Welcome | What's New? | The Mainframe | The Hall of Archives | The Infirmary | The Lounge | The Office

Fire and Blood

By Caro Roberts

 

What I need is a good defense
'Cause I'm feelin' like a criminal
And I need to redeemed
To the one I've sinned against
Because he's all I ever knew of love

~~"Criminal"--Fiona Apple~~

Rio froze in mid-step, stopping as abruptly as if she'd just dropped roots into the spot she was standing on. "Jedar...who's that?" She touched his arm and pointed to the man come down the hall toward them.

Jedar followed her gaze and shrugged. "Oh, I don't really know him. Someone who just joined up a few days ago." He glanced sideways at her. "Why do you ask?"

She swallowed hard, not seeming to hear his question. "Did...did ya happen ta catch his name, by any chance?"

"I think I did. It was...Jayter Nerys, if I remember correctly."

Rio lost all her coloring and with a tiny, fearful sound that could only have been described as a whimper shrank behind him, flattening herself against the wall. "Rio, what are you--"

He was interrupted as Jayter changed direction and started walking toward him. "Ah, Jedar Stormwing, I assume? It's a privilege to finally meet the man who's done so much to purify our planet." He offered Jedar his hand. Jedar felt like telling him that he'd rather shake hands with Dragaunus, but as they'd only just met, that didn't seem very polite. He shook the other man's hand, holding in a grimace. Something about him grated Jedar's nerves, but he couldn't explain why.

"And you are...?"

"Jayter Nerys. I, like yourself, have been trying for years to cleanse and purify Puckworld for the faithful."

Jedar wanted to protest that that hadn't been what he'd been doing, but he decided not to say so. Jayter glanced past him, obviously looking for someone, then looked at him again. "Didn't I just see you talking to someone? A young woman, brown hair, about so high?"

"Perhaps," Jedar answered, forcing his voice to stay light. "There are a lot of women around here who answer that description."

"Perhaps," Jayter agreed. "But the one I'm looking for is named--Rio, I believe she calls herself now. Rio deJeneiro. Is she still here?"

Jedar had to work to keep his surprise from showing. "She's probably around somewhere," was his cautious reply.

"Ah. Good. Thank you." Jayter bowed slightly, then turned and left. Confused now, Jedar turned to ask Rio what that had been all about, but found her gone. Sighing and wondering what else was going to happen that day, he went to find her.

Wherever she was, she seemed determined not to be found. She wasn't in her room, or Kerry's room, or the lounge, or in any of her other usual haunts. Giving up for the time being, Jedar went about his business, trying to ignore the nagging feelings of worry that were hovering around in the back of his mind.

*****

Rio did show up for dinner, which surprised him a bit. She even seemed normal, if a bit subdued, but still able to tease him. Maybe it was just a false alarm... Jedar didn't really believe that, but for the time being, it was all he had to go on. She seemed to have an unusual case of the 'remember whens,' but he wasn't going to turn down a chance for a bit of nostalgia and so didn't complain.

"I still say it was funny."

"Only because it didn't happen to you."

"A' course it wouldn'ta been funny if it'd happened ta me. But it happened ta you, an' that's what makes it funny."

"Gee, thanks. I feel so uplifted now."

"Good. That was the point."

Jayter was approaching their table, Jedar noted, but he chose not to say anything. He didn't really need to, as Jayter walked softly up behind Rio and touched her hair before laying his hands on her shoulders. Jedar winced and sat back a bit, waiting for the inevitable reaction. Only the very new or the very stupid ever, ever touched Rio without her permission, and when they did, the results were always the same: she'd turn around, scream creative and precise insults at them, then hit them with the first blunt object she could find. Her fist, if nothing else was within reach, but that was more than enough.

To his surprise, though, this time she didn't react violently. Instead, she lowered her head and seemed to shrink within herself. "Jayter."

"Rio. It's been a long time."

Rio's expression said 'not long enough,' but she didn't put her feelings into words. Another oddity; she'd never been known for letting tact get in the way of telling people what she thought. "Yes, it has."

"Too long. I'd hoped you would have seen the error of your ways."

She didn't reply to that. He paused for a moment, waiting for a response, then shrugged when none came. "We'll talk later."

She didn't say anything to that, either. Once Jayter walked off, she slumped forward in her chair, running a hand across her face as if trying to wipe away some bad memories. Frowning, Jedar leaned across the table to her and touched her hand. "Hey, you okay? What, exactly, just happened here?"

She jerked her hand away from his. "None a' yer damn business!"

Surprised and a little hurt, he leaned back in his chair non-threateningly. "All right, all right, I get the message. At least tell me who he is."

"Someone ya don't wanna get messed up wit'," she told him harshly.

"Why not? I could help--"

"I don' want yer damn help, now leave me alone !" She got to her feet and stomped away, leaving her food cold and nearly untouched. He stared after her, hurt and confused.

*****

Okay, she admitted to herself as she half-ran back to her quarters, yelling at Jedar was stupid. He was just tryin' ta help. But I can't let him get involved wit' this. I can't let him know. I can't let anybody know. The question is, how long will I be able ta go on like this? I thought Jayter was dead. He's not, an' he's here, an' that changes everything. I'm gonna have ta do some serious thinkin' ta come up wit' a cover story for this one. But what if he tells them? Or worse, what if he hangs around dropping hints and subtly intruding 'til I lose my mind? I know he can do that, if he wants to...Oh, out of all the crime rings in the world, why'd he have ta join up wit' this one?

When she'd left the mess hall, she'd headed straight back to her quarters on automatic. She was going to forgo her usual evening socialization and go think. Contrary to popular--and perhaps deliberately cultivated--opinion, Rio was perfectly capable of detailed, rational lines of thinking. If they underestimated her and didn't realize that she could being drinking wine and plotting a complicated heist at the same time, so much the better. Let them think she was hedonistic. Her friends knew better. They were the only ones that mattered.

Well, them an' my enemies. Both a' them know me a little too well right now. Jayter knew her a lot too well. Even though she'd changed greatly since he'd last known her, he still knew the way her mind worked, and that made her uncomfortable.

