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So it Goes

By Brasscat

 

In every heart there is a room
A sanctuary safe and strong
To heal the wounds from lovers past
Until a new one comes along

Crashing alarms.

Leila jerked upright in shock, temporarily forgetting about the broken glass case and the golden mask in front of her. "What the- ow!" Her left wrist hit the broken glass a little too hard and a nasty gash opened up immediately, the jagged edge of glass cutting through the skin of her wrist - just above her thumb - as smoothly as if it were warm butter. She hissed in pain and grabbed the cut wrist to her chest, letting her dark clothing soak up the blood oozing from it. It started to sting almost immediately.

A figure ran in from a side door and Leila actually went for her saber before she recognised him.

"Duke! What happened?"

"It's not my fault!" he yelled over the howling alarm.

Leila swore quietly and grabbed the mask with her good hand, keeping the other pressed to her chest. Slipping the treasure into her backpack, she then pulled a thick, rubbery cloth out and wrapped it around the jagged edge of the glass she'd cut herself on. In a matter of seconds, any trace of blood that may have been left there was soaked up.

Duke leaned over her shoulder and pulled two clunky gold necklaces from the case, stuffing them into an already bulging leather pouch at his waist. With that done, he grabbed her by the arm. "That's all, we gotta go!"

"I don't believe this!" Leila growled, but let him haul her to her feet and toward the window - and the neat hole cut into the glass there.

"I'll explain outside, sweetheart." Leaning out the hole, Duke fired his grappling hook at the building beside the East Metro Museum. It caught first try, and Leila automatically wrapped her arms around his shoulders and held on tight as he swung them both across. The piercing alarms faded a little with distance, only to be replaced by the faraway wail of police sirens.

Of course, by the time the police reached the East Metro Museum, the two thieves had slipped far into the night.

*****

It wasn't until they were both in Leila's car and leaving the boundaries of duCaine Metro that they both felt relaxed enough to speak.

"What went wrong?" Leila demanded, trying not to sound accusing but not succeeding too well.

"Well..." Duke looked to the roof of the car as if carefully considering his answer. "This." With a flourish, he pulled a dainty silver-and-gold tiara from his hip pouch.

Leila was rendered utterly speechless.

He grinned. "I know we decided not ta go fer it this time, but I thought-"

"L'Orange, that was REALLY stupid!"

Taken aback, Duke frowned. "Look, I know it wasn't part o' the plan fer this heist, but I figured-"

Again she didn't allow him to finish. "We TALKED about this! That damn thing was so heaped in security it deserved it's own heist; damn it, it was a HUGE risk!" She didn't want to admit it to herself, but part of her anger was from fear - for him. Duke was a good friend, and she didn't need to add another friend lost to her list. "What if ya'd triggered the Door?"

They both knew what she was talking about. The tiara he was holding was said to have belonged to some descendant of Drake duCaine - the name temporarily escaped Leila - and for that reason alone its worth exceeded anything else in the entire museum at the time. The East Metro Museum had had trouble from the Brotherhood before. To safeguard this particular treasure they'd installed an elaborate security system, a feature of which was a door that slammed down if any tampering with the Tiara's display case was detected, locking the unfortunate thief inside the small room with his hard-won treasure. Once closed, the heavy, saber-proof, bulletproof door was impossible to open without both a key and a code belonging to two separate museum officials. The police could wander along and collect their trapped thief at their leisure. It was essentially a giant rat trap, baited with the most valuable bait imaginable.

And at the time, it was every thief's El Dorado. The very fact that the East Metro museum had gone to such lengths to guard it was practically an invitation, a dare.

But the Brotherhood thieves knew better. No heist was impossible, but some took a lot of planning before they could work. Leila had been toying with the idea of taking a small team and going for the Tiara before the year was out, before the year was out! Not before the month was out! To just saunter on in there counting on a combination of skill and luck to avoid the traps, with no actual planning... it was madness.

Leila could have killed him.

Duke gave her a reproachful look from under his eyebrows, and held the Tiara out to her. She ignored him, keeping her eyes on the road.

"Hey, I got it, didn't I? Lei, they're gonna love us fer this around the Lair. Heck, it'll be all over the papers too!"

"I know," she said darkly.

Duke grinned and tucked the tiara back in his pouch. "Lighten up, sweetheart. A little publicity never hurt anyone."

"Oh yeah? An' what if ya'd got caught? Hell, we nearly WERE caught!"

"Key word bein' NEARLY."

"No, key word bein' CAUGHT."

Duke sighed. "Look, I'm sorry, okay? He glanced across at her with some resentment. "I hate ta see how ya react when a heist is unsuccessful..."

Still staring ahead at the sleety road, Leila caught herself before she opened her mouth, and silently calmed down. They were safe. Nobody had been caught. And it was a fantastic result for what had been planned as a small heist.

She squashed a niggling resentment that it was he, not she, who'd snagged the Tiara. No doubt if I'd tried fer it wit'out plannin' ahead o' time, I woulda been caught.

"Yer a lucky bastard, L'Orange," she finally said with resignation, and he grinned.

*****

I spoke to you in cautious tones
You answered me with no pretense
And still I feel I said too much
My silence is my self defense

Alcohol flowed freely the next day in the Lair, and every Holo-V in the place was switched on, every ear to the news. The moment that the first broadcast concerning the robbery came on (and it was headline news), a raucous cheer echoed through the halls. The Tiara was passed from hand to hand that night in the Mess Hall, and Duke was quite sure his back would be black and blue the next day from the amount of hearty slaps it was getting. By that stage, of course, he was too drunk to care.

Leila was a little more reserved; it hadn't been her who'd pulled it off and she didn't feel right about accepting any congratulations that were sent her way. A little tipsy herself by the time night fell, she announced that she was "an innocent bystander", and didn't say any more on the matter. Instead she sat nursing a beer and her left wrist, which in Tarrin's view had not needed a bandage; just a couple of butterfly bandages to hold the cut closed.

Slake had left earlier in the night with Rain and Zakiya - accompanied by Leila's grateful thanks and sincere promises to return the favour. She didn't want to leave Zaki alone in her room, but a communal booze-up was no place for a little girl. For her part, Zakiya was delighted to be spending more time with Rain, and even with Slake. With the sudden clarity of drunkenness, Leila wondered if Zakiya was looking for a male role model.

Fat chance she'd get a full-time one the way Leila was going. She sighed and swilled the warmish bottle in her hands, thinking that she was far too honest with herself when she was drunk, and feeling suddenly distant and closed-off from the celebrations. She pictured a giant bubble around her, cutting her off from the others, dimming the noise of the celebration. Safe. Lonely.

Leila shook her head slowly. I gotta stop thinkin' like this. She put the near-empty drink down on the table with a finality that made it clear to herself and anyone who might have been watching that she wasn't going to pick it up again.

Hopefully scanning the room for Nylessa, she saw the redhead perched cheerfully in the lap of some young man whom Leila barely knew.

"Screw it," she muttered, and stood to leave. At that moment, Duke threw himself down in the seat next to hers.

"Hell of a party, huh?"

"Yeah." She pushed her chair into the table and turned to leave.

Duke's tipsy good cheer evaporated, and he looked up at her in concern. "You okay, Lei?"

Leila hesitated and glanced back at him. "Just tired, I'm fine. I'm all partied out." She smiled, not wanting to worry him.

"Hmm. Can I walk ya to yer room?"

"Feel free," Leila said a little guardedly.

"Good, it's my pleasure." He stood and made as if to take her arm, and she casually turned away and started walking, pretending she hadn't noticed the gesture. Duke gave a mental shrug - he was rather used to her knock-backs by now. Perhaps too used to them. He was becoming complacent.

Determined not to let her stubbornness get the better of him, he decided to speed up his efforts to wear her down. Starting now.

"Say Lei... You interested in goin' out fer dinner tomorrow? Maybe we could have a celebration of our own. A quieter one..."

She looked wearily at him as they left the din of the Mess Hall together. "I promised myself I wouldn't ask this, but I must be drunk, because I'm gonna ask it anyhow. Why have ya been doin' this lately?"

"Doing what?" he asked with as much innocence as he could muster.

With a small sigh, she kept her gaze to the floor, watching where her feet fell carefully, not quite trusting her sense of balance. "We talked about this a long time ago, remember? We agreed that we'd be friends. That's all."

"YOU agreed."

"As I recall, ya didn't argue."

"Well, no. But ain't I entitled ta change my mind?"

