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Second Chance

By Caro Roberts and Starsong Lightwing

The four-year-old darted around the man standing in front of her, overflowing with youthful energy. At the last second, he shifted, and she accidentally collided with him. "Watch where you're going, you little brat," the man growled, grabbing her arm.

An instant later he froze at the feel of a sharp edge against his neck. "I think," a low voice growled by his ear, "That you'd better let go and apologize to my daughter." He complied. "Very good. Now Rain, honey, you should say 'excuse me', or 'pardon me', when you run into someone. Good manners are very important. Do you understand?"

"Yes daddy," she said brightly. "Excuse me," she smiled at the man her father had in his grip.

"Very good, sweetie." The man backed away with plain relief as the hold on him slackened and disappeared. "Next time think twice before you threaten harmless little girls."

"Right, Slake, I'm sorry, I didn't know she was yours--"

"It shouldn't matter," Slake growled. His black saber disappeared in a gold flash, and his expression softened as he hooked it back on his belt and looked to his daughter. "Let's go, Rain. Try and stay with daddy this time, okay?"

"Okay," Rain slipped her hand into her father's and the two continued down the hall.

*****

Slake dropped the book he'd been reading and jumped up, heading for the room where his daughter was crying. "Shh, sweetie, what is it? Did you have a scary dream?" Rain nodded tearfully. Slake sat down on the edge of her bed and pulled her into his arms. She put her arms around his neck and laid her cheek on his shoulder, sticking her thumb in her mouth. "Don't do that, honey, you're too big for it." He pulled her hand away from her mouth. "Tell daddy what happened."

Half an hour later, she was asleep in his arms. Slake made no move to put her down, sitting there in the darkness with her. He held the most important part of his life close to him and let his mind drift back to a time when another woman had been the center of his life...

She was beautiful, with thick reddish-brown hair that fell halfway down her back, laughing dark eyes and rusty-colored feathers that were smooth and soft to the touch. Her smile was enough to make him feel faint, her laughter like elusive music. Her insight was phenomenal, she could take even the most clear cut argument and turn it totally around--

And her wit was frustrating him to the point of killing someone.

They were out on a hill, overlooking the lights of a small city below them, under the stars. He ran his fingers through his hair, trying to maintain his cool as she all but smirked at him, obviously enjoying herself at his expense. He'd been courting her--or trying to--for almost a year, and she let him get so close he could almost taste her kiss, but always stayed just out of his reach. It was driving him mad. She had a counter for every line in the book, and Slake wasn't known for unoriginality. Every soft word, every compliment, was sent back with just enough encouragement woven in with the often harsh or teasing response to keep him on the edge.

"Why do you play these games with me, Sienna?" he finally asked her, taking her by the shoulders and making her face him. She looked up at him with a coy smile.

"Because I know how much you enjoy a challenge, Slake," she chided. "An easy victory is never as sweet." She paused for a moment, and her eyes were suddenly soft. "And I want this to be sweet," she whispered, reaching up and touching his lips with a fingertip before rising on her toes to kiss him. Before Slake's mind even registered what was happening, his arms were around her, returning her kiss with passion as her arms slipped up around his neck. He felt as if he were holding fire, she filled his perception until he was aware of nothing else. Slake's head swam as they parted, only one clear thought in his head.

"I love you, Sienna..."

Slake wasn't ashamed of the tear that slipped down his beak as he lay Rain down. Her misty grey eyes fluttered but she merely rolled over, hugging her stuffed Pack tightly. He stroked her thick, red-chestnut hair and pulled the sheets up around her, kissing her cheek lightly before wiping his eyes and going back to his reading. As he sat down, he reached over to wipe the fine film of dust off of the picture of two young newlyweds smiling for the camera, surrounded by laughing friends calling out warnings about the old ball and chain.

*****

Estelle looked around the practice room and sighed. The room was near empty, except for a few apprentices practicing with their trainers. She sighed again and traced the hilt of her saber wistfully. She had no trainer, and it seemed near impossible that she would find one. Almost all of the members high enough in rank to choose an apprentice, that she knew anyway, either already had one or weren't interested.

There's no way I'll ever get out of third rank if I can't get a trainer. I'll get stuck as a Blade Brother--and who wants that?! She clasped her hands behind her back and began to walk dejectedly toward her quarters, to study Brotherhood lore as was required of her rank. Though I don't see how it's helped me much so far.

A small form suddenly banged into her legs and she looked down. A very scared, very young child looked up at her with wide eyes. Her gaze flicked from Estelle's face to her still-activated saber and she gulped before beginning to back away. "Ex-excuse me!" she squeaked.

Estelle smiled gently and knelt down, giving the young child a hug. "That's all right, sweetheart, I should have been paying attention." She looked up and down the deserted hallway, then back at the child. "Where are your folks? They should be looking after a young one like yourself."

"Daddy's back home, I think. I wanted to see if I could find the play room by myself and the door was open so I left."

