It Could Be Worse (4th Season)

Episode 1: After You

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.

E-mail me at okay? And you know the drill: titles or subjects of emails are, s.serafine, or icbw.

Rating of this episode: PG-13 for bad moods and bad jokes…

Author's note: Well! It's good to be back! And yet, it is a bittersweet moment. This is for sure the last season of ICBW. It's been an awesome ride, but as I move on to adulthood (i.e. washing my own laundry and living without the 'rents) I must also move on to different things, creatively. I've already started making drafts and outlines for fiction projects that maybe one will be published. Who knows? I'll try short story, poetry, screen plays… I'm a dabbler. Dabble, dabble. Enjoy the show, folks.

By the time she reached Commissioner Wyldon's office, Keladry had been on a train for a ridiculous amount of time due to freight train accidents on the tracks ahead of them. She could have gone by bus, but she had no desire to be on a bus again. The trip to Irontown earlier that year had been more than enough. A plane was no better. She'd be happy if she never got onto another plane in her life, seeing as it would forever after remind her of that painfully silent trip across the ocean.

Keladry slumped in the chair, rubbing her eyes. Years of practiced stoicism and perfect posture amounted to nothing. The constant jostle of the train hadn't let her sleep. Instead, she remained in a state in which she was not sure she was even awake. Eyelids drooping, hair matted on one side from hours of leaning against a window, Keladry felt as if she were floating. An out-of-body experience, she though briefly, wondering how she could look down at her feet on the floor, but not feel them anywhere near the floor.

After a time, Wyldon entered his office, hands clasped behind his back. The commissioner had already received the same synopsis that had been given to Flyndon, but he knew there was more than meets the eye. Besides, Keladry had always been an honest, dutiful officer. He'd rarely had complaints about her the entire time he had known the young woman. It was therefore more… vexing… to see her now, so disoriented and unlike herself.

"Sir," she made to stand and salute.

"At ease, Mindelan."

Keladry gratefully collapsed back into the chair. Habit made a comeback, though, and she sat up a little straighter. However, her eyes continued to appear vacant.

Wyldon frowned. "I know the basics, officer. I didn't need you to come all the way here to tell me what everyone else knows," he said. He moved behind his desk and sat down. "So tell me. What really happened?"

Keladry gazed down at her lap. "I'm not sure if I—"

"And don't worry about anyone else. If you, of all sensible people, have a bizarre story to tell, I won't report it to Internal Affairs." He gave her a confident, assuring smile. "I've watched you grow up from a wet-behind-the-ears rookie to an indispensable member of the DJPF. I trust what you have to say." He paused. "And if need be, I will deal with covering up the scandals. No need to give the public yet another reason to lose faith in the federal government."

She was slightly impressed of his assessment of the situation and the accompanying bravery to defend it. Keladry coughed into her hand. The truth had to come out sooner or later. At least the commissioner was on her side.

"We ran into a benevolent, indigenous people. Then we ran into a," Keladry paused to find the right words, but failed, "not-so-benevolent people. A civilian was seriously injured… Another k… killed," she finished after some difficulty. "And an officer—" she stopped. If there ever was a time for her to hand in his resignation for him, now was it. "Two of our officers have volunteered to stay behind to do damage control."


She gulped. Officially, only one. But she might as well say two. "Yes, two."

Wyldon tapped his chin. "And so you're saying that we really have two of our men covering up the discovery of a culture in that icy wasteland. Well, Ms. Sarrasri already knows, but I'm sure she wouldn't mind twisting the details. Her job is on the line, too." He smirked. "A group of gold-diggers, having been driven out of the Roof of the World by our expeditionary forces, set up shop in the forbidden Eastern Yamani mountains."

"Sir?" Keladry forced her eyes to stay open and shifted uncomfortably in her seat.

"We can't tell all of Mithros that there are indigenous people in those mountains. Hundreds of foolhardy scientists and anthropologists would fall off mountains and get themselves killed trying to find the place."

"The hostages and the rescue team have not been under our supervision upon return. What if they've already leaked information?"

"Well, I suppose we'll have to persuade them to change their stories, won't we?"

Keladry did not know how to react. The search team had not seen much, but the pilots of Inness' research team had seen plenty. She could trust Inness to keep his mouth shut—she doubted he would have talked to anyone, even their mother, about what had happened. But what about the rest?

Wyldon sighed. "I will approach the subject with the DJPF Board of Directors. We need to get this report straight—you hear me, Mindelan? Because there's a chance someone has already heard something. And they will ask questions. The current administration just barely recovered from the Immortals scandal."

"I take it President Conté will have more than enough on his plate during his re-election campaign?" Keladry said, a little caustic in voice.

Their private conference eventually undid Keladry's initial report to Flyndon and replaced it with something closer to the truth. The damage control in Mithros was ten times as more taxing psychologically than it must have been back in Enishijirou. By the end, Keladry wondered if Wyldon would really be able to cover up everything.

She felt guilty. More, she felt responsible. The lying had not disappeared, only changed form. How could she let herself imagine things would be so easy?

