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By Caro Roberts


I've done my time
I've given up my pound of flesh
So why can't the man seem to understand
That I've already passed the test
You did your best to keep me down
Tried to make my spirit give in
But I'm here to make a big, big sound
It's your turn to lose and it's my turn to win
~~"Nothin' You Can Do About It"--Richard Marx~~


"I hate you! I hate you!"


Gina snapped awake in bed, gasping for breath and thrashing around. Realizing that it had been a dream--no, more like a nightmare--she collapsed and lay still, staring up at the ceiling and wiping a hand across her forehead. She swore viciously in Ingallish, then in Franzian, then in Manganese, then in Ingallish again. "What a dream." She was drenched with sweat, but she was cold. She sat up and put a hand on her heart, willing it to stop its frantic palpitations. Her blonde hair hung in damp strands around her face, plastered to her neck and shoulders. Her night shift was soaked as well, clinging to her uncomfortably.

"What a dream," Gina repeated, swinging her legs out of bed and turning to look at the clock. It was not quite six--almost time to get up, anyway. Give or take an hour. I can't believe I slept all night. I'd rather of not slept at all, if it could would have avoided that! Nightmares of varying degrees of intensity were common throughout the Brotherhood, Gina knew. Almost all the members had them from time to time. One more sweat-soaked, screaming nightmare isn't enough to make me special.

I'm never going to get any more sleep, I might as well get up. An crushing feeling of suffocation overwhelmed her, and all she wanted to do was get out. She yanked on shorts and a tank top, then ran up the stairs, pausing at the Mess Hall to grab a granola bar to eat on her way. She finished it before she was even out the front door. Still licking her fingers, she started jogging.

It was just sunrise, and the streets were deserted. Gina would almost have preferred a crowd, it was too easy in this stillness to imagine eyes watching her back. After a mile, her regulated jog didn't seem to be enough. Her control snapped like a twig and she took off, racing blindly through the streets like a frightened mabbit. She didn't stop for anything, pivoting to dodge obstacles and vaulting over fences, automatically heading for the alleys and deserted stretches where there was no chance of being seen.

After a good long while, she began to slow down, and gulped for air. She hadn't even realized she'd been holding her breath. Looking around, she tried to gage her surroundings. If her mental map and computations were correct--and she had no doubt about that--then she'd jogged a mile and then run four flat-out. She was tired, but by no means exhausted. She was trained to run longer and faster than that without going down. Sweat trickled down her back, in between her shoulder blades, giving her a terrible itch that she couldn't quite scratch. A nice, cold shower would feel good right now... Well, if it'd feel good now, imagine how good it'll feel when I finally get back to the Brotherhood and take one! She tried to smile, but it didn't work.

There was a smallish park nearby, probably an attempt of the neighborhood to "take back" the community. It was still relatively well cared for, if generally unused. Gina walked over there, and was annoyed but not really surprised to find that walking gave her energy to think. When she was running flat out, she didn't need to think. She could just allow instinct to take over and simply react to situations as they arose. There was no real thief's instinct required for wandering around a park, though, leaving plenty of energy and mental space to think and remember the nightmare. Bloody damned unfair, if you ask me. I go to sleep to get away from memories, and now they're following me into my dreams!

Her own voice--or the dream's best interpretation of her voice--echoed throughout her mind. "I hate you! I hate you! I wish you'd never been born! I HATE YOU!"

The sentiments were real, though they'd never been voiced, and that only made them harder to face. Gina walked off the path and leaned back against a tree, closing her eyes against the sunlight. It had been terrible, standing there in front of everyone she knew and cared about, stripped of her shields and defenses, screaming out her innermost feelings--and not caring. Maybe that was what frightened her the most. She hadn't cared that all of her self-control had gone. She'd felt fiercely proud to finally drop all her masks, and to hell with what they thought of her for it. Unsettling, to say the least, as she'd never done it before. Not even to Dalin. Dalin... She wished she could go to him, curl up to his chest and tell him the whole story. But he wouldn't understand. He couldn't understand--and she didn't really want him to. He could only really understand if he'd been through it, and she'd never want him to go through that. He's too sweet and innocent. I couldn't wish that on him. I love him because he's not as hardened as everyone else, if he'd been through that--he wouldn't be the same.

So, the very thing that was drawing her to him was also keeping her away.

"I wish you were dead! I hate you!"

How many times had she said--screamed--that during her dream? That was all she could remember. Repeated "I hate you"s intermixed with variants of "I wish you were dead" or "I wish you'd never been born." Not a lot to fill an entire night's worth of dreaming with, but it had seem liked more than enough at the time.