Play room? What could she be talking about? "And your mum?"

The child hung her head. "She's not here no more," she whispered sadly.

Not here? Could she be... "Ah." She stood and picked the child up. "What's your name, young one?"

"Rain."

"My, that's a pretty name. And who's your father?"

"Slake."

"Slake what?"

"Roguefeather."

Estelle searched her memory for that name, and came up with a blank. "Oh. Well. I'm afraid I haven't met your daddy yet, but I think I'm going to." She shifted Rain so that she was more comfortable. "Now, can you tell me where your bunk is?"

Rain nodded and pointed back down the hall. "Back that way."

Estelle managed to hide a smile--many bunks were back that way. "All right. Will you show me? I want to meet your daddy."

Rain again nodded and they set off, Estelle making conversation along the way.

"So, Rain, how old are you?"

Rain solemnly held up her hand. "This many."

"Four? My, you're practically ready to be apprenticed!" Rain giggled at this and Estelle smiled. This is a sweet little duckling, I hope her father's worthy of her.

After taking several turns and only loosing their way once, the two finally arrived at Rain's bunk. Estelle set the child down and knocked on the door. After a few moments, a man slightly older than herself opened the door and stared at her, then looked down at his daughter.

"Rain!" he cried, kneeling down as she hugged him. "I was worried about you! Where did you go?!"

"I'm sorry Daddy," Rain apologized sincerely, "but the door was open and you were busy, so I went to see if I could find the play room myself."

"Now, Rain," he scolded gently, "I've told you that you must never wander off by yourself, especially to the play room. Don't do that again, understand?"

"Yes Daddy!"

"All right, now, run along and get ready for dinner." He gave her a gentle spank as she trotted obediently for her room. Almost to the door, she paused, turned around, and waved.

"Bye-bye, 'Stelle!"

Estelle waved back and smiled. "See you soon, Rainy."

He turned around again and looked at her, looking slightly embarrassed. "Sorry for not greeting you sooner, but--"

She waved it off. "It's all right. You were just glad to see your daughter."

"Thank you for bringing her back. I had just found that she wasn't in her room and I was getting worried. She was supposed to be napping."

"I take it she didn't see it that way." She offered her hand. "By the way, I'm Estelle Stormcrow."

He shook her hand. "I know, nearly everyone's heard of you. I'm Slake Roguefeather."

"So your daughter told me."

Slake suddenly realized that he'd left her standing the hall and stood out of the way, gesturing her to come inside. "Oh! Excuse me for leaving you standing so long. Come inside, and sit down, please."

"Why, thank you." She walked in and seated herself in one of the chair as he hurried over and sat across from her. "I found Rainy--or rather she found me--walking in the hall by the practice room. She said that she was trying to find the 'play room'. What is that?"

"Oh, that's what we call the practice room. I take her there sometimes to watch the others sparring. Sometimes, if there's no one there, I play with her using a toy saber. It's her favorite thing to do."

"I see. She's the sweetest little duckling I've met in a long while."

Slake almost visibly puffed up with pride. "I like to think so." He stopped suddenly and looked at her. "If you don't mind my asking, what's your rank?"

"Saber Student."

He frowned. "Then why aren't you at practice with your mentor right now? This is the usual time for that."

She looked down, allowing her hair to cover most of her face, not just her left eye. "I...don't have a mentor."

He frowned again.

"How old are you?" he asked, not realizing how rude he was being. She didn't seem to take offense at the question, though.

"Twenty-five."

"How long have you been in the Brotherhood?"

"Not long. Just...maybe..." She paused to do some mental calculations. "A month. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less."

"Still, long enough to be apprenticed."

"Well, I do know a few of the older members, but most of them already have apprentices, or aren't interested in having one. And...most of the older members wouldn't be interested in apprenticing me anyway."

"Why? You seem like you'd have the talent."

She looked at her clasped hand. "Raptrin and anything related to them isn't something that most of the older members who remember Falcone want anything to do with. The fact that I'm nothing like my--I mean, him, makes no difference to most of them."

"That's ridiculous! I've known some fine Raptrins, it hardly seems fair to catalog you all by him!"

"Well, I'm glad someone thinks so. That's not the very popular opinion."

"I have heard of you, though, and most of it's been good. How do you explain that?"

She shrugged. "Most of the younger members are perfectly open; it's mostly some of the older members--the ones who remember Falcone and knew him personally--who aren't too happy with my being here."

"Ah." He sat back and regarded her for a moment. "Ah."

"You already said that," she pointed out dryly.

He chose not to answer that. It appears that everything I've heard about her tongue is true, at least. I wonder...

Estelle sat back as well, wrapped up in her own thoughts as she watched the man in front of her carefully. She was tall, but he appeared to be an inch or so taller. He couldn't have been much older than she was, though he appeared old enough to take an apprentice. But since I'm old for my rank, and if he was young for his rank...it could work. She took in his rusty brown feathers and hair, the faint scar along the right side of his face, and dark brown eyes. Nice. Very nice. Whoever his wife was, I hope she deserved him. She was very curious as to what had happened, but instinctively knew that it wouldn't be right to ask.

