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The Lost Years

By Caro Roberts

 

'Cause I am barely breathing
And I can't find the air
I don't know who I'm kidding
Imagining you care
And I could stand here waiting
A fool for another day
But I don't suppose it's worth the price, worth the price
The price that I would pay
But I'm thinking it over anyway...
~~"Barely Breathing"--Duncan Sheik~~

The bartender couldn't help but notice that it was a rougher night than usual in the tavern. He'd had to call a bouncer over to the bar at least three times to remove patrons who'd had their 'last drink' five drinks ago, and the waitresses were on the receiving end of much more attention that usual. Most of them tolerated--no, encouraged--these attentions with swaying hips, flirtatious smiles, and conspiratory whispers of "I get off at ten."

In the midst of all this, most of the men didn't notice a dark-haired young woman who threaded silently through the tables, her eyes constantly on the floor. Her waitress blouse went all to her neck and her skirt almost half-way to her knees, contrasting sharply with the dresses of the other women, whose clothing looked more like negligees than uniforms. Her legs shook a little as she walked, not because she'd been drinking, but because she slaved under trays far heavier than she should have been able to lift, much less carry over her head without so much as sloshing a drink in its glass. She delivered orders faster, most efficiently, and more accurately than other girls because she was concentrating on doing her job, hurrying through the aisles and avoiding the hands that reached out to grab her. Whenever she wasn't working, she seemed to disappear into the background, but she had no time to rest most nights. She was too busy picking up the slack from the other girls, servicing their tables as well as hers. Still, though, the other girls got the tips, because they were willing to preform other 'services.' Occasionally a more kindly soul who visited the tavern just because he couldn't afford a nicer one gave the dark-haired, silent waitresses a tip, but they were small. Money was tight for all of them. Those who did drop a few extra coins on the table were rewarded with a smile, which only they ever saw.

Late after night, after the evening shift was over and the other waitresses were upstairs, preforming their other services as whores, she wrapped herself in a bulky coat that was so old it probably didn't provide much in the way of warmth, and whose chief virtue was its ability to hide most of her figure, and stumbled home across the ice to the crumbling apartment she had the misfortune to call home.

Estelle counted her tips twice over, then sighed and stuffed the money in her pocket. Her amount of tips was steadily declining. It wasn't surprising, really. The months since the Invasion had been hard on everyone, and few had the extra money to tip some scrawny waitress who served their beer. Though if money is so tight, she thought bitterly, they shouldn't be spending it in cheap taverns. I shouldn't complain, I suppose, without those drunkards I'd be out of a job, and I'd have to steal full time. Not to mention that my chief sources of information would be gone.

Her legs were still shaking a little, but she forced herself on. She'd still be recovering from her last, most brutal, beating when the Invasion hit. It was only by the greatest of luck, and the ability to hide buildings so destroyed no one thought anyone could be surviving in them, that she'd been able to escape the work camps. Food had been scarce, and eating times uncertain. Now she was eating two meals a day, but if money kept getting tighter, she'd be down to one. The prospect didn't please her, especially since those 'meals' she did manage to get were minuscule and of uncertain nutritional value.

Ah, well, no help for it. At least I don't have any extra weight to lose. A particularly cold blast of wind hit her and she doubled over, shivering. And no body fat, either...

Estelle all but crawled up the stairs to her 'apartment,' barely having the strength to shut the door behind her and collapse. It was past midnight by then. Too exhausted to even hunt around for some food, she collapsed on the bed and fell into an deep, coma-like sleep.

*****

Not quite six hours later, she woke up by falling off the bed, swallowing terrified screams. Gasping for breath, she scrambled upright and looked around frantically, then recognized her surroundings and put her head in her hands. "A dream, a dream, it was only a dream..."

After a few minutes, she was awake enough to look at the clock. It was just after six. "Ah. Good. Got a little more sleep last night."

