To all those who have been so kind as to write a review for me, to all of those who are enjoying my story, and to all of those who have stuck with it through all the long, LONG time it's taking me to write it... what can I say? I need to add you all to my Thanksgiving "what I'm thankful for" list. I hope you all had a wonderful holiday!

And now, on with the tale...!

Spike's fingers flexed on the controls of the Swordfish. He leaned forward and into the gravitational pull as the ship banked sharply to the right. He was so close, the turn so tight, that her right wing tip nearly nicked the tower. As soon as the turn was complete, he straightened her and punched the power, sprinting for the last marker.

The meter clicked as he streaked past the final tower. He eased back on the power, straightening. The Swordfish skimmed over the open water, and Spike's intense expression relaxed. Sometimes he wished he'd never given up the racing.

Above and around him, the serene skies of Ganymede were empty of anything but clouds. The racing season had ended, and he had the course to himself. He wasn't supposed to be using it, but breaking a rule wasn't something he worried about much. Especially when no one ever caught him.

When he checked the meter, his mouth angled wryly. Every chance he got, whenever Vicious brought him to Ganymede off-season, he tried to top his best speed. He always believed that, with no other ships to distract him and no Doohan barking in his ear, he should be able to beat that time. But today, again, he was still off by several seconds. Competition gave him an edge that even his best flying couldn't duplicate.

He leaned back, relaxing as the Swordfish slowed, floating over the waves of the Ganymede sea. He would like to break his own record, but that wasn't the point. The point was just to be flying. Still... Maybe I could get Vicious out here with his fancy ship, to chase me. Yeah, that might just do it. But that was a pleasant daydream, because when they came to Ganymede, it was always for business.

This time, Kito was here on a diplomatic mission for the syndicate, working out territorial disputes with the Sharks. While Kito spent his days closeted with Shark capos, Vicious and Spike had their own tasks. Spike's was to act as a spy. "No one will suspect an idiot like you," Kito had said, "especially since you used to race here. Get around like a retired race guy would. Go drinking, play a little pool, fly a lot. Listen and watch. Bring it all back to Vicious."

Meanwhile, Vicious was coordinating a more subtle game. While Kito talked and Spike made his presence innocently obvious, Vicious was quietly suborning low-level Shark men and women over to the Dragons. By the time Kito left Ganymede, Vicious would have created a web of agents to keep Mao Yenrai abreast of any major movements of the Shark syndicate. He was also working on bribing ISSP officers. Although most of them were owned by the Sharks, the cops saw no harm in also taking Dragon money for favors that wouldn't conflict with their boss' concerns.

To Spike's left, just over one of the little islands that dotted the course, a fat little zip craft ducked behind a convenient cliff. Smuggler, Spike thought, his smile widening. The guy had probably wet his pants when someone had come up on him so quickly. He wiggled the Swordfish's wings, the racer's signal for Not a cop, just passing through, then changed course. The shadows were deep where the zip craft had hidden itself, and Spike calculated that if he headed back now, he'd arrive just in time for Vicious to get irritated but not mad.

No one wanted Vicious mad at them. Not even Spike. Still, he'd worked his ass off putting together a full report on the smuggling operations in the Lute Archipelago, and he figured he deserved the night off. If Vicious was irritated with him, he was a lot more likely to let him leave.

Ahead in the growing darkness, the lights of the city began to twinkle on, reflecting off the water. Above the skyline, the towering silhouette of the Parisian Hotel was lit by its trademark blue spotlights, brightest at the top, on the landing zone. Nothing but the best for Kito, and Spike had a reserved spot for the Swordfish and a nice room as well. Ignoring the signal from the valet to slow down, and the lighted indicator for his slot, he did a quick dive and then set the Swordfish lightly into place. As he passed the frowning valet, he bounced his key in his hand and grinned. The guy would have to get his tips from someone who didn't know how to fly.

