried out before she could stop herself. Falcone yanked on her arms and she stumbled after him as he left the cell, her legs like jelly under her.

She wasn't looking for an opportunity to kick him or slip away, not at this stage. Even if she had have been strong enough, she was quite genuine about needing to use the bathroom. After that, however, she would reconsider her position.

*****

Falcone took his captive into the small office running off from the hall. Holding both her wrists in one of his large hands now, he opened a desk drawer with his free hand and took out a pair of shackles - similar to handcuffs, but thicker and a lot heavier - with a very short length of chain between them. These he locked around Leila's wrists. From that point on he just held her by one arm; her hands were heavy and almost immobilised.

Obediently, she allowed herself to be led into a smaller door in the office that she hadn't noticed the previous time she'd glimpsed the interior. This second room was a small and very old bathroom, but it seemed to be in working order. Aside from the toilet and a sink, there was nothing, not a cabinet or anything, that could obviously contain or be used as a weapon. Falcone released her from his grip and pushed her into the small room, staying standing in the doorway.

Leila glanced over her shoulder at him. The shackles clinked together gently.

"Well," Falcone said impatiently. "Hurry it up."

For the first time since she'd had her own distinctive outfit made, Leila regretted the design. The design of it required her to remove almost every article of clothing - to first remove the vest, then the belt, then the split skirt, then peel down the bodysuit - just to do something simple like use the toilet.

The process wasn't made any easier by the shackles she was wearing; in fact, the entire thing was near impossible. And Falcone stayed standing in the doorway the entire time, watching her with a bored, imperious gaze.

He never once made a move or said a word to her; even his expression didn't change. Yet by the time Leila had finished and managed to dress herself again, she was so terrified that she felt faint. Falcone took her trembling arm and led her back to the cell, and not until she was locked back into the shackles on the wall did the thought of escape even occur to her.

*****

In the flickering lamplight, Duke looked across at Leila as Falcone chained her to the wall. Her expression was gaunt and pale, her eyes not looking at any one thing, and for just a fraction of a second he felt a bolt of unreasonable, inexplicable horror. She looked like something dead.

Then Falcone finished locking her up and she seemed to go just a little less tense, even her features growing less taut. The raptrin picked up the bowl of soup, now cooling and congealing, from where he'd left it on the floor. He offered it to her silently, holding it to her mouth.

For a moment Leila was unresponsive, and Duke wondered if Falcone had hit her in the head while he'd had her out of the cell, but she leaned forward and craned her neck and started choking a little of the soup down, and Duke relaxed. A fraction.

Despite her hunger, Leila had to force back a gag reflex with the first swallow, and knew that she wouldn't be able to eat much. After choking down another couple of mouthfuls, she turned her head away.

Falcone withdrew the bowl and left the cell, locking it once again behind him.

It had all been done in complete silence.

*****

A little time passed, and the lamp dimmed somewhat. Duke had been trying to think about how to broach the subject of his... Yes, it was an accusation. He was damn suspicious. Something just didn't fit into this scenario, and that something was Leila. Her reaction when he'd brought it up only served to fuel those suspicions.

However, reacting defensively to any accusation was a thief thing. He'd done it himself at times. Perhaps he was wrong...

Either way, he'd have to talk to her to find out, even though he wasn't looking forward to it. They'd just started to get along, and he'd found that he liked that. Of course, even if she was innocent of any part in what had happened, he doubted they could reach that kind of friendly understanding again after his pointed suspicion. The thought really bothered him. He wanted her to like him, and he wasn't even sure why. It wasn't as if she had much of a likeable side herself. The woman seemed all hard edges and very little emotion - aside from anger and perhaps fear. If there was anything else, he was yet to see it.

"Leila. We gotta talk."

She was looking away from him, her body turned as far away to the side as her position would allow, her gaze fixed to the back wall. She didn't look around when he spoke. Her shoulders were hunched up, her knees pulled up too. Even in the dimness, he thought she might have been trembling a little, as she had been when Falcone brought her back.

Duke looked at her curiously. "Leila? You alright?"

She jerked her head oddly, as if she wanted to shake it but couldn't. It was enough, though - in the dim lamplight, for just a split-second, he'd seen the wetness gleaming on her cheek, the twisted, tortured expression on her face before she hid it from his view again.

He decided then and there not to pursue his accusation any further; not now.

Leila deSilver, the hard-edged, angry leader of the Brotherhood of the Blade, was crying her heart out. And she was managing to do so completely silently.

Plainly, she didn't want him to know it. Whatever it was, she preferred to carry it alone. Duke felt a surge of pity and admiration for her. The emotions were an odd mixture. He wanted to say something to comfort her, to ask her what had happened. He had a sudden, irresistible urge just to wrap his arms around her as if she was a very small child. Of course, there wasn't much he could do about it in the position he was in, and the urge passed. But Duke hated seeing anyone cry - especially a woman. Especially someone who tried not to.

He opened his mouth to speak, and reconsidered, suddenly picturing himself in her situation. The battling emotions, the wounded pride if he was found out for the perceived weakness of tears...

"I guess yer asleep," he said out loud. "Or jus' ignorin' me. Fine. We'll talk later." He turned his own body a little away in the other direction, staring out through the bars, purposely making himself unable to see her. The greatest gift he could give her was her privacy.

Even through her silent tears, Leila almost smiled at his weak attempt to preserve her dignity. Gratefully, she curled into herself a little further and cried, quite soundlessly, until she drifted off into an uneasy sleep.

*****

Day Five

Nylessa blinked in surprise as someone grabbed her around the waist from behind and kissed her neck firmly.

"Nosedive," she scolded, "We are supposed to be looking."

"I am," he smirked, releasing her waist. "And I gotta say, your neck looks beautiful from the back."

