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The Hunter or the Hunted

By Quillblade

 

Hunter was dreaming.

It was something of a shock. He'd not dreamed since the end of his college days, or more specifically since the night he'd killed his girlfriend's new prom date and run away from home. And that scene was one of many that he was reliving, watching each death as if it were displayed on a cinema screen, and he was locked to face it, unable to close his eyes. He didn't want to see them, he didn't want to remember them -- the only reason he hadn't cracked from the guilt of all those deaths he'd caused was because he'd locked every kill away in a small box at the back of his mind. Having them break free and run about in his head was driving him insane.

It had started with his first kill. The man had died quickly and quietly and he'd felt a chill satisfaction from it; but in the dream there was no satisfaction -- there was fear, numbness, and a sick feeling that could only be described as "Oh gods what have I done?!". He'd turned away from the scene, and now he was running past bodies, bodies, and more bodies, each one carrying its own guilt that added to the raging sea behind him. He tried to ignore them, to ignore the faces and the memories, but they moved as though they were still living, ghosts of the past reaching out with grasping hands, catching at his coat and sleeves, trying to pull him down.

Then there was just one person. She was pretty, in a middle-aged kind of way, with hair the color of burnished bronze, falling in waves down to her shoulder blades. His mother. Her hands were held over her stomach and blood seeped out of her fingers. The bright china blue eyes were surprised, despairing, pitying and accusing all at once. Your fault...

I didn't do that! he gasped. It wasn't me! It's not my fault! Not mine...

Unable to face her expression he turned away again, and was suddenly in a bedroom. A pair of twins, girls, only children, neither of whom he recognized, in rich clothing were sitting on the bed in front of him, looking up with frightened eyes. Then one moved slowly in front of the other. Don't hurt my sister. He ignored the plea and fired, the bullets going right through them and...

There was his ceiling. Hunter blinked, and sat up carefully, slipping his sunglasses down his beak to look around at the lounge-room. He'd fallen asleep on his sofa. Testing that this wasn't still a dream, he selected a feather on his arm and yanked it out. The pain shooting up to his shoulder and down to his fingertips agreed with the notion that he was no longer asleep.

"Damn it," he muttered, mentally grabbing the key to his mind and locking the dream behind the same bars as the rest of his unpleasant history. But just knowing that they were still there and had not faded away unnerved him enough. An assassin couldn't do his job without an ability to kill and to not feel sickened or guilty by it later!

Hunter shook his head slowly, leaning back against the cushions. But the thought kept nagging at him: was he losing it? He couldn't afford that. Not with as many enemies as he had collected over the years. If he started losing his edge, not to mention his mind, he would lose his job and then his life sooner than one could snap their fingers. Compassion was probably an assassin's worst fear -- certainly, now more than ever, his own. His job and his life were the only two things he truly possessed these days, and he didn't particularly want to lose either of them.

Especially not the latter.

*****

The assignment was simple. Inhume the two Gacian minor princesses visiting duCaine Metropolis low profile. The security around them was light and easily dealt with, mostly just a few guards posted around the hotel, and it would be simple enough to slip past them. The targets themselves were not very highly placed in society and there was a long list of others in line for the Gacian Supremacy. In fact the whole setup was laughably elementary, something a novice could take on, so Hunter had to wonder why Tracker was insisting that it should be the leader's job.

A week had gone by since the dream, and by now he'd practically forgotten it. Although he'd taken no assignments himself in that time -- it was rare that he did in any case -- he liked to think that he'd overcome the guilt and doubt and was now his old, morality-a-few-notches-below-normal self once more.

Now that crisis had been averted, new problems cropped up to replace it. Nasty rumors spreading through the Dirae, unsatisfied grumbling about his leadership... they were all old news. He was accustomed to the little complaints of the unsatisfied few. But Tracker had been almost benign this past week, and was now shoving this assignment toward him with an ingratiating expression behind his steel-rimmed glasses.

Hunter smelled a rat, and it was a rat by the name of Giles.

"No," he said.

"Sir?" Tracker looked surprised. "But... it's worth so much!"

"Send Quietus to do it, then. Or Raider, or Kronos, or Angel, or anyone else, we have plenty of assassins who would enjoy the work. Or perhaps go yourself," he added. "But I'm really too busy to go after some petty little target for a petty little blood feud about a petty little crown." He sat back and folded his arms behind his head, smiling in his pleasant way.

Tracker frowned very slightly. "So what target would you go after?"

"Whatever one I feel like doing at the time, Giles."

"They're annoyed, sir."

"Eh?"

"Some of the members are getting annoyed that they're doing all the work, while you just sit back and enjoy the benefits of the cash they bring in." He paused. "To be honest, sir, I believe they think you're getting lazy."

"Is that so?" Hunter steepled his fingers. "And since when did you start to worry about my image, Giles?"

Tracker grimaced ruefully. "Since I realized that perhaps you were right, my old friend... perhaps we really are stagnating in our own traditions. I've seen that the world is changing, far too quickly for some of us to keep up with. Add to that, I want a job that I can retire into, and keeping the books is the best choice for a man soon to slip into his dotage."

He's being chummy, thought Hunter suspiciously. I don't like this. And then again -- what harm could come from inhuming a couple of petty targets, anyway? And there was, he could see, a lot of money involved. Almost a million, and after that incident some eight years ago with the leader of the Brotherhood, they'd never really been able to make up the two million lost because of Asp. Not that they didn't get large sums of money in anyway, but just the thought of two million slipping out of their collective bankbooks was enough to make most of the members extremely irritable with both him and Asp -- and incredulous at his decision to let the man live. Occasionally he wondered what had happened to the young man. Possibly someone had found and killed him. A pity; Asp mightn't have been the most obedient of assassins, but he had been ingenious...

He was getting distracted. "I'd rather you not talk about dotage like that, Giles, you're barely five years older than I am and I'd like to think of myself as aging very well and very slowly." He sighed and drummed his fingers quietly on the desk. "All right," he said finally. "I'll take the assignment. No pictures of the targets?"

"No, sir, but they'll be easy to find, I dare say."

"That is true." His fingers started beating a rapid tap dance on the tabletop, in time with his thoughts. "Time, date, and place?"

"The Charleston Grande Hotel, tonight." Tracker glanced briefly at the papers he held in his hands. "The client prefers it to be done before seven of the clock this evening."

"Ah." Hunter nodded, and then asked somewhat lightly, "So he can have his dinner happy with the knowledge that he's one step closer to the throne of Gacia?"

"About right, sir."

"What a funny world we live in."

"We didn't make it, Hunter. We just do our best to get ahead in it."

*****

The revolver was in his hand. He stood in the hotel bedroom, facing the two young children sitting on the bed. They were pretty little things; about ten years old, with dark brown feathers and straight black hair but their normally serious expressions were now wide-eyed and frightened as he stared at them down the gun in his hand.

Pull the trigger, he thought. It'll be over before they know it. Pull the bloody trigger! But his hand was frozen with a finger just hovering above their death sentence. One small movement, a twitch of a muscle, and the two kids would be dead. But he couldn't move.

He just stared, and they stared back at him in silence. Then one moved in front of the other. "Don't hurt my sister, sir," she pleaded. "Please don't hurt her."

For a moment there wasn't a single noise or motion in the room; the silence was nearly painful. Then there was a soft thud as the revolver dropped from his hand onto the carpet. He stepped back toward the door, but stopped as the princess who had spoken raised her hand slightly. "Thank you, sir," she whispered.

"Don't thank me," he growled. "Don't thank me, hate me!" And then he left.

That was then.

*****

This was now.

"The client was very dissatisfied, sir."

"The client can go hang himself from the nearest telephone pole, for all I care." Hunter sprawled on his chair with a preoccupied, deadpan expression but just hint enough of a scowl to show that he was not thinking happy thoughts. They were in his study; Hunter sitting behind his desk in the evening sunlight that poured down through the large windows behind, and Tracker leaning against the desk before him. "You said nothing about children, Giles."

"I didn't know, sir."

"Age is one of the required boxes to fill in, you knew but failed to tell me."

"Does it matter, sir?" Tracker asked, in that falsely sweet tone of voice that had never failed to worry him over the years. It always meant that he was about to be cornered in some unknown alleyway of leadership code. "They're still the targets, you accepted the deal, you intended to carry it out."

"Kids are an exception, Giles."

"It doesn't matter whether they're ten years, thirty years or eighty years, either way you should have completed the mission. It states so in the rules, no backing out of a deal once accepted. But, of course, you knew that, being the leader and all."

Ah. Hunter became a little more alert. This was what it was all about. Tracker was still after the leadership, despite what he'd said the day before. He's going to accuse me of showing compassion, he thought. Gods only know he's got enough reason to. Why oh why didn't I just pull the trigger?

Because inhuming an adult is one thing. Ten year old girls...

It shouldn't matter.

But it does!

For a moment, in his frustration, the dream leaked out of its mental jail. For just a moment, he saw his mother again, her hands clenched over the wound of a Saurian laser blast, and heard her accuse him: Your fault.

Hunter slammed his clenched fist on the desktop, causing his cup of coffee to topple over, the dark brown liquid moving quickly for the paperwork. He didn't even look at it, so Tracker calmly moved the papers out of the way. "I couldn't do it, Giles," he whispered. "I couldn't pull that trigger, but gods, man, don't think I didn't try! And they thanked me." His short laugh was bitter. "They thanked me for not killing them."

"Inhuming, sir."

"Whatever you want to call it, we still just kill people."

Tracker was starting to look like the fel who'd found not just the cream but a whole raw steak, and Hunter realized that all he was doing was giving the man more evidence for an accusation. The way things were going he was condemned even before the trial. "So you don't like the job anymore?" the older man inquired.

"I've no opinion on it, Tracker, and I never have. It's been something that I did and I've neither liked nor disliked it before. If you want those who do the job for the killing rather than the money, try Angel. I have no personal opinion on it," he repeated firmly. "The money is all that matters."

"Let me rephrase then. The blood money has lost its attraction for you?"

Of course not, he said... or tried to. The words wouldn't come out. He floundered about for something else to say, and asked irritably, "What is this, Giles, truth or dare?"

"I think face the music might be a more appropriate title."

Hunter became aware that the number of people in the room had risen. Angel, Demon, Quietus, two or three others -- all highly ranking members, all of whom disliked him -- were standing around the doorway, listening. It occurred to Hunter then that perhaps he'd been wrong. This was no trial and denouncement; this was hostile takeover.

He tapped his knuckles together, looking thoughtful. "I hate to point out a flaw in your plan, Giles, but if you kill me, eventually the colleagues of my other life will wonder where I am, and the police will be over my house like ants on a sugar cube."

"I know," Tracker said. He was smiling, and with his sunken eyes and pointed face the effect was of a deepwater chark grinning at its prey. "That's why Calhoun Flockhart has officially sold his house to one Giles Steelbeak of Ingal, retired from his job at the National Athenaeum and gone to live in Thrain. Old friend, I've been planning this for months, I haven't let a single detail pass me by."

And how. Hunter frowned. This could be a problem.

It was probably about time for an evacuation of the premises. He was going to lose his job; Puckworld would melt before he'd lose his life to this lot.

"Do you know, I always thought I'd live to retirement age," he said conversationally, "but, honestly, old age has no appeal to me. My hair is gray enough without any added silver. And what happens when you're old, Giles? You lose everything: your senses, your freedom, sometimes even your mind and dignity."

He stood up, pacing the width of the study behind his desk. "A long time ago the elder you were the wiser you were thought to be. Now you're shut in a home and fed like a child. I didn't think I'd have grown that old. I'd probably have shot myself beforehand."

"How about we do it for you?"

"Abrupt, coarse, and very unlike you, Giles," Hunter chided. "But is the Giles Steelbeak that I knew anything on the real Giles underneath the mask? Hmm. That could be a tricky one. I don't think I really want to know the answer."

