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Firebird

By Caro Roberts

 

I've been walkin' in the footsteps
Of society's lies
I don't like what I see no more
Sometimes I wish I was blind
Sometimes I wait forever
To stand out in the rain
So no one sees me cryin'
Trying to wash away this pain

Mother Father
There's things I've done I can't erase
Every night we fall from grace
It's hard with the world in your face
Tryin' to hold, tryin' to hold on
~~"Keep the Faith"--Bon Jovi~~

It was rare, beautiful, priceless, perfect.

It was about to be hers.

Gina smiled to herself as she looked at the display case, mildly annoyed but not really surprised or bothered by the six different security systems surrounding it. On a piece this valuable, she'd expected to have to deal with multiple alarms, but four had been her estimate. Two extra wasn't a real problem, but it was still bothersome. She mentally added another two minutes to the time she'd allotted herself for getting the jewelry, and started readjusting her plan. Damn. Now I'll have to wait another five minutes for the guard to pass by. Damn these overachiever security planners...

She'd bypassed five of the systems, and was working on the sixth, when she heard voices coming toward her and froze. What's the guard doing back so soon? He shouldn't be in this wing of the building for another four minutes, at least... Then she realized that there were two people coming toward her, and they definitely weren't working for the store. Gina glanced back at the display case; there was no way she'd have time to disengage the last alarm; she'd have to leave it. Cursing roundly under her breath, she moved back into the shadows just as the other two came around the corner.

"--can't believe we're doin' this."

"Where's your sense of adventure?"

"Back at the Lair, along wit' yer sense a' what makes a good heist. C'me on, Jed, this damn pin is way too distinctive. We'll have ta pay somebody ta re-cut it before we can fence it, an' even then it'll hardly be worth it."

"Who said we're going to fence it?"

"If ya even think about tellin' me that we're doin' this 'fer the challenge', I swear I'll take that saber an'--"

"No, no. You see, ah, Lessa's birthday is this weekend, and..."

"Jedar Stormwing, if ya say ya dragged me outta a nice, warm Lair and hauled me all over this damn city ta go birthday shoppin' fer yer wife, I'm gonna..."

Gina mentally cursed again. Jedar Stormwing -- that meant the Brotherhood. If anyone else had been after her prize, she would have just killed them and been done with it, but she didn't dare kill two Brotherhood members. For one thing, killing two Bladers would have been a challenge, even for her, and for another it would have brought every last one of them down on her head. But I'll be damned if I'll give it up to them...

"Besides, if I'd told you to begin with, would you have come?"

"A' course not."

"My point." He took a few steps closer to the case, then stopped. "Rio, come look at this..."

"What?"

"Someone's already been here -- most of the alarms have already been disconnected. Looks like we interrupted them in the middle."

This just isn't my day, Gina thought grimly, moving out of the shadows with a gun in her hand. "You figured that out all by yourself, Stormwing?" They both jumped, reaching for their sabers. "Ah... no. Stormwing, deJeneiro. Hands where I can see them. Right now. I don't want to have a whole swarm of Bladers on me, so I'd hate to have to kill you, but if I see so much as one finger moving toward a saber hilt, and I'm afraid I'll have to splatter at least one of you across the wall."

She moved around them, carefully edging back toward the case. Rio watched Gina through nervously narrowed eyes. "How'd you know who we are?"

Gina smiled coldly, making both of them involuntarily shudder. "It's not exactly hard to recognize your partner. He's the most famous man on Puckworld, especially in the more--shall we say--disreputable circles. As for you, deJeneiro...you'd be surprised what I know about you. Now, both of you keep your hands up and your mouths shut while I finish disarming this alarm and take this pin, and I'll be on my way. After that, Stormwing, you can pick out whatever you want for Nylessa's birthday. This will be her... twenty-fifth, am I right?"

"Great," Rio muttered. "She knows yer wife's birthday, but ya can't manage ta remember it more'an a couple a' days in advance." She paused, watching Gina trying to disarm the final alarm while trying to keep half her attention on them. "So, ya work alone?"

Gina was looking at her like she was mad, and she wasn't on the only one. "Rio!" Jedar hissed, lightly stepping on her foot. "What are you doing?"

"Jus' makin' conversation."

"You should have listened to your partner, deJeneiro, and kept quiet. But then, keeping quiet isn't one of your strong points, is it?"

"Ya must work alone, no one else would be able ta stand that kinda attitude fer long."

"Rio!"

"No, Stormwing, wait a minute." Gina scooped the pin out of the case, pocketed it quickly, then turned to face Rio and gave her a scrutinizing look. "You're not stupid enough to deliberately antagonize someone who's aiming a gun at you. Not without a reason, at least."

"Gee, thanks, I think."

"Rio, will you shut up before she shoots you?"

Much as Gina hated to admit it, she was intrigued now. Not letting her guard down even marginally, in case this was some kind of trick, she demanded, "Well, what do you want, deJeneiro?"

Gina's attention was focused on Rio, but she caught Jedar's sudden movement out of the corner of her eye. Instinctively, she looked in his direction, then had to dodge as Rio kicked the gun out of her hand. Stupid, she cursed herself as she whipped out another gun and a dagger, rolling easily with the blow. Should've seen it coming! Before Rio had so much had gotten back to her original position, Gina landed back on her feet, grabbing the other woman and slamming her back against the wall, holding her there by her throat and pressing a gun to her temple. Rio's saber point was uncomfortably close to Gina's stomach, to the point of ripping her clothing, but Gina was ignoring that.

"I'll asked you again, deJeneiro, what do you want? Maybe you want to die. I can't think of any other reason you'd go and do something stupid like that. And Stormwing," she added, without so much as glancing over her shoulder, "if you don't put that saber down and back away, I'll blow your partner's head off, and then I'll turn around and blow off yours as well." She heard the clatter of a saber hitting the floor and nodded. "Good. Now, deJeneiro." She pressed the gun harder against Rio's skull, until she winced in pain. "Start talking."

Rio looked at her, looked over her shoulder, then glanced around as if desperately seeking a way out. Finding none, she started talking. "I want ya ta come back ta the Blade wit' us."

Gina heard a gasp from behind her, and knew that Jedar was just as surprised as she was, but he didn't dare say anything. Not when she had a gun to his partner's head. She narrowed her eyes at Rio, wishing she knew the other woman well enough to read her. deJeneiro had kept a fairly low profile, and getting information on her wasn't easy. "You're serious, aren't you?"

"Damn straight I'm serious. Ye're obviously good, an' ye're jus' as obviously workin' alone." Seeing that Gina wasn't convinced, Rio started talking faster. "Look, I've been on the streets, an' trust me, it's a hell of a lot easier in the Blade."

"Well, I have to admit, it's an interesting offer... and it rounds out my portfolio nicely. Now I've been propositioned by ever major thieving ring, smuggler's cartel, and assassin's guild in Remaica, and then some. So why should I accept your offer, when I sent all their representatives back to them...sometimes in several pieces?"

"If I tell ya, will ya get that damn gun away from my head? It's makin' me nervous."

Gina considered that for a moment. The two cared too much about each other; as long as she kept a gun trained on at least one of them, the other wouldn't dare make a move. There was no real point is being so rough about it. I must be going soft, Gina thought dryly. I should have blasted them both and been done with it. She couldn't have done that, though, because even if she didn't want to admit it to herself, she couldn't kill anyone who didn't deserve it. As far as she knew, they didn't. Yet, at least. She moved back a step, letting Rio ease herself away from the wall and put a hand to the bruise growing on her temple. "I want you both to realize that if one of you so much as breathes in a way I find offensive, deJeneiro's brain matter will be decorating several square feet of space. Clear?"

Rio nodded nervously, and Gina didn't have to turn around to know that Jedar was, too. She slowly edged herself around so she could see both of them. She glanced over at Jedar briefly. "This is pathetic. If I were on a mission with another assassin--which I wouldn't be to begin with--and someone had him up against the wall and told me they'd kill him if I moved, I'd take the bastard down anyway. I'd expect him to do the same to me. But you, you've gone so soft you're afraid to move a muscle if it might get your beloved sister hurt." She lifted challenging eyebrow at him. "I'm not sure I'd want to join the Blade if it destroys you like that."

"Yes," Jedar gritted, "she is my sister, and I will do whatever is necessary in order to keep her from harm. Forgive me if I don't think that mass slaughter is the only option available," he added, faintly sarcastic. "She would do the same for me, as would many other members of the Brotherhood. It's called loyalty... the concept of which, ma'am, you seem unable to grasp." Gina growled and shifted her grip on her gun, but he continued. "There are, of course, many members I don't like. I'd be here just the same for them. For you, even, should it come to that. Members are obliged to protect one another on the heist, even if they aren't friends. But whether out of loyalty or obligation, you always have someone to watch out for you, someone who won't stab you in the back afterwards."

Gina stood absorbing that in silence, unable to believe his idealistic words. A small part of her ached to be in a safe place like the one he was describing, but she quickly stomped it out and tried to make up for her moment of weakness by putting even more venom in her voice. "So, let me get this straight. If I accept your offer, I give up my autonomy to live by someone else's rules, leave behind my privacy to live in very close quarters with a bunch of people I don't know and probably won't like, and surrender my own schedule to do whatever the higher-ups decide I should be doing. I don't deal well with authority, I don't like living on anyone else's terms but my own, I don't like socializing, and I despise children. So what's so wonderful about this offer?"

"Well, damn," Rio said dryly, "when ya put it like that...I don't know, how 'bout the great health plan?"