Suddenly a longing to be home washed over her that was as strong as the force that had driven her away to begin with. She turned toward the Brotherhood and called up some last reserves of strength, then got into a sprinter's crouch. Three...two...one... She launched herself forward, once more lapsing into an unattached, instinct-driven, sense-and-react state. She didn't come out of it again until she reached the Brotherhood, and then she wished she hadn't. Gina slumped against the wall, sweat pouring off her and her legs shaking from exertion. Ten miles, eight of which at a flat-out run. I'd say I've had my exercise for the day. Now all I want is a shower, sleep, food, and some cuddling from my boyfriend--not necessarily in that order.


After three days of progressively worsening nightmares, Gina was a bundle of nerves. Her temper was short, ready to snap at any second, and she had taken to avoiding everyone, even Dalin. He would have wanted to know what was wrong and she--couldn't tell him. He was bewildered by her silence, she could feel it, but she knew that bewildering him was better than hurting him, the way she would have if she'd lost her temper with him.

She went up to the rink and perched in the stands, glaring down at the ice angrily. Someone was coming toward her, but she ignored them, hoping they'd go away. She really should have known better.


Gina sighed and turned. "What do you want?"

Querida took a step back. "I... I want to talk to you."

She folded her arms, trying to change her air of anger to an air of boredom. "Oh?" Bland, unemotional, uninterested.

"I...Gina, anyone can see that something's bothering you. Why don't you--"

"I don't want to talk about it."

"But I can help--"

"I don't want your help. I don't need help, not yours, not anyone's!"

"Not even Dalin's?"

That stopped her for a second. "He can't help me."

"How do you know? You've never given him a chance!"

"He could not understand this unless he'd been through it, and he hasn't--I wouldn't want him to go through it!"

"Go through what?"

"None of your business," Gina snapped. "Leave me alone." Kerry hesitated, but didn't leave. "What is your problem?"

"No, Gina, what's yours?"

"Excuse me? Excuse me? When did I ask you to be my shrink? You're right, I didn't! So just leave alone!"

Querida took a few steps back, not wanting to leave Gina while she was in this state, without even trying to help her. She eyed the other woman, trying to decide her course of action. "I can't...force my help on you."

"Then why do you keep trying?"

Kerry ignored that. "But whatever's hurting you this much, you have to talk about it. If not to me, then with...with Dalin, at least. He loves you, and because you keep avoiding him, he thinks you're mad at him. You know what? He asked me to come see you. He thought I could talk to you, because he doesn't think he knows how."

"Well, he doesn't. It would just hurt him to hear what I have to say."

"It's hurting him more like this!"

"I can't even believe I'm arguing with you about this. Look, just forget it, okay? Just...just drop it. Let it go."

"Not until you do."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You never really let anything go, do you? You just carry it around inside and you hang onto it tooth and nail, but you never let it go."

"Oh yeah? Well, you should talk."


"You never let anything go, either!" Gina leaned forward, eyes narrowed. "You think I don't know what you're doing to yourself? Do you think I don't know?"

"K-know?" Querida backed up nervously.

"Yes, know. You've let everyone think you've kicked that old habit, haven't you? They all think you're fine and healthy, don't they? You're the one who never lets anything go! You are the biggest hypocrite I have ever seen, you know that? You go around telling everyone how to live their life, and you don't even follow your own advice. You are messed-up, confused, lost... You think you're something so special that you don't need to listen to yourself, or anyone else! You know what, I don't even want to hear what you have to say, because you're such a pathetic liar--"

"I'm not a--"

"Oh yeah? Look in the mirror sometime." Gina turned and walked away, leaving Querida behind, near tears.

Gina stomped downstairs, back to her quarters. How dare she try to tell me what to do. How dare she even try. I'd have had a hard enough time listening to her even if she knew what she was talking about, but as it is--hah! Part of her whispered that she was being unfair and uncharitable, and that the older woman had only been trying to help, but she shoved the feelings away with the relative ease that comes with practice. Many, many years of practice.

This isn't getting me anywhere, she decided, pacing the floor of her room. I've got to do something about it... I just don't know what yet. She stopped in front of the small mirror hanging on the wall and offered it a bitter smile. It's not exactly as if I can go back and 'confront my demons,' so to speak. When I was the one that survived, I thought I'd won--so why does it keep feeling like I'm losing? She examined her reflection with a faint frown. Her gray eyes were even harder than they had been, and there was an air of tenseness around her that she couldn't remember ever having before, not even when she'd spent most of her time just waiting for someone to try to kill her again. She still looked basically like a woman, but not even remotely feminine.

She looked like the cold-hearted killer she was supposed to be.

