Many, many apologies for taking so long with this, the final segment. I recently started a Masters program and took a new job as an instructor, so I haven't had much time for anything outside of that. Thank you for your support of HeartShy - I've certainly enjoyed writing it. I hope the ending meets your expectations, and, as always, thank you for reading!
PS - Book seven never sat well with me, so I've scrambled the facts to my own particular tastes. :)
Things have been calm lately - all around. It's fall on New Abode - fresh cinnamon smelling - and you'd think the tumbling down of a few yellow leaves had put a stop to crime forever. I keep pausing under trees, expecting to see hordes of gun-toting thugs, just watching the leaves fall. So yeah, the station's dead as a doornail. Rhyoh still finds work to do, of course, but the rest of us are content to make bets on when Dragen will give in to JJ. He's still in denial, but JJ is a persistent s.o.b. (I should know, huh?) What it all comes down to is I've never been so bored as a Keeper.
Bikky has stayed out of trouble - or, at least, if he's in trouble, Rhyoh and I don't know about it. Cal comes around, pretty as ever, so at least I can torment him about that. Last week we had "the talk" - you know the one. Mostly it consisted of me dumping protection into his hands and telling him to be careful. He made owl eyes at me, but he left off the "perv" part when he said thanks. Gods know you can't leave these things up to Rhyoh. He probably thinks they're playing tea party up there in his room. Hopefully, he'll know to come to me if he needs advice. I was a ladykiller back in my day - still might be if it wasn't for Rhyoh.
Rhyoh... huh. I don't even know where to start when it comes to him. I keep coming back to what Jim told me - cool on the outside, turbulent on the inside. I felt it when he came to my room last time. He dropped his shields to let me feel everything he was going through... but how much sympathy am I supposed to have? Does he think that wanting him is easy for me when half the time he acts like I could mean something to him and the other half it's all this "just partners" bullshit? We haven't been "just partners" since the first day we met.
I've already proven to myself that I can't outrun what he is to me - what we should be to each other - but I sure miss my old freedom sometimes - just being able to pick up and go. But if I left, I'd miss Penguin and the kids though. Even the live-in primates. Huh. How funny is that? All this time I haven't belonged to anyone, haven't had a family at all - and one comes and ambushes me outside the Curved Horn. They're a strange bunch, I'll give you that, but having them is nice.
I know I said I was bored with work - Keepers are supposed to live dangerously, gun fights, laser battles, all that - but I sure like the routine of "home life." Don't tell anybody - it'd damage my reputation with the guys for sure, but I really like being with Rhyoh, Cal, and Biks, I mean, monkey-boy, in the evenings. Rhyoh might keep me out of his bed, but he won't forbid me the house. I usually head home, shower, have a smoke, and turn my steps toward his place. Sometimes I'll be sitting up in the lighthouse, smoking and looking over New Abode, and I'll hear them downstairs. Bikky complaining about being "dragged over to the perv's," Cal getting into my cupboards to find dishes for pizza or whatever Rhyoh's prepared, Rhyoh calling me down out of my solitude. I just wish he'd call my name another way. I wish loving him didn't have to be such a painful, painful thing.
Dee's slumped half over his desk as I head to my locker to get my things, but I decide not to disturb him yet. Our shift's out in minutes and even the comm-lines are surprisingly silent. The city - our sector anyway - seems under a sort of Sleeping Beauty spell, quiet and gentle. I should appreciate the rest, but it just brings my own problems into sharper relief. Leskar is still out there, for one. I can't forget his face, his words... but I still feel the sting of Dee's hand on my cheek. I haven't looked for Leskar since. I know what gang he leads; I could probably find him if I paid a few small street bribes, or if I did some serious research. Instead, I do nothing and have to know with every breath that Leskar is breathing as well - that the man who took my family from me is alive. And I can't chase him because of the man snoring softly at our desk.