He took the outside elevator and stepped out onto the street. The Parisian was not where Vicious did his business. About a ten minute walk away was a small storefront that sold T-shirts, ceramic sea rats, ash trays made of shells, and all the other stuff that sucked in the tourists. Behind that was a set of rickety iron stairs, which Spike took three at a time without effort. At the first landing, he pushed open a narrow door and stepped into an equally narrow, unlit hallway. He could feel the presence of the watchers, but he ignored them. He'd already been identified, or he wouldn't have gotten this far. The third door on the right opened up into an anteroom, empty of anything except a couple of guards to whom Spike nodded, and on the other side was the door to the office Vicious had claimed for himself.

The first time Spike had seen the place, with its faded, cheap plazsheet floor and dingy walls painted a sickly tan, he'd told Vicious that it needed to be spruced up. Maybe some pictures on the wall. Vicious had added a minimum of furniture and a refrigerator, but no pictures. It was a typical Vicious office, with no distractions.

Vicious was ignoring him for the moment, which could be a bad sign. Spike dropped into the chair that was the only other seat in the office, stretched out his legs, and grinned to hide his discomfort – the chair was hard plastic and had barely enough room even for his skinny butt. Vicious wasn't interested in anyone's comfort unless there was a good reason for it. He waited without a sound until Vicious finished whatever it was he was working on, and then, when Vicious looked away from the computer and gave him an inquiring glance, Spike requested his night off. "Just one night for some fun." He made sure he sounded casual, not wheedling."I want to play some pool and actually concentrate on the game. Maybe pick up a girl, get something to eat, catch a flick. You know. Normal stuff, with normal people."

One bodyguard stood behind Vicious at all times, in the back corner of the room, and tonight's version gave Spike a disapproving look, as if Spike were being ungrateful. Spike had no idea which goon it was. They all looked the same to him – tall guys with broad shoulders, usually with fair hair, always wearing suits and standing like they had some kind of large-barreled gun up their ass. Spike had dubbed them "the stiffs", and it bugged him that their number had tripled in the past year. If he hadn't known better, he would have thought Vicious was making some kind of style statement. There he was, slim, with long hair and that distinctive, slope-shouldered stance accentuated by the bird, and there were his men, dressed similarly – they all seemed to have Vicious' taste in coats – but broad and erect, their hair neatly cut short, their shoulders held at military attention. And no birds, of course.

The idea of Vicious making any kind of fashion statement made Spike grin, and he made sure the grin was directed to the stiff in the back of the room. Then he turned to the vid, which was on the news channel, to pretend he didn't care how long Vicious took to consider his request.

What he saw there made him straighten and squint at the screen. "Hey, I know that guy."

"That cop?" Vicious looked up from the papers spread before him. "From where?"

"He almost arrested me once. Back when I was racing." He turned on the sound, but the clip was done and a commercial had come on, something about the delicate flavor of sea rats. He muted it again. "I wonder what's up with him, why he made the news."

Vicious said, "He just got himself shot up."

The commercials over, the news had switched to the scene. In the red and blue glare of emergency flashers, the camera followed a stretcher as it was loaded into the back of an ambulance. The medics were hopping around like monkeys, so it looked like the guy was still alive, at least for now.

Vicious leaned back, folding his arms, watching the screen. "You would run across that cop," he said dryly. "That's just your luck."

"What do you mean?"

"The reason he just got the shit shot out of him is that he's one of the few honest cops on this moon. He's been giving the Sharks one hell of a lot of trouble. If you'd been arrested by some other cop, you could have handed him a quick bribe, and he'd have let you off. More of a bribe, and he'd have given you his sister. That guy, no chance."

"That doesn't matter. Back then, I didn't have enough money for him to let me walk his dog," Spike said.

"That figures." The news was over, and he turned off the vid. "That guy was just a bit too smart for his own good. But not quite smart enough. Well, at least that's one that Mao won't have to concern himself with. The Sharks are efficient bastards, I'll give them that."

"Yeah. Not easy when your territory is a bunch of islands. Hard to patrol them all."

Vicious picked up the hint, subtle as it was. "All right. Take a night off. Go play."

"Gee, thanks, Dad." He wasn't allowed to smoke in Vicious's office, but he shook the cigarette out and had it between his lips before he left, just for the hell of it.