No wonder Dal's worried, she thought ruefully, twining a lock of blonde hair around her finger. I look like I'm going to kill the next person who walks in front of me, him included. I definitely need to do something, before I scare him away. He needs me, and--I need him, she confessed falteringly. It was difficult to admit even to herself. Eager to get away from her reflection and the unpleasant things it forced her to face, she began pacing again. So, what can I do? Anyone who I might need to face is long dead--and I do NOT need their absolution! I'd never ask for it, not with my dying breath. And I would not give mine to them, even if they were alive. They can spend their eternities in whatever hells they ended up in begging for it. And I doubt they'd get it, if there's any justice left in the world or afterworld at all. Hah!

She left off pacing to walk over to her weapons shelf and, selecting a small dagger, sat down on her bed and started sharpening it thoughtfully. It was a good stimulant when she needed to think; the strokes with the pumice stone were rhythmic and soothing, it kept her hands busy, and the task itself had become relatively mindless, after all the years she'd been doing it. Her body could work on autopilot, keeping itself occupied while her mind went off in its own direction.

So much for 'facing my fears.' And I'm DAMNED well not afraid of them! I could kill them easily as breathing. Huh, sometimes wish I had. Oh, well, it was so much more satisfying to let them slowly hang themselves the way they did. Brought a bit more justice into the matter. And besides, no self-respecting assassin would take a job pro bono, no matter what the cause. I imagine that there were quite a few people who would have liked to have their heads, but none of them ever approached me for the job, more's the pity. Probably thought an apprentice wouldn't want to kill her own masters. If they only knew how often that very thing happens, they'd be surprised. But then, they probably wouldn't want to know what goes on in the dark little world they pretend to ignore. No, they're all dead now, Toro and Cinder and Baleen and--HASTLEN!

Her knife slipped off the whetstone, slicing the end of her finger. Cursing under her breath, Gina sucked at the cut for a moment, then pressed a tissue to it in an attempt to stop the bleeding. The rather heavy bleeding, she noticed with an inward sigh. That, combined with the tingling sensation that decreasing slowly, being replaced by pain, told her that the cut went deep. "Damn, damn, damn and damn," she growled, pressing the tissue down harder. "I'll have to get some kind of bandage. Damn again. Those bandages are nothing but trouble when I'm trying to work." That wasn't the real reason she didn't want to go to the infirmary, of course--the real reason was that she wanted to avoid Querida. She knew that she owed the other woman an apology, but wasn't overly in a hurry to give it. Gina still believed that she was right, but also knew that she could have said it a lot less harshly. This just doesn't seem to be my lifetime, she thought sourly, placing another tissue over the first, as it was soaked through. Then she smiled slightly as another thought occurred to her. Maybe I can get Dal to kiss it better... to kiss me better...

Which brings me to another problem. What am I going to do with him? She shook her head in fond exasperation. He was worried to death over her, but after having his tentative questions and offers of help rebuffed, was plainly too frightened to ask her again. I have to tell him something. Hastlen might still be alive, and if he is, I have to find him. And when I leave, the last thing I need is for Dalin to follow me, thinking to protect me, when he's really putting us both in danger. He'd do it, too, he'd do anything if he thought he was helping me...

She sighed and put a third kleenex over her cut, as the second one started to turn red. I have no way of knowing how long I'll be gone. I really should tell someone, so they won't think I've deserted. If I manage to come back at all, I don't want to be punished for it. But if I tell someone, Dal'd probably find out about it somehow and try to come after me. And I know I have to say goodbye to him, but the only way I could make sure he doesn't follow is to knock him out or something. Or tie him to the bed...mmm, the idea's tempting, but I'd rather do that when I'm staying around. She grinned, imagining the shade of red he would turn if she actually said something like that to him. Immediately, though, her cheerful attitude died away again as she started packing. I'm going to miss him... Especially if I never come back...but I can't TELL him that I might never come back, he'd never let me go. I almost hope he doesn't, anyway, I don't really want to go...but I don't have a choice. It's go, find Hastlen, and face everything--or suffer these nightmares forever. Hastlen, Cinder--all of them, they've had power over me for too long, and I'm going to break this last vestige of it, or die trying.

Her suitcase, by the time she'd finished packing, had just enough clothing in it to help her get by--and to avoid suspicion. Mostly, her suitcase was filled with weapons, spy tools, and various other illegal things. Most honest business men would faint dead away if they knew some of the things she was carrying, and what they were used for.

That was just too bad for them.

Truth be told, she took a twisted pleasure in shocking people, and she knew it. Admitted it to herself cheerfully. The kind of shocking she did depended entirely on her victim, what her aim was, and also how sadistic she was feeling that day. Dalin she usually just teased with perverse comments and innuendo laden with double-and-triple meanings until he was ready to die, then snuggled up to him and went back to being demure and sweet, until he wasn't sure whether he was holding onto an angel or devil and was going to tread very carefully until he knew for sure.

