It Could Be Worse (2nd Season)

Episode 1: Take a Break

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. Yup. Could you believe that? I guess that's why I'm broke.

New! From now on, thoughts go in the Italics. In the past, I did them in quotes, but I find that kind of… annoying after a while. Emphasized words are in Italics, too. Flashbacks also go in Italics, but they can't be confused with thoughts. Oh, one more thing: BAD LANGUAGE (I. E. cursing, swearing…). You have been warned!

E-mail me at "mailto:silverwLng@aol.com", okay?]

Keladry Mindelan tucked the file of documents under her arm as she confidently made her way through the main offices in Tortall's DJPF Headquarters. The white paper-thin walls and cubicles seemed identical in their rows besides offices of glass and stainless steel. She brushed past secretaries and other clerks to reach the office at the end of the hall belonging to her superior, Commissioner Wyldon. She pressed the intercom button, emitting a buzz from inside. A dull voice sounded within.

"Come in."

She waited until the doors slid open. She bowed slightly to the aging but strong-spirited man. Dutifully, she spoke. "I've finished clearing out that ring of illegal smuggling down on Claymoore Street with the assistance of the other three officers assigned. Here's the report."

Wyldon glanced up from his papers. "Oh. All right. Just set it down."

"Requesting information for my next case, sir?"

"Uh…" He honestly didn't know what to give her. The smugglers had been quite a problem. He had not expected his officers to finish the assignment so early. It should have taken a couple more months. This had taken mere weeks. He scratched his chin. "There's complaints of a new gang forming on the East Side of the district. Around Elm, I believe."

"I'm on it, sir."

~~

Wyldon blew gently at his steaming hot coffee in his antique mug. He reached for the creamer, groping around his desk with one hand while concentrating on the drink in his other hand. All of a sudden, the bottle of creamer dropped into his palm. He frowned and looked up.

"Officer Mindelan?"

She saluted. "Back, sir."

He set down his mug onto a cork coaster and reached for his digital calendar sitting on the corner of his desk. "But," he began, "I gave you this assignment just a week ago!"

"With assistance from Officers Kennan and Queenscove, the offending persons have been warned and investigated. They are no longer a threat. If they resume their actions, than the three of us shall go back and straighten them out. Requesting new information on my next case?" she held her head high in confidence. She had not screwed up even once. This was something full of pride.

Wyldon blinked. "Um, okay… How about a Mr. Brahm Schieght," he paused and peered down at his own handwriting. He'd have to remind himself to get a new ball point pen. The ink was very faint on the recyclable paper. For a long time, his secretaries had tried to get him to use his electronic organizer, but pen and synthetic paper was not archaic to him at all. He'd been raised in a fairly rural town where sheets of clear plastic and ink were not widespread.

"Sir?" Keladry interrupted his thoughts. "Mr. Brahm Scheight has been doing what?"

He looked down at the paper. "He's been skipping out on parole. Track him down and send him to the nearest bail enforcement officers in the building."

"Yes, sir!"

"Here. Go to the copy room and put this on plastic, hmm?" He handed her the paper.

"I will. Thank you, sir."

Wyldon frowned as she left. "She's actually happy to be given a task. I don't believe it."

~~

"Perhaps this would be a good time to practice my golf swing," Wyldon thought to himself. Just then, the door slid open and she walked in.

"Mr. Brahm Scheight has been taken into custody. Sir?"

He picked up the first note on his desk to catch his eye. "Uh… how about finding the whereabouts of a Miss Henrietta Masters? She hasn't paid her taxes in ten years and has been hiding out. Maybe this time, Mindelan--"

"Got it, sir! Miss Henrietta Masters!" She was gone in a matter of seconds.

"Oh boy," Wyldon muttered. "Perhaps I should just transfer her assignments to Chief Hennegan. Why oh why did I agree to personally overlook all first class officers?"

~~

"Sir! I'm back. Miss--"

"I don't care, I don't care," Wyldon grabbed the sides of his head. He took a deep breath. "Mindelan, why are you back so early?"

She frowned. "I successfully completed my job, Commissioner."

"Any other officer would have reported to me in a week, maybe two. We're not picky about time on these small cases."

"Well, I'm dedicated, sir," she answered, acting as if it were natural and that he was the strange one.

Wyldon rolled his eyes. "I would have thought after the Immortals that you'd tone it down a bit. You know, enjoy the life of a privileged officer. Lazy until I come to yell at you and send you out of the city on some bogus case."

"What are you saying, sir?" she asked uncertainly.

Outside the office, Joren was fast approaching. He needed to ask permission to leave for a week so he could see a parts dealer out somewhere on the coast for his bike. He was technically on medical leave because of his injuries from Rikash and Roger Conté, but now he had to go out of town. Officers were required to tell them where they'd be going. Unfortunately, all the other secretaries were too busy to pass this information on to the commissioner. Thus, he had to face Wyldon and ask him to his face. As he neared the office, he noticed someone was already there before him.

"Like I care," he grumbled and pushed the intercom button. There wasn't even a response. The door simply slid open for him to enter. "Commissioner, I--"

He stopped dead in his tracks. Keladry turned to see whom it was.

"Oh, hey," she greeted.

"Yeah, hey," he said in return, dismissing her from his mind as soon as possible. "Commissioner--" Wyldon held up his hand and pointed to a seat. The blonde young man rolled his eyes. He sat down in one of Wyldon's armchairs. Hoping to annoy the commissioner into paying attention to him, he propped up his feet on the immaculate desk and stamped his heel so some specks of dirt scattered across the surface. Keladry, who had been watching out of the corner of her eye, wrinkled her nose in disapproval.

Wyldon nodded. He paid no attention to the other man. "Yes, of course. Now, Mindelan, the fact is… you've been working way too hard. I don't have any cases left that are fit to give you! And this is Tortall, the largest city on Earth!" He sighed and started to straighten up the stacks of paper on his desk. "With that being said, I'm giving you a bloody vacation."

"But sir," Keladry protested. "Don't you want to hear my report on Miss Masters?"

"No!"

"But--"

"But nothing, Officer! You're the only officer I know of in this whole entire building who seems disappointed in a vacation! Just go! Get out of my sight!"

She grimaced, as if wounded by his lack of devotion to the 'cause'. Keladry got up out of her seat and tried to make pleading gestures with her hands. "Sir, please, I wouldn't know how to spend my vacation. Would it be possible for me to help out at the offices or train rookies? Maybe I could take an apprentice since I'm already high rank--"

"Argh!" Wyldon set his hands on the side of his desk and leaned forward towards her. "Mindelan! Since you do not know how to enjoy a vacation, then I will also send some fellow officers with you! You!" He pointed at Joren, who immediately raised one eyebrow when he was being addressed. "You are to accompany Officer Mindelan!"

Keladry held down a smirk. "Stone? Show me how to have fun? Uh, sir, I think you're asking the wrong person."

"I was actually going to request leave to go to the coast, sir--" Joren began.