That threw her, and she was too tipsy to come up with a good reply. "Change yer mind... why?" she finally asked stupidly.

They'd climbed the stairs and reached her door by now, but Leila didn't go in, just waited for his answer.

"I think it was a combination o' things," Duke said quietly, sounding more sober than a moment ago. "I like ya, Lei. Always did. Well... always did after those first couple 'o weeks, anyhow. The reason I didn't argue was I wasn't sure if I was actually attracted to ya."

She frowned, and didn't say anything.

"But then, that night in the bathroom-"

Leila felt herself flush red, angry and embarrassed and afraid all at once. "Nothing happened."

"I know. An' I gotta tell ya, I think that's a real pity..."

She wanted to say 'I don't', but the words wouldn't form.

"I care about ya, Lei."

"Don't..." she whispered.

"Can't help it."

Drunk talk, she thought. But when he wrapped his arms carefully around her as if she'd break and kissed her, she didn't resist. She fell into it, gave into it, melted into it. Groping for the doorbutton behind her, she depressed it with the palm of her hand and the door slid open, sending them both staggering back into her room, still locked together.

It was quick from there. So quick, in fact, that they started pulling at one another's clothes before they were halfway across the room. Almost five years of abstinence for each of them had abruptly taken its toll, and it was all either of them could do to remember to breathe between kisses.

Something niggled annoyingly at the edge of Leila's consciousness as she fell back onto her bed, pulling Duke with her, but she forced it away and closed her eyes. This was right, this had to be right, Leila never did anything that she didn't feel right about... His weight pushed her into the mattress and-

-FLASH-

...the scalding shower roared around her and she vowed silently to herself that she would never again let...

-FLASH-

Instinct grabbed her tight and Leila lashed out blindly in the dark, feeling the crack of contact between her fist and bone. There was a yell, a thud, and silence.

Reality ventured back cautiously, and Leila gasped. "Oh shit. Oh shit! Duke!" She scrambled blindly for the bedside lamp and slapped the switch, flooding the room with light. She poked her head almost timidly over the side of her bed to survey the damage.

Duke stared back up at her from where he was sitting on the floor, breathing hard and nursing the side of his face. "Gods, why can't ya just slap like a normal woman?!"

Openmouthed, Leila just stared at him for a second... and then started laughing. It was less from actual amusement than from shock, combined with the alcohol still in her system. She sat back and held her sides, laughing helplessly.

Nursing wounded pride and struggling to keep his temper in check, Duke stood, still clutching the side of his face. "Hilarious," he muttered.

"I'm so sorry," Leila gasped, and managed to stem the laughter still bubbling up in her.

"Why'd you do that?"

Duke sounded irate, though she could hardly blame him. Leila's heart missed a beat when she realised that she was alone in a compromising situation with a male who was now rather angry. But she trusted Duke... didn't she? "I didn't mean that," she said weakly. "I just meant ta stop ya."

"Yeah, well, it worked." Duke grabbed his shirt, and with simple finality, walked out. If the door had been the conventional type he probably would have slammed it, but as it was he had to settle for smacking his hand down on the doorbutton. The door slid gently shut behind him with an irritating lack of impact.

Leila was so stunned by this turn of events that she just sat stock still on the bed for a long moment, half of her expecting Duke to return. A few seconds passed.

"Oh, damn it!"

*****

"Duke, wait up!"

He stopped and glanced over his shoulder. "Oh, so one hit wasn't enough?" he said archly. "Ya want another piece a' me? Well, take a shot now because I ain't waitin' around fer you forever."

There was a double meaning to his words that rang painfully clear in the still air between them.

Leila scowled. "Yer an asshole."

"I'm an asshole? No offence, but ya don't see me punchin' people fer no reason."

"Hey, I had a reason! You just don't know what it is."

"Well I'd really appreciate the insight, y'know?" Duke still sounded testy.

"What you don't know can't hurt me," Leila said, her tone forcedly light.

But this time the double meaning was in her words, and Duke had a distinct feeling she wasn't kidding around in the least.

Before he could ponder the meaning of the cryptic sentance, Leila took his arm. "C'mon, yer bruised. We gotta do somethin' about yer face."

Duke pulled away. "This may surprise ya, but I don' particularly care fer the thought of explainin' this to Tarrin."

Leila's suddenly downcast eyes revealed that she hadn't thought of that. "Well, we gotta do somethin' about it or everyone wit' eyes is gonna be after an explanation tomorrow. Come wit' me to the storeroom." She headed for the stairs, automatically expecting him to simply follow. This time he did.

The storeroom had been built two months ago when the food needed at any one time for the number of members had exceeded the small storage space of the kitchen. It was located on D level, directly below the kitchen for convenience. With a help of a few of the handier Brotherhood members, Cutter had even managed to install a device like a mini-lift that could be used to transport food up from the storeroom with ease. Most of the perishable food was kept down here in the large freezers that lined the walls.

Leaving Duke sitting on the large tiled utensils cabinet in the middle of the room, Leila opened the stainless steel door marked "meat" and studied the contents. "I've heard a steak works well, but these are all frozen," she grumbled. Opting for the next door, she dug out a large bag of frozen peas and tossed it to Duke, who grudgingly put it to the side of his head, feeling foolish. Leila sat herself on the other edge of the cabinet. Duke looked sideways at her - she was fixedly studying the wall across the room - and sighed. He didn't think he'd deserved the punch, but if he was to be completely honest with himself he'd probably deserved something.

Nice goin', L'Orange, he said angrily to himself. Ya just completely blew away any chance ya possibly coulda had.

"Hey..." he heard himself say.

Leila looked up.

"I'm... uh..."

"Sorry?" Leila prompted.

"'Mad as all hell' was more along the lines o' what I was lookin' for, but that'll do," he said wryly.

Leila looked away again. "What're you apologisin' for?" she asked stiffly, studying their fuzzy reflections in the stainless steel. "You were right, yer not the one who did the hittin'."

"I'm apologisin' because I thought I was beyond takin' advantage of a drunken woman, even if I am very attracted to her. Turns out I'm not beyond it after all. But I should be."

Leila's cheeks were suddenly and visibly aflame. "Don't say things like that."

"What, don' tell the truth?"

"Yeah, why not? We're all good enough at lyin' here."

He leaned across the table earnestly, putting the bag of peas aside. "What makes ya think that this... that we couldn't work?"

"Past experience," she spat suddenly.

"You haven't given me the chance ta prove myself," Duke said mildly.

"I think ya proved to me who you are well an' truly, tonight."

Frustration started to get the better of him. "I did that because I didn't think there was any other way ta get through ta ya! I thought maybe if I could get close ta ya just once, even if ya WERE drunk, you'd loosen up a bit an' give me a real chance!"

Leila's expression had gradually gotten darker and darker as he spoke. "Let me get this straight," she began dangerously. "Ya basically thought if ya could TRICK me into sleepin' wit' you, I'd realise how foolish I'd been ta resist yer charms all this time an' just fall into yer arms?" Her voice was laced with sarcasm. "My gods. An' here I was thinkin' ya were conceited an' self-absorbed. How silly a' me."

"Ya never gave me a chance!" he ground out. "I KNOW it was stupid, but I saw an opportunity at the time an' I thought it was the only way! Ya never gave me a chance."

Leila exploded. "THERE IS NO LAW SAYIN' I NEED TA GIVE YOU A CHANCE!" The echoes of her voice riccoched off the metal and tiles around them. "Get it into yer head that if I say NO I mean NO, an' NO negotiation is ta be entered into! I don't OWE it ta you ta give you a 'chance'!" She was standing by now, hands balled in fists at her sides.

Duke stood and walked over to her. "No, ya don't," he agreed quietly. "Ya owe it to yerself."

Without warning, Leila's hand shot out and she delivered a ringing slap across Duke's face. "Stay outta my business," she hissed, before turning and walking away. At the door she stopped and turned back briefly, bitterly. "I hope that was 'normal' enough for ya."

*****

Back in her own room, Leila pulled her boots off and sat on the bed, feeling too hollow and worn out to even want to bother changing. Almost against her will she dragged herself over to her closet to look for a clean tracksuit when someone thumped insistently on her locked bedroom door.

"Who is it?"

"It's me." Duke's voice.

"Go away."

"I'm not goin' anywhere until ya open this door!"

"You must think I'm nuts!"

There was a telling silence from the door.

"Fine, I can wait in here forever!" Leila snapped childishly.