The final report and witness hushing lasted three days. Keladry stayed in the Headquarter dorms again, talking with former hostages via COMscreen. Luckily, every last one of them had not said a word. On the plane ride home, they had discussed it among themselves and determined that they would all be locked up in an insane asylum if they even remotely tried to explain the "magic" they had seen. For their cowardice and self-denial, Keladry was eternally grateful.

She slept for the rest of her time in the city. She barely strayed from her room, so she did not visit any of her old friends. The majority of them had transferred anyway. The only one she had seen during her brief trips to Commissioner Wyldon's office had been Hakuin Seastone, who sported a black eye courtesy his fellow trainer, Eda Bell. She'd greeted him rather indifferently. He took no offense, mistaking her behavior as that of her pre-mistaken-fugitive days, but she felt a little bad after he had gone.

No, she for the most part stayed in her assigned room. Keladry simply didn't have the energy. There was no dull ache, annoyance, irritation, anger, or melancholy. None of that. There was just an enormous amount of fatigue.

I'm tired of everything, she realized. I've given all of myself to everyone because I've never done it before and I didn't know any better. Now there's nothing left.

She recalled how Cleon had once spoken to her about respecting how she kept her distance. There wasn't any distance to speak of any longer, she noted. Was that a good thing or a bad thing?

Her casual uniform lay rumpled on the floor. She stared at the wide baby blue stripe and found herself disgusted with the color. There was only one type of blue that pleased her anymore.

"This is all your fault," she whispered. But she wasn't mad. Just empty.

"So how's the old man?" Neal asked.


"Wyldon. You saw him, right? I was afraid they were going to send you to talk to some other pompous prick instead of good ol' Wyldon." He snapped his fingers. "Darn it! I should have asked my dad to come see you. He wanted to send up some pineapple upside-down cake that my aunt made. He doesn't care for it much, you see, so—"

"That's nice," Keladry yawned. Luckily, Neal caught the hint and shut up. She slept in the car the rest of the way back to their apartments. The movement and sound of the car had a large effect on Keladry's ability to relax. Perhaps it was simply because Neal was there with her. No matter the reason, she slept like the dead until they parked in the garage.

Neal carried her duffel bag for her with his uninjured arm. She did not protest. Keladry knew she looked exhausted and a good friend like Neal wouldn't stand to see her carry anything. Against all attempts to stifle it, she yawned several more times in the elevator and in the hallway of their floor.

He even entered her password for her, leading the way into her own apartment. Keladry didn't even make it as far as the bedroom before dropping onto the couch and kicking her shoes off. Neal chuckled to himself and went into her bedroom. He brought back her bed comforter and draped it over her prone body.

"Hey, I'll come back later tonight. We'll meet up with some other officers for drinks at the pool hall. Okay?"

"Whatever," she mumbled, her eyes closed and her breathing already slowed.

The attentive young man leaned down and brushed a brotherly kiss against her hair before retreating.

Keladry would have slept for twenty-four hours straight if not for the loud intercom buzzing that woke her up. She groaned as she sat up, brushing her hair out of her face. She shuffled to the door, wondering who would interrupt her slumber at—night was it? The sky outside the window was black. The lights of the surrounding buildings were already on. She'd slept for at least five hours, then.


"It's me. Open up."

The door slid open and Neal stepped inside. He rolled his eyes when he saw his disheveled friend. He was dressed in a green shirt and a pair of dark gray slacks. His hair was actually combed back neatly and he smelled like aftershave. "I can't believe you. Come on, into the shower with you."

He started pushing her gently through her bedroom and into the bathroom.

"What's the big deal?" she complained.

"We're going out tonight. That's what. Now go clean up. I'll pick out something for you to wear."

She snorted. "Out? So where are we going again, Roald and Lalasa's?"

"Actually, they're out having dinner with Ms. Sarrasri. Otherwise, we would have gone to see them. By the way, did you know Lalasa was pregnant?"

On the other side of the bathroom door, Keladry frowned. She started running the shower and stripping off her clothes. "No. Really? How long?"

"Just over a couple of months. Roald's been on Cloud Nine ever since."

"I bet," Keladry replied. "Hey, Neal, would you mind…?"

He backed away from the door. "No problem. I'll get your stuff unpacked since you obviously haven't touched it since you got home."

The idea of Neal going through Keladry's clothing did not bother her in the slightest. With someone else, maybe, but Neal was her brother in nearly all respects except name and DNA. She didn't feel embarrassed at him going through any of her things. With that burden off her mind, she stepped into the shower and was immediately soothed by the hot water running down her body. Days of stress and weariness wore away until there was a perfect feeling of contentment. She leaned against her shower wall and closed her eyes.

When she was finished, she wrapped a robe around her body and peered out her bathroom door. Her bedroom was empty. "Neal?"

"In the kitchen polishing off the last of your food! Your clothes are on the bed."

Figures. She tentatively exited her bathroom and surveyed the outfit placed on her bed. There was a pair of jeans and a pinstriped shirt whose sleeves came down to her elbows. Shoes were placed at the foot of the bed, a pair of plain white tennis shoes that had gone nearly unworn since Lalasa had coerced her into buying them.