"Daddy!" Rain bounded back into the room and jumped onto her father's lap. He caught her quickly and picked her up, setting her down so she was sitting on his knee. "Can 'Stelle come eat with us?"

"Well, I suppose that depends on her. Would you care to join us for dinner, Estelle?"

"Daddy!" Rain put her hands on her hips and glared at him. "You forgot to say please. Good manners are very important, remember?"

"Please," Slake added with a touch of amusement. The girl nodded as if to say 'That's better' and turned to her new friend.

"Well," Estelle smiled, considering. Ah, the lore could wait. "Certainly, I would love too."

"Yay!" Rain jumped up and ran to the door, hopping from one foot to another as she waited for the adults to get moving.

"Ah, the enthusiasm of youth," Slake sighed as he got to his feet and offered Estelle a hand up.

"Rain," he called, as the child darted out of the door. She reappeared, still impatient. "Stay with us, honey, you've done enough running off for one day." Rain sighed and grabbed his hand.

"Then come on," she said, tugging at him. Slake let himself be dragged out the door, and Estelle followed, grinning.

*****

The proud couple stood together, their arms around each other, looking down into the nest of soft cloth they had made in the bassinet. The newborn duckling sighed in her sleep, and Sienna reached down to touch her sweet daughter tenderly.

"I'm so proud of you," Slake whispered in her ear. Sienna smiled and snuggled against him.

"I love you," she sighed. Slake smiled. He never tired of hearing that. The smile faded as he looked back down at their firstborn.

"What?" Sienna looked up at him, concerned.

"Do you want me to stop thieving?" he asked her seriously, turning her to look at him. "For the sake of our friendship, especially if your father asks him as well, I think Duke would let me take a sort of quasi-retirement, only going out when he really needs my help."

Sienna stared at him. "Are you serious?"

"Yes," Slake said resolutely. "Sienna, there is nothing in the world I love more than you and this baby. I don't kid myself, Sienna, what I do is very dangerous. If I get caught, or worse--"

"Then this baby will still have one parent who loves it very much, and it will grow up hearing about its brave, wonderful father who died doing his duty as a Brotherhood thief. I knew the risks when I married you, Slake, and it wouldn't be fair to ask you to give up your life now. My father's a thief too, remember? I know what it's like to grow up knowing your father may not come home again--but I also knew that if I tried to take that away from him, it would be taking away part of what made him who he was." She traced the end of his beak with a fingertip. "I love you, Slake, and as horrible as it would be for this child to lose you, I think it would be even worse to keep her from knowing you. All of you."

Slake looked down at his wife, speechless. A slow smile spread over his face and he tightened his arms around her, pulling her close. She hugged him back and yelped when he picked her up, laughing as he tossed her over his shoulder to carry her off, ignoring her half-hearted protests.

Slake watched his daughter as she chattered cheerfully at Estelle. Things change, he thought to himself. Who will be there now, if anything happens to me? The Solaris family is all gone, I'm all she's got. Maybe it's time I took an apprentice and faded away quietly.

"Estelle," he set down his fork. The Raptrin looked up from her discussion about the horrors of peas with Rain. "I may know someone interested in apprenticing you. Can you be in the practice hall tomorrow?"

Estelle blinked, surprised but thrilled. "Of-of course! Thank you, sir!"

He didn't smile, but instead raised his eyebrows. "Just Slake, Estelle. Just Slake."

"Well...all right. And thank you again!"

"Don't thank me until we know if it works out."

We? she wondered. Could he want to apprentice me? She turned back to Rain to hide the confusion that she was afraid showed on her face as her thoughts continued to run in circles. He's so serious. He only seems to smile for Rain, no one else. I wonder why. What happened? I suppose I'll find out, because if he does apprentice me--and if I'm not jumping the gun by assuming so--we'll have to know each other's pasts. And that means... He'll have to know about Ernest! Oh, no. He'll never want to apprentice me when he finds out! He may have said he doesn't judge all Raptrin by him, but when it hits home...he must have known Ernest personally, he's undoubtedly been in the Brotherhood long enough to have. How will he feel when he knows.... She continued to smile and chat, but inside doubts and fears began to attack her.

Estelle showed up at the practice room promptly on time, feeling more nervous than she would have admitted. She tossed her activated saber from hand to hand anxiously, betraying the stolid look she'd fixed on her face. "You're here on time. Excellent."

She jumped at the voice behind her and whirled, then brought the cool exterior back up again when she saw that it was only Slake. "I try to be punctual," she returned calmly, feeling her heart stop racing.

"Good." He took a deep breath, as if trying to decide how best to say what was on his mind. "Estelle, I'm going to be blunt here. If anything were to happen to me, Rain would have no one to look after her. That can't happen. It's time for me take an apprentice and step into the background. And, frankly, I want to see if you're what I'm looking for. She nodded and half-bowed.