"Good, 'cos I can wait out HERE forever," Duke said through the door.

Leila climbed up onto her desk and started examining the grate to the air vent in her wall, muttering dire threats under her breath. It wasn't until she'd levered the grate away from the wall and was preparing to climb in that it struck her how immature she was being.

She sighed, and pushed the grate back in.

Duke was rather unfortunately leaning on the door when Leila opened it. Taken by surprise, he stumbled and fell back into the room, landing on his back on the floor.

Leila stood over him. "Whadda ya want?" she snapped.

He grinned and folded his arms behind his head, playing along with this turn of events for the sake of his pride. "Interested in an encyclopedia set, ma'am?"

Exasperated, Leila turned and stalked over to her desk, pulling open a drawer and rifling through it.

"What're you lookin' for?" Duke asked, picking himself up.

"A blunt heavy object," she muttered darkly.

*****

Fifteen minutes later, Leila realised that Duke had somehow roped her into serious conversation, against her will. "Look at us," she found herself saying. "We're friends an' we fight every second day. Every time we talk about somethin' vaguley serious, we fight. Every time we open up ta one another, we fight. Gods, can you imagine us in a relationship? We'd never stop!" Leila shook her head. "I don' even know why I'm botherin' sayin' all this..."

Duke shrugged. "I don' necessarily call all of what we do 'fighting', Lei."

"Oh, well whadda ya call it?"

"Erm... conflict. There's a difference. We usually don't really say anythin' that hurts the other person, do we?"

Leila thought back to their latest argument, and she could see from his face that he was thinking about the same thing.

"That was the exception," Duke said quickly. "An'... that wasn't just saying stupid things, it was doin' them. But yer missin' a key point here, Lei, and that is that as quickly as we fall into arguments, we come out of 'em. We can have a fight, make up, an' be back ta normal within an hour most days!"

"Hooray for us," Leila said wearily.

"Don' knock it, sweetheart, it's actually pretty hard fer most people to achieve. The way I see it, we challenge each other, an' that's a good thing."

Leila barely paused before she spoke. "Duke, I'm sorry, but I'm just not convinced. I appreciate all the time ya've taken ta try an' talk me into it an' all..."

"Okay. Yer a businesswoman, what about a deal?"

Struck by his audacity, Leila could only stare at him for a second. "...What?"

"A deal. You give me one week ta prove myself, jus' one."

"An' what's in it fer me?"

"Name it."

"All right, fine." Leila thought quickly. "But only three days."

"Three days??"

"It's that or nothin', L'Orange. You'll got the chance you were lookin' for. Within those three days I promise ta be completely openminded toward ya, within reason, but I remind ya that I got work ta do, so I don't wanna be disturbed while I'm doin' it. If ya DO happen ta... win this... thing... I guess we see what happens from there." She told herself quite firmly that it would not be a consideration, that it would NOT happen no matter HOW open-minded she became toward him. "If, on the other hand, ya don't pull it off, ya gotta promise ta leave me alone fer good. No talk of dating, no compliments, no nothin'. We'll be JUST friends, which was how I wanted it in the first place. That's my conditions, or no deal."

Duke hesitated.

"Look at it this way," Leila said flatly. "Ya got nothin' ta loose."

*****

He had agreed fairly swiftly after that. They shook on it.

There was a short pause. "Three days startin' from when?" Duke asked.

Leila looked at her watch. "Now." The digital numbers flicked over to midnight.

They were both quiet for a bit, and then Leila stifled a yawn. She looked tired. That gave Duke an idea. "Do ya trust me?"

Leila looked up, expression guarded. "Yes," she sighed eventually. "I do." She didn't sound too thrilled about the fact either.

"Then can I stay here tonight?" Duke could see the firm 'no' forming on her lips, and continued quickly, "I don' mean THAT way. Jus' for company. Just sleepin'. Literally. You said ya trust me. Or were ya just sayin' that?"

"No!" she said, slightly affronted at the implication she'd been lying.

"Prove it," Duke challenged.

*****

So it was that, half an hour later, Duke slept with Leila - but only in the most literal sense of the word. He lay awake while she slept peacefully beside him. She really did trust him to do her no wrong. He felt oddly honored by that. It had taken him long enough to win that trust.

He smiled to himself in the dark, remembering her admonition after she'd agreed to let him stay. 'What almost happened... it doesn't change anything, L'Orange, got it?'

It changed everything. But he hadn't said so.

He could feel Leila's warmth behind him; he was sleeping with his back to her. He didn't want to turn around, be closer to her, even look at her. It was too difficult. Her face was smooth and unworried in sleep, and she was quite beautiful then. Not in the traditional sense, though. Not the way most of his past women had been. She was no leggy blonde, no redheaded bombshell. She was very much herself, nothing if not memorable. Distinctive.

But if he turned around he might just have to kiss her, and if he did that it was only a short move away from something more.

She trusted him. That was worth everything.

Duke sighed, squeezed his eyes closed, and tried to sleep.

*****

And every time I've held a rose
It seems I only felt the thorns
And so it goes, and so it goes
And so will you soon I suppose.

A piercing alarm went off, and in Leila's dream she was suddenly back in the Angen Museum, running for her freedom. Then she jerked awake and blearily fumbled for her alarm clock, swatting at the off button.

Duke groaned and pulled a pillow over his head. "Wha' time'sit..."

"Seven thirty." Leila covered a yawn.

"Ya get up this time every mornin'?" Duke's voice was muffled through the pillow.

She glanced over at him, amused. "Yeah. Don' worry, you don' have to. I'm due ta meet Lessa fer breakfast outta the Lair this mornin' anyhow."

Pulling the pillow off his head, Duke sat up slowly. "Speakin' o' goin' out, remember that dinner invitation?"

"Mmm-hmm."

"How about we do that on the third night? Wednesday."

So that's what he's got slated fer his big finish, huh? Leila thought to herself. Aloud, she said unenthusiastically, "I guess so."

Duke scowled slightly. "Ya could at least show a little enthusiasm..."

"I don't recall that bein' part o' the agreement."

His frown deepened. "I shoulda known you were gonna do this."

"Do what??"

"Yer gonna go along wit' everythin' I ask ya ta do, but inside yer gonna be kickin' an' screamin' the whole way. You'll never REALLY give me a chance, will ya?" He kept going, heedless that she'd opened her mouth to defend herself, his tone needling now. "I still don' understand why yer like that in the first place. Ya seemed enthusiastic enough when ya pulled me in here last night!" The last remark was designed to sting, and it certainly did.

"We were drunk," she said angrily.

Duke swung his legs over the side of the bed, but stayed sitting there, looking at her. "I know! But not much, sweetheart. An' if you were sober enough ta stop me at the point ya did, why didn't ya just stop me before anything happened?"

She went very red under her feathers, whether from anger or embarrassment Duke couldn't tell.

"And," he continued pointedly, "that wasn't the first time somethin' like that happened. And we weren't drunk the other times. Why the hell can't you admit maybe ya DO feel somethin'? If ya did that, this thing might actually work out!"

"I feel nothin' fer you. Stop tryin' ta tell me how I feel!"

"That's ridiculous, an' before ya try an' say so, it ain't my so-called ego speakin'!" he snapped. "This has has been on the verge o' happenin' fer weeks, Leila! Months!" His tone changed suddenly, became quieter. "An' you know it, don't you? I think you want it ta happen, but yer afraid. An' I wish I knew why."

He must have hit a nerve, because she went white as quickly as she'd gone red. "I... am... not... afraid!" she hissed. " I don't wanna have ta tell ya that again, L'Orange!"

Duke wished he could believe it. "No. Last night when ya let me stay here, ya weren't afraid. An' remember how good that felt? How right?"

"It was one night. Sure, it was alright. But it'd never last."

Duke could read her conflicting emotions in her face. Such sadness in such a strong face made his heart contract. He caught her gaze and held it with intensity. "I know you've been hurt, Lei. I won't hurt ya, I promise ya that. But I'll never get a chance ta prove it to ya if ya keep-"

"I think ya should leave now."

"-shutting me out," he finished softly.

Leila looked away at that, and wouldn't meet his eyes again. She opened the door and stood back, waiting for him to leave.

Duke picked up his boots and stood, walking to the door in silence. In the doorway he stopped, turned. "I can't pretend ta know what yer lookin' fer, Leila. All I have ta give you is love."

And then he left, and Leila closed the door behind him, leaning against it and staring at the ceiling, upset.