Rio popped in some hearing protectors and seated herself at her drum set to think. Some thought she just liked to make noise. Well, that was true, but she could also think infinitely better when her hands were busy with something relatively mindless. For awhile, all she did was close her eyes and pound viciously on her drums. The noise was so loud that she couldn't possibly have heard the door to her quarters open and shut. Finally, though, her instincts warned her that someone was watching her and she opened her eyes.

Jayter was standing front of her, his hands folded behind his back as he smiled unpleasantly and watched her. Rio ripped off her hearing protectors and glared at him.

"What are you doin' here? Get out!"

"I just came to talk to you."

"I have nothin' ta say ta you. Get out."

"You're sure you have nothing to say to me? Because I have a lot to say to you." She refused to look at him. He sighed. "We used to be friends, Rio. In fact..." He smiled. "We used to be a lot more than friends."

"We used ta be," she repeated, stressing the word deliberately. "It's different now."

"We could change that," Jayter purred.

"We could jump off a building an' try ta fly, too, an' that's about as likely ta work."

Now his veneer of pleasantness dropped like a stone. "I see. You still haven't changed. Yes, it is impossible, because your heart has remained corrupted. You haven't turned from your unbelief and blasphemy."

"Spare me, Nerys. I don't buy that anymore."

"I came to try to open your eyes. You were a traitor."

"I was a traitor? I was a traitor? Ya killed little kids, Nerys! Ya killed 'em, in cold blood! Ya sent 'em straight ta their deaths, ya knew what you were doin'! An' ya call me a traitor?"

"They were blessed for their sacrifice."

"Oh? An' then why weren't you out there gettin' blessed wit' 'em, too? Huh? Ya remember Kirta, that sweet, eager little girl? Ya probably don't, she was probably just another face ta you, but I remember her. When she was dyin' out on the streets, gettin' 'blessed,' ya think maybe she wondered where you were? Ye're a damn coward, Nerys! If dyin' was so honorable, ya woulda been right there in the front lines!"

"It was my job to protect and guide the faithful."

"It was yer job ta slaughter kids!"

"You turned traitor, Rio. You tried to leave us." His calm, unemotional voice and his unwavering line of skewed logic made Rio wonder if Jayter had lost his sanity. "If I had not been distracted by your betrayal, I would have been able to fight the raid. Their deaths, blessed though they were, are your fault, and the blood is on your hands. Not mine."

Rio felt as if she'd been punched in the stomach. The remaining rational part of her mind was screaming that this was just another one of his ploys, that Jayter was insane, that she knew it had been his fault, that she hadn't caused anyone's death, least of all innocent children's. The rational part said that. The rational part was greatly overpowered by her emotions, her guilt, and her heart.

Jayter took a step toward her. "You know and acknowledge this guilt within your scorched soul. If you would repent and return--"

"Get out," she managed to choke out.

"But--"

"GET OUT !" she screamed, grabbing a nearby lamp and hurtling at him. He ducked out the door, slamming it just before the lamp collided with it and shattered. Rio slumped back against the wall, gasping for breath and struggling to get herself back under control.

Think...think, woman! Control. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale... She attempted to control her breathing; the first step in controlling her emotions. Once her breathing rate was back under control and she could think clearly again, without a wave of guilt and horror overcoming her emotions, anger took over. Anger was good. She gave it, for the most part, free reign, and it burned what was left of her vulnerable haze away. Too furious to get up and clean up her shattered lamp, Rio instead picked up her drumsticks again and resumed beating the life out of her drums, making them the object of all her anger and frustration.

He's crazy. I thought that before, but now I'm sure a' it. He's a hundred percent, certifiably loony. So, the question remains. Did he used ta be normal an' now he's cracked, or has he always been this crazy an' he's just now showin' it, or has he always been this crazy an' always shown it, I'm just now able ta see it? It didn't really matter, in the long run, it was just something to keep her mind occupied. I didn't have anythin' ta do wit' those deaths, I know that! I can't let him get ta me again.

Oh, yeah, it's too late ta worry about that. Her behavior earlier had her ashamed. Why did I let him get ta me like that? I knew better! I didn't have ta submit ta him! I thought I'd gotten over him, I haven't even thought a' him in years. An' then I all but crawled belly-up ta him, beggin' fer mercy. I shoulda just nailed him the first time he touched me, then none a' this woulda happened.

Shoulda done this, shoulda done that--none a' that helps now. Can't none a' it be changed.

It was late, and she was tired. Not so much physically, but emotionally and mentally, she was drained. She changed into her pajamas quickly, feeling her feathers prickle as if someone was watching her. She crawled into bed, pulling the covers up to her neck, and trying to calm herself down. He can't get in, she reassured herself for the hundredth time that night, as the clock ticked on toward midnight. The door's locked.

Suddenly, another thought struck her.

The door had been locked before.

She shot out of bed, grabbing her robe and wrapping it tightly around herself. If he got in that time, he could get in again...at any time... True, she'd been distracted before, but what if he'd come in while she was sleeping... Rio's skin crawled at the thought. A sense of being trapped fell over her, and in her exhausted state she couldn't fight it. I gotta get outta here. She fled, without thinking about where she was going. Even without her thinking about it, her feet took her down to the Mess Hall. Maybe I'll get some coffee... No, on second thought, that might not be such a good idea. In her state, she doubted that excessive caffeine would be exactly expedient to rest and sleep. Finally, she settled for getting some hot chocolate.

The hot drink didn't exactly fulfill its purpose of calming her down. Instead, it robbed her of the sheer stubborn will that had kept her going for that long. Exhausted, she put her head down in her arms.

While she didn't want to admit it even to herself, she was afraid. And disgusted. And angry. And ashamed. Fear--Jayter knew her too well, knew her past, knew how to push her buttons. He was obviously insane; who knew what lengths he'd go to to accomplish his self-appointed task? He was still older and probably stronger than she was. Who would win in a pitched fight? She wasn't sure she wanted to find out. Disgust--she was disgusted at herself. She'd crawled and cowered in front of someone who should have had no power over her. She'd fallen for his tricks and let him manipulate her and drive her away from her friends. That disgust quickly turned into anger--anger at him, anger at herself, and even, absurdly, anger at Jedar and Querida. The anger at Jayter and herself was obvious and well founded. The anger at her friends was ludicrous, and she knew it, but that wasn't helping. It's almost like I'm mad at 'em for carin', for tryin' ta help. Dammit, don't they know they could get in trouble that way?! No. No, a' course they don't. Because I didn't tell them. Anger turned to shame, then, shame that nearly drowned her. Shame at the past, the long-buried memories Jayter had revived with his reappearance. Shame of what she'd hidden from those she loved and trusted the most. Shame that could make her alone when the crisis finally came. Then the shame turned back to fear and the vicious cycle began again.