Others didn't fair as lightly, and the shocks she liked to give them were a lot more dangerous, or occasionally just humiliating. "Honest businessmen"--an oxymoron, in her thoughts--were her favorite targets. They look down on my profession, but they do evil and illegal things every day of their lives without flinching. A lot of them pay for people in my line of work at night, but are properly scandalized by it during the daylight.

Pushing such thoughts away, Gina took a step back and studied her suitcase. It was, by necessity, bulky and heavy. Useful as far as it went, if she needed to make a quick getaway anywhere, there was no way she'd be able to run or fight while toting that thing. She retrieved a smaller knapsack, and began packing it with her absolute necessities. A change of clothing, her favorite gun, her laptop and the disk with all the information she had on her former "mentors," some fake ID and all the money she could lay her hands on--a considerable amount. After a moment's hesitation, she also added her favorite book. She didn't want to risk anything happening to it, but everything in this pack would be guarded with her life. It would be safe enough. Safe she was.

Right. And that's, oh, not at all.

She shouldered the pack and picked up the suitcase, mentally preparing herself to go. Part of her wished for the days when nothing and no one had tied her down, and she'd done basically as she pleased, with no one to worry about her or miss her--and vice versa. Mentally checking to make sure all her defenses were up, she marched herself down the hall.

She considered just barging in and announcing, "I'm leaving for a few days," then retreating before he had a chance to figure out what was going on and stop her. Gina discarded that idea rather quickly, though--that would only make Dalin think it was somehow his fault, and that was the last thing she wanted.

Her courage faltered as she reached his door and raised her hand to knock--it was funny, she mused cynically. She could face beatings, threats, gun, knifes, and kind of physical threat without blinking, and yet she couldn't stand it when he turned his eyes on her. I'm disgusting even myself now! Sorry excuse for an assassin... She knocked once, in a sharp, businesslike manner, then walked straight in.

Dalin hadn't even had time to get up, and gave her a startled look as she strode into his room, leaving the door open behind her. His eyes took in her luggage and widened, but she started talking before he could open his mouth. "I have to leave town for a few days on business," she told him quickly. "I'll be back soon." I hope. Of course, I could end up bleeding my life out in a gutter somewhere, you never know.

"I.. I.. okies," Dalin stammered, still a little stunned. Concern started to creep into his voice, however, as he added, "Are.. will ye be all right, Gina? Ye don't want me to c'me 'long with you?"

"No, no, I'll be all right." She gave him what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "It's not that dangerous, but it'd be..." She paused, searching for an excuse. "Boring. You really wouldn't want to come along, you'd be bored to death." She winced internally. Liar. Even if you're lying to protect him, you're still lying to him.

But Dalin disagreed. "I don't mind, mi chica bella, ye'll be there."

Oh, damn. What can I say to that? I should have just gone, I can't take this... "Dal, I...just...it's really just a one-person job. I will be back soon, I promise." Lying to him like that made her ill to her stomach. She reached out and brushed her fingers against his face briefly, then pulled back before he could touch her. She knew full well that if he did that, she'd never be able to leave. Go. Get out now before you lose what little resolve you have left. "I love you. I'll be back soon." She gave him her best smile and hurried away, pretending not to notice his confusion. Now I'll just have to make good on that promise and come home.


Gina sighed, hefted her backpack into a more comfortable position on her shoulders, and put her suitcase down for a moment, flexing her tired hand. Whatever genius had designed her suitcase must have had strangely proportioned hands; the handle was too wide for her to curl her entire hand around it, but too narrow to hold properly. Instead, she had to carry it with her hand in an awkward half-curl, unable to use her full strength, while the sharp edges of the case banged her shins with each step. She took a moment to curse whoever had designed it under her breath, then picked up again, with her other hand this time. This wasn't a very good part of town, and she was in no hurry for someone to decide to relieve her of part of her 'burden.' She knew she could fend them off, but doing so would give her away immediately. She didn't want the person she was hunting for to know she was coming and have time to prepare for her--the meeting would happen on her terms, not his. I'm the one holding the cards this time, and I full intend to do to him what he did to me--more, if I can get away with it. Pity that only one's still alive, but...he'll do. The only thing I don't know is where he is, and that's easily remedied.

Even by Brotherhood standards, the section of Keltor she'd gone to was dangerous. No matter to her, she'd been there plenty of times. Most of the inhabitants knew her--had known her, at least, when she'd frequented the district--and those who didn't know would soon learn.

Nice to know some things haven't changed, Gina noted, half-pleased to note that everything seemed exactly the same as she'd left it. It had been six months since she'd joined the Brotherhood and left her small, dangerous, and extremely enjoyable business behind. She'd been almost afraid that she'd come back to find her informants, business associates, unofficial 'allies' and almost-friends gone. Occasionally over-ambitious Enforcers came through here, trying to clean things up, and if they survived usually caused a lot of trouble. She hadn't heard about any such things happening, but then she also wasn't as tight to the street as she had been.

