It Could Be Worse (3rd Season)

Episode 1: With This Ring

By Sulia Serafine

[A Protector of the Small fanfic set in an alternate universe; all credit goes to Tamora Pierce. I'm broke, so you can't sue me. Any other copyrighted things that don't belong to me in here in fact belong to other very businesslike people. Could you believe that? I guess that's why I'm broke.

BAD LANGUAGE (I. E. cursing, swearing…)! E-mail me at silverwlng@aol.com okay? And you know the drill: titles or subjects of emails are fanfiction.net, s.serafine, or icbw.

IMPORTANT NOTE: I'm still accepting people into the mailing list. That means you'll be told when the next episode is posted, as well as other tidbits of information about the series whenever I put them online. ALSO: Every now and then, as a pledge, I'll send everyone bonus material, such as drawings of ICBW characters and little random facts about ICBW.

Rating of this episode: Let's say… PG-13 for rather stupid sexual innuendos.

~~

Keladry did not notice how time slipped away like falling grains of sand from her fingers. But here she was, sitting in the dressmaker's shop with her best female friend, about to be fitted for bridesmaid dresses. It felt as if only yesterday Lalasa had walked into her life, daring to annoy Joren by asking for a drink in exchange for information. Keladry could still remember the expression on her partner's face. He'd wanted to strangle Lalasa right then and there.

And Lalasa had not been intimidated one tiny bit.

"I think baby blue would be perfect. It's the only color she wears, anyway," Lalasa said loudly, hoping that Keladry would actually hear and speak up. When she didn't get a response, she turned and pouted. "Kel! Sugar, get over here and help me alter your dress design! I can't do this by myself."

The first class DJPF officer rolled her eyes as she got up and went to where Lalasa was standing with the seamstress. They were at a desk, drawing up designs and looking at fabrics. The Carthaki woman laid her head on Keladry's shoulder since the officer was taller. She made puppy dog eyes and pointed at the drawing on the paper. "What do you think? Isn't it cute?"

Keladry made a face. "Um, sure… but do you think I can actually be out in public like that without embarrassing myself? I do have a reputation for being a, um, tomboy."

"Oh, pshaw! It's gorgeous. You'll look wonderful! And besides, I'll draw all the attention away from you. No one will remember you were even wearing a dress," she drawled. "Your reputation will remain intact, okay?"

"You're the one with the remarkable fashion sense. I leave it all in your hands," Keladry sighed. She muttered a prayer to the Goddess and hoped that Lalasa wouldn't take that freedom to mean something that Keladry would regret.

"Oh! Okay, I think we should do this with the sash," Lalasa murmured. She sketched on the drawing pad. The seamstress nodded agreeably.

"Yes, Miss. Quite beautiful. Are you sure you haven't designed dresses before?"

Lalasa blushed and giggled. "Well, maybe just once or twice."

Keladry rolled her eyes. What she means is all her life. Her Carthaki friend had once told her that while she had been teenager, Lalasa had studied to enter fashion school, but moving around thanks to her father terminated fashion school as a possibility. Now that she was free of her father, maybe she would take up her old goals and dreams. Or perhaps she was truly content working for Ms. Sarrasri like she was now.

"I have part of the dress already made, Miss. Would you like her to try it on now and we can make the alterations as we go?"

"Yes! This is going to be so cute, Kel. You'll love it."

"Standing completely still on a stool while you two stick pins in me? Are you sure?" Keladry asked sarcastically.

"We will not stick you with pins. We'll stick the dress with pins."

"Knowing my luck—"

"Keladry Mindelan! You get that dress and put it on! Right this instant!"

She surrendered completely after that. It was more difficult to deal with Lalasa in one of her moods than it was to take down Roger Conté and Ozorne Tasikhe, combined. Keladry took the dress from the seamstress and headed to the changing room, glad that at least the blue satin looked comfortable.

After four hours, I bet it won't be.

~~

"You got it?" Kel asked Cleon, who was balancing two grocery bags in his arms.