I don't have any love left to give back.

*****

Nylessa had just taken a big mouthful of cappuccino when her friend spoke up.

"I almost slept wit' Duke last night." Leila watched as Nylessa choked on her mouthful and went into a fit of coughing. "Sorry, bad timing."

Eyes watering, Nylessa wiped her mouth with a napkin and took a few recovery breaths. "No, no... Quite all right..." she gasped. "What... did you just say?"

Leila fiddled with her own napkin, twisting it in her hands, and studied the view out the window. They were sitting in a small cafe in downtown Keltor. A fresh layer of snow had fallen last night and the streets were gleaming. The cafe around her was filled with the quiet background hum of relaxed conversation, the sound split now and then by the tiny bell jingling each time the cafe door opened to admit another person. Quaint was probably the best word to describe the place. "Ya heard me correctly."

"I wasn't sure..." Nylessa blinked and shook her head. "Gods, Lei, talk about a non-sequitur." She hesitated, not sure which one of her many questions to ask first.

Leila saved her the trouble of deciding. "We were both a little drunk, I think. An' I stopped him."

Nylessa prepared herself to be very, very cautious in her remarks. "Can I ask... why?"

"Why I stopped him? Because I didn't wanna sleep wit' him."

"Yes, but why not?"

Leila looked wry. "Maybe I'm talkin' to the wrong person..."

"I should take offense at that, but I won't. Just because my... habits... with men differ from yours, it's no reason why my opinions on the matter should be worth any less."

"I know, Lessa. Truth is, I can't really answer yer question." She paused. "Not wit'out bein' a lot more honest wit' myself than I care ta be."

"This is going to sound awfully teenager-ish, but do you like him?"

"I think I do," Leila answered almost immediately. "No, I know I do. But it's not as simple as that."

"Why not?"

"Because it just isn't."

Nylessa stirred her cappuccino gently. "How long has it been since you slept with someone, Lei? If you don't mind me asking." She took another swallow.

Leila was a little startled at the frankness of the question. It was probably Nylessa's private revenge for how she'd dropped the news about Duke.

She knew exactly how long it had been, almost to the day, since she'd last let a man do that to her. But then... what Falcone had done to her didn't count. It hadn't been about sex. It had been about power. Aside from that time, the last time was before she'd found out she was pregnant with Zakiya. Falcone had refused to touch her after she found out and told him. "About four an' a half years, I guess." It was actually an underestimate; the figure was nearer to five.

Nylessa stared at her. "Did you say years?"

A blush started to creep it's way onto Leila's face. "Yeah." A little defensive, now, she scowled. "So?"

"Nothing." The younger woman managed to wipe her face of all expression, achieving total blankness.

Leila was still scowling. "So how long's it been fer you? Four and a half hours?"

Nylessa checked her watch.

Leila slapped her forehead. "Forget it, I don't wanna know. Why'd you ask, anyhow?"

"I was trying to make a point, Lei dear. Maybe the whole issue is more simple than you think, and you've just convinced yourself it isn't." Eyes slightly wide, she glanced at the ceiling. "Boy have you..."

"So what're ya sayin'? I should jus' sleep wit' him an' get it over an' done wit'?"

"I'm not saying that," Nylessa replied hastily. "In fact, I'm not saying you should do anything. But for a mature, single woman who has no medical or religious problem with sex..." She winced. "Drake duCaine, Lei, four and a half yea-"

"Alright already! I'm startin' ta regret tellin' ya that..." Leila's annoyance was tempered with a little self-deprecating grin, however. She even had to admit to herself that four and a half years was almost a criminally long time. "I have my reasons fer abstinence."

"And they are...?"

"Private," Leila replied shortly. "But if it makes ya feel any better, I'm startin' ta reconsider."

Nylessa unsuccessfully tried not to smirk. "Not without some encouragement from Duke, I imagine."

"Yeah. The whole thing worries me." Leila didn't tell her friend about the three-day 'trial run' she was giving Duke. Out here in the light of day, the whole concept seemed slightly ridiculous.

Nylessa leaned forward in her seat. "So. Let me get this straight. He wants to sleep with you. You want to sleep with him. What's the problem? And don't tell me it's more complicated than that."

"I really AM talkin' to the wrong person..." Leila made a face. "I guess I'm just kinda conflicted. I don't feel right about sleepin' wit' him wit'out havin' a full relationship. But a full relationship means committment, an'... I don't wanna put all my heart into somethin' just ta be let down again, Lessa." That was putting it mildly, in very simple terms - but to explain any more would be to open herself up to uncomfortable questions from her friend.

"Oh." Nylessa looked sympathetically across at her. "But... just sleeping with 'im casually isn't an option at all?" She watched as Leila put a ten dollar note down on the table, and they both stood.

"Well... if it were just up ta me, maybe it would be. Gods know I wanted to, though I'd never admit as much ta his face. But I think he sees more in it than that, too."

"Duke does?"

"So it seems."

"Gee... that's not like him at all." Nylessa smiled slowly. "He must think you're really something special, Lei..."

"I know! It's terrible!" Leila walked toward the cafe door, scowling.

Nylessa followed, shaking her head, her amusement tempered with an odd, fond worry for her friend. "I love you dearly, Lei, but sometimes I think I'll never understand you."

*****

Roses. Red roses everywhere.

Leila stood, quite stunned, in the doorway of her bedroom.

"Son of a bitch," she muttered. Kicking one of the delicate flowers aside, she walked into her room, trying not to tread on any of the scattered flowers. Clearing a space on her equally rose-covered bed, Leila sat and studied the room, trying to be as negative as possible.

"What a mess," she said aloud.

A soft petal brushed her hand, and she looked down at it and then picked the rose up, almost against her will. Nobody had ever given her even one flower. She wondered how many were in her room right now.

"Any shmuck wit' money ta fling around can go out an' buy hundreds of roses," she reminded herself firmly.

She suddenly remembered that she'd come to fetch her saber. Pulling it from her desk drawer, she clipped it to her belt and crossed to her door. Casting one final glance back into her room, she said firmly, "They're just flowers, nothin' more." And she left.

*****

She practised in the gym for a while, first alone, and then with Marshall. No sign of Duke. She went back to her office, making quite sure to avoid entering her room. Still no sign of Duke. Leila couldn't help feeling slightly disappointed. She tried to ignore the feeling, reminding herself that she'd told him not to disturb her while she was working anyhow.

As evening fell outside, Leila tidied up what was left on her desk and finished for the night. She left her office only to find Duke leaning against her bedroom door.

Feeling strangely awkward, Leila looked down. "Hi," she said.

"Hi. How... was yer day?"

"Okay." Leila searched for something to say. I feel like a complete ditz... "I hope yer gonna help clean up the mess ya left in my room."

Duke's face fell, and Leila suddenly felt guilty.

"They're really beautiful," she admitted. "Thanks." She wanted to tell him that nobody had ever done anything like that for her before, but then he might think he was winning.

"Yeah, it was my pleasure," Duke said, and stood aside to let her into her room. "Ya want me ta help clean 'em up now, or what?"

"Nah, that's okay, I was just kiddin' when I said that," Leila said quickly, relieved to be able to take back her earlier comment. "I don' mind leavin' 'em there for a while." Trying to strike the perfect balance of noncommittal casualness without sounding completely disinterested was extremely difficult, she found. She didn't want to hurt him in the process of discouraging him. "Listen, I'm just gonna go pick Zakiya up from the playroom... Feel free ta come, if ya want."

Duke shrugged. "Sure." He tried to sound as casual as possible; he didn't want to scare her off again. He followed Leila as she left, and caught up so he was walking beside her.

Slake was waiting for them when they arrived at the playroom. He smiled wryly and ushed Leila aside. "I think the girls have had a falling-out," he murmured. "I'm sure they'll sort it out themselves eventually, but it worries me that neither will tell me what happened."

Leila nodded and chuckled. "Yeah, usually they'd be madly pointin' the finger an' accusin' the other of all kinds o' things." She paused. "Zakiya especially." The playroom door was open, and Leila caught sight of Zakiya sitting facing one of the corners next to the frozen ocean mural, playing with a plastic superhero toy and a saurian-like figurine. The latter toy was coming out worst in the little fight she was staging. Poking her head into the room, Leila spotted Rain in the other corner, obstinantly not looking in Zakiya's direction. She was brushing the hair of a doll and talking quietly to it.

Leila shook her head and shrugged at Slake, then stepped into the room. "Zaki, it's time ta go."