"Fine!" Wyldon stood up. His face was red. "I'll assign that other officer, that really energetic one-- Cleon Kennan-- he'll go with you as well! And while I'm at it, I'll ship off Nealan Queenscove!" He sat down triumphantly. "There! Gives me a chance to get all of you away from me for a while! Now those two goofy morons-- er, idiots, er-- I mean officers, are accompanying the two of you, have a good vacation! OR ELSE!"

Keladry, not knowing what else to do, saluted. "Yes, sir!"

Joren blinked. "Right…"

A few moments later, the door slid shut, and the bewildered DJPF officers stood in the halls of the main offices. Keladry folded her arms across her chest, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. She didn't really know what to do after that. Joren had a wide stance, with one hand scratching the back of his head, and the other hung down by his side. Their eyes met for a moment, and then looked away.

"I think he finally cracked."

"Understatement."

Keladry smoothed down her familiar baby blue and gray uniform jacket. She headed down the hall, looking over her shoulder to signal that he should accompany her to talk. He caved in and followed. His hands placed themselves in his pockets, looking upward at the ceiling as they ambled out of the main offices and back into the open core of Headquarters.

"So…"

"So?" he raised one eyebrow.

Keladry stopped right before they were to step onto an escalator. She stared at him intensely for ten seconds, trying to figure out what to say. The last few minutes had gone by so fast, and so very strangely. All she had expected was another assignment to be systematically dealt with like always. And here she was greeted with the freedom to do what she wanted. But what was that?

"You were going to say something, Mindelan?" he asked, his eyelids drooped in a sign of boredom.

"Yeah," she nodded instantly, having snapped out of her thoughts. "I should guess it's up to me to break the news to Cleon and Neal."

He shook his head a bit. "You sound like you're telling them bad news."

She stiffened. Her posture became more correct as she strove to stand tall and confident. "Well, hey! They might have had plans. And something like this could have ruined them."

"I doubt those two morons would be disappointed."

She growled softly in annoyance. "We don't even know where we're going for this stupid vacation."

He raised his hand to stop her. "Oh, but we do." His face took on a self-satisfied expression. "I already have arrangements to meet with my dealer who hates using the ferry to get from Carthak's side of the Great Inland Sea to ours."

"What?" Her eyes widened when she realized what he had in mind. "No. Cleon, Neal, and I are not going to let you use this to do what you want for your stupid bike and leave the rest of us stuck at an ugly hotel in an horrible city." She was surprised how angry she was at him, but realized she was still angry from the last couple of encounters. It felt better now to vent her feelings instead of bottling them up.

Joren wasn't a close friend. He was close-- not in the right way… but like a headache that would not disappear. And then, slowly kill you. One way or another.

He didn't seem bothered by her outburst. He wasn't fazed by much, not unless it struck close to home, for example, his past. This time was no exception. So, he looked at her with that degree of reserved calm that irked her and said, "There is a beach resort. That'll keep the three of you busy."

"Beach resort? What's it called?" she asked suspiciously.

"Seastone Resort. Look it up if you have to," he replied. "Going to my room. Call me when you and the other two mama's boys have talked."

Before she could protest, he was on the escalator heading for the dorms. She gritted her teeth and glared at him until he was out of sight. He had the audacity to already plan out everything because he'd intended to ditch Headquarters anyway. All for that bike. Though admiring she was of that bike, it still frustrated her how it came first in everything, and was often the reason for her irate state.

In other words, the bike frequently pissed her off. As much as an object could piss a person off. She ought to do something terrible to the Black Knight. But then, no doubt, she'd regret it later when her partner made her life a living hell. Maybe he'd do something to her bike. There was no telling.

"Just forget it for now. Page the guys," she whispered to herself as she contacted the two resident goof-offs, Cleon Kennan and Neal Queenscove. She left messages on their pagers for them to meet her at Ms. Daine Sarassri's office for the afternoon. If she remembered correctly, Neal frequently turned his pager off to catch an afternoon nap without disruptions and Cleon never answered his because he turned the volume down so low, he couldn't hear the beeps.

In the meantime, she decided to brush up on her unarmed combat skills, so she headed to the training center. As soon as she spied the clear doors and neon sign from afar, she knew she missed it. There were a lot of things Keladry had missed while being mistaken for a criminal and moving from city to city encountering enemy upon enemy. She gingerly hopped off the moving walkway with a smile creeping onto her face.

The clear doors parted, and she arrived at the second set of doors where she stopped to scan her identification from her wrist. There was a long pause as the screen went black. For a moment, fear gripped her. What if her identification didn't go through and the training center security still had her filed as a traitor?

MINDELAN 1-B. ENTRANCE GRANTED.

She breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded across the threshold into the familiar home away from home. Keladry took off her jacket and clutched the fabric in one hand while moving aside to avoid departing men and women from the center. Another woman clad in a baggy gray T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off and some spandex pants caught sight of Keladry. At this the woman's face lit up and she jogged on over from her place in the aerobics class.

"Keladry Mindelan! Oh my gosh, I'd heard everything that happened to you. I just can't believe it all!" The girl with black hair pinned up in a sloppy bun hugged Kel tightly, grinning and laughing the whole time. She released the slightly taller girl. "My, things have changed since the Academy."

"Not that much, Uline," Keladry replied. She allowed herself a small smile. Uline had been very nice to her. But since the other was older and not as close, Keladry didn't allow herself to show the smiles that she reserved for the closest eight people to her heart. It was an automatic defense she wasn't proud of, but Uline didn't seem bothered by it. "So how are you?"

"I'm fine, thanks. Still interning. Ugh," she rolled her eyes in derision. Then she giggled and led Kel over to a bench beside Instructor Nariko's class. "I'm almost done though! If I play my cards right, and give an extra year interning in the training center; I'm told I can have a chance at a really nice resident position here in HQ. The training center, of course."

Keladry tucked some of her light brown bangs behind her right hear. She tried to put all of Uline's chatter into one conclusion. "So… you want to be an instructor?"

Uline pressed her lips together as if she was trying not to blurt out a secret. "Oh, it's something like that. Maybe a self-defense teacher. I don't even have to be DJPF anymore! Don't get me wrong, I love it and all. But I'm starting to think that I want something else. You know… it's absolutely fantastic that you have this… this first rate position and everything, but I wanted something with a stable location and minimal danger. I think I might get married soon."

"To who?" Keladry cocked her head. In her head, she thought, "I miss out a couple of months and so much has already happened to the people I went to school with. What else did I possibly miss?"

"Oh, um… this guy. He's an editor for Inform Magazine." She snapped her fingers. "Oh yeah, he's Warric Mandash's cousin. He introduced me to him after aerobics class one day. I owe all this to him."

As if he heard his name, Warric approached them. Keladry always noticed his short hair cut. It was unlike Faleron's because instead of flattening against his head, Warric's hair puffed out and looked a little ridiculous on him. For some reason, she also noticed that his nose had changed, too. It was longer and narrower than she remembered it.

He always scratched his nose when he was unsure about something. And he used to sit beside me at the Academy. Warric could spend the whole class period doing that, she thought nervously.