"Oh?" She turned to face him and coyly leaned back against one of the dusty walls of D level, then pulled him toward her. "Just my neck?"

He let his eyes travel from her face down her front, and blushed a little. "Well... that and other stuff..."

Nylessa basked in his eager gaze as a cat basks in the sun. Leaning forward, she kissed the blonde boy easily, and he kissed her back, wrapping his arms around her. A moment later she pulled him down to the floor with her.

"Mm... what if... yikes... what if..." Nosedive was silenced with another kiss, and when he got his breath back he finally finished, "...what if someone comes?"

"Only us..." Nylessa said more than a little suggestively, taking off his jacket with practised ease.

"Okee," he squeaked, and went to work on her belt with clumsy, inexperienced fingers.

*****

"This floor's kinda hard," Nosedive muttered, and sat up. Some time had passed, clothing had been scattered, and he and Nylessa were each coated in a light sweat.

The redhead smirked. "If I recall, the floor wasn't the only one..." she said dryly.

Nosedive flushed a little and started getting dressed. "I keep walkin' into those, don't I?"

"Yep," Nylessa said cheerfully.

"Girl, you have a dangerous mind..."

"I learned it all from Duke, you know," she said lazily, and stretched.

"Heh, yeah, I could believe that..." Nosedive paused as he pulled his jacket on. "Speaking of which... do you think he'd blow his stack if he knew what we've been... uh... up to?"

Nylessa avoided the obvious pun and pulled on her dress. "I don't think he'd be too worried. I'm just... furthering your education."

"Yeah, well, school was never this much fun," Nosedive said dryly, running his fingers through his hair to straighten it.

"Of course it wasn't. This is the Brotherhood. And the Brotherhood has a rather hidden side in which I deal almost exclusively." She smiled impishly. "You'd be surprised at all the intrigue that goes with the relationships around here. I swear, sometimes its like an episode of 'The Young and the Feathered'."

Nosedive watched Nylessa do up her belt and sighed. "Yeah," He seemed a little distracted... even for him. "It'd kinda be nice if the old guy was around... even if he was blowin' his stack."

"Who, Duke?"

"Yeah."

"You're really worried, aren't you?" Her voice was a little quieter than it had been a moment ago.

"Well... yeah. You can't help getting kinda fond of the old geyser after living with him for three years..." He looked at her. "Are you worried about Leila? Aren't you really close to her or something?"

Nylessa glanced away. "Yes, well... I'm as close as one can get to her. And of course I'm worried about her, especially with that pompous old sack of feathers showing up like that all of a su--"

A strange sound from down the hall made them both look up. It was a grating sound, a heavy, stony sound. Nylessa and Nosedive glanced at one another, then the redhead started creeping down the hall toward the source of the sound. Nosedive quickly followed.

It stopped briefly and started again as they reached the end of the hall, and as they stepped into the room that the C level stairs went from, the sound ended with a low, reverberating thud.

Quiet. Silence. No movement. Nothing.

Nosedive glanced at the floor, then looked again. He touched Nylessa's shoulder and pointed.

A series of boot prints went purposely across the floor, quite clearly marked in the pale white powder across the stones. The prints faded out near where the pair stood, where the powder was thinner. And the prints started...

The prints appeared to start from the middle of a wall. A blank wall. It looked almost as if the owner of those boots had walked clear out of the wall.

*****

Leila's eyes felt sticky and sore. She opened them slowly, and it took her a split-second to remember where she was. Then she remembered crying before she'd gone to sleep, and felt herself flush with shame. At that moment, she would have liked to have sunk through the floor.

She was still facing away from Duke, and made up her mind to turn to look at him. She'd avoided the inevitable long enough. He had a right to know why they were really here.

Leila's body was completely numb from having slept in the same curled-up position against the wall for... goodness knows how long. She gently moved one leg, then the other. Nothing, just numbness. Slowly she shifted herself so she was facing forward, then turned her head to the right to look at her companion. She stopped moving and relaxed.

Agonising pain crashed through her body, from her wrists down her arms into her chest, neck, stomach, and legs. She bit her tongue so hard she drew blood, but managed not to cry out. Eyes watering, she took a few deep breaths and moved her legs and turned her torso slowly, gently stretching her cramped muscles, and gradually the pain faded a little.

Blinking to clear her vision, Leila glanced over at Duke. His eyes were closed, and he appeared to be asleep. She sighed in a mixture of regret and relief.

"You alright, sweetheart?"

Leila jumped and looked again. His eyes were open, now, and he was watching her with obvious concern. Leila felt guiltier then ever, and weakened. "Duke... there's somethin' I gotta tell--"

At that moment Falcone walked in from the hall once again, and Leila inwardly screamed in frustration. He'd locked them in a dungeon to get them out of the way and yet he couldn't seem to leave them alone!

He didn't look happy. Unknown to the two prisoners, two of the Brotherhood members had gotten wind of the possibility of a secret passage. He knew they'd searched the wall for the way to open it - he could read the mingled footprints they'd left well enough - but they'd obviously been unable to work it out. Falcone had replayed the tape from the security camera he'd had hidden in the room on D level and managed to identify the two searchers.

The redhead was Nylessa, a girl he recognised vaguely as being an old friend of Leila's. Whether they were still friends he wasn't sure, but he didn't like her. He'd made a pass at her once and she'd knocked him back. Tramp, he thought sourly.

The blonde lad was easy to recognise as one of the Strike Force he'd met on earth. As far as he knew, Duke had brought him back to the Lair.

Falcone knew who they were, he just didn't know what to do about them. Keeping the underground prison and it's contents secret was difficult enough without having to sneak around making sure nobody was down at the entrance whenever he entered or left the place.