Rio knew, of course, that she could always run to Jedar and Querida and ask them for help. They'd protect her, she knew that. Kerry'd let her sleep with her. If she asked him, she was sure Jedar would even let her use his old room. All she had to do was ask. But she was afraid. Afraid to tell them the truth about Jayter and her relationship to him. And afraid of what they--especially Jedar--would do to Jayter if she told them.

The desire to cry hit strongly, and for a moment, Rio struggled to fight it. But she was too depleted, and the tears won out. She buried her face even further into her arms and let sob after painful sob work its way out.

The next thing she was aware of, she felt someone shaking her awake. "Rio? Rio!"

I musta fallen asleep, was the first coherent thought her fogged-over mind could put together. Her eyes were fuzzy from sleep and tears, and the only thing that she could see clearly for a few seconds was a messy, irregular blob of blue and gray. That was enough. "Jedar..." She swallowed, trying to get her dry mouth to function again. "What...what're ya doin' down here?"

"Getting a drink. Now what are you doing down here?"

"I...I couldn't sleep..." Her sluggish mind refused to form a more feasible lie.

"Right. You seemed to be sleeping very well when I came in. And as comfortable I'm sure these tables are, I'd think you'd prefer your quarters for things like this."

She turned her face away from him, painfully aware of the smudges tear-stains had left on it. "Can't go back there."

"Why not?" He sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders. Too tired not to, she sighed shakily and leaned against him.

"I'm afraid he'll come back." There. She'd said it. She was afraid.

"Who? Jayter?"

An involuntary shiver passed through her body, and she felt him give her a concerned look. "Yeah. Him."

He had started absently stroking her hair. It was an affectionate, protective, totally platonic gesture, and she took a surprising amount of comfort from it. Now that her tired mind was starting to function a bit more normally, she was able to reflect on the difference between the consolation she derived from it, while the same gesture from Jayter had sent a wave of hate and fear through her. It just goes ta show, I guess...

"What did he do to you?"

Rio pulled herself out of her reverie. "Nothin'. This time. But he got in through a locked door once, I was afraid he'd do it again."

Jedar shook his head. "No, I mean, what'd he do to you before?"

"Oh...it's...a...long story."

He sighed. "I wish I could say I had time for it right now, but I don't. Tomorrow?"

"Yeah," she agreed wearily. There was no point in putting it off, he'd find out one way or another eventually.

"In the mean time, you do need some sleep." He considered for a moment. "Kerry would probably let you stay with her, or I can let you use my old quarters for as long as necessary."

'As long as necessary.' The words implied that this would not be a one-night problem. Rio knew that, knew that as long as Jayter was in the Brotherhood, she'd be afraid to sleep in her room. She'd be driven to move from location to location, to make sure he didn't find her sleeping spot and--She shook the thoughts away, wondering how many more sleepless, tormented nights she was going to have to endure before the problem was solved. An' even when he's gone--IF he's gone--it won't be over. Not alla it. Jayter's return had stirred memories best left to lie, but now that he'd awakened them again, they'd have to be properly dealt with instead of just being stuffed in the corner again. She'd run from that section of her past long enough, and it had finally caught up with her. "Thanks, Jedar. I--I think I'll see if Ker will take me in for the night." I'll feel better if I'm not alone. She didn't say it out loud, but she meant it, and she could tell that he'd picked up on it too.

"All right. Come on, I'll walk you up to her room." Another protective gesture, and one she appreciated as much as the first one.

"Thanks."

"Don't mention it. And this way we'll be able to make sure Kerry's not asleep on her books again."

They rolled their eyes and exchanged knowing looks, pausing in front of A11 and knocking softly. "Ker?" Rio called softly. "Ya awake?"

There was a short pause, then the door opened. Querida blinked at them, still in her lab clothes. Peering behind her, they could see that her medical books were still spread out all over the table, and her bed hadn't even been slept in. "What is it?"

"Oh, Ker. " Rio sighed and rolled her eyes. "Ya weren't pullin' another all-nighter, were ya?"

"Well..." Querida smiled sheepishly. "I didn't mean to..."

Jedar sighed and looked at the ceiling. "We can take this up with you later--perhaps when it's actually light outside. In the meantime--Kerry, would you mind sharing your room for tonight? Rio needs a place to sleep."

Kerry's expression went slightly puzzled. "Well...yes, of course..."

"I'll explain in the mornin', Ker," Rio managed. "Ta both a' ya."

"Well, okay then." Querida stepped to the side and let Rio in. Once their goodnights were said and the door was shut, Rio took the initiative.

"Ker, look, I--"

Querida held up a hand to stop her. "It's all right, Rio. You can wait until tomorrow to tell me."

"I gotta at least tell ya why I'm bunkin' wit' you tonight."

"If you want to. I won't force you."

"An' I thank ya for that. In a nutshell, Ker--someone already broke inta my room once tonight, an' I'm afraid it'll happen again."

Querida raised one eyebrow slightly; the fate of almost anyone who was so stupid as to try something like that usually got broken himself--into several pieces. But this was different, this was serious. It had Rio worried. That made Querida very, very worried, but she chose not to push. "I see." She hugged the other woman tightly. "You're welcome to stay, I don't mind the company. We can share the bed if you don't mind. Otherwise, you're stuck with the floor."

"Nah, I don't mind." The night was started to catch up with Rio. She could barely keep her eyes open. "What'm I gonna have ta do, Ker? Come around every night an' establish a 'light's out' time fer ya ta make sure ya get some sleep?"

"You might have to take away my flashlight, too," Kerry admitted, changing into her pajamas. "I don't mean to, but...well...anyway. You want the wall or the edge?"

"The wall."

The response was immediate, tinged with just a little bit of worry that Kerry pretended not to hear. "Fine by me." She waited for Rio to get settled, then climbed in as well and turned out the lights. "You're sure you'll be able to sleep?"