Estelle tried to stand, but her legs promptly folded and she fell back to the ground. "Blast," she gasped painfully, using her arms to haul herself back onto the bed. "I won't be able to get up until I get some feeling back." Her stomach roared, testament to the fact that she hadn't eaten in almost twelve hours, and that had been little more than a few pieces of fruit. "You hush, I'll attend to you when I can."

It was almost an hour before she had the strength to sit up, and then stand, very slowly. She hobbled to the kitchen, and was relieved to find a few pieces of bread left out of the loaf she'd bought last week. Ah, breakfast... She scraped what was left of the margarine out of the tub in the refrigerator and dabbed it over two pieces of bread, devouring them eagerly. Once her stomach had stopped screaming, she was able to concentrate on other things.

After pausing another few moments to gather some strength, she got up and pulled a scrap of paper out of the pocket of her coat, sitting down on the broken-down couch and looking at it thoughtfully. It was an address gained from a rather intoxicated client a few nights past, and now was her first chance to visit it, as it was finally her day off. She'd been told that if she was looking for information, this was the place to go, and she was sorely in need of information. She'd been in this job for four months, and hadn't found so much as a scrap of anything useful. With every day that passed Ernest was getting farther and farther away, and she was anxious to be gone and on his trail.

There's nothing for it, she decided. I'll have to go. But he'll want money, and I need everything I have to eat... well, I can get by on one meal a day, I think. She looked at the paper a few minutes more, than made her decision. I'm going. Then she paused and looked down at herself. The previous night she'd been too exhausted to even change out of her uniform. Shivering in disgust at the tight dress she was forced to wear, she peeled it over and went to take a hot--or as hot as the rickety old pipes allowed--shower. Once she was dressed in some clean--and slightly warmer, if more worn--clothes, she wrapped her trench coat around herself again and set off. The address was on the other side of the city, and as she had no money for transportation, she had quite a bit of walking to do. Especially since she could barely go a mile without rest, and she had to take frequent detours to pick pockets or shop lift a bit of food, trying to get enough to survive. Well, it's a living. Barely.

*****

It took her the better part of the day to get all the way across the city, what with frequent stops and... problems. For some reason she simply couldn't fathom, Estelle continued to get propositions from men she walked by. They must be very desperate, she reasoned after she turned a more persistent one away with the blade of her dagger. As if they'd want a scrawny, ugly thing like me.

Her whole body ached, her head was pounding, and her vision blurred when she finally started reaching the neighborhood of her destination. And I'll have to walk all the way back home in the dead of night... She shivered and pulled her coat a little closer, feeling the inside of her pocket for the comforting smoothness of her knife.

The day itself was overcast, making everything seem even more gray and dismal than usual. Estelle jumped and bit her tongue to keep from yelping as a rat scampered right past her feet. Oh, this is definitely not one of the better parts of town...

The address, as luck would have it, was on the second floor. That meant climbing up a flight of steps that looked as if a breath of wind would knock them down. Swallowing hard, Estelle kept to the wall, testing each step cautiously before putting her full weight on it. Finally she made it to the landing and was able to release a breath she hadn't even realized she'd been holding. She took another deep breath to steady her nerves, straightened her coat and smoothed her hair, then knocked. After a moment, a peephole opened up in the door and a pair of dark eyes peered out at her. "What do you want?"

"I need some information."

"Can you pay?"

She swallowed hard and fingered the small wad of cash hidden deep in her pocket. That was her food money for the next week. "Yes."

"Are you alone?"

"Yes."

The peephole slammed shut and she heard the clinking sound of multiple locks being undone. After a moment, the door opened. "Then come in."

"Thank you." Holding in a shudder, Estelle walked in.

The apartment was cramped and shadowy, but surprisingly clean. "Let me take your coat."

"Oh, I--" Before she could even object, he'd taken her coat off her shoulders and hung it up. She turned around to look at him for the first time--and stopped short.