He would have to decide what to do about his captives, and fast. He'd been planning to keep them alive down here as long as possible, in case his leadership came into jeopardy and he needed one or both as insurance. On top of that, they both deserved the punishment.

However, pragmatically speaking, keeping them both down here wouldn't be practical if they were at risk of being found - after all, he wanted them to be an advantage to him, not a disadvantage. It seemed he might have to kill them after all.

Leila was watching him silently, guardedly. Falcone reached to his side and fingered the pistol there, and he saw both ducks recoil.

Putting on a warm smile, he stepped up to the bars. If he was going to kill them anyhow, he might as well have a little fun with them both first.

Leila couldn't tear her gaze away as Falcone unlocked and slid open the barred door to the cell. He walked in, slowly and deliberately. Each footstep echoed eerily. He came to a stop in front of her.

And smiled. "I must say, Leila, you were a wonderful help," he said warmly.

She stared up at him. "...What?"

"Leave her alone, Falcone," Duke growled.

Falcone looked positively amused. "Oh, I see - are we all lovey-dovey now then?" He smirked at Duke, then patted Leila's cheek. "Made ourselves a new friend? She's quite lovely, Duke. A very strong character. A good leader, too - she really cares for her friends and charges." His voice was dripping with sarcasm.

Duke scowled, dangerously close to loosing his temper with the raptrin. "I said leave her alone! She's a better leader than you'll ever be!"

Falcone chuckled and patted Leila's cheek once more, a little too hard. She was trying to look away from Duke, but Falcone's hand stayed on the side of her face and she couldn't turn her head. Shamed, she averted her eyes as Falcone replied gleefully, "Well you see old boy - that's where you're wrong." He smiled quite evilly at Duke and went in for the kill. "She's been working for me."

Duke was left speechless. Every vague suspicion, every small misgiving he'd had about her had been more horribly correct than he knew.

"No," Leila said shakily, "It's not like that..."

With a short laugh, Falcone stood, still ignoring her and addressing Duke. "Fine. Then ask yourself why she seemed so desperate to distract you at the very moment I was standing behind you on D level. Ask yourself why she seemed so unenthusiastic about helping you search in the first place. Ask yourself why it is that you had to be knocked out and she didn't! Oh, and Duke? I wasn't the one who carried you down here. And I was not responsible for that poison being planted in your room." Falcone had been backing toward the barred door as he spoke, and now he stepped out and closed it. "Oh, by the way - you've both become too much of a burden to keep. I have some business to attend to; but I shall return soon enough. Make the most of this next hour, hmm? It will be your last."

He left, leaving them both in dead silence.

Duke stared at Leila, who looked away. "Everythin' he said... was it true?"

She looked up at him for a moment, and couldn't lie. "Yeah... but--"

"Damn it! I don't believe this! I trusted ya!" Angrily, he stared at her for a long moment, then turned away. "Well, I hope yer happy," he added savagely, not looking back.

"He had Zakiya," she whispered.

His back stiffened for just a moment, but he didn't reply.

"Duke, please..." she faltered, and then spoke up more strongly. "We have ta work together ta get outta here."

He shrugged his shoulders and didn't turn around. "I thought we were workin' together."

She tried once more. "I didn't want it ta turn out this way--"

"I'll bet ya didn't. Let me guess, only I was supposed ta end up down here, is that right?" Her answering silence told him what he needed to know. "Ya know, Leila, ya said before that ya weren't the kind o' leader yer people'd take bullets for. But if you wanna be that kinda leader, you gotta be willin' ta take bullets fer yer people! It cuts both ways!"

There was an even longer silence from her direction. Duke didn't look around.

"He had my daughter, Duke!" Leila finally burst out. "What else could I do? What else was there ta do? I can't be that kinda leader! I know it's my job ta put the lives of others ahead o' mine an' if it'd been my life in direct danger I would have, but it was the life o' my daughter! You can't sit there an' tell me you've never put a personal affair ahead o' yer job."

She had been thinking of his desertion during the war when she said that. However, her unwitting choice of words - "personal affair" - hit home in a different way for Duke. Unbidden, Marina's name flew into his head. He didn't answer, though he knew that his silence was a lie in itself.

"Maybe I made the wrong choice," Leila finished quietly, "but I did it outta love. I did it fer the right reasons."

His back stayed perfectly still, and she fell silent.

Duke turned to look at her, rather slowly.

Leila met his gaze, her eyes cautious but curious, not quite sure how to take his movement yet. He opened his mouth to speak, and there was an odd look on his face.

"Next time," he said dryly, "that a personal affair has ta come before yer job... do ya think you can warn me first?"

Relieved, she nodded. "I'm sorry. I honestly didn't want ya ta come to any harm... if ya can believe that. I'd rather we were friends."

"Oh, yeah, who needs enemies..." He managed a very slight smile, and Leila knew she was a long way towards being forgiven.

*****

Falcone had left the secret passage long ago, and once again, the D level room it led into had been completely empty when he'd opened the passage door. He'd made sure of that on the monitors in the prison office before he'd gone.

However, if anyone had been in the prison office at this very moment, they would have seen something rather interesting playing on the monitor. In a realtime video feed, it showed a very small group of people entering the room from the C level stairs and examining the wall, again without luck.

One of the people, a brown male dressed all in black, withdrew a tiny black object from a pouch at his waist. He walked across the room and looked at the walls and ceiling opposite the impenetrable wall, as did the blonde male and redheaded female who were with him. One of them pointed to a particular spot, and Cutter - for that's who he was - took out his saber, extended it only slightly above the hilt, and used it like a dagger to lever out a small chunk of stone from the wall. It fell to the floor, leaving a small hole there, high up on the wall where it wouldn't be easily spotted. Into this hole Cutter slid the tiny black disc he held.