His shirt was soaked down the middle in sweat, and he breathed heavily from the exercise he'd been doing. "Hello, ladies. What's up?"

"Uline's been telling me about things I've missed since I've been away," Keladry explained. "How are you Warric? It's been so long. Do you have some job goals as well?"

Warric chuckled. "As a matter of fact, I am hoping to get a start as a deputy somewhere a little north of here when internship is done. Do you know that almost everyone in our graduating class and last year's class from Tortall Academy has been transferred out of city? There are already so many officers here, and so little Academies elsewhere that we've been a little… overstocked, I guess you might say."

She nodded. Uline gestured beside her. "Sit down, you silly boy."

"I'm hardly a boy." He sat down, pretending to give her a nasty look. She returned the look. For about fifteen seconds, they locked gazes in a strange way that Keladry felt uncomfortable with.

"So," Keladry interrupted them. "Uline also tells me that you've played matchmaker with her and your cousin, right, Warric?"

He leaned forward so he could look around Uline and at Keladry. "Oh yeah." He coughed. "They are a great couple, my coz and Uline." He scratched his nose. "Wonderful."

He scratched his nose, she thought. Does that mean what I think it means?

"Oh, look at the time. I have to wash up and go in for some studying. Excuse me, ladies. It's been great seeing you again, Keladry."

"Kel," she piped up, feeling suddenly sorry for him in a way she knew she had to keep to herself.

"Kel. Right," he smiled. He glanced briefly at Uline. "Bye, Uline. I'll tell Iden you said 'hi'."

She grinned. She didn't have a clue to his feelings. "Bye, Warric!"

At that point, Keladry felt she had to get up and go somewhere else. "I think I'm going to go say hi to the Wildcat and Instructor Hakuin. I'll see you later?"

"Of course! You bet! See you!" She waved as she ran off, heading for the water dispenser.

Keladry walked to the back of the training center to the sparring rings. She stepped aside for a punching bag to swing in front of her as a man with a maintenance logo on the back of his jumpsuit moved it with the help of another man in the same gray uniform. Then she jogged past, hoping to avoid another run in with swinging bags of any sort.

Finally, she spotted her two favorite instructors sitting down outside a ring. The training at the Academy had been great. They taught her the basics-- marksmanship and what to do in emergency situations. It was here during internship that Eda Bell was intently watching a couple of men boxing within while Hakuin was enjoying a blue sports drink. He saw her first.

"If it isn't my favorite butt-kicker!" he exclaimed. He nudged his fellow instructor. Eda Bell turned away briefly to see her. She nodded her head politely at her and returned to supervising the match within the ring.

"Hello, Instructor," she said in a semi-bored, semi-taunting voice. "Where's the apprentice you had?"

"Switched to interning for the homicide division. Is it that hard to guess?" Eda said while keeping her eyes focused within the ring. Hakuin opened his mouth to retort, but Keladry put a hand on his shoulder.

"No, no, I don't care, Instructors. Forget it. I just came by to say hello. It's been a very long time, and since I've been back, I don't believe I've come to visit."

He nodded. "Oh, I see. Well, that's great. We've been doing fine. And in light of my loss of an apprentice, I've decided to give it a rest and wait again until next year." He tossed a look over his shoulder at Eda whom only smirked. Hakuin took another sip of his drink. "Aww, who am I kidding? The rookies come out of the Academy already knowing to watch out for ol' Seastone."

Seastone. What am I supposed to remember about that? Keladry wondered to herself.

"Hey, they're required to see you if they want to get unarmed combat skills for higher level ranks and divisions. Such as those who eventually wish for bodyguard detail, right? I mean, they do see you two, don't they?" she frowned.

"Are you kidding me? Nariko hogs most of the students. Senior Training Instructor, my ass," he muttered. At this, Eda raised her foot and stomped down on his. She went back to watching the boxers. He yelped at picked up his foot, massaging it with one hand. Keladry rolled her eyes.

"Oh!"

Hakuin released his foot. His dark eyes focused on her. "What?"

"That reminds me. Your name, Seastone."

"Yes, what about it?"

She let out a deep breath to steady herself. "Is there any way you're connected with the Seastone Resort? Because, I'm going down there for this mandatory vacation that Commissioner Wyldon announced for me and the some other people."

He blanched. "Don't bring that place up. My parents are a bunch of no-good, money-grubbing--OW!" He clutched the arm that the Wildcat had pinched. "What was that for?"

The boxing match was over, and the opponents were seated on stools on either side of the ring, resting. Eda Bell was now turned around and scolding Hakuin. "You may not like your folks, but you'd better show some respect to them." She leaned forward and whispered to Keladry. "He was supposed to inherit it after his parents, but he refused and went to the Shangs. He became an instructor. You know the rest."

She nodded. "Yeah. So, how bad is it with your parents?"

He waved her off. "Not as bad as you think. They give out bribes to me a lot to come back. I'm the only child." He paused. "Hey, I could get you and your people some free rooms there. Top of the line. What do you say?"

"I don't know. Doesn't that require you to do something for them?"

"Never did before. Why should I anyway? They're just my parents. OW! Stop that, Eda!"

She withdrew her elbow from his ribs. With that, the aged woman climbed over the ropes and into the ring to talk with the two boxers on their technique. Keladry laughed gently at Hakuin's misfortune and offered to buy him another sports drink.

"No, no. I'm fine. Page me later if you're still interested, Officer. Are you going to stick around for some sparring? I mean, I'd look to see how good you've gotten, but I'm kind of tired from the day," he told her.

"I was, but if you're tired, I can pick on some third class officer. For kicks."

He studied her face. "It's that cold one isn't it?"

"What?" she asked in confusion.

"Stone, right? Usually, you don't spar with less-than worthy opponents for kicks, right? So the guy's twisted attitude rubbing off on you?"

Keladry folded her arms and smiled smugly. "But Instructor Hakuin, I spar with you for kicks."

"Now that's cold," he melodramatically whined. It looked amusing on a man over thirty.

"No, you know I'm kidding," Keladry chuckled lightly. "Go ahead and get out of here. I can entertain myself with some punching bags." She pushed him forward.

He waved and headed towards the wash room. She waved back and called out her plans to Eda Bell up on the raised platform. The elder female instructor gave a slight nod and immediately returned to showing the boxers another defensive stance. Keladry headed for the change room.

~~

Faleron King adjusted his reading glasses and tapped the keyboard buttons a few times, bringing up a new window on the monitor. From behind him, he could hear Roald shuffling through sheets of documents in old clear plastic folders. Numair had decided to help Roald out by giving him a few jobs while trying to talk it all over with Roald's father, the Vice President. Lalasa took on the role of Daine's personal assistant, and Faleron-- Daine's other business.

Things were working out well. He'd been able to hide his record from a lot of people eager to get at it. But on the other hand, not too many people had as much skill as he did in a conversation to turn the tables and put the focus on their bad past.

I'd be nothing without my wit, he concluded.