"Ya..." Rio stopped to yawn. "Ya couldn't keep me from it. Not now. G'night, Ker."

"Night, Rio."

*****

"Rise and shine, sleeping beauty."

Rio groaned and retreated under the covers, pulling the quilt over her head. "Oohh....it's too early... "

"Nonsense!" Querida sat down on the bed and shook the other woman's arm. "It's nearly seven. Get up."

"Seven ?" The covers pulled back enough to reveal Rio's eyes. "Ya get up at seven ? Sometimes, Ker, ya amaze me."

"Only sometimes? Come on, get up. You promised me and Jedar an explanation today."

"Oh...right." Rio sat up reluctantly, running a hand through her hair. "I'll go get dressed an' met you two at the Mess Hall at 7:30. Okay?"

"Okay."

*****

By most thieves' standards, it was still far, far too 'early' to be up, and so the Mess Hall was nearly deserted. Rio had her pick of tables, and so she chose one in the far, far corner, out of hearing range of most of the other tables. She pulled the fourth chair away, leaving only three, as a blatant 'leave us alone' sign.

Querida arrived at 7:30 on the dot, getting her food and joining Rio at her corner table. "Hey," Rio greeted her. "When's Jedar comin'?"

"He's on his way."

"Really? Usually he an' Lessa usually wouldn't even be up fer another couple hours yet. Did she raise hell when ya woke 'em up?"

"I don't think she even knows I was there. Jedar wasn't even asleep, I think, he answered on the first knock."

"He was awake this early? Bury me wit' my snowboard, hell just froze over."

Querida started to reply, then stopped. "Speaking of cold...Don't look now, but the atmosphere just dropped about ten degrees."

"What?" Rio started to turn around, but Querida grabbed her arm and made her face front again.

"Don't turn around. Jayter just walked in."

Rio went stiff, automatically lowering her voice to a whisper. "How'd ya know that he's the one I--"

"Because I know you, Rio," she replied softly.

Rio didn't had time to ask what that cryptic comment meant before Jedar joined them. From the none-too-pleased expression on his face, he'd seen Jayter as well.

"I don't wanna talk about it here." Rio stood, picking up her tray as she did so. "It's gettin' a little too...crowded ." Querida and Jedar nodded, taking their trays as well. "Let's go somewhere a little more private."

'A little more private' turned out to be the rink. The place was empty and silent that early in the morning, their footsteps echoing eerily as they found seats in the stands. Though it made 'private conversation' an oxymoron, there was no possible way that anyone could have snuck up on them and listened in. Without tables, they had to balance their trays on their laps. Not the most civilized way to eat, but it was possible to do and the food didn't taste any different either way.

Rio suddenly found that she wasn't in the least bit hungry, though, and she pushed her food around her plate with her fork for several minutes in silence before Querida stayed her hand.

"You have to eat, Rio. Your body needs the rest and nourishment, especially when you're upset."

"An' ye're the want ta talk," Rio shot back without thinking. A shadow of pain crossed Kerry's face, and Rio instantly regretted her harsh words. "I'm sorry, Ker, I didn't mean it, it just slipped out..."

"I know. It's all right."

Rio sat back and sighed, closing her eyes for a moment. "I never really told ya what I did durin' the Invasion, did I?" They both shook their heads. Everyone had a part of their past they didn't like sharing about, and the Invasion was a sore spot for many people. Jedar had just assumed that it was yet another layer of Rio's somewhat less-than-shining past, and that she'd tell him about it when she was ready. With her uncanny sixth-sense, Querida had sensed that there was a deeper pain involved, but she, too, had decided to let it go until Rio was ready to share. Ready or not, I don't have a choice, now... She took a deep breath and began.

"When the Invasion hit, I was in bad shape. Everythin' I'd ever known was gone, I didn't even know if my parents were alive, an' nothin' I'd ever experienced before could've prepared me fer this. I was in a state of shock." She managed a dry smile. "Just like the other ninety-nine percent a' the population. Anyway, it was sheer luck that I didn't get caught. I wandered around for about a week, I guess, just driftin' aimlessly wit'out a real purpose or plan. I hadn't eaten or rested properly since the Invasion, an' I was a wreck. I was in some kinda haze, an' I was just wanderin' the streets blindly. I dunno, maybe a part a' me almost hoped I'd get caught. That part's kinda hazy, I don't remember it too well.

"Anyway, I turned a corner an' almost walked straight inta a patrol a' hunter drones. I just stood there an' stared at 'em, like a bloody idiot. Hell, yeah, I was scared, by my body wasn't movin'. I guess that threw 'em for a moment, 'cause they didn't shoot fer a second, just stood there an' looked at me. One a' 'em recovered an' lifted his arm ta fire...and then he exploded. I had just enough instincts left ta throw myself ta the ground, but as the rest of the patrol exploded I got hammered by hot chunks a' metal. By then, I was about six sheets ta the wind. The last thing I remember is some nice lookin' guy bendin' over me, askin' if I was all right--an' then I was out fer the count. I came to--if ya can call it that--in some little room that was supposed ta pass fer an infirmary. I was still kinda sick, an' I gather I was pretty much incoherent fer a couple a' days. Even after that, I was very weak fer a long time.

"The place I was in was like a modified warehouse. Wasn't too bad, actually, all things considerin'. I found myself in wit' a little group a' refugees an' orphans an' the like. Most a' 'em were kids, I was the oldest, 'cept fer the leader." She paused and swallowed. "Jayter Nerys.

"Jayter was always real nice ta me an' the kids. He came ta the infirmary at least a couple times a' day ta check on me, an' when I was well enough ta move out he seemed real anxious ta make sure I fit in. Always so caring, so gentle, ya know? An' before ya ask it, or even think it--yeah, I fell in love with him." She lowered her eyes, shamed, and Querida took her hand comfortingly. Rio squeezed back before continuing.