Two hours later, he'd had as much cigarette smoke as even he could handle. He was bent over a table in a pool hall where they knew him from his racing days, and where he knew he would run into every kind of low-life except the syndicate ones. He laid out a rack, trying to decide if the girl who was hanging around him would be worth the money. Her dyed-green hair, typical for Ganymede, reminded him of Vicious' woman, Crys, and he realized that he hadn't seen her for a long time. He supposed Vicious was just too busy for women, since he wasn't seeing anyone else, either.

The girl gave him a smile and leaned over the table to watch his break. He eyed the cleavage she exposed and thought, Yeah, definitely worth it. Then his phone beeped.

"Shit!" He snatched it out of his pocket, furious. One night, that was all he asked. Just one. "What?" he demanded as soon as the vid showed Vicious' face.

"I need you to come in. Now. You're going back to Mars."

Whatever he'd expected, that wasn't it. "Huh? Mars? Now?"

"By Gate. You leave as soon as you get back here. Don't even stop to pack."

"What the hell is going on?" he asked, although he was already picking up his jacket and stuffing his winnings into his pockets. Something about Vicious' tone told him this was not a normal summons.

Vicious said, "Annie's husband just died."

He froze, halfway out the door, then took two slow steps onto the street. "Oh, damn. How?"

"Natural causes, believe it or not. You know he had heart trouble, but he always refused a transplant. He was on borrowed time."

"Yeah. We're going back for the funeral, then?" Unconsciously, he'd lengthened his stride. Even by Gate, unless the funeral got delayed longer than most, he'd barely make it in time.

"You're going. You'll be representing Kito and me."

"Will that be all right?"

"Kito's already run it by Mao, and Mao approved it. The operation here is too important to derail for one man. And Mao requested you specifically. So wear black and behave like a gentleman for a change."

"Yeah. I will." All the way to the spaceport, he thought about Henry Jacobs, and eventually a small, sad smile moved his mouth. Henry was the only man in the system with the guts to live with Annie. He was such a self-effacing man, especially when behind Annie, that Spike could barely say that he knew him. But what he knew, he'd liked. He shoved his hands in his pockets, hunched his shoulders, and walked more quickly.

As with all syndicate funerals, Henry Jacobs's was tiny and quiet, and the viewing was discreet. Despite that, the crowd was a respectable one – they just came in twos and threes instead of all at once, paid their respects, and left again, so never more than a few were present at any one time. Spike arrived early and stayed to the end, seeing them all come in and go out, and was pleased. Henry was getting a good send-off.

He stood next to Mao Yenrai for much of that time. Henry had not only been an employee of Mao's, but a friend. They'd been in school together, and their fortunes had risen together until Henry reached the pinnacle of his own ambitions, and Mao, far from satisfied, had kept moving up. Mao's face remained still and calm throughout the hours, but his eyes were bleak, and Spike stood by him, shoulder to shoulder, not knowing what to say, but offering what comfort his mere presence and his silence would provide.

At one point, Mao said, "You liked him, didn't you?"

"Oh, hell," Spike said miserably. "Sure I did. Everyone liked him."

Mao nodded and fell silent again.

At the front of the room, by the casket, a traditional job that would have pleased Henry, Annie stood dry-eyed, as calm as Mao, and spoke to everyone who came. But when the doors were shut at last, and the casket was closed, her face changed. Slowly, like the beginning of a landslide, her features crumbled out of their stillness, and by the time she came to him and Mao, she was one step away from falling apart. Mao held out his arms and said sympathetically, "Anastasia. We will miss him."

That was the breaking point. She leaned on him, gripped his lapels, and cried, great huge sobs that shook her from shoulders to hips, while he patted her back and murmured comforting words. When she'd cried for some time, however, he glanced at Spike, a silent plea for help. Spike took Annie's quaking shoulder. "Hey, come on, Annie. He wouldn't want you going all to pieces like this."

The sobs died. "No. He wouldn't." The voice was watery and muffled by Mao's shoulder, but recognizably Annie's.

