HeartShy

SinnamonGirl

Disclaimer: Fake and it's characters belong to Sanami Matoh.

Summary: In this AU story, Dee and Ryo are Keepers - intergalactic cops who police planets and keep peace between the human and alien populations. However, neither man is exactly what he seems... Follows the Fake canon with slight AU alterations. Introspective, 1st person Ryo, 1st person Dee, 3rd person description every once in awhile.

Okay folks... I had the idea for this awhile ago, and it's been really fun to work on, but I'm sort of hesitant to post it. It's sort of a strange sci-fi/ fantasy story, but it will follow the manga pretty tightly (except for chapter 2, which is the obligatory sexy chapter)! In this "version" of Fake - Ryo is half-alien, while Dee is a magic user (he can heal). Bikky and Carol make appearances too, with quirks of their own! Anyway, I apologize because this first part is kind of slow (introductions and all). Any insight, criticism, or comments you'd like to offer would be highly appreciated. Also, I have a map of the area the story will be taking place; if you'd like to see it drop me an email!

Afterimage (a band that's mentioned later) is taken from one of my original works Anthem - and is based on the real band Rush. The quoted song is "Presto" from the album of the same name - copyright Neil Peart, Alex Lifeson, and Geddy Lee.

NARRATION

Dee Lyghtner's feet dragged against the sparkling stone of the alien street. Beyond the traffic, the patrol station wavered, mirage-like and impossibly distant to his tired eyes. Built of glass and steel, the station's four story frame relied heavily on the architectural style of Earth. Having never lived on the so called home-planet. Dee felt no rush of sentimentality. He preferred the building's ornamentation, which paid tribute to the planet Rhekia (well, that was the best pronunciation human tongues could manage). The curling accents and colored glass engaged the mind's eye playfully and the colors, the sense of upbeat pizzazz, were an absolute affront to the expensive austerity of Glass Court. Dee stared a moment longer, admiring the purple stone of the hillside that embraced the building on both sides and jutted out over the docking bay. In the new light the stone seemed electrically charged and near translucent; lilac and hyacinth puddles formed on the starry streets. Shaking himself a little, Dee set off for the 13-&-6.

No welcome morning hush greeted him as he passed through the keyhole shape of the station door. As far as the building was concerned, time was not just relative - it was arbitrary. True enough, Rhekia's pearl-drop moons were settling to sleep somewhere beyond the dusky horizon, closing lazy lunar eyes after a night of flirtation, but the station never slept. Praying the permission to collapse was forthcoming, Dee shuffled through the receiving area, a white haze burning behind his eyes. The heavy office door resisted his sluggish gait, clipping his shoulder and his gun as he passed through.

"LYGHTNER!"

Dee froze in the center of the anteroom and threw his hands over his head. After a moment, he cautiously worked one eye open to survey the room. Happily, it showed no signs of collapsing around his ears. Just as he was about to heave a sigh of relief, an insistent hand wrapped itself in his collar and hauled him toward the Commander's office.

Dee looked down at his petite assailant. "But Gwen," he protested, trying to anchor himself. "I just got back offa' fourteen hour shift. Have a little pity, sweetness."

For a tiny woman, Gwen Ieves was as tough and no-nonsense as they came. Smiling at him with a porcelain doll's unwavering cheer, she shook her head. "And have old Brushface chew on my rump instead? No thanks. Besides, with the company you keep, no one will notice a couple of new marks on you. Now scoot!" Before he could ask what she'd meant by that 'company you keep' comment, she leaned close conspiratorially. "He's got a real cutie in there, Dee. Be an angel and find out if he sleeps alone, would you?"

"What do I get out of it?"

"I'll clean up your file a little bit, huh?"

He smiled his agreement and proceeded in, only rolling his eyes once Gwen was out of sight. She has the worst taste in men - after all, she'd never hit on him.

"Lyghtner, where the hell have you been?"

Sensing that his charms were dulled somewhat by a night spent pitted against New Abode city's various flavors of darkness, he merely slid his reports across the desk. Commander Russelford eyed the file with blatant mistrust. "Dee if there's one, even one, picture of your ass in there, so help me,"

Dee choked down a laugh, but failed at holding onto a contrite expression. It had been Dragen's ass, actually, but he lacked Dee's absolute fearlessness in the face of authority and his uncanny ability to get himself out of trouble once he'd decided he was far enough in.

"Sir, I was just trying to help you fill in these white spaces." He indicated the office walls. "So drab. Really not a productive work environment." He perched on the edge of his superior's desk, pretending not to notice the stark veins purpling in the Commander's forehead. Just as the older man was about to charge forward in a rage and land his insubordinate employee on the floor, Dee flitted across the room, oblivious and hyperactive as a hummingbird.

Seeing his prey retreating (a little) Russelford swept the report aside. He knew better than to hope that Dee had completed his paperwork correctly. Neither the "aliens" his officers patrolled nor the birth of magic into the human race much unsettled the Commander, but Dee Lyghtner successfully completing a report - that would have been a miracle! One of his main reasons for keeping Gwen Ieves employed was that she could bring order to the chaos that was Dee's writing; he kept Dee employed, despite his faults, because he was a damn good Keeper. Grudgingly he thought, You can't take that from him, anyway.

Suddenly, it occurred to the Commander: Dee worked alone. Of all the Keepers in the station, he was one of the few on regular duty who didn't have a partner. Let someone else nag and pressure him to do his work and get here on time! Someone by-the-book who won't be able to stand Lyghtner's corner-cutting, lollygagging ways. The man he had in mind had even saluted him upon introduction, and not those half-assed, sarcastic waves his men gave either. He almost hadn't know how to respond. Pairing him up with Lyghtner is almost cruel - to both of them! This should be interesting…

"Lyghtner, meet your new partner Randor Clarion."

DEE

"New partner?" I splutter. I work alone. Everybody knows that. I've never had a partner…

So he's another officer, huh? Even though I acted like I didn't notice him, I was playing it up for him the whole time. I can't resist an audience, and I wanted to see his reaction. I got a widening of the eyes for my trouble, a few lines of stress around the mouth, but no smile. Hmph. No sense of humor? In my partner?

But then it got real different real fast when he shook my hand. I guess I should lay it out real easy for you. I like girls and guys. Given my position - this planet-hoppin', trigger happy, trail chasin' job, I've learned to take companionship the same as food and sleep and cigarettes - when it's available. That said, I don't think I've ever wanted someone like this, and I don't think it's just proximity.

He's… what? There should be words for a face that looks like that. I'd have to reach back and really pull for them, he deserves more than the usual everyday descriptions that get kicked around, deserves more than "hot." All those years ago, the priestess gave me words, tried to anyway. I was always running from the sound of her voice out into the street, that flashing and deadly playground. I thought the words were beautiful, but everyone said they weren't for me, wouldn't get me anywhere, street-bred as I was. I never learned to make them mine. She only really got through to me when I was too sick to roam beyond the sound of her voice, her prayers. It was the same at the Academy - I loved the bard's tales best, the romances, stories of past Keepers and the deeds they'd done.

Patrician. That's it on the nose. Like he has blood going back and back in time. But he's a Keeper, too, part of the interplanetary police force. What a mix-up. A face you'd expect to see staring out of a painting on a castle wall and a weapon that can probably punch holes through time itself; it's hard to put together. So he's probably got a pedigree. I gotta admit that that makes me bristle a little. People with any sense of a past rarely take to people like me. Years ago I might have haunted the alleys of whatever respectable street he lived on.

I lean in a little to study him. Just shy of noble, his face is all high cheekbones and a strong jaw, and all in Oriental porcelain. I'll bet he blushes pretty. Honey blond hair hangs down almost to his eyes, but not a piece is mussed, its probably styled into place. I didn't think I liked blonds. Still, for all the gold and ivory and softness, he's not feminine either, not all over. He's slim, yeah, but I'd bet on strength and speed when he's put in motion - you have to be able to hold your own in a job like this.

His clothes don't hint at much. His waist is lean, outlined by the tucked in shirt - I bet I could half circle it with my hands. I want to think that he dressed up for his first day, but something tells me he always looks like that. Collar perfectly pressed, matching tie, shined dress shoes, even! All that's just trappings though. The real touch is him. Just him.

Processing him head to foot should only take the few seconds that his warm and living skin is touching mine, but I step forward and get too damn close. Without even knowing it, he snags me with a thorn I overlooked at first glance. I never used to like to bleed.

His eyes. Damn his eyes. God, his eyes.

Lilac. Deep peach liqueur. And black. His eyebrows arch fearfully, probably at the way I'm looking at him. I wonder if he notices that I've stopped breathing. The endless, swallowing circle of his eyes takes me under. I don't even fight it. I'm done for. There's no endplace to this labyrinth I've stumbled into, it all comes back on itself, back to the colors shining on my face like light through the stained glass windows of some sacred place. Right then, as his gaze sweeps over and through me like searchlight beams, I want to lay my life down at his toes in hopes that it will be enough.

RHYOH

The Commander didn't even know I was coming in today.

"Yeah, yeah," he said when I explained my presence. "I remember reading something about a transfer - that today?" And now he has a partner picked out for me? Him?

I hear myself greeting him from somewhere far away. He seems as surprised as I am. He shakes my hand firmly, but then leans in a little until he's an uncomfortable two inches away from my face. Something about him pushes and pulls at me at once - magnetic, electrical, and overpowering - and I want very badly to look somewhere else. To be assigned somewhere else.

His eyes move over my body knowing, assessing, measuring, and my skin goes all glass slippers and plastic wrap. Then his eyes lift, and meet mine. His eyes… Did I just gasp? I hope not… His eyes, they're, well I guess most people would call them emerald, but I think that would be an insult somehow. Their color plays off of and takes something from the olive of his skin and the nightshade mess of his hair, and I find that I can't look away. The color is so startling that I find myself having to describe it, trying to understand and neutralize it by naming it, trying to undermine its power by making associations. It's moss after rain has filled the creek beds, but there's more than just the surface green. That's why emerald doesn't work. There are flecks of gold too, hidden like treasure. The green washes in and out over the cache, an ebb tide. A thesaurus thumps open in my mind: verdant on olive, olive on jade, jade on emerald, a flaring cat's eye, seaweed with a salt tang scent, a splash of kiwi, lime.

Then all of a sudden I'm flushed, blushing. Me, Randor Clarion putting words to the color of another man's eyes? But for all that rational, questioning, warning voice saying Danger - Danger - Danger - I still can't turn my own eyes away. He seems intent on riddling them out and their strange trinity of color embarrasses me as it has a thousand times before. He's looking for an answer, trying to make something of me, looking out from under those midnight locks. Except, his hair's not just black - there are purple highlights mixed in with the darkness, shocking because you don't notice them at first. His face is sharp, full of cutting angles. Even his eyebrows are pointed like crows wings suspended in a scissoring wing beat.

His consuming eyes are too lush, too full of life. He reminds me of a jungle cat crouched under a dark overhang of foliage, deceptively petable in its resemblance to the house version. There's something so predatory about him. Maybe it's in the line of his mouth, that challenging grin that promises to figure me out.

I shake my head to reengage what I know is my rational mind. Promise? Out of him? Not likely. His clothes don't even match! His shirt, rumpled, likely slept in, is the pale blue of ice, a jarring color when taken with the unruly mass of his hair, those onyx bangs jutting toward his eyes. I should cut him some slack since it sounds like he's been working all night, but he's unsettled me now.