All three left, and the room on the monitor was quiet and empty once more.

*****

"If... when we get outta here," Leila began hesitantly, "what are you... uh..."

"Gonna tell 'em? About you?" Her companion just looked at her for a moment. "What's ta tell? Falcone took us both prisoner."

Leila closed her eyes gratefully. She tried to smile but couldn't.

"Hey," Duke said, and she opened her eyes again. "When we get outta here... Truce, okay? Regardless of what happened."

She nodded. "I'd shake on it, but..."

"Yeah, I know." Duke looked wry. "On thieves honor, then?"

"Thieves honor."

They lapsed into silence for a while, each caught up in their own thoughts of escape, each searching the cell with their eyes, playing and replaying a million and one different scenarios in their heads. Over and over again in each imagination they rehearsed and abandoned their unlikely ideas.

Duke kicked or tripped Falcone and the keys fell into reach. Leila manipulated Falcone into letting one of them out. Duke offered him an alliance and then double-crossed him. Leila offered him something else, and felt sick with herself. They were desperate.

Duke stretched and looked up at the ceiling. "When do ya think Falcone'll get back?" he asked quietly.

Leila just shook her head.

"Live by the sword, die by the sword," the gray drake said hollowly.

Trying to look up at the shackles that held her, Leila grew increasingly frustrated. Her thick hair was falling across her face and impairing her view, and she couldn't bring her hands down to brush it aside.

Of course, if she'd been able to bring her hands down, there wouldn't have been a problem in the first place.

"Shit..." she muttered.

Duke glanced across at her. "What's wrong? Aside from the obvious..."

"My damn hair, I can't see a thing. How the hell do ya get yers ta stay outta yer face?"

He smiled wryly. "Are you kiddin'? I took up thievin' just ta support my hair gel habit. Why? How do you do it?"

"Bobby pins," she said without thinking.

There was a short silence as she tried to get her hair out of the way by tossing her head, and he went back to his own examination of the shackles.

Suddenly the two captives froze, and just stared at one another, openmouthed, for a long moment.

The penny dropped.

*****

Leila moved her head in odd, crazy gyrations, like a thing possessed. She rubbed the back of her head, first against one arm, then the other, twisting it to the side each time. She leaned as far forward as the shackles would allow and tossed her head forward a few times, her black hair flying madly around her face. Tossing the tangled mass back over her shoulder with a flick of her neck she stopped to take a few panting breaths.

"How's it goin'?" Duke asked anxiously.

"It's looser, it's a lot looser! Once I get it out the bobby pins'll be easier..." She went back to rubbing the back of her head against her arms; or more specifically, rubbing at the stretchy red cloth band that tied the majority of her hair up high on the back of her head. She'd been right about it being looser; her hair was in a complete disarray around her face, and that which was still in the band was only half-in and sitting almost at the nape of her neck instead of high up on the back.

She leaned forward again and with a toss of her head, had her long hair all back over her shoulders and sitting on her back. The elastic was only in loosely, now. Leila tilted her head so she was looking at the ceiling, then leaned backwards so her hair was firmly pressed between her back and the wall.

Then, remaining pressed against the wall, she slowly looked down.

The elastic, trapped under her back, stayed put. The hair, however, slid up and away from it, and finally came loose altogether.

"Alright. Now ta get those damn pins..." Leaning forward once more, Leila gently pushed the side of her head against her shoulder and something sharp dug into her skin. "Ow! ...found one. Jus' gotta... manoeuvre... it out..." She could feel the metal bobby pin sliding against the side of her head, sliding forward... a little more forward...

Abruptly it flew out and fell to the floor with a gentle pinging sound, bounced, and landed between her and Duke.

"Damn it!!" That hadn't been the plan. Leila had expected the pin to become caught in her hair on the way down so she could grab it in her teeth, lift herself up to get her head on level with her wrists, and pick the lock that way.

There was still a chance. She reached one leg out for it... and it fell short.

"I can't reach!" she said, despairing.

"I'm taller, let me try." Duke pulled as far away from the wall as he could get, reached out a foot... and touched the bobby pin. Trapping it under his boot, he pulled it towards him. Okay... this is the tough part.

He managed to get his other boot on the other side of the pin, and lifted both feet up with the pin between them.

Leila watched. "Now what? Ya got no hands!"

"I don' need 'em... watch..." Concentrating intensely, Duke pushed the bobby pin onto the flattish top of his right boot, and with a little jerk of his foot the pin was tossed back toward him. A quick snapping motion and he'd caught it, grabbed it from the air... between his teeth.

I can't believe I got that first time!

"I can't believe ya got that first time," Leila said.

"Oh ye o' liddle faifh..." Duke said around the bobby pin.

He slowly lifted himself up by the wrists, trying to ignore the feeling of the metal circlets biting into his hands. It hurt like hell, and it was hard to focus, but he didn't have much of a choice. He managed to get his knees under him and support himself that way, and then, with his entire body bent backwards and working upside-down, he slid the bobby pin into the lock and started moving it around, keeping it tightly clenched between his teeth.

As he had noticed before, the lock was old and rusty. By his estimation it took him almost a quarter of an hour to pick it, and in that time they grew more and more tense, each flinching whenever they imagined they heard a sound from the hall.

Finally, the shackles swung open, and Duke was dumped in a heap on the floor. "Oooooohhh... man..." he groaned, just laying there for a second. His wrists were badly bruised and cut up, and oozed blood slowly.

"Duke!"

"Okay... I'm up..." He staggered to his feet and went to Leila's side, where he started working on the lock. Hers should have taken him less time now that he was working the right way up and with his fingers instead of his teeth, but it was in even worse condition than his had been. After twenty minutes his fingers were bleeding and he still wasn't having any luck.