"I'm not impressed." A familiar stabbing pain ripping through her body belied that, and it was only her training that was keeping her from screaming, but Gina ground her teeth and took it stoically. Don't let them see weakness. Drake knows what they'd do if they knew you were only holding yourself together by sheer stubbornness.

"Didn't think ya would be..." Rio paused and shook her head, as if to clear it. Jedar had moved to her side and was resting a hand on her shoulder; Gina considered shooting him for moving, but decided he hadn't done anything threatening and so let it pass. After a moment, Rio evidently felt strong enough to continue. "Listen, whatever yer name is, I don't care how tough ya think ya are, there's still just only so much ya can do alone. Bein' a one-woman operation is fine fer a small-timer, but if ya ever want ta be taken seriously, ya'll have to join up wit' one ring 'r another eventually."

Gina didn't so much as blink, but inside she started squirming. Either by skill or sheer dumb luck--Gina was leaning toward the latter reason--Rio had managed to nail the only weak spot in her defenses. Damn her. She should have been a saleswoman. "You're not very good at taking 'no' for an answer, are you?"

"Not usually."

Why not? she thought cynically. My life's not nearly complicated enough. And she does have a point, I'm reaching the limit on what I can do alone. Plus, like it or not, I'm not going to be able to survive much longer like this. She'd hardly done anything strenuous that night, but even the brief scuffle with Rio had ripped open her half-healed wounds again, and she was starting to feel light-headed. Maybe that's why I'm agreeing to this devil's bargain. My painkillers must be wearing off. "Fine. I have to gather some things from my apartment. There's an all-night café not too far from here, I'll meet you there in, say, half an hour--"

"No way." The reply was immediate and very firm. "There ain't no way we're lettin' ya wander off by yerself."

"I suppose you won't be awfully surprised if we don't trust you," Jedar added. "No offense meant, of course."

"Of course not," Gina replied dryly. "It's never personal." Damn them. I should... Her fingers reflexively curled around a dagger and started to pull it from her sheath, but she forced herself to ball her hands into fists at her sides. No, she told herself firmly. They haven't done anything to hurt you--yet--and they're apparently trying to help. It's probably a trick, but until you know for sure...just play along. You can kill them when and if they try to kill you first. You're an assassin, girl, you don't kill people for free until absolutely necessary. If you around murdering people gratis, just because they annoy you, you'll never get a decent job again.

So, she'd wait, and watch.

Another pain shredded her insides, making her want badly to black out.

Wait, watch, and slip some pain killers when they weren't looking...

"Fine. I don't like the idea of taking anyone back to my apartment, but if I won't be living there anymore--I guess it doesn't hurt. But you'll have to keep up."

Both of them gave her an annoyed look. "Of course we can--"

Gina had slipped into the shadows and was gone before they'd finished their sentence. She was waiting outside for them by the time they caught up.

"Are ya gonna keep doin' that?" Rio demanded, irritated.

"Only if it annoys you."

"For the sake of those of us who don't choose to flaunt our skills," Jedar suggested with only a trace of irritation, "perhaps you could confine yourself to walking."

Gina surveyed them both, weighing whether to continue being defensive, or to drop her guard enough to turn her back on them. Deciding that they were too weak--Pardon me, honorable--to take her down from behind, she shrugged. "In the interest of our negotiations...fine. But walk fast." Without waiting for them to say yea or nay, she turned on her heel and started walking. Having no real choice, Rio and Jedar followed.

Jedar kept one wary eye on their erstwhile antagonist, hissing to his partner, "You've finally gone insane."

"An' ya just now figured that out?"

"Rio, that woman is a psychopath!"

"So'm I, an' ya don't mind me."

"Well, yes, but that's because I've learned how to ignore you...ouch!" Jedar winced, rubbing at his arm. "That was uncalled for."

"Nah, ya had it comin'."

The mystery woman--Jedar realized they hadn't even gotten her name in all the commotion--glanced back over her shoulder at them. "Killing anyone back there?"

"Not yet!" Rio responded just a little too cheerfully.

"Good. That's my job."

Rio rolled her eyes, then turned back to her partner, lowering her voice a little to keep from being overheard. "C'me on, Jed, she was good, ya have ta admit that."

"Maybe, but everything she knows--don't you find that the least bit unnerving?"

"Yeah, a' course I do. That's why I want ta find out what else she knows." Seeing that he still wasn't convinced, she nudged him. "C'me on, Jed, I know what I'm doin'. Fer once, just trust me."

"You know I trust you. It's her I don't trust. Are we going to find out her name, by the way?"

"Good point. You ask."

"Why me? This whole thing was your idea."

"Ah, Jed..."

"No."

"But--"

"No."

"All right," she grumbled in mock-annoyance. "Fine. Hey!" she called, quickening her pace to catch up to the other woman. "Hey, wait up!"

She slowed her pace just enough to allow Rio to catch up with her, but didn't stop walking and didn't look at her. "What?"

"Ya got a name, 'r do we have ta stick ta 'hey, you'?"

"I suppose you would need that, wouldn't you? It's Gina. Firefeather." Her smile wasn't what could have been called even vaguely friendly, and she didn't offer her hand.

"Ah. An' you being the one-woman infermation system that ya are, I don't 'spose we have ta introduce ourselves."

"Not really. In fact, I could probably tell you all about yourself."

"No, thanks, I'd rather remain in blissful ignorance on how much a' my private life is floatin' around fer anyone ta find out about."

"Have it your way. You know what they say; if ignorance is bliss, ninety percent of males are in nirvana."

Rio couldn't help it; she laughed, prompting Jedar to call suspiciously, "What's so funny?"

"Nothin', Jed," she tossed over her shoulder, once she was sufficiently in control of herself to do so without cracking up again. Oh, I'm savin' that one. I'll use it on Andrews next time he--

"We're here."

She realized with a start that Gina had abruptly stopped walking and Rio herself had continued on for a few steps. Trying hard not to look sheepish, she turned and folded her arms, attempting to look like she'd meant to do that. At least the skepticism part wasn't forced. "Here? In that buildin'? It's been condemned fer years. Ya can't tell me ya live there. Ya must fear fer yer life!"

"That's exactly what I'm telling you--and yes, I do fear for my life, but it's not because of the creaky stairs." Gina looked up the staircase, then shook her head slightly. "I don't know if this thing will hold three people on it at the same time. Stormwing, stay down here, deJeneiro and I will--"

"No," Jedar said in a voice that precluded any argument whatsoever. "There is no way I'm letting her go up there alone."

Rio rolled her eyes and muttered, "Why can't he be that damn over-protective when he's plottin' somethin' that almost gets me killed?" Gina merely looked at him for a moment, then shrugged.

"Have it your way, then. But don't say I didn't warn you." She paused and looked at the stairs again, mouthing something to herself, then nodded. "All right. This is too complicated to explain--just step exactly where I do, and no where else." They didn't ask what that was supposed to mean--it didn't seem like a particularly good idea. Instead, they followed, making the same awkward hops and side-steps that she did. Jedar wondered, briefly, if there was really nothing wrong with the stairs, if she was inwardly laughing her head off at them... And then his attention wandered a little too much, and he put his weight on the wrong step.

His surprised shout as the stairwell opened underneath caught the attention of the other two. "Jed!" Rio caught his hand in both of hers, bracing her feet against a solid step and straining to pull him back. His free hand scrambled for something to hang onto--he caught the edge of a step, but it broke as well.

Gina stood back, watching them struggle and shaking her head. She'd warned them... Jedar was as good as doomed. Without help, he'd never be able to find a step solid enough to brace on, and Rio was far too petite to pull him back on her own. He'd far more likely take her with him when he inevitably fell. Well, no skin off...

Her conscience, downtrodden and suppressed as it was, poked at her. Sighing, wondering why the hell she was bothering and muttering highly uncomplimentary things toward all concerned under her breath, she edged back to them. "Stormwing! Calm down, you're not going to fall."

"Could've fooled me," he said through clenched teeth.

"Shut up and stop struggling, you're going to take the entire case down, and us with it. Give me your hand. There. Now shift your weight so you're not about to pull deJeneiro down on top of you... Good. There's a support beam under your feet--I know you can't feel it or see it, but it's there. We're going to lower you down an inch--deJeneiro, don't look at me like that. He'll be fine. There, can you feel it now? Good. Now, on the count of three, we're going to yank you up. Give us any help you can. And...one, two, three!"

It took several seconds of scrambling, but they finally managed to haul him back up. Rio steadied him against the wall, torn between hugging him and strangling him. "Damn you, Jedar! Ya scared the hell outta me! I should kill ya myself fer that! Are ya all right?"

"We're almost there," Gina cut in before he could get his breath back to answer. "Once you get him inside, you can check him over. The steps from here up are safe."

"An' just the hell was that all about, anyway?"

She shrugged. "I booby-trap my stairs. The first ten are perfectly sound, but the rest are cut through in a totally random order. No one could get up them who didn't know the exact places to step. The last five steps are fine, except for the very last before the top."

Rio looked at her for a moment, then glanced down. They were almost three stories in the air. "Damn."

"Exactly. Now, come on, I don't want to spend any more time out here than necessary." Without waiting for them, she turned and jogged the remaining bit to her door, needing the extra time to work on disarming and removing the multiple locks and security systems she'd installed. She could hear the other two coming up behind her, and even caught bits of their conversation--

"Ya okay? Here, lean on me...an' don't ever do that again, or I'll throw ya down a flight a' stairs myself."

"Yes, that is apparently your preferred method of revenge...how many weeks did you say he ran from you, again?"

"Oh, shut up."

"Yes ma'am."