She poked her head out from the bedroom and glared at the older man currently munching on an apple from her refrigerator. "Those jeans don't fit me too well. Is there something else?"

He shook his head. "No, that's good. Tight will be good."

"No, it won't! You know my policy."

"Yeah. Comfortable and completely unattractive," he retorted. "Come on, just put it on and let's go. I bet they're wondering what's keeping us so long down at the pool hall."

Keladry went back to her bed and began to put on her clothes. "Just whom are we meeting, anyway?" she called. "The Riders? Or some other people I don't know?"

"Oh, you know these people. Don't worry about that."

Still wondering whom he was referring to, Keladry exited her bedroom, dressed in the outfit that her best friend had selected. The jeans were a tad bit snug, but she supposed it wouldn't bother her the whole night. Neal nodded approvingly and stood at the door, making a sweeping gesture with his arm. She rolled her eyes at him and went out.

He still insisted on driving despite one of his arms being in a sling. Neal assured her that it was no great difficulty. It didn't especially hurt, just that there was a constant ache along the muscle and sinew. The doctors in Enishijirou had done an eerily good job.

Keladry discovered that she rather liked the pool hall where she had once celebrated her birthday. Even if she didn't play pool very well, she enjoyed watching. Neal was an avid player, though only of mediocre skill. He would have great success periodically, but not enough to win himself any large bets. That he only had one hand free to use disappointed him. He could only be a spectator that night.

When they entered the establishment, they immediately ran into Wolset, who invited them over to sit with him and a few men from his division. His ocean blue eyes seemed to be laughing, as they always were. Keladry realized that she liked Wolset, if only because his disposition and his cheery appearance reminded her of Cleon. She dropped the thought quickly.

Keladry recognized a few of them from the car theft ring that the DJPF had brought down, others from the SWAT team. She sat down beside Wolset, who went off on a spiel about a humorous, but dumb criminal that they had arrested earlier that day. A waitress came by and delivered two baskets of fries and a few cheeseburgers. Wolset decided that he wasn't hungry yet and offered his cheeseburger to Keladry.

She'd spent nearly the entire day traveling or sleeping, so of course she was hungry. Keladry eagerly bit into the cheeseburger. A sigh escaped her mouth, her lips curling into a slight smile as she relished the taste. She usually wasn't inclined toward burgers—being what Neal called a demi-health nut. But food was simply food at this point. She found herself reaching for the fries as well.

"Hey!" Neal exclaimed from besides her, suddenly standing up. He reached an arm behind the booth seat that they were on and shook the hand of a new arrival. Keladry was loath to put down the cheeseburger, but she did anyway and wiped her mouth and hands. She turned to see what had gotten her friend in such a happy mood.

"Nice to see you, pal!" Neal said, slapping Major Ulliver Linden on the shoulder. "Hey, Kel, look. It's Ulliver."

The SWAT team leader nodded his head politely toward Keladry. "Hey, Mindelan."

Neal snorted. "Please, call her Kel. We're all off duty here." He pointed across him. "Have a seat!"

Keladry inwardly scolded herself. She should have known that he would be there if half of his team was there. Since their last awkward encounters, they had come to an unspoken understanding that she really cared about Joren and saw Ulliver as a very nice friend. There was never animosity between them for that "rejection" but a slight tension always hung in the air whenever they were in the same room together.

Wolset grinned. "Hey, buddy! Yeah, come sit down with us. Did you see Tim by the door? He was looking for you earlier."

"Yeah, I saw him," Ulliver confirmed, taking a seat across from Keladry and Neal. He didn't look her in the eye. "Anyway, what's going on? Injured again, Neal?"

A sly smile spread across Neal's features, "Flyndon complains that my insurance policy premium costs the DJPF more than the amount of money you could rake in selling all the confiscated drugs in the locker."

Keladry ate a couple of fries. "It wouldn't surprise me if it was all just a conspiracy for you to meet every single nurse in Tusaine's General Hospital."

"And if it was?" Neal wiggled his eyebrows suggestively. She shoved him in the shoulder, being careful not to jostle his arm sling. He turned his attention back to Ulliver. "So, Ulliver, what's going on? Job, friends, otherwise?" he asked, emphasizing the last word. Keladry frowned suspiciously.

"Nothing great. I've just been so busy doing all these chores and stuff. You know?" Ulliver chuckled. He scratched his head. His hair was just a tiny bit longer, but still mostly flat against his head. Keladry was bothered to know that he resembled a little more like Faleron in the soft yellow light of the pool hall.

Wolset took a sip of water. "Hey, Linden, are you coming with me to the club tonight? I heard Gina is going to be there."

"Um, not tonight, Wolsie. I feel like doing something a little less active than dancing," Ulliver replied. His eyes twinkled.

Their exchange struck a chord inside of her. Keladry took a bite of her cheeseburger to have an excuse not to talk. They reminded her of Cleon and Faleron. Good friends—one cheery, the other serious. They even resembled her two absent comrades to an extent. She had not allowed herself to think about them so much since coming home, but now that she did, Keladry was overwhelmed with a longing to see their smiling faces.