There was a ring from the door intercom. Roald stood up and called out. "Lalasa, could you get that? We're kind of busy!"

"Why, you think I'm not busy?" she shouted back, a little annoyed.

"I'm sorry! Don't get mad."

"The answer is still no."

"Why not?"

Daine looked up from the news she was watching on the holo-screen and smiled. "Lalasa, please?"

"Oh, of course Ms. Sarassri!" Lalasa's tune changed dramatically. Roald sighed and chuckled to himself. He really did love Lalasa, for her spirit most of all. There was no way she could ever be a simple housewife. Lalasa had that sort of "move it or lose it" and "I'm not your maid" attitude that faltered only for him.

But not today.

Numair narrowed his eyes at his fellow Council member. Daine only shrugged and offered him a strawberry pastry. He reluctantly accepted and scribbled some signatures on a few other sheets he'd been reading. Then he put his pen down and started eating.

Lalasa put down the organizer she was sorting onto the table. Then she walked over, brushing her long, dark, and wavy hair over her shoulders. She wanted to pin it up while working, but Roald loved her hair down. And she wasn't about to disappoint him. She liked distracting him. He was helpless around her.

"Hello, please state your name and business," she said into the intercom while holding down the button. She released it and waited for a reply.

"It's Kel."

Lalasa stepped back. She stepped forward again and punched in the command on the number pad to open the door. Standing patiently on the red brick doorstep was the taller, athletic looking young woman who, up until a few weeks ago, had a severe problem talking about her feelings. Lalasa had felt so happy when Kel started to confide in her, as friends should.

"It's about time you dropped by," Lalasa scolded. She ushered the other woman inside and promptly shut the doors after her. "What, you don't have time for your civilian friends anymore?"

Keladry stared at her blankly. "I was just here last night--"

"Doesn't matter," she cut her off with a deep embrace. After squeezing so tight, Keladry thought she couldn't breathe, Lalasa let go and jerked a thumb down the hall. "Everyone's in the Room."

The Room in Daine's modest house was a carbon copy of her office downtown with a few perks: a couch and a few recliners, plus the option of holo screen or stereo system. If given a choice between working at her real office and the Room, the stately Councilwoman would choose the Room. It was much more comfortable there. Stress reduced to a fraction of what it was downtown. And she could avoid pesky in-betweeners of politics always knocking on her office door.

Numair had his own version of the Room, but alas, Lalasa, Faleron, and Roald technically signed to work for Daine. He usually couldn't find excuses to borrow the three from her, so they were left to all be at her brownstone home.

Keladry admired a hall mirror framed in polished brass. There were only two photograph frames on the walls. Neither included Daine, but instead, a middle aged couple. The woman was obviously Daine's mother, and the man-- whom Kel assumed was her father-- bore brown curls that were wound tightly to his head. One was of a Halloween party at which Daine's father wore horns and had a bow slung over one shoulder.

"Kel?" Lalasa called.

"Coming." She hurried her pace to the Room. As soon as she entered, there was a chorus of various greetings and one brief hug from Roald. Faleron remained seated where he was behind the polished wood desk, but he picked up his hat and used it to salute her. She did the same, though it was a pantomime since she possessed no hat.

"Are Cleon and Neal here yet?"

"Hey! That's my cookie! Darn you, Kennan! I called it first!" a voice came from the kitchen.

Faleron removed his glasses and cleaned them off with a cloth on the desktop. He sighed and looked over his shoulder at the door leading to the kitchen. "Does that answer you question, Officer?"

Kel moved toward the door. "What did I tell you about calling me Officer, Faleron?"

"Not to, Officer."

"I give up," she said, exasperated. She paused for a moment for the door to slide open, than realized it was an archaic door. Well, of course there are regular doors here. The brownstone houses in this neighborhood are all classics. She hoped no one noticed and twisted the knob, then pushed forward.

As she walked down the narrow servant's corridor (though there were no servants at Daine's house), Keladry could hear more of her two fellow first class officers in the kitchen.

"Did you find any orange soda in there? I like orange soda, but Faleron forgot to pick some up for me last time he was at the supermarket when I paged him." That was Cleon.

The next voice had to be none other than Neal. "Are you planning to steal Ms. Sarassri's? Well, I hate to break it to you, but I don't think she would have any. More likely to have pounds of coffee beans."

Keladry knocked on the white wooden door before turning the knob and entering. "Hey, guys."

"Tough Stuff!" they cheered simultaneously whiles both coming forward to hug her. Between the two of them, this time she really couldn't breathe. Both started talking as if each were having a private conversation with her right there and then.

"Whoa! Down, boys," she gasped while pushing them away. She caught her breath. "Well, glad to see you, too."

Cleon Kennan, the redheaded mischief-maker and jokester extraordinaire had an undeniable adorable grin on his face. He always smiled so innocently that it was hard for someone to picture him causing any trouble. Although, Cleon was still prone to the more extreme emotions, but it was only in times of crisis. His bright green eyes were always laughing, even in the most melancholy times. He was good for cheering most people up. Like he had done for Faleron in Scanra, when the shorter boy had been convicted of murder.

Neal, properly Neal Queenscove, was one of her first friends. Ever. At the Academy, he and Owen had opened her up a little so that at least when she was with them, she showed some emotion. Of course, her natural defense mechanism still worked and she still acted stiff in front of strangers. He hoped to heal that in time. His father was the head doctor and surgeon working exclusively for the DJPF HQ. Perhaps that was how Neal got the idea to be in law enforcement. Perhaps he thought that 'chicks' would dig the uniform. Neal was a player. Or at least, he fancied himself to be. And she would admit he had conquests. She didn't care to know how many, because the fact slightly disgusted her, but he did. He did.

The point was, both were her dear friends, and she couldn't stand to be without either of them. And even during the last couple of months during the Immortals disaster, Cleon-- the sharpshooter-- had been by her side and Neal-- the listener-- communicated with her when he could. Which was very rare, after the warrant for her arrest had been placed everywhere.

"Hey, hold these will you? We'll take them into the Room and sit down for a nice movie. Did you know that Ms. Sarassri has a Kitten Entertainment System? Stereo Surround!" After Cleon's enthusiastic statement, he and Neal slapped high fives.

Cleon handed Kel two bags of chips, and then a bottle of citrus flavored soda. Then he repositioned her arms to hold more food while he and Neal held nothing. Keladry tried to interrupt the constant stream of chatter coming from him.

"Hey!" she finally silenced him, when she shoved the last bag her gave her back into his arms. "I wanted to tell you guys something. That's why I called you here, not to raid Ms. Sarassri's refrigerator!"

They looked abashed.

"Well, what was it, Tough Stuff?" Neal asked.

"Take some of these first. By Glory," she muttered softly. Neal took a bottle of soda and the sour cream and onion dip. They waited for her to continue.