"The only thing I can say in my defense is that I was young, stupid, sick, an' very weak. I'm not even sure I fell in love wit' him --more like wit' his pretty words and persuasions. Oh, I don't deny it, that guy can be charmin' when he wants ta. He's a snake an' a maniac, I can see that now, but he could still probably charm Dragaunus inta putting on a frilly pink tutu an' dancin' ballet, if he wanted ta. Anyway, he was always especially tender wit' the really little kids, particularly the ones who'd seen their parents blown inta itty bitty pieces. I thought that was just one more facet of his..." Her voice dripped sarcasm. "Loving, gentle personality. He was always talkin' about how they'd--we'd all be blessed by our hardships. He used that word a lot; blessed. I never really thought about it, but it sounded nice at the time. Comfortin'. He would go on an' on about how duCaine himself couldn't have found a better group of followers. Sometimes he'd start mutterin' ta himself about sacrifice an' purifyin' in the planet, but I just blew that off as the pressures of leadership gettin' ta him.

"After the Invasion, I thought things were gonna get better fer us...we all did. But instead, they just got a whole lot weirder. Jayter started goin' off about how the planet had been polluted by infidels worse 'an the Saurians themselves, an' he'd rail on an' on about how we needed ta 'purify' the planet wit' fire an' blood--our blood, if necessary. Food got real tight, even tighter than it had been durin' the Invasion--and I wouldn'ta thought that was possible. He'd talk ta the kids, who'd come ta look ta him as a father--or some kinda demigod--talkin' about how he needed volunteers fer some suicide mission or another. An' they'd fall all over themselves tryin' ta volunteer, even though we all knew that the chances a' 'em gettin' back was about a thousand ta one. The thing that really started ta get ta me was when I realized that these food runs didn't have ta be suicidal--there were better, easier ways. But when I tried ta tell Jayter that, he just blew me off an' took this whole 'I'm the leader, I know what's best' attitude wit' me. He'd never done that before, an' I started ta get suspicious.

"Finally, I decided that I had ta get out, an' take as many a' the kids wit' me as I could. I knew most of them were loyal ta Jayter, but I tried, Drake knows I tried. Then...there was a raid, when we least expected it...chaos...I tried ta get the kids out, but it was all so confusing--an' then they started dyin', they couldn't defend themselves against Enforcers wit' guns! I grabbed the ones I could an' ran fer the exit--I thought they were right behind me, honest I did! But when I got out...they were gone, and the buildin' was in flames...I heard the Enforcers leavin', sayin' that no one had survived..." She squeezed her eyes and balled her hands into fists, fighting a wave of bitter tears. Querida put a comforting arm around her, and after a moment's struggle with herself, Rio rested her head on the other woman's shoulder and, with a shaky sigh, released her tears.

*****

He'd known it from the first instant he'd seen them in the Mess Hall that morning.

That they would all be there so early had been suspicious enough, that they'd met and then left quickly when they'd seen him had just confirmed it. Unfortunately, not wanting to seem suspicious, Jayter had waited a few moments before following them. He couldn't find them once he reached the hall, however, and so he went back to his quarters to wait.

The location he'd found for his quarters he considered to be the factor most in his favor for this mission. The Fallen--as he'd come to think of her over the years--didn't even know that his quarters were directly across from hers. He could watch her without her having the slightest hint that it was going on. He'd been watching, waiting for the chance to take her away. His mission was becoming much more difficult than he'd anticipated; he'd assumed that all he'd have to do would be present her with the truth, and she'd willingly come back. But her time among the unbelievers had corrupted her, seared her soul, and he knew now that he would have to take her by force. Once she was away from the crushing influence of the misguided, she would be able to see again, Jayter was sure of it. He was sure of everything, now. After all, hadn't he survived when no one else would have thought it possible?

The Enforcers had been mistaken when they'd thought that the slaughter of his group had been complete. The weak, the young, the expendable--the blessed-- had been killed. If it hadn't been for the traitorous acts of the Fallen, he might have been able to stave off the Enforcers. But no. As soon as he'd realized that there was no hope left, he'd gone out through the hidden exit he'd saved for just such a possibility, leaving the others to their fates. He had no qualms about doing so--after all, they were being blessed as they died for the cause. He could not stay to be blessed as well; he was the Chosen One, and the purification could not go on without him.

His musings were broken off as he saw them coming down the hall, and his gut feelings were confirmed. She'd told them everything. In her confused state, it had probably come out wrong, and had been further misconstrued by the unworthy. But she'd definitely told them, there could be no doubting that. The Fallen was leaning heavily against another woman, who was supporting her and trying to soothe her. A man--Jedar, though the unworthy do not deserve to be called by their corrupted names-- followed behind them, a hand on each of their shoulders. His eyes burned like two smoldering lumps of coal, promising quick and painful retribution if he got his hands on the object of his wrath.

The mission has failed, Jayter realized with a sick feeling in his stomach. But it can't have failed. I--I am the Chosen One! I have to succeed, to cleanse the planet! And I can't do that without the aid of the Fallen! Anger and confusion swirled around in his mind for a few minutes, then he settled on his plan. Packing was the work of a moment, as he'd brought a minimal amount of his belongings with him. Then he left a message where he knew she'd find it and left.

You will come to me, Fallen. You will come to me, and after I lift the fog from your eyes, we will go on to a far more glorious existence.

*****

Rio woke up feeling ill to her stomach, and sick at heart. For a moment she was disoriented, then her memories came back, and she instantly wished that she was still asleep.

She pushed her hair back out of her face with an impatient gesture and sat up, looking at the clock. It was well past lunch--nearly dinner time, in fact. Evidently she'd collapsed and slept the morning away. She was still weary, but she was sure that that was more emotional and mental than physical. She stood up unsteadily, absently putting a hand on her desk to steady herself.

Her hand came in contact with a piece of paper that shouldn't have been there. Curious, she picked it up and read it. Her eyes widened and she threw paper violently away from herself in a disgusted reflex motion. Suddenly dizzy again, she lay back down, but couldn't close her eyes. The message lay just a few feet away, silently mocking her. She glared at it as if it was the source of all her problems. "I ain't listenin' ta ya."

It remained lying there, staring at her accusingly. She rolled over and put her back to it.