Tracker was looking impatient. Hunter just smiled at him. "I suppose it'll all be decided now, eh? Oh well, the Dirae was my home for so many years, I'll probably miss it. I don't know if I'll miss many of the members, but I'll miss the Dirae in general." He turned around, and took down his scythe from its ornamental position on the wall. A few clicks from behind -- about seven guns trained on him. He looked around, feigning surprise. "Surely you aren't just going to shoot me?"

"Sounds good ta me," Angel drawled.

"It's in the rules, you know. When leadership is... opposed... duels are fought to determine either the current's continuing lead, or the contender's taking over. At least, that's what I recall. Isn't that right, Giles?"

Tracker's confident smirk had slipped noticeably. "I don't think it's necessary," he said, and Hunter smiled inwardly. Tradition is never so important when it's your life put in danger by it, is it, old friend?

He sighed theatrically. "A pity, but you're probably right. And anyway, I'm afraid I really haven't got the time." He checked his watch, and then politely showed them all that it was five seconds to ten o'clock. "Isn't my flight to Thrain due to leave in fifteen minutes?"

He moved. Fast. Using the long handle of his scythe as a pole he crashed right through the windows, cartwheeled down the slope of his backyard and vaulted over the fence. No shots were fired, but he could hear the angry yells as he got to his feet and ran. He deactivated the scythe blade and slung the carry-belt sideways across his back, hitching the pole to it, keeping a steady pace all the while.

He really had no idea where he could go. There weren't many places that would readily give aid to an assassin in trouble, and those few, somewhat controversial localities that did would no doubt be searched for him. Indeed, there were really only two choices available to him. One, leave the country. It held no attraction for him, because he intended to come back someday soon, eliminate Tracker and get his job back whether the rest of the Dirae liked him or not. The other was to seek sanctuary in the last place any sane Dirae assassin would go to for help.

Suicide? Maybe. But nevertheless he caught the first hovertrain to Keltor.

*****

Tasmin l'Orange scampered through the hallway, her scruffy black hair whipping out behind her in the breeze of her movement and a delighted laugh bursting from her lips as she made her escape. She ducked straight between a couple of half-asleep Juniors and flew down the stairs two at a time, very nearly missing them at times but too caught up in her race to be cautious. Skidding around the corner, she headed up the hall, and then stopped in front of C25. Quietly now, she crept with exaggerated caution up to the door, and tapped on it a couple of times.

Two taps echoed her.

Three taps. Three taps.

Four taps. Three taps plus one hasty fourth tap after a beat of silence.

Tasmin rolled her eyes. "Bard, come on," she said, putting her hands at about where her hips would be later in life and in doing so looking startlingly like her mother. "It's mornin' already, will ya hurry up?"

The door opened slightly and Bayard Stormwing peered out through the crack. He was dressed, but still sleepy-eyed. "Aw, gee, Tas, do we have to go now? I'm still tired an' our mums an' dads are gonna be awful mad 'cos we haven't asked them if we can go..."

"Are you a duck or a chicken?" she demanded. "We're just goin' to the rink, Bard. Ya got yer gear?"

"Yeah." Bayard disappeared from the doorway, but came back a few moments later with a pair of toddler-sized ice skates and a couple of padded plastic hockey sticks. He closed the door as quietly as possible behind him. "You got a puck, right?"

"Yep! Poppa's lucky one," she added proudly. The puck had the number thirteen written onto it, and a chip taken out of the side. "Now, come on, we gotta get there before one of the grown-ups spots us!"

The two five-year-olds hastily turned and scrambled back up the stairs. There were very few people about at that time of the morning; some milled around sleepily, while those on kitchen duty headed to the mess hall to get the breakfast ready. One young man even gave them a wave as the two kids flashed past. Probably the hardest part of the whole plan was getting out of the bay room doors, as the handles were inconveniently placed just a bit too high for them to reach. Tasmin solved that problem, using their hockey sticks as long arms.

Early as it was, outside the rink the noise of morning traffic in the city was already starting as various law-abiding citizens went to their various workplaces. The rink, with its large glass doors locked and bolted, was silent as the kids emerged from the hidden staircase.

Bayard sat down and started to put his skates on, asking at the same time, "But aren't our mums an' dads gonna find us gone and get all worrying?"

Tasmin thought hard, her tongue sticking out the side of her beak with concentration. "Maybe," she conceded, and suddenly great big flaws in her previously flawless plan showed up. "Oh!" she cried, stamping her little foot and pouting. "This is all just silly."

"It was your idea."

"Nuh-uh, t'wasn't! Not first! You was the one wanning ta come!"

"Wasn't!"

"Was!"

"Wasn't!"

"Was!"

"Now, now, children, let's not argue," said a candy-coated voice from the stands to their left. They looked around with open mouths, up and up at the figure sitting above them, legs crossed, shades slipped down his beak, a long curved staff resting crosswise over his lap. His was a totally unfamiliar face to Tasmin, with soft apricot feathers, loose curls of mousy gray and a friendly smile.

"Who are you?" she demanded.

"Hmm... You can call me Hunter."

"You hunt things?"

"Yes."

"Like what?" asked Bayard.

The man smiled even wider. "People."

"You don't fritten us that easy," the boy scoffed. "We're five years old!"

"Are you indeed? And hockey pros already, too." They nodded proudly, glad that he'd seen it. "Well, do you know, I like a good game myself." He dropped from the stands to land with terrifying silence in front of them, and suddenly the stave he held sprouted a long, curved blade which gleamed in the morning light. "Can I play?"

"Momma!!"

"Daddy!!"

Hunter gave a snort of amusement, watching the two children tear off like a couple of frightened fels. Children. He'd never liked them very much to begin with, and since the other night he liked them even less. But he knew that they would alert some Brotherhood members whom he could, if they didn't do anything tediously obstinate, ask for Leila deSilver -- so they were not entirely useless.

*****

"Momma! Poppa!"

Leila l'Orange groaned and pulled the covers up over her head. Next to her, her husband mumbled something unintelligible in his sleep and tried to drag the covers back onto his side. There was a thump on the bed. "Momma! Poppa! There's dis guy up on the rink wit' a great big blade-stick-thing!"

"Wha'?" asked Leila sleepily, blinking a few times in morning confusion and staring hard at the alarm clock. She reasoned that since the clock read just past seven in the morning it was probably about time she got up anyway, and pulled herself upright, her feet dangling an inch above the floor. "Now, what did you say, Tas?"

Tasmin sighed impatiently. "There's a guy on the rink, he's got this blade-stick-thingie, an' he frittened us!"

Most normal people living a normal life would assume their child had been dreaming. But Leila l'Orange was not a normal person, she did not live a normal life, and she took the nightmare of intruders very seriously. "Really... an' what did this man look like?"

"Sorta cream fedders. He's wearing shades, and his 'air is kinda grayish."

Leila didn't know of anyone in the Brotherhood who fitted that description, which hiked her concerns up another notch. Shaking away her morning daze, she tried to think straight. "All right. I'll go an' fritten-- frighten-- this guy right back for ya. Hey, sleepy head." This last was said to her husband as she nudged him hard in the ribs.

"Huh? Whuh? Where's the fire?" Duke looked up at her blearily.

"There's a guy up on the rink frittenin'-- argh! Frightenin' our kids." Leila struggled to sound casual, reassuring, and meaningful all at the same time. "You wanna come help me scare him back?"

He yawned. "This early in the morning?"

"Duke l'Orange! Out! Of! Bed! This! Instant! Hut hut hut!"

Giving her a lazy salute Duke complied, slinging a dressing gown on over his pajamas and grabbing his saber more for show than anything else. Leila slipped a shirt and track-pants over her own night attire, and took up her sword with a nagging worry that she might have to use it.

Damn it, why can't trouble take a day off or somethin'? she thought, annoyed. Some sleep-in this morning! After telling Tasmin to stay right there, the two headed out.

And ran right into Jedar almost as soon as they were out of the door. "By the look of you two," the blue-haired man remarked, "I assume that you aren't going out for coffee."

"I could say the same 'bout you." Jedar had actually managed to get fully dressed, and Leila realized suddenly, now her sleep had faded almost completely, that her nightgown was bulging under her clothes in undesirable places. She attempted to straighten it out without looking as if she was doing so.

"Bayard woke us up," explained Jedar, "but I told Lessa to stay put."

Leila nodded, frowning slightly. She almost started to suggest they bring Marshall as well, but shut her beak with a pang of sorrow as she remembered that Marshall was some four years dead. Her slip-ups had become less frequent as the years passed, but now and then she still went to call for the old man who'd been a rock of support in her early days as Leader. "We three should be able to handle this," she said finally.

"The three of us against one intruder?" Duke rubbed hastily at his eyes. "Sure. We can handle one guy."

She looked at him coolly. "One guy, yes, but one who just happens to have slipped past every security measure we have up there, who happens to be some kind of bladed weapon..."

"Scythe," Jedar corrected. "Bayard said a scythe."

"...Which could mean--" She stopped. "He said what? Scythe?"

"Well, actually he said 'skithie'; he always pronounces words as he reads them, but described it more accurately."

Leila frowned. Things were clicking together now, and she didn't like what they made. There were only two people (the term used loosely) that she knew of who carried a scythe around with them -- both were in a similar trade, and neither was the type of person she wanted a visit from any time soon. "All right. Come on, let's go."

She had rather hoped to find that no one was there, that in fact the kids had been frightened by dawn shadows and their own imaginations, and that after doing a thorough search around they could all go back to bed again. Therefore it was not only worry and anger she felt upon spotting the figure sitting calmly in the stands, polishing the blade of his scythe with a harsh cloth, but also a helping of annoyed disappointment.

Hunter of the Dirae was neither a large nor an imposing man. In fact he was probably not much taller than Leila herself, but the clothes he wore made him seem taller from a distance and height aside he was of a strong and wiry build. Though Leila herself had had no dealings with him before, there were files on the Dirae in her office and she'd been obliged to update them. So far, Hunter had proven to be an intelligent and dangerous man with some controversial ideas about running his guild that had made him unpopular with many members. But after the Dirae had sent a man after her some seven years previously, Leila had no sympathy for him at all.

The man looked up as they entered, and smiled. "Ah, Miss deSilver..."

"Mrs l'Orange," she corrected.

"Really." He gave Duke a curious look, as though inspecting a kind of rare beetle. "My belated congratulations. I'd have sent a gift, but unfortunately I was never informed of the happy occasion."

In no mood to bandy about with pleasantries, Leila folded her arms and glared at him. "What are you doing here, Hunter?"

"Hunter?!" Duke cast a startled glance at Leila, and then looked even more so when the man in question appeared just a few feet before them without apparently moving.

"Indeed. And you're Duke l'Orange, former leader of the Brotherhood, and wanted fugitive. I may rearrange my previous opinion of you, after your having the good taste to wed such a woman as Leila." The compliment had barbs, and while Duke frowned Hunter turned and gave a slight bow to the other occupant of the room. "Jedar Stormwing, I believe. I'm pleased to finally meet the man with such an excellent aim; you're quite the talked about figure among the Dirae. In fact, we've even named a particular stratagem in your honor. I'd offer a shake of goodwill, but I'm left-handed."

"And what has that to do with anything?" Jedar asked suspiciously, still noticeably wincing over his unwanted infamy within assassination circles.

"The handshake was originally developed to make certain the other person was not carrying a weapon concealed in his hand. Most ancients were right-handed, so a left-handed person could easily keep a dagger in their best hand while offering their right--"

Leila drew her blade in an arc of silver light. That got everybody's attention. "Answer my question, Hunter," she said, deactivating it again.

"I need sanctuary," said the assassin.

"You need sanctuary?"