Amazing. They're actually quiet. "Well, when reporting in this morning to the Commissioner--"

"Oh, great. Another job. Kel, I appreciate you trying to keep us on our toes and all, but all these little assignments you've been dragging us to lately are really starting to get on my nerves," Neal voiced his opinion. "I mean, we're first class now. There are very few first class officers who aren't overseas right now, because there's nothing big going on. Not after Ozorne and Roger Conté's mess. So, why don't we take a break and just kick back until Wyldon really needs us, huh?"

She stared at him for a total of two seconds before kicking his shin.

"OW!" He lifted up his leg reflexively. This caused him to lose his balance and fall back onto the floor on his butt. "Oof!" He grimaced and looked up at her. "What the hell was that for?"

"I was about to say we were going to take a break, before you interrupted me. Again," Keladry said sternly. Cleon started to laugh, but she shot him a look. He cheeks flushed pink and he settled for an uncharacteristic shy smile.

As they headed back to the room, Keladry handed off the food and drinks to the two older guys and paged Hakuin for the free offers. They would stay for a whole month. And Keladry would make sure that Hakuin showed some appreciation to his parents by putting in a couple sentences here and there to Mr. and Mrs. Seastone when she arrived.

Ten minutes into the movie (an action flick of Cleon's choice), Neal got an idea and hit the pause button on the remote.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Lalasa demanded.

"I got the greatest idea! Why don't you guys come with us to the resort, huh?" He suddenly looked to Daine and Numair. "If that would be okay for you…"

Daine thought for a moment. "I'm afraid we can't go," she gestured to herself and Numair, "but for now, I suppose it would be all right for Faleron to take the vacation."

Roald wasn't bothered by the decision, being obedient as ever, but he noticed Lalasa's disappointment. Daine continued. "It would be perfectly fine for Numair to join you two weeks into the vacation and borrow my remaining two assistants. I really have to stay, no matter what. I have to figure out where I want to spend the year. Here in this city or elsewhere."

"That's awesome!" Cleon exclaimed. He turned and nudged Faleron, who was sitting behind the couch. "Hear that, buddy? You get a month off, and you haven't even finished the first month of work! Isn't life great?"

Faleron smiled faintly; he was pleased only if Cleon was pleased.

Lalasa shrugged it off. "It's better than nothing. Okay. You people got yourselves a deal."

Kel yawned and started paging Hakuin again. "I hope he won't feel he's being taken advantage of."

"Oh, don't worry. I'll pay for my three slaves," Daine winked.

Kel smiled, nodded, and stopped her pager. Then she remembered that Joren said to call him as soon as she'd talked to Cleon and Neal.

Why should I have to miss part of the movie because of him? I'll wait until after

~~

1:00 AM

Joren dozed soundly on his plain single bed. Contrary to how most people thought the regulated, professional, and inconsiderate guy to slumber, he slept with the sheets tangled around his legs and wound around his waist, and the pillows either on the edge of the bed about to fall off or the pillows on the floor.

When his door intercom beeped, needless to say, his instinctive reaction to wake up and move quickly was not the best for the occasion. That reaction was reserved for sleeping in the field, and moving quickly at the first sound to ensure not being shot. In this case, he moved off the bed-- tumbled, really-- and hit the floor with a thud. He grimaced and touched his side and felt the bandages around his waist come loose. He secured them and let his head drop back down. He closed his eyes again.

"Hello? Stone, are you awake?" a familiar female voice called through the intercom. Joren, now wide-awake, kicked the sheets off violently and stumbled around his nightstand and bed. For some odd reason, this was the first time he could move around in the dark with no visibility whatsoever… and still make it to the door without bumping into the wall.

He didn't care to check identification. Whoever it was, he or she was going to get cursed out. He angrily punched the button that opened the door. He squinted as the hall lights, though dim; caused him to feel like he was staring at the garish sun.

"Mindelan?" he blinked sleepily.

"Hey, Stone," she said rather nervously. She'd never seen him so disoriented, but she was sure he could still insult her no matter what state he was in. His unique white blond hair was tousled, and his posture slack. Yes. He was certainly out of it.

Because you woke him up, duh. She cleared her throat. "You said to call you after I told the guys the news."

Joren shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose gently, as if warding off a headache. "Do you know what time it is?"

She checked her wrist pager. "Oh, after one. Sorry. But, did you know that the dorm lines are down? I tried calling you around eight and then at nine. No connection. I came from Ms. Sarassri's house just now."

"Well, just fine," he groused. He leaned on the doorframe, yawning and stretching his arms. This gave her a chance to study him. He had no shirt on, just baggy black sweatpants that fell low on his narrow hips. He did have bandages around his waist from being shot. That was rapidly healing, so she was told. And there were new pink scars left behind from Rikash's claws. There were those taut lean muscles again. She'd first glimpsed them when she knocked on his bathroom door in some city in the Yamanis. She hadn't meant to see him the first time.

Don't lower yourself to their level, she commanded herself. At that exact moment, fleeting images of the 'trendy' girls at her regular school, then the Academy, then HQ itself appeared in her mind. They were always ogling over some guy's muscles. It was absolutely shallow how they judged on looks and style. She was not about to start down that road.

Joren arched his back in another large yawn and stretch.

Aww, damn. There I am on that road.

"So, what'd moron number one and two say?" he asked dully.

It was easier to focus on his face when he was trashing her friends. "They're going. Oh, and Instructor Hakuin said he could get the four of us free rooms for a month. Is that enough for you and your precious bike?"

The insult did not bother him. He merely nodded. Then, he turned his back, went back into his room, and shut the door. But not before Keladry could glimpse the burn scars. She'd never gotten a good look at them that one time. But now that she did, she realized that there was a lot of tissue damage. It looked truly painful.

"Don't start feeling sorry for him. He's nothing but a jerk. Manipulative asshole," she whispered to raise her spirits. A good night's sleep was in order. Yes, that was the solution. She would crawl into bed and dream content things.

Instead, she ended up dreaming of her sitting uncomfortably on the beach, listening to a frantic Wyldon yelling via communications screen. Two brunettes slapped Cleon and Neal. Faleron was chasing Jump, who had his hat. And Joren walked his motorcycle by her, with nothing on but his sweatpants.

~~

The ferry was very quiet that time around. The crowds went on the early morning ferries, not the ones during lunch like the vacationing officers were. Faleron was peacefully sleeping on one bench. His hat was tipped over his eyes. Cleon and Neal had borrowed Faleron's deck of cards to play a game of Blackjack. That left Keladry to get some food from the line in the center of the passenger area. She came back and gave some bags of chips and bottled drinks to the card players. Then she sat across from Joren, who was fiddling with his portable database.

The muted light from the dull gray sky disappointed her. She expected bright and sunny weather for their embarking on a splendid month at Seastone Resort. It's only the first day. It'll get better by tomorrow, she thought optimistically. She took a sip of her bottled water and tried to peer at what Joren was doing.

He looked up when he sensed her curious eyes. She sat back again and wordlessly held out some food for him from her tray. He rolled his eyes and accepted the offering.

"We're on a ferry in the Great Inland Sea and you're giving me an freaking apple. Déjà vu."