By the time they'd made it to the top of the stairs, Gina had finished unlocking the door. She let them move past her, pausing for just a moment to do one last check for any tails. She looked down at the broken stairs and sighed. Looks like we'll have to take the back way down, he'd never be able to manage that again...damn. Shaking her head, she ducked inside, resetting the locks behind her. "Wait here," she 'suggested,' gesturing them toward the only chair in the room that wasn't completely covered with miscellaneous stuff. "I'll be right back." She disappeared into another room, leaving them alone.

"Rio," Jedar pointed out dryly as she helped him sit down in the aforementioned chair, "you're hovering."

"I am not!" she replied with all the dignity she could muster, considering she was in fact hanging anxiously over him. "So, ah, what hurts?"

"The foot that went through the boards. Mostly because you're standing on it."

"What?!" She jumped backwards so quickly she almost fell over. Jedar didn't even try to keep himself from laughing.

"Rio, I was just joking. You're turning into an old mother hen."

She gave him a dark look for a moment, then smiled sweetly. "I musta learned it from you. 'Cept I skipped the 'old' part."

"Don't sass your elders. It's rude."

"A' course!" she agreed, all wide-eyed innocence. He knew she had to be setting him up for something. "Ya musta learned that durin' yer apprenticeship, many, many years ago...when dinosaurs walked the earth."

"Ouch!" He put a hand theatrically to his heart. "Now that's cruel."

"I win again. An' remember, you started that one." She finished checking him over, slapped him playfully on the shoulder, then went to get some ice for his badly twisted ankle.

The kitchen in the tiny apartment was almost embarrassingly bare. Rio rummaged around, ostensibly hunting for a towel to put some ice, but really just snooping. She couldn't help it if she suffered an overabundance of curiosity. There was nothing wrong with looking for a dish towel. And if she happened to open every cupboard and drawer in her search, well--what of it?

As it turned out, she didn't find anything interesting in her prying--Excuse me, searchin'--because most of the drawers were empty. There was one set of everything; one cup, one plate, one bowl, one set of silverware. The refrigerator was almost empty. The only thing in the freezer was the ice cube trays. Apparently, she don't entertain much. Damn, how can she live like this? Talk about lonely...Ain't no wonder she's a little lackin' in the social skills department.

"Find anything interesting?" Jedar asked as she returned and handed him the ice filled towel.

"What makes ya think I was lookin'?"

"I took a guess." He pressed the ice against his rapidly swelling ankle, grimacing. "Drake duCaine, this hurts. I'll never make it down those stairs again. I hope she has a back way out of this place."

"Considerin' how paranoid she is? She's probably got at least eight back ways out. Ya should be able ta manage one a' 'em."

"Thanks for your comforting words."

"Not a problem. Now scoot over, I wanna sit." She bumped him over until she could more-or-less perch on the extreme edge of the chair, and looked around the room to occupy her attention while they waited.

The room looked like a bomb had gone off in it. Judging from Gina's almost impossibly paranoid security measures, maybe one had. There was practically no furniture in the main room--the desk, of which every square inch was covered with a computer and various papers; two chairs, one of which they were sitting on and the other of which was invisible under another pile of stuff; a filing cabinet, so full it was practically falling over under its own weight; and some shelves stacked with some many types of weapons and tools that Rio couldn't even identify them all.

"Damn," she muttered, leaning her head back against his shoulder. "This place is built like a prison."

He grunted in agreement. "Tired?"

"Dead. Didn't sleep at all night, an' it looks like we ain't gonna get a chance ta crash any time soon. Ankle feelin' better?"

"Numb, and I couldn't run a marathon on it, but, yes...a little better."

"Good." She was so tired, she was about to fall into a doze on his shoulder, but a door slam brought her awake again in a hurry. Gina was standing in front of her, holding a valise in one hand and an awkwardly-shaped bundle across her back. She was glaring at Rio, giving her a look that said clearer than any words, 'weakling.'

"I'm almost packed," she said, putting so much contempt into her fairly innocuous words that they were like a blow across the face. "I just need to transfer my hard drive to my laptop and retrieve some my more important documents, and I'll be ready to go."

"Take your time," Jedar said dryly. "We aren't going anywhere."

"Obviously." It only took her a few minutes to select a few necessary files--though how she could find anything in that maze was a mystery. "All right, I'm set. Now, since you obviously can't negotiate the stairs again, we'll take one of the back ways. Oh, and..." She glanced at her watch with feigned casualness. "You might want to hurry."

"And why is that?"

"You'll see."

"Now ain't that just an answer ta fill ya wit' confidence," Rio muttered as she helped Jedar to his feet. "Need ta lean on me?"

"No, thank you, I'm fine, but--"

Gina had already slid open the panel to one of her emergency exits and was waiting impatiently, holding the door for them. "Move!" she barked. "This is the quickest and easiest way out," she was saying as they hurried down the dark, claustrophobic tunnel. "Very, very last-ditch, get-out-with-your-life-and-not-much-else type. Normally I would have set it to self-destruct behind us so no one could get in the way we're going out, but this time...I don't think we're going to have to worry about that." She glanced at her watch again, and increased her pace. "Faster!"

They finally made it out of the building. Gina quickened her stride again, until she was jogging. "Oh, hell, we're not going to make it... get behind something!" she called over her shoulder as she dove behind a parked car for cover. Not feeling inclined to question her, Rio and Jedar crouched behind a dumpster.

The ground rocked as the building they'd just come out of exploded, throwing a fireball into the air and raining debris down. Most of didn't reach them, though Rio yelped and grabbed her shoulder as a piece of burning shrapnel clipped her. "Hot damn! What the hell was that?!"

"My apartment going up in flames." Gina stood up from behind the car, brushing some ash off of herself, apparently unperturbed by the smell of singed hair and feathers as she patted out the sparks in her hair. "I couldn't bring everything, so I took my most essential equipment and blew the rest. The kind of information I deal with can't be allowed to be fall into, if you'll pardon the expression, the wrong hands."

Rio raised an eyebrow, waiting as patiently as possible as Jedar examined the wound on her shoulder. "Ow, damn! An' the wrong hands are...?"

"Any other than mine."

Jedar glanced up at the smoke still pouring into the sky. "And you don't think that's going to make the authorities...just the least bit suspicious?"

She shrugged. "Of course it will. They'll bring the police into it--maybe even the Enforcers. All they'll find is an abandoned apartment building that housed some bums and derelicts, one of whom happened to try to light up his cigarette near a leaking gas pipe. It happens all the time. Especially around me."

Rio shook her head in disbelief, but said only, "C'mon, we're parked not too far from here." She turned and started walking down a side street, pressing a makeshift bandage to the still sluggishly bleeding gash on her shoulder, complaining, "Ye're damn hazardous ta our health. Look at us, we'll both be laid up fer at least a week, an' you ain't even scratched."

Gina only smiled strangely, like she knew she something they didn't, then raised an eyebrow as they turned another corner and started heading toward a bright red convertible. "That's your car? Haven't you ever heard of being inconspicuous? No, since you hang around with the most recognizable man on Puckworld...you probably haven't." She sighed. "I'd better drive. Give me the keys."

"No way."

"But you're injured."

"Hell, yeah, but I'll be damned as well before I'll let ya touch my baby. Ya'd probably crash her."

"Fine. Have it your way. I'll just sit in the back and--"

"Oh, no ya don't. Ya'll throw yer stuff in the trunk an' sit up front wit' me so my partner here can stretch out in the back. You probably wouldn't care if he were on his death bed, but I do. When we get back, ya can explain yerself ta Leila, Jed an' I are gonna go wake the Doc." Rio glanced at her dashboard clock. "There's an off chance Lei'll still be in her office doin' paperwork an' ya'll have a chance ta talk ta her tanight. She's down in B60, an' since ya apparently know everythin', I'll let ya find yer way there on yer own. If she's already gone..." She sighed. "Come back up ta my quarters--that's A60--an' ya can bed down there. Jed, can I come crash in C10?"

"Of course," came the somewhat tired reply. "Just let yourself in. You know the codes."

"Off by heart, Bond." She glanced back and grinned at him, then grimaced as the movement twisted her shoulder painfully. "Oh, damn. This hurts."

She hadn't really expected an answer to that; which was good, because she didn't get one. The remainder of the drive was made in slightly strained silence.

If Gina had known the Brotherhood's location previously, she rather wisely kept her mouth shut about it as they pulled into the garage. She stood back, not helping, but at least not hindering as they all but crawled out of Rio's car. The pain and the weariness hadn't been so unbearable as long as they'd kept moving, but now that everything had had a chance to catch up with them, every little movement was agony. When it became evident that they couldn't move fast enough to suit her, Gina disappeared, leaving them to struggle their way up to A level and the Doctor on their own.

"That's gratitude fer ya," Rio grunted, pausing at a landing to lean on the wall for a moment. "Damn good thing we didn't need her help back there, she probably woulda left us behind ta rot. I'm beginnin' ta think that maybe this wasn't such a great idea."

"Wonderful time to be having second thoughts, Rio."

"Yeah. Maybe next time I'll actually listen when ya tell me somethin'."

Jedar paused and raised an eyebrow, steadying himself against the wall with one hand as he opened the door to the Infirmary with the other. "Really?"

"No. Jus' kiddin'."

He rolled his eyes, the door shutting behind them cutting off further conversation.

*****

I must be insane, Gina decided as she lay stretched out on her bed. She'd been in the Brotherhood for nearly a month, and she was still questioning her decision. It's not like me to second guess myself, but I can't help it.