"He'd want you to take me and Mao home for a drink to his memory. Or a bunch of drinks, because he left us a lot of good memories."

"Yeah." She straightened, giving Mao's wet coat an absent, apologetic pat. "Yeah, let's do that. I've got a bottle of the best, back at the house."

After casting Spike one grateful look, Mao put his arm around her shoulders and guided her out, away from the shell which was all that was left of her husband.

They sat with Annie for three hours, until she was finally drunk enough to go to sleep. Then they tenderly put her to bed. As they headed back downstairs, to the shop where Mao's men waited, Mao asked, "Spike. Will you stay here?"

"Sure. She'll have the world's worst hangover when she wakes up, and I know all about those."

Mao smiled sadly. "Under your flippancy, young man, you're not such a bad person. And you have courage, of both kinds."

"Both kinds?"

"Physical, and moral."

Spike found it funny hearing about moral courage from the leader of the Mars syndicate, but he kept that to himself. "I just don't want to go back to Ganymede and have Vicious work me half to death again, is all."

Mao made a sound of skeptical assent. "When she wakes up, call me, and I'll send some of her friends here. Then you can leave. But I think that, given the kind of woman that she is, when she first wakes and remembers she is alone, your brand of comfort will brace her better than any feminine sympathy."

"Glad to do it," Spike lied.

Mao saw the lie, smiled again, and left. Spike sighed, sat behind Annie's counter, pulled the bottle of whisky and an ashtray toward him, and settled down to wait.

Vicious buckled his sword on his belt, checked the Colt – he still thought of it as Rafe's, even after all these years – and holstered it, then did the same with his second and third guns, both automatics. Beside him, wreathed with cigarette smoke, Spike was going through the same routine with his own weaponry. Both of them were being more thorough than usual, as the ammo hadn't come from Annie, who was still in mourning, but from another Red Dragon dealer.

"I don't like this," Spike said, the words distorted slightly around the bobbing cigarette. "Dammit, you know it's a trap."

"That's the whole point."

"They're going to be on you like cockroaches on a ham sandwich."

Vicious didn't bother to comment on the analogy. "Are you ready?"

"Ready as I'll ever be."

Despite the cautious words, Spike's expression was one of eager anticipation, almost happy. Vicious never understood his brother's attraction to danger for its own sake, but he appreciated and used it. The adrenalin surge gave Spike an edge that made him nearly unbeatable. He already had a reputation in the syndicate.

Their snitch waited in an alley in the no-man's land between the territories, a one-block strip where once, by mutual agreement, men from both syndicates could walk and meet, but not do business. Before the feud began between the Dragons and the Tigers, this area had been crowded with shops, people eager to set up where they didn't have to pay protection money. But once the feud heated up, it became too dangerous, and now most of the shops stood empty, vandalized, and home for the homeless. Here in the no-man's land, the snitch had promised, waited a mid-level Tiger boss with information to sell. The price was high enough, and the promised information sensitive enough, to tempt Vicious forth in person. But Vicious hadn't bothered to bring the diamonds that had been demanded for payment. He could smell a trap. It pleased him. His rule of the area was beginning to seriously irritate the Tigers and balk their greedy plans, which was precisely why he had been placed here by Mao and Kito. A trap with this kind of bait meant he'd succeeded. He just had to live through it. And he had confidence he would, with his men about him and Spike at his side.

As he and Spike stepped out of his office, one of his men came forward. "We've scouted the area, Sir Vicious. It's exactly as you suspected. Our men are moving into position now and will be ready to go on your signal, of course." His brow creased. "If we stay as far back as you've commanded, there will be a delay of as much as a minute before we reach you."

"That won't be a problem."

As the man left, Spike turned to him. "Sir Vicious?" he repeated, derisive.

"It wasn't my idea."

"I don't see you laughing at it, either." Spike rolled his eyes and muttered, "Sir Vicious. Jeez. Your head's not going to fit through the door in another week."