With a rueful smile, Hunter nodded. "Difficulties at within the Dirae have left me, how should I put it, deposed."

"Pity it wasn't disposed."

"That's uncharitably harsh, Mrs l'Orange." The assassin looked genuinely hurt. "What have I ever done to you?"

"Apart from wantin' ta have me killed?!"

"It's not me. Why does everybody think that it's personal?"

You sent someone ta kill me, she thought. How much more personal can it get? Leila would have folded her arms in her anger, but her grip on her saber-hilt -- which, she noted absently, was so fierce her knuckles had gone pale -- prevented her from doing so. "Absolutely not, Hunter. The Brotherhood of the Blade ain't a hotel."

"Did I say temporary?"

There was silence.

"No, I didn't."

Struggling to find her tongue, she finally managed, "You mean, you wanna join?"

Hunter shrugged. "Well, I'm currently out of work with very little chance of ever getting it back, and I don't really want to go out as a pauper. I think I have most of the required for an application."

Except anythin' remotely like morals, thought Leila, disgusted. But he was probably right, at that -- though her knowledge of the shadowy assassins guild was sketchy at best, the Brotherhood had had a few dealings with them in the past and they were known to be highly skilled in a jack-of-all-trades sort of way. "What can ya offer us?" she asked, and immediately added, "Other than the obvious."

"Leila!" Duke gaped. "Ya can't be thinkin' of letting him join!"

He turned to Jedar, who raised his hands as if to say that this was entirely out of his league. "I don't like this any better than you, Duke, but at least as long he's in the Brotherhood we can be sure he's not going to be causing trouble out of it, right?"

"How would we know? He murders people for money." Duke jabbed his saber in Hunter's general direction. "We can't trust someone like him!"

Leila felt the mood starting to get argumentative, but she never had the time to do anything. A quick shift in the air and suddenly Duke was on his back, looking shocked, while Hunter held the thief's saber loosely in his free hand. "I'm sorry about that," the assassin said, placing Duke's blade down on the floor and stepping back. "I just don't like having weapons pointed at me. I'm sure you can understand."

Sitting upright, Duke scowled and snatched his saber back, all wounded pride and fierce glares. Despite the gravity of the situation, Leila felt a smile tug at her beak. She loved her husband dearly, but she had to admit his massive ego did occasionally need taking down a notch or two...

Then she turned to Hunter, serious again. "All right, so you can move fast. I suppose ya also have most of the skills any good thief needs for sneakin' into a place undetected." Despite this concession, her voice was harsh. "You wouldn't be the first assassin to join our ranks, Hunter, but those few others have reformed to the point where we can trust them. I can't see anythin' remotely reformed in you."

"Old habits die hard."

"They'd better die fast," she snapped. "The Brotherhood doesn't kill unless it's absolutely necessary. As a member you'll be expected to live by our rules, and you will be subject to the punishments for breaking them, never mind what guild you used to be in charge of. You'd better understand that."

He nodded. "Perfectly."

"Good." She sighed; feeling suddenly very tired. They didn't have much in the way of options here, and Jedar was right -- it would be much easier to keep an eye on this man if he were a member than if he were on the loose. "Come on down to my office, I'll run ya through everything there."

*****

Stepping out of Leila's office and around the corner to escape her still slightly suspicious gaze, Hunter felt nearly as tired as the Leader of the Brotherhood herself at that moment. Having spent the morning on a particularly noisy train with no sleep the previous night and none that he could get on the lurching rail vehicle, he was already exhausted by the time he slipped past the security cameras into the Brotherhood's rink.

Now, after the Brotherhood laws had been drilled firmly into him, as well as a few threats of what would happen if he broke any of them, he just wanted to get to his assigned quarters and sleep.

Hopefully dreamless.

There was a loud, "Ahem!" from behind. Hunter spun around, left hand automatically reaching back for the scythe handle at his back -- and lifted an eyebrow in surprise. A veritable army of children stood there, at the head of them the boy and girl he'd seen up on the rink.

The boy folded his arms and grinned. "Fritten us again!"

*****

Time passed...

Hunter lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling. He'd been lying like that for about an hour so far, and if anyone had peered in they might have thought him asleep; his hands loosely clasped over his stomach, and the shades hiding his eyes from view. Alternately, they might have thought him dead, for his breathing was so shallow it seemed as if it weren't there -- he hadn't so much as twitched since he'd lain down on the old mattress. But he was not asleep, and was certainly not dead although the notion was beginning to hold some appeal for him. Having not felt like eating dinner he had retired to his room with plans to stay there for the rest of the night, just to think, because he had a lot to think about of late.

He wasn't well liked here -- not that that surprised him at all, or worried him, either. He hadn't expected to be liked, he expected to be only barely tolerated. No, his problem wasn't with the members disliking him, but with those who did like him, the children in particular. They loved him!

A wry smile flickered across his face. Ironic, really, he thought. He didn't normally like children himself, but they always sought him out to play with, or for him to see the new toy they had, or for some other inexplicable reason. It would have been simple to stop them from coming back, but he knew that their parents were watching him very closely and ultimately decided that it was a small price to stay alive. This didn't worry him much either. What really worried him was that he was starting to enjoy it.

I'm going soft, he thought angrily, sitting up, moving for the first time since he'd lain down. I can't afford to go soft if I ever want my job back. Damn it, I swear if I return I'll defeather and roast Giles for this, and then decorate what's left of him with appendages from his helpers...

If I return...?

He blinked, stunned, certain that was not what he'd meant to think. Of course I'm going to return, there's nothing here or anywhere else for me. The Dirae is all I have now; I'm not losing it to Steelbeak. All I have. I don't even have Calhoun... Hunter shook his head quickly, hoping to clear out such depressing thoughts.

Calhoun was nothing, anyway, he told himself, just a thin covering to hide Hunter from the general public. It doesn't matter that he's as wanted a man now as I am.

It had been on the news just the night after he'd arrived. The police were looking for one Calhoun Flockhart, suspected of the attempted murder of the two Mayalan princesses a few days ago. They had his prints from the revolver he'd dropped. Apparently, Calhoun had sold his house and moved to Thrain, but there had been no people boarding the flight who looked anything like him. They'd interviewed a number of those who'd known him, and one of who was the new owner of Calhoun's old house. Seeing Tracker's face again, hearing the man glibly say that he'd noticed 'nothing strange' in Calhoun's behavior, save that he was acting 'a little stressed', Hunter almost lost his cool entirely, but managed to get out of there before any curious looks were thrown his way.

He was nothing, Hunter thought again. Although, he couldn't help wondering if Tracker was being kind to the fel... Oh, damn the fel! Damn Tracker, damn his cronies, damn those princesses, damn the cops and damn me as well! He took off his shades, stared at them as if for the first time in his life, and then hurled them at the wall where they crumpled and clattered onto the floor.

I've only ever been Calhoun or Hunter. Now I can't be either of them, what am I to do? Now that they're both gone, who am I supposed to be? He sighed. Questions, questions... If this was what thinking quietly by himself was just going to do, he'd much rather get out there and socialize, as panicked as that made him feel.

Panicked? Ah, so that's it. I'm frightened. I am frightened. Well now. There's something new. He stood up and looked mournfully down at his sunglasses. Ruined, now. Smiling lopsidedly, he headed out of the door. Oh well, I suppose I should stop pretending, anyway. That's never got me anywhere but trouble.

Any meal in the Brotherhood Lair would find Hunter sitting right back in a corner, away from everyone, quietly sipping a coffee and eating whatever had been his meal. He always did his best to come in late, and tonight, by the time he got there, the place was almost empty apart from a few people who had finished their dinner and were joking around afterwards. He recognized a few of them -- by sound rather than sight, as he had worn his shades most of the time so only ever saw people in the rainbow patterns of infrared vision. None of them were on their own, of course, and Hunter found he was feeling lonely by the time he got his dinner, and sat down at his regular spot.

He still wasn't very hungry, and stirred his vegetables around with his fork, occasionally stabbing at one but not eating it. Lonely? He'd been alone his whole life, even when surrounded by people. Even when he'd had a family... No. No, before his father's death he hadn't been alone. But being stuffed into an orphanage run like a work camp by a distraught mother who couldn't look after him didn't make a little boy feel good. He'd loved his mother, of course, loved her more than anything else -- especially when she adopted him back -- and just couldn't face her after his very first kill...

Why am I doing this to myself, thinking like that? he wondered. Depression isn't something I usually go in for.

"Hello."

He looked up in surprise, and tried to place the pretty young woman in front of him. Red hair, white feathers, Ingallish accent... ah. "Mrs Stormwing, good evening."

Nylessa smiled at him. "May I sit down?"

This was definitely new. "Of course, take a seat. But I do warn you that I'm not a very good conversationalist."

"Oh, that's all right," she said, pulling over a chair and sitting down with her legs crossed. "If you like, I'll do all of the talking. Not hungry?"

"Not really." He looked at her speculatively. "Why did you come over here? I don't mean to be rude, but I saw you quite happily chatting with your friends there, did you really leave them just to inquire about my appetite?"

"Such a suspicious mind," she commented. "But of course I didn't. You looked a bit lonesome so I thought you might appreciate some company." It was her turn to scrutinize him. "You look much better without those shades on. You have very nice eyes. The kind that attract the women."

"Thank you, ma'am," he said dryly. "But aren't you already married?"

"I'm afraid you're a few years too late, yes."

"My timing is flawed, it appears."

"Oh, I don't doubt that there'll be another girl out there for you."

"My experience with the opposite gender has been brief and depressing, but your confidence is flattering." Now why did I say that? he thought irritably. She'll ask questions now, and I really don't want to talk about it.

She looked at him thoughtfully. "You leave me curious, but I can tell you don't want me to pry, so I won't." He must have shown his surprise, because she chuckled and added, "Unless, of course, that was the point."

"No, it wasn't. I just had a horrible feeling you would and was amazed to be proven wrong."

"Does that happen so infrequently?"

"Not of late," he said, with a brief grimace. "But I'd rather not talk about that either."

"Well, what do you want to talk about?"

Hunter tried to look apologetic, and may have even managed it. "I told you I was not a good conversationalist. Apart from there being so many subjects around that strike too close to sore points of mine, I haven't the slightest clue how to be entertaining. Unless you want a game of Glacier, but the only problem with that idea is that I very rarely lose, and you don't make friends by winning all the time."

"But lots of enemies, I'll wager."

"Oh yes, many enemies," he sighed.

"Fine then," said Nylessa, with a smile. "Since I haven't a clue what Glacier is, let alone how to play it, why don't you teach me?"

He raised an eyebrow. "Pardon?"

"Just what I said. I'd like to learn. Please, Hunter?"

For a few seconds he just stared in mute astonishment at her charmingly hopeful expression, then blinked, smiled, and withdrew the pack of cards he kept inside his trench coat. "All right. Let's play."

*****

Their growing audience cheered as Nylessa placed the cards down with a triumphant smile. "Full house of blue suns," she chirped.

Hunter shook his head slowly in amazement, tossing his cards down; he had a fairly good hand, but it was nothing that could beat hers. Which meant that she had won the fourth round, and subsequently the whole game. "Are you sure you've never played before?"

"Quite sure."

"This is very humbling," he admitted. "I've never lost four times in a row." He briefly glanced over his shoulder but only saw a young blonde-haired woman who smiled quite innocently at him. "I either taught you far too well or you've got some amazing talent."

She laughed. "Well, I'm a fast learner, I suppose."

Looking around at the crowd, Hunter realized they'd drawn everyone who was in the Mess Hall to stand around their table, plus a good lot of other people who hadn't been there before. He could recognize quite a few of them by now, although now they sensed the game was at an end they were drifting out in small groups. A yawn caught him unawares. "Goodness... what's the time?" he asked.