"Kel? Are you okay?"

She looked up. She swallowed her food and nodded. "Yes, fine. Sorry. Must have spaced out."

Ulliver sat back, appearing slightly suspicious. "Oh."

Neal cleared his throat. "Hey, Ulliver! You said you didn't want to do something so 'active,' right? Want to come to miniature golf with Kel and me?"

"Miniature golf? You didn't tell me we were going to do that," Keladry interjected.

"Come on, it'll be fun," Neal pleaded. He reached past her for a handful of fries. "Besides, you're not doing anything. What, were you going to go home and rearrange your sock drawer for the umpteenth time?"

She blushed furiously. "No. I could have thought to go home and… watch the game."

Honestly, she had no idea what game would be on the Holoscreen, but there had to have been at least one sports activity being televised across Mithros that night. Football, basketball, hockey… she would have sat down and watched any of them, equally indifferent.

He saw through her excuses and cajoled her into saying yes to his proposal. Keladry glared at him and warned him never to make plans without her permission ever again. With hand over heart and a serious expression on his face, he pledged it very loudly to half the room.

"You get weirder and weirder each day," she remarked. ­­Like you meant to make up for Cleon's absence. She sighed.

"Well, Ulliver, what do you say? You in?"

"Why not?" Ulliver responded amiably. She couldn't tell if he was sincere.

After half an hour of chatting with Wolset and other off-duty officers, Keladry, Neal, and Ulliver left the pool hall and headed toward their cars. When they reached the middle of the parking lot, Neal cursed under his breath and glanced at his wrist pager.

He gave them an apologetic look. "I got a message from Dom. He's got a flat tire out by the edge of town, needs me to come pick him up with a spare."

Keladry narrowed her eyes. "Oh really?"

"That sucks," Ulliver said. He and Dom were really good friends. They very frequently hung out together in the coffee room at the DJPF station. He pointed over his shoulder at his car. "I've got a spare. I could go help him out."

Neal looked up quickly. "No, that's alright. I've got a spare. And he's practically family, anyway." He sighed and rested his free hand on Keladry's arm. "You two go ahead to the mini golf course. I'll just see you back at home."

Keladry let her eyes slowly move down from his face to his injured arm. "Are you sure you'll be able to manage, Neal? What with the arm and all…"

"Of course!" He shrugged. "I'm a tough guy, remember, Tough Stuff?"

"Are you sure?" Ulliver asked, genuinely concerned.

"Oh, yeah. I'm great," Neal assured them. He started to back away toward the car that he and Keladry had driven in.

His best friend glared at him. She turned to Ulliver. "Would you excuse me for just a minute?"

She followed Neal to his car and would have smacked him very hard on the back of the head if she didn't know that Ulliver was watching. Neal secretly thanked his lucky stars for this and leaned against his car door. Keladry folded her arms across her chest, smiling rather maliciously at him.

"What do you think you're doing?" she asked, a little annoyed.

Neal pointed to his pager. "Hey, my godbrother needs my help."

"Yeah, right. Dom has a hovercar, Neal! He can't have a flat tire!"

"Shh! He'll hear you!" Neal warned her. He relented. "Okay, okay. Little fib on my part."

Keladry shook her head. "If I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to set me up on a date with Ulliver."

Neal pouted. "Why not?"

She stared at him in disbelief. "Why not? Neal! You…" She quieted her voice and tried not to blush. "You know… Joren—"

"He's gone."

It felt like betrayal. Keladry flinched and averted her gaze. Something inside her chest constricted, and she took a deep breath. "But… but it's just too soon Neal. You can't possibly know how long and how much I…"

"But I do know," he whispered. Without another moment's hesitation, he drew her into a gentle embrace and ran his hand comfortingly down her back. "I know. He told me."

She pulled away from him and forced him to look her in the eye. "What?"

Neal smiled weakly. "When we were partnered up on that rescue mission, we got over our differences and really… talked. Seemed like something straight out of the Twilight Zone—him actually talking to me about stuff I didn't even know he was capable of feeling." He chuckled. "It was all you, Kel. All your fault."

"Then can't you see?" she pleaded. "I can't do this! Not now!"

A shadow seemed to pass over his features. He nodded once. "But you can. And you will. That's what he asked me to make sure of."

It wasn't simply betrayal. It was murder.

"…He did what?"

Neal hissed as if in pain. He ran his free hand through his wavy brown hair nervously and shrugged. "Well… to tell you the truth…"

"When did he tell you to do this?" she demanded, her voice rising a little dangerously.

"When he left."

She squinted her eyes and shook her head. "How could he? He left in the middle of the night. No one saw him leave." Her expression became crestfallen with disbelief. "You… you did? How…?"

Her friend's gaze fell on the ground. "He woke me up and asked me to drive him someplace. I can't say where. I don't even remember where. But I drove him the whole damn way there. And I saw him leave."

"Why would he ask you and not me?"

It was noose on her ceiling fan. It was a guillotine on her pillow.