"Hi mom." The little girl sounded down. She placed her hand in Leila's, still ignoring Rain.

"Aren't ya gonna say 'bye' ta Rain?"

"Nope." Zakiya scowled and didn't say anything further. She spotted Duke talking with Slake. "Why's he here?"

"Zakiya, his name is Duke. Have some manners." Leila tugged on her hand and the child followed her sullenly out of the room, even refusing to wave to Slake. Leila made up her mind to have a word to her about her manners later.

*****

"Zaki, I'm gonna brush yer hair in a minute..." Leila was rifling through one of her drawers. "Where'd I leave that brush...?"

"In yer office," Zakiya informed her without looking up from the flower she was holding. "Remember?"

"Oh yeah - thanks, sweetie." Leila kissed her daughter on the top of her head. "I'll be back in jus' a minute. Be good for Duke."

Duke leaned against the side of the chest of drawers, feeling slightly out of place. He watched as Leila left, leaving the door open a bit, then glanced down at Zakiya. She was looking back up at him with those oddly mismatched eyes, green and blue, her expression skeptical.

"How come I have ta be good fer you? Yer not my mom."

Duke blinked. "Well, I guess that's true. But yer mom wants ya ta be good."

Zakiya made a face. "That's silly anyway. I don't know what bad thing she thinks I'm gonna do, but I'm not gonna do it anyways." She plucked a petal from the flower and let it drop to the floor.

Grinning a little, Duke crouched to her level. "I think that's just somethin' moms say to their kids."

"Oh." Zakiya thought about that for a moment, her hands on her hips in a gesture awfully reminiscent of Leila. Her face changed suddenly and she smiled, pointing to a recently-cut door in the left wall of the room. "See that? That's my new room."

"Yeah, yer mom told me ya got yer own one," Duke replied. Leila had told him with worry, in fact; she'd mulled over how unusual it seemed for a four-year-old who slept in the same room and often the same bed as her mother to WANT to move into her own space. Duke knew she was worrying about the timing of the whole thing, too - before Falcone had gotten to Zakiya the child hadn't said a word about wanting her own room.

She nodded vigorously. "They had to makes a big hole in th' wall with these things that made sparks. It was NOISY!"

"I'll bet."

Zakiya looked at him piercingly for a moment, as if she knew she was being humored.

The gaze made Duke feel caught out. "So, anyhow... I heard ya had a fight wit' Rain today," he said quickly, mostly out of curiousity as to what she'd reply.

Mistrust seeped into her eyes. "So?"

"Jus' seems kinda funny, you two bein' such good friends an' all."

"Well even friends fight sometimes."

Duke found himself taken aback by the maturity of the words. In his experience, when young kids fought they declared total enemity on the person they'd fought with until they'd made up. "So how come you guys argued in the first place?"

Zakiya clammed up, her little jaw set stubbornly.

Duke hid a slight smile, thinking she had too much of her mother in her. And maybe too much of her father. His smile faded of its own accord. "Hey," he said easily, "Ya don't hafta tell me, I was jus' curious. Yer mom an' I fight all the time."

"Really?"

"Yep."

"Oh... well, that's okay. Mom fights with lots of people. Well, she yells at them, but I don't think they yell back."

Duke grinned broadly to himself. That sounded about right.

"She said somethin' mean about my dad," Zakiya said suddenly.

A little thrown both by the subject change and the word 'dad', Duke frowned and asked carefully, "Who did? Yer mom?"

"No! Rain."

"Rain did?" Duke didn't know Slake's daughter very well, but as far as he knew the child hadn't said a nasty word to anyone in her life. "What... what'd she say?"

Zakiya looked sideways, then at the door of the room, then back at Duke. "You gotta promise not to tell my mom," she said.

"I promise."

"No, not like that," she said earnestly. "Ya gotta promise properly. Cross yer heart, hope to die!"

"Okay, I promise. Cross my heart, hope ta die." Duke thought he vaguely remembered saying this in his own childhood. "Ya gonna tell me now?"

Zakiya nodded and leaned in so she could whisper in his ear. Duke listened carefully, and blanched at what he heard. Rain had to have heard that in the Mess Hall, he was sure. In fact, Rain probably didn't even know what it meant, and that was what he told Zakiya.

She nodded slowly. "I guess. She was all surprised when I yelled at her."

Disturbed, Duke asked, "How'd you know that was a... a bad thing ta call someone, anyhow?"

"People say things like that," Zakiya said softly, "in mean voices. When my mom isn't listening. Lots of people forget I'm there."

The door creaked very gently and Duke looked up to see Leila pushing it open, entering briskly. She mumbled something about the brush being hard to find, and knelt and carefully brushed her daughter's long hair. When she was done, Zakiya hugged her briefly, took the brush ("So ya won't loose it again, mamma") and went to her room.

Duke smiled wryly. "How long were ya standin' there?"

"Pretty much fer the whole thing." Leila looked at him for a long moment. "Thanks for... bein' good ta her." She appreciated it more than she could say. With a sigh, she sat down on the bed, and it squeaked in protest. Leila scowled. "Sometimes I hate this place."

Duke looked at her, and she looked back up with an almost guilty expression. It wasn't something the leader of the Brotherhood should think. At least, not aloud.

He sat down beside her. "Me too."

*****

Duke eventually left, and Leila went to bed. The night brought one of her fairly regular nightmares. Leila woke up properly to find herself on her knees in the bathroom, sweat-soaked, gripping porcelain as she was violently sick.

After a while, she staggered to her feet and went to wash her mouth out at the sink, thanking her lucky stars that nobody else was up at this hour. She could live without Nylessa's confused concern, and she could most definitely live without the suspicious, almost-afraid look Tarrin had given her the one time he'd caught her out.

She went back to bed, but couldn't go back to sleep. Her stomach hurt from a combination of tension and the impromptu workout her muscles had just recieved, and she didn't particularly care to take her chances with her own dreams again. She dressed and went to the gym instead, to take part in her own self-devised therapy.

Fistfighting wasn't Leila's area of expertise; she was too small to be very effective. But she'd grown up on the streets; she could still throw a punch with the best of them. What the kinds of punches she threw were CALLED was something she didn't know; her method of fighting wasn't an art. It was survival.

The punching-bag she gave her ministrations to was the largest in the gym; certainly tailored for someone with a lot more bulk than she. But today she wasn't after fitness for the sake of it. When she punched the bag, she was seeing something completely different in it's place. Or, more specifically, someone.

She punched again and again, aiming high up where the face might have been on a very tall person. Now and then she delivered a savage punch to what would have been the stomach area. Her emotions suddenly got the better of her, and she grabbed both sides of the punching-bag as if she were holding onto a pair of shoulders, and aimed a volley of vicious kicks at an area which, had it been an actual person, would have been very painful indeed.

Almost snarling, Leila backed off and calmed herself down. She stared at the punching-bag gently swaying back and forth in it's place. Her attack had, of course, left it undamaged - violence was what it was made for.

"One of these days I'm gonna cut ya down an' run my sword through ya," she quietly promised through gritted teeth. "Again... an' again... an' again. I'll match ya thrust fer thrust. An' then you'll know how it feels-"

"Hey, what'd the excercise equipment ever do ta you?"

Leila spun and ignited her saber in a movement, almost stumbling over one of the benches in the process. Duke was leaning against the wall across the room, arms folded. The bench she'd knocked into teetered and fell, and the sound of it hitting the concete echoed sharply between the two figures in the empty room.

Drake duCaine. How long was he there? Oh gods. Wait, he's too far away. He couldn'ta heard. Only seen... Oh, gods, that ain't much better.

"Do you have some kinda trackin' bug planted on me or what?!" she snapped.

"Nah. I practice here most mornings." The gray drake paused. "No offense, but I ain't comin' over there until ya put yer sword out." There was a teasing grin on his face.

It did nothing to improve Leila's mood. She doused the saber and tossed it almost carelessly down onto one of the floor mats, then righted the bench. "That's not an invitation fer you ta come over, by the way."

"So I'll gatecrash." Duke wandered over and sat himself on the bench beside her. He glanced at the punching-bag, which was still moving slightly. "All I can say is I hope that wasn't me you were imaginin' jus' now."

"Nah. I only beat up your effigy on weekends."

"Glad ta hear I got the prime timeslot."

Leila looked sour. "I think we been spendin' WAY too much time together lately. We're startin' ta build up a repartee, fer gods sake." She sighed, mock resigned. "What's on the agenda today?"