"I shall try."

"Good. Now, as you probably know, there's usually a 'trial period' before an apprentice is taken on formally. I'd like to start that period today. And start it..." He activated his saber. "With a spar to test what talents you already have."

"As you wish." She adjusted her hold on her own saber and tensed, though how much was from defense and how much from nervousness would have been impossible to tell, even if Slake had been looking for it. Her face was nearly emotionless, and she strove to keep it that way, even though she felt sick with fear, doubt, and nervousness.

The spar went far better than she had expected and he paid her a compliment, though, granted, a small one, on how much of swordplay she'd picked up on her own. Most people wouldn't even have noticed the praise, but she wasn't used to it and picked up on it quickly, sensing that for him to compliment anyone or anything beyond his daughter was rare now, however it might have been before.

As soon as she was free to go, she fled the scene, barely hearing and acknowledging his request for her to meet him there the next day. Far too worried to study her lore, she huddled fretfully in her room for most of the rest of the day.

*****

Estelle stood at the edge of the mess hall, balancing her tray on one hand and trying not to look as nervous as she felt. Trying to ignore the glares she was receiving, she looked around for an empty seat, preferably one she could sit in without being stabbed in the back. Finally she spotted some familiar faces and was beginning to walk toward them when she realized they were not alone. Nylessa, Jedar--BIG surprise--Lyric, Sparky....Duke, Leila, Nosedive. Oh, NO! She swallowed hard before forcing her expression into neutrality. I'll just sit with Milantha and... A quick scan of the room revealed they weren't there. I swear, she and Iliana will rot in that precious library of theirs some day. Maybe I'll take them something after I'm done eating.

She finally spotted an empty table in the back, near the door as well. Perfect. Now...to get by them. Their table would have to be directly in my path, wouldn't it? Ah, well. They won't notice you unless you make yourself noticeable. If you haven't learned that by now, you've learned nothing. She let her hair fall on both sides of her face and held her tray in both hands, keeping a low profile as she slid past their table, hoping they wouldn't recognize her. Even though she wanted to run, she knew that a quickly moving target would attract more attention slowly moving one, so she held her breath and glided past. They were too involved in their conversation to even glance up.

Lucky stars, let my luck hold.

Obstacle number one was past, but that left her with an even more challenging one: the way to her chosen table led directly between the tables of some of her greatest enemies and most out-spoken opponents. The ones she fully expected would deliver her a knife in the back one day.

Estelle swallowed hard and straightened up, flipping her hair over her shoulder and balancing her tray on one hand, swaggering past them with her usual show of self-confidence. Even as she walked by, she heard the happy conversation die to evil murmuring. She felt glares burning into her and tried not to hear the bitter whispers that drifted over to her, perhaps purposely. "Look at her. Scum, just like Falcone."

"She couldn't steal candy from a duckling."

"She thinks she can pull it off here? I wonder what deSilver was thinking, not executing her on the spot for that stunt she pulled at that festival."

"We could do the job for her...."

Estelle shivered inside, but kept her face neutral. She held her head high, occasionally nodding to them. Unfortunately, she didn't see the foot that was stuck out in front of her until it was too late. She stumbled forward and almost dropped her food, but with a skill that could only have come from practice she redistributed her balance and shuffled her feet into place as she moved her arm around to catch the tray as it fell. Back in perfect balance, she pivoted on her heel and swept the entire table with a sweeping glare. "I must take care not to be so clumsy next time," she hissed threateningly, implying that if there was a next time, she wouldn't be content to just warn them off. Having made her point, she continued on her way, pretending that the experience hadn't ruffled her, for the benefit of anyone who might have been watching.

Finally reaching her table, she took a seat on the far end, tucked so far in the corner one would have almost needed radar to find her. Which was just the way she wanted it.

"Finally," she muttered, unloading her tray and settling back for a well-deserved repast. She didn't even notice when two familiar figures entered the door, and the smaller one spotted her.

"'STEEEEELLLLLLLLE!"

Estelle barely had time to turn around in her seat before Rain latched onto her. "Well, hello there young one." She gathered the duckling into her lap and hugged her. "I was wondering when I'd see you again." She looked up at Slake and smiled. "Nice to see you again, Slake."

"Same to you. And it seems that Rain thinks the same way."

"So it would seem."

Rain turned imploring eyes to her father. "Daddy, can we sit here today, please?"

"Well...all right--"

"Slake! Over here!"

Slake glanced up and saw Duke waving him over. "We've got a seat left for you!"

"Coming!" Slake touched Rain's shoulder. "Come on, honey."

"But Daddy! You said we could sit here!"

Slake looked back and forth between his daughter and old friend. "Estelle, why don't you come with us?"

She visibly wilted. "Uh...uh...no, thank you, I...uh..." He raised his eyebrows, surprised that she suddenly became so stammery.

"Come on, 'Stelle, pleeeease?"