The other Raptrin smiled at her. "Pleased to meet you--"

"Estelle," She supplied faintly.

"My lady Estelle." He bowed and kissed her hand. "Lee Hawksnest at your service."

"And I at yours." She smiled slightly. "You remember our customs well."

"I've had little enough chance to practice them. It's so good to see another of our race," he added warmly. "Please, sit down. Can I get you some tea?"

"Oh, yes, please." It did occur to her, vaguely, that he could use the tea to poison her, but she dismissed the thought out of hand. If he remembered the customs that well, the idea of him breaking honor like that was ludicrous. "When I was told that this was the place to come for information," she added as she sat down, "they never mentioned that you were Raptrin. You'd think that it would have occurred to them that it might interest me."

"Yes, well, it's not something I generally like spread around." Lee sat down across from her, handing her a teacup and taking one of his own. "You're probably surprised that I'm trafficking in information."

"The thought had crossed my mind," she admitted. "But, as I know as well as anyone, we're often forced to do things that we don't want to do."

"Aye." He noted the sadness in her eyes--well, in the eye he could see. Before he could ask, though, she shook herself out of it and returned her attention to him. "I don't enjoy my line of work," he continued cautiously. "But at this time I really have no choice. I have never willingly defiled the honor of my clan."

"Nor have I."

"If I may ask, my lady, what is your clan?"

She lifted her chin and met his gaze. "Stormcrow. And... that has something to do with the information I need."

"Oh?" His tone was carefully neutral.

"My brother is... missing, I'm trying to find information on him."

"I see. His name?"

"Ernest Stormcrow. He's four years older than I am. I haven't... haven't seen him for over three years. I have been tracking him, though, but it seems he's always just one step ahead of me."

Lee's face had gone very grave, Estelle noted with apprehension. "What's wrong?"

"I... I would have thought you knew..."

"Knew? Knew what?" She half-stood. "He's not dead, is he?!"

"No! No, he's still alive." He pulled her back down. "Unfortunately."

She stared. "Wh-what do you mean? How can you say that?"

"Estelle, I... I don't know how to tell you this, but... your brother was... is... not a nice person."

She raised an eyebrow. "I see. Would you care to... elaborate?" He... he couldn't possibly know what happened, that would be impossible. He must have some wrong information.

Lee looked at her for a moment, then got up and paced the length of the room. After a moment, he stopped and looked at her. "During the Invasion, your brother... defected to the Saurians. He's a traitor, Estelle."

Estelle stared at him for a moment, then shock, hunger and exhaustion combined and she fell off the couch, unconscious.

*****

The next thing Estelle knew, her eyes were slowly starting to focus on an unfamiliar ceiling. "What the..." She moaned and tried to sit up, but her arms folded and she fell back. "What happened..."

Lee appeared next to her, setting a tray off food on the table next to the couch she was lying on. "You blacked out, Estelle. At first I thought the shock was too much for you, but evidently you haven't been eating enough. And you were exhausted. You slept for twelve hours."

"Twelve... hours...?"

"Twelve hours," he repeated gently, helping her sit up and propping some pillows up behind her. "Here, drink this tea, you'll feel better." She accepted the cup gratefully and took a few cautious sips of the hot liquid.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have--"

"You had no control over it, Estelle, it would have happened soon anyway." He sat down across from her. "When was the last time you ate? A day ago? Two days?"

"I ate right before I left to come here!" she objected.

"And before that? Estelle, how many meals a day are you averaging?"

"One or two," she admitted, eyes down.

"And I'd be willing to bet that they weren't very large or nutritious. The money you brought here to pay me, that was your food money, wasn't it?"

She blinked. "Yes, but how'd you know about--"

"I found it in your coat pocket when I was trying to find out where you lived. I thought you might have had identification or something of the sort." He sighed and shook his head. "Estelle, you're very lucky that you're not dead."