His shirt is unbuttoned to the second button, showing his collarbone. His tie hangs loose around his neck, a too-dark blue for the shirt with a jagged white design burning through it like flame. Carried in a shoulder holster, his gun shines, deadly and obvious. Unlike some Keepers, he doesn't carry it like an accessory or a decoration - he's a handsbreath from lethal all the time. His jacket isn't standard either but the staggering colors, dandelion gold and navy blue, suit him. Still I wouldn't want someone looking like that - like my new partner - questioning a witness. How could they take him seriously?

The air I get from him is brash, cocky, confident, devil-may-care, obnoxious, and in your face. But then he smiles. And he's smiling at me gently as if to negate everything I've thought, seen, or perceived so far. He's smiling like a friend who's been waiting for me - just me - and my hand burns faintly, marked, even after he draws away.

DEE

Ha ha! I can let go! Finally! And now I gotta get outta this situation, gotta play it off. I feel like I've been swimming in those otherworldly eyes for days. It must not have lasted too long though, the Commander doesn't look anymore impatient than usual. Commander! Perfect!

"Sir, do I have to?" I see shock touch my would-be partner's face. Though he was definitely put off by the sight of me, he can't conceive of me rejecting him. "I'm no good at babysitting." Ooh, he's fun to rile. His jaw tightens under the skin, but he's holding back, holding it in. For all that I think he's wound too tight, I have to admire his restraint - I certainly don't have any. He must be one of those show-no-emotion types who like you to think they've been extracted from a glacier, veins full of mercury and sea ice.

Uh-oh, the Commander's giving me that look again, the one with daggers and shrapnel in it. "You'll be doing circuit in the interior." He thrusts the file into my hands. "I'll expect you in The Black Lands in three days. And that doesn't mean midnight of the third day either, Lyghtner."

To the newbie he says, "Keep him on the straight and narrow. Though 'straight' might be asking too much…"

Whoa, did Brushface just make a joke at the expense of my sexuality? If I wasn't so shocked at this whole new-partner thing I definitely would have threatened suit about it. Ah well. Another time.

As we walk out of the office together, him lengthening his stride so that his legs flash right along with mine, he turns those eyes on me again. "I really didn't appreciate that babysitting comment, Detective Lyghtner."

I stop right there. So there is mettle under that soft exterior - good. "Aw, sorry about that man." I sling an arm over his shoulder just to see him duck out from under it. "Any Keeper'd say it if he got a new recruit assigned to him. I was just teasing." Some of the tension disappears from him and he's answering my smile with one of his own. "And call me Dee, huh? We're partners after all." Something in me is just crowing about that. A fourteen hour shift, no break in sight, reassignment to the damn interior, and I'm still in a good mood.

"All right, Dee. You can call me Randor."

I shake my head, amused. "That's not your real name. Or you have a nickname that you prefer."

His mouth's open in a sweet little O and I try not to think of taking advantage of such an opening. "H-how did you know that?"

I shrug. "Keeper with investigation duty. I pay attention. Your voice changed when you said your name, and you barely responded to the chief saying it. So what's the other name?"

"R-Rhyoh."

"Rhyoh," I test the name out on my tongue and find that I like having it in my mouth.

"It's an odd sort of name, I know," he says, tone almost apologetic. "It's what my mom called me."

Called, not calls… Even though I want to know everything about him, I don't press yet. "Interior, huh?" I muse. "How do you want to handle that?"

"I'd like to go as soon as possible, take some time to scout out the area."

I just knew he was going to say something like that. "I'm not exactly packed and ready for that kind of trip," I admit, knowing he'll hold it against me. Keepers are supposed to always be ready for long distance assignments, but I haven't been sent out of my sector in at least three years.

"I am." There's no haughtiness in his tone, in fact, he even blushes a little at being the perfect, ready-for-anything Keeper. And it is pretty, too.

"Well you'll just have to come help me out then."

RHYOH

I couldn't help giving one of those macho guy-to-guy whistles of respect when he led me to his car. It's the embodiment of classic. Not a showpiece - it's too well-used for that, but clearly well maintained and well loved.

"The shell is from an Earth car," he explains. "A '58 Studebaker Champion."

"2158?"

He chuckles and I shrug; I never did know much about cars. "1958," he corrects. "But its been updated inside to allow for modern technology, increased speed, even air-car capabilities. It's got a real feel to it, though, not all mass-produced metal."

He drives well, though too fast and thin golden Galt cigarettes appear in his mouth as if by magic. At one point I lean over and light one for him to keep his eyes on the road. That makes him smile.

"So fill me in on this case," I say. "Have you every served in the Interior?"

"A lot of times, but not for a few years now. More often than not, there is no case, just surveillance. We're supposed to set up in the Blacklands. There's a tavern there that's supposedly acting as a front for some pretty big drug operations, maybe more. The locals say nothing of course."

"Of course. How long will the Commander have us out?"

"Brushface? Hard to say. As long as he thinks we're needed, I suppose. He's got no reason to be too eager to see me again soon."

"You don't give him much of one, either."

He gives me that to-die-for grin again: challenging, mischievous, but mostly the expression of a man happy in his own skin. "And you're worried I'll corrupt ya?"

I swat at him instinctively, hoping to derail that kind of teasing. The way he said 'corrupt' was almost… no. I'm sure he was just teasing. I'm just not used to him yet. After awhile, I notice the direction we're taking, steady east. "Are we going clear to the 'Brinth?"

He shakes his head. "No, faintheart. I live in Lingerlight. It's not many miles from the 'Brinth, but you'll be safe enough."

I frown. "I don't need you to protect me, Dee. I am a Keeper."

He smiles. "I think so too."

I sigh. It's one of the oldest jokes there is - I can't believe I just got caught in it. Cigarette firmly between his lips, he just keeps smiling.

NARRATION

Like many of the homes in the city of New Abode, Dee's dwelling borrowed from several styles of architecture. Unlike the others, it did not seamlessly fuse each style to achieve a stunning whole. Instead, it gloried in its polyglot status. Rhyoh noticed that the New Abode's custom of building up, around, and almost on top of neighboring structures had been relaxed in the case of Dee's home. The other buildings gave it a wide berth.

The bottom floor jutted out on both sides, a box on a wide base. The next floor was constructed of curving whitewood, a tree native to the planet. A balcony extended marbled blue and white glass seemed to complete things, but jutting up from it…

"Is that a light house?"

"Uh-huh," Dee confirmed. "Former owner was a fanatic. I cleared out the rest of them, but that one lets me climb up above the city and look across it." Pride and embarrassment struggled across his features and eventually he shrugged. "It's a place to sleep. C'mon."

Dee led his partner through a docking bay given over to a near-space flyer named Against Autumn.

"You have your own ship?"

"Yeah." He patted a shining silver flank. "She's old, but capable. Nothing fancy though, just for nearspace travel."

They passed a small office and followed a series of serpentine stairways. Eventually they stopped before a rolling warehouse door. Unlocking a complex door-bind, Dee pushed the door aside. Inside was a huge room with a wooden floor, covered here and there with rugs.

"Make yourself at home," Dee told the other Keeper. "Kitchen's right through there. Bathroom's there." He pointed. "Speaking of which, you don't mind if I grab a shower, do you?"

RHYOH

I'm so busy studying his environment, matching it against him, that I barely register the question. "Sure, sure. I'll be fine." He smiles gratefully and I realize that the dust on his boots, on the cuffs of his pants, has been bothering him.

"Like I said, make yourself comfortable. There's not much in the fridge, but you're welcome to anything I have." With that, he's through the door and I hear the shower spring to life.

All right, I give. I associated Dee with clutter - multiple half-filled ashtrays, laundry scattered on the floor, a stack of dirty dishes and take-out cartons… but the apartment's neat. It's also huge, but being in Lingerlight and being somewhat of an unconventional building, I doubt it's expensive. I find myself wondering what he does with his money. None of my business, to be sure, but it looks like he must bank most of it. His possessions are sturdy, mismatched and secondhand - except for a stereo. His car and ship were expensive once, but both look like they've passed through more than one pair of hands. From what I can see, he doesn't own much considering the amount of money that he makes. There are no pictures. He seems to be around my age or younger, so I'm not surprised that he's not married. A lot of Keepers never marry, but good luck telling my Aunt Elena that… She doesn't think any man whose reasonably good looking and a "good provider" should be alone on a Friday night. I send my eyes around the room again, surprised to feel a sense of loneliness. So much space for just one person - you really don't have anyone, Dee?

I slump into an oversized chair. The sound of the shower enters my mind and I find myself thinking about my new partner. Everything about him should make me hate him - his pushiness, his disrespect in the face of authority, his strange manner of teasing - but I can't. I actually want to find out more about him, which should be easy enough on this assignment since we'll be living together. Of course, I'm deathly afraid of the flipside - the things he'll want to know about me. I was never a good liar and he doesn't seem like a man you could slip a whole lot past. I don't want those eyes searching my face, that's for sure.

His face comes easy to my mind. I'm good with details (it suits my work) and I build his image slowly - the ridge of his collarbone, the line of his waist, his long legs. The strength of the image surprises me; I just met the guy after all. I'm also surprised to find myself thinking of another man in such detail, while he's in the shower! Water darkening his hair, running over his olive skin… Ack! I'm losing my mind. The strain of this new job, new apartment, new partner, assignment to the 'Brinth - it all has me rattled, that's all. The shower shuts off, interrupting my thoughts, and shortly after he reappears.

He doesn't give so much as a look to me, but pauses in front of a long mirror to inspect himself and fuss at already perfect hair. He looks much more comfortable out of his work clothes, jeans snugly belted and worn in, a soft t-shirt, and a button-up shirt over that. A heavy chain hangs around his neck, a ring suspended from it. Maybe he does have someone after all.

"Through preening?" I ask dryly.

"Almost." He flicks an invisible speck of dust off of his sleeve, winks at me in the mirror, and turns, hand extended.

I look at him questioningly, but take the offered hand. For some reason, maybe against my own better judgment, I can't help but trust him. He shakes my hand, this time with feeling. "Dee Lyghtner. I don't think the first introduction took," he explains. "I was tired and a mess and I didn't feel like myself."

"Pleased to meet you, Officer Lyghtner."

"Well I don't think you were pleased the first time. Progress, huh?"

I have to laugh. He has such a winning smile.

He surveys the room as though afraid of it. "Packing… this could get interesting."

I clap him on the shoulder, offering reassurance. "Ah, we both have guns. Nothing in here looks too frightening."

"You haven't seen the drawers, or the closets." He pretends to shudder. "Want to come along with me and watch my back?"

"I'd be glad to help." The words just fly out. I think my offer puts me in a bad position somehow… and that wicked glint in Dee's eyes isn't making me feel any safer. Surprisingly, he doesn't insinuate anything.

"Sure, I'd appreciate it. I'll go through the dressers. There's a chest you can look through. I think I threw the stuff from my last 'Brinth trip in there. Maybe there's something we can use."

We work in silence, each absorbed in his own task. He pulls out clothes, discarding some, adding others to a growing pile. I lift things out of the chest. His old Academy uniform is folded on one side, making me smile. We've got that much in common. I wonder what class he graduated with. I make a mental note to ask him about it later. We were probably there around the same time.

Soon, I've gathered together a small pile of frontier essentials. Though all of New Abode City is just that, parts of it are anything but civilized. Hopefully we'll be well supplied by the series of Waystations every Keeper's section maintains, but if luck goes against us, we'll need to be ready to provide for ourselves - even up to hunting. A book looks up at me from the bottom of the chest: LifeBonds. I lift it up and wave it at my partner.

"You believe in this stuff?"