As usual, Vicious didn't bother to dignify Spike's attitude by noticing it. He stepped out onto the street, and without changing anything visible about himself, became centered and alert. Spike dropped back a step, and Vicious could feel the same flow of energy coming from him. They had both been trained by the same master, and in dangerous situations, the bond between them needed no preparation and no words.

When they saw the snitch, a fussy, middle-aged, low-level man, he didn't even look nervous. That meant Kenzig, the Tiger boss, was overconfident about his trap. Over-confidence on their part would work in his favor.

The man introduced himself – Vicious didn't bother to remember the name – and looked them over, giving Vicious a nod of respect, and giving Spike nothing more than a glance. Spike looked relaxed, even bored. Only someone who knew him well, or who had fought him, could guess how deceptive he was. Vicious appreciated that quality in his brother. Anyone who saw him, Vicious, would know he was trouble; seeing Spike, they'd likely just dismiss him, just as this snitch was doing. Tough luck for them.

They left the alley, following the snitch, and passed what had once been a Chinese grocery store, the shattered glass of the windows crunching under their feet on the sidewalk. For two blocks, the three of them were alone on the street. The snitch tried once to make conversation with Vicious, but a single look quelled that.

Then they weren't alone. A boy came out onto the street from an alley a few blocks away, a skinny kid about thirteen or fourteen years old, with a solemn expression too old for his youthful, oval face. He came directly toward them, calling Spike's name. The snitch tensed, then relaxed. This was just a kid, and although kids could be dangerous in this area, this one was wearing his loose jacket open, obviously hiding no weapons.

The kid looked to Vicious for permission to speak, and then, on Vicious' brief nod, turned to Spike. "Where're you going, Spike? Someplace important?"

"No place special, Lin," Spike drawled. "What's up?"

"I have a message for you from Marianne. She says that tonight is fine, but if you stand her up again, she's finished with you for good." He stood before Spike almost like a soldier at attention, and Vicious would have found him a suspicious courier for a message from a girlfriend. But the idiot snitch just rolled his eyes.

Spike said, "Well, you go back and tell her to blow it out her ear. Got that?"

A smile lightened the boy's serious expression. "Yes, sir!" he said, and dashed off again the way he'd come.

The snitch and Spike began to exchange cheerfully derisive comments about women in general and redheads in particular. Vicious said nothing, although he enjoyed listening to Spike babbling away. The boy, of course, had been no messenger from a girlfriend, but was one of the Kwan boys and now worked for Spike. He was telling them that Vicious' men had closed their circle around the meeting place. The term "Marianne" had been the only relevant part of his message, a code word Spike had created to irritate Vicious' captain, whose last name was Marion. The meeting place was naturally supposed to have been a secret, but Vicious had spent the previous night working the information out of one of Kenzig's more trusted men. The man had been in the third day of a week's vacation with his family, so his absence wouldn't be noted by Kenzig, and the family had been helpful leverage, especially the three kids.

"So, how far are we going, anyway, Jay?" Spike asked the snitch, sounding ignorant, the lie so smooth that even Vicious half-believed it. "I'd like to get back before my date, even if she is going to throw something at me when she sees me again."

"Not far. She's got that redheaded temper, huh?"

"It's not a cliché for nothing. Want to see my scars?"

Jay laughed, as he was meant to, disarmed, the boy out of his thoughts by now. They followed him another block north and then stopped with him at a derelict warehouse. Jay rapped a signal against the door. "Right here," he said. "Just go on in, you're expected. But first..." He held out his hand.

He'd been promised one of the diamonds from the payment, and this was the only gem Vicious carried. He dropped it into the man's palm. Jay inspected it, then hid it in his jacket and trotted off. Vicious didn't watch him go. The man would be dead in a few minutes, so it didn't matter.

"Think Kenzig'll talk first, or just start shooting?" Spike asked quietly.

"It's Kenzig. What do you think?" In fact, most likely Kenzig himself was far away, at home in his own apartment or in his office. But they didn't fear a booby trap, because a bomb wouldn't accomplish Kenzig's purpose. Only Vicious' bullet-riddled body would do to send the right message to the Dragons.

Vicious planned to send quite a different message.