She was down on D, the least populated level. She could have been on A or B, but she'd specifically requested to be as far down as possible. A very tired, very cranky, Very Unhappy Leila hadn't felt like arguing about it at the time. She probably thought that doing paperwork would make her tired enough to get over that bout of insomnia I'm sure she was having. She had that glazed-eye look of people short on sleep--and she would have looked a lot happier about it if it had been her idea.

As much as possible, she'd been keeping to herself. She ate at odd times, kept an irregular schedule, and spent most of her time curled up in her room.

It wasn't that she was afraid of the other Brotherhood members--not when she could kill most of them. It would have been a fight, perhaps, but she could still have done it.

Probably. Right then, she wasn't so sure. No, she wasn't afraid of them, she just...didn't want to be around them.

Gina couldn't handle being stretched out on her back anymore. She rolled over on her side and curled up, trying to ease the steady, throbbing agony in her body. More than anything, she wanted to cry, scream, claw the walls and shriek at the top of her lungs for help. The urge was almost unbearable. She ground her teeth, digging her nails into the cover of her bed. Harder--harder--there was a faint ripping sound as her nails tore through the fabric and began piercing her palm. Forcibly, she pried her hand open before she started bleeding. Trying to explain puncture wounds in her hand was the last thing she needed. Not that she'd go to those insufferable doctors of her own volition--she'd have to knocked unconscious and carried there.

Another spasm of wrenching, unbearable pain. She rolled over and bit her pillow. Training kept her from screaming, pride kept her from going to the infirmary and getting help.

Just need to...take my mind off it. Find something else to focus on. Gritting her teeth, she pushed herself unsteadily to her feet. I'll go down to the lounge...shouldn't be anyone there this time on a Moonday night. Maybe the heat from the fire will help, if it hasn't gone out.

The room spun for a moment, sending her reeling against the wall. Gina closed her eyes, waiting for the dizzy spell to pass. Damn. Damn, damn, damn. Canard, this is all your fault. Whatever level of hell you're in, it isn't hot enough. Lower, lower. Burn, burn, burn, you--I was doing something, wasn't I? She sighed and shook her head. I'm finally losing it. I've heard that prolonged, intense pain can make a person crazy. I think I'm barely-living proof of that. I need to get out.

She reached automatically for her Lore book, then paused and instead picked up another volume, so old and worn it seemed to be held together by sheer force of will. Of all Gina's possessions, it was the only one that she had any sort of emotional attachment to, and over the years she'd always turned to it for solace.

Although right now I'd rather turn to a bottle of pain pills, but I can't be picky. Tucking the book under her arm, she stopped at the door, squaring her shoulders and putting on her best poker face before walking out into the hall.

As it turned out, she hadn't needed to put on her stoic show; she didn't see anyone on her way up to the lounge, and the room was totally deserted when she arrived. She stoked the fire and lay down on the couch in front of it, trying vainly to find a comfortable position before settling on the one that gave her the least degree of agony.

You bastard, you couldn't have just killed me and gotten it over with, you had to make me suffer. And when you realized you couldn't break me, you decided to use me against myself...did you think everything you did to me was funny? If you did, you probably would have thought what happened because of you was absolutely hilarious...

She was trying not to remember what had happened, but as she shifted position unwarily and got another stabbing pain for her troubles, she couldn't help reliving it...

It had taken three thugs, each one twice her size, to restrain her. One she'd turned into soprano and had left to go to the infirmary, the other two had her arms and were dragging her along an icy stone floor to Drake only knew where. She spat and struggled like a wild animal, thrashing around and doing everything in her power to make their job as hard as possible. The floor was terribly uneven; every few inches she hit a jarring bump that seemed to be trying to either gouge out her skin or shatter every last one of her bones.

She roused herself from the half-crazed state she'd fallen into when steps fell in behind them, and she recognized her tormenter coming up behind them--no doubt to watch the fun. Idiot that he was, he was following closer, closer still--Just a bit more--Perfect. She went limp for a moment, then, using the guards holding her arms to provide some momentum, kicked out viciously, feeling a grim satisfaction as she felt her foot make contact with his head with a rather wet sound. He yowled in pain, gasping, and spit something out. In the dim light, it was hard to be sure, but it looked like he had just parted company with a few of his teeth.

"Damn bitch!" He spat again, wiping the blood from his mouth with the back of his hand. Gina always wore cleated shoes, to help her with climbing, and those cleats had probably just ripped a few chunks out of his face. She wished they'd taken out an eye, too. "I thought you had her contained!"

"We did--do! Sir!"

"Well, throw her on the table, and watch out! She's a wild one..."

They lifted her up and threw her brutally down onto some hard surface or another--a table, maybe, but she hit so hard it felt like stone to her abused back. Before she could move, restraints were snapped onto her ankles and wrists, holding her totally helpless. Cursing and biting at anyone who let their hands get too near, she struggled, redoubling her efforts as she saw someone in a white lab coat coming toward her, holding a hypodermic.

"How long will this take?"

"Not long, sir. She's tough, she'll probably survive and be awake fast. Inform the boss that he made a good purchase--"

She missed the end of that sentence as the 'doctor' grabbed her arm, jabbing the needle harshly into her. Against her will, she felt her muscles going lax, and she fought off the blackness that hovered at the edges of her eyes, threatening to engulf her at any second.

"Inform that bastard I'll kill him for this! Tell him I'll strangle him with his own guts! I'll rip out his damn black heart and make him eat it! I'll--"

And then the sedative had taken over, and all she'd known was darkness, and a rather faraway pain, until she'd woken up and found what they'd done to her...

A hand touched her shoulder.

Gina didn't know if she'd been so exhausted that she'd fallen asleep, or had simply slid into unconsciousness. Whichever didn't really matter; before she was even fully awake, her hand had grasped one of her daggers and shot out, catching her apparent attacker across the arm before pressing to his throat. She opened her eyes, her mind catching up with her reflex actions, as a surprised yelp of pain echoed around the lounge. Still keeping her dagger point to his throat, she sat up cautiously and watched him through narrowed eyes, hammering him with questions. "Who are you? What are you doing here? What do you want?"

The young man who was now crouching in front of her, frozen in fear by the dagger at his throat, stammered, "I...I...I jest...I thought there was somethi' wrong, I'm sorry for interrupting you, ma'am!"

Focus. He's not a threat. Hell, he looks like he's going to pass out! Get a hold of yourself. Sighing, she sheathed her dagger again and relaxed marginally--that sudden movement had her wanting to pass out again. "It was a reflex action. I hope I didn't hurt you." She paused, studying him through narrowed eyes and trying to match his face to a name. He was a Korsian-caste of some sort, and looked only vaguely familiar. His eyes...his eyes were red. That solved the puzzle for her immediately; only two people in the Lair possessed that particular trait, and it was easy to tell them apart. "I've seen you before. Dalin...Mandrake, isn't it?"

He swallowed carefully, looking at her as if expecting her to whip her dagger out and cut him to pieces at any time, and nodded. "Aye, ma'am."

"I thought so. And don't call me ma'am," she added, almost as an afterthought, noticing abruptly that his arm was bleeding from where her dagger had raked across it. Sighing, she fished around in her pocket for a small cloth. "Come here, let me take a look at that." When he hesitated, still eyeing her warily, she repeated impatiently, "Come here."

Evidently scared into obeying, he took a single, tentative step closer, and held out his arm a little nervously. "'m really sorry," he mumbled, not daring to look directly at her. Instead, he focused on watching her tie the cloth around his arm. "I jest thought ye, er, you, were hurt because ye looked, well...erm, not too good, y'know?"

"I know." duCaine, do I know. Hurry and change the subject, before he starts asking questions, like why you were lying there looking like death warmed over. "It's the middle of the damn night, what are you doing here? Shouldn't you be off warming someone's bed?"

To her amusement, Dalin flushed bright red. "I...I...'m not that sort, ma'am. I...I jest like to read, and I, I came down 'ere to get a book, because 'm not sleepin' too good tonight..."

"And now that I've scared you out of a year's growth, you'll probably end up sleeping even worse." Poor kid. Amazing he's still alive, if he scares and embarrasses this easily. I can only assume he's got some kind of protector, or he would never have made it this far, even in the Blade. Trying to get her thoughts focused, she looked around the room, finally spotting her own book lying on the floor where she'd dropped it. She bent over to pick it up--just as another spasm hit. Her breath caught in her throat and she wanted to scream, but training took over and she remained eerily silent as she tumbled off to couch, landing hard on the floor and curling up on her side. Do...do not pass out...you've got witnesses...stay conscious...Oh duCaine this hurts! Not even her training could snap her out of this one. She was vaguely aware that Dalin was hovering over her, all but panicking.

"Ma'am? Ma'am, 'm jest gonna go get the docs, I'll be right--"

"No!" Her hand snapped out, catching him by the wrist and yanking him back. "Don't you--don't you dare leave. I'm--I'll be all right. Don't...don't tell anyone about this." As the pain got worse, and worse, she tightened her grip on him, squeezing his hand mercilessly with each new spasm. Some part of her mind was telling her that she should let go, but that part was drowned out by the parts that were screaming in agony.

"Ye're, um...is, is there somethi' I can do, ma'am? Miss?" Her grip was threatening to snap the bones in his hand. Wincing, he rather automatically put his other arm around her, patting her a little awkwardly. "Shh... shh... I donno what's 'appenin', miss, but...ow... Ye be breakin' me hand, ma'am," he murmured, not really expecting her to let go. Gingerly, still unsure of what was happening and what he could do to help, he stroked her hair, wondering if he should risk her apparently formidable wrath and go get the doctors anyway.