"Magic? Sure. I've seen enough of it. Don't you?"

I shake my head emphatically. "No." I expect my firm line to offend him - it's offended others in the past - but he just grins. Suddenly, he's very close to me.

"And what if you have a bondmate out there languishing because of your lack of belief?" His eyes rake over me and I feel like he can see much more than clothing and skin. Heat rushes to fill my face.

"I'm not real worried about it."

He draws away, shaking his head. "And I took you for the romantic type."

DEE

Ah, he does blush pretty! I like it too. The rose goes nicely with all the colors of his eyes - and I've got to get a grip. He's driving me wild, and I've only known him for a few hours. And I've got to live with this guy? If this keeps up, I'll be jumping him while he sleeps! I couldn't think of anything but him in the shower (got soap in my eyes for my trouble) and having him here in the bedroom is half killing me. His eyes sure aren't shining any kind of a welcome when I get close though. They just widen in alarm, then narrow - warning me. He's on high alert all the time, though, uptight. I wonder if someone hurt him - I'd tear the bastard's eyes out for it. More than I want to lift him up and settle him on my mattress, I want him to trust me. He is my partner after all. And there's always the hope that one thing will lead to another…

Trying not to think gutter thoughts, I zip my bags and check my weapons. Satisfied, I lay them out on the bed and add more ammunition to my pack. Rhyoh reaches over and picks up one of the guns.

"This one's a companion to the gun you were wearing earlier. I've never seen anything like them. Did you modify both of them yourself?"

"Good eyes!" I praise him, surprised. "Most people don't notice the modifications. You must like guns."

He lowers his head and says quietly, "I'm a marksman." Most people would brag over that kind of accomplishment and his obvious discomfort sets off warning bells for me. Did you transfer because of an accident, maybe? That would explain the skittishness.

"Well, you sure know your weapons. I modified this one - one extra shot. I always wanted to hear 'you're out of ammunition' from some low-life, then blast them anyway."

"That's the corniest thing I've ever heard."

I smile. "Give me time - I'll top it. This one has eleven shots instead of the standard nine. It was a gift. I couldn't quite figure out how to match the design without having the gun blow up in my face." Tucking the weapons into gun boxes, I survey the room. "Looks like we're done here." We head out of the door and down to the car, each weighted down with bags. We still have to pick his up from his house as well.

We start out the door and down to the car. Halfway down the stairs the memory of his eyes clashes with the memory of him holding that damn book. Alberich's book. I almost hit my knees. It can't be. That's impossible. It can't be. But for all that, it's worth looking into just the same.

"Go on," I tell Rhyoh, my voice sounding strange in my ears. "I think I forgot something." Returning to the apartment I let myself fall apart for a moment before berating myself in the silence. "You're crazy," I tell myself. "You're making things up to justify wanting him." Right then, I promise myself that I'll find a pleasuress in the Interior. Tucking the book in my jacket I return to the car, to my partner.

RHYOH

Dee calls the Commander to let him know that we're on our way. The stress of the day hits the minute we're on the road and I sink lower into my seat with a sigh. Dee's gaze flicks to me, concerned.

"Ya okay?"

"Uh-huh. Just worn at the edges a little," I admit. It's not something I'd usually say but the concern in his voice strikes me. It's more than just a partner asking about a work acquaintance - it makes me uneasy on one level, how much he seems to care already, but I can't help but respond. "I didn't expect this kind of thing on my first assignment."

"You must be good - usually a newbie wouldn't be sent out like this."

"I'm not new to the job," I say, a little coldly. "Just new to the station."

"I know. It's still unusual. Anyway, you'll have a couple days to get rested before we need to get to work. If we get a chance, we should nose around the smaller towns."

"Isn't that funny," I muse. "How we call parts of the city towns?"

"The whole thing's a city, so sayin' 'the city' doesn't help. They're supposedly as big as Earth towns. Glassport is for sure, and Gausmoore, Icehurst."

"Did you ever wonder about their names? Why we didn't keep the alien ones?"

His eyes run over me again. "This isn't your home, huh?"

"Not originally."

"I've been here all my life. As far as I know, colonists changed the names because we couldn't pronounce the originals. Most are translations. Kariye and Fallyn are shortened versions. All of the names have to do with nature - Old Violet, Feywinter."

"What route are we using?"

"Along the Divide as far as Bluemeadows. Then we'll move into a way station." He gives me a smile. "No worries. Why don't you rest?"

I must trust him. Either that, or my new way to deal with stress is to become unconscious.

"How long did I sleep?"

"Not long enough for me to break the spell with a kiss."

That teasing again. He can't mean it… but for all the teasing in his tone, there's something in those eyes that makes me think there's more to it than a joke. He likes girls, doesn't he? He can't think I'd… I blush. I notice the radio is on faintly and I move to divert him. "What are you listening to?"

"Ah, Afterimage. It's an acquired taste. I'll turn it off if you don't like it."

"No, no. It's your car. The singer's an alien, isn't he?" No human could hit those notes.

"Yeah. The whole band, actually. They live on a ship and broadcast their music. I've always wanted to see them perform, but they only play on Rim planets. They freed some slaves, I think, so they've had trouble with Core planet governments."

I try not to let the word "slaves" bother me, but I know my distress shows.

"Here, I'll turn it off."

"No, it's not that. Just a little bit of a headache." He reaches out a hand to rest it on my head. "Dee, don't." I protest.

"Just making sure you're not fevered. No good getting sick on your first day." He looks at the clock. "Well, actually we're coming up on the second. Hey, I bet your head hurts because you're hungry. Let's stop somewhere."

"Sure. That sounds good."

NARRATION

The two men entered the restaurant with the look of friends. They were laughing, joking with one another. Rhyoh wore his partner's jacket. Dee had insisted when they'd discovered that Rhyoh's was buried under luggage. Rhyoh thought that the smell of it was appropriate to Dee - fine tobacco, brown vanilla, and a high, sharp scent like champagne.

The late hour had left the establishment mostly deserted , but the early shift waitress was all smiles, glad to have something to do. She noticed the blue-violet sweeps under Dee's eyes and made a clucking sound of sympathy. "Long night?"

"Lots of miles," he replied, soft smile all charm.

She responded instantly. "Aww, poor things! What can I get for you?"

When she had left, Rhyoh gave Dee a questioning look. "You think she's cute?"

Dee shrugged in answer. "Cute enough. Just you watch though - we won't have to wait for refills."

He laughed. "You'd turn on the charm for that? In an empty diner?"

"I could direct it at better things if you'd like." His smile was slow, possessive, and leering, and it totally disarmed to the blonde Keeper.

The food appeared as Rhyoh tried to regain ground. Seeing Dee's order, he couldn't help but chide. "You're going to die soon if you keep eating like that, you know."

Dee munched at a cheesestick appreciatively, surveying (with distaste) his partner's plain, healthy sandwich and soup combo. Ah this man is repressed. Saying nothing, he cut one of the deep-fried snacks in half and lifted it to Rhyoh's mouth. Rhyoh shook his head, but Dee insisted with his eyes. They ended up sharing the plate. I could be good for him, Dee thought. Make him live a little.

Reenergized after the meal, Rhyoh chattered away as they rode toward their destination point. It was completely unlike him - but Dee seemed to have that effect on his personality. Usually he kept him conversation strictly focused on work and other safe, neutral topics, but he found that he liked to talk to Dee. Clearly his partner didn't have the same level of education he had, or, at least, he lacked the same sense of refinement, but Dee made up for it by seeming to know a little bit about everything - and by being eager to learn new things. As the night dissolved into morning, Rhyoh noticed that his partner's answers came slower and slower.

"Hey." He rested a hand on Dee's shoulder, making him turn and blink owlishly. "You want me to take over for awhile?"

"Nah. I'll be okay. We're almost there."

"You were out all night last night, too," Rhyoh realized aloud. "I didn't even think about that. I'm sorry, Dee. That wasn't right of me."

Dee smiled faintly. "I'd have asked you to drive if I needed you too, whelp. Keep talking to me though. That'll keep me awake," Your voice… I won't drift off while I can still hear you. "Tell me anything, I don't care."

DEE

His concern is touching, but it flusters me, too. I've had so few people in this life who gave a damn about Dee Lyghnter for his own sake… but he seems to. I'm trying hard to guard myself against that, not to fall into it and end up depending too heavily upon him… but it's tempting.

I feel so vulnerable with him sitting beside me. It's nothing I'm used to - almost-fear, vulnerability. I consider myself tough, because of my upbringing (if it was one) if nothing else. The job sort of sealed it. But with him, I want to… I don't know. I must be tired. A good night's sleep, and I'll stop feeling like he's someone I need to prove myself to. He'll be just like that waitress - just cute, not soul-cutting, not twisting up my mind and making me want to drown in the soft, rolling way of speaking he has.

I fumble for a cigarette and realize my lighter is in my coat. Without me even asking, he reaches over and lights it for me, though I know he disapproves. I have to shake my head, trying not to think of what it would be like to kiss him. I'm tired.

RHYOH

I watch his head dip for a moment. His eyelashes are so long. I like the way he gets so intent around the flickering flame, the way his whole body relaxes into that first breath. Cigarettes aren't as harmful as they were in Earth-days, when they killed so many, but they still aren't good for him. I kind of like to watch him though. Admitting that, even in my mind, makes me squirm a little against the back of my seat.

I wonder why seeing him smoke makes me worry about his health. Why do I care? But he's my partner, I suppose I'm allowed to care. He seems to care for me - more than, perhaps, he should. I'm wearing his jacket, I know he's driving to let me rest (I know, even though he doesn't say so - it's not just him wanting to look tough, though I'm sure that's a part of it) , and he paid for our meal. He did it so quickly, keeping me distracted with some outrageous story, that I didn't even think to protest.

For some reason, I don't think this is typical behavior for him, either. He strikes me, above all, as a loner - and not just because he was working without a partner before I came along. I think he's used to relying on no one, with no one relying on him. But he seems happy to be with me. He gave me that first smile that stripped away all of my defenses and ever since he's been chipping away at me, teasing me, putting me on my guard, then turning it around with little kindnesses. I still can't believe I rose to the bait with that old Keeper joke… But one way or another, I'm assigned to him. I'm on this crazy ride with an unlikely partner - I may as well open my eyes and enjoy it.

DEE

"The way station should be right at the end of this road," I tell him. "We can stay there until the chief says otherwise." It hasn't been a bad drive. Most of the city traffic has been using its hover or flight abilities, so the ground has been pretty clear. I probably should have opted for flying as well, but I wanted a chance to talk to my new partner, to feel him out - to try to figure out what he's doing to me. Don't get me wrong - I understand the basic components. I know I want him. But there's more to it - and there shouldn't be. I haven't known him long enough to be feeling the way I'm feeling.

For all that the trip's been a good one, relief rushes through me at the sight of the Waystation. Shew. I didn't think I could keep this up much longer. I could have asked Rhyoh, but… Shit. Was I doing it for him? Did I mention that I think I'm losing my mind? Mother would say I don't have much to lose, so I should watch it… Oh, Rhyoh… and you don't even have a clue what you're doing to me.

The sun starts exploding over the Waystation just as we pull in. I rest my head against the steering wheel for a moment, too tired to think about unloading the car or setting up the way station. They're usually pretty primitive things, keeps them from being easily found by scanners.

Rhyoh's outside of my door, looking in, hand outstretched. "C'mon. Let's get you inside."

"I'll be allright. I can help."

"It's my turn, officer." I think it's cute how he's using my title to order me around. That never worked for anyone else… but I am tired, and his gentle sort of bullying has me settled on the couch before I even know it. Then he throws a blanket over me, preventing my escape.