This was the only bad moment for him. Spike would have to go in first. That would be expected. Not until both of them were inside would the fireworks start, theoretically, but if someone got trigger happy, Spike could be killed before he could draw. The possibility was unlikely, as fast and alert as Spike was, but Vicious still tensed when Spike threw open the door and peered inside, then went in, calling Kenzig's name.

The fluorescents and lofty ceiling provided plenty of light. Kenzig knew that darkness for a meeting of this kind would have made them suspicious. Vandals and looters had made their way through the building, naturally, but had left enough detritus of broken crates and barrels to provide plenty of cover for Kenzig's men. Vicious enjoyed Kenzig as an adversary. The man was smart. Just not quite smart enough.

Spike was five paces inside, calling again for Kenzig, sounding irritated. Vicious stepped through the door, letting it swing back with a bump of wood on wood, and took one step inside. Then both of them hit the ground as bullets sprayed the air, the sound from semi-automatics deafening in this closed-in space. Ricochets zinged, and Vicious heard someone curse as he half-rose and raced to his left, weaving into the maze of broken crates. Crossfire set-ups could be dangerous to the ambushers if the victims didn't stand there to be shot. He smiled, brought his gun up as his first target came into view, and set to work.

He didn't know how many there were, but he was kept busy for that long minute until his men closed in. Aim, fire, duck, over and over, was all he knew. He was an efficient machine, feeling nothing, fearing nothing, his sole objective to kill as many men as he could without being killed himself. On the other side of the building, he knew Spike was doing the same, and probably doing it better than he was.

He could hear nothing but gunfire, so the man who jumped through the little side window as he jacked the empty clip from his automatic was a surprise to him. He had no time to set the new clip, and the man knew it and didn't bother to rush his aim. He never saw the glint of steel as Vicious drew his sword and, with a backhanded swipe, beheaded him. Vicious sheathed the sword again, slammed the clip into the gun, chambered a round, and went out through the window.

Outside, he could hear better, and he heard the roar of indignation when the buddies of the decapitated man found the body. They were too smart to just jump out the window after him, but instead put down a covering fire first. Vicious had an automatic in each hand now, and he backed around the corner. He retreated along the rear of the building, keeping up a covering fire of his own.

Behind him, he heard hasty steps and more firing. But he knew the steps and didn't worry. Spike was following the plan, and even as the two of them met, back to back, they heard Vicious' men crashing through the front. They smiled at each other over their shoulders. Spike's smile was one of pure ecstasy.

Their own bullets took out every man who tried to retreat out the back, but that wasn't many. Kenzig's men weren't cowards, and most stayed to square off eagerly against Vicious's squad.

But Vicious didn't have the same qualms about bombs as did Kenzig. Inside, as his squad began its strategic retreat, their apparent cowardice was met by crows of triumph from Kenzig's men. "Let's go," he said to Spike.

Together, they walked off, hurrying as much as they could without looking undignified. Spike muttered, "Three, two, one." Behind them, the building bucked, the walls bowing outward, and then collapsed in flames. "Always right on time, that Marianne," Spike grinned.

Vicious debriefed his men and supervised the clean-up, then dropped Spike off and went home to shower away the smells and stains of battle. He was just toweling himself dry when the phone rang. Stryker's bespectacled face appeared on the vid screen. "Kito wants a report. He's at the Myhauser Symphony Hall, and he'll meet you in his box during the interlude. That's about half an hour from now. Can you make it?"

Vicious nodded, then cut the connection and dressed in one of his better suits with swift efficiency. When he came out of the bedroom, the bird, recognizing the suit, realized it wouldn't be going with Vicious and settled on its perch again.

His driver leaped to attention when he emerged from the building. As the car sped through the dark streets, Vicious thought about his destination with wry scorn. Since Kito had gotten his new girlfriend, he was getting a lot more culture. Vicious had never seen her, although he'd heard plenty about her. He doubted, however, that she was worth the boredom of sitting through a succession of ballets, operas, and symphonies.