"Bed time," said Nylessa dryly, handing him the neatly squared-off deck of cards. "I really enjoyed that game, thank you, Hunter." Her expression became a little wicked. "I'll have to show off my new-found skill to Jedar in the event that I can find some of these cards for myself."

"Does he know how to play?"

"Of course not."

"That's not very fair, Lessa," he chided gently, and then wondered when he'd grown so familiar around this woman that he'd started calling her by an informal nickname.

She grinned at him. "It's not supposed to be. He's my husband, after all. If I was fair to him all the time, we'd never have any fun."

The crowd was nearly gone now. Hunter slipped his cards back into their hidden pocket, and then stood up, stretching slightly. "The time does fly. I enjoyed the game too, and thank you."

"Hm?"

"You were right," he said. "I was feeling a little lonesome. Thank you for cheering me up. Goodnight."

"Sleep well."

"You too." And Hunter left the Mess Hall feeling far more light-hearted than he had for a long time. As he walked, he mulled this over silently. Good grief, he thought, you are turning into a sop, aren't you? Truth was... he liked the feeling, and that was starting to worry him. It wasn't that he'd never been happy -- no, that was wrong. He'd always been satisfied. Happiness had never entered into the picture.

Oh, blast it. Maybe I should have gone to Thrain after all. My life would likely have been far simpler.

He had almost reached his temporary quarters when he practically walked straight into a Korsain woman in very flattering attire, who was also wandering thoughtfully down the hallway. Taking a quick step to the side, he nodded a hello and she smiled a fleeting smile back at him, but neither said a word.

He watched her walk away, the database of his mind struggling to fit an identity, a name, to that face. Unable to find one, he came to the obvious conclusion that he'd never met her before and for some reason this struck him as a problem that should be immediately remedied. "Excuse me, miss...?"

She turned with one eyebrow raised. "Name's Rio."

"Ah." Hunter gave a ghost of a bow. "Hunter. Goodnight."

"Uh... huh."

Ignoring her expression -- the 'okay-here's-a-weirdo' type -- he turned around, unlocked his door, and slipped inside. And one more day was done.

*****

Whether it had been that one evening's experience of socializing that had broken the dam, or whether the dam had been about to burst anyway through sheer frustration, but Hunter found himself more and more involved in the Brotherhood after that night. He attended the mealtimes more promptly and even, on occasion, was invited to sit with others. At first he had been wary and tried to work out what they wanted from him, but finally accepted the reality that they were only trying to make him feel welcome.

The strangest thing was, he saw that young woman -- Rio -- almost continuously now. It seemed that he couldn't go anywhere without meeting up with her at some point; she was in the hallways, the gymnasium, the mess hall, the lounge, she was everywhere, and always just when he happened to be there as well. It was insane.

Now he sat in the mess hall, listening attentively to the continuous stream of tales coming from the beak of the large Cardakian man, Wade Chandelle. Much to Hunter's surprise, he rather liked the boisterous gambler. Wade was refreshingly blunt, and quite happy to fill him in on the various details of Brotherhood life that the more 'polite' members would be embarrassed to talk about.

"...So ya see, that is why no one ever uses the middle toilet on B Level," Wade finished one particularly charming story.

Hunter chuckled. "Yes, I can see why that would be a bad idea."

"Consider yourself lucky t've been warned, pal," the man snorted. "I had t' learn 'bout it the hard way. So, there's Harvest Day coming up soon."

Blinking, Hunter tried to figure out how they had got from bathroom humor to talking about public holidays. It was something that happened fairly often with Wade, he noted, who tended to digress or switch topics as the mood took him, often halfway through one of his stories. "And, yes? What of it?"

"What of it?" Wade was incredulous. "What of it? Didn't the Dirae celebrate anything?"

"Nothing that wasn't of importance to our own history," he replied dryly. "And even then, I think the words 'solemn remembrance' would be more accurate than 'celebration'." And I was content to leave it that way, too.

"Dear gods!"

Hunter was about to change the subject himself, when a familiar face walked past his table and gave him the perfect excuse to. "Who is that?" he asked, turning around in his chair and looking after the woman, whose black tights and short skirt seemed to show off a lot more leg than he would have expected.

Wade followed his gaze, raised an eyebrow, and gave him a sympathetic look. "Ye're not the first," he said, and received a slightly irritated glare in return. The big man held up his hands. "Hey, I'm just sayin'..."

"My interest in her is not like that," said Hunter firmly. "I just want to know who she is."

Shrugging, as if to say 'it's your funeral', Wade sat back. "Her name's Rio deJeneiro, she can kill a man with one look and strip him t' the bone with her tongue. Other than that, she's a really nice gal. But you don't go making passes at her without her permission, and she isn't likely t' ever give that to no one. Although," he added as an aside, "a lot of people used t' think there was a thing going on between her and Jedar early on, but when Ms deJeneiro caught someone spreadin' that rumor, she threw 'em down the stairs. Just goes to show, some people dunno when t' stop gossipin'."

"Wade, you gossip worse than an old woman," Hunter remarked, still watching Rio out of the corner of his eye.

She had sat down at a table along with the dark-feathered lady doctor -- he paused to find the name -- Querida, and they were engrossed in conversation. Hunter found himself wondering just what they were talking about...

*****

"Well, I see you've won yourself another admirer."

Rio looked up just a little too quickly, but she sounded casual enough when she asked, "An' what makes ya say that?"

"Maybe it's just a wild guess, but it looks like someone at one of the other tables is giving you the definite eye."

"Oh?" Rio grinned, turning a little in her seat and crossing her legs. "Who's that?"

"Looks like Hunter, to me."

Wham! Rio uncrossed her legs and planted both feet firmly on the floor so quickly it made the table vibrate. Kerry raised her eyebrows and asked mildly, "Why, was that a problem?"

"No, no problem. Why?"

"I don't know, somehow I thought that almost getting my coffee dumped in my lap might indicate a problem... so, what do you think of him?"

Rio tried to look innocent, and as usual failed miserably. "What do I think a' who?"

"Hunter, of course."

"Who? Oh, right, him." She shrugged, suddenly deciding she was very hungry and couldn't wait another minute to start eating. "I don' really know him," she said between bites, "I don' think I've ever even had a real conversation wit' him."

"So the possibility of him being interested in you..."

"No possibility there. An' it wouldn't matter ta me one way 'r another."

"Really."

"Really. I couldn't care less." She glanced up, then glared as she saw the amused look Kerry wasn't even trying to hide. "An' what's so damn funny?"

Her expression went dutifully blank. "Nothing. You're just usually not quite so... vehement in your denials. And for a moment there, I thought I saw you blushing."

"Then maybe ya need glasses," Rio snapped, "because ya didn't see no such thing."

"Of course not."

"An' don't ya go tryin' ta play matchmaker 'r anythin', Ker. 'Cause I don' need you 'r anyone else interferin' like that, got it?" She didn't pause long enough for Querida to even reply before she switched topics, and Kerry let her--for now. "So, what are yer plans fer the Harvest Festival?"

"You mean what plans do I actually have, or what plans do you already have that you're going to force on me to make sure I have what you define as 'fun'?"

"Don' be facetious. I jus' wanted ta know if I'll see ya at the festival 'r not."

Kerry sighed in mock annoyance. "Probably, just because I'll never hear the end of it if you don't. Although..." She looked pointedly over to the table where Hunter was still sitting. "I doubt that I'll be the one you spend your time looking for at the festival."

Rio threw up her hands, exasperated. "That's it, I give up! I can't talk ta ya when ye're like this. I'm gettin' outta here before ya decide ta start printin' up weddin' invitations." She picked up her tray and huffed off but not, Kerry noticed, before she stole another glance in Hunter's direction.

Well, well, well.

*****

Hunter stood in the corner of the mess hall and watched blankly as the rest of the Brotherhood moved around him in full swing. Laughter was frequent, both on the main floor where groups of people danced together, and in quieter corners where groups of people talked together. Some people sang snatches of the songs. Music blared, lights flashed, and wine flowed freely.

He didn't really care. Parties and such never really agreed with him. They especially didn't just then. He'd come only to get himself some dinner so that he wouldn't starve, but was beginning to wonder if maybe he shouldn't have skipped food altogether and remained sequestered safely in his quarters.

After coming to that conclusion, the next step was simple -- get out of there. In fact, he was about to do just that when an alarmingly familiar young woman sashayed her way up to him and flashed her dazzling smile at him. "'Ey. Ye're Hunter, ain't ya?"

He blinked, surprised, and then nodded slightly. "That I am. And you're Rio, if I recall correctly?"

"Yeah, ya do," she grinned. Leaning casually against the wall beside him, she folded her hands behind her back. "So, I take it ya ain't much fer these things?" She nodded to the festival whirling around them.

Hunter shook his head slowly. "No, not really. I'm not used to it anymore. Social gatherings aren't my thing."

"Really." She cocked an eyebrow. "Then why ya here?"

"I was hungry," he replied. "And since dinner is served here and nowhere else it's the logical place to come. And," he added with some reluctance, "I will admit to, ah, not a little curiosity."

Rio quirked a smile at his choice of words. "Ah. Gotcha. But these sorta things ain't much fun if all ya do is watch..." She raised a suggestive eyebrow and glanced pointedly toward the dance floor.

"I don't dance."

She gave him a most charming look. "Are ya sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I used to, once." He sighed. "A long time ago, and I expect I've forgotten how. Besides, it was all waltz."

"I can teach ya, then," said Rio brightly.

Hunter was about to say no again, more firmly this time, but a spark of some nameless emotion or another changed his mind, and he gave her a half-smile. "Well, all right," he agreed, "as long as it's a slow dance."

"I think I can manage that." She offered him her hand, her smile mischievous.

And suddenly I wonder if this one woman isn't more dangerous than all of the assassins of the Dirae put together. But even so, he let her lead him out to the floor.

*****

Rio deJeneiro could have slept through an earthquake, a hurricane, or a bomb going off under her bed.

Possibly all three at once.

So by the time she woke up enough to register that someone was knocking on her door, it had probably been going on for a while. She reflexively slapped her alarm clock a few times, even though it hadn't done anything but sit there innocently, and sat up, brushing the hair out of her eyes with an impatient gesture. "What?!"

The door eased open, and Kerry poked her head in, looking around cautiously. "Good morning. When I didn't see you at breakfast, I thought I'd come find you..." She paused, looking around again.

"What the hell do ya keep doin' that for?" Rio asked grumpily, still trying to wake up the rest of the way. She blinked a few times until her vision cleared, and blinked again at Querida's curious expression.

"I just... wasn't entirely sure you'd be alone this morning, that's all," her friend said. "I mean, last night... you and Hunter..."

For a moment, Rio just stared at her. "Ker, what are ya talkin' about? I know I'm hung over but I ain't so far gone I don't remember last night, an' I'm pretty sure nothin' happened worth gettin' this excited over."

Querida gave her the most purely incredulous look Rio had ever seen. "Rio, once you two started dancing, you were partnered for the whole night! Every slow dance, anyway. You never stay with one man an entire evening, you don't even usually talk to ones you don't know already, and you never sit down for a fast song."

"Ye're blowing this way outta proportion, Ker. Maybe ye're the one who had too much ta drink last night."

"Don't try to change the subject. Rio, you left with him! You never leave with anyone!"

"He walked me ta my room, that's all!" Rio drew herself up, trying to regain her dignity, though that was a little hard when she wasn't even fully awake yet. "He looked lonely. I offered him a dance. We got ta talkin', and when I was tired he walked me home. We said goodnight. That's it."

"Of course it is."

"I have no interest in the man."

"Of course you don't."

"As far as I'm concerned, I don't care if I ever see him again."

"Of course not."

"An' stop givin' me that damn knowin' look!"