Thank goodness. She was Brotherhood, and no one with any sense touched the Brotherhood. Now she had a little extra protection to add weight to her gun. As if my gun needs any more weight, it feels like a ton of bricks as it is.

She was finally starting to reach her destination, and not a moment too soon. It was getting dark, and the sunset hours were always the most dangerous. Even she wasn't eager to be caught out then; she could hold out two or even three assailants, but a whole gang of teenage toughs with knives and guns might be a bit much even for her.

Left...right...two lefts...down the stairs...third door...here. She rapped three times on the door sharply, paused for a five count, then knocked twice more. The door flew open before she even had a chance to lower her hand, and the sudden light from inside momentarily dazzled her eyes, which were used to the dim alley.

"Gina? Gina!" Jaeff grabbed her hand and pulled her inside, slapping her on the back as if trying to prove to himself that she was really there. "Where have you been?"

"With the Brotherhood." He gaped, and Gina smiled. "There's only just so much one woman can do, Jaeff, I was already starting to get in over my head. They made me an offer I would have been insane to turn down. I'm not tied to the streets anymore, I can do more, it's safer and easier to work, and it's like a--" She cut off abruptly. "How is your business doing? I try to send people your way when I can. You always were my best source."

The older man beamed at the compliment. Gina, a one-woman information system by herself, did not pass out commendations like that lightly. "It's been pretty good. You're right, things are tightening down on the streets, and that makes things more dangerous--but it also increases my business. You know what they say--"

"'The more things you outlaw, the more business outlaws will have,'" Gina quoted for him, grinning.

"Exactly. But I know you, you want to get down to business. If you're with the Brotherhood now, you wouldn't be back here in the ghetto unless you needed something."

"Perceptive as always, Jaeff. I need to find someone...assuming they're still alive."

"Ah." He folded his arms thoughtfully. "Who?"

Gina kept her face carefully neutral, unsure of how much he might know. "Beck Hastlen."

"Hastlen?" Jaeff's eyebrows shot up. "Isn't that your old--"

"Yes. One of them."

"I thought they were all dead."

"I did, too. In fact, I watched as most of them were killed. But I never saw Hastlen die, and if I know that sneaky old bastard, he's still kicking around somewhere, making trouble. Either way, I have to be sure."

"What if he's dead?"

"Then I want to find out where he's buried and go desecrate his grave."

Gina said it so deadpan, Jaeff had no idea whether she was kidding or not. She probably was--there were some things that even she, amoral as she was, wouldn't do--but when it came to Hastlen and his type, she was unforgiving and merciless at best. He chose not to ask. "All right. I'll send out inquiries and have the answer for you--"

"I need it as soon as possible.

"--By first light tomorrow. At double the cost," he added pleasantly. She nodded, satisfied.

"Done and done." They shook on it. Gina was actually quite pleased--she knew full well that Jaeff was giving her quite a discount. Most people asking for overnight 'service' would be charged triple or even quadruple the usual cost, depending on how difficult the information would be to obtain, and Jaeff would deserve every penny of that.

"So, do you have anywhere to stay tonight? The Brotherhood's a long way away, and your old apartment was a couple of miles from here, not that I think you'd want to stay there anyway...."

She shook her head. "No, but there's nothing there anyway. When I joined the Brotherhood, I removed everything I wanted, and destroyed the rest, to make sure no one got ahold of it who shouldn't."

"You can crash here, if you want."

She took a step back, folding her arms, and eyed him. She'd known Jaeff Freewing--if that was even his real name, Drake knew a lot of people in his line of work used aliases--for years, and he was one of the few that she trusted...within limits. He had never made a move on her, probably because he knew she'd grab the nearest dagger and castrate him if he tried it. As such, their relationship had remained on a working, friendly level, and she saw no reason that it would have changed in six months. "That's fine."

"Good." He nodded toward her luggage. "Mostly weapons?"

"Yes, but they're all safe. I won't accidentally blow your apartment up. I'd only do that on purpose."

"If I gave you reason to, I have no doubt about it." He grinned, then showed her to the minuscule 'spare room' she would spend the night in.


"However you guessed it, Gina, you were right. Hastlen is still alive, and he is still in Keltor. You'll have to travel through hell and back to get to him, though."

"That's what he made me do on a regular basis before, I think I can do it one last time. This time, I'm taking him with me. Just tell me where he is."

Jaeff shifted a bit uncomfortably. "You're not going to like it..."

"It has to do with Hastlen, I'm going to hate it. Now where is he?"

"Well..." He told her, and Gina actually took a step back in shock. There was a long, painful silence before she could find her voice again

When she did, all she said was, "You're right. I don't like it."