He nodded. "Yeah. I'll get the rest and give Neal his share. Want me to get yours from the car, too?"

"Would you? Thanks. You remember the code to my lock, right?"

"Yes, Mother," he replied as he walked away. It was his newest habit, learned from Neal, to call Keladry that when she was in her "maternal mode". She didn't mind. At least they did what she asked them to.

Keladry shifted the sole bag in her arms to rest on her left hip as she entered the code into the keypad. It had taken her two whole weeks to persuade the combination from him, but it paid off. She entered the apartment and went straight to the kitchenette. She set the grocery bag on the blank counter and started putting various food items into the small refrigerator and cabinets.

"Hey! You awake? Oh, come on. I know you're awake," she called.

"Of course I am. I heard you open the door."

She tucked a lock of light brown hair behind her ear. Keladry entered the bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed. Joren laid with his eyes closed. His hands were folded behind his head and the bed sheets covered him from the waist down. She could tell he was still only wearing a white ribbed tank top and black sweatpants.

"Have you budged at all this morning?"

"Does it look like I have?" he yawned.

"Why lie here if you're awake?"

"I'm thinking."

She scooted closer and smirked at him. "About what?"

He opened his eyes slowly and looked at her. He shrugged slightly and closed his eyes again. "What I always think about."

Keladry rolled her eyes. "Whenever you do that, you get sad and depressed. Come on. Get up. I brought your stupid groceries and I don't even get a thanks."

"Oh, fine. C'mere," he slurred and held his arms out to her. She lied down beside him, her feet dangling off the side of the bed. He wrapped his arms around her and yawned again. Instinctively, he tucked her head beneath his chin. The warmth of his bed and his body tempted Keladry to doze off as well.  "Hmm," he sighed. "I could lie like this for days."

"Unfortunately for you, Raoul wants a favor in about an hour."

"You always have to spoil the mood, don't you?" he groused.

Keladry chuckled against his neck. "Hey, someone has to keep you on your toes. Get up. You have work."

"Oh, please. Do I look like someone responsible to you?"

"No," she replied with some truth. She sat up again and left his side. It didn't take too long for her to find his uniform in his closet among the other dark shaded clothing. She threw it onto his stomach and waited for him to respond. "Come on, Joren! Get up!"

"I'm going! Stop nagging," he groaned and finally sat up. He muttered something incoherent and swung his legs over the edge of the bed. He yanked his uniform over the undershirt he had, but he had to get out of his sweatpants before he could do the rest. Keladry retreated back to the kitchen to get some food out. Otherwise, she knew he'd skip breakfast and lunch altogether.

Dressed but still not fully awake, he exited his bedroom and stood at the counter for her approval. She pointed to his head. "Shave, wash, brush… and comb your hair, too"

He rolled his eyes upward, muttered something again, and returned to his room. Keladry laughed quietly. After some major effort on both their parts, they had settled into a comfortable routine. Joren was really trying to settle into a normal life again. But every now and then, she would catch him staring out the window, like he wanted to kill himself.

She had suggested once that a therapist might help him, but Joren stubbornly refused. His obstinacy over that subject remained unmoved to that very day. As a consequence, Keladry had asked him to talk to her when he was bothered. He did, but she felt like he was still holding back. It was times like those when she still felt like he was a stranger.

It takes time. He said it from the beginning that it would take time. We've come this far, haven't we? She brushed those thoughts aside and concentrated on the food in front of her. While she was pouring the skim milk, Joren came out again, neater in appearance.

"Happy?"

"Quite."

He sat down on one of the stools and reached for a fork. He smirked at the selection of food. "Just my luck—I had to end up with a health nut. I see you've got most of the basic food groups here. How fan-freaking-tastic."

"You're not leaving until you finish it all and it won't be my fault if Raoul gets mad at you--"

He leaned across the counter and kissed her to shut her up. When he let go, he winked at her. "All the nourishment I need is right here."

Keladry smiled knowingly back at him. "As smooth as that sounds, you're not worming your way out of this one. Finish your food."

"Damn. Can't get past you anymore," he mumbled and started to eat.