Gina clung to him reflexively, without her consciously having anything to do with it. She'd released his hand right before she would have started cracking bones, though now she was clutching desperately at his shoulders. Her entire body trembling with pain spasms, she hung on for what seemed like an eternity to both of them, until finally she was released to at least a more tolerable level of pain. Just barely conscious, she collapsed against him.

Carefully, Dalin shifted her so she was leaning against his shoulder rather than being practically in his lap. He tentatively continued to stroke her hair, wishing he'd just stayed in his room. "Are...are ye all right now, ma'am?"

"Mmm..." Automatically, she moved to get more comfortable against him, then suddenly froze as she realized the position she was in. I'm letting him touch me. What am I doing?! Her eyes snapped open and she scrambled away from him. Get away, get away, get out...he could have taken advantage of you because you couldn't control yourself... Spitting a curse so vile she was pretty sure she saw him wince, she got unsteadily to her feet and started backing hastily toward the door. "Nothing happened. Nothing. Happened. If you ever tell any one about this, I'll--you'll--" For the first time in her life, threats failed her. Suddenly panicked, she turned and half stomped, half staggered out, slamming the door behind her so hard the glasses behind the bar rattled.

Stupid , she ranted at herself as she stormed back down to her room. Stupid, stupid. Letting down your guard, even with a kid like that...sure, he doesn't look like much of a threat, but what if he had been? You were totally vulnerable to him. And that was what scared her, more than anything else. The thought of being weak, vulnerable, intimate in any way was enough to petrify her. As she turned into her room, her fingers reached convulsively for her book--and closed on nothing.

For a moment, pain wasn't the only thing making the world spin. Hell...I must have left it in the lounge...My book, he has my book. I've got to get it back before--

Her legs buckled abruptly, making her grab the walls just to stay standing. No, I can't go back. Not tonight. I might pass out again, and then we'd have another scene... No. I'll catch him tomorrow in the Mess Hall and get it back. She didn't like it, but there were no other options. Feeling heartsick as well as pained for any number of reason, Gina tumbled into bed and slept the sleep of the totally exhausted.

***

For the first time, Gina actually slept in, not waking up until nearly lunch. Cursing herself and her damned weakened body viciously, she dressed quickly and hurried as fast as her pain would allow to the Mess Hall.

Scanning the room, she finally spotted her quarry, and started moving to intercept. With a frown, she noticed that someone else was standing across from him. Someone who, judging from the look on his face, wasn't saying anything pleasant. A surge of anger that had nothing to do with Dalin's possession of her book coursed through her. "Hey!" She crossed the room as fast as she could without running, grabbing the young man by the shoulder and jerking him around, slamming him back against the table in same motion. "Leave. Him. Alone."

Startled, he reached for his saber, only to freeze as a dagger appeared out of nowhere and pressed against his neck. A single, tiny droplet of blood slid down his throat. "I said, leave him alone, or I won't be so damn polite about it next time." Wrenching him around and shoving him to the floor, she added in a louder voice for the benefit of anyone who might of noticed, and in the rather more unlikely event that anyone would care, she added, "Now, I think you really should be more careful in the future. Shouldn't trip like that. Someone might get hurt." She smiled, sweetly, with an edge you could have cut through ice with. He looked at her for a moment, then picked himself up and stalked off.

Gina watched him for a moment, then turned to Dalin, who was still watching her through rather wide eyes. "Is this seat taken?" He shook his head dumbly, so she dropped down across from him. "I didn't think so. You know, I shouldn't have had to come help you. You're, what, Blade Brother now? You should have been able to threaten him off on your own."

"Uh, Saber Student." He risked a smile. "An' thank ye, ma'am, ye didn't have t'..."

"Don't mention it. Please. And don't call me ma'am." She gave him an icy look that quite thoroughly doused that attempt at a smile. "Ever."

"Um, okies." He fidgeted with his fork, apparently no longer hungry. "So what can I call ye, then?"

"Gina is fine." She paused, forcing down a bite or two of food, before looking at him again. "I want it back." I really need to learn to lengthen my sentences, she thought ruefully as he gave her a totally confused look.

"'Scuse me?"

"The book I had with me in the lounge...last night." Hard as she was trying to sound impatient, Gina realized with a sick feeling that she was nervous as well, and some of that was leaking into her voice. "I left without it. I'm assuming you picked it up. It's very, very important to me and I need..." Idiot! Never let someone know how much you want something, then they'll know they can use it against you! "I want it back."

"Oh! The book!" He looked slightly relieved, probably at being let off the hook so easily. "Aye, yes, I picked it up, I didn't want anyone to take it so maybe ye'd ne'er find it again, I left it on my dresser, I guess I kinda forgot about it, 'm sorry ma'-- um, miss Gina."

Now it was her turn to look relieved; enough that she even smiled a little. "Good." She realized abruptly that people were starting to glance in their direction. Before she could stop herself, old habits and the need to have a cover took over, and she casually reached across the table to take his hand. The voice of her old teacher echoed in her head. Never look like you're conducting business when you're having a meet. Act like lovers--or, depending on the location, a prostitute negotiating with a client. People will look the other way. She'd balked at the idea at first, until he'd beat any such scruples out of her. Now it was a reflexive behavior. Just like he'd wanted it, she thought grimly. Noticing Dalin's bemused expression as she trailed her fingers down his arm before entwining their hands, she murmured, "It's just a cover, in case anyone's watching. Don't get any ideas." She knew that there was no real need to keep a cover now that she was in the Blade, but... Old habits really do die hard. "So. What do you want for it?"

"Want for it?" He stared down at their hands blankly, going a little pink. "I don't want anythi' for it, I can go get it right now if ye like..."

Gina felt a flash of annoyance, giving his hand a quick squeeze that would have looked affectionate to anyone who happened to glance their way, but was strong enough to almost hurt. "Don't toy with me," she hissed. "You're not going to tell me that you have something you know is important to me, and you're going to give it back for nothing--no blackmail, no charge. You couldn't possibly live like that, not even here."

He just shrugged, replying simply, "But I don't. There's nothin' I want, Miss Gina. If it's really important to ye, then I'll get it right now, is no problem. I know if I lost somethi' real important to me, I'd be really sad an' hope that someone would be nice and find it and give it back to me."

She stared at him, for one of the first times in her life totally dumbfounded. "You...you really mean that, don't you? Unbelievable. You know you'd never last a week on the streets with an attitude like that." She'd meant it as an insult, but to her horror it came out sounding almost puzzled. "Damn. When they said the Blade was different, they weren't kidding..." Realizing that she'd left her hand resting in his, she withdrew it hastily and stood, leaving the rest of her food untouched. "I...have to go. Bring the book by my quarters later--I'm in D38."

Too startled to even think of stopping her, he pointed out, "But--but yer food, miss--"

"Eat it yourself, if you're so interested," she snapped, already hurrying away with perhaps greater haste than was absolutely necessary, telling herself that she just couldn't stand being around all those people anymore. She'd almost made good her getaway when she heard a voice calling her name.

"Gina! Hey, Gina!"

Oh, gods...Not that sanctimonious little doctor...wish someone would order a hit on her, make my life a little easier. She knew that was unfair, but in her current bad mood, she really, really didn't care. She kept walking.

"Gina, wait!"

Gritting her teeth, she hurried around the corner. Running footsteps behind her told she wasn't safe yet. Oh, damn, as if this day weren't bad enough already...

"Oh, Gina, there you are...didn't you hear me calling you?" The doctor finally caught up with her. "Maybe I should check your hearing!"

"I heard you perfectly."

That certainly took the wind out of her sales. "...Oh. Well, anyway. You've been dodging me long enough, this time I've caught you and there's no getting out of it."

Gina rolled her eyes and started walking again. She didn't have time to play mind games. The doctor watched her go for a moment, obviously surprised, then shook herself out of it and hurried to get alongside her and match her brisk pace. "It, uh...your physical, right. Every member is supposed to have one when they join up, but you've somehow managed to avoid it..." The doctor was clearly rattled, and stammering a bit because of it. "So, ah...I can see you now, since there aren't any appointments for the rest of the day, and the, uh, infirmary is usually pretty quiet after lunch..."

Gina gritted her teeth. The last thing she wanted, then or ever, was to let one of the doctors get her under the knife. Not after last time...

The first time they put her under--the next times, she was still awake when they cut her open. There were only a few subsequent surgeries needed, and they weren't serious, but as they chopped into her after using local anesthesia--or none at all, depending on how sadistic they were feeling that day--they came perilously close to breaking her self-control. In the end, she realized that that was what they'd been trying to do--the bastards had been trying make her scream. It was all part of their 'weeding out the weak' strategy. She'd refused to give them the satisfaction, not realizing that she was only prolonging her suffering by playing their game.

The 'doctor' came toward her again, a scalpel in one hand and a painfully huge needle in the other, and he--

"No!" She nearly shouted it, forcing the doctor to take a step back. "No, you can't see me today, and as far as I'm concerned you can't see me ever. Now get the hell away from me before I do something you'll regret!" Furious beyond all bounds of reason, she raised her hand, but the doctor ducked and took off running before she could lash out any further.

Quivering with rage and pain, Gina stood for a moment, breathing hard and trying to get herself under control. Got to get away...go back to your room, no one will bother you there, and regroup. Refusing to give into the urge to flee, she forced herself to walk at a normal pace; that was all her body really could have stood, anyway.

Walking into the welcome haven of her room, Gina bolted the door behind her, then sagged back against it and closed her eyes. I can't go on like this, she decided. I'm losing control of my body, I've lost control of my life, but I'll be damned before I'll lose control of my mind as well!