"As far as I'm concerned, ya don't exist. I didn't read ya, an' I have no reason ta follow yer orders. An' now I'm talkin' ta a piece a' paper!" She swung herself to her feet again, taking two steps across the room and stooping to pick up the message. She stared at it for a minute, then walked back to her desk, picked up a lighter, and calmly set the paper on fire. She dumped the contents of her metal wastebasket out on the floor, then dropped the paper in and watched it burn itself to ashes. That done, she poured some water in as well, watching the ashes turn to black muck. Rio gathered up the rest of her garbage and covered the black residue with other scrap pieces of paper, kicking the trash can under her desk and walking out. Breakfast--such as it had been--was just a distant memory, and her stomach was loudly protesting the oversight.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I'm goin' I'm goin'," she muttered, laying a hand on her stomach and willing it to hold off its disgruntled growling. "Just hang on fer two seconds so I can get down ta the Mess Hall."

"Rio...Rio!"

Rio stopped, waiting for whoever had called her name to catch up with her. Querida joined her, linking her arm through the other woman's. "How are you feeling?"

"A lot better fer havin' told someone, Ker," Rio confided. "In fact, good enough ta be hungry. Ya had dinner yet?"

"Well...no."

"Then ya won't mind joinin' me." She raised an eyebrow. "Unless Tarrin is takin' ya out this evenin'."

Querida flushed slightly, earning a grin from the other woman. "No...we're not going anywhere tonight..."

"Tomorrow?"

She glanced away. "Maybe."

"If ya ask me--"

"Which I didn't," Querida pointed out teasingly.

"Tarrin could spend a little less time devoted ta his precious infirmary an' a little more time wit' his future wife. Ya know, Ker, if ya let him get away wit' this now, who knows what he's gonna do when ya get married? If he don't shape up, I'll talk ta him about it myself."

"Oh, Rio--"

"Don't you 'oh Rio' me."

"You don't have to..."

"I wouldn't have ta, if you'd just stick up fer yerself once in awhile."

"Why should I bother? You jump in there for me before I even have a chance to think about it." Querida grinned, relieved beyond words that Rio seemed to be somewhat back to normal. Even if it was only for awhile.

They continued teasing each other through dinner, and for the first time since she'd first realized that Jayter Nerys still existed, Rio was able to completely relax. Even better, she didn't see so much as a trace of Jayter all evening, and she went to bed feeling safe and normal. She'd managed to put the disturbing message out of her mind completely, almost forgetting she'd ever even seen it. As soon as her head touched the pillow, she fell into a deep, thankfully dreamless sleep.

*****

This time, Rio woke up at what she would have considered a 'decent' hour: eight o'clock. She hopped out of bed and started getting dressed, finally feeling that perhaps, having faced at least some of the shadow demons attached to Jayter, she could finally deal with him and go on with her life. He ain't gonna rule me, she decided as she brushed her hair. No man is gonna control me, especially one I hate! I won't let him manipulate me!

'The best-laid plans a' jibbrils an' drakes...'

She pushed the tiny, doubtful thought away and went down to breakfast, humming.

She'd just finished breakfast and was leaning back in her chair, contemplating her plan for the day, when she felt someone touch her shoulder. She glanced up and smiled. "Mornin', Jedar. Did ya--" She stopped mid-sentence, recognizing the look on his face. "What's wrong?"

He sat down across from her and sighed. "Nerys is...gone."

Rio took a deep breath. "Gone?"

"Gone. He's left the Blade. He left a rather nasty good-bye note in his room, too... Calling us all a bunch of unbelievers and unworthy, saying that we would all burn unless we saw the light and repented, and helped him purify the world--a few more psychopathic ravings and the like. No, there's no doubt about it, he's definitely taking a permanent vacation."

"That's good, then, he won't be botherin' us any more."

"I'm...afraid it's not as simple as that."

She lifted an eyebrow at him. "Oh?"

"You know the rules, Rio. We can't let him just go, we have to send search parties out after him."

She shrugged. "They ain't never gonna find him. He's too smart--if ya can believe that. He may be crazy, but he's damned good at avoidin' capture."

"Well, we're going to have to hope so, because..." He hesitated.

"Because what? Spit it out, Jedar."

"I'm heading one of the groups," he told her softly. "All the available Honor Blades are. And...you've been assigned to my group."

Rio choked on her drink, nearly asphyxiating herself and ending up coughing violently. Once recovered, she slammed her glass down on the table. "I'M WHAT ?!"

Everyone at the surrounding tables stopped and turned to stare at them as Jedar tried vainly to calm her down. "Rio, hush, keep your voice down--"

She shoved back from the table and stormed out. He followed her, trying to get her to stop and listen to him. "Rio--Rio, wait a minute--"

She whirled on him once they were out in the hallway, keeping her voice at an almost-normal volume, but edged with so much emotion that it might as well have been a scream. "I won't go, I WON'T! You can't make me, Leila can't make me, Iliana herself can't make me go on this! I won't, I don't care what anyone says, I WON'T, an' you can't make me!" She slammed a fist against the wall for emphasis, on the verge of hysteria.

"Rio--Rio!" Jedar caught her wrists and held her still until she stopped struggling. "No," he agreed, "I can't make you go. Oh, I could turn you in to Leila, and I'm sure she could make you go, or come up with some fitting punishment. But you know that's the last thing I'd do. I won't make you do this if you don't want to, I know how hard it would be for you..." He paused. "But if you don't go, people are going to notice, to ask questions, to start probing...It might just be easier for you to come along."

She stopped, considering his words. "Dammit, Jedar, ya know I hate it when ye're right. Good thing it almost never happens." She tried to grin at him; she failed, but he gave her credit for at least trying.

"The group I'm leading leaves in half an hour. Be at the entrance then." He let go of her and started to walk away, but she put a hand on his arm and stopped him.

"Jedar--"

He stopped and turned to her. "Yes?"

Rio opened her mouth to stay something, then stopped and shook her head. "Nah, forget it. Nothing."

He gave her a curious look, but didn't press, and she was thankful for that.

*****

The search had been going on for almost two hours, and they'd turned up almost nothing. Jedar hadn't really expected them to, but it was still his job to do the best job he could. He kept an eye on Rio the entire time, ready to come up with some excuse to send her back to the Lair if she showed any signs that the search was getting too much to her. She appeared to be holding up admirably well, but that might have been an act.

She pulled him to the side suddenly, down an alley where she knew no one would hear them. "Jedar..." She seemed to be struggling with herself. "I know...I know where he is."

"You--what??"