Leila had noted the passing of time, too. She was a little pale beneath her feathers, but when she spoke, her voice was strong. "I want ya ta go find the keys," she said firmly, "I saw Falcone take 'em outta a little office in the passage, so he probably keeps 'em there. Zakiya can't be bein' kept far away. There were two doors in the hall; the second was probably where he's keepin' her. Use the keys ta' let her out. Then I want ya ta take her somewhere safe, up ta Tarrin. And when ya done all that, I want ya ta come back down here an' unlock me."

"Lei, what if he comes back before I can get back to ya?"

"Then at least you an' Zaki are safe."

"Lei--"

She looked him in the eye, and cut him off with a steely glare. "Duke, go! That's a direct order!"

He hesitated for just a moment longer. Suddenly, to her surprise, he complied. It took him no time at all to pick the lock on the cell door, and then he was gone.

Left alone in the cell, Leila settled back to wait. A few minutes passed, and she heard quiet footsteps in the hall. Relieved, she sat up straight and waited for Duke to enter, a smile on her face.

*****

Duke pulled open one drawer after another, trying to balance his haste with the need for silence as he searched for the key. The first drawer on the right side of the desk was empty, but the third was full of labelled videotapes. No key there, but a second before he pushed it closed again he caught sight of the name on the top tape - "Leila's Bedroom #8" and felt slightly sick. These were surveillance tapes.

The third drawer revealed a very familiar-looking pair of sabers, once bronze, one silver. He picked up Leila's and stuck it in the back of his belt, then picked up his own and placed it on the side, immediately feeling better for doing so. The slight weight was comforting.

The left-hand drawers yielded the odd paper or two, all filled with observations of the daily patterns of key people in the Lair; mostly Leila - but others who Falcone saw as a possible threat were there too. Iliana, Marshall... himself...

Shaking his head, Duke closed that drawer too. He didn't have time for this; he had to find the key! Turning, he surveyed the office once more, growing desperate.

"Looking for this?"

Duke spun to see Falcone standing in the doorway, the keyring dangling from his fingers. He had his saber out and activated in a second, but Falcone shook his head.

"Tsk, tsk... put that thing away, or someone might get hurt." On the last word, he pulled something to the left of the doorway into sight. It was Leila, her hands shackled in front of her, looking barely conscious. The son of a bitch had hit her. Falcone was holding her incautiously by one arm; it was plain to see that he too could tell she was in no condition to be a danger.

Duke pointed his saber at Falcone. "Let her go."

Falcone calmly reached under his cape and drew out the now-familiar gun, pointing it at Leila's head. "I'd rather not. Why don't you drop your weapon instead?"

Duke hesitated, then cursed softly and let his saber slip out of his fingers and clatter to the floor. Something about Leila caught his attention, and he let his gaze drift to her slowly. Her eyes, which had a second ago been clouded over and half-closed, were wide open. She mouthed something carefully: Zakiya.

"Now," Falcone continued smoothly, "I suggest we all--" Leila's shackled hands connecting with his chin cut his words off, and he staggered backwards, dropping her and the gun as he slid to the floor. As Leila crawled forward and scooped up the gun, Duke broke and ran past the both of them.

"Find Zakiya!" Leila yelled after him, staggering to her feet with the gun clutched in her shackled hands. She turned to face Falcone, who was slumped against the wall. He didn't move.

Duke reappeared a moment later. "Found her. She's locked in, I need the keys."

Shuddering slightly, Leila knelt and ran her hands around to the back of Falcone's belt, finally emerging with the large keyring. "Here."

Taking the keys from her, Duke ran back the way he'd come. An agonising minute passed. Falcone started to stir.

"Duke! HURRY!"

"It's okay, sweetheart, I got 'er," Once again, Duke's silhouette reappeared at the end of the long hall, but this time he seemed taller.

Zakiya was sitting on his shoulders. "Mamma?" she asked sleepily, catching sight of the bruised and bloodied Leila.

Leila bit her lip and smiled shakily at her daughter. "Hi sweetie. You go wit' Duke. I'll be wit' you soon, okay?" Her gaze moved up to Duke's face. "Take her. I'll make sure ya get the chance ta get her out safely before I follow." Her eyes conveyed something more than her words, however, and Duke had a feeling that regardless of rules of conduct for a Brotherhood leader, Falcone wouldn't be leaving alive if Duke left Leila alone with him now.

He hesitated, looking at Falcone and back to Leila. "Maybe I should--"

Leila's expression changed immediately. "Jus' go, l'Orange; I can handle it," she said through her teeth. "Woulda thought you'd have noticed by now."

"That ain't what I meant," Duke said, but turned and took Zakiya down the hall anyhow. He vanished from sight a moment later, leaving Leila completely alone. The darkness seemed to close in.

All right. Not completely alone.

Her raptrin companion blinked as he awoke; then scowled furiously and reached up to gingerly rub at his chin. He pulled himself into a sitting position, glaring dangerously at her. "You will pay for that, Leila."

Expressionless, Leila pointed the gun at Falcone's head.

For a second, he seemed genuinely startled. Then his initial shock seemed to wear off, and was quickly replaced by a smirk. "You won't do it."

"Try me!" Leila hissed, trying to suppress her shaking.

Falcone stood.

"GET BACK DOWN!"

He shook his head and just smiled almost patronisingly at her. "Poor Leila." Two steps towards her. "You never could fire a gun... least of all at me." With that he reached out and yanked the pistol from her hands, and then drew back and backhanded the heavy weapon across her jaw, the action so fast that she hadn't even had time to brace herself.

She crumpled to the floor, and everything went gray. Then black.

