yeah, it's been a while and I must apologize for that. Muses have been defective, work gone crazy. Yeah, yeah excuses excuses!

Much thanks to my friend/beta Musique et Amour and to all those who have kept supporting me..even if I am lazy.

What was it about that night

Connection in an isolating age.

For once the shadows gave way to light.

For once I didn't disengage...

What You Own, Rent Original Sountrack, Motion Picture Cast

Chapter Four: Connection

The grind of a hungry stomach and a throat thirsting for more than just tap water woke Erik...for the third time in a row in so many days.

Outside, watery sunlight filtered in through the ragged blinds and he carefully cracked open one eye, regarding the clouds drifting in a timeless fashion over the city, just touching the tops of some threadbare trees that clung to life just outside the crumbling edifice of the once Nehi Factory. There were no storms in the sky, but with years of gauging weather under his belt, he could tell that there will be some showers – perhaps even a downpour – in a couple of hours.

A downpour he'd likely have to be caught in.

It had been three days since he'd last worked and he couldn't waste any more time, not when his landlord had suddenly got a stick up his ass and demanded last month's rent due in a week. One week, one hundred dollars. He didn't have much of a choice but to return to the familiar street corner of Madison and Illinois and try to scrape up enough. If he saw her...then he'd simply ignore her. He had to.

Stifling a low groan in his throat, Erik gritted his teeth and rolled out of the small bed and to his bare feet. Bones that had healed ten years ago, some poorly, ached with the coming rain and sent a shudder of pain through his body. His spine especially, specifically the small of his back, where a large rope of scar laid across the skin, a botched surgery to set fractured vertebrae. That gave him the most trouble of a damp morning; the muscles and tendons that had at last re-attached to the bone protested, tightened and knotted without mercy.

Moving slowly, still not fully awake, he blindly turned on a burner of the decrepit stove, filled the tin percolator with water, and scooped Folgers into the metal filter, then set it on the heat. Until he had his coffee – which he purchased no matter what he had to give up in order to have it – he wouldn't be fit for anything. He rubbed a hand over gritty eyes, then gave the radiator in the corner a kick, nodding when it wheezed into life and began to slowly heat the room. While the percolator began to bubble, he stripped off the worn sweats, tossed them in the basket he'd have to take downstairs to the washing machines and made his way to the tiny bathroom – if it even deserved that name.

The shower/tub combination was spotlessly clean and only because Erik had a severe aversion to filth and grime, but all the scrubbing in the world couldn't hide the rust stains about the drain and faucet, or the showerhead. Or the large crack running from the drain to mid-length of the tub. It was a damned wonder that he never heard the downstairs neighbor complaining about a moldy ceiling. Of course in this place, that might have been a reality, regardless.

The only mirror was a rectangle covered in the same rust spots, that hung over the tiny sink and housed a medicine chest behind it. The sink was butted right up against the shower, the toilet butted right up against the sink, the wall butted right up to the toilet. If he stood in the center of the bathroom, he could touch from wall to wall, palms pressed flush.

As he tugged his hair loose of the elastic band and set it on the sink's ledge, he lifted his eyes to his unmasked face, stared dispassionately at the ruined, mismatched, and missing features, then scratched a hand through the dark blonde that hung long and ragged well past his shoulders. Damn, he needed a haircut. Remorse about his face didn't even rise. He'd just gotten too used to seeing it every morning in the mirror. It only bothered him when he contemplated the idea of seeing it through someone else's eyes...

His body was truly the only aspect of his physical appearance that he studied with a frown. Maybe if he focused more on his lower and upper back the next time he used the machines at the Y, it might help the knotted pain of the badly healed injuries. He made a mental note to stop in for an hour before he was forced to head to his familiar corner. It was fortunate the public gymnasium didn't charge vets a membership fee. The manager of the particular branch was a former Vietnam vet and saw it as his personal duty to screw "The Man" and the system by allowing his fellow forgotten soldier admittance without a blink. Otherwise, Erik would have been hard-pressed to keep his body as tightly and perfectly controlled as he did; he certainly couldn't keep himself as sun-bronzed as he'd once been. Why he took such lengths to insure his body stayed as lean and muscled as it had been the day he'd left Ranger School he had no idea...he just knew he had to.