Neal still refused to look her in the eye. "Look, he made me promise to make sure someone, well, normal would only enter the picture. I asked how long I should wait. He said as soon as possible. I think, Kel, really—I think he didn't want you to be in pain any longer than necessary." He glanced over his shoulder at Ulliver. "You'd better go. He's been waiting."

Keladry glared at him. She couldn't even put into words all the things she was feeling. "Alright. I'll go." She jabbed a finger at his chest. "But I'm not doing this for you and I am most certainly…" she paused to take a deep breath and fight back tears, "I am most certainly not doing this for him. I'm doing this for me."

"If that's what you want," he whispered.

"I hate you both," she lied, but cruelly enjoyed the reaction it brought from him. She hated herself so much more at that moment for hurting him with those words, but she turned away before it was too much.

Arsenic in the wine. Swimming with the fishes with cement around her ankles.

A firing squad.

She took another deep breath and went back to Ulliver, who frowned.

"Is something wrong?" he asked.

"No! No, of course not. Come on, let's go golfing, shall we?" She smiled at him and walked around to the passenger side of the car.

And so it started. They both played a humiliating game of miniature golf, the score card looking like five year olds had been at play. But Keladry had unwittingly enjoyed herself after letting down her invisible barriers so Ulliver could talk to her like a normal person. The following weeks were only a pleasant extension of the first night after that.

At first, Ulliver was very reluctant to approach Keladry. She'd been forced to be the one asking him out. Eventually, he began to warm up to the idea that she was actually interested in him and started to relax. With Neal's nosy interference, they managed to run into each other much more frequently. Sometimes, they didn't even bother with an excuse to seek the other out.

Three weeks had passed before Keladry woke up one morning with a name upon her lips.


She sat up quickly and frowned. Why had she just thought of him? And not…

Oh. Wait. She pulled her knees up to her chest and sighed. She knew exactly why she had thought of her ex-boyfriend. She'd been starting to feel ridiculously giddy at times, just like she had been when she had started to date Liam. It had been naïve, her happiness, one full of so much hope and faith in the future that she had been blind to most everything else.

But was that the case here? No. Keladry knew better now. She was realistic. And that wasn't Liam's fault alone. Joren had contributed more to that experience than she ever cared to acknowledge. It was hard, sometimes. Thinking of either of them. Liam, she thought she had made her peace with. But seeing him ignore her in Enishijirou had bothered her terribly. Joren was one with whom she knew she would always feel like a piece of her had been ripped out and lost forever.

Neal was right, though. She had to move on. It frightened her, sometimes, to realize at the end of the day that she had not thought of Joren once. It scared her to see Ulliver's dark haired head and to think that Liam was standing there instead.

She was making progress, though. She was starting a healthy relationship. She was seeing a very decent, very normal guy. Dom had known Ulliver for years, so she had gone to him for the secret scoop on Ulliver's history. For the most part, uneventful. Normal. Not like Liam. Not like Joren. No baggage… well, only the normal baggage everyone else carried around. Dead relatives (grandparents, usually), traumatic childhood experience concerning something or other with a baby blanket… Nothing at all like being shot by Alanna Olau Trebond or losing your parents in a burning house.

They had been more or less seeing each other for three weeks and for the first time, Keladry felt that nothing could possibly go wrong.

Keladry got up and checked her answering machine for any messages. There was only one from her sister Oranie, who had just wanted to say hi. Conal's funeral had been a couple of weeks ago. When she had spent the weekend back in Irontown, she was surrounded by dozens of weeping relatives—some she had never even met before.

Inness had gotten a little better. He still had nightmares of being in the fog back in the valley, surrounded by men fighting but not being able to see or escape them. But he had started to go back to the University, though he no longer worked in anthropology. Last she had heard, he had taken up music. He and Tavin started to play guitars together.

At least some siblings in this family got a bonding experience out of this mess.

Still clad in what she had worn to bed, Keladry went to her kitchen and made herself a bowl of cereal. She sat down at the table. With her chin propped up on the heel of her hand, she recalled a funny scene from earlier that week.

"You're kidding me. You've never made pancakes?" Ulliver asked, wide-eyed with pseudo-surprise.

She raised one eyebrow questioningly. "You know, that look reminds me very much of Neal when he's about to do something very, very stupid."

The major laughed, leaning back in his chair. He scratched his forehead and shrugged. Then he sprang up from his chair and started rummaging through her cupboards. "Better you than me. Get over here. You're going to learn how to make pancakes—from scratch, might I add."

Keladry rolled her eyes and got up, hands on her hips as she peered over his shoulder at the stirring bowl and spoon that he had found with her pots. She frowned. "I didn't even know I owned one of those."

"How could you not know?" he asked, snorting.

"Two words," Keladry explained. "Lalasa Jasson."

He grinned. "Hey, could you get me a couple of eggs? I'll teach you how to crack them one-handed."

She stared at him, a little surprised. "I had no idea."

Ulliver turned to glance at her. "What?"

"How is it that every bachelor I know has proven to me that he's a closet gourmet chef?"

"Closet gourmet chef?"

"Yeah," she said, retrieving the eggs from the refrigerator. "As in, the dirty little secrets you keep in your closets—in this case, a great love and talent for cooking."