In spite of all her training, she was still avian, and Gina knew her body couldn't last out much longer under the type of punishment she'd been giving it. She'd never given herself a chance to properly recover from the operations--she should have had complete rest for at least half a year, but that kind of luxury was for people who weren't on the run for their life. Barely two months after her escape from that hell house, she'd been working again. She hadn't dared slow down, for fear they'd find her, and while she should have been able to let her guard down a bit in the Brotherhood... she'd been too stubborn to do that, either. The blackouts, which were increasing in frequency, were a warning--one she'd been forcing herself to ignore, but she knew she couldn't push them back any longer. She was going to hit the wall, and soon.

And when I do that...Drake only knows what could happen...

She didn't think she'd die, but it was always a possibility. She figured that the way she was going, she had maybe a week of relative control and cognizance left before she hit total, utter collapse. So, what do I do? I do not want to be here when that happens, and have someone have to take care of me... She shuddered; the thought of someone seeing her helpless was more petrifying than death itself could ever be. I should go. I should go, find somewhere I can just wait it out...but then, if I do survive, I won't be able to come back, plus I'll be an easy target for anyone who wanted to come after me... And I could probably wallpaper my room with the list of people who'd like to see me dead, as painfully as possible. And death would be the easiest part of it... No. I'll have to stay here. Maybe, if I'm lucky, I can just hole up in my room; no one will notice if I'm not around. They see me little enough as it is, and if they do notice, I doubt anyone would care... For the first time, that thought actually stung a little. Being alone was starting to hurt; it had never bothered her before, when all she'd known was a rather solitary existence, but now been constantly surrounded by people who had friends, lovers, families...

A knock on her door startled her out of that rather melancholy train of thought. "Who is it?" she snapped, automatically drawing a dagger as she went to answer the door.

"Is me, Dalin. 'm bring' back yer book, ma...er, miss Gina."

"Oh." Just Dalin, with my book. Not a threat. Even so, she found herself not wanting to answer the door and look at him, especially after what had happened with that doctor a few minutes ago... She'd over-reacted, and she knew it, and after that she really didn't want to have to face anyone. Oh, gods, don't tell me I'm developing a conscience, that's the last thing I need... Sighing, she sheathed her dagger and opened the door, just a little. He smiled tentatively and held it out to her.

"'ere it is, I--"

"Thank you." She snatched the book out of his hand and started to close the door, then paused at the bewildered look on his face. "Is there a problem?"

"Uh..." He looked at her for a moment, started to say something, and then apparently decided he didn't want to risk it. "Uh, no. Jus'..."

"Make up your mind! Is there or isn't there?"

"I jus'...uh...wanted t' ask if there's anythi' wrong. Ye seem a little...uh...tense. An' last night--"

"Did you not hear me when I said nothing happened?" she snapped, feeling a little warm and hoping it was just a fever--and at the same time realizing that that was a ridiculous thing to hope.

"But--"

"Go. Away." And then she shut the door with much more force than necessary. She hated it, but something had happened--she'd realized for the first time that, amazingly, it actually felt good to be held when she was in pain. That was certainly a new one... A new one that doesn't matter, she told herself fiercely. Look, you've got maybe a week, tops, before you hit the wall. Don't stand here day dreaming, you have to get ready for this if you want even a chance at surviving this. So, brushing off any dangerously emotional thoughts, she sat down at her desk and started planning.

*****

Gina had known that there would be hallucinations once the fever started. She knew they weren't real, she knew that it wasn't really happening, but that didn't mean she could snap herself out of it once delirium set in...

Everything was confused, people, places and events all muddled together. At first, she was suffering Canard's tender mercies, watching his eyes go from mild as he was trying to persuade her to work for him, to bloodshot and furious when she refused. She was thrown down the flight of stairs again, but that time the stairs seemed to length out, and she tumbled down them for an absolute eternity. Finally she lay at the bottom, groggy, as the guards followed her down at their leisure and brutally kicked her until she got to her feet and tried to fight back.

"No weapons!" someone yelled from up the stairs. "If she's unarmed, it's only fair for us to be the same!" And then he laughed, knowing that 'fair' was hardly the word to be used when ten Enforcers were surrounding a single, injured girl.

A solid hit to her stomach knocked her back against the wall, driving the breath from her body. She tried to suck it back in, but her lungs couldn't function. Reality was beginning to fuzz, but instead of letting her slide into welcoming blackness as it had before, she was forced to stay awake as they dragged her limp and unresponsive body down, not to the cells at first, but to one of the labs, where the chip was implanted in the back of her head, where the stitches would be hidden by hair. Gina had been unconscious during all of this, she knew that, but it still hurt as they planted the homing beacon on her. Then they were dragging her down to the cells, but in mid-step, the scene shifted, and then it wasn't Enforcers who were holding her battered body, but guards from the Rings. The dealer was looking at her, sizing her up.

"She'll do. She's tough. If she survives..."

"She'll survive. She's worth twice what I'm asking. You'll get a lot of fight out of this one."

The first time, Gina had wondered what that meant. Now, she knew what was in store for her, making her fight all the more viciously. It wouldn't do her a damn bit of good, and she knew it, but she screamed threats and obscenities at the top of her lungs, struggling for all she was worth. Ignoring her, impervious to her bites, kicks, and punches, they threw her down on the table as the 'doctors' approached. This time her training deserted her, and as they cut into her body, all she could do was scream, and scream, and scream--

*****

"I don' understand it, I ain't seen her in two days. Nobody's seen her in at least that long. I've been down ta her quarters at least a dozen times, but she hasn't answered my knock...either we keep missin' each other, 'r she's avoidin' me, though I don't know why."

"Rio, if you'll pardon my saying so, I don't understand why you seem to feel such an obligation toward her." Querida poked thoughtfully at her lunch, trying to tell herself that her feelings of ambiguity had nothing to do with Gina's somewhat less than friendly actions toward her the other day. "I realize that you brought her into the Blade, and I know you feel responsible for her...but, Rio, you can't force her to be friendly if she doesn't want to be."

"Ker, I know ya don't understand this...ye're too good fer yer own good. But I was...okay, not a hell've lot like her, but enough that I know she hasn't got one clue in hell how ta deal wit' life here. I ain't gonna put my life on hold an' devote myself ta bein' her counselor, but I'll help where I can. Jed did it fer me."

"As I understand it, you were a lot more willing than she could ever be."

"Oh, I dunno. Ya know the other day I saw her holdin' hands wit' Dalin. Right 'ere in the Mess Hall, no less. If she's willin' ta do that, she can't be too much've a' lost cause, right?"

"Well, I suppose..."

Rio detoured from her intended reply as she saw Dalin just coming in. "'ey, there he is. He'll probably know where she is, I'll just go have a word wit' him... We still on fer tanight?"

Querida gave her a fondly tolerant smile. "As always. I'll tell Tarrin that you and Jedar are dragging us out again."

"It does ya good ta get outta that damn infirmary every once in a while. I'll see ya later, then." She waved over her shoulder, then headed off, cornering Dalin as he was trying to get his food. "Ah, just the man I was lookin' fer."

He blinked, and glanced around to double check she was actually speaking to him. "Erm, me, miss deJeneiro?"

"Yeah, you. Listen, I've been crawlin' all over the Lair fer two days, an' I ain't been able ta find Gina anywhere. Where is she?"

He shrugged and went back to loading his tray. "I dunno."

"Oh, come on, Dalin. We all saw you an' her gettin' cozy the other day, ya can't tell me that was jus' a one-night fling an' ya don't know where she is now."

Blushing and flustered, Dalin fumbled with his silverware. "That...I...I dunno what she was doin'..."

One eyebrow rose. "Ya didn't know what she was doin'? Man, ya really do need ta get out more often. C'me on." Ignoring his frantic attempts at explanations and disclaimers, she directed him firmly out the door, all but dragging him along behind her. "Whether ya knew what she was doin' 'r not, she sure as hell knew. An' I'm bettin' that means she's soft enough on you that if we go 'visit' her, she'll let ya in. Or at least not kill ya fer botherin' her."

So, riding right over his protests, she towed him along all the way to D Level. "Gina? Gina, it's Rio, an' Dalin. Open up." There was no answer. Sighing, Rio knocked again. "Gina, I know ye're in there, so open the damn door already."

No answer, still. "Maybe she isn't even here, miss deJen--"

"Drake, stop! Oh, please don't--don't--no! No!"

Both of them froze and looked at each other as cries for help suddenly echoed through the wall. Rio pounded on the door. "Gina? Gina! It's us, let us in! Oh, ta hell wit' it." Shouldering Dalin out of the way, she knelt and quickly started picking the lock. After a few moments, the lock clicked open, and they rushed in.

Gina was sprawled across her bed, moaning and begging for help. "Drake duCaine, she's unconscious!" Rio threaded her way through the trashed room--Gina had evidently been trying to fight her fever-induced demons before collapsing--and shook her gently. "Gina? Hey, Gina, wake up. C'me on, c'me on, trust me when I say ya don't have ta worry about the whole beauty sleep thing, wake up!"

"Get away from me!" Gina lashed out, fighting blindly against some imagined tormentor. Rio ducked the fist easily, getting up and backing away.

"Dalin, I'm goin' ta get the Docs. Stay here an' watch here, make sure she don't hurt herself." Before he could protest, she was out the door.

"Uhm...okies..." Cautiously, he approached Gina, putting a hesitant hand on her arm. "Uhm, miss Gina? Is me, Dalin...I dunno what's goin' on wi' ye, but I wanna help..."