Estelle blinked, then sighed. "All right, Rainy, I--" Duke strode up to them.

"Slake, you avoiding us or something?" he grinned.

"Uncle Duke!" Rain bounded off Estelle's lap and latched onto his leg. He chuckled and patted her head

"Well, comin' Slake?" He slapped his old friend on the back, then suddenly caught sight of Estelle, who'd been trying her best to turn invisible. "Well, Estelle, didn't see you. Why don't you come with us?"

"I..." Her eyes shifted back and forth, searching for a way out. "I...was...just finishing!" She hastily piled her trash on her tray and stood, then paused. "Uh...permission to be excused, sir?" she asked, balancing her train on one hand and saluting with the other.

He blinked, a little surprised her skittish, over-formal attitude. "I--"

Nylessa chose that moment to show up. "'Stelle! Why didn't you come over with us?!"

"I didn't see you," Estelle lied quickly.

"Don't see how you couldn't have..." Nylessa surveyed her carefully, as if trying to decide if she was telling the truth or not. Finally she shrugged. "Well, come on then."

Before Estelle had a chance to protest, she was being propelled toward the very table she'd worked so hard to avoid. Perfect. Just perfect. She found herself landed in between Nylessa and Nosedive, who she'd been trying to stay far away from. She shot dirty looks at Nylessa through her hair, mentally sending dire threats in her direction. She'd finished her meal, but since she'd tried so hard not to come, she knew that she'd have to stay until someone else left. Nearly everyone had finished their meals, as well, but were too busy talking to leave. She nervously clasped and unclasped her hands in her lap, mentally cursing both the rules of etiquette that bound her to the table until someone else made the first move, and those who were talking non-stop. You see these people every day, how can you have this much to say now?! Extreme shyness overtaking her, she sat with Rain in her lap, looking mostly at the table and saying little or nothing, speaking only when spoken to. She watched the table through her veil of hair, monitoring the conversation carefully.

"Hey Slake," Duke grinned, "It's been too long, whaddaya say we go pull a heist like this town forgot existed? Just like the old days, you know?"

"I don't think so Duke, thanks." Slake's smile was plainly forced.

"What?" Duke nearly choked on his food. "Aw, c'mon Slake, you never turn down a good heist!"

"Never say never," Slake responded, a slight edge in his voice. Rain shrank against Estelle slightly. She stiffened and held the girl a little tighter. Duke was obviously pushing Slake's limits, though how she couldn't tell. A thief that doesn't want to steal? What sort of strangeness is this? It must have something to do with Rain. Duke seems to know what he's doing...so why is he doing it?

Duke studied his friend closely, frowning. "It can't still be her," he said finally. "It's been two years, Slake."

"I'm not one to shirk responsibility so easily," Slake said, his voice low and dangerous. Duke's face hardened at the indirect barb.

"Sienna is dead, Slake, you have to accept it and get on with your life." Rain made a small noise and hid her face in Estelle's shoulder. Estelle held her and stroked her hair, glancing nervously back and forth between the two.

"I have accepted it," Slake growled. "You are upsetting my daughter, Duke."

"Looks like Rain's moved on," Duke's grin was cold. "Looks to me like she's on the market for a new mommy. Whaddaya say Estelle, think maybe you can--" He tensed as Slake shot to his feet. Slake's face was expressionless. Thinking he was going to leave, Estelle took the chance at escape, standing up with Rain in her arms. And stepped back involuntarily as Slake walked calmly around the edge of the table. Duke tensed, but before he could do more, Slake jerked him up by his collar and slammed him against the wall, one hand pinning him by the throat and the other gripping his activated saber. The point of the black steel was against the former leader's chest.

Everyone around Estelle jumped to their feet. The cafeteria was near silent, allowing Leila's startled curses to be heard clearly. Estelle hastily covered Rain's ears as best she could without dropping the child. The little girl's grey eyes were wide, staring at the sabers Nylessa and Leila had activated on instinct. Estelle tried to whisper calm words, holding Rain tightly.

"If you ever suggest something like that again," Slake snarled, "I'll carve your heart out and bury it with her. Maybe then you'll understand how I feel! I have only one thing left to live for in this world, Duke, and you are very seriously mistaken if you think I won't see her taken care of!" Leila raised her sword as Slake's voice elevated. No one was sure how far Slake would let this go.

"Slake, please..." Estelle stepped in, hurriedly, as she began to feel silent tears on her feathers. Rain had hidden her eyes in the woman's neck, frightened. "He's your friend," she said softly. Slake stared into Duke's eyes a moment longer, then slowly released him, deactivating his sword and replacing it on his belt.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

"Yeah, so am I," Duke rubbed his neck ruefully. "I shouldn't have pushed you, Slake, I know how much she meant to you. I just hate to see you go out like this, you know?"