"Get some rest, partner."

RHYOH

There, perfect. All of our bags are moved in. Mine are unpacked, but I didn't go through Dee's. I swept the dust out and made the beds as best I could. Way stations tend to get castoff things - donations - so nothing goes together. We'll each have a place to sleep, though; I guess that's what matters.

Dinner is cooking on the stove. I've learned that much from living alone. Most single guys tend to rely on frozen meals or whatever a computerized kitchen can produce, but I've always preferred to make my own food, even if it meant eating a lot of mistakes along the way.

My partner is sleeping like a dead thing. He's even still wearing his boots. I wanted to take them off, but they go all the way up his legs and I don't think I could get them off without waking him. He's cocooned in a blanket, more sitting than lying, feet on the floor, head thrown back. His hair has fallen into his face. He looks so young like that. His long eyelashes glitter like star points on his cheeks.

Argh! Why does he do that to me? I don't care about other men's eyes or eyelashes or anything else. I'm not like that. I want a wife and kids and… I shake my head, hard, knowing I'm overreacting big time. So I notice he's beautiful - so what? That just proves that I'm not blind. No one could deny him his looks - and from the way he acted in front of that mirror, he knows it too.

To distract myself from the odd turns my thoughts seem to take whenever I think of my partner, I turn on his alien music. His easy acceptance surprised me. Even after hundreds of years of deep space colonization (and even more years of near space exploration) a lot of people still carry prejudices and a preference for all things unquestionably human, despite the largely humanoid appearance of all the other peoples we've found.

The singer's keening cry - full of loss, longing, pain… and some sweet quality I can't quite place: redemption? Hope? - touches something in me that's been silent a long time. The cadence is the same as… as her. As mom. He's singing of stardust and ocean-flow, the city's heartbeat, the pain of isolation. The images wash over me. I see the rim of the world from a plane, the glitter of constellations, a night of winter dreams.

"I'm not one to believe in magic, but I sometimes have a second sight. I'm not one with a sense of proportion, when my heart still changes overnight," goes the chorus.

Suddenly, my partner's voice joins in. It's lower than the singer's (as any human's would be) but still sweet. "What a fool I was for you." He looks a little embarrassed when my eyes find him. Not enough to blush - his skin would hide anything but a deep blush anyway - but enough to drop his eyes. But he keeps singing. "Don't ask me, I'm just improvising my illusion of careless flight. Can't you see my temperature rising? I radiate more heat than light." The guitar solo is so beautiful that it actually makes me close my eyes for a moment. But before I do, I see him across the room, see his pulse leap in his throat. The song touches him deeply. He seemed all tough exterior at first - I'm beginning to think there's more to my partner than he lets on.

"It's one of my favorites," he says when the song is finished.

"I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't. I think his voice could call me out of a coma. How long did I sleep?"

"Not long enough for me to kiss you awake." My reply clearly startles him and I try not to chuckle. If this is the lingo he prefers, though, I'll use it too.

He searches my face before resuming the game. "Aww, you could do that anytime." The point is his this time; I can't speak again. He lifts his head, reminding me of a hunting cat. "Something smells good."

"I cooked."

DEE

Despite my couple of hour nap, I find myself yawning my compliments about the food, and my eyes barely stay open as I dry the dishes. I'd like to stay up and talk to him but as tired as I am, I don't trust myself not to say something really stupid.

"I think I'm turning in, partner," I tell him. "Thanks for taking care of everything."

"Goodnight Dee. Sleep well."

I resist the powerful urge to ruffle his hair - to touch him in any way, and take myself to my bed. I expect to fall right into dreamland, but I find myself adding up what I know about my partner.

1. He's alone. He didn't mention anyone, and no ring, but I wasn't sure until dinner. He can cook, and in my experience, that means no one's cooking for him.

2. He's a marksman, a Keeper trained to kill on command. It takes a great deal of raw talent and intensive training to become a marksman… and it doesn't seem to fit his gentle nature.

Before I can get to three, I'm wondering if he meant anything by that kissing comment. I think he was just throwing it back at me, and if he was, it's my own damn fault. I don't want to make him angry (I do have to work with the guy after all) so I cover all my comments with jokes. I'd like to see him respond to what's under the teasing, but he hasn't asked me anything about my personal life and I'm not brave enough to outright hit on him yet - though that might answer all my questions. As long as I throw it out there and then laugh I can get away with it. I can tell that I'm putting him off-balance, but he's still being plenty kind to me. I like the little nice gestures he makes - it's so different from the other guys I've worked with. He's considerate and just because I'm not doesn't mean I don't admire it.

There's a light on in the main room, creeping under my door. I'd bet anything he's dutifully reading reports from the area, making notes. We've still got a whole day between us and the field, so I'm not even thinking of working except for the fact that it was work that gave me Rhyoh. I wonder how I can exploit this last free day with him, how I can win him over. I guess it wasn't just being tired… I really do feel something for him. I hope it's just lust. That would be the simplest thing.

Long after the light in the main room goes out, my eyes remain open. My body feels uncomfortable and I keep bumping up against the wall. His bed is just on the other side of it, just a few feet from mine.

RHYOH

The water surges, pink and white around the red stones. They've dumped their latest kill here in the water - a man who could have, maybe, told me something about that night 8 years ago. Now he's dead and they mean to have me join him. I see my fate in the water. The water drowns out their words but I know what they're saying, "Half-breed, alien," it's enough for them to sentence me to death - my Keeper's uniform just seals the deal. The muscles in my throat draw tight, holding back screams. I don't want to give them that.

None of the other Keepers know I'm here. I left my partner sleeping at guard duty, left no note. My supervisor will be furious… What a stupid thought, but there it is. I followed the leads on my own time, tracked them here to make an end of it. They took my family - I thought I could kill them. But my informant is floating in the river; I don't even know if these are the right guys. And I'm going to die here. The bullets rip holes in my uniform, send me sliding into a spiral of acid-green fireworks and flame. The water tastes like blood, like death…

"Rhyoh."

Who told them my name?

"Rhyoh, wake up."

"Huh?" I flail, coming out of the dream, the memory. The room is dark, moonlight coming in through a window I don't remember leaving open. Seeing me shiver, he moves to shut it and the tobacco smell of him mingles with the night air.

He sits on the bed's edge. "Bad dream?"

I say nothing. I feel like crying, having given away so much, having shown so quickly how weak I am. What must he think of me now? He reaches a hand behind my back, supporting me, anchoring me. He murmurs something into my hair, something soothing, snatches of an old lullaby.

"Whatever it is, it can't reach you here. You're safe."

DEE

Once his even breathing tells me he's asleep, I cross the wooden floor to stand in the main room. Moonlight floods in through the many windows until I'm overwhelmed with silver, white, and lilac shining. I wouldn't have done it for anyone else. I would have left them to thrash and cry, pulled a pillow over my head and told myself that it was their problem. What's he doing to me? Still, I'm glad for the sight of him in the moonlight, for the way he let my arms come around him - too tired to care, I'd guess, too disoriented. Maybe he'll let me hold him again sometime. That sends me to bed with a smile.

RHYOH

I've already been up, washed, and eaten by the time Dee appears. At first, he seems completely bewildered, a state only emphasized by the wild, dark mess of his hair, his rumpled sleep clothes pulled every-which angle on his body. A slight twinge of regret touches me; he didn't sleep well either, and that's probably my fault. Head-cocked, he studies me for a moment, blinking slowly as he comes awake. Then a smile half-splits his face.

"Couldn't remember where I was," he admits sheepishly. I motion for him to come eat and he eyes the table appreciatively. "I could get used to this. Do you always cook?"

"For myself, sure. Cooking for two isn't much harder than cooking for one. We do need supplies though."

"We'll take care of that today," he says, loading his plate. "If it's all right with you, there's a couple of places up in Bluemeadows that I'd like to check out."

"Sure, I'd like that. I talked to the Commander today and he said not to show our uniforms while we're on the case. That surprised me."

"Hmm." Dee looks thoughtful a moment. "I hope no one tipped off the locals. That could make it difficult to get a look around."

"He emphasized just looking, too. Said we're not to try to bring anyone in - just gather information so a larger group can."

"No problem. I won't regret not putting binders on goons three times the size of me, thanks."

We lapse into companionable morning silence, but I can't stop thinking about the night before. "Hey, uh, about last night," I begin.

"Don't worry about it."

Whoa. Really? I expected questions. He smiles over the rim of his cup as if to say that he knew just what I was expecting, and delights in not giving it to me.

"It's a tough job. The things we see - they're enough to give anybody nightmares." He pats me on the back as he makes his way to the sink to start dishes - a role he's assumed both times I've cooked. "Of course," he says, not looking at me. "If you need someone to come sleep with you - I'm good at keeping mental goblins at bay."

And just like that I'm speechless again.

DEE

I like getting a rise out of him. I do. It's fun. But I wish I could read him better, could tell what he really thinks. The morning light is kind to him. My gutter mind thinks that it'd be even kinder if I threw him over that table for some patented, guaranteed-to-satisfy Dee loving. Better than coffee.

RHYOH

He's looking at me like that again. Like that fierce light in his eyes is simply going to burn my clothes right off. I just can't look at him when he does that. Something in his gaze sends me into hiding, makes me avert my eyes until his attention turns. When I finally look back to him he's drying dishes and the light is gone. That should comfort me but I see a flicker of something cross his face - pain? When he sees me looking he tries to smile to chase it away, but the smile doesn't quite touch his eyes. For a minute I think that I may not be the only one carrying old wounds - but then he's joking, smiling, smoking, like he's never heard of pain.

By early afternoon we're in the town on Bluemeadows, sight-seeing. I try to tell myself to look around, to file information away for later, but the sky's too blue, the wind too fresh. Everything's all in carnival colors and Dee leads me from interesting shop to interesting shop as if he's lived in this part of the city all his life. Engrossed in a collection of Oriental art (I think it might actually be from Earth) I don't notice when he disappears. I catch up to him just as he's paying for a large collection of bootlegged music from his favorite band.

I creep up to him quietly before asking softly, "Isn't that all kinds of illegal, officer?"

My voice startles him, but he's smiling when he turns. "So are a lot of things that people do all the time. Unless," he extends his hands, "You want to arrest me?"

Somehow I've gotten too close to him again, and his breath is warm on my neck. Right in the doorway of a public shop, in a busy open market, he's close enough to kiss me. "You could at least try to be a little sneaky about it," I reprimand him, my voice shaking a little at his nearness.

"I'm an honest person."

I swallow hard, afraid of what he'll say next. "I know you are, Dee. C'mon, let's get supplies."

DEE

Something just happened between us in there. I wasn't even touching him, but I felt his temperature spike, felt his heart go racing into his mouth. Is he afraid of me? Does he want me? I'm so confused… and he's halfway down the street, looking at food vendors. I sigh and hurry to catch up.

Within a few hours we have the car loaded up with everything we'll need to survive - and a few extras, all mine. The bootlegs I had to have, even if he disapproved - they're stuff is just so hard to find, then there's the cigarettes and the junk food… and him rolling those pretty eyes every time. I'd like to see them roll for an entirely different reason… but I'm batting a thousand. I don't think I've done one thing to get him to smile all day. Of course, I have been laying it on kinda thick with the "teasing" but he looks so good… he's even cute when he's angry, and anger seems to be something I can produce in him pretty easily. Then it comes to me. Alberich took me to do it once and even if it's a childish sort of thing, it still might bring a smile.