Beck Hastlen was a sick, twisted, perverse weasel. Gina knew that, and thought she'd seen the depths of his depravity. She was sure that there was nothing left that he could do that could shock her.

But as she stood in front of his 'house,' speechless with horror, she realized that she'd found a whole new dimension to his monstrousness. That...that...that... Her mind finally started working again, searching through her entire vocabulary of curses, but came up with none that even began to describe this.

Considering the extent of her mental database, that said something about the situation right there.

Then anger overcame her shock, washing it away and replacing it with a burning need for revenge. I'll kill him slowly and dance on his corpse for this, and he'll beg for mercy before I'm done. Same as he made my father beg... Blinking rapidly and putting the suspicious moistness in her eyes down to the stingingly cold wind, she drew a grappler out of her backpack and swung it up over the wall of the estate.

Haslten had taken up residence in her old house.


Everything was chillingly familiar, the building burned into her memory, and it was both a blessing and a curse. The back door's lock was loose, just as she'd known it would be--Hastlen was too lazy to fix things like that, counting on his reputation to keep him safe--and she remembered the squeaky board on the second floor staircase. Somehow, Gina managed to keep her cool, even when she walked by her childhood room, but she couldn't bring herself to look in it. Steeling her nerves, she drew her gun and stalked down the hall. There was only one place Hastlen would set up in. Her father's old office.

Sure enough, as she crept closer, she could here someone moving around in there. She could tell by the heavy, awkward sound of the gait that it was Hastlen, and he was alone. Perfect. No one there to save him...not that I seriously think anyone could be bothered to lift a finger for him, anyway. She checked the gun--loaded, yes--made sure she had at least seven backup weapons within reach, and paused to steel her nerves.

Hastlen looked up in unveiled shock as the door to his study--his heavy, solid, triple-locked door--was blown off its hinges. Smoke, the light coming in from the hall, and the lights in his own study being blown out suddenly, all combined to give the entire room a nightmarish cast. However, he may have been getting old and fat, but he wasn't stupid...well, no stupider than he had ever been, at least. He leapt to his feet, grabbing for the gun that was never out of arm's reach, but just as his fingers closed around the cold metal, something heavy hit the back of his hand and he dropped the gun to the floor with a surprised yelp. Nursing his hand to his chest, and rubbing a foot across the floor frantically, trying to find the gun, he was too confused and out of practice to so much as dive out of the way.

"I always knew you were an idiot, Hastlen," a cool female voice penetrated the now-settling smoke. "But I always thought you had at least basic survival instincts. Apparently you've lost even those in your encroaching senility."

"Who...?" He peered into the gloom, only to be startled as a shadow loomed up right in front of him.

"Don't recognize me? No, I suppose you won't, the last time you saw me I was just a little girl." A knife pressed against his throat, hard enough to draw a trickle of blood, as the voice continued almost conversationally, "Not so little any more, am I?"

Now he knew who she was. "Firefeather," he spat, pulling back from the uncomfortable pressure of her blade.


"What are you doing here?"

Gina actually laughed that time. "Oh, you are out of practice, aren't you? You know what I want. I want to kill you. I want you to die begging for my forgiveness, and I want to look you in the eyes and deny it to you, right before you take your final breath."

He attempted to force a chuckle, but what come out sounded more like he was being plucked. "Still as merciful as ever, I see."

"I had no way to learn it," she shot back.

"Gina, Gina...why on earth would you want to kill me?" he purred, trying to evoke the soothing, half-hypnotic quality to his voice that he was so good at. He had kept this talent in practice, and he was even better at it now than he had been when they'd been in contact every day. Between his increased ability and her several-year absence, during which time she probably would have lost her immunity to it, Hastlen hoped very devoutly that it would have some kind of effect on her. "I was your trainer, I was your mentor...I kept you alive when no one else would have bothered, raised you, trained you...I was your friend --"

She had been half-lulled, but the instant he said the word 'friend' her eyes snapped open with an insane light in them, and he knew he'd gone just one step too far. "You killed my father, you murdering cur! You only took me on because you thought I'd be your bodyguard, your scapegoat--I could forgive you for beating me to get me to learn, even when I didn't need it--but you killed my father, and now you're living in his house! And I want you to suffer as much as he did!" She advanced on him with such a feral grin that he knew he would never survive the night. "Did you flat-out kill my father, I wonder, or did you torture him first? It must not have been torture, I would have heard the screams long before I did. Now I just have to decide if I kill you quickly, or make you suffer first. No, it's no decision at all. I think I'll..."

Hastlen's eyes were so focused on the knife in her right hand that he didn't even see the gun in her left until the bullet thudded through his head and he fell face-down on his desk. "Kill you before you get that gun the rest of the way out," Gina finished flatly, moving around behind his chair. She'd thought she'd seen his hand moving to get the weapon that was undoubtably secreted under his desk, and she was right. His finger had just been pulling it out of its compartment.