Slake nodded and turned. He walked out of the mess hall, and the hum of conversation gradually rose up behind him. "Uh, excuse me, please." Estelle bowed as best she could with the child in her arms. "I believe he forgot something." She followed Slake's exit, trying not to look too rushed. She found Slake just outside the mess hall door, standing against the wall. His eyes were sad and brooding. She approached him carefully, not sure what to do. Rain sniffled. He turned to them immediately. "I'm sorry, honey, I didn't mean to scare you." He held out his arms, and Rain leaned into them. Estelle let him take her, feeling she should leave, but unsure of herself. Rain put her arms around her father's neck.

"Am I going to have a new mommy?" she asked forlornly. Slake raised his eyebrows.

"Do you want one?" he asked softly.

"I want my real mommy back," she said, burying her face in his neck.

"So do I, baby," Slake sighed. "So do I." He looked to Estelle, still holding tight to Rain. "I'm sorry you had to see that," he said, "In fact, I'm sorry that half the Brotherhood had to witness such an appalling lack of control."

"Everyone loses control sometimes. In fact...sometimes, in the right circumstances, it can almost be good for you." She spoke sadly, as if from personal experience. "Everyone needs someone to vent to." She rested a hand on his shoulder, looking straight into his eyes. "If you ever want to talk, I want to hear it." She gave Rain a hug. "Talk to you soon, young one. You too, Slake." She gave him a formal bow and walked away before either had a chance to respond.

Estelle stood once more in the doorway of the mess hall, wondering if it was cursed. If anything ever happened, it happened either here or in the practice room. Logic told her that this was simply because the most members gathered there, and where there were a lot of people, a lot of things would happen.

She was in no mood to listen to logic. The past few days had been strenuous, to say the very least. The subject of Slake weighed constantly on her mind, never giving her a moment's rest. Everytime she thought of him--and nearly everything started a thought process that ended up there--she would think about having to eventually tell him about her brother, and what he would think, how he would react.

I really shouldn't lead him on, I should tell him flat out. That way he'll know right up front instead of wasting training time on me when he could be looking for an apprentice that might work. But how can I tell him?

She barely noticed what food she picked up from the line, hardly realized where she was walking, wrapped up in her own thoughts. One comment she overheard from a table she passed managed to penetrate the thick fog surrounding her brain: "What's wrong with the Raptrin? She's been sulking around like someone dulled her saber on her tailfeathers all week!" She ignored the remark and moved on. Right into the straw that broke her back.

Quite a few ducks, both friends and otherwise, were watching her, and everyone saw it when someone stuck a foot directly in her path. She fell hard on her hands and knees, her tray (and the food on it) flying everywhere. Several of her friends from the surrounding tables jumped up to her defense, but she beat them to it. She slowly picked herself up off the floor and glared into her offender's eyes. "Excuse me," she hissed dangerously. "But I do believe your foot was in my way!" Her saber flashed. "And I BELIEVE you owe me an apology for it!"

He met her gaze coolly.

"I suppose you're going to blame your clumsiness on me? You Raptrin, you're all alike. You always blame your troubles on everyone else, never take responsibility! It's never your fault, is it? No, it's always someone else's! You never did a thing wrong in your life, of course not! If you don't have the intelligence to walk in a straight line, then I tripped you! If you don't have the coordination to carry a tray even in both hands, must less showing off like some sort of waitress, then someone else must be to blame! You're just a female Falcone all right, you carry your brains in your--"

Most of the rest of the ducks in the mess hall hadn't heard the comment, and almost none of them heard the end, but they all heard the enraged scream and the terrified shout as the Blade Brother jumped up and ran for his life, a murderously furious Estelle at his heels, brandishing her saber. "I'LL KILL YOU!" she screamed. "I'LL KILL YOU! I SWEAR BY THE DUCAINE I'LL KILL YOU!"

Nearly everyone in the mess hall jumped up and watched as she chased him completely around the room, jumping over tables and knocking chairs out of her way, plowing through any obstacles he tried to put in her way. He raced through the door, elbowing through the group who was just coming in. Estelle followed at right behind him, shoving through the crowd without a thought beyond the hunt. She caught up with the Blade Brother suddenly, grabbing him by the back of his collar and slamming him against the wall. She picked him up by the shirt and slammed him against the wall again, holding him above the ground with her saber pricking his neck, a tiny trickle of blood running from the cut she was tracing along his jugular.

"I've caught you," she hissed in satisfaction, her eyes narrowed at the prospect. "You played a game with me, and guess what? Game over. You loose. You have insulted me and all that I stand for for the last time. You will learn respect if I have to drive it into you myself. You. Will. LEARN!" She raised her saber, only to have her hand stopped.

"Is there a problem here?" a cold voice asked from behind her.

"Nothing at all, just about to teach this arrogant fool a little res...pect....." She glanced over her shoulder and nearly fainted. The group that she'd chased him through, elbowed so carelessly through.....She found herself looking into Slake's eyes, with the impression of nearly everyone she knew well behind him.

"Slake..." she whispered. "No...." He can't see this! Oh, duCaine, NO!