Keladry also found a stool and sat across from him. She reached for his pager, lying abandoned on the counter. Just as she suspected, Raoul had paged him half an hour ago. She set it back down, hoping he would pick it up without her having to remind him.

"What are you doing today?" he asked between bites.

"Going with Lalasa for her final fittings."

Joren snickered. "Oh, yeah. That thing." He sipped from his milk. "I suppose there will be an opportunity for me to ditch." He paused and looked at her. "For us to ditch?"

"I'm the maid of honor. Does it look like I can ditch?" Keladry replied. She liked the idea of sneaking away with him, but obligations came first. She blushed to a faint pink. It was still unnerving to hear him flirt like that, as if she was still a nervous teenager. He did it sometimes on purpose, just to get a reaction out of her.

"Do you even own a tux?" she asked.

"Me? Of course not. I'm taking one that Dom's grown out of. It fits me fine. I'd never stoop so low as to spend money on something I'm never going to use again." He paused and smirked mischievously. "By the way, did you get fitted for your dress?"

Kel fidgeted. "Yes, but I don't have a choice. I can't borrow a dress from someone else like men can borrow tuxedos because all of the bridesmaids have to wear the same thing. It's not fair."

"Whoever said life was fair?" Joren retorted.

"Oh, shut up, you. You're lucky that you scared Roald out of putting you in the procession with the rest of us. I still have to practice marching down the isle in line with everyone else. If you ask me, the whole ritual is antiquated and stupid! If I ever had a wedding, it would be—Joren?"

The blond pounded on his chest with his fist. He swallowed hard and glared at her. "Don't say that! Are you trying to kill me?"

Marriage had been a very "off limits" subject for them. Keladry was quite content with the status they had achieved, while she observed that he was dead set on keeping it that way. Although he had had many harsh experiences, he was still susceptible to the fears of commitment that all men suffered. Keladry didn't mind. It made her laugh to think that he was also like any normal guy in that respect.

Joren finished the rest of his food and milk. He got off his stool and put the dishes in the sink himself, running water over it to keep whatever traces of food were left from sticking to the plate. He turned back to Keladry, leaning his hands on the counter at each side of her.

"Anyway, let's not talk about that. Do I get to see this dress of yours before Sunday?"

"What are you getting at?" she asked suspiciously.

"Nothing big. Can't I act like any other Joe and want to see you in your nice, frighteningly expensive gown?"

She narrowed her eyes. "Uh-huh. And I'm sure the dress wouldn't survive to see the weekend if your prowling hands were near."

"If it gets in the way, it's a tragic casualty. Not my fault." He grinned and leaned forward.

Keladry put a hand on his chest and gently pushed him away. "Right… Why don't you go report to Raoul now, huh Bond? You can charm your way around in a tux later."

"I don't know how the bastard did it. Saving the world in style like that. That's why he's only in the movies. I hate tuxedos," he grumbled. He went back to his room for his leather jacket and keys. When he exited again, he came back to her and reached past her for his pager.

"Lock up for me, okay?"

"Uh-huh."

"Great," he murmured and snuck one last kiss before breezing out the door. Keladry sighed and glanced at his dishes in the sink.

She hopped off the stool. "Right. Just because he has sex appeal doesn't mean he can't do his own dishes."

~~

She decided that she detested weddings. Keladry despised them. She was very glad for those who had found love and were willing to commit to it. At the same time, the young woman pondered why this commitment had to be celebrated in such a gaudy fashion. The flowers, the lace… the excessive amount of purple and green chiffon. Oh, and she did not even want to think about the strong scent of lavender everywhere she turned.

Her fellow officers seemed to be under the same impression. She watched Cleon and Neal try to pay attention to the priest performing the ceremony. Their noses twitched from the aromatic atmosphere and they both clawed at their tight collars when they thought no one was looking.