Duke eyed his companion up and down, noting the still-tense set of her shoulders, the slightly strained expression. "I think... a massage, actually."

"A what?"

Aww, c'mon, Lei, I'm actually pretty good at 'em."

"Yeah, that's what worries me."

"Contractually speakin', sweetheart, ya gotta give me a try."

"I know, I know. But not here, okay?"

"Yer room?" Duke raised an eyebrow and Leila immediately read suggestiveness into the look.

"NO! I mean... no."

"Alright. I got jus' the place, then."

*****

A nervous thrill shot through Leila as Duke pointed her over to his bed. She lay down on her stomach, feeling her heart beating a little too fast and fervently wishing she didn't feel this way. The worst part about it was that while one half of her was on severe Red Alert and ready to flee the moment he moved, the other half seemed ready to jump the poor guy the moment he came within reach. Leila mentally cursed herself - she couldn't even rely on her own conscience anymore.

The room was nice. It was exactly the same as Leila's room when it came to size and shape, of course, but Duke had actually done something with it. The furniture wasn't overdone, but it wasn't as sparse and utalitarian as Leila's own. And the colors all matched, which was something Leila had never really even thought about before. Everything was very... well, stylish. And the damnable bed was far too comfortable.

"Ya can try, Duke, but I doubt it'll have much effect on me. I'm not really the massage-"

Then Duke placed his hands on her shoulders, and Leila forgot how to think for a while.

"-type..." she mumbled. "Oh... that's nice."

Tension melted from her muscles as he rubbed them just so, and where his hands touched her skin outside the vest and bodysuit they were warm and calloused, but gentle. Kind hands. Leila had never had a massage before. The hands moved to her neck after a while and shivers radiated out to the far reaches of her arms and legs as he worked away on the knots there that she'd learned to live with, and ate away at the tension that was her almost constant companion.

Leila relaxed further as Duke moved the massage back to her shoulders, harder now, working on the deep muscles there. He was pressing so hard he moved her back and forth just a bit. Leila started to feel slightly suffocated by the pillow her face was pressed into. Perhaps it was the motion, maybe the pillow, but something suddenly stabbed at her heart-

-FLASH-

...she hitched in a breath to scream, but he must have seen it because he released her right wrist and clamped his hand down across her mouth. Terrified beyond commonsense, she lashed out with her now-free hand and shoved ineffectively against his chest. He snarled a curse at her and stopped what he was doing for just long enough to shove her onto her stomach; then he grabbed her hips and started again, and her whimpers were muffled by the crisp, white pillow...

-FLASH-

Leila jerked upright and scrambled off the bed and away from the kind hands, heart thudding a drumbeat in her chest, sweat starting to bead on her forehead. "I'm sorry, I gotta go!" she choked, and bolted out, trying hard not to be sick.

*****

A very perplexed Duke L'Orange called Leila no less than six times that day, and visited her office three times before he gave up. She wasn't answering the holophone or the door. She was there, but she wasn't answering.

Duke wracked his brains trying to work out what he'd done wrong. All he knew was that Leila had suddenly jumped up, mumbled an excuse and fled. He had to be honest with himself - he wasn't sure how much more of this he could take. He couldn't stand not knowing what was going on or where he stood, not when it came to Leila, anyhow. He went to bed early that night, having been unable to even find out if she was still going to go to dinner with him the next day. One day to go, and the first two had been a disaster.

*****

But if my silence made you leave
Then that would be my worst mistake
So I will share this room with you
And you can have this heart to break

For a change, there was very little paperwork to be done that morning. Leila didn't like having free time. It gave her too much time to think, and her thoughts were a thing she didn't like being left alone with.

She was furious with herself, and too embarrassed to face up to Duke. She'd made herself look like a complete fool, and she couldn't even come up with a decent explanation for him why she'd acted how she did. And she certainly couldn't tell him the truth.

Closing her eyes, Leila hoped silently that he was still interested in going to dinner. She was tired of being afraid, and angry at herself for fearing him. He was not Falcone. He wasn't even 'any man'. He was Duke.

Leila was no coward. She may have been afraid a lot, but she always tried not to let those fears dictate her actions. She didn't want to let her fears control her. Unfortunately, it seemed she'd been letting them do just that for the last four years, and up until now she hadn't realised just how much. She'd always made excuses for herself: She was too busy with her job and her daughter; she didn't need a man; there was no-one suitable. But none of those excuses held up any more, and she was left with only the knowledge that fear was all that was stopping her.

Zakiya was no longer a baby. The Brotherhood was back on its feet and operational. She WAS lonely. And now, there was someone suitable.

No more excuses.

Tonight she would face her fear and handle it the way she handled MOST things in her life... most things with the exception of men. She would handle it head-on. Hit it with the ol' battering ram method. If Duke wanted her, he would have her. Maybe it would only be casual, and end there, in which case she'd lost nothing. But perhaps it would end up something more. She knew what she was risking, that if when the night ended she gave him her body she was most likely letting him have her heart as well. But she couldn't be so afraid any more.

She picked up her holophone and dialled Duke's room number.

*****

Duke sat on his bed, polishing his saber. It was something he did now and then; it helped him think. Glancing at his reflection in the shining bronze blade, he put the soft cloth he was using down and sighed.

The face in the reflection was older than it used to be. That was to be expected, but it didn't mean he had to be happy about it. He placed the blade on his pillow and stood, for once avoiding the mirror at the end of the room.

He'd been deluding himself, he was sure. What in Drake's name made him think a woman like Leila would be interested in him? She didn't seem to need anyone, let alone him. What did he possibly have to offer her? His love, he'd said it to her... but maybe that wasn't enough. She seemed to have high standards, to say the least.

And perhaps some of the fault here rested with him. Maybe he was aiming for Leila because she was the one single woman in the Lair who seemed completely unattainable. Perhaps he only wanted her because she was the only thing he couldn't have.

Morosely, Duke picked his comb up from his dresser and looked at it. There were a few strands of grey hair in there, and one of white.

Ahh. This is gettin' too hard. Why am I even doin' this? He knew the answer to that. He was quite sure he could get a quick satisfying lay if he wanted one, but it wasn't what he wanted. Living for the moment had started to wear thin, and Duke was starting to see into his future; a future where his appeal to women gradually wore away to nothing, and he found himself left alone with only the memories of his younger life. Duke didn't want to end up alone. Maybe it was time to... not so much change, but adapt his living-for-the-moment philosophy, at least where it came to women. Time to plan ahead. Time to start being careful.

Gods. I am gettin' old, he thought ruefully. That, an' Leila's rubbin' off on me.

Leila. He liked her. Maybe even loved her, he wasn't sure. But she was the sort of woman who he would like to spend the rest of his life with, he knew that. She kept him interested simply because she was who she was, and while looks and sex appeal faded with age, personality only ever grew stronger.

He wanted to save her from whatever darkness it was eating her up, but he didn't even know how to start, and she didn't want his help anyhow. Apparently he was just making her life difficult. And now he wasn't even sure if he really wanted HER or if he just wanted the 'unattainable woman'. For the first time in a long time, Duke was uncertain.

His one and only true longterm relationship had ended in heartbreak. Maybe he just wasn't made for real relationships. Maybe he was just deluding himself even considering he had a chance. Tense, his head hurting, Duke looked across the room at his reflection in the mirror for a long moment, then grabbed his jacket and headed for the door. He could take a hint - Leila hadn't called, and she wasn't going to. Fine. I won't push, an' I'll leave her alone. Fer real this time.

He was going to see Nylessa.

As Duke reached out to close the door behind him, the comm in his room buzzed. He hesitated, torn, hand hovering above the button that would close his room door. Then he turned and walked back into his room to take the call.

*****

And this is why my eyes are closed
It's just as well for all I've seen
And so it goes, and so it goes
And you're the only one who knows

It was positively icy outside, and Leila and Duke were both rugged up. They'd taken her car and gone to a small, downtown Mayalan restaurant. They'd decided that an up-market restaurant where they might be noticed was out of the question; it was hard enough for Duke to look inconspicuous as it was. So they'd come somewhere where people knew better than to look twice if they thought Duke looked familiar.

Besides, they both liked Mayalan food.

The food was good, but the same couldn't be said of the conversation. Generally speaking, talking had never been too much of a problem for either of them... with the exception of talking about personal matters, where they both harbored some tender subjects. But there was awkwardness there that night that neither of them completely understood.