The spray hit him and he blinked at the opposite wall of the shower for several moments. It was warm. "Well, I'll be damned..." Had Swenson finally decided to spring for a new water-heater for the seventh floor? It'd be a fucking miracle if he had. But the water beating down on his back was hot, raising steam to the cracked ceiling and he decided not to look a gift-horse in the mouth and just take advantage. With a low moan, he tilted his head back, let it soak his hair and pour over his chest, careful to keep his forehead out of the rivulets. He'd learned the hard way that first ever shower after freedom that water in the nose was like acid down his throat and sinuses.

But he'd only just lathered up his body with soap when the spray sputtered, protested, and turned into bitter, ice-cold blades into his skin.

"Oh, fuck me."

After he'd showered and dressed, Erik combed out his wet, snarled hair, affixed his mask, and swiped up hat, duffel bag, violin case, and coat headed out the door.

Today the hall smelled like someone's breakfast, greasy enough to leave of film on the air and the odor of onions permeating the walls. As hungry as he was after trying to ration out his cereal for a few more mornings, the smell did nothing but set his stomach to churning. Disgusted, he pounded down the stairs as fast as he could, but in a place like this, it was nearly impossible to escape foul odors for long. In one stairwell he caught the bitter whiff of urine and knew someone's kid hadn't been able to make it to the toilet in time...or another vagrant had wandered in and just didn't care if he peed in someone else's home.

On the final flight of stairs there was a body sprawled across the stairwell. Ragged clothes, a face that hadn't been shaved in months, a red, bulbous nose, veins broken across the surface. And a brown paper bag wrapped around a bottle, lying useless in the lifeless hand. Whiskey had struck the floor as he had fallen, splattered the walls, pooled grotesquely by the man's head. If it had been blood, it would have been an intense study for the crime scene investigators. The spatter would have illustrated how the man had came down, how the bottle had struck. But it wasn't blood and no one would care to investigate this death. The perpetrator in this crime couldn't be held responsible.

Jack Daniels couldn't be charged in the murder of a man who had drunk himself to death.

Erik studied the dead man, his mouth a grim line, his eyes focused on the threadbare BDU blouse the man wore under his stained trench. Harrison, US Army. Erik crouched down, flicking the tails of his own trench out of the way of the pooled whiskey and gently spread the blouse a bit, saw the glint of rusted metal underneath and gingerly pulled free the man's dog tags. Harrison, Ronald B. 214-58-0939 A Neg Orthodox. He let them fall back onto the man's chest. The man's rank was on his chest. He'd been a Lieutenant. Airborne Division. Vietnam. A man who'd fought for his country. Abandoned by the government that he fought for, the family that he'd supported, and the very country that should have honored him.

Erik lifted the tags again, set them gently on the man's lips, knowing they wouldn't part to fix them between his teeth as was fitting for a fallen soldier, then rose, leaving the body there to be found. Outside, the October air had a vicious bite, unseasonably cold for this month and he lowered his head, the hat taking much of the brunt and headed for the YMCA.

The sun was just rising, the sky a hushed purple, but a lighter coating of gold-licked pink lined the edges of the horizon, setting the city to gently flame against its backdrop.

At this time, on this route, his mind was usually consumed with thoughts of what he'd play, how much he'd hope to make, what he could afford to purchase at the grocery.

This morning was different.

All he could think, the only thing that played through his mind, over and over, like a mantra:

That will be me one day.

A couple of hours later, he was trembling with exhaustion and dripping with sweat. Stripped to the waist in sweats, Erik swiped up the plain white t-shirt that he'd worn into the machine room and mopped the rivulets that soaked his hairline and chest. It left a glistening trail down his bare back, darkening the pulled back hair resting between his shoulder blades and he knew he was going to have to shower again in the locker room.