"Last--last night, he left me a message. He said he was goin' ta go back ta the old bunker--or what's left a' it. I didn't think he'd really leave--not so soon, at least."

"Why didn't you tell me?" He tried hard to keep a note of aggravation out of his voice; almost two hours wasted, wandering around for no good reason, when they could have gotten it over with in just a few minutes.

"I...a part a' me don't want ta find him an' bring him back. Part a' me just wants ta let him go. Live an' let live an' all. An' that part's been yellin' louder fer the past two hours." She gave him a weary smile. "I'm sorry."

"It's all right. Lead the way."

Conflicting emotions showed in her face again. "All--all right. C'me on."

The old bunker was only a few miles from the area they'd already been combing. The warehouse district wasn't cared for well at the best of times, and no one had even bothered to clean up what was left of the pre-Invasion building. Charred, dilapidated ruins, further ravaged by scavengers, loomed over them like the blackened bones of a skeleton. Rio turned her face away and closed her eyes, fighting memories, almost oblivious to the hand Jedar put on her shoulder.

"Spread out and comb the building," he called to the rest of the searchers. A few of them grumbled, not sure why they were performing what seemed to be a useless exercise, but did as they were told. Once they were gone, he turned to Rio. "You can stay with me, if you want."

"No. I--I'm fine. Thanks, though." She tried to give him a smile before going off on her own.

She knew this building. Even the ruined remains were familiar to her, ghostly hands reaching out to grab her with every turn. She found her way down to the old, semi-protected area that had been their main base, back when the seemingly harmless building had held life, hope, and purpose--if a skewed purpose.

The Enforcers burst through that door--Jayne went down there, Blake over there...Rebah there... Against her will, her mind start reconstructing the raid. Rio gasped and put a hand on a crumbling section of wall, trying to force the images out of her mind's eye. Kirta...Leah...Marn, Tira, Lacy, Joan, Jake... More and more names and images tumbled around in her mind, and she could almost feel the children's hands reaching out to her. She whirled then, wanting only to get out of there and back to Jedar, and damned if she'd go off alone again this time.

The exit was blocked.

An all-too-familiar shape loomed over her. Already frightened, Rio backed up, coming up against the wall. Jayter smiled thinly at her and started stepping closer, ignoring her repeated orders--tinged with a fear that made them rather ineffective--to stay away. "I knew you'd come. You truly desire to be cleansed. I knew you would not stay fallen forever. Once away from the influence of the corrupted, you can come back to me."

"That ain't why I'm here," she managed to reply, working to keep her voice level.

"You deny it. But it's true." He caressed her hair, touching her face and moving closer. She was already flattened against the wall, trying to get away from his unbearable touch, and now he pressed her back even more. Their bodies were far, far too close, and she felt like retching. "With you, we will continue the cleansing work that was started, until all Puckworld has felt the fire and blood that will be necessary for its purification--"

"Ye're crazy," she told him flatly.

He laughed. "You have been among the unworthy too long! Oh, Rio, if I'd known they would do this to you, I would have come for you sooner. Can't you see it? duCaine himself has touched me! I am not insane, I am Drake-Blessed !"

"Ye're two edges short of a blade, that's what you are," she told him, using a common Brotherhood expression. Let the outside world use the more mundane, 'two tacos short of a combination plate'. They could be more original than that .

Jayter shook his head, as if distressed...or disappointed. "Your soul has been seared beyond all hope of redemption. I can't heal you."

"Then let me go."

"I said that I can't heal you," he reiterated. "But Drake himself will be able to restore your soul to the proper state of belief. It's the only way." He pulled out a gun. "We will go into glory together."

Rio's eyes widened. She knew he was crazy enough to pull the trigger, to kill both her and himself. In his mind, that would be the ultimate cleansing act, and the best thing for both of them. She tried to force her body to work, to push him away, tried to bring up her training and instincts, but fear had locked her body into a rigid position. He'd always had that hypnotizing effect, and now she was powerless to stop him as he took the gun's safety off and aimed it--

"Rio!"

Then everything happened at once. A gun went off--not Jayter's--and Jayter was falling to the ground, staring at her--blood was everywhere--his finger twitched and the gun fired. Rio jumped back on instinct, avoiding the more lethal shot, but the bullet still grazed her arm. She stumbled back into an alcove she hadn't noticed before. Charred skeletons grinned crazily at her from the contorted positions the Enforcers had tossed the bodies in, piled on top of each other as callously as a pile of steaks lying about to go to the meat market. White bones surrounded her, more that had been perched above her rained down and she started screaming and screaming and she couldn't stop, she couldn't stop, white and black and red blurred together and her stomach was turning over and the room was spinning and then--then, mercifully, everything went black.

*****

Rio opened her eyes to the infirmary ceiling. At first, she couldn't understand why she was there, and why everything hurt. Then she remembered, and her stomach turned over. She lurched to the side, gagging helplessly.

Querida appeared behind her and rubbed her back until she was done, then helped her lay back down and got her some water. "There's nothing left to come up," she told her. "You were still conscious--but delirious--when Jedar brought you back, and you lost it all then."

"Oh." That probably should have elicited some response, some emotion out of her, but it didn't. Rio had the vague feeling that that meant something was wrong, but she was strangely detached from the situation and couldn't seem to make the connection. "Where's Jayter?"

"Dead." Querida shuddered and took the other woman's hand. "He was going to kill you...If Jedar hadn't followed you down and gotten there in time..."

"Jedar...where is he?"

"Pacing up and down in front of the Infirmary, right now. He has been for the last several hours." Kerry paused and studied Rio's face. "I promised I'd let him see you as soon as you woke up, but I think maybe you should go back to sleep for awhile."

"What? No, Ker, I'm fine."

"You're in shock."

"In shock? I'm not in...shock..." The room did another slow spin, and Rio was vaguely aware of Querida steadying her before everything went black again.

*****

When Rio woke up again, the infirmary was dark. For a few moments, she couldn't figure out why. Then she looked at the clock and realized that she'd slept away not only the rest of the afternoon, but most of the night, as well. It was nearly six o'clock--far too early to be up. Querida had pulled her chair up to the infirmary bed and was slumped forward on it, sleeping, one hand still tucked in Rio's. Rio smiled slightly and considered going back to sleep, but her stomach was telling her that she needed to get up--now. She slipped out of the infirmary bed carefully, not wanting to wake Kerry. She must have been exhausted beyond all limits of exhaustion, because even the movement didn't wake her up. Ah, Ker, Rio thought guiltily, how long've ya been in here? When did ya finally fall asleep?