"Just eat it," she goaded. "By the way, what are you looking at?"

He held the screen away from her, but took a bite of the apple. "None of your business. Why don't you go play cards or something, huh?"

She set down her bottle and glared at him. "Maybe I don't feel like playing cards."

"Tough luck," he snapped and took another bite. "Go."

Keladry folded her arms. She was on vacation, right? That meant she could do things and say things that she normally couldn't, or wouldn't… right? Perhaps it would be best to get a feel for it and start right then.

"Well, maybe I don't feel like being told what to do by a egotistical blonde asshole," she retorted. "Sometimes you just make me sick."

If there had been mild chatter in their area of the passenger space, it had been reduced to zilch. Neal and Cleon dropped the cards they'd been holding onto the table and turned in their seats to stare at the two feuding companions. Neal gulped and nudged Cleon on the arm. The redhead nodded and hurried over to where Faleron was sleeping on his bench beside Joren and Keladry. He nearly knocked over his chair in the process.

"What is it?" Faleron asked as he was yanked up from his resting spot. Cleon dragged him over to his and Neal's table, where they watched the verbal war unfold. Faleron removed his hat and replaced his contacts' case from where it was falling out of his pocket. He blinked a few times to clear his vision. The first thing he saw caused him to slink behind his two other friends, not wanting to be so close to the line of fire.

"Here it comes…" Neal whispered apprehensively.

It started.

"Asshole? Oh, I'm the asshole? That's right, blame it all on me!" Joren thundered. He set the half-eaten apple down. "It's never you, Miss Goody-two-shoes-I'm-always-perfect-and-do-whatever-I'm-told! You think you've got all the problems--"

"I never said I did!" she protested. "Though I probably do have it better because it seems I don't have all the enemies you do! And I'm better because I didn't die, like, seventeen times, did I?" Her fist slammed down on the table as she stood up.

Joren also stood up when she made the remark on his dying. "Okay, that happened once, genius! All right…" he paused. "Maybe twice. But I suppose it's too much to expect you to know how to count!" Here he spat at her feet. "And at least I was pulling my weight, instead of running around, getting lost like some little red riding hood in the forest!"

"That's not what happened and you know it, you son of a bitch!"

"But I bet you it was running through your head, wasn't it? Wasn't it?"

An employee of the ferry inched his way toward Cleon and Neal. He looked like he meant to break it up, but was too scared to do anything. Neal became bold and did it for him.

"Hey, Stone--"

"Fuck off, Queenscove," Joren spat maliciously, shoving the taller man backward.

"No, why don't you fuck off," Keladry shouted. "Leave him out of this!"

"Kel, maybe I could--"

"Back off, Neal!" she yelled at him. Neal, wide-eyed, did as he was told and sat down at his table again. He shrugged helplessly. He didn't feel like losing an arm to stop the two out-of-control people about to set the walls on fire with their heated argument.

"I am so tired of seeing you act like some bad ass that I know you aren't!" Keladry shrieked. She removed the cap from her bottle and splashed his leather jacket. Joren cursed freely, using a couple of phrases that made the spectators wince.

"PMSing psycho bitch! Why the hell did you start all this raging shit?" He took off his jacket and twisted around to get out of the booth. He felt a sharp pain across his midsection, but chose to ignore it. Joren gritted his teeth. "Do us all a favor and take some stupid Midol or whatever, 'kay?" He kicked the seat next to her, purposely missing because he never did hit her during their arguments, and stalked away.

"I wish you really were dead!" she screamed after him.

He paused before leaving the passenger area and turned around. "Well then. That makes the two of us."

It ended.

Faleron cleared his throat. "Well, that came out of nowhere."

"Wonderful start to a vacation," Neal agreed sarcastically. They all continued to stare uneasily at Keladry who had since then sat down and grouchily continued eating her meal.

She put down her fork. "What are you guys staring at, huh?"

They immediately averted their gazes, whistling innocently and pretending to be interested in the patterns on the ceiling. She shook her head and slumped down in her seat. Okay, maybe speaking my mind really should be restricted. Every time I work up the courage to do it, it only makes me feel worse, she told herself. But I shouldn't just let him talk to people like that. What gives him the right? She paused. I don't get it. He's capable of having a freaking heart. He just doesn't want to have one. The jerk.

~~

"Beaches and babes, here I come," Neal said as they walked into the lobby of Seastone Resort. A few young women in bathing suits and robes passed by, giggling. He winked at them.

"Dude, save it for later. We have to check in," Cleon pulled him towards the desk. Faleron and Keladry followed them. Joren was already at the desk, waiting for a person handling rooms to be available to talk to.

Faleron set down his bags and looked around. The lobby had a sea theme, with polished shells and fake crystals embedded in the sandstone walls. The white wicker furniture complimented the rest of the decorations. Lots of tourists were dressed in summer clothing-- shorts, tank tops, and wide-brimmed hats. His own black hat seemed out of place. Maybe he ought to buy a straw hat for the beach.

Cleon and Neal were already dressed, ready for parties and bars in the coast town of Blythdin. Each wore tropic style shirts with loud colors and flowers. Cleon had some baggy khaki shorts while Neal still had on his faded jeans.

"I wonder what the bars are like around here. I've been completely away from beer this whole entire time, and I tell ya, I can't take it anymore," Neal joked.

"I know the feeling. Kel makes a good chaperone when walking through the Crypt. Dragged me away from the barkeep twice." He flashed a grin at her. She smiled briefly, then resumed her quiet, contemplative state.

Faleron tapped Cleon on the shoulder. "Hey, there's this water stunts show tonight. You want to go, man?"

"Uh, I don't know. Me and Neal--"

"Neal and I," Faleron said with an intelligent chuckle.

"Yeah, we were going to check out the resort's club. It's around here some where. You know, meet some girls," he nodded, trying to think of something to say. He shrugged. "You can come with, if you want, Fal."

The shorter man declined. "No thanks. Kel, do you want to go?"

"Um, sure. Is this line moving at all?" she said, peering around the people in front of them in line.

At the front of the line, a lady with a headset and a uniform tropical yellow shirt and flowers in her mousy brown hair said, "Next."

Joren moved forward. "Yes, reservation for Joren Stone."

"Spelling please."

He irritably spelled it out for her.

She typed it into her computer. There were a few beeps and she met his eyes and politely informed him. "The reservation is for Joren Stone and Keladry Mindelan, correct? Is Ms. Mindelan here?"

He leaned over the divider and gaped at the screen. "No, no. It's a mistake. I don't share a room with her."

The lady sighed and brought up a couple of more windows. "The month long stays are courtesy of the Seastone family. Unfortunately, this is a busy time of the year for us. And though we would like to grant your wish, we need the rooms for other guests. Therefore, of your party, you are rooming with Ms. Mindelan and, Mr. Queenscove is rooming with Mr. Kennan." She tilted her head and smiled in that fake cheeriness that the resort's employees all had to possess. "Does that answer your answer your question, sir?"

Joren tried to stifle his annoyance. "What about Mr. Faleron King? Does he have a single?"