"You're weird," he said, peering at her intently as if she were a completely new species.

"Just as weird as you," she countered, feeling a little self-conscious.

He laughed. "What can I say? Men in professional jobs spend five years ordering pizza for breakfast before deciding that they would actually like to eat what the chefs on the cooking channel make. Bachelors are big fans of the cooking channel. Seriously. We watch it when we don't have the money to buy food just so we can pretend to be eating."

"Weird," she replied. She plopped the eggs into his waiting hands and watched as he cracked an egg into the bowl. She gave a low whistle. "Impressive. That's some technique you have there."

"All in the wrist." He grinned cockily at her. He placed the other egg in her hand. "Here, hold your fingers like this. Tap it firmly against the side of the bowl, move your fingers so they immediately pull the two halves of the shell away from each other—there ya go, hold them like that." He made a little dipping movement with his hand. "And do this to get all the yolk inside to fall neatly out. If you let it dribble, it's going to make a mess."

"I had no idea there required so much thought into cracking a single egg."

He guided her hand over the bowl and gave her a mockingly serious look. "Wax on, wax off."

The pancakes actually tasted very good. Ulliver had promised to show her his famous peanut butter and chocolate chip pancakes the next day. Those had been even better.

Keladry finished her breakfast and put the bowl in the sink. She mulled over the happy memory in her mind as she ambled toward her closet. These would be her last moments of peace before she had to head out for work. There had been a rise in gang activity that had upped the amount of DJPF on patrol. It didn't surprise her in the least. Tusaine was a large city with a lot of problems, even with the collapse of its oldest criminal organization.

She frowned when she could not find the Hyperion bands. Reaching a hand into the back corner, she gave a slight gasp when her hand closed around something she had not expected.

"What is this?"

A motorcycle helmet tumbled onto her lap. Keladry stared at it as if she had never seen it before. She had not ridden her own motorcycle since she'd returned from the Yamanis. Just looking at it made her remember. And as the memories invaded her head, she wished that she could not remember.

She cradled the helmet to her body. There was no reason she shouldn't ride anymore. The vehicle was functional. It was practical. Why shouldn't she?

"I will," she said firmly, standing up.

But as she continued to dress, she could not expel the dread that had begun to weigh her chest cavity down, almost like a heart of lead. She glanced at the helmet on her bed. If she reached out, she could still feel his warm body, cased in that form fitting black and red uniform. Her thighs, pressed tight against his as her arms wrapped around his waist. She could rest her face against his back, feeling the heat of his body from his shoulder blades. The heat…

Those had always been the best of times. Whether he'd been mad at her, or overcome with depression, or even in the midst of a chase—it had felt like an elaborate scheme to have her there with him, to let him give her this exhilaration. The wind in her hair always brought the feeling back. That's all it took. The wind.

She didn't touch the helmet for the rest of the morning. Blue eyes seemed to follow her everywhere she went. Keladry resisted the urge to glance over her shoulder. No one was there. Her apartment was empty, save for her and her yearning thoughts.

"Damn you," she muttered.

The bullet blew off chips of concrete from the building corner. She pulled back, shaking the shock off and squeezing her gun handle. Keladry took a deep breath and risked a look around the edge, firing of three rounds in quick succession before violently yanking herself back.

"Kel!" her communication link on her wrist pager flashed red. She touched the button to signal she heard him.

"He's headed straight for you," she said, unperturbed.

"Well, keep him off!" Wolset yelled. "My hands are full with his stupid friends!"

Wolset had been assigned as one of her partners until Neal was cleared for the field again. He'd been healing just fine, but Flyndon was forcing him to serve a couple of months extra inside the station. As it was, Keladry hadn't spoken to Neal as much as she used to. Actually, she spoke to him plenty, but not about certain things—or people…namely, Joren. Thus, their friendship had become somewhat stagnant and strained.

She sprang up from the spot and sprinted behind a car. Loud gunshots echoed in her ears. Small puffs of dust rose up at her heels as she dived behind her new cover. Looking back, she let out an inaudible sigh of relief.

Keladry peered through the car's windows.

There you are, you little…

She crawled on her belly underneath the row of trucks parked in front of the car dealership, glad for the monstrous size of the vehicles. When she stole another glance at the man she'd been pursuing, he was catching his breath behind an overturned table. The small restaurant he'd taken shelter in front of was empty, its patrons having fled at the first sign of gunfire.

Now just stay still, she thought at the man. She took aim and fired.

The man ducked, the bullet just missing his shoulder. Keladry instant wished she'd had Cleon's uncanny aim. Alas, she was without such skill, and cursed as the man bolted. She observed that he was headed toward the parking garage where she knew Wolset and another officer were facing off in an old-fashioned shoot out with her suspect's buddies.

"Whether you like it or not, he's coming your way!" she shouted into her communicator.

"Gee, thanks a lot!" Wolset replied. There were more gunshot noises in the background. She hoped that he wouldn't get injured. She'd lost the company of three of her partners already and wasn't looking to get paired to another one so quickly.