"You always were slow on the draw," she informed his body matter-of-factly, then turned on her heel and took herself out of the room.

It would have been easy to just walk out of the building and never come back. Unfortunately, she had other things to take care of before she left.

The house had to be destroyed.

She admitted it to herself with a heavy heart; this was, after all, where her best memories lay. But there was no help for it, she knew where her duty lay. For one thing, Hastlen had defiled her father's house and memory, and she had to burn away that defilement in something that would end up being a bit like a funeral pyre, if she only thought of it in the right way. For another, she'd sworn that she would never leave Hastlen's body intact.

There was a time not too long ago when she simply would have diced his body up and left it--or, if she was feeling particularly vindictive, she would have bundled it up, taken it to the zoo, and fed it to the first carnivore she found. But, personal vendettas aside, it was a messy, time-consuming, not particular pleasant job. And he's not worth the trouble.

There was a third reason, one she didn't even admit to herself. Her time in the Brotherhood had changed her, changed her internal code of honor enough that she couldn't desecrate another avian's body, no matter how much he deserved it.

Correction: she couldn't desecrate his body that way. That didn't mean she couldn't destroy it some other way. That was where the house came in. She found her way down to the basement and hunted around until she found what she'd been looking for: six cans of gasoline.


Half an hour later, Gina stood at the open front door, staring inside at the petrol-soaked furnishings. After carefully disconnecting all the fire alarms, she'd doused everything with a trail of gasoline. The place would go up like a fire ball at the slightest spark. She'd been tempted to bring some items with her, of course, but everything there had been tainted by Hastlen and the memories that surrounded him. Instead of taking what rightfully belonged to her, it would have seemed more like looting, and looting was something she just didn't do. One thing she had done was look through all of Hastlen's papers, committed everything important to memory. She'd be able to reproduce it accurately later, if she needed it, but she didn't want to have papers he'd touched in her possession.

She drew a lighter out of her pocket and stared at the tiny flame she produced. She'd have to back up a good ways from the door to make sure that she didn't injure herself in the explosion. For a moment, her hand wavered, as she looked at the dear old house and all the memories she was destroying.

Then, with a mental shrug, she flicked her wrist and tossed the lighter in the front door.


Several hours later, she staggered back to the Brotherhood, bent under the weight of her backpack and suitcase. Though she'd added nothing to them, they seemed to have gained at least ten pounds since she'd left. Her body ached and she was exhausted, as well as heartsick for any number of reasons. Gina ran a quick mental check on her condition. She wasn't seriously injured, just bruised and scraped a bit. Perhaps a few minor burns, but nothing that wouldn't heal itself. A hot shower and some aspirin would ease the aches, and a nap would remove the exhaustion. That left the pain that was in no way related to her physical condition.

She examined it carefully, prodding at it as gently as she would have tested a broken arm or a bump on her head, trying to determine the amount of care it warranted; whether it would need immediate attention, or could wait until morning, or would heal itself if she ignored it for long enough. And, just as she'd known she would, she got the answer she'd least wanted to hear. All of that pain needed to be dealt with immediately, or it'd be just as fatal as any injury.

So she shoved off the thought of shower and pushed her rest until later that night. If she allowed herself to do something else first, she rationalize and ignore her pain, and never do anything about it. That was the course she'd taken before, but then the excuse that she'd had no one to go to had been valid. Now, for better or worse, she had someone, and she would go to him before she found a reason not to. And if she stopped for one second to think, she knew she would do exactly that.

It was late, already past ten and probably closer to eleven. She'd been gone a day and a half, and though she'd told Dalin that she might be gone a few days, he'd no doubt started worrying the moment she left, and started expecting her back within a few hours. If he even waited that long, she thought with a wry twist of her beak. Jaeff had tried to convince her to stay the night again, to rest up and calm down, but she'd refused, intent on getting home as soon as possible. She knew with a sixth sense that Dalin would not be asleep yet; he'd probably still be up and worrying. She couldn't decide whether to be feel amused, fond, exasperated, or some combination of the three.

Gina made it to his door before she had any more time to think about it, and she knocked without hesitation. "Dal? It's me, I'm ba--"

The door opened before she could complete her sentence and she was grabbed in an enthusiastic hug that left her breathless. "I missed you too," she gasped, once he let her go enough that she could breathe again.

He hugged her again, about to launch into telling her how worried he'd been and how glad he was that she was back and was she okay and what happened?? --when he noticed the look on her face and sobered abruptly. "Gina?" he asked cautiously, reaching to touch her face. She leaned into his hand for a moment.

"I need to talk to you."