"Rio, either I'm crazy or you're blind, but there were sparks flying out there and I'm not talking about Shockwave. Or maybe you did have too much to drink. Or maybe, just maybe..." A smile tugged at her mouth. "Maybe my confirmed bachelorette best friend has finally found someone worth pursuing."

Rio just stared at her for a moment, then managed in a falsely sweet voice, "Ker, don't ya have work ta do?"

"Right, yes, I'm just going." She got up and turned to leave, but Rio's voice stopped her at the door.

"Ker?"

"What?"

"I'm still a confirmed bachelorette."

Querida stopped and looked back, grinning. "Of course you are."

She ducked out the door and slammed it behind her just as Rio's pillow collided with it.

*****

Hunter hadn't appeared for breakfast, and he wasn't sure he wanted to appear for lunch. The Brotherhood was slowly killing him, he decided, or at least it was killing everything that he had been. Everything was so confusing now. I have to get out of here, he thought, or I really won't know what to do. He knew he had to. He'd stayed longer than he'd expected to already; it was coming up on the third week. But... yes, he had to go. That was plain to see. Did he want to? That was a question he didn't have an answer for.

Last night replayed in his mind, and he tried to shut it off by dragging the pillow over his head -- it didn't work, and he glared in frustration at the wall from beneath it. The stone wall was cold, immovable and without emotion. He had been like that, once. Sighing, he glanced up at the furthest corner, where the stone had begun to crack due to a leaking pipe behind it. That was him now. Cracking. And if he wasn't careful, his mind would start cracking.

Rio... He sighed thoughtfully, dumping the pillow back in position and sitting upright on the bed; he wasn't used to feeling like this. He wasn't used to any of this. Oh, once, a long time ago, he'd loved... and that had got him no where but hurt. I wonder... What would have happened if he'd settled the girlfriend dispute in a fistfight like any normal kid? Instead of grabbing the nearest bread-knife and stalking the boy into the park and--

Hunter blinked quickly, feeling a little... odd.

All I can think of is death or... or her. Why do all these memories bother me now? And why does deJeneiro strike me like this? I've seen plenty of beautiful women before. Most of them killers, of course... but she's different... apart from the obvious, why is she different? What is it about her? Why the hell am I feeling like this? He groaned and flopped back into the bed, trying his best to think of something totally different. It hadn't worked earlier, and it didn't work now.

That's it. When the going gets tough, the smart ones leave. He stood up, heading for the door, pausing only to pick up his scythe and to put on the new pair of sunglasses he'd bought. He wasn't going to just wait around. Goodbye Brotherhood. Goodbye morals. Goodbye change. Goodbye Rio.

*****

"I need to use your mainframe."

Cutter lifted his eyebrows in surprise, not having heard anyone enter. He turned around casually, and gave the man in his workshop doorway a quick summing up. He was pretty recognizable, especially considering that his arrival at the Brotherhood had been all over the grapevine for the last few weeks -- and because he was leaning on the handle of a scythe. "Ah, Hunter. Good morning, or is it afternoon already?"

Hunter ignored his greeting. "I heard you're the best cracker here."

"My reputation precedes me."

"I'll take that as a yes." The man paused thoughtfully. "Can I come in? Lovely as the view of your workshop is from out here, I'd prefer to be talking on the inside. What I have to ask is somewhat private and I'm afraid old habits are persistent."

Cutter inclined his head. "Please, take a seat."

"I need to use your mainframe," Hunter repeated, leaning against the bench rather than taking the offered seat.

"You said that."

"I'm saying it again. I have to contact Eon."

"Eon... Eon..." Cutter tapped his beak thoughtfully. "Why does that name ring a bell?"

"Matrix Jabiru, the Dirae's technician and local cracker. A similar function, I believe, to yourself and young Shockwave."

Cutter's guard went up, but unnoticeably so. "I've... heard of him. He and the HACKERS had a small disagreement a few years ago."

"Oh, yes, I remember that. You might want to tell Xenon I apologize for those, ah, events. If it will make her feel any better at all, I did reprimand him rather severely over it. And," he added thoughtfully, "you might also want to give Fyber-Optix my woefully belated toast to the birth of his daughter, and tell that crazy bastard that I hope she gives him as much aggravation as he gave me."

"You seem to know quite an amount," remarked Cutter dryly.

"I like to think I'm kept up to date by my staff."

"You have your own intelligence service?"

"Yes. Eon."

"Only him?"

"He's all I need."

The two men carefully studied each other in the silence that followed. Cutter didn't trust the assassin -- but he did not immediately dislike him, either. In fact it was rather hard to form a definite opinion of him. "Why do you need to contact your guild?"

"Because I'm going home," the assassin said flatly.

Cutter clucked his tongue. "Could be tricky."

"That's why I need to talk with Eon."

"I meant that Leila might not be so thrilled."

Hunter smiled briefly. "If it's knowledge of the Lair's location is all that she's worried about, I have known it for years and told no one. I can keep a secret. Besides, should anyone ever catch me, likely they'll shoot first and never mind about asking questions. I don't believe she has much to fear."

"Perhaps not," Cutter conceded, inwardly not so ready to accept this. He wondered if there was a way to stall the man until consulting Leila about this, but one look at Hunter's expression told him that saying 'wait' would not be an acceptable answer. This is a fix, he thought, grimacing inwardly. "How would we go about contacting this Eon?"

"He's almost always connected to an encoded and invisible chat room on the International Webwork dealing in government conspiracies, press cover-ups, et cetera." The assassin gave him a shrewd, sideways look. "Of course, I need access to a computer a bit more powerful than the average PC in order to crack the security on that chat room. Going to help? I heard it's a challenge to beat," he added casually.

I'm caught, Cutter realized. I could turn him down flat, of course... but... Mentally, he sighed. But Cutter does not turn down a challenge. He'd know I was stalling. "No mere chat room security is a match for me," he said, and grinned that lazy grin of his.

Hunter returned the grin. "I didn't think it would be. You get me in there, and I get out of the Brotherhood. I'm sure that everyone will sleep easier in the knowledge that I'm far away from Keltor City."

Cutter swung around in his chair and headed for his room. "What's the link?" When Hunter began rattling off a long string of letters and numbers, Cutter stopped and raised a hand. "How about you write it down, instead?"

From some hidden pocket, Hunter produced a notebook and pencil; after scratching away for a few moments, he handed the pad over. Cutter studied the neat print: nnu.0502.8933.24.7761.clm.gov.web. "What an address to remember," he commented.

"A good memory is always an asset. So. Shall we begin?"

Cutter was as good as his word; the chat room was fairly well secured, but no match for him. After only a few minutes, he sat back in his chair with a triumphant -- and slightly smug -- smile. "Done."

"I'll have to arrange a meeting between Eon and yourself one day, just to see how much of the world you could demolish in half an hour. Mind if I get in there?" He indicated the chair, which Cutter vacated with a little reluctance. "Thank you." The assassin sat down, entered a login and hidden password, and a black text screen came up.

##You have entered the chat.

Epoch: Good afternoon.

Hunter: I suppose. Is Eon around?

Messenger: Holy s%%t!! Dude!?! Where you been???

Hunter: Out and about. How are things?

Messenger: Bloody awful. Eon's battling with tech difficulties right now, you want him here?

##Epoch has left the chat. 2 chatters remaining.

Hunter: You'll do fine, Messenger. I'll be at the car park in downtown Keltor at exactly 1PM. Eon and yourself only, don't be late, and please try not to leave too much destruction in your wake.

Messenger: Righto, dude. C U there.

Hunter: Good afternoon, boy.

##You have left the chat.
***link terminated***
***now being rerouted to your original start page***
***thankyou for visiting***

*****

"He's what?!" exclaimed Leila, leaning forward over her desk.

"Leaving."

"And ya didn't stop him?!"

Cutter spread his hands, his normally unflappable facade cracked by only the slightest of frowns. "He's an assassin, Leila. What could I have done?"

Cursing softly, Leila flopped back down in her chair and drummed her fingers on the desk. "Not much," she said after a while, scowling, but the black look was not directed at him. "I'll get a coupl'a people ta follow him, just ta make sure of no double-dealin'." At his expression, she grimaced. "Okay, so I'm probably bein' a little paranoid here, but I just can't trust him."

The third occupant of the room spoke up. "He's only tryin' ta get back home, Lei," Duke pointed out. "He didn't even try ta hide where he was gonna meet his people at. I know it goes against every law in the Brotherhood, but maybe we should just let him leave."

Leila gave her husband a level look. "It's a precaution." Her eyes glittered in an uncharacteristically mischievous way. "An' I'm surprised that you'd wanna let him go, after that stunt he pulled wit' ya up on the rink."

"Hey, hey," said Duke indignantly, "I just wasn't on my guard, it was a trick!" After a pause, he added melodramatically, "A trick, I swear!"

"Whatever," she smirked. Then her face grew serious again. "Okay, now who--"

The sound of heated arguing filtered in from just outside her door.

"Ye're fruity, Jedar!"

"Possibly, but I still say--"

"The same thing ya been sayin' and it's as nuts now as it was when ya first said it. There ain't no way--"

"So you're saying we couldn't do it?"

"All I wanna know is why we'd waste our time wit' somethin' as trivial as--"

"Trivial?"

Leila sighed. "Cutter, get Frick and Frack into my office, pronto."

"Right away, ma'am." Grinning broadly, he stuck his head out the door. "Our fearless leader wants to speak to you, immediately if you please."

"For what?" asked Jedar. "Disturbing the peace?"

"More likely contaminatin' the airspace," muttered Rio under her breath.

"I heard that."

"Heard what?"

"Sometime today, people," Leila called from inside.

"Right, right, coming." They walked in and stood patiently in front of Leila's desk. She looked up at them and drummed her fingers on the desk.

"I've got a bit of a job for ya."

Rio grinned eagerly. "What is it?"

Leila outlined the mission quickly, and there was dead silence in the room for almost ten seconds. With a great deal of effort, Rio managed to look casual, although she was acutely aware that her face had become unusually pale. "So Hunter's leavin', eh? Huh. He didn't stick around."

"We didn't think he'd stay long," Jedar reminded her.

"No, 'spose not."

Leila gave them an impatient look. "Well? Are ya goin' or what?"

"Of course. Right away." Jedar turned to Rio and winked at her. "To the Duckmobile, faithful sidekick."

Rio stared at him with one eyebrow raised. "Ya been hangin' round Nosedive too long."

"Maybe," Jedar agreed.

*****

Neither Eon nor Messenger could actually drive, but they did their best -- hot-wiring a likely car and tearing out along the streets; and with Eon behind the wheel, there had been a small bet between them to see how long it would take before they hit something. About five minutes into the race, they hit a row of trashcans. And then a few minutes later they hit another row of trashcans.

"Do you have a problem with trashcans, dude?!" screamed Messenger as his psychotic friend seemed to go out of his way to knock down a third row. "Is that it, man?! Do you just hate trashcans?!"

"Yeah, I find them offensive to the eye, the nostrils, and every other sense available. I was also on a roll so I figured, why fight it?" Matrix AKA Eon had a wild grin on his face and was enjoying every moment of the erratic 'drive'. "Just look at 'em go... aw, kid, cheer up, and just think: we're giving work to the job-less street cleaners. They'll be fixing this mess up for weeks!"

Rumer Stonewing -- known as Messenger within the Dirae -- sank down into his seat and nervously ran a hand back through his long and tousled blue hair. "Dude, ya know this is gonna attract the cops."

"Ooh, and we'll be in a real-live car chase!"

"You are a very dangerous driver, Matt."

"Don't I know it, kid!"

Why the man insisted on calling him that was beyond Rumer, for Matrix Jabiru was at least two years his junior. The older man put up with it, though, because however eccentric the guy might be at least there never was a dull day.