At least it'll be warm.

As he walked through the upper level of the gymnasium, heading for the men's locker room, he was more than aware of the looks cast at him from both sexes, not all of them curious about the mask, but some with obvious appraisal of his body. He was used to it here or anytime he had the concealing trench off. Even now, shirtless and scars easily visible upon his skin, he knew his body was long and lithe, cut with defined muscles. He supposed it should have flattered him that others looked upon him and wanted him, regardless of the mask and the eccentricity of it. But all it raised in him was a bitter knot in his gut, a severe loathing for these people who would be more than willing to have him for a quick screw, but wouldn't want to even acknowledge his existence if they knew what he really looked like under that mask.

In the lockers he stripped, stuffed his sweats in his bag, pulled free a towel and headed to the commune shower, unashamedly naked, but kept the mask in place until he stepped under the spray. Then the white leather joined the towel on the nearby shelf and he ducked his head, pulling the thick curtain of hair over his features as he scrubbed, both to keep water out of the cavity and prying eyes away from his face. He'd only had the mask grabbed from the shelf once in the years he'd been showering here and the nineteen year old kid who'd thought he was something big hadn't been quite so tough when he'd had his own nose broken and his throat sucker punched. The Y's manager had explained, patiently, to the choking and bleeding little sack of shit that he and Mr. DeLauter had an understanding about the mask and no, he wasn't going to call the police, but if he wanted to cry like a pansy and call the bacon brigade himself, to go right on ahead.

When he'd finished, he dressed in his street clothes once again and made his way out of the gym, giving the manager at the front desk a brief wave and nod, then it was out, back onto the concrete again.

It hadn't yet begun to rain, but the sky still held its promise that it might just do that. Moving in between pedestrians, Erik ignored the way his stomach rolled with hunger as he passed Le Peeps and the odor of freshly crisped bacon drifted out to him. A normal breakfast plate there ran close to fifteen dollars – there was no way he could ever get a hot meal there. Instead he waited until he reached a street corner vendor that had sausage, egg, and cheese burritos for a dollar fifty and handed over every penny that he'd made the last day he worked: a dollar fifty. Perhaps it did taste as if it had come straight from the freezer, but it was hot and it half-way decent. He wolfed it down in three bites on the way to Madison and Illinois.

Gray eyes fixed upon the corner immediately, and he noted with satisfaction that it was empty. Vagrants here were a dime a dozen and it wasn't unusual to find someone there before him if he woke too late.

Setting down his violin case, he flipped it open, pulled free the instrument, nudged the open case before him, then leaned comfortably against the brick wall behind him. Bow poised upon the strings, he blew out a long, slow breath, then opened his eyes, fixing them across the street at the coffee shop where he'd first seen her. She wasn't there, of course. Just a couple of businessmen with their steaming cups of latte heading to their offices somewhere uptown. He hadn't expected to see her. He didn't want to see her. Repeating that harshly to himself beneath his breath, he began to play.

By noon he had close to thirty dollars. His gut was wrong about the storm for once, and the sun had decided to let itself be known afterall and it shimmered down upon the streets through the yet thick clouds. The occasional gentle sprinkle lit the buildings and passing vehicles like diamonds thrown asunder.

Pleased by what he'd made so far and soothed by the hours of solitude and music, Erik decided that he could spare five dollars of the money and buy himself something for lunch beyond just a bologne sandwich at the market two streets over. Packing up the violin, he looked up and down Madison Boulevard and decided to walk around the corner and grab a hot bowl of chili cheese crawfish etouffe at Yats, the well-known – and dirt cheap – Cajun/Creole restaurant.

The place was packed, as usual, but he managed to find a table for two tucked away in a corner, set his coat, hat, and violin case in one chair, then took up the other with himself and his meal. Nearly ravenous, he had the styrofoam plate cleaned in less than three minutes. He knew that some of the other customers were either giving him looks of pity at his obviously impoverished state or with the morbid curiosity that always came when someone was seen in a handicapped state. He had never thought of his mask as a handicap...but a surprising amount of people did. Speaking to him loudly as if he was deaf, opening doors for him when he needed no help, avoiding meeting his eyes when he was passed on the sidewalk. A mask implied that a deformity, whether mental or physical, lay beyond its barrier...and a deformity meant a lack of intelligence and helplessness.