I pause to look at him. His face always gentles in sleep - its sharp edges eased by peace. His hair needs cutting, wisping over his collar, bangs curled over his relaxed wrist. The purple highlights are almost outgrown, faded to lilac. My hands clench at my sides; I'm holding back like I always do, stopping myself from touching him even though he probably wouldn't even feel the touch. But then, there is the bond... he probably would feel me. The bond seems to get stronger every day. I haven't gone back to his bed, but I haven't stopped wanting to, or wanting him. But I'm afraid of getting into any intimate situation with him. I'm afraid if I say no this time, I'll lose him for good. So I say nothing. Dee's another one of my problems... and I can't see my way clear to a solution no matter how hard I try.
I practically jump, even though he spoke softly enough. It's never his volume that disturbs me (as Dee's does) it's the undercurrent, the insinuation, the innuendo. "Would you come with me, please?"
"Yes, sir," I tell Rothschild, stealing a last look at Dee before entering his lair.
I never feel comfortable in Rothschild's office - probably because of Dee's constant warnings. He gestures for me to take a seat inside and I notice a new edition to his desk - a tiny photograph of the Marshall. Maybe this place has gotten safer.
He notices me looking. "A gift from Denine. She's moved to self promotion, now." His smile is wry but there's something else in his eyes.
"What did you want to discuss, Sir?"
He smiles and his expression reminds me of the closing teeth of a trap. "Who you might like to partner up with."
"Sir?" My old trick - reverting to questions when I'd rather be screaming accusations.
"Tieg is free, and we'll have some new people coming in next month.'
"Sir, you know I work with Dee." There's a hard edge to my voice now, a grating sound that I don't like to hear.
Rothschild makes a dismissive motion, like he's flicking away a fly. "Your partner who's asleep at his desk for the twelfth time this week? Dee's very close to being let go, Rhyoh. You must know that."
I know Allend hates Dee and would do anything to get rid of him, but the moment feels surreal. Has he been waiting for this opportunity? Is this a coup? "Sir, Dee's a good Keeper," I protest.
"He's a liability to this station. He shoots when he shouldn't, he breaks the rules every day, and he's living off of your reputation and skills instead of his own. Do you think I don't know that?"
I swallow hard and prepare to place myself between Dee and Allend. "Sir, the way Dee's been acting, it's my fault."
Rothschild flashes me a patronizing smile and reaches out to pat my arm. I flinch away from his touch. "Rhyoh, Lyghtner's a grown man. His choices are his own. I can't imagine what he's been doing with his night hours, but they're affecting his work, and I can't tolerate that out of a Keeper."
Something in me shatters at his insinuation that Dee has been running around, when it's my fault that Dee's sleeping alone. I no longer care what the man before me thinks. I no longer care who he'll tell. "Sir, Dee's tired because of me. I'll make sure he gets back on track. I'm keeping him as my partner." I stand to go, but Rothschild is faster. He's there, in front of me, hands on both of my arms, holding me in place.
"Lyghtner?" he gasps, breath warm across my face. "No..." Then he pulls me into a crushing kiss. I let him. His mouth tastes like desperation. When he breaks away my lips are bruised, but I feel them lift in a smile.
"I pretended it was Dee," I tell him, leaving the office.
I wake up at work from a terrible dream. I saw Rhyoh kissing Rothschild. I need to start sleeping at night again if my nightmares are going to translate into my afternoons. Shaking my head to lose the vision of my rival and my... well, whatever he is... I stumble away from the desk to the exit. Rhyoh's name is still lit when I clock out, so he's still in the building somewhere. Usually I'd wait for him, look for him, but I'm afraid I'd see him really coming out of Rothschild's office.
Rothschild... he's been on my case all week. Nothing's happening here - what difference does it make if I nod off now and then? But tonight, I've got to sleep. I've got to get away from thoughts of him.
"So where's the perv?" Bikky asks me as I come in the door, still burning with shame and elation over what I've done. Red heat leaps into my face at the mention of my partner and I'm glad Bikky's eyes are still focused on the game he's playing, even though he should be doing homework.
"Dee must be over at his place. He left work before I did."
"Hmmphf. I wanted him to help me with this level." He pauses the game to rummage through the groceries I've brought in. Usually, I'd chastise him for going for candy before dinner but I can still feel Rothschild's lips... can still remember what I said to him. Does this mean I want Dee as my partner - my boyfriend?
Bikky's picked up on my distraction and takes a seat at the table, looking at me intently as he alternates between an apple, a candy bar and a piece of cheese. "So when's he moving in?"