Estelle turned her face away, remembering what he'd told her about her brother. "I'd rather be, rather than have to hear such things about my brother. It can't be true!" She tried to push away a horrible little feeling that said it was. After all, if he'd beat me and break every code of honor for a brother, not to mention a man, who knows what else he might--no, no, he had a right to punish me! That was my fault!

"It is true. He helped the Saurians. He's dishonored your clan and broken the Codes. I'm sorry, Estelle." He took her hand comfortingly, but she barely even noticed.

"There has to be an explanation, I'm sure he didn't intend--"

"No. Estelle, he knew what he was doing. He chose to do what he did with full knowledge of the honor he was violating. You can't make excuses for him." Lee stopped and leaned back, regarding her intently. "But then, I have the feeling that you're making excuses for him in more ways than one."

"I... I don't know what you're talking about."

"Yes, you do." He leaned forward again. "You're hiding something. Something that, unless I miss my guess, has to do with him." She opened her mouth to protest, but he held up his hand. "No, no, you don't have to explain to me right now. You've known me less than a day, there's no reason for you to trust me."

She smiled briefly, then avoided his gaze, uncomfortable with the knowing look in his eyes. She glanced at her watch, then jumped. "Great duCaine! I'm going to be late for work, I'll get fired--" She threw off the blanket that had been draped over her and jumped up... then promptly collapsed back on the couch, holding her head. "Ohh..."

"You're not going anywhere for awhile."

"But I'll lose my job..."

"It doesn't sound like it'll be any great loss." She gave him a querying look, and he smiled apologetically. "You were dreaming part of the time you were asleep--nightmares, I should say--and you were talking a bit. Don't worry, it was nothing embarrassing. Just enough to convince me that the life you're leading now is one you shouldn't be allowed to go back to." He was silent for a moment, thinking. "I have a suggestion for you."

"Oh?"

"Yes. It's... not one of the more honorable professions, but you might want to look into it." Lee got up and paced to the window, then stopped and looked back at her. "The Brotherhood of the Blade."

"The... what?"

"The Brotherhood of the--"

"That thieves ring?!"

"Yes. But don't look at me like that. It's just a suggestion. I can't... tell you exactly where to go, but I can give you a general direction and send you to someone else who might be able to help. It's a chance, Estelle, and a better chance than you have where you are right now. Think about it." She nodded, then cut off into an unexpected yawn that she tried to cover with her hand. He smiled. "But right now, you're still tired. Eat a little, and, if you feel up to it, walk around a bit. You can decide once you get your strength back."

She nodded thoughtfully. "I may just do that."

*****

"You're sure you'll be all right, now?"

"Lee, I'm fine, I've got everything. Including some of your money, which really I shouldn't--"

"I want you to take it. As a gift. Now, you know where you're going, and you're going to be fine, but I want you to take good care of yourself. No only eating one meal a day to save money, you understand?"

Estelle laughed. "Yes, yes, I understand! And yes, I have everything."

"Good. And do be careful, Estelle, Keltor's a dangerous place."

"So is the Metro. So you be careful, too."

"I always am." He gave her a hug, and after a second, she returned the embrace. He held her for a moment, unwilling to let her go, then finally stepped back. "Good luck."

"Thank you." The intense look in his eyes made her feel inexplicably uncomfortable, and she was relieved when the bus pulled in and she had to board. "Good bye, Lee, and I'll try to keep in touch."

"I'll look forward to it, Estelle."

She smiled and climbed inside, waving at him out the window until the bus pulled away from the station and he faded out of sight. She settled back in her seat and closed her eyes thoughtfully. I'll miss him. Odd, considering I've only known him for a few days. But he was more of a brother to me than Ernest ever was... She shook herself out of that train of thought quickly and started studying the information Lee had given her.

Back at the station, Lee stood watching out on the platform, longingly watching the bus disappear into the distance. Then, with a last, wistful sigh, he shoved his hands in his pockets and turned homeward.

 

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