Perhaps if they'd known what the other was thinking the situation would have been clearer. Leila, as habitually cautious as ever despite her earlier resolve, had decided to let Duke take the initiative. She wanted to see what he did before she reacted. So she sat, a little uncomfortably, and waited for him to bring up the Subject that they'd both been avoiding.

Unfortunately, Duke had decided exactly the same thing in reverse. Leila had made it quite clear to him over the last few days that she wasn't interested, but had then accepted his invitation to dinner. It confused him, and the confidence to just assume she wanted the same thing as he did wasn't coming as easily to him as it had previously, with other women. So he sat, a little uncomfortably, and waited for her to make the first move, to bring up the Subject they'd both been avoiding.

Stalemate.

Leila tried not to think about it at all. She hadn't had Malayan food in a long time, but she'd always loved it. She had to admit to herself that she was rather glad they were eating here for another reason - she'd never been fond of posh, swanky restaurants. They made her feel awkward, clumsy and out of place. Falcone's admonitions regarding her manners, table and otherwise, when she first met him had helped her get by in situations like that with a minimum of embarrassment, but she would never feel comfortable in a place she knew she would never belong.

Eventually the strained conversation eased a little as they both relaxed. They compared experiences leading the Brotherhood, and talked about various heists they'd done and heists they each planned to do in future. Then the conversation became a little more personal, and Leila talked about Zakiya for a while. Duke told her a little more about his brother, who Leila had met briefly shortly before Duke's rescue had been pulled off. He was proud of Rance, she could tell. They also avoided talking about the war, but Leila asked plenty of questions about Earth and Duke was happy to answer them. Then Duke asked about Canard, and Leila gave him a few more insights into the terrible time when the man had ruled Puckworld with an iron fist.

But not once did the talk touch on what they were THERE for, on what had been happening between them.

It was with a sense of disappointment that each of them finished dessert, the things that should have been said remaining unspoken. They walked to the counter together to pay. Leila started digging around in her pocket the moment Duke did, and they looked at one another and laughed awkwardly.

"Don' worry about it, Duke, I'll pay."

"Nah, I invited you. I'll pay." Duke counted out the cash in his hand, and felt a slight touch on his pocket as he did so - glancing down, he saw that Leila had slipped some of her money into his pocket. Their eyes met for a second.

"Stubborn," Duke said softly.

"I know."

A plump little Mayalan woman bustled through the beaded curtain from a back room and stood behind the desk. Her feathers were a shade darker than honey, and her short hair was silky black and tied into a bun, though if one looked carefully there were grey strands running through it. She had the sort of old, wise face that warranted a second look. Duke looked down at her, then held out the money.

"The meal was great. Hey, uh, keep the change."

She smiled, her slanted eyes crinkling prettily, and nodded her head just once. She replied in heavily Mayalan-accented Ingallish, "Glad you like. You an' you wife, you come back sometime?"

There was a momentary silence, then Leila coughed into her hand. "We're... not together," she said.

The old woman looked them up and down, and smiled again, knowingly. She patted Duke's hand. "Ahh. Is okay. You will be." She scooped up the money and walked serenely back through the beaded curtain, and was gone.

Duke shuffled his feet and glanced sideways at Leila, only to catch her looking back with an expression that probably mirrored his own. He forced a laugh and made a crazy sign with his finger next to his head. "Old people, huh?"

Fortune cookie on legs, Leila thought wryly, fighting not to show her embarrassment. "Yeah, I'll say..." A nervous chuckle from her, and she turned quickly and took her parka down from a rack next to the door. "Looks cold out there."

"So it does. An' windy... Looks like there's a storm on the way."

"Mmm... could be." Leila was surprised to feel Duke help her pull the heavy coat on. "Thanks."

"No problem." He put his own on, then pushed open the door.

The chill wind that hit them was incredible; Duke took a breath and felt as though his lungs were icing over. Leila's expletive was lost in a sudden howling gust. She dug her car keys out of her pocket, and somehow managed to unlock the car. They both practically leapt in, slamming the doors behind them. The howling wind was abruptly cut down to a dull murmur, and in the quiet of the car they could hear one another again.

Duke breathed slowly, then rubbed his gloved hands together. "Geez. That didn't look good."

"Time ta head home, huh? You were right, that's one helluva storm comin'. Can't WAIT 'til it starts snowin'..."

*****

A small holovision blared away in a corner of the reception area of the Mayalan restaurant; the old woman's granddaughter was perched in front of it watching intently. The program she was watching suddenly flashed off to be replaced by a grave-faced male reporter.

"There is a severe storm warning current for the entire Keltor City area; Repeat, we are expecting a severe blizzard to hit the entire area. Please head for the nearest shelter. Do NOT go outside. Get to the nearest shelter available immediately and remain indoors. I repeat, there is-"

"Wow!" the little girl said excitedly, and ran into the living area to watch out the window for the white wall of blizzard that was soon to come. The news anchor in the background continued to repeat his dire warnings into the empty room.

*****

Leila wrestled the steering wheel, feeling the gusts of wind outside trying to push the car off the road. Like all other Remaican manufactured cars it had tyres that were well adapted to the normal icy conditions, but these conditions weren't all that normal.

Duke was starting to look tense. "I don' think I've seen a storm like this in years," he muttered.

"Storm?" Leila replied archly, her eyes still glued to the road. "This ain't the storm. This is jus' the introduction. When the snow comes, THEN it's the storm. Our friend Dragaunus screwed up the weather system while he was here an' we been periodically getting' these godsdamned blizzards ever since."

"I haven't seen one yet..."

"Ya only been back half a year. An' here's yer chance..." Far in the distance she could see the jagged skyscrapers that formed Keltor city central - so very different from the newer, environmentally conscious white domes of duCaine Metro. But they were white now. Well, not so much turning white as vanishing into whiteness.... an immense wall of it.

"Holy Drake duCaine..." Duke muttered.

"Oh balls," Leila snarled, watching the distant blizzard advance. "If we stay out here, we're in fer trouble. We got about five minutes ta get off the road an' into shelter. Damn it, I shoulda had the radio on. Stupid!!" She floored the accelerator and the car sped off down the near-empty road. "Look out fer somewhere!"

A neon sign loomed from the darkness on Duke's side of the car. "There! A hotel or somethin'..."

Leila swung the wheel to the right, barely bothering to hit the breaks, and the car fishtailed into the parking lot.

Duke grabbed onto both sides of his seat until the car finally came to a jolting stop. "Fer someone who's so damn careful about everythin' else, ya drive like a maniac."

"Thanks." Leila shoved open the door and jumped out of the car. "Ya comin', or do ya fancy the idea o' bein' turned inta a snowman?"

He shoved open his door and stepped out of the car, then stopped. Something was different.

A dead silence had fallen. And below that silence there was a deep yet high-pitched sound, like a distant, almost inaudible howl. But mostly, just silence. Heavy silence.

What Duke could see of Leila's face in the parka was very pale. She grabbed his gloved hand in hers.

"Run."

*****

William Drake-Featherington the Third managed the Snowdrops Inn, and he took very good care of the small building. His father and his father before him had run it. In Bill's grandfather's time it had been a very reputable business, but Keltor had expanded in another direction and what had once been a developing part of the city had been left as an unnoticed suburb sitting on the outskirts. However, Bill's father had kept the Inn going even through the hardest times, and it was during those times that it had gained it's name - the Snowdrops Inn. "Snow drops in". And before the roof repairs had been carried out, it certainly had! The nickname had stuck and become the official name of the business, and when Bill inherited it he wouldn't have changed it for the world.

However, he hoped to Drake that no snow would "drop in" tonight. He was used to the powerful blizzards by now, but nonetheless very careful. He'd just bolted closed all the windows in every room, and was finishing locking up the reception room now.

A thumping on the already-locked front door made him jump and he turned, puzzled. There were two figures dimly visible, knocking on the door from the outside. Bill ran to the door and unbolted it quickly, and the two staggered inside. A second later, with a screeching, reverberating howl, the blizzard hit.

It was as if some sort of pressure bomb went off outside; there was a faint whumph and one of the windows across the other side of the room blew out, and a thick load of snow was sucked in through the still-open front door.

"Help me close it!" the pudgy manager yelled over the howling of the wind. It took all three of them to shut the door against the force of the wind.

The grey drake up-ended a table, ignoring Bill's exclamation of horror, and shoved it upright against the broken window. The suction stopped, and the room fell quiet once more.