Judging by the crowd in the lobby, the interlude had already started when he arrived. He took the stairs to the private boxes three at a time, but seemed in no hurry as he walked down the corridor to Kito's box. The men who stood guard opened the red, felt-covered door and let him through without question.

Below, the hum of voices in the auditorium was fading as more people emptied out toward the lobby and concession stands. Kito was alone, seated in a padded velvet chair, his feet up on the box rail, an expensive brandy and three snifters on a table at his elbow. He gestured Vicious to the other chair in the box, dropping his feet to the floor.

"Enjoying the concert?" Vicious asked.

"Enjoying a nap. But hell, Julia eats this stuff up, and it doesn't hurt to make her happy. She'd rather have this than diamonds or silk, believe it or not."

"If you say so."

"I got a call today," Kito said with a slow-growing smile. "It seems that you've really pissed off some guy named Kenzig."

"Is that so."

"He wants your blood. Says you trespassed into Tiger territory."

"That would be his line. I take it you got that call before he heard that we blew up the building."

"He didn't mention that part." Kito's smile turned wolfish. "But it is a nice, big, really obvious piece of evidence that the whole thing went down in no-man's land."

"That was the idea."

"Smart. Very smart. You know he's going to put a fat bounty on your head."

"He'll have to find someone to collect it."

Kito opened the brandy and poured for both of them. "Give me the details. Start at the beginning. How did Kenzig contact you?"

They were nearly finished when the noise level below went up a notch, and the orchestra members began to tune their instruments, signaling the end of the interlude. The door opened, and Vicious glanced back, his hand automatically reaching for the gun that wasn't there. But the person approaching them was a woman. A woman so unique and so beautiful, his hand dropped to his side without his awareness.

She was tall and graceful, and she walked with a leisurely ease, hips swaying. Blonde hair was swept back in a simple, elegant twist, a style Vicious had never seen before, revealing an elfin face. Her features were delicate, almost childlike, with a pointed chin and almond-shaped blue eyes, and enhanced only lightly with make-up. Smooth pale shoulders, left bare, sloped into a strapless dress of a red almost the exact shade of her lipstick, a long dress which slid sleekly down her body to just skim strappy high heels of the same red. Her only jewelry was a pair of diamond earrings and a chain of tiny diamonds that ended in a twist just over her breasts. Her walk was leisurely, and her cool smile encompassed both men.

Kito rose, and Vicious did so as well, without realizing it. Kito held out a hand, and she put hers into it. Kito said, "Sorry, sweetheart, I didn't know it was so late. This is Vicious. I told you I expected him tonight. Vicious, Julia."

She took her hand from Kito's and extended it to him. Her skin was cool, her fingers long and tapered, with unpainted nails. "Nice to meet you," she said with a faint smile. "I've heard so much about you. But I have to admit, with that name, you're nothing like what I expected."

Vicious said nothing. Listening to her musically soft voice, he couldn't have spoken even if Kito had commanded it.

Julia didn't seem to notice. She said, "Were you going to stay for the rest of the concert? I can have someone bring you a chair."

"He's just leaving," Kito said, pouring her a measure of brandy and handing her the snifter. She sipped it delicately as he said, "We just have a few more bits of business to discuss. We can finish it out in the hallway."

"No, don't leave on my account." She bent to set the snifter down. "I'll just go..." she shrugged one bare shoulder, "powder my nose." Once again the hand extended to him. "Maybe we'll see each other again sometime, Vicious."

He watched her walk as she left them, the dress outlining legs as elegant as the rest of her. Seeing the direction of his gaze, Kito smiled. "She's something, isn't she?" he said as soon as the door closed behind her.

"She seems..." He stopped, not able to find the words.

" far too classy a dame to be hanging out with me?" Kito said. His voice had no self-deprecation or insecurity, only amusement and the pride any man would feel at owning a woman like that.

Vicious nodded mutely, since that was essentially what he'd been thinking. "Where did you find her?"

"Annie's place. Her grandmother was a friend of Annie's. I tell Annie that she's the best thing I ever picked up there."

"Is she always like that?"

"Like what?"

Once more Vicious had to search for the right word. "Serene."