"Put him down, Estelle," Leila ordered.

"Yes, ma'am." She stepped back and dropped him on the floor, turning toward them again and sheathing her saber, not bothering to deactivate it. The Blade Brother jumped up and fled without stopping to gather the remaining shards of his dignity. Estelle glanced after him, revenge no longer uppermost in her mind. Now that the bloodlust had faded from her eyes, she realized how rashly she had acted, and how wrongly...and dishonorably.

She felt sick. She wondered if she would die in front of them from sheer humiliation.

"Stormcrow," Slake told her icily, "we shall discuss this later. I'll expect to see you in my quarters after lunch."

"Yes, sir," she managed. I will NOT cry, I will NOT beg, I will NOT do anything stupid--anything else stupid, at least.

"You're dismissed. For now."

"Yes, sir," she whispered again, then saluted, bowed, and fled.

Though first instinct told her to go to her bunk, she knew that was where anyone who wished to speak to her would look for her. And right then, she didn't want to see or talk to anyone. So she ran to someplace she knew she could think quietly in.

The door to the Lore Room was largely unfamiliar to her. She was usually quite busy enough with the required lore to be memorized for her rank, it was rare for her to go looking for more. Usually the only reason she came down was to do some research--when she absolutely, positively, no-way-out-of-it had to--or to see Milantha. The two were nearly inseparable now, and despite their busy and often conflicting schedules they spent most of their limited free time together.

This time Estelle knew Milantha would not be there.

And that was precisely how she wanted it.

She took a deep breath and looked around at the dusty shelves, wishing for a moment she were more acquainted with the rich, leather-bound books on them. Milantha often said--

The thought of her friend and how happily apprenticed she was sent a fresh knife through Estelle's heart, and she swallowed hard.

"If you're looking for Milantha, she is not here."

Estelle jumped a mile at the sound of the soft voice behind her. "Oh! Iliana! I wasn't looking for Milantha."

"Oh? Then why did you come down here?" Iliana asked, raising an eyebrow. The young Raptrin had many fine qualities, but she knew that a love for history was not among them.

"I...was...just looking for something to read," Estelle managed hastily.

"Oh. May I show you some--"

"No! I mean...no, thank you, Iliana. I'll just....browse." She managed a shaky half-bow before disappearing. She threaded her way through the shelves into the very far back corner of the literature room, the very darkest section she could find. Sitting down in a reading chair, she drew her knees up to her chest and buried her face in her arms, blinking back the moistness she felt in her eyes. I didn't cry when mum and dad died. I didn't cry when I found out about Ernest. I didn't cry when he beat me up. I didn't cry when he left. And I will not cry now!

She fought the feelings that twisted inside her, fighting for a control she had long since lost. Pull yourself together, Stormcrow! That's an order! She wasn't able to call up even a shred of mastery over her emotions. Why, why, why did this have to happen?

She instinctively felt a presence coming toward her, but made no move to acknowledge whoever it was. If they hadn't noticed her yet, she was in no hurry to call attention to herself; and if they were coming toward
her, maybe ignoring them would discourage them enough to make them leave her alone.

"Estelle? Child, what's wrong?" Iliana asked gently, coming out of the shadows and resting a hand on her arm.

She made a valiant attempt to pull herself together. "N-n-nothing..."

"Now, now, child..." Iliana sat next to her. "I can see that you're upset. Tell me, child, it can only help you."

Somehow, the dam broke, and the quivering Raptrin laid her head on the older woman's shoulder, even though she still refused to release her tears. "Oh, Iliana! I've done something terrible!" She somehow managed to get out what she'd done, leaving the crowning insult the Blade Brother had paid her out.

"I see...I see...Is there anything else he said?"

"He...he said that I was just a female Falcone and that I carried my brains in my--" She stopped abruptly and flushed. "Well, it's nothing a lady would care either to repeat or to hear."

"I see." Iliana tightened her grip slightly in anger, but kept it carefully hidden. "So you attacked him."

"I didn't mean to! I would never have, I was just so upset about...." Her voice trailed off as she realized that she'd said more than she'd meant to.

"About what?"

"Just...just....just things that have been troubling me," she managed lamely, too exhausted to make even an attempt at a convincing lie.

"What things?"

"Just... apprenticeship..."

"Slake Roguefeather's taking you on, isn't he?"

"He--maybe. Probably not, now. I haven't told him my history yet....and that should take care of it."

"Why?"

Estelle looked up sharply. "Iliana...how much do you know about me? What do you know about my past?"

"Enough, child, but perhaps you think there is something I do not know, that you wish to enlightenment me about?"

"Just...I...it doesn't matter, now. I might as well tell you." She sighed heavily, then gave Iliana the entire story, from beginning to end. "I don't know how to tell Slake. I wish I had to begin with. He would have known what he was getting into, and could have spent all this time trying to find an apprentice that would actually work."

"You think that because of your...relations...you won't?" Iliana asked mildly. Estelle laughed bitterly.