The large raptrin stared impassively down at the slumped form at his feet. "The one lesson I gave you that you could not seem to learn was never to trust others. I hope you have finally worked out why." He nudged her with his boot, then bent and checked her pulse. She moaned and shifted a little, and he grabbed her by the back of her neck and dragged her to her feet, more holding her up than letting her attempt stand on her own.

The side of her face was freshly bloodied, but although speaking must have been difficult she managed to mutter, "They'll c'me back f'r you... Duke'll ge' h'lp..."

"I know Duke as well as I know you, my dear. He'll be back sooner than you think. And he'll come alone."

And Falcone dragged her back toward the cells.

*****

Duke took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Think, l'Orange, think!'

He'd already sent Zakiya to the top of the stairs to wait for him; he'd wanted to wait behind to be sure that Leila was safe.

It turned out to have been a good idea on his part, because whatever she'd planned to do, it had backfired against her.

He hadn't been aware she couldn't fire a gun, but she certainly had been. Why, then, did she try to do it? Did she think that she could overcome it? Why not send someone else back down once she was safe to finish Falcone off? There was some larger grudge between them than the matter of her apprenticeship to him, or even the fact that he was Zakiya's father, Duke was sure. There was something bigger there, something darker, something she couldn't have left well enough alone even if she'd wanted to.

But none of this was helping. He glanced back up the stairs, then walked up to Zakiya, who was sitting calmly cross-legged on the floor looking up at him.

"Where's mamma?"

"She's comin' soon, sweetie..." Duke murmured distractedly.

"Where's daddy?"

"He's--" Duke broke off and stared at her, then shook his head slowly. "Maybe you better not call him that in front of other people, Kiya. Yer mom won' like it." Assuming she lives through this...

I'm not well liked. Leila's morose words came back to him, unbidden. I'm not the kinda leader people'd take bullets for, y'know?

An idea started forming.

"L'Orange," he said to himself, "that is so crazy it just might work."

He looked at the wall in front of him. The outside of the passage may well have been camoflaged, but there was no need for it in here - an old wooden lever stuck out from the wall to his right. He pulled it, and stood back as the wall slowly grated open. The smell of talcum power greeted him. Reaching down, he took Zakiya's hand and pulled her to her feet. "Listen... I'm gonna take ya up to the stairs, an' then I want ya ta go find Tarrin. Ya know where Tarrin is?"

She nodded solemnly.

"Alright. Find him and tell him that yer safe now, and that yer mom an' I are alive, an' we'll be comin' back up soon. Tell him ta get his first aid kit ready. Can ya remember all that?"

"Yes."

"Good girl." He led her to the stairs, and watched carefully as she climbed them. The moment she was out of sight, he turned and hurried down the hall toward the weapons depository. Falcone wouldn't kill Leila, his only insurance, yet somehow Duke had a feeling he didn't have much time...

*****

Falcone shoved Leila back against the wall with a force that knocked the breath out of her and brought tears to her eyes - although whether the tears were from that alone was debateable. He roughly shackled her back into the same position she'd been stuck in over most of the past three days, and her taxed muscles ached in protest. She swallowed a low sound of fear before it left her throat.

Her only goal now was not to look terrified. The truth was, she wasn't sure what Duke would do. Hopefully he'd get her daughter to safety, then alert others to come to her aid. But as she ran through the possible scenarios that could arise from that, what little hope she had began to drain away. If a group of thieves came down here to rescue her, Falcone would simply pull his old routine of putting his gun to her head and using her as his life insurance until he could get to safety. And he'd probably take her with him. She knew how his mind worked - there was very little chance he'd get leadership now, but if he couldn't have it, neither could she.

She didn't want to think beyond that, to what else he might do to her.

There was another possibility, too. She felt sick as this one flew through her head. What if Duke didn't come back? His words from just a few days ago echoed through her head... Ya know, if I wanted to I could fight ya fer leadership right now. Or any time. An' you an' I both know I'd win.

No! He wouldn't DO that! she argued with herself. Not after the things we've said...

Unbelievably enough, it seemed that she was starting to trust Duke... of all people. Making the same old mistake over and over again. Falcone had taught her--

He taught ya nothin' about trust! she told herself angrily. Nothin' valuable. Maybe trust is a risk, but look where HE is wit'out it!

A stinging slap across the face brought Leila back to reality, and she winced, knowing she'd be seeing the mark from that later. Assuming there was a later. "Not so worried about hidin' the bruises now, are ya?" she said caustically.

Falcone hit her again in reply, so hard her head snapped to the side. "You never learn, do you?"

Her eyes watering again, she lifted her face to meet his imperious gaze. "Neither do you," she said roughly.

The raptrin ignored that, and continued, "How many lessons do I have to give to you, hmm? I would have thought last time was enough to teach you a little respect!"

"I had respect fer ya once!" she cried a little hoarsely. "You destroyed that! How can ya possibly think ta ask fer my respect after what ya did ta me?!"

"And I'll do it again if that's what it takes," he growled.

She closed her eyes. From the moment she'd seen his face again, she'd known it would come to this. She'd known it would end here...

Nobody's gonna save you now...

Leila was starting to feel light-headed, and she realised with vague surprise that her own breathing was shallow, and much too fast. She was scared, and she knew that he knew it. And he liked it.

His broad hand took her chin almost gently and lifted her face to his. "Respect me," he grated.

"I won't," she hissed.

"You will respect me!"

Something inside cracked, just slightly. "NEVER!"

This time, Falcone's fist was bunched when it connected with the side of her face. Her vision fading slowly, she allowed her head to loll and prayed for unconsciousness to swallow her up.

Just like the first time, it stayed at bay enough so that she knew what was going on. And just like the first time, there was nothing she could do.