She continued to smile, never wavering once. "Mr. King is not within the party given free rooms courtesy of the Seastone family. Therefore, I cannot switch you with him nor give you any information regarding his rooming."

He shook his head. "You don't seem to understand." He clenched his fist. "I can't room with--"

"That's room 316. Here are your keys, and the elevators are to your right and the stairs to your left. Thank you for choosing Seastone Beach Resort and have a nice day." With that, she reached forward, scanned his wrist, handed him his key cards, and called, "Next!"

He glared daggers at the desk attendant, picked up his bags, and moved toward the back of the line to find his roommate. Muttering less than appropriate words, he found the four others and waited for them to turn and notice his presence.

"Oh, Stone, so, where's your room?" Cleon asked.

"Third floor," he answered rigidly. "And by the way, the reservations have us pairing up except for thief-boy because his is being paid for by Ms. Sarassri." He turned to Keladry then. "Room 316 Mindelan. Here's the other key card." He grumpily handed it to her.

She blinked. "No. Don't tell me--"

"Yeah. And you'd just better keep that attitude in check for this month," he warned her.

"My attitude? My attitude?" she gasped. "Look who's talk-- Hey! Come back here!" She shouted after him, but the blonde still walked away towards the elevators.

Cleon sighed and patted her shoulder. "I'm sorry, Kel. I'd switch with you and all, but… you know. Have fun!"

"Thanks a lot," she sardonically replied.

"Why don't you go ahead and follow him up to the room? Put down your stuff and come join us for a little exploration of this huge place."

She dreaded the thought of being alone in a room with her partner. "No. No, I think I'll wait for you guys to get your room numbers. It's okay. Really." It could be worse. This vacation is only a month. The way Wyldon was fed up with me, I'm surprised he didn't give me until the late autumn.

~~

She ended up putting her stuff in Faleron's room until they got back from exploring the resort. They four friends had found the game room, the bar, the sauna, indoor swimming pool with skylights, and the makeshift auditorium for visiting acts. That week, there was an illusionist and his dozens of doves. One had landed on Cleon's head and would not come off until Faleron managed to get it off and bring it back to the man with the purple cape.

There were various wooden decks and boardwalks that branched out from the main buildings. Some were for parasailing. Others were for water skiing, scuba diving, and plenty other sorts of activities. There was actually a cave that guests of the resort could enter with a certified guide. Faleron had been interested in that, but the other dragged him off to an early dinner.

After eating in the restaurant in the third complex, Cleon and Neal left to pursue other interests. This left Keladry and Faleron to stroll around the boardwalk, waiting for the time the fireworks and water stunts show was to happen.

"Something bothering you?" Keladry asked, concerned.

"Oh, of course not," Faleron replied, smiling as he did so. "I should ask the same of you, Officer."

She gave him a hard look. "You know something's always bothering me. And don't say 'Officer' anymore."

"Sorry. But why do you ask? I'm perfectly fine."

They stopped and sat down on a wooden bench overlooking the dock where black and blue speedboats were tied up. The sun was just setting on the horizon. This created blurs of red, orange and purple in the sky, followed by the large expanse of dark blue. The clouds absorbed yellow off the sun itself.

Keladry shrugged. "Ever since I first met you, I've known you to be crafty and charismatic. Something seems down."

"Charismatic, charismatic. Everyone keeps using that word to describe me. I don't believe they know the definition of charismatic," he huffed.

"So what's your definition of it?"

"The dictionary says: having a natural ability to lead. No, I do not lead. You could lead. Yeah, I see that happening. Maybe Neal and Cleon-- they have attitudes that lead girls to them. But not me… I'm just a wit and a half."

She laughed. "When people say you have charisma, you show it through your wit. I don't believe you haven't been able to persuade anyone to your side during a conversation. You had a confidence in your words that empowered you." She leaned on his shoulder, causing him to lean that way too. When he started to smile, she went on. "I remember how difficult it was dealing with you when we first arrested you. Intelligent, witty, and fast thinking? Yes, Fal, that is you."

He cupped his own chin and leaned his elbow on his knee. "You said I had confidence."

She took a deep breath. "Okay, okay… what's sapping your stupid confidence?"

"You wouldn't understand."

She punched him in the arm.

"Ow! What was that for?"

"You're looking at the girl with the least self-esteem from here to Carthak. Don't tell me I wouldn't understand," she warned. Kel relented. "But I understand that you don't want to talk about it. It's like Cleon told me once. You're just trying to keep your distance… your space. And I can respect that."

Faleron snorted. "He said that?"

She nodded. "Yup. So, are you at least going to try and have some fun?"

"Okay. Fine. Jeez, you sound like Lalasa."

"I know, I know. She's rubbing off on me."

He suddenly stood up and pointed. "Hey, they're starting the show! Let's get down there!"

~~

The club on the western side of Seastone R. was called the Sand Piper. Multicolored lights roamed across the ceiling, the walls, and the floor. A live band cranked out the music while a variety of party-goers danced to their heart's content, each marching to their own drum.

At one particular table in the back, decked with empty glasses and strewn with fake flowers, a girl leaned over Cleon to flirt with Neal.

"So, here's my room number…" the girl in the green halter top purred as she wrote it with pen on Neal's palm. He whispered something into her ear. She giggled and blew him a kiss as she strutted away.

Cleon took a sip of his drink. "How do you do it?"

"It's just natural," Neal admitted. "Got to have that relaxed, smooth feel to it, you know?" He leaned back in his chair and watched the dance floor. "And besides, I can't resist a girl who struts."

"Yeah, I noticed," the sharpshooter commented. He had only gotten one number from a girl that night, while Neal had received several. The number was equal to the times that Neal was rejected. Cleon found a lot of humor in this.

After half an hour of talking, joking, and flirting with women, Cleon put down his glass and pushed it away. He stood up and retrieved his wallet from his back pocket. Neal frowned and stood up, also taking out his wallet to pay his share of the bill.

"So, wait, what are we doing now?"

Cleon shrugged. "I'm kind of getting tired. I want you to stay here though. Dance a few. You don't have to leave because I feel like it."

The older one seemed caught between being a loyal friend and leaving with Cleon, or actually walking over to the girl in the green halter top again to see if he could further his ventures. His kind heart won out and he refused. "No, I'll go, too. This place is way over my head anyway."

Cleon laughed and put down a couple of credits on the table. He put a hand on Neal's shoulder. "Man, stay. All right? Just stay." He leaned forward and whispered, "Besides, I need you to find out if she has a sister."

"Oh," he nodded. "I see." They both started laughing. "Okay, okay. You got it. Meet you back at the room. You have a key?"

"Yeah, totally taken care. See you, Dude."

"Yeah, later!" Neal waved and put his wallet back in his pants. As soon as he could see the redhead walk through the exit, he headed for the dance floor, humming a wicked tune.