He blinked at her, still confused, but moved to the side. "Um, okies, c'me in an'..." She had already moved past him and shut the door. Taking his hands, she sat down with him on the bed before he had a chance to say anything. Holding both his hands in hers, she stared down at the floor for several minutes, trying to figure out where to start. He waited patiently, squeezing her hands to let her know that he was listening. Finally, she looked up at him again.

"I never knew my mother." She launched into her story without preamble. "She died having me. It was just a fluke thing, not her fault, and not mine--it just happened. I was all my father had, and he lavished all his attention on me. I was the focal point of his life. He was a big, wealthy businessman, but he even started working at home and telecommuting so he could spend more time with me. He was like...corny as it sounds, he was my best friend. You know that book we read together? Our favorite?" Dalin nodded, and she continued, "Daddy--My father got that for me when I was seven. Obviously, it was way too old for me, but he read me a chapter every night--skipping certain scenes, of course--and we'd puzzle it through together.

"Anyway, one night when I was eight, I...woke up in the middle of the night and heard some strange noises coming from my father's study. He always stayed close by, so he could hear if I had nightmares or something. I thought maybe he was working late, so I got up to tell him to go to bed." Gina smiled faintly. "He always called me his 'little nursemaid,' because I took care of him as much as he took care of me. Anyway," she shook herself out of the memories, "I pushed the door open and saw three..." Her voice trembled a bit, causing Dalin to tighten his grip on her hands. "Three men, killing my father. Instead of standing there in shock, or running away, I screamed and threw myself at them, attacking them for all I was worth. Now, granted that I was only eight at the time, I did a pretty good job. But I couldn't...my father was already dead, and they tried to get me. One of them wanted to kill me, because I was a witness, but the other two thought that since I was such a good fighter, they should take me with them. One grabbed me, but I bit him and ran to my room. For whatever reason, instead of grabbing something to defend myself with or even trying to escape out the window, I just grabbed the book he'd given me and held onto it for dear life. They broke in, took me, and left again. Everyone knew I'd been kidnapped, and searched, of course, but--even though I was the daughter of a business tycoon, they just couldn't extend the search indefinitely.

"So I went to live with my new 'masters.' Hastlen, Toro, Cinder, Baleen...they only called each other by their last names. They were a small time group of thugs, only together because it was slightly more expedient for them that way, and all perfectly willing to knife each other in the back, literally or figuratively. I was their new 'apprentice,' though Hastlen did most of my training. He were good, I'll give him that, taught me most of what I know. I just refined upon it. He--it--I--don't want to talk about those years," she finished abruptly. "When I was fifteen, another gang raided us. Killed Toro, Cinder, and Baleen. I hung around and watched for a bit, then took off to start on my own. Thought they'd killed Hastlen too, but I was...wrong." Pausing to take a deep breath, she told him everything that had happened since she'd left, then leaned against him, exhausted to the bone as it all caught up with her. He held her cautiously, absorbing all that.

"So...did ye...are ye...uh...are ye okies?"

At any other time, she might have laughed at the question. But somehow that seemed to penetrate the impassable haze she'd put between herself and her feelings up to that point, and she simply sat there for a moment, dumbly, as everything that had happened to her in her nearly-twenty-two short years suddenly cumulated and hit her like a ton of bricks.

She hadn't cried for years. She had no personal law against it, she'd cried over her father many times right after he'd been killed, but every time her mentors had caught her at it they'd beaten her for being weak. After awhile, she'd just...stopped...and it seemed that she had forgotten how. Apparently, she still remembered.

Gina threw herself into Dalin's arms and started sobbing like a baby.


Querida opened the infirmary early that morning; she couldn't sleep, and figured that if she had free time, she might as well be working. She was making every effort to be quiet as she cleaned equipment and rearranged cabinets; Tarrin was probably still sound asleep, and she didn't want to wake him up as well.

The door opened behind her and she turned, surprised. It was only six, most thieves wouldn't be up for at least an hour or two yet. In fact, some might just be getting in from all-night heists.

Gina was standing the door, arms folded, and projecting the air of 'dangerous' that she did so well. "Hello," Kerry ventured, cautiously. "You're up early."

"So are you." They eyed each other across the room, like a pair of alley fels sizing each other up. "I still think I was right about everything I said about you," Gina announced suddenly. "But I could have said it a lot less harshly. I was...wrong, and I didn't...didn't even try to understand you." Her mouth quirked wryly. "I still don't understand you. Not even close. And I still think you're a hyp--that you should listen to your own advice a bit more before you go throwing it at other people. But you're not a liar, not much of one anyway, and you're a hell of a lot better than I am." She shrugged and left, leaving a speechless Querida behind her, and feeling a lot less burdened than she had in years. She was confident that she wouldn't be plagued by nightmares, that night or ever again.


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