Kito chuckled. "Most of the time. You know, if you'd come to a party you're invited to once in a while, you'd have met her before this. She hosts all my private parties, and does a great job of it, even if she doesn't enjoy it much."

"She doesn't?"

"No. She prefers this sort of thing," with a gesture down at the orchestra. "So I indulge her, she gives me some class and culture, she does the pretty at my parties, and we're both happy." Kito forgot about her then, asking for the last of Vicious' report.

Collecting his thoughts, Vicious summed it up, got Kito's approval and praise, and left. His timing was perfect; he emerged from the box just as Julia arrived. Once more she gave him that cool, serene, fascinating and utterly feminine smile. "Hello again. All finished now?"

His throat was dry. "Yes. Sorry to bother you."

"Oh, so you do speak." Her smile made the comment teasing, inoffensive. "It's no problem, I'm used to it. Besides, I'm glad to have the chance to meet you, after all Kito's said about you. As close as you two are, I think it's odd that we've never met."

"I don't like parties."

"That explains it, I suppose. Well," she gave him a smile over her shoulder as one of the guards reached to open the door for her, "have a nice evening, Vicious."

For one of the few times in his life, Vicious' mind was blank. He walked through the huge, glittering lobby and out to his car without one coherent thought making it to his consciousness. They were half a mile away before he was able to begin to sort out the chaos. What had happened to him there in Kito's box had been a kind of epiphany, and those always took him time to absorb.

When he finally recovered, however, his thoughts were clear. Suddenly, he knew what he wanted, what was missing from his life, the one thing he needed to raise him from cold-blooded syndicate hood to a leader like Kito.

The work, the danger, the scheming, the planning – all that, he could handle. But in his heart he knew he was still just a street kid, at least in the image he projected. Even when he lifted himself to the reputation of a dangerous leader, it would still be only a veneer over the street kid. He needed was something to give him an air of sophistication. Class, as Kito had called it. It was a tool he couldn't build for himself. A woman like that one, like Julia, could give him that.

No. Not a woman like her. Her. He needed Julia.

He sat straighter, disciplining himself. What was he thinking? He didn't need a woman. He'd gotten along fine without one so far. Even Crys's uses had been limited, and had nothing to do with his syndicate life.

But Julia was something different. She was a piece of his life's puzzle that had dropped into place with stunning force. She was a woman who had everything he lacked, who would lift him to a place he'd never before had a way to reach, not just Kito's level, but Kito's status. And she was a syndicate woman. She would understand what he had to do to get where he wanted to be.

Thinking about her stirred something deep inside him, something electric, like a low hum of excitement in his blood. Not lust, which was a cheap thing. He'd only felt this twice before – when he'd met Rafe, and when he'd first seen Spike. The feeling was one of rightness and discovery, and he knew he had to have that woman, whatever it took.

But he would have to wait. Of all people, he was not going to cross Kito. He didn't have to. Kito never kept a woman long. He'd already had Julia for around a year, which was a long time for him. He'd replace her soon. And by the time he did, Vicious would have come up with a strategy to take her for himself.

Julia slid her feet from the high heels, leaned back in her chair, and crossed her legs comfortably. "So that's the famous Vicious," she observed idly, sipping again at the brandy, her attention on the orchestra.

Kito made a sound of assent. He'd already settled back to resume his nap.

"He's nothing like what I expected."

His eyes opened, looking at her with amusement. "What did you expect?"

"I don't know, exactly. With that name? Someone who looked like... oh, a badger, maybe."

Kito laughed, shaking his head as if she were an amusing child. "We all think of him as a snake. He's the coldest man I ever met. The only thing he seems to have any affection for at all is that kid he's bringing up through the ranks."

She smiled. "People used to say that about you and Vicious, I hear. That all you cared about was the guy you were bringing up through the ranks. I never thought of you as cold. Him... yes." She shivered, then shrugged and smiled at Kito. "And he hardly speaks at all. In fact, I'm not sure why you like him so much. You two are so different."

"Only superficially, sweetheart. Only superficially."