On the other hand, those of Keladry's gender were for the most part gazing happily (and albeit, enviously) at Lalasa and Roald. The few exceptions included Buri and Alanna. Buri was more anti-feminine than Keladry; Alanna was only there because Thom had begged her to be his date to his pseudo-niece's wedding. Thom had also been charged with walking Lalasa down the isle. He'd never been more petrified in his life, but turning to his twin sister for comfort and encouragement was a lost cause. She teased him relentlessly and rebuked him for making her fly to Tusaine while pregnant (again).

"I now proclaim you husband and wife. You may kiss the bride."

With those final words, the couple kissed in the view of all their friends and family. Keladry clapped along with everyone else. She envied Roald and Lalasa for their contentment, but she did not wish any ill will for either person. She decided that the ceremony of their union was in fact an omen for good things to come. Perhaps truly, now, she and her comrades would have peace.

It had been nearly a month since Enishi Yukishiro had disappeared, accompanied by his most loyal followers. In his wake there had been a brief period of turmoil as remaining gangs and syndicates had struggled for the abandoned throne. In the end, they had slaughtered each other until all that remained were lost and confused.

Keladry thought it was for the better. Although she did not approve of the violent end of so many, she couldn't ignore the positive effects that resulted from it. There was enough work to be had for the DJPF, but Flyndon still found himself recommending transfers to those officers who wanted to promote themselves to more challenging things. Tusaine's criminal reputation would never be as colossal again.

"I think I'm going to cry. This is so beautiful!" Fianola sobbed happily from beside her. She dabbed at her eyes with a tissue and sighed. Keladry glanced across the aisle at Faleron, who was also getting a good view of his girlfriend's waterworks. He noticeably blanched, even with Cleon guiding him in the march behind the bride and groom.

Keladry caught up with Joren again while he was trying to dodge the rice throwers. Lalasa and Roald were already stepping into the limo, to head toward the banquet hall. Her Carthaki friend had planned on changing into something that didn't take up four persons' worth of space before they spent the early evening celebrating with their loved ones.

"Must we go to the reception?"

She glared at him. "Yes. No one will be ditching either. Understood?"

He growled. "Should never have hooked up with you. I should have gotten a cat instead." He gave her the evil eye. "A cat would never be so demanding."

The mere thought of Joren and a pet was too hilarious for words. Keladry laughed and shook her head, though he didn't find it too funny. She cast her gaze around her. "Umm… I'm going to say hello to a few people. You go ahead without me. I'll get a ride."

"You can say hello to them when we get there. Like you said, 'no one will be ditching'," he replied and grabbed her arm. He tugged her in the direction of his motorcycle. It would be nearly impossible to ride without her skirt billowing in the wind. Keladry was truly hoping to ride in a car on the way to the reception.

"I'll get a ride with Neal. I can't sit on the back of your bike all sidesaddle-like. That would be sheer hell." When she noted his grumpy expression, she smirked. "Don't be so greedy. You'll have me to yourself later."

"Later, I'll be at the pet store, looking for your replacement."

She smirked. Two could play at that game. "Sarcasm makes you look adorable."

"Shut up."

She walked as fast as her shoes would allow toward Domitan Masbolle and Nealan Queenscove. The two god brothers were arguing over who was going to catch the garter at the reception. Qasim, who was also riding with them, watched in amusement. He was the first to greet Kel.

"Ah. The beauty that tamed the beast! I haven't had a chance to talk with you in a while. How are things, Keladry?"

She wasn't used to anyone using her full first name, just her last name or her nickname. She pointed at herself. "Things are very uncomfortable in petticoats and heels, Qasim."

He chuckled. "I see. At least now you'll have a spare dress for whatever other ceremonies you might need to attend." He gestured to Neal walking in front of them, whom had just received a slap upside the head from Dom. "Obviously, it won't be a ceremony for Neal—unless Dom kills him anytime soon."

In the car, Qasim sat up front while Neal sat with Keladry in the back. She studied her best friend carefully. Her hand reflexively reached up and stilled his, which was fiddling with his collar. "Stop that. You're making your bow tie crooked."

He reluctantly lowered his hand. "It itches though. I think I'm having a reaction with the starch."

"You are not. You use that excuse every time."