"Come with me, I wanna show you something."
Uh-oh. A very mistrustful look.

"It's nice, I swear."

He follows me, reluctantly, to the edge of town. Most of the market has closed down 'til evening. The sellers will sleep through the heat of the day, then this strip will become carnival-lighted for night-selling. That's when the drug sales happen, when pleasure girls and boys wave from the sidelines, promising a good time. Now it's just dust on the glittering pavement, bits of wrappers and ribbons.

"Dee, where are we going?"

"Hold your horses," I tell him, trying to remember the way. "We're almost there." A few moments later, we're at the edge of the well, shaded by its heavy white-wood cover. His eyebrows are up in points, questioning without saying anything. I place a silver coin in his hand - something else I found in the market. He works it through his fingers, studying it - the dead, young president on one side, the warlike eagle on the other.

"Earth money?" he asks at last.

"Uh-huh. For an Earth tradition." I tug him over to the well's edge, our reflections appearing side by side in the water. "Toss it in and make a wish."

Together we watch the coin sink under the water and he does smile.

"The aliens here say that the first thing you see in your mind after wishing is supposed to be your destiny. What did you see?"

RHYOH

"Ice cream." The words just dart out of my mouth. I haven't had ice cream for years. He makes me want sweet things, things I wouldn't normally want - things that taste so good because the whole time you're eating them you know you shouldn't be.

"I think we can handle that," he says.

He knows I'm lying, I'm sure of it. I don't know how he knows, but he does. The first thing I saw in my mind was his face… and I don't know why. Bringing spoonfuls of lime-vanilla ice cream to my lips, burning sweet and citrus, I still just don't know.

DEE

"Dee, you can't keep paying for things," he says as I spill snacks into his arms and tug him toward the show. I can't believe my luck, getting him to agree to go at all. He seems like the all-work-and-no-play type to me, but I asked as nicely as I could and here he is, enjoying the night beside me.

His eyes widen as the water stretches out before us - silver fading into violet, then deeper blue. The colors remind me of the colors in his eyes, how they all work together to leave you choking on your own breath.

"What is this place?" I hear him ask at my shoulder as I draw a small boat onto the shore. It costs extra for a motorized boat and I'm confident in my rowing abilities. Either way, we aren't paddling out that far.

"Liquid-Cinema. You've never been to one?" I ask, holding the boat steady until he's seated. The mist hovers in thick clouds above the water, distorting the lights coming from distant view screens. His hair is silver in the near-darkness.

"No."

"They don't do well in the pricier parts of the city - plus you need a lake, which the larger towns are all about draining. The projection interacts with the surface of the water so that it looks like the movie's walking right down to you. It's neat, and cheap, too."

We're moving in time with each other to paddle the canoe and I'm surprised (and pleased) at how this small task shows how well we work together. No words are needed as we quietly find our shared rhythm and he grins at me, once, from under his long bangs. That small smile takes all tension from him, softens everything about him, and I find myself wanting to just hug him, to tell him how curiously glad I am to have him around.

Before I can find the right words (or maybe the completely wrong ones), the canoe nudges up against our "seats." I've heard them called lots of different things, but "lily-pads" is probably the most popular name for them. I tie the boat off to one of the metal legs of the pad as Rhyoh climbs up. Within a few minutes the string of advertisements, terrible music, and previews is replaced by the show. The lights surrounding the lake drop and the screen casts its light on our faces. I relax against the pad and wait for him to join me.

RHYOH

He's laying close to me - almost close enough for me to put some distance between us. I can feel the warmth of his skin and I almost want to lean into it. The night air is cool coming off the water; the mist brushes against my face like gentle hands. I know without looking that he's watching me more than the movie. Part of me is unnerved. I just can't figure him out. He said that girl was cute… does that mean he likes girls? But the way he looks at me… I just don't know.

It doesn't matter. Even if he does like me… even if he says something, all I have to do is tell him I'm not interested. Which would be a hell of a lot easier if there wasn't this other part of me that… the part I never, never acknowledge… this other part that feels… curious? Flattered? I like how he seems caught, how the movie only draws his eyes away for a few moments before they return to trace over me. Shit. These feelings… they aren't right, aren't normal, but as much as I shove back against them, they're still there. Something about Dee just pulls me to him. I turn back to the movie.

Luridia - the title made me suspicious at first. I'd never heard of it, but it's neat. The main character, Adlien, is a soldier helping to colonize a planet. That's how the Keepers got started - they followed the colonists and set up courts to keep order between humans and aliens. In time, we became the main interplanetary law force in the universe.

Anyway, Adlien calls up this brothel asking for a girl. An associate of his opened the pleasure house and then made fun of Adlien, said he'd never call, said he'd never been with anyone. Instead of a girl, he receives a beautiful silver-haired young man. My eyes flick to Dee at this point - increasingly suspicious - (is he trying to tell me something?) but he's engrossed in the action, oblivious to my stare. Adlien calls the proprietor, and the man just laughs. Turns out that Adlien's mind controls the shape the alien (Kagnimir) takes. It's a man he wants, no matter what he tells the brothel owner.

"Had you heard of this movie before?" I ask Dee, suspecting ulterior motives as two male mouths kiss. I'm not bigoted, but I can't help feeling a little uncomfortable… What if that's what Dee wants from me?

"Huh-uh. I just opted for the first thing that didn't have an X rating. The private seats lend themselves to certain practices." He waggles an eyebrow at me suggestively and I'm blushing furiously - and furious at myself for it, furious at him for being able to make me color so easily.

I can see why people would want to make love here. The mingled light of the movie and the three moons is beautiful and the mesh of the seats is suspended just above the lake. Dee is laying on his back, his feet dangling in, boots off to the side. The motions of the water would get caught up in the motions of what you were doing…the thought surprises me. It's been a long time, though…

Dee turns over on his stomach, head beside mine, and offers me a chocolate covered almond. I know I shouldn't lean forward and take it from his fingers with my mouth… but the movie and the moon have gotten into my blood. I keep my eyes on the screen like I don't even notice him and let my head dip forward. My lips graze his fingers and he shivers. (I like that I can do that to him, and the thrill of it dulls the shame I feel.)

At the movie's end I ask, "Do you think the jury let him off?" The movie was open-ended: the soldier released the alien (at his request) by killing him, crying the entire time. The alien didn't want to be trapped in the forms of other people's desires, so Adlien let him go.

"It doesn't matter," Dee answers. "He lost what he loved the most. There's no greater punishment than that."

NARRATION

Rhyoh groaned as his wristband summoned him awake. The early hour didn't send him cart wheeling for joy, but the reason he woke up angry had nothing to do with the time… and everything to do with his partner. He knew, at this point, that Dee wanted him and he theorized that Dee would do just about anything to get into his pants. He wasn't someone to give up on a goal once he'd decided on it. And still he'd have to dress, don his weapons, and face him. Even after last night…

They'd been sitting together on the stoop of the Waystation, quiet and worn after the movie. Dee blew smoke rings at the moon-wracked sky and it seemed to Rhyoh that the light and the smoke made up a sort of personal alphabet, a nearly decipherable poem written on the air in moon-letters. He'd been grateful to his partner for the gift of the movie, for the unusual sense of peace he felt in his presence. But then Dee had spoiled it, leaning forward to touch his lips to Rhyoh's cheek.

"Dee! I'm, I'm not… like that."

Rhyoh thought he saw hurt blossom in his eyes, but it only lasted a second and he couldn't be sure. Then he gave his copyrighted smirk. "Neither am I."

"Huh?"

"I'm assuming that by 'like that' you mean gay. I'm not. I'm bi."

Rhyoh stared, incredulous. Does he think that makes it better? Dee's words had shaken him; he was astounded by how open, brazen, and fearless his partner was about announcing his sexual preference, so unlike him. Dee had reached over, lifted his chin up.

"Hey, it was just a kiss. You won't die from it."

And then he'd walked inside, leaving Rhyoh with the feel of his lips on his face. Sighing, he pulled his shirt on and decided to handle the situation the same way he handled most unsatisfactory ones - by ignoring it. After all, he couldn't help what Dee wanted; it wasn't his fault. He was a Keeper, damn it, and Keepers did their jobs no matter what. Dee would feel the same. He left his room sure that they'd have no problems.

DEE

It's easy enough to get into the Curved Horn… and anything easy makes me decidedly uneasy where criminals are concerned. We didn't even have to flash our fake Ids and here we are at a table. Rhyoh looks high-strung, his face too high-class for the atmosphere, but he sure looks good in his stepping-out clothes. I'd tell him so, but after last night…

He wasn't angry or rude, just shut me down pretty as you please. I hope he doesn't think that's the end of it. No one else has him, I don't see why I shouldn't try to win him over. And he can say all he wants about not being bi or gay or whatever, but when he took that piece of candy from my hand… uhmmm, he was sexy. And he knew it, too, knew what he was doing to me. Plus, there's lots of other little signs that put him slightly (stereotypically) outside the hetero camp. He's insatiably neat, for one. His appearance is impeccable. He can cook. Like I said, they're little things and I'm stereotyping for sure… but the vibe I get from him is not unquestionably 100 straight. Polite or not, last night's behavior was enough to earn me an aching jaw, but his eyes were more afraid than angry… I wish I knew what that meant, or that I could put him out of my head.

The darkness of the bar has a strange quality to it, it seems to get into your clothes. The whole place marks you, leaves a clinging residue. I turn to my partner. "There's drugs in the air - smell it?"

"Well we knew that, from the reports. Or I did, anyway. Did you even read them?"

Ouch. "I read enough. So why hasn't anyone been able to shut the place down?"

"Anytime local forces went after it, they disappeared."

I snort. "Or were bought off. Well on to us, then. At least we can prove the drugs easy enough - they're probably in our clothes. I'll bet it's in my damn hair. "

RHYOH

I clench my fingers around the drink I'm not drinking. I scanned it - it's clean, but I don't think it's professional to drink on the job. Another rule that apparently doesn't apply to my partner. Listen to him, worrying about his hair as if we don't have much bigger things to tackle. Ah, there he is - the owner: Byron Amerastes.

"There's our guy," I tell my partner. I hope he at least looked at that part of the reports.

He nods. "Think you can get a read on 'im?"

I'm looking at Am out of the corner of my eye; unfortunately, he's looking straight at us. "Not with him paying us special attention. Think he knows?"

"Nah. He knows we're new faces, but he's just cataloguing us, wondering how we get our kicks, if we're good for business. I'll distract him - you get the read."

He throws back the rest of his glass and gets to his feet. I'm sure he's about to do something dangerous and stupid. "Dee!"

He ignores me and struts onto the sparsely populated dance floor as if he owns the joint. Choosing a partner who looks like an ex-pleasuress, he proceeds to draw every eye to him, swaying like sin in black leather. He's so unfettered, and again I think that he's the only person I've met whose happy in his own skin. The colored lights make love in the purple highlights of his hair as he practically makes love to the woman in his arms. I nearly forget to get the read.

He returns to me with a faint glaze of sweat on his face and the remnants of a smile. "Whew. I could almost like this place. Didja get anything?"

"Shielded."

"Damn. He must be our guy though - only the big shots can afford shielding against scanner tech… and they're the only ones with something to hide. We'll have to try to follow him, get photos. How old-fashioned."

I look over at our suspect. Amerastes is tall and thin with an aura of decay around him. It looks like something has drawn the flesh from his bones and even his immaculate suit only serves to make him look like a caricature of the Grim Reaper. Half-reading my mind, Dee asks, "You ever notice that these guys look like they took one too many whacks with an ugly stick?"