Almost as if she'd heard him, her head lolled in his direction and she mumbled something. Hoping that maybe she was coming around, he put his hand on her shoulder and shook her gently. "M-Miss Gina?"

It quickly became evident that she wasn't going to wake up, though, as she suddenly gasped and writhed, as if struggling against some kind of bonds. "No...no, don't! I already told you I can't--I won't--oh, gods!" She struggled, turning her head from side to side and moaning. "No, please, don't--don't--not again!" In whatever nightmare she was locked in, she was being tortured. She was in more pain then she had been that night in the lounge, and whether her agony was real or imagined, it was real enough to her.

He watched helplessly, unable to wake her up or help her, until the doctors arrived and hustled him out of the room. Rio was skulking around in the hallway, after having been firmly ordered not to disturb them while they were working. With nothing better to do, Dalin wandered over to her. "So, what now?"

"Now?" Rio smiled grimly. "We wait."

*****

There had been only three short, follow-up operations. There should have been only three, but there were dozens of them, one after another, no drugs, no painkillers, no time to rest and heal before they cut her open again. Weak from blood loss, out of her mind with pain, helpless to stop them or protect herself, all she could do was lie there and scream--until finally it hurt so much she couldn't even do that.

Finally, after an eternity or two of pain that should have killed her and left her in peace, they left her, and with the last remnants of her strength she managed to crawl out. But that time she couldn't get home and recover there--that time she was chased endlessly, beaten, assaulted and used, and used, and used...

Once, a faint flickering of reality almost broke through, and she strained desperately toward someone who was calling her name. For a moment, she thought she was going to make it--then another wave of pain swelled up and claimed her, dragging her back into her own private hell.

*****

Rio and Dalin were still hanging around when Querida emerged from Gina's room, wearily peeling off her gloves. "Well?" Rio demanded as soon as the door had shut behind her. Kerry sighed, rubbing her forehead.

"Well, it's not surprising she collapsed. What is surprising is that she stayed on her feet as long as she did--and that she's not dead. I can't believe she's been so stoic about this--the pain must have been unbearable. You're the ones who've spent the most time with her since she joined...have either of you ever seen her show how much pain she's been in?" Rio shook her head, and Dalin started to as well; then paused and nodded hesitantly. Kerry raised an eyebrow. "Dalin?"

"I...a few nights ago, we were in the lounge, an'...an' she..." He pinked a bit, causing Rio and Kerry to exchange glances. "She was...in trouble."

"Why didn't you tell anyone? If you knew she was in pain, you should have come to me, I could have helped her."

"I wanted to, but she...she, erm, tol' me not to..."

"Told? Threatened is more like it," Rio put in dryly. Dalin nodded sheepishly.

"Uh, yeah."

"Figures."

Querida shook her head. "I'm not surprised she didn't want anyone to know. She locked herself in there to either heal or die...she was prepared for either. And she was so obsessed with not letting anyone know she was hurt... She could have died. She still might. I can't afford to move her, that would kill her. She'll have to be kept under watch constantly, because...well, not to put too fine a point on it, she could kick at any time. Tarrin's with her right now, but with her on D and us needed on A..."

"I'll help," Rio volunteered instantly. "An' Dalin, ya too, right?"

He blinked for a moment, then nodded. "Erm, right." Kerry patted him on the arm and smiled.

"Good, with four of us working shifts it won't be so bad."

"So," Rio reminded her, "ya gonna tell us what happened ta her, 'r do we have ta hover over her an' guess?"

"Oh, right...I'm sorry, I'm a little frazzled. It's always hard to see things like that... I need some coffee. Come up to the lounge, I'll tell you what happened."

"Fair enough."

Sighing, Kerry dropped down at the first table that came to hand when they entered the lounge, accepting the cup of coffee Rio brought over for gratefully. "Oh, thank you...I needed that." She sipped at it for a few moments, gathering her thoughts. "I can't tell you what, actually, happened to Gina...only that it must have been horrible. Before we managed to sedate her, she was screaming all sorts of things, yelling about Canard, and slavers, and other things I can't repeat... Whatever the story behind all of that is, she'd have to tell it to you herself, though I don't think she ever will." She paused, took a deep breath, and continued after Rio gently prodded,

"Ye're stallin', Ker."

"I know, I know... This isn't something I enjoy talking about, and I don't think she'd be very happy with me for sharing it, but I just don't see a choice. She can sue me for violating doctor-patient confidentiality later.

"She's been...tortured, in so many times and so many--creative--ways, I have no idea how she's survived it. But that's what's hurting her now." Another pause. "Someone operated on her...not more than two, maybe three at the outside most, months ago. She's been the victim of something called a vanSmythe's procedure."

Rio and Dalin looked at each other. "VanSmythe? Never heard a' it."

"You wouldn't have...it's named after the sick and twisted person who invented it, and it's so horrible even the Enforcers won't use it. Basically, it's a multiple-step operation in which tiny controls and computer chips are implanted in the victims body; the procedure differs for men and women, of course, but it controls their fertility--in case they want to moonlight as whores for their master, it ensures there will be no pregnancy worries--while at the same time planting a...a time bomb, of a sort, in them. It's used to guarantee loyalty, because if the victim ever rebels against whoever 'owns' them, he can trigger the 'bomb,' releasing toxin into their system and killing them slowly, from the inside out. It's a very effective...disloyalty deterrent."

Rio was shaking her head slowly, wavering between disgusted and horrified. "So, if Gina's got this bomb tickin' away in her, how come it didn't blow by now?"

"I'm getting to that. See, the procedure is so delicate--and risky--that it has to be done in a series...usually four separate operations. Each part is 'installed' separately, to make sure it will take. As near as I can figure, the fourth part was never installed, completely ruining everything. The bomb was never 'armed,' so when she escaped it couldn't be triggered. That's good news. The bad news is that it's been slowly leaking toxins, which has been what's hurting her so badly, aside from the fact that the minimum recovery period from vanSmythe's procedure is six months, and she hasn't stopped moving since it happened. She's being torn apart from the inside out."

"Oh, gods..." Rio put a hand to her mouth, looking distinctly sickened. "I think I'm gonna be ill."

"Is...is she gonna die?" Dalin asked hesitantly. Querida shook her head.

"I don't know. I don't think so, but it'll be touch-and-go for awhile. We've given her something to counteract the poison, stop it from continuing to eat at her, and help her rest comfortably. That's all we can do; we can't go in and get it out, so to speak, without hurting her even more. But, yes, with full and complete rest, she'll recover."

"Complete rest, hah." Rio tried to cover up her moments of weakness by sipping at her coffee. "What makes ya think she's gonna stay down once she wakes up? Ya'll have ta sedate her an' tie her down, an' even then she'll probably spend so much time fightin' it she'll only hurt herself again."

"Well, we won't have to worry about that for awhile, at least. She'll sleep for days, and even when she wakes up it'll be awhile before she's strong enough to move." Obviously shaken, Querida glanced at her watch, and then stood. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get to the infirmary. I have...work to do." She waved with a brief, strained smile, then hurried off, leaving the other two to nurse their drinks in silence.

*****

No matter how many times Gina reminded herself that these were just hallucinations, she was starting to wonder. No matter what she did, she was helpless, unable to wake herself up from her nightmare, or even control it. Even though she knew, knew, that she wasn't really re-living all those tortures, it still seemed real, and though she knew what should happen, she couldn't change what she was going through.

The pain intensified, until she couldn't even scream. This was the kind of pain that would have, should have killed her, and yet she couldn't die, she couldn't even black out, she had to endure every agonizing second, until she was begging whoever was in charge of this torment to just kill her and get it over with. She had no idea how close she was to getting her wish.

*****

"She's been getting worse...She's been out for too long, this is a bad sign. The longer she stays down, the less chance she has of waking up."

"Ain't there anythin' ya can do?"

"Not a thing. Going in to take out the machines would kill her for sure. All we can do is wait, and dose her up with all the medicines her system will hold. But, at the moment...I don't know if I hold out much hope. She may just have been through too much for her body to survive. We'll know one way or another in forty-eight hours...if she doesn't seem even a little better by then, she won't have a chance."

*****

There was no fighting it now. She'd dragged her broken, bleeding, tormented body back "home," and now lay on her floor, staring out a window that she somehow knew vaguely wasn't there in real life. Her hold on any reality, even this twisted one, was slipping. She couldn't move, she couldn't think, even the pain that she knew was unbearable was at a distance; she knew it was hurting her, killing her, but she couldn't feel it.

So, she lay there, and waited almost idly to see if she died.

*****

Gradually, the hallucinations and pain had faded into quiet, peaceful darkness. Gina could have floated around there forever. Waking up seemed like far too much trouble. Why go back to pain and torment when she could float around in comforting oblivion?

But she was waking up. Damn it. There really is no rest for the weary...or the wicked...

She slitted her eyes open, trying to stay as still as possible. She didn't want to reveal she was awake--and she also had that vaguely disoriented feeling that indicated she was weak, possibly drugged, and would probably rediscover the meaning of pain the first time she tried to move. She flexed her arms and legs cautiously, trying to see if she were restrained in any way. Her legs were free, but when she tried to move her arms she realized with a jolt of alarm that there were needles in both her arms. Panic welled up in her, and she had the fight the sudden, unbearable urge to tear them out and bolt for the door.

Calm. Focus, focus. Don't panic. You're still in the Brotherhood. You're not back in the Rings. Someone must have found you and gotten one of the doctors...damn, I'd rather they'd let me die. Now they're gonna ask questions...or, worse, if one of doctors examined me, they won't have to ask questions.