"Why would he want a freakish-looking orphan with a traitor for a brother?"

"Estelle! Child, I never wish to hear you speak of yourself this way again! Come now, it's time you made this right."

"H-how?"

"First, you must go to Slake and apologize for what happened, and you must tell him about your brother. It's the only honorable thing to do. Then you must seek out the Blade Brother who offended you and apologize to him."

"BUT--"

"But nothing, child. He did wrong, but you must not allow his wrong to justify yours. To do so would be highly dishonorable."

Estelle looked at her clasped hands. "You're right, Loremaster, you're right....And I see that now.: She stood up, brushing her disheveled hair back. "I'll go now."

"Are you sure you'll be all right, child?"

"Yes, Lady Iliana. Thank you. Thank you." Estelle bowed and was gone. The clarity the situation had taken on in the library seemed to disappear as she stood in front of Slake's quarters, trying to nerve herself up to knock. "It's the only honorable thing to do," she reminded herself before lightly rapping at the door.

"Come on," a gruff voice called. She opened the door and walked slowly in, keeping her eyes on the floor.

"Slake...."

"Would you like to give me an explanation of earlier?" he demanded bluntly.

"Yes, Roguefeather, sir. There is...much I must give you an explanation of."

"Then sit down and give it to me. Rain's with a friend, she won't overheard anything. Now, begin."

"Well, sir, if I may.....I'd like to explain something else first. Maybe that would explain a little more of my reaction." She blinked hard, reminded herself firmly that crying was for the weak, and told him the whole story. He was speechless by the time she finished, and she kept her head down, staring at her hands. "I-I'm sorry I never told you. I...I was afraid of what you'd think. I'm nothing like him, I swear!"

Slake sat back in his chair, frowning. He studied his reactions. Shock, surprise...yeah, there was a little anger there too. And a little apprehension. Shock, surprise, those were to be expected. Anger, well, she'd deliberately kept this from him. Apprehesion. That was...

That was Falcone. Slake had never liked him, found him completely insufferable in fact, even before he turned traitor. Something about him just oozed slime. They'd been raised in the same family, under the same conditions, how could she help but be just a little bit like him--

That's not fair, Slake thought immediately. They may have similar backgrounds, but they made very different choices. He stood up.

"Come with me, Estelle."

Estelle followed him, mentally frantic but determined to show as little of it as possible. She didn't realize where they were going until he stopped. Estelle's stomach tightened suddenly as she realized he'd led her into the bedroom.

He wasn't even paying attention to her, though. He motioned to a painting hanging on the wall across from his bed. Estelle looked at it, and forgot all about where she was.

It was a portrait young woman with laughing eyes and thick, red-brown hair that fell to her waist, flowing wildly around her face. Her smile was at once teasing and loving. She wore a plain brown wrap-around dress.

"I asked Sienna to do this for me," Slake told her. "It's a self-portrait. One of the things I managed to salvage from the old base. I couldn't believe it survived. One of those little unexplained mercies, I suppose."

"She's beautiful," Estelle said quietly, not sure where this was going.

"Yes," Slake replied. "She was. And I loved her. I still do. That's what Duke was talking about. General opinion was--and perhaps still is--that I could have been one of the greatest thieves in the Brotherhood if it hadn't been for her." He sighed. "Personally, I think it was worth the sacrifice, even for only a few years."

Estelle said nothing. A surreptitious glance around revealed that the room was full of holos of the happy couple, as teenagers, as newly-weds, as proud parents...

"Rain looks more like me than her, although she has her mother's hair and her grandfather's eyes." Slake allowed a rare smile. "She would have liked you."

Estelle straightened, aware of the compliment she'd just been paid.

"She couldn't stand Falcone. Frankly, neither could I." Estelle wilted. "But you aren't Falcone. He made his choices, and you made yours. I, at least, won't punish you for his decisions. There's no reason you should be punished." Estelle's eyes widened. He can't be--he couldn't forgive me for this-- "Everyone has their little buttons," Slake sighed, turning away from the painting and motioning her out of the room. "I know that better than anyone. I let Duke push them the other night. So I guess that's just something we'll have to work on together, hmm?"

"Yes sir!" Estelle managed to cry, bowing.

"Just Slake, Estelle. Just Slake." His face went stern for a moment. "However, I would appreciate it if you would not keep such things secret in the future."

"Yes, Slake," Estelle smiled.

"All right then. You can go."

She smiled again, and, allowing impulsiveness to show through for once, gave him a hug before turning and running for the door. She skidded to a halt, bowed and saluted, then ran again.

"Where you going?" he called after her, surprised.

"To see..."

Her answer was lost as she galloped down the hall, but it didn't take much imagination to place a name there. He allowed himself another rare smile and went back to this bedroom to stare at the pictures of Sienna. "You would have liked her, Sienna. She's so much like you." He reached out to touch the picture of them on their wedding day. "And maybe she's right. We all deserve another chance."

 

Return to the Library...