"Yeah, but they always have a pretty girl in tow." Amerastes is no different; an elegant blond hangs on one arm like a piece of jewelry - you just expecte to see her there.

"Pretty slave, more like," Dee corrects. "Or an addict. Sex for drugs isn't such an unusual transaction."

"Slave?" I don't think my voice trembled, but I can't be sure.

"Yeah, they think he has a side business dealing in pleasure slavery - but no one's proved it yet."

"It wasn't in the reports." My voice is slightly indignant - I can't help it.

"Nah, there's no confirmation. But it's been said. I wouldn't be surprised if he's running it out of here. There's no way to tell how big this place is, if it goes underground. Did you try scanning it?"

"Yeah. There are defractors or scramblers in the walls - I can't get any kind of accurate measurements."

DEE

Before we can make any other kind of plans, an insistent hand tangles itself in the chain around my throat. The metal snaps and the thief darts away.

"Get him, Rhyoh! It's all you!" Shit, I shouldn't have used his real name… but I have to have that ring.

Taking the same exit as the thief and my partner, I find them in an alley outside. Rhyoh tosses my ring to me - it lands perfectly in the center of my palm. The thief - no, the kid, - is shuffling his feet, staring into the dirt. It's obvious at first glance that he's full-alien - his eyes are a little too large for a human face, his features are a little too sculptured. Beneath a backward baseball cap, his hair is platinum - striking against his coffee colored skin. When he looks up at me for a minute - glaring - I see that his eyes are a fierce, glittering blue - glass-hard.

"Why'd you do that, kid?" I ask him, voice cold. "You had to know you'd get caught."

"Hmmmph."

Before we can ask anything else, Amerastes is behind us in the alley. His voice cuts across the night like a switchblade - full with the sound of warning. "Gentlemen, are you having trouble with the help?"

Rhyoh stands slightly between the criminal and the kid. "Everything's settled now, sir."

"Good. Baikol is needed back at his duties. Baikol?" The kid has to much pride to slink forward - though that voice would have made me want to do as much. He struts back into the bar accompanied by two of Ameraste's thugs, head held high in a show of bravado that makes me almost smile as my hand came to the cut on my neck where the chain dragged.

Amerastes herds us back inside like lost sheep. "Can I get you gentlemen something to drink on the house? Young workers can be so troublesome…"

RHYOH

We're back at our table again, and this time I am drinking, frustrated. Am got too good a look at us, at our faces. He'd recognize us again for sure. My partner looks like he wants to throw out his drink and chew the glass; his face is a thundercloud.

"Damn kid. He's got us marked now, and he knows we aren't locals."

"Don't go too hard on him," I say. What if he's Am's slave?" Slavery in itself is bad enough, it almost rips my heart out to think that it's done to kids.

"Nothing we can do about it now. C'mon, let's get out of here. I can't think with his eyes ripping my skin off and his goons just itching to bury us in a ditch."

We make it back to the Way station without mishap, but we're both feeling uneasy. Dee hides it better than me, but he's got to be on his 50th cigarette.

"He was looking for someone tonight," I confide my suspicions. "He knew someone was coming."

Dee nods his agreement. "Someone tipped him off. Call the Commander and let him know he's got a leak - or spies."

"You think Am could infiltrate the Keepers?"

"Sure thing. He has his own secret police. Not one for every Keeper, and certainly not as well trained, but they're there. And a thug with a gun is dangerous enough without training."

I notice the cut on his neck. "You're bleeding, Dee."

"Hmm?"

"Your neck, where the kid ripped off the chain." His fingers reach up and suddenly the wound seems to… diminish. I look again.

"It's not as bad as it seems."

"O-oh. It seemed worse…" Did something just happen? No. My eyes are just playing tricks on me.

He rubs his finger back across the small cut. "Rhyoh, that kid, when he stole the necklace… he knew who we were."

"What?" Dee's voice is measured and serious, but I can't help thinking he's jumping at shadows. "Dee, he had no way of,"

"I'd put money on it, Rhyoh. He knew we were Keepers. Think about it - if Am knew to watch for us and the kid belongs to Am, he might know too."

"I don't know, Dee…"

"He knew. And I think he was trying to tell us something."

"We can stake out the place tomorrow, Dee," I tell him, not liking the dark glitter in his eyes. He nods and I take it as agreement and we both go our separate ways to prepare for sleep.

DEE

The book lays open on my knee, and the youngest moon is riding high in the sky. Out of the corner of my eye, I notice how bad my hands are shaking.

"The bond between two lives or souls is influenced by the individual personalities of those it affects. However, common indicators shared among couples affected by a lifebond include: low level telepathy or sharing of mental images, extensive empathy regardless of the length of time of association, impressive teamwork or joint effort, a shared feeling of safety, wholeness, or peace when in each other's company, an overwhelming physical attraction or desire regardless of true physical appearance or past desires or types, and a need to protect the other partner.

Unfortunately, the lifebond cannot be secured (answered, completed) until both partners acknowledge it. A failure to do so can result in depression, sickness, exhaustion - even suicide. However, some partners never acknowledge the bond and live out their lives in absence of each other. Though both partners of a failed bond may be capable of entering into other relationships, they will never gain the wholeness they would have experienced together. The intensity of the bond can result in either great and abiding love, or terrible wounds."

I gulp, once. He does make me feel safe and whole - he has the most soothing presence I'd ever encountered. We work well together, I do want to protect him… and don't even get me started on the "attraction" part. I was planning to go back to the Curved Horn, bond or not… but this would definitely be a way to test it. If he is my soul mate, he'll know where I've gone and he'll come for me… and if he isn't I might end up with a body full or lead or laser-poison and a soul set loose to wander the winds. I touch the ring hanging at my neck. I've got to go. I've got to find out what the kid wanted. I wish the book could be right and that Ryoh could belong to me, but as of right this minute he's my short-association partner, and I've got work to do. No sense getting a rookie killed on his first assignment.

I leave him sleeping and start back toward the Curved Horn.

This has to be one of the most disgusting tricks I've ever pulled… but I've got to know, and I can't think of any other way to get to the kid.

"Surely a place like this, a place known all over the galaxy must have a boy like that," I plead with the harem keeper. Looking and listening got me as far as the pleasure slave part of Am's operation… but now I need to make sure they bring me the right kid. I work hard to keep myself from shuddering. "C'mon, mister. I've been in space a long time." I add more money to the pile already on the counter, hoping the station will reimburse me if I get anything good.

The money talks sweeter than I do, and the "entertainments manager," as his nametag identifies him, begins to crack. "W-well… we do have a boy like that, sir… he doesn't usually do this type of work though…"

"So he'll be a little rough? Have some fight to 'im? That's even better!" I declare with a bravado I don't feel.

The manager smiles; he probably gets his kicks from knowing his customers' perversions, probably feeds off of them and thinks he's a better person. "Well if that's how you feel about it, sir… right this way."

I'm escorted to a room mostly overtaken by a large bed. It takes me ten minutes to scan it, then five more to disable all the listening devices and cameras stashed throughout. So Am's doing a double business here, too - selling sex to customers, then taping it to sell to other customers. Eww. I sit and wait and soon the kid is shoved in from the other side of the wall.

Baikol blinks sleepily at me a few times, then horror overtakes his face. "You! You freaking dirty perv!"

I advance toward him slowly, trying not to roll my eyes. Then I dart towards him in one motion and cover his mouth with my hand. He struggles, trying to bite. "Shut up, you monkey-faced brat!" I say unkindly. I don't have time to finesse him - I need trust and cooperation, and I need them yesterday. "I don't want to sleep with you. I want to know why you tried to get my attention at the bar. Why'd you steal the ring, kid?" When his eyes show me that he won't scream, I uncover his mouth and back away.

He swipes his hand across his mouth, then along his pants defiantly, still playing the tough guy. "It seemed important to you."

"It is," I tell him. "And why would you have wanted my attention?"

"You're a Keeper."

I nod, pleased, and try to offer a reassuring smile. It'd be more reassuring if I wasn't in the fortress of a goon who would no doubt delight in turning me into remains and then escorting those remains to a dump or a river. "Right. Now tell me what the hell's going on here."

As Baikol begins to detail the slave deals and drug operations conducted out of the Curved Horn, fire suddenly engulfs my leg. I didn't even here the shot. Baikol, for all the toughness he pretends, is petrified, eyes as white and round as dinner plates. I try to get up, to show him I'm okay, but the fire is working its way up my hip, into my groin. Fucking lasers.

"Keep quiet, seeker," says one of Am's men, obviously one of the higher ups - his voice shows that he has a brain. That, and he called me by the old title - seeker instead of detective. It's what the aliens called the original Keepers that did investigative work among them. Revived the Who song and everything. Two of Am's other goons drag me to my feet and divest me of my weapons, and the smart one leans in close. "You'll feel worse sooner than better - and after Am knows what you know, I'd guess you'll feel nothing at all, ever again. You should have minded your own business, seeker."

"Space trash like you and your boss, who get rich off of kiddie porn are my business, cocksucker." Foul language just leaps to my tongue whenever I'm confronted with those who deserve it. That, and I'm in serious pain.

"Lock him up," the smart one says.

"The kid too?" asks another goon.

"The kid too. He isn't worth that much, but I'd say Am will want to get his money out of him before killing him."

Within moments, we're locked in some featureless room - though his goons had to drag me most of the way with my leg torn up as it is. The way they took us, I couldn't even tell if we went up or down. This could be an attic, a basement… who knows? Whatever and wherever it is, it carries a coppery smell that makes me think of blood. People have died here.

"So you're a slave?" I ask the kid.

He shuffles a foot against the floor, eyes averted. "Yeah. Mom dumped my sister and me with dad - who got himself killed running drugs before he could pay off his debt, so it passed to us."

"Kid, I'll do my best to get you and your sister out of here."

"She's dead, you asshole. I thought you'd be an easy out. Are all Keepers so stupid?"

Before I can protest, one of Am's goons comes through the door, eyes focused on Baikol. "Boss says I'm to teach you about loyalty, boy. I can't kill you, but you won't be walking for awhile." His voice announces that he takes sinister joy in threatening someone a third of his size.

I stand, shakily, and put myself in between the thug and the child, missing my beautiful guns heartily. "Back off."

The thug grunts - his natural form of communication, I'd guess - and advances on me. My injured leg keeps me from dancing away from him, from using my lighter weight and speed to my advantage. Within a few seconds, he's got my arm in his hands - and the bones shatter under his mammoth grip. But he leaves without hurting the kid.

Baikol kneels beside the place where I've sank to the floor; it's been a long time since I felt real pain. I'm just barely suppressing my gift, unwilling to give into its lure, wanting to learn whatever the pain has to teach me. That, and I don't have time to slip into a healer's trance. "Dude, are you okay?"

I hold up the mangled arm. "You mean this? Sure. I've had worse." I extend my right hand using the arm that's whole. "Dee Lyghtner, senior Keeper."

"You're doing a bang-up job."

I frown, trying not to let a kid challenge my ego. "What's your name, kid? I know a stint with Am would ruin anyone's manners."

He takes my hand grudgingly, unwilling to grant easy respect. "Baikol."

"I'm sorry about your sister, kid."

He nods, once. "She kept the worst of it away from me. I found out about… what she had to do, what they made her do… after she died. She kept journals."

"You have those journals?"

"Yeah."

"So you've seen all the inside shit. Would you be willing to testify against Am if we can bring him in?"

"In a heartbeat, but in case you didn't notice, he's gonna kill us."