Finishing his meal, he rose, disposed of his plate and fork, then took up his things to leave.

And she walked in.

It had been a terribly long day at the shop. With Christmas in only a couple of months, the holiday stock had to be ordered and Kristen had been upon the phone nearly all the morning and half the afternoon, placing orders and haggling for better prices with the distributors.

The main hitch had come when her guest author for the month's agent had called and cancelled...the day before she was to come for an hour of reading and a book signing promoting her newest young adult novel. The YA division was one of the fastest moving areas of her store. If she lost the business that came from haviing a constant carousel of authors through to promote that most popular of would hurt. Unfortunately it was very unethical for Turn the Page to still keep up the banners and two posters hung in the shop advertising Margo Keith's visit when the woman wouldn't be by...or to let those who had signed up for the workshop the author would lead afterward, labor under a false impression that she would still be there. So the round of calls she'd had to make, including printing up flyers to apologize for the cancellation of the afternoon had had to be handled before she could attempt to get anyone else to take Ms. Keith's place.

She hadn't found anyone.

The store had needed a visit from an author, something to draw others in, get sales up. A Barnes and Noble was located only four city blocks away and the massive chain that featured a multi-media department as well as its own Starbucks wasn't just a major competitor. It was a big bully with size fourteen feet and she the 80 pound weakling getting sand kicked in her face. There had to be something...

Lunch time couldn't have come at a better time. Ravenous, she pushed through the doors of Yats, Mareka at her side. What a pair they made...Mareka was in soft, yet vibrant lime green, complete with a corset top over the flowing skirt, also in that flattering shade, trimmed in black lace, her braids piled atop her head like a 80's acid bordello queen and Kristen the complete opposite in a pair of dove gray slacks and a dark violet sweater conservatively cut, her short curls pinned behind her ears. They couldn't have been more opposite if they'd tried to be, and yet those opposing personalities and even ways of dress complimented one another perfectly, especially in the shop where tourists appreciated an eccentricity like Mareka and the regulars someone understated like Kristen.

As she crossed to the artistically drawn up chalkboards, a faint grin couldn't help but pass over lips as almost every male head – and some female – in the place turned to watch Mareka stroll to the counter, the ripely curved hips beneath the thin linen skirt moving with a seductive sway that wasn't learned, but inherited, the dark, waist length plaits lapping at the bit of skin left bare by the bodice top, the gold glinting on mocha colored arms and even a flash at her small ankles. The woman was pure seductive grace, from her full, curved lips, down her sleek neck, over laced up breasts, elegant line of spine, to the curve of rear and the length of her legs. She was sexy without trying...and could be lethal when she turned that sensuality on another. Kristen should have hated her – she'd kill to be that alluring without thought – but the other woman was her best friend and she was crazy about her.

For those very reasons that made Mareka a tempting dish to every male in sight, she was shocked to find one pair of eyes in the small restaurant fixed unwaveringly on her. She felt the gaze even before she turned from the boards to order a plate of sweet corn etouffee. The lunch request were on her lips, but faded away into a indistinguishable murmur as she saw the dark shadow from the corner of her eye. A turn of her head and he was in her line of sight.

Still waters run deep...

It was the only thing that came to mind as she met eyes as a gray as a morning in the city when the sun is not yet up and every thing was tinged with the weight of the dusk. Quiet...that's what his eyes were...quiet. The muted gold of blonde that hung past his shoulders, that gentle light promised, spilled against black only added to the sense of reverent hush that reminded her so much of those pre-dawn mornings.

All a matter of moments – mere seconds – and she felt the shock to her core. She'd crossed to him before she'd even realized it and tilted her head back, her eyes fixed upon his.

"Will you play for me?"