I drop the sack I'm unloading. "What?"
"Dee. Cal and I were talking about it today. She thinks it'll be soon."
Those two have placed bets on our relationship, but what do I say? Before this I would have explained that Dee and I aren't in a relationship... but Biks is sixteen now - he's far from stupid. Even he knows I've been leading Dee on. And I just basically told Rothschild that I was sleeping with Dee. It's not true, but it felt good... felt like it should be true.
"Dee's not moving in, Biks."
He raises an eyebrow at me, quietly calling my bluff, then shrugs. "Okay."
Soon he's back to his game, and I'm preparing dinner, wondering. Even the kids see that this has to come to an end... but how?
I stand outside of Dee's building for a long time, looking at the strange steady glow of his lighthouse. The blue light shines high above the other buildings, catching the hues of the moons - creating a sort of nocturnal rainbow. I know that I need to go to him, to admit that I'm ready to take the next step... whatever it might be. Yet I'm still afraid - afraid of what people might think, afraid that my parents might be ashamed of the choice I'm on the brink of making, afraid of the changes that will come from this one change. If I do this, will we still be able to work together? Will Bikky be okay? Will I be okay?
My hands shake as I insert the key in the door. I try to rehearse what I'll say to him. After all that we've been through, what can I say? I swallow hard and walk up the stairs in the dark. His voice stops me before I get far.
"Back again? I knew you would be." His words are thick, the tone unlike anything I've ever heard from him before. I turn to see him lying on the couch in the dark. The light coming through the windows is filtered through an amber bottle lying just beyond the reach of his hand. I know that it's mostly empty.
"Dee? Are you drunk?" I cross the room to stand before him, searching his face.
"Not completely. I don't sleep well anymore. This helps."
I sit down beside him without being invited. "I know you haven't been sleeping well, Dee. It's my fault, isn't it?"
"Yes, but you're not going to do anything about it though, now are you?" He goes to stand, to retrieve the bottle, but I push him back down, capturing his mouth. His kiss burns, searingly alcoholic, but I don't pull away. His body is overwarm from the alcohol, and he holds me tight against his chest. Eventually he pulls back, panting slightly.
"Damn you," he says, voice harsh in the dark. I deserve any curse he wants to throw at me if I've driven him to this.
I find his lips again. Somehow, he ends up overtop of me, one hand encircling both of my wrists. He stares down at me, eyes glittering. I've never seen him like this before - Dee's a lot of things, but he's never hopeless. He's not the type to throw it all away and hide in a bottle. I push past his shields - weakened by intoxication - searching for what's tormenting him. I find need, exhaustion, and a surprisingly vivid vision of Rothschild kissing me. Shit! He saw that? Oh Dee...
His grip on my wrists tightens. "I could take you, you know," he says quietly. I say nothing. I almost wish he would if it would end this painful carousel we're trapped on.
"Nothing, huh?" he asks my silence. "You probably wouldn't care what I did, as long as I keep it out of sight."
"Dee, it's not like that." He draws back from me, settling on the end of the couch with a hand over his eyes.
"I almost wish that you'd never touch me at all. How can you come here and do this to me? We talked about this, Rhyoh – I can't take it! You're going to make me lose everything - you, Cal, Bikky... and I'm going to hate you when you do, Rhyoh. I won't be able to help it." He turns, angry. "I'm not even going to be a fucking Keeper anymore! Rothschild's already got the paperwork filled out."
"What do you want me to do?"
My question, though sincere, enrages him. "I want you to fucking admit what's going on between us! I want you to stop running away from what you can't change! You belong to me, Rhyoh!"
I came for a resolution - I intended to comfort him - but his possessiveness infuriates me. "The lifebond then?" I ask him, voice gone quietly deadly.
He gapes. "So you do know."
"Yes. I stole your book." Either something in my tone or something in the discovery that I know about the bond seems to strike him hard. He's felled at the knees, and he falls backward against the couch, deflated. I feel his healing powers flaring; he's chasing the alcohol from his system.