Keladry ran after the suspect, hoping no civilians would show up and get caught in the crossfire. The only noise she now heard was her heavy footsteps and pounding heart. The traffic sounds of Tusaine, the million urban nuances that usually distracted her, faded away until all focus was on the man running from the law.

Not for long.

An hour later, she leaned against the ambulance, watching the man she had been chasing being loaded onto a gurney. Wolset and another officer lay exhausted on the hood of their squad car, mumbling to each other about having to actually work on a perfectly good Friday.

She shook her head ruefully, pushing off from the emergency vehicle and heading toward the two men. They had received the tougher part of the job; she wouldn't deny it. But these sorts of assignments should have been routine for the First Class officers. Wolset looked up at her accusingly when she was near enough.

"We were at a standoff with five hooligans and you're the only one whose man gets shot in the kneecaps."

"I never said I was a master marksman. And he did resist arrest by running," she replied coolly. "Besides, it was one shot in the leg. You make it sound like I tortured him."

He stared at her. Though it sounded innocuous enough, something about her tone bothered him. He experienced what felt like a wave of ice passing through his body. It was inhuman how much her attitude had changed from word to word.

Ignoring his partner's banter, he sat up. He'd never gotten to know Keladry that well. But from all the impressions he'd ever had from her, maybe this wasn't out of character after all. He was almost tempted to ask Ulliver—he seemed to be spending a lot of time together with her. No. Ulliver might misconstrue the question. Neal would offer better insight.

Why did it bother him so much?

Keladry wiped the moisture from her brow and exhaled deeply.

"Hey, would you mind filing the report? As soon as we get back to the station, I was going to wash up and meet Ulliver in the break room for a really late lunch—or early dinner," she added as an afterthought.

He agreed. "No problem. Tell Linden I said hi."

Earlier traces of her unbecoming attitude were gone, replaced by the Keladry he had met months before. Maybe he was only imagining things. While growing up, his mother had always warned him about having a hyperactive imagination. Although he had seen no evidence of that in the last few years, he kept it in mind as he continued to consider his temporary partner.

As soon as she left, Wolset rolled off the hood of the car and dived through the window. Half his weight balancing on the door of the car, he grabbed the phone. While he dialed, his partner turned on his side and knocked on the windshield.

"What are you doing?"

"Calling Dom. I need Neal Queenscove's number. Now."

Keladry did regret having to shoot the suspect. But to be honest, she had not been in the mood to deal with him in the way she usually would. It felt like that day outside of Mithran United with the purse snatcher. She'd snapped.

However, she felt rather calm right then—not snapped. Her pulse had resumed its normal pace, the adrenalin long gone from her veins. It was almost as if she hadn't done anything at all that day. Keladry sighed and leaned back in her chair. Her hair, still wet from the locker room shower, strayed into her face. She irritably pushed it away. Keladry had been meaning to get a haircut for quite some time. She could almost tie it back in a ponytail if she wanted to.

"Hey," a masculine voice greeted her from behind. She glanced over her shoulder and smiled.

"Hi. How was your day?"

Ulliver plopped into the seat across from her and immediately stretched his arms over his head. "Hostage situation on the north side, some lunatic in a gasoline station."


"He had a blowtorch, too."

"Ouch," she pretended to cringe. "What a delightful combo, huh?"

He grinned. "Absolutely charming."

She knew that he was referring to their subject of conversation, but Keladry couldn't help but blush a little and turn her face away so as to hide it. The way he looked at her made her feel as if he'd been saying it about her. Maybe he had meant it that way. She couldn't tell. It still made her smile.

"How was your morning?"

Keladry shrugged. "Same old, same old."

"Knowing you, that probably means you prevented the hostile takeover of a ambitious arch villain who appeared out of nowhere," he sarcastically replied. He chuckled. The young major glanced at his watch. "We don't really have time to go anywhere before someone or other calls us back to work. Do you want to just hide out in Dom's computer lab for a while?"

Alone? "And where's Dom?"

"He just paged me a few minutes ago and asked if he could borrow my motorcycle. Go figure."

Had she been drinking or chewing anything, she most certainly would have choked. "M-motorcycle?"

Ulliver, to his credit, only blinked ingenuously. "Um, yeah. Wolsie's brother sold it to me after the New Year."

"What about your car?"

He shook his head. "Nah. I borrow that one from one of my guys on the team. He doesn't drive unless he has to. Lazy is as lazy does, apparently."

She digested the information very uneasily. While she had lapsed into a contemplative silence, Ulliver took it as a cue to pilfer food from the break room refrigerator. He could only find a couple of soda cans, so he quickly traveled to the next room where an on site vendor was always delivering club sandwiches and other assortments of Saran wrapped lunches to DJPF officers too busy to go out for lunch.

Arms full of drinks, salad containers, two sandwiches, and a bag of chips, he met her in the hallway. They chatted companionably as they went up the elevator. Keladry clasped her hands behind her back, mildly amused at the spectacle Ulliver had made himself out to be.

"Here, let me hold some of that before you drop it."

"No, no! I got it. If you shift any of these things, the rest will all go tumbling down—trust me."