~~

On the way to the room, Cleon started whistling and day dreaming random things. He was picturing himself scuba diving and finding some cool pearl. And then he was thinking about this good lobster that he heard the Seastone R. served in its restaurant. It looked so succulent and savory in his dreams. He was almost licking his lips in anticipation.

"Whoa!" he cried out as he bumped into a girl with short brown hair and dimples. He gasped. "I'm so sorry. I guess I wasn't paying attention to where I was going. Are you okay?"

She nodded. "I'm fine. Don't worry about it." She gave him a once over. Cleon guessed she approved, because she continued speaking to him. "I'm Maura Dunlath. I'm vacationing from Corinth. My uncle lives in Carthak, running this area's chain of Dunlath Vehicles. Came down here to meet with a client--" She stopped and blushed. "I'm sorry. I tend to run on about things when I'm nervous. I… I don't even know your name!"

He grinned. "It's cool. I'm Cleon Kennan. It's great to meet you."

She held her hands behind her back and looked hopefully up at him. "So, Cleon, do you want to come party with some friends of mine at our suite? It's going to be really awesome…"

Cleon looked at his watch. For a brief moment after leaving the Sand Piper, he wanted to join Faleron and Keladry at the water stunts show. He shook the thought from his mind and nodded. "Sure. I'll go. I can't possibly deny a girl like you, could I, Kalasin?"

She frowned. "My name's Maura."

His eyes widened. "Oh, crap, I'm sorry. You, uh, remind me of my friend," he lied. "Please forgive me!"

"It's okay, really. Let's go." She said hurriedly and pulled him along down the walk toward the far side of the resort.

~~

That night, Keladry came in dragging her luggage that she'd left in Faleron's room. She kicked herself mentally when she checked the time and found it to be a little after midnight. She had no idea that the fireworks would last that long. And that there was going to be an impromptu conga line. It had seemed very odd to her to have so much fun, but it seemed even odder for Faleron to be acting like Cleon. Which was exactly what happened when the ex-thief took her advice to heart and had some fun instead of being sad.

There was a click in the darkness. It was a familiar noise. She froze where she was until the lights came on.

"Oh. It's just you," Joren said as he stood near the door to the bathroom. He was holding a fresh bandage in his left hand while holding the gun called Quicksilver in the other.

Keladry dropped her luggage unceremoniously onto the floor. "And how the hell did you sneak that through the metal detector?"

"Don't ask." He put down the gun on his bed and resumed changing bandages. She noticed how a little blood had seeped through it. Kel felt a sliver of sympathy for the pain he must be feeling. She had not come across any painkillers listed under medications when she was asked to cosign the release form from the hospital. Why would he not accept any? Did he feel they would dull his senses or something?

She sat down in a chair and started slipping off her shoes. Her limbs were tired and sore from the day's activities. "So, did you just get in?"

He paused and looked at her. "Is it any of your business?"

Keladry held her head in her hands. "Okay, okay. We're going to be stuck like this for a month. Let's pretend this morning never happened, hmm?"

"Fine. I don't care."

She glanced at the blood on his bandages. "I thought you wouldn't be… uh, bleeding still."

He shrugged. "Ripped a stitch this morning when we were fighting."

Guilt overwhelmed her. "Oh, man, I'm… sorry. Shouldn't you go to the clinic?"

He shook his head. "It doesn't hurt that much."

"So, what did you do today? I mean, I know you're anti-fun and all," she shrugged casually.

He finished wrapping the new bandage around his middle. She was successful at not looking at him while he put a white T-shirt on. "I was supposed to meet up with my dealer's niece. She's somewhere in this place. But the guy warned me she tends to forget her duties, and I've been wandering ever since. Screw it, though. I'm going into town tomorrow and looking around the dealership. There, does that answer Ms. Nosy's question?"

She rolled her eyes. "Yes. Are you done with the bathroom? I'll take a shower and jump straight into bed."

"Whatever." He pulled off the covers to his bed and sat down, checking how tight the bandage was. "Just don't disturb me, Mindelan."

"Of course," she muttered while grabbing a handful of clothing.

That night, she dreamt of nothing. It was peaceful sleep.

~~

It was around six in the morning when Keladry woke up. The sun shined into her eyes since she was nearest the window. She groaned softly and propped herself up on her elbows, eyeing the clock on her nightstand. She had woken up early every day of her adult life. Of course she would expect herself to wake up early now. This fact was very annoying.

Keladry looked to the other bed, where her partner slept. She couldn't believe he slept so comfortably. Well, not in the context she really meant. He looked a little too comfortable lying on his good side, with both pillows on the floor and the sheets twisted around his legs. Even she didn't sleep like that.

Who would've guessed a guy with so many strict rules and ideas to his lifestyle slept like any other average Joe?

His faced appeared content and satisfied. She could never see that while he was awake. He must have been comfortable sleeping there like that.

Might as well go for a jog or something, she thought. She made sure to be very quiet while going into the bathroom and dressing. He'd made it clear that he didn't want to be disturbed. And for once, she honestly wanted to do as he wished. He really did look happy in his sleep. She was likely never to see that during his waking hours, for as long as they were assigned partners.

When she came out, he was already sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

"Did I wake you up?" she asked.

"I'm a light sleeper when other people are around," he replied, standing up and moving past her into the bathroom. This inadvertently allowed his bare arm to brush against her bare arm. He was warm.

He's peaceful in his sleep. For once, he's warm. I suppose there are sides to him that I didn't see before. She walked toward the door. And to think… I have the whole month to see if he's really as bad as I think he is.

So, she swiped the key card through the scanner and closed the door after her. And had a wonderful morning.

~~

Author's note: I'M BBBAAAACCCKKK! Yes, here I am, having had a wonderful rest from writing. I spent a lot of time planning and brainstorming. I left last season with a small note saying I was going to work on other series during my vacation from this series. And well, I couldn't get ICBW out of my head. Okay, so some of my other readers from my other series will be a little disappointed. I'll get to it someday before summer ends. (If I'm lucky.)

So, here we are-- episode 1 of the new season. Some things never change. (Attitudes of characters, habits of characters. Why would they?) And some things are going to change. (Attitudes of characters, habits of characters. Whoa. That seems familiar.) And I hope you all enjoy it as much as I do. Some things have changed, though. For instance, we are no longer PG-13, but a big fat R. Why? Well, I figured I'd get ahead of myself and anticipate future episodes, whose rating would be approximately R. Hope this doesn't influence any of you who have stuck by my side ever since the beginning. So, thank you again for reading and… IT'S GOOD TO BE BACK!

EDITED April 8, 2002: For Tallina, who cannot get to R fics, I change this to PG-13, but am not altering the content. If I get in trouble Tallina, send me your e-mail. I can send you the episodes. And for your innocent reading eyes, just fast forward through the R parts.

-Sulia Serafine

P.S. It June 21, 2001. My BIRTHDAY! I thought this would be great as my first time submitting a fic since I've gone on vacation.!

It Could Be Worse

Copyright © 2001, by Sulia Serafine

P.S. I'm still working out the kinks to my website, so expect to see a lot of ICBW cast pictures soon!