They were a mismatched team. Matrix Jabiru was small and slight, with a mop of green hair that flopped over his face in a heavy fringe. He looked and acted as if he was wired up on permanent a caffeine rush. Rumer, on the other hand, was taller, blue-haired and gray-feathered, and wore a lary medley of a magenta Lianan flower-print shirt, yellow flares, rosy shades, and lots of necklaces of colorful beads and strange symbols. He couldn't have been more hippy if the word had been written on him in bold marker.

And right now he was gripping the sides of his seat in terror.

Glancing out at the road ahead of them, Rumer straightened abruptly. "Whoa, dude, look out, you're gonna miss the--!!" The rest of his sentence turned into a garbled scream-cum-curse, as the car spun wildly about the turnoff, hung in the air for a second, and then zoomed straight to high speed again. Rumer blinked. "--Turn-off. Hot holy smoke."

Matrix sniffed. "I don't think so. Could be the engine on fire."

Sirens were wailing in the background, and three police cars appeared from the corner. Rumer groaned and covered his face with one hand. "Now look at the mess you've got us into, dude. I told you the cops would come after us. Hunter's gonna be so pissed."

Matrix just grinned even more broadly, if that were possible, glanced in the rear view mirror, and neatly sent a trashcan flying back down the road. It hit the windscreen of the first police car, which screeched to a halt, old newspapers and banana peels fluttering in the breeze. "No sweat off my beak, Rumer."

BAM! BAM! BAM!

"And there ya go with those trashcans again." Rumer looked around. The police cars were still following, and there were more of them now. "Uh, Matt?"

"Hold onto your feathers, kid."

"What now? Oh, holy Drake!" They spun sharply around another corner into a narrow alley, the sides of the car grating shrilly against the brick walls. The police had more sense than they did, and the pursuing cars stopped.

"Hey!" said Rumer brightly, twisting around in his chair again. "I think we might have--" Suddenly, there was a floomph and they couldn't see a thing, except for a load of pristine washing and tangled line spread over the windscreen. "Aw, hell!"

Matrix calmly reached up and yanked back the sunroof. "As much as I adore looking at lingerie I prefer to view it on women, not windscreens. Take 'em out, Rumer."

A trailing end of line was whipping wildly just above his head, so Rumer grabbed it and pulled down. The clothes drew apart like a curtain, and the way was suddenly clear -- well... "Dude, look out," he warned, halfheartedly.

BAM! BAM! BOOM!

"You were saying?"

"Never mind." Rumer glanced behind again. There were no more police cars, but there was a long string of washing, newspapers, and debris trailing along behind them. They headed onto the highway as an eyesore of eyesores. He slid his rose-colored sunglasses right down to the end of his beak, and slouched against the cushions with a grunt. "Dude, remind me never, ever to sit you in the driver's seat again."

"We'll get there," Matrix assured him.

Rumer raised an eyebrow. "Yeah, but alive?" he asked pointedly, as they zigzagged around other drivers, whose angry shouts they could only hear portions of.

"Hey! Watch where you're going you--"

"Where'd you learn to drive? Slapshot?? I--"

"Bloody road hog! I'll call the cops on--"

Matrix smiled. "Ah, feel the love." He glanced at the radio-clock. "We're makin' good time, kid, no need to look so sullen! Cheer up!"

"What's to be cheerful about? I'm gonna die as p � t � de Rumer , smeared all over the highway from here to Keltor."

"Man, you're so negative of a sudden! Road trips just don't agree with you, do they?"

Rumer gave up. It was impossible to talk to Matrix when he was in this kind of mood; he turned everything you said into another joke. Closing his eyes, he allowed his mind to drift off in other directions, trying to ignore his friend as Matrix turned the radio up insanely loud and started singing along. After a while, he unplugged his ears to ask, "What's the time, dude?"

"Quarter to one."

He did the math quickly, and took a look at the speedometer. They were going about twenty miles over the limit, and Keltor City was nearing quickly. "Ya mean we'll actually make it to the car park in fifteen minutes?"

"We can try!" The car sped up further.

"I'm really starting to regret coming along, just so ya know."

Matrix smirked. "Oh, but think of how bored you'd be sittin' back at the base there, with only a double-cheese pizza and a six-pack of cola for company."

As a big, bright, and graffiti-covered 'Welcome to Keltor' sign flashed past at the speed of light, Rumer snorted, unconvinced. "Man, I'll take good food over your driving any day. At least pizzas won't get me killed."

"I wouldn't be so sure of that, Rumer, you never know what they put in 'em these days... ooh, and that looks like a shortcut!" Matrix spun off the motorway, barged through a construction sign, and continued down the empty road.

The Keltor city council had many bright people in their midst. These bright people had decided that what the place needed was a bridge going right over the car park. It would look very smart and metropolitan, but really had no practical use other than as added decoration to the road. Therefore the funding for it had dried up rather quickly, and the bridge remained only half finished.

It had to happen, didn't it?

*****

Hunter lounged against the brick wall, glancing at a pocket watch every ten or so seconds. He knew it was probably wishful thinking to hope that the hackers would appear on time, because wherever they went as a pair, something terrible happened to those around them. Nothing happened to them, of course, but trouble just liked to follow in their path, creating a wake of destruction where they left. He smiled briefly, and then looked at the clock again. Three minutes to one, he had just thought, when the sound of a vehicle above drew closer alarmingly quickly.

The man looked up in time to see a car -- with a line of lingerie, half a newspaper stand, a roadwork sign, and various rubbish items in tow -- go flying over the edge of the unfinished bridge, lop the uppermost branches from a tree to make a beautiful landing on a patch of bushes in the garden next door.

Hunter sighed. "They're early."

*****

Perched precariously on the roof of the nearest building, Jedar and Rio were amazed to see -- as well as they could through the line of conifers that partially blocked their view -- the occupants of the car emerge alive. They watched as Hunter walked over, disappearing behind the leaves. Jedar carefully made his way to the edge, but still couldn't see very well, and neither did the voices carry through the foliage.

"Trees," he sighed. "I could learn to hate them. At least ones so inconveniently placed. Maybe we should phone up the local logging company and ask them to clear the view for us?" He grinned at his friend. "I'm sure Hunter and his friends would be gracious enough to wait before continuing their conversation..."

Rolling her eyes, Rio gave him a playful shove -- a little too hard. With a short yelp of surprise, Jedar lost his grip and slid straight off the roof. He landed with a whumph in the garbage disposal unit below, and the lid clanged into place over his head.

Darkness.

"Owch." His voice echoed tinnily. He moved a little, first his arms, then his legs, just to make sure that he was all relatively in one piece, before finally wrinkling his beak at the smell. Either something had died here, or someone had thrown in something dead...

Then light appeared as the lid was lifted up again.

Jedar grinned sheepishly up at the three astonished assassins. "Uh, hello."

Hunter got over his surprise first and looked displeased. "Really, Jedar, if I'd known you were so curious about what we might be up to, I'd have invited you along." The older drake sighed, reached down and helped him up out of the garbage. "You're lucky this wasn't the glass recycler over there. Matrix, Rumer... meet Jedar Stormwing."

Jedar glanced at the other two. They were both staring at him in a kind of shock, and at first he wondered what was so shocking about his appearance, aside from the garbage he was still brushing from his clothing. Quickly, he looked them over -- the shorter of the pair, whom Hunter had indicated as Matrix, was a light golden-brown Mayalan with neon green hair falling over his eyes. The second...

He paused. The second was a tall Nijhro, dressed like a hippy, with purple eyes and--

Taking off his sunglasses, Rumer blinked slowly. "Dude... you stole my hair."

Eventually Jedar found his voice again. "I thought I was the one with the copyright."

"You know, I never properly realized the similarities until now, Mr Stormwing," said Huner thoughtfully. "But Jedar, this is Rumer Stonewing."

"Two of 'em!" came Rio's voice from above, as she shimmied down a well-positioned guttering pipe to land close by. She walked over, glancing first at Jedar, then at Rumer, and threw up her hands in mock despair. "As if one a' ya big blue-haired lugs wasn't bad enough..."

Hunter stared at her, his expression odd, then sighed and put a hand to his forehead. "I just can not escape you, can I," the man muttered under his breath. "Not you or the blasted Brotherhood."

Rio only heard part of that, but she gave him an arch look. "Well, I-- Leila weren't too pleased that ya left wit'out sayin' good-bye."

"So she sent us along to fare you on your way," Jedar finished.

"And I suppose you'll be faring me at saber-point, hm?" Hunter asked, his eyes flashing dangerously. "With all due respect to your leader, this really isn't any of her business. If she's upset because I broke a few of the rules I had previously agreed to abide by, you can assure her that my leaving will in no way endanger the Brotherhood."

"Until someone pays you to kill one of us, I'm sure."

"No one will, Mr Stormwing. The price for a Brotherhood member's life these days is beyond anyone's ability to pay up front."

"Somehow," said Jedar caustically, "that fails to reassure me."

Hunter sighed. "We assassins are not all evil, Jedar," he pointed out. "Some of us just have a different kind of morality to your own. We kill for money. You kill out of necessity. In both cases, it's a matter of survival."

"You can't justify cold-blooded murder."

"Jed..." Rio began warningly.

"No, he's right," said Hunter, surprising them all. "I can't justify it. I've done many horrible things in my life, and I'm not proud of any of them." He propped the end of his scythe against the wall and leaned against it, gesturing with his free hand out. "I suppose I could try to excuse myself on the grounds of having no other choice, but the fact was, I did have a choice. I could give some convoluted reason for my actions, a tough childhood, violent parents... but it wouldn't be true. The money is my only reason." A faint, almost rueful smile appeared on his face then. "Do I regret it all, though? Yes, I do. As if regret would bring back to life all the people I've killed over the years."

He looked around, one eyebrow raised. Bladers and Dirae both were staring at him in mute astonishment. "Was there anything else?" he asked.

Jedar, for one, could find nothing to say. He glanced quickly at Rio, and was further surprised -- even stunned -- to see her shock soften into something... unreadable. But as soon as she caught his gaze, the softness vanished abruptly.

Turning his back on them, Hunter faced his two assassins again. "Are we ready to--?" he started to ask, then cast a sidelong glance at the mangled car. "Never mind. I think I'd prefer a less conspicuous mode of transport... and I'll drive, if you don't mind, Eon."

"No worries, dude," said Rumer, before Matrix could protest.

"You're not going anywhere."

Hunter spun around, eyes narrowing, but Jedar spread his hands with a shrug; that ultimatum hadn't been his. It took a moment for him to realize that Hunter was frowning, not at him, but at something further along the alleyway. There were shadows there still, sickly pale shadows from the cloud-whisked morning sky, but they were just enough to conceal the equally gray figure who stood silhouetted against the bright street.

"You always did have a flair for melodrama, Giles," Hunter remarked.

With an indifferent shrug, the man walked forward, absently smoothing down the gray suit he wore with the hand that wasn't busy carrying a tall, intricate metal scepter. "As I recall, you were no more immune to it than I was. You didn't expect this, did you, Hunter?" he added smugly. "Although to be honest, trailing your men back to you wasn't very difficult, I only had to follow the sirens."

Hunter's frown had frosted over. "What do you want, Tracker?"

"Complete control of the Dirae, of course. And, unfortunately, I can't have that while you're still alive to cause me trouble."

"You didn't seem all that enthusiastic about a duel the last time I saw you," Hunter pointed out. "What happened to change your mind?"

"Power does strange things to people, not all of them negative," said Tracker, almost thoughtfully. "After I fought a couple of your stronger supporters and had their heads mounted on plaques in my office -- another of the fine traditions you discarded -- I found that even seven years as Bookmaster hadn't dulled my edge. We were always equals in training, I see no reason why that should have changed."