"My partner's still out there," I say with more confidence then I probably should have. Will Rhyoh find us? Will he call for back-up? Will he hate me for going off without him? I don't even like kids… but the way this one put everything on the line in front of his boss, the way he went for the one thing of value I carry on my body - shit, maybe he reminded me of myself.

"Your partner?" the kid repeats. "The other Keeper? He didn't look like that good of a bet," he says, "Too oblivious."

He's good at reading people, anyway. Rhyoh does have sort of an airhead streak about him… I sigh and rest my head on my arm. "Ain't that right…"

His next words cut right through me. "Not responding to your advances, huh?"

The words fly out of my mouth, more air than sound. "How in the hell…? You're just a kid." Just like that, my whole hand on the table.

"I could tell," he says, cocky, full of himself. "The way you were looking at him. He didn't notice that either. He was nice in the alley, nicer than you. You probably don't deserve him."

I resist the urge to growl at the kid, still stunned that he could see the way I feel for Rhyoh. I've never felt that way about anyone else, never opened up to anyone else so easily, almost against my own will. "What makes you say that?"

"He's not a dirty perv like you."

Pain shoots up my leg, accenting the fire in my arm. "You're so not worth this!" I declare, for lack of a better retort.

RHYOH

"Dee?" I ask into the empty Way station, knowing even as his name leaves my lips that he's not here. The silence is too perfect. And I can… feel… his absence as strongly as I could feel his presence.

"Fuck!" Suddenly, I know exactly where he is. I know just what he's done. And for a moment it seems like I can see him in a plain room… hurt, his arm bent at an unnatural angle… I shake my head and shake the vision at the same time, and hurry to get my weapons.

DEE

I hear the kid's voice over my shoulder. "What are you doing, weirdo?" I'm kneeling, eyes closed, hands to my temples. If it is a lifebond, there's a chance that he can hear me, can find me.

"I'm trying to talk to my partner."

He peers at me intently, trying to see something happening. "What are you? A magic user or something?"

Damn, the kid's perceptive. "A minor one." I look over my shoulder at him. "But I'd appreciate you keeping that to yourself."

"Dude! Magic us out of here!"

I half-smiled and shake my head. "It's not that kind of magic. I'm doing my best."

RHYOH

An alien girl is sitting on the hood of a hover craft just beyond where I ditch the bike I took from the station. She waves at me and I find myself gawking at her cotton-candy pink hair. As I get closer, I notice she has golden eyes. She's an alien. She looks up at me with a woman's smile on a child's face.

"Looking for your partner?"

I gape, then look around, wondering if I'm being set up. She just smiles prettily and bats her eyelashes. "You heard me," she says after a moment. "You're the other Keeper. Am knew you were coming - he had the local law in his pocket and he knew when they called for you. He said he wasn't going to let a couple of city Keepers shut him down."

"Who are you?" I get out, after a moment. I'm thinking: whose side are you on?

She extends a delicate hand and I smell new roses. "Callista Baker. Am owned my mother. When she died, he forced me to finish off her debt."

Her eyes are old in her young face; it sickens me to imagine what she's seen, what she's been forced to do. "If you'll help me, I can protect you from him."

"What do you think I'm sitting here for? C'mon."

I can't believe I'm following this pink-haired girl. Her jeans are scuffed, tom-boyish, but her silk blouse and the scarf around her throat emanate femininity. She's a blend of street wisdom and high-rise beauty and I pray she isn't leading me into a trap.

Please Dee, be alive. Please.

I see him in my mind's eye - staring at me at our first meeting, dancing like he was at the club, I see his face leaning in to give me that kiss. His eyes were closed when he did it. At the time I thought it was nervousness, but maybe it was sincerity instead. Damn him. I don't know why he's imprinted himself so strongly on my mind, but I want the chance to figure it out. I need to find him alive.

As we head toward the club, I look to Callista for reassurance. "We can't just walk in the front door!"

"Sure we can. Watch." She flounces up to security, all sunshine and smiles. "Customer, boys." She says sweetly. "You'll clear us, won't you? He's only got the money for an hour and he doesn't want to waste any of it." The guards laugh and one gives me a conspiratorial wink.

"Sure thing, Cal," he says. "Enjoy yourself."

She leads me through passageways which are invisible from the outside, carved into the walls. "Where are we going?"

"Your partner's being held here - I heard it from one of the other girls. They won't kill him outright - they'll want information first. We need to come up with a plan. Can you get other Keepers here?"

"Sure, I can call them on my wristband… but I don't want them to know what's happened to Dee." It could ruin his whole career. He went off alone, exposed himself to a suspect, got captured… An idea dons on me. "Callista - do you know the exits out of this place?"

"Sure. Am makes sure all his girls know his hidey-holes for when he calls us - or for when we need to get away from an aggressive customer."

"Could you detail those exits to me? I can get backup here in an hour if I promise them they'll take down Am. He's here, isn't he?"

"You can bet on that. He'll want to be there to question your partner."

I try not to think of what they might do to Dee. Keepers are trained to weather and withstand all kinds of torture, but it's training we hope never to have to use. "All right, tell me all the ways out of this place."

"Am will still have all his goons, all his guns. Your Keepers won't have an easy time getting him in his own hole."

I nod. I don't want a bloodbath -- I'm just worried about Dee. "Callista, the night market in BlueMeadows, they deal in weapons, don't they?"
"Sure, but a few more weapons aren't going to tip the odds." She's looking at me strangely, head tilted to the side, clearly thinking I'm crazy.

"What about explosives? We could create a diversion inside, make it harder for them to get to their guns. An explosion would send them running for the exits, right into the hands of the Keepers."

She smiles. "I'll draw you a map, then I'll go to BlueMeadows. You wait here and call your Keepers, then try to get to your friend. I'll show you where the holding rooms are."
"Can you drive? Can you get there in time?"

She waves her hand and disappears, then reappears behind me. "I'm a magic user. I'll get there in time - and I can get the explosives in unseen."

I blink, gaping. "If you can do that, why haven't you escaped from here long ago?"

"Am has the only things I have from my parents. He keeps them heavily guarded. I won't leave without them."

She kneels down beside me, and begins to outline Am's hideout.

I'm forever in debt to a pink-haired girl who can disappear. I've never been the praying kind, but I'm wishing hard for her safety as I head towards the holding area, Dee's guns beside mine at my waist. Callista charmed her way past a guard to get them, then set out toward BlueMeadows, vanishing. I felt completely insane as I called my Commander and spoke of unprecedented developments in the case. I told him that we had evidence that Am was planning to move his operation suddenly, that we'd lose him if we didn't take him soon. He bought it, hearing the sincerity in my voice, and sanctioned my call for reinforcements. I didn't mention the explosives. There'll be time to explain that after it works. If it doesn't work, I'll probably be explaining it in a courtroom. And all because of my partner, Dee.

Damn him. I can't stop thinking of his cutting grin… his kiss? No. That doesn't matter. If it was anyone else, I wouldn't have cool, clear beads of sweat coursing down my ribs.

DEE

It's hard to think with two guns sighted on the more vulnerable parts of your anatomy. They're playing with me, these goons. They're loosening me up for the questions that will come later. My pretty face has lost a few points of hotness, and my left eye feels like its going to explode. I'm sure they'll stoop to mutilation soon, maybe even rape. It's what trash like this lives for. At least they're leaving the kid alone. He's playing it tough, jaw set stubbornly. I can tell by the tension in his legs and arms that he's waiting for a lull in the action to cause trouble. I wish I could heal my damn arm, but they won't stop pummeling the rest of me and it's damn hard to go into a trance when you're fending off blows. I haven't been in real pain since I learned healing at the Academy - and it's really getting to me. I feel myself slipping towards some inner edge. There's darkness beyond it, and I try to crawl back from it, try to get up on my knees.

The sound of gunfire is the last thing I expect to hear - but I find myself curiously uninjured - well, I'm not shot anyway. Shit, they killed the kid! My gaze flicks toward him, but he's whole.

"Shit, dude!" Baikol says with total admiration. "You just blew them away."

"I had to," says the sweetest voice I've ever heard. "They were going to kill you." And Dee…

His eyes, Rhyoh's eyes, shift towards me and I see a thousand emotions tumble through their tri-colored depths: anger, fear, relief. He even smiles at me for a second. Then he notices the wounds. "Oh Dee…"

Finally, I can let some of the healing come. My eyes close and I tend to the injuries, soothing them just a little. It feels better than nicotine hitting my system, and even though I could probably stand on my own, I let him help me to my feet. "You must have been worried about me," I say and though I didn't mean to let it show, there's some pleading in my voice. Forgive me. I didn't mean to.

"I'd never have gotten promoted if my partner died on our first assignment." He sobers. "Don't do it again, officer."

I nod once, offering understanding and apology with my eyes.

"Now let's go," he says in a commanding tone. "This place is rigged to go sky high." I learned later that Callista had assured him of the placement of the bombs via his wristband frequency; she was secreting out the slaves as they spoke.

"Rigged?" I ask, wondering about this new kick-ass side to my previously gentle partner.

"Just come on. You too, Baikol. You can testify against Am once we get him. Dee and I will keep you safe."

The kid approachs Rhyoh with absolute trust, totally opposite of how he'd come to me. Of course, Rhyoh seemed to like kids - so maybe that explained his affinity for them. "You can keep me safe," he says to my partner. "I don't know about that one." Hurting with every step and trying not to show it, I resist the urge to crack him in the head.

RHYOH

We're outside when the place lights up. Callista was true to her word. I put the other Keepers on alert for a girl with pink hair. When she's out, I want her to come to Dee and I to be put in our protection like Baikol. It gives me all kinds of satisfaction to see Am tucked into a station car and the Commander gives us a salute as I lead Dee to a tree and settle him. Baikol is with the medical unit, getting checked out.

Dee's looking at me out of a bloody, dirty face, eyes shining with the purest admiration I've ever seen. "That was the most unconventional, and most brilliant, rescue I've ever seen, Rhyoh."

I shrug, turning from the light in his eyes. "I had to do something. I thought you hated kids - why'd you go back for him?"

"I couldn't get him out of my head," he answers.

"You should have told me about your plan," I say, voice hard.

"I know," he admits softly. "But I knew you'd come for me. One of us had to be outside in case something went wrong. I guess I'm not much good at rescue duty."

"No, you're not. You shouldn't have gone about it that way, Dee." I sigh, exasperated with him. "But I'm glad you set him free."

"And thanks to you we got the whole ring," he points out, making me feel good.

"I'm sure some of them will still get away. Come on, you need to get to the medics."

DEE

I can't help it, I smirk. A healer, going to medics? Nah. I can handle this myself. But I haven't revealed my gifts to him yet, and I'm still reluctant to do so. "I'll be fine."

"Dee, you could barely walk a few minutes ago."

"I heal up quick, Rhyoh. You need to get back to the investigation anyway. If you go now, the Commander'll go easy on you."

"But,"

"You can't be stuck writing reports after your first success." I shrugs. "I'm used to it." This time I even deserve it.

Rhyoh kneels beside me, refusing to take no for an answer, and offers me a hand.

"I'm not leaving you, Dee. I am your partner after all, aren't I? C'mon. Give me your hand."

I take his hand, I'd take anything he wanted to give me, but instead of using it to pull myself up, I tip the scales and pull him down to me.