Falcone suddenly jerked forward and grabbed the sides of her face and kissed her roughly, just once, then pulled at her vest, tearing it and bruising her in the process. Through a haze she felt his hands on her, separated from her skin only by the thin layer of fabric that was her bodysuit. His large, greedy hands were everywhere, on her stomach, on her neck, roughly fondling her breasts... Reality and memory fused for a moment, and all she could breathe was terror.

Her fear - and her weak stomach - were her saving graces. Her stomach rebelled and she pulled her head to one side and gagged up a thin stream of bile, all that was left in her stomach after three days with virtually no food. Falcone gave a hoarse cry of disgust and let go of her, pulling back; and her fear receded with him. As she gained a little more control, she concentrated hazily on forcing back tears; even now she didn't want to give him the satisfaction...

He stood back, and Leila started to regain her wits in earnest. It seemed the further away he got, the clearer she felt. It made sense, really. Falcone's expression was disgusted as he swept out of the room, not bothering to lock the cell door behind him. Leila was certain he was going to wash his hands; he always had been a little obsessed with cleanliness.

She allowed herself to slump a little, trying to slow down her whirling thoughts. She wondered how long it had been since Duke had left. She wondered if he would come back. No, she hoped he'd come back. And she hoped Zakiya was safe. And she hoped that she would live through this. Although, if he... continued... what he'd started... she didn't know how badly she wanted to.

If, if, it's only an if. He works on whims; maybe he's been put right off.

The light in the room darkened perceptibly, and Leila lifted her aching head to look at the doorway. Falcone was standing there, his frame almost blocking the light, his hands clenched into fists at his side. A few purposeful strides carried him across the room to stand towering over her, and he glared down at her in distaste.

"You did that on purpose. Filthy!" She didn't reply. "You are filthy. Say it!"

"I am filthy," Leila repeated numbly. Anything, now, to stop him. She would say anything. Except, perhaps, that she respected him. She'd never say that.

"I know who you are," he hissed. "I know all about you; I know your history. I know who you were before you were a respected leader. I could tell them how dirty you are. I could tell them all about the things you've done."

She shuddered convulsively, and he smirked. "You're not worthy of their respect."

Leila bowed her head, and couldn't look at him.

Suddenly the powerful raptrin dropped to a crouch in front of her. He grabbed the front of her bodysuit even as she flinched away, and simply tore it in two from the neck right down to the stomach. He let it hang open, and traced the scar that was now clearly visible. "This is who you are..." he murmured. "Isn't that right...?"

Despite her resolve, a tear managed to squeeze out of the corner of her right eye and slide down the side of her face.

He stood slowly, ignited his saber, and put the point to her chest. She froze. With a small flick of his wrist, he sliced through the middle of her bra, which fell open. The raptrin eyed her figure critically, then curled his lip in distaste. "And you are also damn ugly," he finished decisively, "and not worth my time." Turning on his heel, he walked out and left her there, utterly humiliated, as had been his intention.

After a time, when she was sure he wasn't coming right back, Leila dragged her throbbing, aching body into a sitting position. Carefully, she moved her chained arms so that the ragged remnants of her clothing fell together at the front to cover her a little better. With that done, she let herself cry just a little, just enough so that it wouldn't be obvious when he came back. The few small cold tears she shed were of relief.

*****

She wasn't sure how much time passed before he returned. Falcone strode in, barely sparing a glance for her. "Well, well, well. Guess who's on his way? It seems I'll get to kill two birds with one stone after all... so to speak." The large man unholstered his gun and weighed it in his hand, watching the doorway. No real precaution was necessary; the security cameras alone told Falcone all he needed to know. Duke was very much alone, and if he was carrying a weapon it was an extremely small one. He casually lifted the gun and trained it at the door.

Duke stepped in a moment later and leaned against the doorframe, the picture of confidence. And he was dangling the keyring Leila had given him from his right hand. "Hey. I've come fer Leila."

Falcone stared incredulously at him for a second, then laughed. "Don't be a fool. Give me the keys and get over there with her."

The drake caught sight of Leila for the first time, and his sharp, angry intake of breath at the sight of her torn clothing and bloodied face was quite audible. But whatever he was thinking remained unsaid; he refocussed his attentions on Falcone. "No can do, pal."

"Don't be ridiculous, old boy. I have the upper hand here. This is a gun I am holding, dear friend, and I shan't hesitate to use it on you should you present a problem."

Duke took a step towards him, and Falcone looked ever so slightly unnerved. He raised the gun. "Stop there!"

Passing in and out of full awareness, Leila thought vaguely that telling Duke to stop doing anything never seemed to have much effect.

Another step. And another.

"I said stop!"

Two more steps, and he was closer now.

"I demand that you stop!!"

Duke ignored him still.

And Falcone fired.

*****

BANG!

No! Not again! Leila watched in wordless horror as Duke was knocked back by the first bullet impacting into his chest - but miraculously, he stayed standing. Falcone must have panicked then, because he fired five times in quick succession.

BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG! Click. Click. Click.

This time, Duke had fallen.

The clicking sound. Out of bullets... The thought came unheeded into Leila's spinning mind. Of course, that fact wouldn't do anyone much good now.

Falcone was breathing hard, staring at the still body on the floor as if he couldn't believe what he'd done. He took a few shaky steps closer and nudged Duke in the side with the tip of his boot.

Duke's hand shot out, grabbed Falcone's ankle, and pulled hard. The raptrin, put off-balance, tumbled to the floor. And the man who had just had six bullets fired directly into his chest slowly, painfully started to pull himself upright.

"It can't be!" Falcone gasped. "You... you should be dead!" He scrambled to his feet, and backed hastily towards the door.

When he reached the hall, he started running.

"You always were an idiot, Fal... an' predictable, too..." Duke croaked to no-one in particular, and sank back down onto the floor to lie still.