Bill wiped off his forehead and looked at the snow covering the area inside the now-closed door. He was rather glad he'd had the area tiled last year.

"Sorry about that," the smaller of the two figures panted. She pulled back her parka and rubbed snow from her face and shoulders. "I don't suppose ya got a spare room?"

"Three. It's off season." Bill paused. "You two were very lucky - what on Puckworld were you doing out in THAT?"

"Didn't have the radio on. How much ta stay here tonight?" Leila didn't want to talk to this man too much, and she silently willed Duke to keep his parka on. She wasn't likely to be recognised; she wasn't well known. It was a side effect of being so very careful, and her dislike of publicity. Duke, on the other hand, was extremely well-known.

Fortunately he made no move to take the parka off and she decided he must have reached the same conclusion.

Bill rubbed his hands together. "Well, there IS the matter of the damage..."

Duke pulled a wad of cash from her pocket and held it out to him. "Will this be enough?"

The manager was momentarily speechless. "Why... why, yes, it will, sir! Will the executive suite be alright?"

Duke looked smug. "Wouldn't take anythin' less."

*****

As they trudged up the stairs, Leila removed her thick gloves and grumbled, "I hate people who pander ta money."

"Yet we'd be screwed if not fer them," Duke grinned. "Besides, ya can't blame the guy. He's gotta make a livin'. At least he's doin' it honestly..." Finding the correctly-numbered door, he slipped the key he'd been given into the lock and pushed it open. "Ooh... stylish."

"It's nice," Leila said, faking indifference.

The room was all furnished in cream; the walls painted white. It was such a striking contrast to the dim darkness of the rooms in the Lair that both of them just stood looking appreciatively at it, like at a fine piece of art, for a moment before they entered.

As was normal in most of the smaller inns in Keltor, the kitchen and dining room were in the same room, and the bedroom and living room were one and the same. Couch, bed, small table, television. All the necessities for modern life, just spiced up a bit with clean cream curtains.

There was one feature they'd both noticed, but neither commented on. There was only one bed - a double bed, but one bed no less.

Duke hesitated. I'm not gonna try anythin'. She's obviously not interested, an' I don't wanna make this whole thing uncomfortable...

"I'll sleep on the couch," he said aloud.

Leila looked down. "Sure." Geez. Guess he really isn't interested any more. Nice one, deSilver. Ya finally get a chance, an' ya pushed him away too much an' screwed it up. Very nice.

At that moment she sorely regretted every one of her actions up to that point.

A violent crack of thunder outside shook the building and made them both jump.

Leila smiled nervously and put a hand to her chest, feeling her heart thudding. "Damn storm."

Glancing out the window, Duke shrugged and smiled halfheartedly. "Could be a lot worse."

Another crack-boom shook the building, and the lights extinguished, leaving the two thieves in pitch black.

There was a long silence.

"Never say that," Leila said wearily.

*****

After much undignified scrambling around in the dark, Duke managed to find a couple of candles and a box of matches in a bureau drawer. Sticking a candle in the soil of the potplant on the living room table, he lit it and sat back on his heels in satisfaction, watching as the hidden corners of the room became a little more visible in the flickering orange light.

"Candlelight. Cosy." Leila commented. The dim light revealed her to be standing by the bed, her arms folded across her chest, and as he watched, she sighed and leaned back against the wall. "We were almost flattened by that storm, an' now we're trapped in some backwater hotel until the ploughs get ta work tomorrow. Do all yer dates end like this?"

"Not quite," he replied wryly, eyeing her. "Jus' look at it from another perspective, Lei - we had a meal fer two, candlelight, an' a plush hotel room all to ourselves. 'Course, this ain't exactly what I had planned, but..."

She looked squarely at him for a moment, then turned away and pretended to busy herself with hanging her coat up. Silently, she cursed her luck for landing her in the middle of one of the most potentially romantic situations she'd ever been in. Fate was a bitch. A sadistic one, at that.

He sat back against the bed and just watched the flame for a while. It was far too early to sleep. Leila didn't join him; just paced the room like a caged tiger.

"Come sit down, sweetheart. Yer makin' me nervous."

"Don' call me sweetheart."

He sighed, but didn't apologise. Patted the floor beside him. "C'mere."

Leila couldn't see a way she could refuse without making things awkward. Begrudgingly, she sat.

Duke watched her from the corner of his good eye. Her dark hair was glistening in the candlelight, and the silver of her feathers seemed to shine with a luminance of its own. "Ya look beautiful in this light," he said easily.

"Yeah, anyone looks better in semi-darkness." Leila snorted. "Even me."

That took the wind out of his sails a little. He was rather expecting the usual response he'd gotten when he complimented women in the past - a giggle, a coy smile, a blush - or at least a simple "thanks" in acknowledgement. Of course, he should have known better than to expect anything like that from Leila. "Most people are willin' ta accept the occasional sincere compliment, y'know."

She didn't reply.

"But then, yer not 'most people', are ya?"

Still no reply.

"So what makes Leila deSilver tick, hmm? Whatcha got goin' on behind those blue eyes?" He was baiting her. Making her angry seemed to be the only way he could get a real response from her.

He got his response. "What right do you have ta ask me that?" she demanded.

"Every right." Duke shrugged. "A'course, ya can choose not ta answer if yer afraid of what ya might say."

The fear thing again. He used that against her EVERY time. Leila glared at him. "Oh, I could tell ya. But ya wouldn't understand."

"Try me." What had started out as half-teasing banter was quickly becoming serious.

Leila just shook her head and stared at the single candle on the table. The flame was tiny, pale, wavering uneasily on its lonesome perch. The huge darkness around it pressed in upon it, threatening to extinguish it at any moment. The flame burned with a heat of its own, but in the end it was as frailer than a gust of wind...

She leaned forward slowly, staring at it. Suddenly she knew how to tell Duke how she felt, without telling him why she felt that way.

"That's me," Leila said a little hoarsely. Until she heard her own voice, she hadn't quite been aware of the emotions bubbling to her surface. "The candle... the flame. That's how I feel. Look at it. It's so alone... one gust of wind an' it's gone. Jus' like that."

He looked quietly at Leila, then at the flame, comprehending what she was trying to say. He understood. There really wasn't anything he could say back to her - what could possibly be said?

Leila nodded quietly to herself, as if his silence was some sort of confirmation. Then she reached out and passed a hand near the candle, and the pale flame winked out into nothingness.

For a moment the pair sat in darkness as Duke considered this. He struck a match, illuminating their faces. Cupping his hand around the flame, he relit the candle, and blew out the match. Sheltered by his hand, the flame dancing on the wick burned brighter and more steadily than before.

Leila looked at the hand curled around the flame, and then met Duke's eyes.

"That's me," Duke said firmly.

Leila tried to move away, but something stopped her. Duke leaned forward a little, his hand touching hers. Leila swallowed. "We... we can't. It's wrong."

"I know," Duke said huskily, eyes half closed, and kissed her anyhow. She closed her own eyes and leaned into it for a second, then pulled back.

Her rational side, quickly being drowned out by her long-downtrodden feeling side, made a last-ditch attempt to put a stop to the inevitable. "Ya don't understand. Everyone who gets close ta me ends up hurt or dead."

"That's a risk I'm... willin' ta take..." Duke's stomach tightened and he pulled the dark-haired woman closer.

"Don't ya hurt me, L'Orange," she whispered. "Don't ya break my heart. You promise me."

"I promise," he murmured, and she shook her head despairingly. Promises made in the dark, in her experience, meant nothing. But she clung to him anyhow, because nothing in the world could have made her turn back now.

The light, brief kiss that followed sent Leila's nerves tingling. She kissed him back harder in response, and half-heartedly mumbled, "Ya know it's wrong..."

"So wrong," Duke agreed readily, lowering Leila to the floor, burying his hands in her hair, kissing her neck. One hand slid down her back and up under her shirt, lifting it easily over her head.

"Wrong..." she whispered, heart pounding. "Oh... oh gods..."

But this time there was no fear, and no memories surfaced to curl icy fingers around Leila's heart.

And the storm went on howling outside, the violence of it unnoticed by the two within. They made love with a lonely desperation, drawing strength from one another. The flame in the room burned all the brighter through the night. It burned long and strong, and finally extinguished in the dawn.

So I would choose to be with you
That's if the choice were mine to make
But you can make decisions too
And you can have this heart to break

And so it goes, and so it goes
And you're the only one who knows.

 

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