Since Tracker began to speak, Jedar had been slowly edging over to Rio, whose eyes were alarmingly flinty. He put a hand on her shoulder. "Rio, don't do anything foolish," he said softly. "Whatever happens, it's their fight, not ours. If we interfere, we might just make things worse."

"I know, I know. It ain't our business." But her voice was strained and, looking between her and the impassive Hunter, Jedar started wondering...

The two assassins circled one another casually, each holding what were obviously their chosen weapons. The world beyond them -- the car park, the thrum of traffic, even their tense audience -- had faded into no more than background noise. "We fight with only what we have in our hands right now," said Tracker, setting down the rules. "There are too many concealed weapons within our reach to make this completely equal otherwise."

"Of course," agreed Hunter calmly. "On my honor," he added.

"And on mine. Let's get this over with, old friend."

They struck at once. Scythe blade clashed against the sharpened, knife-like base of scepter, and slid apart. The first attacks were tentative, although from the outside they appeared completely frenzied and uncoordinated; the two assassins were feeling one another out, testing their opponent, searching for alterations in strength and skill. Once they were certain of the other's ability, the real duel began.

Unlike the initial testing, it was almost like a dance. The weapons seemed almost secondary, as the assassins used their hands and feet as well: stabbing and kicking with unexpected blows that were immediately countered, or followed. When Hunter delivered an overhand sweep, reared back and delivered a kick to Tracker's shoulder, the sandy-haired assassin immediately spun around and tripped his opponent. But Hunter rolled, swinging his scythe up to meet the blade coming down on him.

They pulled apart briefly, panting. "The years are getting to you," Hunter noted.

"No more than they are you," Tracker remarked. "I remember when you used to refer to this sort of thing as healthy exercise."

"So do I," he replied. "You know, this is almost like old times... except without Slate yelling at us from the sidelines, threatening to skin the both of us alive if we didn't stop flailing at one another like complete novices."

"Slate always was a perfectionist. Shall we continue?"

They resumed the fight.

Hunter feinted to the left, drawing Tracker to the side before he whirled and attacked his opponent's unprotected back. Tracker dodged, but the tip of Hunter's blade caught and pulled across his shoulder, spreading a thin trail of blood along the now-dusty suit. The sandy-haired assassin hissed, pulling away.

His reactions were slower than Hunter remembered, but then again, his own probably lacked the crispness they possessed ten years ago. As they began circling again, he was taken by surprise when Tracker made a sudden rush; they collided before Hunter had a chance to raise his scythe, and briefly he saw something glisten in Tracker's hand.

The dagger struck Hunter just below his rips, buried up to the handle, and Tracker ripped it out again viciously, spilling blood across the dusty cement. Hunter stared at him in something akin to shock; his knees buckled, and he dropped to the ground. The world came sharply back into focus.

Rio was screaming furiously, fighting against Jedar's firm hold on her shoulders. "You sonuva bitch!" she yelled. "Ya broke yer honor!"

"Honor? There is no place for honor in an assassin's guild," Tracker snapped at her, turning around sharply. "There is tradition, custom, a formula for conduct, but survival takes precedence overall. Hunter has been leading us toward our own destruction, Blader; I do this for the betterment of the Dirae."

"No," said Hunter, and the sandy-haired assassin whirled back in surprise to see the older man slowly rising to his feet. He swayed for a moment, then steadied himself, his face set like ice. "No, Tracker. Our tradition stagnates, and us along with it; the Dirae is destroying itself. Sooner or later, if you continue to refuse change, you're going to wake up some day and find yourself extinct."

"I'd be the one worrying about extinction right now, old friend," said the other, and the dance began again.

Blood ran from the hole in Hunter's side, down his leg and into the dust. Every move, every twist and dodge, cost him more, but he refused to slow down, striking with the same speed as before. But he was weakening; Tracker saw it, and pressed all the harder, forcing his opponent toward a corner.

Hunter's scythe flicked out at an angle, but Tracker arched back and the blade slid harmlessly along his scepter. Grinning exultantly, Tracker began a series of slashing blows at Hunter's head, and the older assassin fought to protect himself against them, raising his scythe up to block them.

He knew what was coming next -- it was a familiar series, one of the oldest, and always came to an inevitable, fatal conclusion. Hunter sighed, and seemed to wane on the spot. The flurry to the head was traditionally followed by a two-handed stroke, and Tracker dropped low, delivering the blow as a triumphant batsman.

It should have cut Hunter in half. It should have. There was no way a man, especially one who was wounded, could have been able to avoid the blow.

Tracker's scepter whistled through the air, and as the assassin faltered in shock, Hunter sprang from the middle of the wall and kicked him hard in the chest. Tracker landed on his side in the dirt, and spat blood, gasping. He couldn't get up.

Leaning calmly on his scythe, Hunter raised an eyebrow at his fallen rival. "Like I said, tradition is all very well, but we must all change eventually. Ah," he added, stamping the end of the snath on Tracker's hand as the assassin reached out for his scepter. "No. I don't think so. This duel is over, Giles."

"Wrong! The duel... is to the finish," panted Tracker. "If one opponent can no longer... fight... then he must... be executed. I demand an honorable death!"

Hunter grabbed the assassin by his collar and hauled him upright. "There is no place for honor in an assassin's guild, Tracker," he said, throwing the man's words back at him. "But if showing compassion to one's victim's is the greatest cowardice, then perhaps sparing your life now would cause you the greatest insult. Despite everything you've done I'm prepared to let you live, Tracker, but if you continue with your pathetic whining then I will kill you where you stand."

He pushed the man away from him. Tracker stumbled but caught his balance, leaning heavily against the wall for support. "Don't bother returning to the Dirae, Tracker," Hunter continued, in the same emotionless voice. "You've been a constant trial to me as long as I've known you, and should you even consider attempting to worm your way back, I'll order every member of the Dirae to hunt you down. I declare you outcast, Giles. Now get out of my sight before I regret my decision."

Snatching up his scepter, Tracker paused only to give him a look of pure hatred, and then limped past the others, vanishing out of the alley behind them. Hunter didn't turn around. He took a deep breath, closing his eyes briefly, and seemed to sway. "Has he gone?"

"Yup," Rumer said with a nod. "He's scooted."

"Oh. Good."

Finally succumbing to pain and loss of blood, Hunter crumpled. The two assassins managed to catch him before he hit the concrete, but he was already unconscious before they did so. Rio gave a barely audible gasp, and started forward, but Matrix rested a hand on his revolver in a warning motion and she stopped again, frowning. The two assassins then proceeded to ignore the Bladers.

"He's out like a light," Rumer declared. He pulled away the sticky trench coat, and grimaced. "Oh, man, the dude's hurt bad. Matt, we got anything at home...?"

Matrix shook his head, absolutely serious for once. "Not for anything like this, and we're too far away, even if I drive like hell he won't make the trip. He needs a hospital, now, or some kind of..."

"Infirmary," Rio finished.

They looked around.

"That could work," agreed Rumer.

But Matrix wasn't so ready to comply. "In the Brotherhood?" he asked skeptically, eyeing Rio with undisguised distrust. "Are you outta your mind?"

"Rio, we can't take him back," said Jedar, just as doubtful, "Leila will--"

"Have a fit, yeah, I know, but she can't disagree if it's the only thing that'll save him. Face it, he'll die if we don't. So he's comin' back ta the Brotherhood. An' anyone who disagrees wit' that..." She activated her saber with a menacing air. "...Can argue wit' my blade. Any questions, gentlemen?"

The three men exchanged glances.

"Who's arguing?"

"Not me."

"Me neither, dude. Never was."

"And I'm not either. Guess he's coming."

"Better," she said, approvingly. "Now move it."

*****

"You're kidding."

"No, I ain't."

"Then you're insane."

"Well, maybe, but that ain't the point. Ker, listen..."

"No, Rio, you listen. First, you bring Hunter, as well as whoever else that was, back with you -- and I'm sure Leila's going to want to have a talk with you about that. Then you hover around, trying to pretend you're helping me bandage him. And now you're trying to convince me to leave him to your sole care and supervision."

"Ye're makin' glaciers outta snowflakes, Ker," Rio cut in, painfully aware she'd interrupted far too quickly. "C'me on, Hunter'll sleep fer hours, probably. I can play babysitter while ya go take a break."

"Oh?" Querida folded her arms, amused. "And do what?" Rio's pointed glance at the adjoining bedroom door answered that question. "Rio, really!"

"Why not?"

"Because... because we'd wake the patient, that's why not."

"Damn, Ker, you an' Tarrin must get loud."

"We... have our moments. Ah." Kerry held up a hand to forestall the comment she saw coming. "Don't say it. So." She leaned back against the counter, folding her arms. "Hunter was severely injured when you got him back here..."

"I know." Rio grimaced. "I'll be scrubbin' blood stains outta my car fer weeks. I might have ta just reupholster the whole damn thing."

"Rio, you love that car more than life itself, and yet you let him bleed all over it!"

"It wasn't like I could politely ask him ta stop, ya know," she pointed out in a reasonable voice. "He was kinda unconscious at the time."

"Hm." Querida continued to smile in that overly-knowing way that Rio found just slightly unnerving. "All right. All right. I'm sure Hunter will feel much better with you here to watch over him."

Rio shot her a dirty look. "Ya know, ya used ta be a lot nicer."

"I know. I've been hanging around you too long. At least Tarrin still loves me."

"Anythin' I can think a' ta say even you'd probably smack me fer."

"Rio?"

"What?"

"Shut up."

*****

The chair Rio sat in was pulled up close to the bed, perhaps just a little closer than was actually necessary for someone only meaning to watch for any changes in condition. She leaned back against the uncomfortable wood, trying to read a book. She turned the pages about once every ten minutes, pausing after completing each paragraph to glance up at the silent man's face. The heart monitor bleeped steadily, but it did nothing to keep her own heart from hammering.

Hunter really didn't want to wake up. He would have vastly preferred sweet oblivion where he didn't have to think about anything. Slowly, and despite his wish to the contrary, he slowly returned to consciousness. Before he opened his eyes, Hunter forced his mind to process he information from his senses: the smell of detergent in the air brought hospitals to mind. Not a comforting thought. There was also the soft sound of pages turning; somebody else was in the room, and nearby. Something was constricting his chest a little discomfortingly. In fact, the more conscious he became, the more it started to register with his brain that various parts of him were in pain, and after a few moments he gave a small grunt and opened his eyes.

At the noise and flicker of movement Rio looked up, shutting her book with an abrupt snap. "Welcome ta the land a' the livin', Hunter," she said dryly, then added, "Ya passed out in the parkin' lot, so we brought ya back ta the Brotherhood. Otherwise ya'd be wakin' in the afterlife 'stead a' the infirmary."

"Ah. That would explain the detergent. And these things." Frowning, Hunter picked a little awkwardly at the swathe of bandages around his abdomen, then he looked up at her again. "I... thank you, for this. I wasn't ready to die just yet."

Rio's gaze slid away from his face, unable to meet his eyes and painfully aware that her face was warm. With some effort she regained her poise and waved off his thanks. "Don' look at me, the doctors were doin' all the real work."

"Speaking of the doctors, I must say I'd have more expected them to be here rather than you." She looked at him sharply. His voice and expression were both neutral, so it was hard for her to guess what he actually meant by that comment, and all the while her mind scrambled for a convincing explanation.

"They... had another call ta attend ta, so I said I'd babysit for 'em. Sorry ta disappoint ya," she added sarcastically.

"Are you always this caustic, or is it just for my benefit?" he asked, with a faint and lopsided smile. "There's no need to be sorry, because you haven't. I'm not overly fond of doctors in any case."

She shrugged. "Me neither, probably because I spend so much time in this damn infirmary. So, would ya be willin' ta tell someone who's about as far from a doctor as ya can get how ye're feelin'?" Rio paused, considering all the ways of interpreting what she had just said, then added a little too quickly, "Ker said ya'd probably be in pain when ya woke up, an' left some medicines fer ya..."