The keys were lying nearby where they'd fallen from Duke's hand when he'd been hit the first time. Leila desperately snagged them with the tip of her boot, then bent forward painfully to grip them in her teeth. Lifting herself up by the wrists much as Duke had done before, her tortured muscles screaming, she held the key in her teeth and slipped it into the lock... and it clicked open.

Her hands came free abruptly, and Leila fell forward to her hands and knees. She half-crawled to Duke's side. "Damnit Duke! Don't you die on me! Oh gods..." Leila rolled him over, terrified of what she'd see.

He half-opened his eye. "This hurts like crazy."

Leila pulled up his shirt and stopped, staring at what was underneath. Specifically, a lightweight but strong bulletproof jacket... with six slugs visibly buried in it.

"You son of a bitch," she whispered in relief.

He closed his eyes again. "Used my little respite ta make a quick stop at the weapons depository," Duke sighed. "Looks like we'll both be black an' blue." He slowly, painfully shrugged the black shirt off and undid the vest, pulling it off and discarding it. Dark welts were already rising down his chest and stomach. Leila grabbed his shoulders and helped him sit up, and they sat side by side for a long moment, supporting one another.

Duke looked at Leila wearily, then picked up his shirt and wrapped it around her, covering her up. "Are you alright? He didn't... hurt ya, did he?"

In another time and place, Leila might have laughed. She was bleeding and covered with bruises, and it hurt like hell. However, she knew that that kind of injury was not what Duke was referring to. The deep, real concern in his voice made her throat contract, and she answered shortly. "I'm fine. An' no." Not this time.

The drake nodded, a kind of awkward relief on his face. Not sure what to say, he reached into the back of his belt and pulled out the silver saber, handing it to her. "I think this might be yers...I had ta leave mine back in the hall."

"Thanks," Leila whispered.

"What for?"

"Fer not dyin' on me." She glanced at him. "I'm... startin' ta get kinda fond of ya."

He was quiet for a moment, and then spoke up. "The feelin's mutual, sweetheart."

The former Leader and the new looked at one another again, their faces only inches apart. There was a deep, powerful silence that went on for just a second too long. Duke leaned forward slowly to close the distance between them...

...and Leila seemed to snap out of the spell she'd momentarily been under, and hastily pulled back.

Both blushing, they broke eye contact. There was a short, almost shy silence. Trying to ignore her racing heart, Leila struggled desperately to understand what had almost happened, and why.

People do funny things when they're under pressure, her mind supplied, and she chose to accept that. She avoided Duke's eyes and looked for a way to break the silence.

"Sorry about yer bruises. And thanks fer comin' back."

Sensing the moment was long over, Duke stood up - albeit painfully - and helped Leila to her feet. She seemed to shy away from his hands slightly, so he gave her a little space and stuck his hands in his pockets. And smiled ever so slightly.

"Never let it be said I wouldn't take a bullet fer my leader." And he left, leaving Leila standing staring after him.

*****

"Lei! Duke!" Nylessa's voice rang out and echoed down the hall.

Supporting one another, the bruised pair had made it most of the way back up the long, dark hall before the darkness had started to fade and they'd spotted torches, electric torches, swinging ahead, and heard running footsteps.

Nylessa grabbed Leila carefully as she crumpled. "Lei, are you okay? What'd he do to you?"

Leila didn't seem to hear her, but sought Tarrin out in the small crowd. "Za... Zakiya, is she okay?"

He nodded and wrestled his way through the mini crowd crammed into the narrow hall until he had everyone out of the way. "Alright, both of you to the Infirmary. Now."

Duke opened his mouth to say something to the rather wide-eyed group of people and was promptly hushed by the doctor.

"I said now."

"Okay, okay... we're goin' already. I feel like hell."

"And you look it." Tarrin ushered them both up the stairs to D level and then up the next flight to C, and here helping hands urged them on from every side. He finally got his two newest patients into the Infirmary and pointedly closed the door.

"Where's Zakiya?"

Tarrin indicated the door to his own room. "Asleep, and very safe. You can see her if you'd like, but she's very tired."

Leila shook her head tiredly. "Let her sleep." The concern of her daughter finally alleviated, she lowered her resistance for the first time, and switched out of survival mode and back to normal. And the realisation of what had almost happened hit her like a truck.

Duke collapsed on the nearest empty bunk. "You got any food an' drink in here, Doc?"

Tarrin smiled slightly and nodded. "Leila? Anything you want?"

She was still standing by the door, looking more than a little shellshocked. "A shower," she said hoarsely, and walked into the bathroom and closed the door, leaving the two men looking worriedly after her.

*****

Day Six

The clock read two past midnight. Tarrin had just checked up on Zakiya, who was asleep in his bed, when the knock on the surgery door came.

Marshall entered when the doctor quietly opened the door. Lyric was dozing on the third bed up the back of the room - to Tarrin's relief, she'd woken up from the coma earlier and was just sleeping naturally now. Leila and Duke were both deeply asleep on the bunks on either side of the room.

"Ye might want tae inform the lassie when she awakens that we've finished searchin' D Level."

Tarrin studied his face. "I'm assuming you didn't find Falcone, then." His voice was very neutral.

The older man shook his head. "Nae. Seems most likely that he escaped through the C Level exit before the alarm was even raised. Probably hid down there somewhere, waited for the fuss tae die down, and sneaked out just before we started searchin'."

"Ah. And his co-conspirators?"

"Only one; Gaudeamus. He's in the holding cells now. Iliana and Leila are ta decide on his punishment when the latter is in any condition te do so." He glanced over Tarrin's shoulder to the beds. "Speaking of which, when d'ye think that'll be?"

The Doc glanced at his two most recent patients. "In time," he murmured. "All wounds heal in time..."

 

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