"Oh," he says a moment later, completely sober. "Then it's just that you don't want me, then." He's staring ahead, eyes unseeing. "I thought... I hoped you just didn't know yet. I'll transfer then. Rothschild will be happy to put the paperwork through." He turns on me again. "Tell me that it's what you want, Rhyoh! Tell me to leave the station. I'll get a new partner, I'll leave. Damn you, say it! You've taken my whole life away!"
He's made me angry now, throwing this all on me. "So you're fine with me belonging to you - but not the other way around? You're okay with changes happening in my life - but not in yours?" I ask him, standing. "Maybe you should think about that, Dee."
He gapes at me for a minute, then reaches for the bottle. "Fuck you. I'm not the one running, Rhyoh."
"No, but is your own comfort the only thing you think about, Dee?" I've made it to the door by this time, shaking with anger. "By the way, I told Rothschild we were sleeping together - that should get him to leave you alone for awhile." The door slams behind me and I stalk into the city.
The amount of alcohol in my system ought to have killed me, but if Rhyoh's words didn't do the trick themselves, I figured I was safe to swim toward oblivion. It's left me feeling like death today, though - hurting so much that I don't even want to engage my powers to stop the pain. Or maybe it's that I deserve the pain and know it. Ma'at chitters above me, sounding like a choir of demons. I oblige her with a grapefruit, forgetting that she can't lift such a heavy burden back to her palace of ferns.
"Sorry girl," I mumble, stumbling toward the kitchen for a knife. I cut the fruit into manageable pieces, leaving my fingers surprisingly intact. Waves of crimson crash into my skull and I sink down at the kitchen table, trying not to think of what I said to my partner - what he said to me. Did I really threaten him? Gods what a fuck-up I can be! But I've just been so tired, and tired of the ringer he keeps putting me through. I never know when it's okay to kiss him or touch him or hold him; I never know when something that pleased him one day will earn me his anger and cold silence the next. I tried to tell him last time – tried to show him that I have boundaries and limits too. He can't expect to keep taking and taking from me like this, and then accusing me of thinking of my comfort!
And he does know about the bond then - about how it works and how to resolve it. Well, doesn't that just make my guns look attractive. If he knows, how can he deny it? What choice has he got? God knows I've tried not to force him into seeing, tried to let him come to a realization on his own, but c'mon! I've been as patient as anyone could be expected to be in this fucked up situation, thank you very much! What does he want me to do?
Then I remember something else. He told Rothschild that we were together. Why? To keep Rothschild from chasing him? Was the kiss I dreamed real then? Or was he actually considering sleeping with me? Is that what he came for? Am I supposed to feel hopeful or depressed? Either way, I'm glad it's not a work day. Grabbing coffee and aspirin, I take myself upstairs. I haven't slept well in weeks and my hangover isn't going to allow for much advanced movement anyway. I lie very still and try to keep my thoughts away from a man who tells other people I'm his lover, and who doesn't want to be bound to me.
Denine is sitting outside in the autumn wind when I leave work for lunch. Usually Dee would be with me, but he hasn't been in for a few days now - my fault, I know. Still, he has vacation time saved up and Rothschild can't do anything to him for now. I keep expecting to hear that he's put his papers in for transfer. I should go to him and try to stop him - but what could I possibly offer? I can't live my life with someone who thinks I'm property! I won't take destiny and magic in place of love. If he cared for me at all, he'd realize that.
And yet... I know that's a lie, too. Leaving him like I did - part of it was anger over his comments - his obvious feelings that he had a right to me based on the bond, with or without my consent. But another part of it was that same old wall I always throw up between us: fear. I intended to give myself to him, but when faced with his real touch on my skin, faced with the thought of him inside me, and what that would make me - gay - no turning back now - I did the same thing I always do: I hurt him and then I ran. His green eyes are always with me, pain-dark at the center but full of life, burning in my brain. His name is tattooed on my soul. And still I'm slowly destroying him.
Denine indicates the black metal chair across from her; her smile is worn at the edges, a mask that's been used hard. Steam from her tea cup curls into the brisk wind. "What's up, sad eyes?"
"Hmmm?" The greeting surprises me. I guess I don't look any better than she does.
"How are you doing?" She searches my face and seems pained at what she discovers there. "And where's your shadow?"
"Dee? He's working on reports at home."