She almost chuckled, but instead hid the impulse behind a smile. He saw her do it anyway and felt greatly rewarded. The earlier revelation about his motorcycle seemed to have passed her by more quickly than she'd anticipated. If seeing her own helmet that morning had bothered her so much, why hadn't hearing about Ulliver's motorcycle done the same?

The door to Dom's computer lab was unlocked. Luckily for them, no other computer technicians were using the small room either. Keladry briefly recalled the first time she had been inside the place, reciting her identification to Dom upon her transfer to Tusaine. He'd been very friendly to all of them. And—most surprising of all—Joren had responded with almost equal congeniality (for his standards, anyway).

Enough of that, she told herself.

Ulliver had set down the food on Dom's desk and was setting up the computer screen to transmit Holoscreen programming. Keladry looked around for a second chair but was slightly worried when there was none. Ulliver turned around and noticed her problem.

"You can have the chair. I was going to stretch out on the floor anyway."

"Why me? You have the chair. You're the one who almost went up in flames today."

He snorted. "Not even close. Here, you sit down in his chair and I'll just sit my big butt here by the wall."

Keladry shook her head and rebelliously did as he just suggested. Ulliver eyed her critically before picking up their food again and settling down on the floor beside her. He divided up the spoils, placing a sandwich and the salad container on her lap. Then he sighed in contentment as he stretched out his legs and crossed one ankle over another. The chair was pushed off to the side, and the two DJPF officers watched the screen of Dom's computer from the floor. They began to eat without any more argument.

Finally, she rolled her eyes and set down her soda. Keeping her eyes directed at the screen, pretending to be partially absorbed in the sitcom, she spoke.

"This is ridiculous. We're both too stubborn. One of us could have at least had the chair."

He finished chewing the bite of sandwich he had taken and swallowed. "Does my stubbornness annoy you?"

"Of course not."

"Glad to hear it." He winked at her. "I was going to pick you up and put you in the chair anyway."

Keladry's eyes widened as she turned to face him. "Wha—"

His lips on hers immediately silenced her. It was their first kiss. Warmth seemed to spread from her lips to her face… permeating her body and making the little hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. They'd respected each other's personal space to the point of being prudish for the last three weeks. Though she'd made it clear to him long before that she cared about Joren, she had not mentioned him once to Ulliver upon her return. The blond man's continued absence sent the message quite clearly to the major that if Joren hadn't come back after so long, he was probably not going to come back at all.

And because of this, Ulliver had probably waited. What was a proper grieving time? Keladry had never dated, so she never knew how long to wait before starting another relationship. It wasn't as if her anti-climactic break up with Liam had required a recovery period. That had been a cruel farce as far as she was concerned.

So how… how did Ulliver know she was ready? Was she ready?

As if sensing her thoughts, he pulled away first, with a shy smile on his lips. Keladry was so accustomed to seeing Ulliver be sarcastically flirtatious or mildly serious that this bashful expression made her giggle. She caught herself and turned away before he could see her mirth.

"What's so funny?" he asked.

"Nothing," she replied, emitting a small bubble of laughter rise up anyhow.

Ulliver let out a faux aggravated groan and put his arm around her shoulders. Keladry tensed at his sudden nearness; it caused her even more anxiety than their kiss. He didn't seem to notice, but rested his head against hers. After a few minutes, she began to relax and lean back.

"You're hair's still wet, you jerk," he jokingly told her as he lifted his head up and tried to sweep all her hair over her opposite shoulder. "See? My wet shoulder is all your fault."

Keladry rolled her eyes and elbowed him hard in the ribs, much like she would have if Neal had made the remark. Ulliver chuckled against her ear, eliciting more goosebumps to appear on her flesh. He pressed a very firm kiss to the top of her head, nearly toppling the two of them over by how much he was leaning against her. She swatted at him again, but made sure that he saw her pleased expression.

In the back of her mind, she knew that—somewhere—blue eyes were watching her. Judging her. Reminding her of all the things that she'd been through with him, all her emotional breakdowns and epiphanies, all her exaltations and sacrifices. But that was in the past, she told herself. He was gone. In body, anyway. His memory still haunted her. A ghost in her shadow. Throwing caution to the wind, Keladry defiantly snuggled closer to the man beside her.

Leave me alone.

If you ever loved me—

Go away. Because I still love you. Go away or else I won't love you anymore.

That's a promise.

Author: stretching like a cat well, that felt good. Writing that episode was like waking up in the morning after a long night and just… gettin the kinks out, ya know? I've decided to permanently end the other fanfic I was working on. I might take bids from Rival Schools fans to anyone who wants the plot line and make it their own. Honestly, I have to finish ICBW and start building up a original fiction portfolio to take to publishers.

Gotta think about my futures, kiddies. And unfortunately, fanfiction doesn't pay the rent.

Don't worry. That won't be for a while yet. You know how long it takes me to write these darned things. The season won't be over for a bit.

Thank you for all your support! Especially to those who've been with me since the beginning (egads… four years ago, almost…). I feel like I know you, even if we've never spoken. Seeing the same reviewer names over and over—it feel's like seeing old friends. Refreshing.

Until next time

Ja ne