Flowers appear in my mind, dropping delicate petals ripe with scent. His wrist is pinned under my hand, his body frozen as if he's received an electric shock. It's everything I've wanted, the feel of those soft lips on mine. My eyes close and I'm deep in the heady waters of the kiss. He isn't kissing me back, but he isn't fighting me and I'm thanking gods and goddesses just to be allowed this one moment. I let him go tenderly. He stares at me, face close to mine, but my eyes are half-lidded with pleasure and my mouth is relaxed; my face is already bruised, I'm ready for anything he's prepared to dish out. Neither of us are moving and I decide to take advantage of his stunned stillness. Patting him on the back, I smile and say "Welcome aboard, partner." Then I'm on my feet and on my way to the medics - even though I feel like a million bucks.

I hear him cursing behind me and I know I'll get it later, but right now I'm happy in my bruised, soot-stained (courtesy of the explosion), bloodied skin.

RHYOH

Within a few hours, we're back at the Way station, Baikol in tow, and Callista promised an escort to the way station later. Baikol helped Dee find some journals to help incriminate Am - though they'll hardly be necessary at this point.

"You know those books probably won't hold up in court," I tell my partner. I'm irritated with him over the kiss and I feel like picking a fight.

"The Commander said he'll find a prosecutor who'll make them hold up. I want justice for that girl, Rhyoh."

His vehemence surprises me. "Commander's going to be pissed at us later, you know."

"He lives his whole life in some or another pissed off state," my partner replies without apprehension. "Don't worry about it."

"Easy for you to say," I shoot back. "I think you live to irritate people."

He raises an eyebrow that seems to say "Gotcha." "Do I irritate you, Rhyoh?"

"You shouldn't have kissed me," I tell him, gritting my teeth. "You didn't even ask!"

He leans in, closer than I want him to be. "And if I had? If I'd had your permission, we'd have been golden, right?" His hand is on my shoulder.

Before I can snarl a retort, Baikol is between me and Dee, landing a pretty decent punch on his cheek. "Don't touch Rhyoh like that, you bastard."

Hand to his face, Dee asks, "Where the hell did you come from?"

I step forward protectively, knowing the kid will be the target of Dee's anger. "I'm going to take him in for a little while, Dee. He doesn't have anybody and I live alone. I can make sure he gets to school."

Dee's eyes go wide, flicking back and forth between me and Baikol. "What? What the hell, Rhyoh? He's been living his life in a criminal organization! He'll rob you blind!"

"He wasn't with Am by choice, Dee. And I can take care of myself."

"I'll watch after both of them," Callista says, smiling and stepping into the room.

"What? You're keeping her, too?"

She tweaks his nose, pretty as can be. "No, silly. My aunt lives in the Highlands - like Rhyoh. I'm going back with you guys."

"Callista?" Baikol asks after a minute.

"Bikky?"

"You two know each other?" Dee asks.

"Yeah," Bikky says. "Am didn't let us talk much - but we've seen each other around."
He turns to the girl. "How'd you get in here?"

"Picked the lock," she says shamelessly.

Dee's eyes roll in disapproval. "You'll have the place full of them by morning. I'm going to get something to eat."

I follow him, irritation dissolving. He was happy to see them safe, I could tell. I wait until he's seated at the table with a sandwich, cigarettes in easy reach. "Dee, I need your help."

"Oh?"

"I - uh - I'm still living in station housing. You know how small those units are. I don't have enough room for Bikky and Callista."

"Bikky?"

I shrug. "It's what he likes to be called."
"I prefer 'brat.' So, you want me to call a kennel?"

"Dee!"

"Sorry."

I can tell from his expression that he is sorry, that he's feeling contrite in the face of my annoyance with him - now's as good a time to ask as any. "Dee, can we come stay with you? I know you have lots of room."

His eyebrows arch and I can see the gears turning. Having me close to him is an incentive… but having Baikol in the same house is not. For a minute, I think he won't go for it. I can't afford a hotel for long, and it will take awhile to track down Callista's aunt.

"We?" he asks. "Like you, too?"

"Well, I wouldn't expect you to take care of two teens."

"Thank god," he says, reaching for his cigarettes. "I hate kids. Can't believe I'll be living with two of them."

"So you'll do it?"

"Yeah. I guess I owe you for today anyway."

I don't answer that either way; feeling a little guilty for his escapade might be good for Dee. "You know we'll have to keep watch tonight. If any of the ring got out intact, they'll be after Bikky and Callista."

"I know. You go ahead and get something to eat, rest. I'll take the first shift."

DEE

"What are you doing?" Bikky asks when I settle myself in the main room where he and Callista are playing some sort of video game on the screen. It probably came with the view screen - I don't know how half of its features work and the remotes (3 of them) have such helpful labels: PIP, JUMP, VSB.

"Watching you guys for awhile so Rhyoh can get some rest." I feel under the folds of my shirt for my gun and brush reassuring metal. Suddenly, Callista's clothing looks familiar. "Hey, are those my pajamas?"

She giggles. "Rhyoh lent them to me. They're just like wearing my dad's." She flaps the sleeves to show how they come down over her arms.

That damn softheart! My food, my pajamas, my house! If he wanted any of it, it'd be different - but to waste it on these kids!

Bikky reaches up and pings the ring at my neck. "So why is it so important?"

I'm instantly defensive. "Why do you care?"

He shrugs. "I don't."

Shit. I know I've messed up. I want the brat to at least be able to tolerate me - Rhyoh seems all kind of fond of him. "So, Baikol - that's a different name," I try again.

He reads only insult in my words. "An alien name - don't tell me the hair and the eyes didn't give it away. You got a problem with aliens, perv?

"No, I've got a problem with mouthy little brats." So much for taking the high road… In no time at all, our conversation dissolves into loud, squalling, free-for-all wrestling match and I'm chasing two wound up kids, yelling threats that only draw their laughter. Cal's on my back pulling my hair out and Bikky's getting away but I've got a leg - good, clean fun.

Then I look up from chewing carpet under Bikky's ministrations, and my partner's tapping his foot in my face. "I think we'd better trade, Dee." he says, smiling. Cocky little bastard… "C'mon, guys, let's find a movie to watch." And suddenly, the room is like perfect angel central, everything going back into place. I'm looking at the kids' shoulders for wings. Bikky's already starting to slump toward sleep on the couch.

"I want to watch a movie," I whine.

Rhyoh rests a hand on my shoulder and shakes his head. "We aren't going any higher than PG-13, Dee. I doubt you'd be interested. You're still hurt, you need to get some rest."

I flash puppy eyes at him. "Are you sure you won't come hold me for awhile?"

"Dee, quit teasing me like that. I know it's just your usual sorry attempt at humor. Give it up already."

Damn it, I'm more than sick of this. Angry and not even thinking, I crush out my newly lit cigarette and lay my palm flat on the wall beside him. He's trapped in my arms and from somewhere far away I hear him say my name, protesting, but I don't care. One hand flat on the wall above his head, I use the other to lift his face to mine. This time, my kiss isn't a gift to a willing mouth. This time, I kiss him dizzy, holding his head up to mine, our foreheads touching. I draw back a little to ease his mouth open with my tongue and find his fingers are clenched in my shirt. When I lean back in, plundering that sweet, captivating opening, I feel his eyes close, feel his hands holding on to me, clenching and unclenching as if he doesn't know whether to hold tighter or push me away. With a last caress of my tongue, I pull back and look down at him.

"Don't ever dismiss me like that again, Rhyoh."

Leaving him with his legs half-buckled, I walk down the hall to get some rest. "Wake me when you get tired," I call over my shoulder.

NARRATION

She saw the kiss, saw the blond Keeper sink to the floor with his hand over his mouth, eyes gone wide. Bikky was already asleep on the couch, snoring. Slipping out of the Way station, Callista made her way to a open clearing, then closed her eyes. In moments she was a block away from the Curved Horn in the exact alley where she'd promised to meet Therus.

A low-level player in Am's operation, Therus would be glad for her information. He could sell it to Am's superiors, who would surely be looking for revenge in the light of the night's events.

He stared across the alley at her with cold, dead eyes. "I must commend your gall, little Miss, arranging this meeting with me."

"Did you bring my parents' things?"

He opened the suitcase at his feet to show her the contents: a few pictures, her mother's mirror, a handkerchief that had belonged to her father, that had still smelled like him the last time she had held it. "They're yours, if you can give me the names of the Keeper who did this."

RHYOH

I don't know exactly when I sank to the floor. Sometime after he kissed me… where did he learn to kiss like that? I've never… never… No one's ever kissed me like that. I shouldn't have let him, should have stopped him, but it felt so good… so overwhelming, like a storm came into my body, into my bones. He was the cause of the storm and my only shelter from it, leaning into him protected me and I was clinging to him - clinging to the body of another man! I'm not gay. I'm not. I'm not. I'm not.

Bikky's voice interrupts my inner turmoil. "Rhyoh, I can't find Cal."

After searching the house, I go to wake my partner. "Dee, the kid's gone," I say after shaking him awake.

"You lost her? Criminy!"

"She's a magic user," I explain. "She can… teleport, I think."

This doesn't shock my partner at all. "Any idea how far she can get?"

"None."

"Well, she wanted to go back to the Highlands with us - what would make her change her mind?"

I flash back to our initial meeting. "Am had some items that belonged to her parents. He used them to keep her from running."

"Let's go."

We blaze through the night on the remaining bike, me riding behind Dee, but Bikky's already on the scene when we arrive, holding a gun. He must have taken the other bike. A trail of blood leads away from the scene and Cal is collapsed, weeping, on a suitcase.

"Are you guys okay?" I ask, looking them over. I don't see any blood.

"H-he tried to hurt me," Cal said through sobs.

Dee looks to Bikky. "So you shot him?"

I look to Bikky. "With my gun?"

He hands back the weapon, street tough and unruffled on the surface. "Just in the leg. He won't die from it."

Dee looks at me. "Oh yeah, let's take in some kids…"

"Cal, what was this about?" I ask the weeping girl.

"He - he had my parent's stuff. I tried to get it after the explosion, but I couldn't find it. He said he'd give it to me if I helped him."

I have a better hand with this kind of thing than Dee does, so I motion for him to take a walk. He and Bikky head back toward the bike, Dee questioning Bikky about being able to drive. "Cal, we're Keepers. We would have gotten your things back for you," I tell her softly.

She only cries harder. "It's all I have from them." She looks up and her eyes are huge, tears trembling on her lashes. "I'm so sorry." She launches herself into my arms. I hold her, stroking her hair, soothing her. "It's okay. It's okay." When she's calm again, I ask, "Cal, what did he want in exchange for your parents' things?"

"Your names."

My eyes widen, but I hold tight to my emotions. "Did you give them to him?"

Her head drops and my heart plummets with it. "Just… just Dee's," she says in a whisper.

Oh shit. Not much is left of Am's operation, but those who remain will be looking for my raven-haired partner and if Am answered to anyone, his boss might put a hit on him. Oh shit. I sigh long and loud, then look to Cal. "Look, this is our secret for now, okay? I'll watch out for Dee." I don't know what makes me say it, but it's done now. I'll make sure to inform the Commander, but I'll tell him the same thing when he asks if I think Dee should be protected. I can see the scene already, can hear myself saying, "I'll look after him, Sir."

I walk Cal back to the bike, and my strange and sudden family heads back to the Way station.

A few weeks later

It's a strange family: an alien boy toughened by street life and a lifelong association with crime, a pink-haired alien girl who mothers us all, a wanted Keeper who makes no secret of his desires, and me. It's nothing I planned for when I signed up for this job, but it makes me smile all the same. The Commander, though suspicious of our methods, was happy with the results of the partnership between myself and Dee, and made it official when we returned from the interior. I can't wait to see our next assignment…