"Yeah, yeah," he muttered and gazed out the window.

Keladry frowned. "Is something wrong?"

"You're asking Neal, the most melodramatic man in the whole world. Of course something is wrong," Dom teased from the driver's seat. Neal quickly retaliated with a comment of his own that earned a pinch from Keladry.

He winced. "Sorry."

"Seriously, Neal. What is it?"

He shrugged. This time, his hand toyed with his seat belt. It seemed as if he wanted something to occupy his thoughts instead of what was forcing its way into his mind. Keladry hated to see him look so sad. She had no idea what was even causing it.

Neal relented. "So, it feels weird. The wedding reminded me of something. Everyone in the whole city is moving on with their lives… but I feel like nothing really ended in the first place!"

"What are you saying?"

He counted on his fingers. "Oh, come on. First, we had to tangle with Tasikhe and Conté on psycho trips to rule the world and whatnot, but right afterward we tumble into this mess with those Tusaine bombers. Except, they're dead and we still don't know what killed them." He made a sound of frustration. "Tusaine has become the most boring place on earth, yet it doesn't feel like whatever evil that lived here ever left. It's like one huge shadow still over us."

No one said much in the car after that. Even the Keladry had been trying not to pay attention to the ominous void created by the absence of Tusaine's Criminal Kings. She had not wanted to acknowledge the fact that all the hardest challenges in her life had been overcome. From conspiracies to mysterious government experiments, from mysterious mafias and Joren's tragic past… everything had come to such a sudden, abrupt halt that Keladry knew it wasn't true. Neal was right. The storm clouds of past events were still hanging over them, ready to rain down its pestilence.

"I… don't think it would be healthy for you to dwell on this," she told him when they reached the reception hall.

The green-eyed young man pointed to where a familiar black motorcycle a few feet away. "I don't think I'm the only one."

~~

As was customary for wedding receptions in Mithros, after the bride and groom had finished the first slow dance together, they parted to dance in turns with their friends and family. Keladry was never much for any sort of dancing, but Roald coaxed her out of her chair and onto the polished hardwood floor.

She could clearly make out his happy and flushed face though the chandelier lighting was dim. It would have been nice to have someone like Roald as her soul mate, Keladry thought. But no one ever chose who they fell in love with. And she knew she would never abandon Joren, though times might turn cold and harsh.

Roald hummed along with the hired musicians. He watched her closely. It was obvious to him that her distant gaze was not inspired by positive thoughts. In a low voice, he said to her, "Where are you?"

Keladry stared into the empty space over his shoulder. Her eyelids fluttered before her hazel eyes focused again on him. "Right back where I started."

"You know, Keladry, just because you don't understand how others could move on, doesn't mean that you need to leave yourself behind to figure it out."

It was cold water on her feverish thoughts. She scrutinized the newlywed who danced with her. "How in the world does that end up on everyone's minds? First Neal, then you…"

His bangs fell across his eyes as he lowered his head. "I don't know. Being around all you officers has made me very in tune to everything that goes wrong around here. Nothing ends, Kel. Just enjoy yourself while you can."

"Oh, by Glory! Goddess' sake, Roald, I'm sorry! It's your wedding day and I'm acting dreadfully. Please forgive me."

The easygoing Vice President's son surprised her again when he merely smiled at her and whispered, "You were forgiven a long time before. Now just relax and enjoy the dance."

Now more than ever did Keladry thank her lucky stars that the people in her life knew her mind. It was much easier to live expressing her emotions and receiving guidance from her cherished friends. Vulnerability emerged from this new lifestyle, but Keladry saw how it was all worth it. Roald's patience, his wife's coyness, even Cleon's playfulness were all worth it.

She handed Roald over to Daine when her turn ended. Her instincts led her to the terrace, where she tried to let the cold wind soothe her. She heard the glass door open behind her. It closed again, sending a gentle blow of air on her back. Strong arms embraced her from behind. Her goose bumps vanished when she recognized her new companion.