If Hunter noticed her bungle, then he didn't make any mention of it. "A little sore, but that's not very surprising, considering I have a hole in my side the size of a baseball. I'll be fine, however." He quirked an eyebrow. "So, if I may ask, why were you and Mr Stormwing following me? Does Leila believe I need an armed escort?"

"It was just a... precaution. An' don' look so insulted, 'cause apparently ya did need help."

The assassin winced slightly and laid a hand on his side. "Yes, apparently I did. How long do you... do the doctors... expect that I'm to remain in this condition?"

Rio got up from her chair to fetch some pills and a glass of water. "Ya were bleedin' pretty heavily. I should know, I'll be cleanin' bloodstains outta my car fer weeks," she told him, bringing the glass and painkillers over to him. She helped him into a sitting position, and held the glass for him while he swallowed the pills. Surprisingly, Hunter took all of this without comment. Once he'd finished, she left the glass on the counter and returned to her seat. "I could hazard a guess that ya'll be here fer at least three 'r four days, if ya follow doctor's orders. Which, somehow, I doubt ya'll be doin'."

"You doubt right. Again, I must thank you," he says. As he spoke, something else seemed to come to mind, and he looked uncharacteristically worried. "Oh dear. Where are Matrix and Rumer, what damage have they caused, and how much compensation money will Leila be demanding for it?"

"They're wit' Jedar an' Cutter. Far as I know, they ain't blown up anythin' yet. But then, they ain't had much time."

"Considering their company, I'm surprised that the Lair hasn't exploded in a ball of flame..."

"I'm sure we'll be among the first ta know if it does." She looked at him critically for a moment, then rose to get a bowl of water and a cloth, which were conveniently sitting on the counter nearby. Shunting her chair away, Rio instead sat down on the bed beside him, dampening the cloth, and held it to his face. "Sorry if it's a little warm in here," she said, for once not stopping to think about any other translations that could take on.

Almost instinctively, he tensed and grabbed her wrist, but hesitated before actually pushing her away. For a while he just hung onto her arm, then let her go with a sigh. "No need to apologize, Rio."

"Good, because I don' make a habit of it."

Hunter's expression remained level. "I, however, would like to apologize for putting you to this trouble. You've done more already than I would have expected someone to."

"Ya would've expected me ta let ya die?" she demanded, with much more emotion than she'd intended. "I-- the Blade don't operate like that."

He nodded as if considering what she'd said. "No. I don't suppose you do."

Rio surprised herself by flushing faintly. "A' course I don't. I ain't the assassin here." As soon as the words are out, she regretted them, and to her horror flushed even hotter. "Oh, damn. I didn't mean it like that."

"Accurate," replied Hunter clinically. "Not particularly kind, but accurate just the same. We're not a profession renowned for our compassion and generosity."

"Maybe not. One a' my friends is an assassin... an' a damn good one, at that, who could probably make most a' yer group look like the Girl Scouts." She removed the bowl and cloth absently. "A' course she's settled down an' married now, but that don't mean she couldn't snap someone's neck sooner 'an look at 'em. But -- look, what I can't understand is why the hell ya'd want ta go back ta the Dirae anyway. Seems ta me ya'd probably be happier... not ta mention safer... wit' the Brotherhood."

"Yes, and maybe I didn't have to before," he admitted. "That was for... for personal reasons. There were some hard truths that I didn't want to accept. But now with Tracker gone, I must go. Without a leader there will be trials fought... bloody trials. We're not a very stable guild, structurally or mentally. Unlike the Brotherhood, there are only a few tenuous loyalties and a healthy respect for one another's skill to hold us together at all." His frown was serious. "There are some truly amoral people in the Dirae, Rio, and I am not the worst. As leader I can keep them under control. Not entirely, of course, but enough so that we don't have bloodbaths in the streets. No, I have to go back. I'm sorry."

Fighting off a totally unexpected surge of disappointment, Rio studied the backs of her hands. She noticed that the polish on one of her nails had been scraped half off. "Don' apologize, it don't matter ta me one way 'r the other."

"I'm sad to hear that."

Startled, her head snapped back up. "Why would it matter ta you?"

For a moment Hunter actually looked awkward, caught off his guard. "Oh, really, I... I meant nothing improper."

Now Rio was just skeptical. "Really."

"Yes." By this time he had himself back under control again, his face schooled into its usual neutrality. "Really. It was not my intention to offend you, Miss deJeneiro. When did you say the doctors would return?"

"I... don't know." She couldn't keep a hurt expression from her face, even though she tried to fight it. "I'm sure they're very... busy."

"With the other patient, no doubt," he said dryly. "How kind of them to lend me the entire infirmary for my recuperation purposes."

"They're generous like that. How are the bandages, by the way? Too tight?" She reached out past his face and touched them, letting her hand rest there casually. "I helped Ker wit' 'em, an' I'm afraid I'm no doctor, so..."

"The bandages are adequate. This... Ker... must trust you a great deal to leave you alone with an injured assassin."

Rio pretended to see some creases in his bandages and used both hands to flatten them, tuning out a little as she did so. "Hmm...? Oh, right. Ker... uh, Querida... well, she knows I can take care a' myself. I ain't the one she'd be worried about."

Glancing at her hands, he said wryly, "Yes, I rather think you're right."

Still absently smoothing out the bandages, her guard dropping without her even realizing it, she looked up at him curiously. "Excuse me?"

"I said that you're right." He raised an eyebrow with a faint smile, and for a moment looked like a normal person instead of a mask. "Was that the wrong thing to say?"

Abruptly realizing that she was still stroking his chest, Rio pulled her hands back and tried to look as if she hadn't even noticed. "I... no. No, a' course not. No."

"Just making sure."

"So... I assume you'll be leavin' soon as ye're back on yer feet again."

"I expect so. Until then Rumer and Matrix will probably be running the Dirae. In other words, I can't afford to stay bed-ridden for very long."

"It'd be that disastrous?"

"Look at it this way. Did you, by some chance, see the state of the car they drove -- no, flew -- into Keltor?" Rio nodded. Grimly, Hunter continued, "That was all done in less than an hour. What they might do in two or three days, by themselves, as the sole persons in charge of the Dirae..."

"Oh. I see."

"But I thought we'd already gone over this?" The man tilted his head to one side, as if studying her face. "You know, Rio, if you hadn't told me otherwise, I might begin to suspect that you were actually disappointed to see me go."

"I... I..." Abruptly she gave up pretending. "Oh, ta hell wit' this! Damn you, damn you, damn you!"

He regarded her with some amusement, which only irritated her further. "Well, I already suspected which direction I would be heading, but thank you for making it a certainty."

"Shut up! This is the kind a' thing I'll only say once, an' you'd damn well better be listenin' when I do!" She stood up nearly fast enough to knock over the chair beside her, and leant over his bed, all but glaring at him. "Damn you," she hissed. "I was perfectly happy until you had ta come along when ya weren't wanted, ya weren't needed, an'... an'... Oh, what the hell." She snatched his collar, pulled him up just enough so she could reach his beak, and kissed him -- quite firmly, and with absolutely no sign that she intended on letting go any time soon.

Hunter went absolutely rigid with shock and pulled away, his eyes wide. "Rio, this... I..."

"Come on, I know I'm outta practice, but I couldn't've been that bad."

"No. No, you weren't. It's not that. No, on second thought, it is that... oh, blast." He sighed. "Rio, this is impossible... you're impossible."

"Thanks." She smirked at him, and winked broadly. "I try." But quickly she sobered, standing, awkward. She hated the feeling. It wasn't like her to be embarrassed by much, but she'd sure as hell done a good enough job of embarrassing herself in the last few minutes. "Look," she began, "I know I spoke outta turn. If I insulted ya that badly, then I'll just be goin'. Heal fast so you can get outta here, if that's what ya want."

"No, actually. It's-- it's not what I want." It seemed as if he was finally admitting that to himself, too.

Not feeling any better despite this, Rio returned and dropped down on the bed with a grunt. "But ye're gonna leave anyway," she said, almost bitterly. "Because duty calls."

"Yes," he said quietly.

"Far be it from me ta stand in the way of duty, then. Damn it," she growls. "It figures. It just figures. I have such great luck wit' men. An' now ye're gonna leave, jus' like the rest a' 'em, an' there ain't a damn thing I can do ta make ya stay. Hell, I hate this."

His eyes half-closed, Hunter remained silent for a while. Almost shyly, he reached out and took her hand. "I should have gone to Thrain." The man cracked a small smile. "It would probably have saved us both a lot of trouble."

"Probably." She smiled sadly and put her other hand over his. "But it's still worth it." She leant over to kiss him again.

"Uh... this is a bad time, no?"

Hunter made a choking sound of horror and pulled back out of Rio's reach, twisting around in spite of the pain to glare at the open doorway. It was currently occupied by four familiar figures; Jedar and Rumer were staring with identical expressions of shock, Cutter peered around from behind with one eyebrow raised, and Matrix stood in front, arms folded, smirking broadly.

"Do you knock?" said Hunter testily. "No, I suppose not."

"Knock?" Matrix asked. "What's a knock?"

Her beak flushing cherry red, Rio desperately tried to get herself under control. "It's when ya rap yer knuckles against a surface in order ta alert people inside a room that ye're comin' in, ya scrawny loon!" she yelled.

"Where's the fun in that? Maybe we should've come in la--" Matrix's beak was clamped shut by three pairs of hands. Hunter folded his arms.

"I remain unamused."

"Mffm MMph nmm."

"I really don't want to know what he said just then."

Rio's expression had gone flat with anger, and Jedar and Cutter seemed to recognize the signs, stepping back out of the room hurriedly. She rose slowly to her feet, right hand drifting back in the direction of her saber. "I am gonna give ya all ten seconds ta get the hell outta this room," she growled, "before I start gettin' MAD! So BEAT IT!!"

There was, very suddenly, a lack of people in the doorway. From further down the hall, Matrix's voice floated back, "Man, is she always that bad-tempered?"

"Only if you have a death wish..."

Rio kicked the door shut, glared at it for a moment, and then returned to her chair beside the bed. "Now, where were we?" she asked, sitting down again.

"I can see this is going to be a very interesting relationship," said Hunter dryly.

*****

They stood outside the Brotherhood, under the meager shelter the rink doors provided, as around them a heavy mist of rain drenched the street and blocked the evening sun from shining. It was a dark and dismal day, completely fitting the depressing mood.

"Guess we oughta say goodbye, then."

"Yes. For now, at least."

"I'm gonna come see ya, y'know."

"I'll make sure the welcome mat is out."

"Thanks."

"Not at all."

A long pause, as they just stared at each other for a while. It was the last time they'd be seeing each other for a time, at least until things began settling down again and they could safely meet. But it might be weeks, even months, before that happened...

He leant down and kissed her softly. "We'd better say it. We'll be standing here all night otherwise."

"Ye're right." She rubbed angrily at her eyes. "Damn rain... gets me even here," she sniffed, hugging him briefly, then stepping back again. "Goodbye, Hunter."

He could have stayed. He could have changed his mind right then, taken her in his arms and gone with her back into the Brotherhood. The gods only knew he wanted to. And maybe he'd be happy there, and could forget all about the Dirae and being an assassin and all the painful memories of his past...

"Goodbye, Rio," he said quietly. Turning then, he walked out into the rain, heading toward the car waiting for him on the corner of the street. He didn't dare look back, but he knew she was watching him still.

And she continued to watch him, right up until the car, with him inside it, vanished around the corner. She stayed outside for just a little longer, staring at the rain, before she walked back inside, the doors sliding shut and locking automatically behind her with a click.

The rain didn't go away for a long time.

 

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