She snorts and shakes her head at me, jangling her gaudy earrings. "Bullshit. Lyghtner's never worked through lunch hour in his life. Why not just tell the truth and admit that he's avoiding you or you're avoiding him?"
Color flares into my cheeks. "It's not anything like that... we..." It's hard to lie under eyes as piercing as hers. I never was much of a liar anyway. "Dee's not talking to me," I admit at last.
"Still fighting the obvious?"
"I don't belong to him!" I snap.
She rolls her shoulders in a shrug, unaffected by my anger. "Whether you do or not, you're certainly in a tangle. How far have you guys gotten anyway?"
I choke on my first bite of my sandwich. Subtlety has never been Denine's strong suit. "What!?"
"Still prissy, huh?"
"I'm just a private person," I answer the jab.
"Answer the damn question."
I turn my eyes to the grey sky, the yellow leaves, trying to find a way not to answer. I'm an adult, I owe her nothing, but I haven't had anyone to talk to in so long. In her brusque way, I know that Denine has her hand extended to offer help. "We've uh... we've just kissed, okay?"
Her eyes are the size of dinner plates, and blazing to boot. "WHAT!? Bullshit."
I try to hold back my words, but they come anyway. "Well, he made love to me once... but it was just to save my life from a poison. A drug."
"To save your life?" she repeats slowly. "Did he push you after that?"
I hear Dee's desperate voice in my head, I could take you, you know. I knew even then that he wouldn't; I felt no fear at those words. "No. Never. He's never even mentioned it."
She gives me a knowing look. "And that doesn't suggest anything to you? That he'd put his personal need aside to help you and not use it as an initiation?"
I nod miserably, but old arguments flare anyway. "He feels like I belong to him - like it's a force of nature! Where's the choice in that!?
"You chose to care about Dee long before you knew about the bond, I think." She takes me hand and squeezes, offering strength. "It's only fear that's holding you back. You let him kiss you, you've kissed him back. You can choose to deny him and make another life for yourself - it's possible. But no one will ever care for you like he does, and you'll both hurt for it." Her tone hardens; she's not going to let me off easily for what I've done. "Though if I can read eyes at all, I'd say he hurts more. He's proven his loyalty, proven he's capable of monogamy. Everyone knows Dee's slept alone for the last two years."
Her words enter my brain like needles; I want to bring my hands over my ears to shut her out. But everything she's saying is true...
"Dee feels deeply for you, Rhyoh. If you don't want him, then transfer and stop being a torment, a tease."
"I'm not!" I
can't believe she'd say something like that.
"I've seen you," she says evenly. "You let him kiss you, you let him make you feel good, then you throw cold water in his face." She presses on, "Do you like the power of it? Of sending him inside alone every night? You don't have him, but then, neither does anyone else."
I'm shattering right before her eyes. "I can't face this. I'm overwhelmed."
Denine's nails dig into my wrist; she holds me to my pain, forces me to live through it. "You're a goddamn Keeper - you don't get to be overwhelmed! Besides, is your fear reason enough to torture Dee?"
"I'll lose everything I am!"
"That's what you're afraid of, anyway. Nice to hear the truth for a change. That, and having to face up to everything that you are. That's why you won't let yourself fall head over heels for him." She places a hand on my face. "Rhyoh, you'll still be a Keeper, a marksman, and Bikky's parent. What else do you need?"
The wind is cold against the dampness on my cheeks. "The facade," I croak. "The normalcy." It's being different that I'm afraid of it. My entire life has been marked by difference - my heritage, the loss of my parents... now my sexuality too? I remember a conversation that Dee and I had after a witness commented on the strange coloring of my eyes.
"If it bothers you so much, why don't you wear sunglasses?" my partner asked.
I squirmed a little. "I don't know."
He chucked me under the chin. "Because you want to be accepted for who you are." Dee... you've always accepted me. And I've fought you every step of the way.
Denine draws me back with her voice. "The facade," she repeats. "The lie? Dee's been like a tank to everything white picket fence about you. Rhyoh, what you've been doing - it hasn't been living. Your plan for revenge fell through," she says gently, pressing her fingers to the wound. "So what's left?"
"I don't know," I say, sniffling a little - cold and miserable.