Querida woke up when the bathroom door opened again, shaking herself fully awake when she realized that the bed was empty. "Wha--Rio!" She shoved herself up and grabbed the other woman in a hug. "Are you all right?"

"I...think so..."

"Could you eat something?"

The response was more emphatic this time. "No. "

"I didn't think so. Rio...can you tell me what happened?"

"Yeah...yeah, I guess." Rio licked suddenly dry lips and, after a moment's hesitation, managed to give Querida as much of the story as she could clearly remember. When she was done, Kerry nodded sympathetically and squeezed her hand.

"That plugs the gaps in what Jedar could tell me...Rio, I'm so sorry. Will you be okay?"

"Yeah. Sure. Sooner or later."

For the next few days, it looked like it was going to be 'later,' if ever. During the days, Rio carried on with at least a semblance of normalcy--as normal as could be expected after what she'd been through. But the nights...The nights were filled with one horror after another. Querida started sleeping on the couch in Rio's room, to be there for her when she woke up, feverish and sweat-drenched from nightmares, sometimes screaming and nearly hysterical. No matter how many times Rio tried to insist that she leave, Querida stubbornly refused to leave until she was sure that Rio'd be able to sleep through the night.

On the third night since Jayter's death, Rio jolted awake for the third time since she'd gone to bed. I can't take much more a' this, she thought wearily, rolling over to look at the clock. 4:24. I'm gettin' better, she tried to tell herself. I'm not screamin' anymore. There was sweat standing out on her forehead, though, she swiped a hand impatiently across her face and wiped the hair away. That's it. I gotta do somethin' about this.

Across the room, Querida shifted around and curled up under her quilt. Rio sat up and watched her, relieved that this time she hadn't woken up. I gotta stop this, if only fer her sake. I can sleep the rest a' the day ta make up fer the sleep I miss, but she--she can't, or she won't. Tarrin had "officially" relieved her of duty, but that didn't stop Kerry from sneaking back and doing what work she could do. Ah, Ker...can't ya ever just take a break?

Rio sat back for a moment, a plan turning over in her mind. I'll do it. She got up, gathering up her clothes so she could change in the bathroom and not wake up Kerry. She paused by the couch and pulled the covers up a little higher around her friend, then slipped out.

*****

Querida woke up and stretched, wincing a bit as the kink between her shoulder blades made itself felt. Sleeping curled up on couch was definitely one of the less comfortable positions she'd slept in, but she knew it could have been far worse and so didn't complain. Now I know why disgruntled wives always make their husbands sleep on the couch. One of the more subtle forms of torture. She rolled over to check on Rio, then blinked when she saw the bed empty and neatly made. Rio shouldn't have been awake yet...not for half an hour, at least. "Rio?" The quarters were obviously empty, but saying the name out loud seemed to finalize it. "That's strange..." A foreboding feeling settled on her, and Kerry knew instinctively that Rio wasn't in the Lair. She tumbled off the couch and ran to get dressed.

She spotted Jedar as she was hurrying toward the garage. "Jedar! Jedar, wait!"

He turned and waited as she ran up, putting a hand on his arm to steady herself while she caught her breath.

"Kerry, what--"

"It's--Rio--she's gone..."

"Gone? What do you mean she's gone?"

"I mean, she's not in the Lair. She was already gone when I woke up this morning, I don't know when she left."

"We have to find her!" He looked ready to mount a full-scale search, but Querida stopped him.

"I know where she's gone."

He blinked at her. "Where? And how?"

"Isn't it obvious, Jedar? She went back to the old bunker to finish what Jayter started." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "In a way, I'm glad."

"Glad??"

"Yes, glad. And don't look at me like I'm a traitor. Don't you see, Jedar? She has to go back and finish it. She's not getting any better, we can both see that, and it's because she won't let herself. Everything that's happened--the memories and old feelings he brought back, and the fear, and then everything else--she's just been holding it inside, not doing anything about it. She hasn't shoved it away, not entirely, and that's good. But she also hasn't really dealt with it. Instead, she's just let it sit there and eat her alive. She has to go back to that bunker and just--let it go. You understand?"

He considered that, then nodded. "Yes, I do. I don't particularly like it, but I do understand."

"I knew you would." Querida gave him a fleeting smile. "I'm going to go find her, talk to her. She'll need someone. And no," she cut him off before he could say a word, "you can't come. I think, this once, it might be better if it's more one-on-one. She'll talk to me about this more readily than she'll talk to you, just like there are things she'll go to you first about. Different things we understand. I'm sure she'll come to you when we get back."

Jedar still didn't look too pleased, but he nodded again. "All right. I'll see you--both--later."

"I'll bring her back safely."

*****

Querida found Rio right where she'd expected: kneeling in front of the burned-out hulk of the old warehouse, staring blankly at the fire-blackened walls and heat-twisted girders. She was covered with grime and dust, but she didn't seem to notice. She was holding a bouquet of snowdrop petals reverently in front of her, cradling them gently, carefully keeping even the slightest speck of dirt from marring the white petals.

Querida stood in the background, not wanting to intrude on what was so obviously a private moment. After awhile, though, Rio stood up, dusting some of the excess dirt off her clothing, and turned around. She froze when she saw the other woman standing there. "Ker...Why'd ya come?"

"I knew you'd be here." Querida walked up next to her and put an arm around her gently, ignoring the dirt that smudged her clothes. "And I didn't what you to have to face this alone."

"Thanks..." Rio slipped an arm around her shoulders in return. "I couldn't just let 'em lie there... They deserve a decent burial. They deserve a helluva lot more than that, too, but that's all I can give 'em."

"I know." She paused, watching the wind stirring the flowers Rio had left, a silent memorial to the children's graves inside. "Rio?"

"Yeah?"

"Will you be okay?" The question was familiar, she'd asked it once before, but she was hoping for a different answer this time.

Rio turned and gave her a weary smile. "Yeah, Ker. This time, I think I will be."

"Good. Then let's go home."

 

Return to the Library...