Carefully, not opening her eyes more than sliver, she looked around the room. There was one person sitting in a chair pulled up beside her bed; after a moment of confusion, she recognized it as Dalin. What is he doing here? He's not a doctor. Hm, maybe they're using him as relief while they take a break or something...Okay, this could be a good thing. He doesn't know what happened to me, he probably just thinks I'm 'sick' or something. He probably doesn't know what's wrong, so he won't know how weak I am. I still have the element of surprise, and sick or not, I can still fight him off. No problem. Let's see, where's my gun... By moving her head a cautious fraction of an inch, she managed to get her gun in her line of site. It was sitting quietly on her dresser, half-hidden by a pile of books and papers. It's out of my immediate reach, but still close enough. Right. I'll jump up, grab the gun, and get some answers out of him before I decide whether I need to run or not.

Having decided on her plan of attack, Gina jumped up--or tried to. She got about three inches off the pillow, then her muscles gave out and she found herself laying back down. Her head spun from even that brief effort. "What--what the--"

Dalin appeared next to her, giving her an uncertain smile. "Jus' lie still, miss. 've called the docs, one of 'em should be here real quick..."

Gina glared at him, willing her reflexes to snap in. Her hand should have shot out and caught his wrist, but her muscles wouldn't obey. Straining, she just managed to drag her hand up a few inches and flex her fingers, then she went limp again, exhausted and defenseless. "What's wrong with me? Why can't I move?"

"The doctors say ye're really sick, miss," he supplied. "Ye're 'sposed to lie still."

"I don't appear to have a choice." Sighing, she settled back, trying not to appear as frightened as she was. "How long was I out?"

"'Bout a week. We all thought ye were gonna die..."

"And I'm sure that would have made everyone's day," she spat, turning her head toward the wall. "So why didn't you let me?"

Querida, who'd arrived in time to hear the tail end of that sentence, replied before Dalin could find his voice. "Because you should know by now that that's not how we work. And if you'd been actually taking the trouble to talk to some of us, you would have figured that out by now!"

"Spare me your preaching," Gina snarled, trying again--and failing, again--to sit up. "How long am I going to be like this?"

"I have no idea." Taking Gina's unresisting arm and wiping down a spot with a antiseptic wipe, Querida gave her quick injection before she could protest. "You abused your body beyond its limits, you need total and complete rest to recover. You can keep fighting and trying to push yourself, but then it'll take twice as long. You're in no danger here, you're not going to die...no matter how much you might want to. You can afford to take some recovery time."

Gina throttled down her natural reactions--terror, anger, rebellion--and forced herself to realize that, unfortunately, the doctor had a point. I'm 'safe' here--at least no one here is out for my blood. I really can't afford to stay like this for long, but fighting it isn't going to get me out of this damn bed any faster. But that doesn't mean I have to like it. "Fine. But can you at least get these damn needles out of me?"

"Not until you're strong enough to move on your own, I'm sorry. For now, they stay in."

She muttered something under her breath, but didn't bother doing anything else; it would have been a waste of breath. "Am I going to die?"

Querida glanced up, though if she was startled by the blunt question, she didn't show it. "No, not now. It was really touch-and-go for awhile there...you had everyone worried."

"Hah. I believed you up to that point, but you're not going convince me that anyone was actually worried."

Quite unexpectedly, the doctor's eyes snapped. "That shows what you know! If Rio and Dalin hadn't cared enough to come hunting for you when you'd been AWOL for a few days, you would have died down here! When you couldn't be moved, they traded off shifts with Tarrin and I so that someone would always be here in case something happened. You can discount everything Tarrin and I did for you, we are after all just doctors, even if we did save your life--but you can't ignore what they did for you. I don't know why they're so concerned about your well-being, when you can't even bring yourself to thank them for saving your life!"

With that, she snapped her medcase shut and turned to leave, but paused on her way to the door. "Dalin, with her awake you don't have to worry about staying here to watch over her, the way you have been for days," she added, for Gina's benefit. "You can leave any time."

Torn, he looked over at Gina, but she looked away, fuming and smarting from the doctor's lecture but still too proud--and scared--to admit to wanting some company and asking him to stay. "She's right, Dalin," she said after a few moments, still looking at the wall. "You're better off not being around someone like me. Thank you for saving my life, but I wish you hadn't."

The room fell silent at that, and after a few moments, Gina heard the door open and shut. She kept her face stubbornly to the wall, hating herself and fiercely trying to stamp out the part of her mind that was wishing someone had stayed. Finding herself helpless, defenseless, and alone was suddenly unbearable, but it was her own damn fault for shoving them away...

A hand touched her arm.

She could no longer lunge, but her head certainly snapped around quickly enough. Dalin pulled his hand back quickly, trying to stammer some sort of apology, but she cut him off. "What are you still doing here?" The instant the sentence was out, she cursed herself; she'd meant it to be a curious inquiry, and instead she'd practically snapped it at him. Bitch. Before he could answer, she tried to temper her somewhat rude reaction by adding, with an almost-smile, "One of these days you're going to sneak up on me when I'm not half-dead, and then I'll really let you have it." He looked a little stumped at this apparent sudden mood swing, and his return smile was a bit on the wavery side.

"Er... I, um... is there anythin' ye'd like, ma'am?" he asked. "A drink, maybe, or some food or 'nother pillow, or somethi' else?"

"I'd like to get out of this bed, but that apparently isn't an option." She looked away for a moment, then back at him. "Dalin...how much did she tell you? About what happened to me." Please, please, let her have said it was just extreme exhaustion. If she told him anything else...

Her worst fears were confirmed when he looked even more uncomfortable, fidgeting absently with a corner of the sheet. "Ah...she, um...she said that ye--that ye were...erm..."

"She told you about the vanSmythe's, didn't she?"

"Aye... She did."

"Damn bitch!" she spat, furious. "Hasn't she ever heard of privacy?" Galvanized into action by a surge of anger and fear at having been compromised that way, she struggled to sit up, and actually made it up a few inches. "I should--I'll--" And then her muscles gave out and she fell back. Frustrated, she punched her fist against the bed, but even that was so weak it barely made an impression. "I'll do absolutely nothing, because I can't move. Drake damn it..."

She would have almost preferred being alone with her misery just then, but Dalin obviously wasn't going anywhere. "I...I jest want ye to know that if there's anythin' I can do for ye ma'am, if it'll help ye, I'll do it." His face was absolutely aglow with honesty, which should have made her suspicious, but she was just too tired to be paranoid. "Are ye sure ye don' want some water? Kerry said ye'd be needin' it."

She started to shake her head, then paused as a thought occurred to her. It was crazy, but she was desperate, and right then it seemed like a better idea than lying around being helpless for months. "There is..." She hesitated, then forced it out anyway. "There is one thing you can get for me."

"What's that?"

"There's a gun on that dresser. I want you to hand it to me."

"Why?"

Don't catch on real fast, do you, kid? She gave him a rather annoyed look. "Because I want to die, and that's faster than starving myself."

He gave a totally shocked look that, under better circumstances, she might have almost found amusing. "No!"

"Don't you get it? This is it. I have hit rock bottom. There is no where left for me to go, and frankly I don't even want to try. Now give me the damn gun, or so help me I'll find a way to get it myself!"

Dalin stared at her for a few moments, then stood up and went over to her dresser, picking up the gun. Before she could thank him, he calmly, and with a purposefulness she hadn't noticed before, removed the bullets and pocketed them, them dropped the gun into the garbage can. "Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing?!"

"I'm not gonna help ye kill yeself, not after all this..." For the first time, he actually looked...irritated? "No one had to help you, ye know. But we did anyway, 'cause we cared enough to! We...we weren't just gonna sit back and let ye die! And now ye want to shoot yourself because...because of your pride? Because ye can't stand bein' the one who has to be helped?? That's just...silly."

For a moment, she just looked at him, trying to decide whether or not to be insulted. For the briefest of seconds, she almost, almost smiled at him. "Well, I'm glad to know you've got some backbone, I was starting to wonder..." She trailed off, staring at him again, then finally asked the question that had been nagging her ever since that night in the lounge. "Why do you keep trying to help me? I'm not worth it, can't you see that? There's a word for people like me: irredeemable. Beyond help. I'm not worth caring for, so why do you keep trying?"

That brought the more common flush back to his cheeks, but he did at least manage to keep looking at her directly. For some reason, that made her want to look away, but she held his gaze. "Because...I saw someone then who...who needed help. And not just because of the pain. I...I don't know if I can be the one to help ye, I've ne'er been through what ye might have, but--but I wanted to try, anyway."

For the first time in she didn't even know how long, she couldn't think of anything to say,and for awhile all she could do was stare at him, trying to figure out his hidden agenda. Finally, she had to come to the even more startling conclusion that he didn't have one, and that was just as bad. "I've...I've never met anyone who wanted to do anything, no matter how small, for me if there wasn't something in it for him too. No one's ever wanted to help me before. But you...you really mean that, don't you?" She looked at him a bit more, then smiled dryly and somewhat self-mockingly. "I hope you're making a note of this, it's one of the first times anyone's ever left me speechless."

He smiled at her. "Yes, I do...erm, if I can." She started to reply, then paused to stifle a yawn behind her hand. "Ye'd better sleep now...Kerry said ye'd be tired. 'm just gonna sit 'ere, I'll be right here when ye wake up."

She paused, giving him a rather odd look for moment. "Yes...I bet you will be." Then she closed her eyes and let herself drift off.

 

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