"Why are you and Queenscove so bitchy today? Isran's got the impression that you both hate the wedding and her. Gods, the woman rants on and on… I'm pretty sure she's a real live banshee."

The warmth he provided turned out to calm her better than the icy fingers of the late winter weather. She patted the arm around her waist. Perhaps speaking with him would do more than calm her. Perhaps it would set her fears to rest. "I see that she forced you to dance with her."

"Forced is definitely the right word," Joren said. He released her and stood at her side.

Keladry wrung her hands together. "Joren, do you still think about… Yukishiro and Liam?"

"Yes. You know I do. Why?" He put his hands in his pants pockets and surveyed the terrace's view. It was a nice plaza, with cold fountains still spouting out crystal clear water. The lights arranged around the bushes lit up the terrace as well. Keladry could see his profile without any trouble.

"No reason. I'm glad that we can talk about things now."

"Now? So what have you been making me do for the last month? Was that not talking as well?" he inquired. His brows lowered pensively over his eyes. "You've been thinking about this way too much. It's thinking that always gets to people."

She sighed and leaned on him. He smelled like fresh rain on a gray afternoon. "So you're allowed to think about it, but I'm not?"

He kissed her hair. "I've been doing it for nearly my whole life. Just let me bear the burden. You have enough things to worry about, like Isran."

"You're still broken on the inside, aren't you?" Keladry asked softly.

His hand grasped hers and gave it a squeeze. When he didn't say anything, she assumed the affirmative and exhaled deeply from her constricting, aching chest. He would never truly stop hurting, and she would never stop hurting for him. The endless cycle swirled them around each other, sometimes easing, sometimes increasing pain.

She couldn't tell if their conversation was easing things or making them worse. She hated Neal for a brief moment for saying aloud what she had not wanted to discuss for weeks. But now that the monster was here, she couldn't slay it without first seeing it in the light.

"I wouldn't get so close, Officer. The creature might be contagious," a familiar voice sounded from behind them.

Of all the wedding guests, he has to see us. She bit back a laugh and whirled around. If she could count on any two people to lift her spirits, it would be Cleon and Faleron. The latter was leaning in an intentional pose against the door. Keladry left Joren's side and hugged Faleron. She grinned. "I haven't gotten a chance to talk to you in days."

Joren glared at the former thief. "Shouldn't you be out somewhere looking for your hat?"

"I would, except that Fia made me take it off. She gave it to Cleon for safekeeping, and he won't give it back." He pointed behind him. "They're going to throw the bouquet. Lalasa is yelling for you to go stand in front, Kel."

"Yes, do catch the bouquet. Then give it to me so I can ram it down his throat," Joren threatened. Faleron held up his hands in surrender and went back inside. Keladry elbowed the blonde as they, too, went back inside for some much needed mirth.

~~

"Hello? Kel? Pick up, Kel. Please be there. This is important. It's Oranie. I have to talk with you," a voice on the answering machine said. The light on the device started blinking as the words were being recorded. The speaker gave up and decided to relay the message. "Sis, Conal and Inness are in trouble. Remember how I told you that Inness was doing some research for his university in the Eastern Yamanis? Conal went with him to earn some money. Their plane went down somewhere in the mountains, Kel. We haven't gotten word from any of the people aboard. Please call me as soon as you get this. Love you, Sis. Please talk to me soon."

~~

Author's note: Hi, everyone. Back into the swing of things, I suppose. I know that this opening episode wasn't so big and grand as past openers have been—it's just not been one of those days, I suppose. The point was that I know a lot of you felt as if last season's ending was abrupt, or unresolved… but you see, that was the point. The events of season 2 loom over seasons 3 and 4, without question. I would have liked to continue them as all one huge season if it weren't for organizational purposes.

Anyway! Please tell me what you think. We have some strange new character changes in the wake of season 2, and I'm sorry I couldn't get into the mood to develop them slowly and properly, but I think the rest of the season will remedy that rather well.

Until next time! (Which shouldn't be too long. I have episode 2 done already, that's why it took so long to get this out. The two episodes work well hand in hand. ^.^) Ja ne!