"Your work, Bikky, and Dee. Look, it's hard to be on the other end, to have to keep holding on to someone who won't let you in. Trust me, I know." She stands and enters the station without another word. I sit staring down the autumn horizon for a long time.
I'm sitting in my chair, shivering, when he comes in. I know his tread without looking, know his presence. Even when he's not with me, he is, and for all that I'm a mess with him, without him, because of him - I'm glad that he's come. He walks up behind me, settling his hands on my neck. The smallest touch can break me and I sigh, relaxing into the feel of his hands. He works in silence, persuading the knots in my neck and shoulders to leave. When he's finished, he grabs a blanket from the couch and covers me.
"You deserve more than a massage," he admits quietly.
I don't know what to say, don't know what's expected of me. Do I apologize? Surely he knows that I feel awful about what I said. "Rhyoh..."
"Shhh. I have to do this. I'm sorry for what I said last time... all the times. Dee..." I can see he's getting choked up and I reach for his hand, wanting to take the pain from him.
"It's okay," I tell him, stroking his fine, long fingers. "I understand. I pushed, and that was wrong of me. I know you're scared. I'll wait, Rhyoh." It's not what I want to say. I want to tell him to stop ripping my heart out... but I'm a fool when it comes to him?
He makes a strangled sound - a sob? "I wish I didn't have to ask you to. I wish I was stronger than this, Dee." He reclaims himself then, holds back to my hand. "But I did say I'd think about us, and I have."
I brace myself, afraid. What if he wants to transfer? What if he wants me to? My heart pounds. Is this the moment when he tells me he can never see me again?
"I... I want to go farther than we've gone," he says, almost whispering. Through my gaping, I realize that this must be hard for him, but I can't speak, can't help him - I'm too surprised. "I mean, more than kisses. I... I'm not sure I'm ready for everything, but I do want to be with you, Dee."
"Like a test drive?" I ask, feeling ridiculous. I just want to be sure of what he's saying here. Is he saying what I think he's saying? Am I going to get to...?
He smiles faintly, cheeks pink. "Y-yeah. Like that."
I feel completely reborn. Finally! Finally some chance to prove to him that I'm right for him! I smile up at him, throwing the cover across the room. "Baby, I'm gonna make you feel so good..."
He smiles back, but his eyes are frightened. "I won't go farther than you want," I say, hoping to reassure him. "I promise. When it gets to be too much, I'll stop. You just say the word."
I don't remember walking back to Dee's bedroom. I don't remember Dee's face ever looking so gentle, either. He's holding my eyes, one hand on my cheek. Smiling softly, he brushes my hair back from my forehead and kisses me there. I expected his usual bruising kisses, but the featherlight brush of his lips almost brings tears to my eyes. How could I deny this? And yet how can I be giving in? I lock the latter voice away quickly. This time, if no other, I have to be true to myself - and my body wants Dee's touch.
Holding to him lightly, I find that I'm nervous, afraid of messing things up. He senses my unease and holds me. We lay unmoving for a few moments as he lets me adjust to the feel of my body in his arms - the feel of his hands on my skin. He's held me before, touched me before... but this time is different. I'm not seeking him out at night, guilty for needing him; I'm giving him myself in hopes of pleasing him. I know he'll please me.
"You okay?" he asks, kneeling above me. I smile at the familiar picture he makes: Dee in pounce mode. His lean face is beautiful and hungry, eyes glittering with the promise of good things to come.
I brush my fingers along his face, down his neck, just to see him arch into my touch. "I'm okay."
"Good. That's a start. Now let's go for exceptional."
"Think you're that good, huh?" I whisper as he buries his face in my neck.
"You know it, baby." I'd make a retort - I usually don't let him call me that - but I'm busy moaning under his ministrations. His kisses actually make me twist against him, begging for more touch. I reach under his shirt to feel the skin of his back. He's already loosed my shirt and is moving down my chest, scattering kisses. His fingers are at work on my thighs - teasing.
I want to draw it out, to make it good. I want to show him that's it not the sex I want - but him - his body, his beauty, the feel of him in my arms. For all that, the idea of finally being allowed to touch him has me half-mad with want. Every whimpering cry sends electricity through my body and I'm wound tight as wire. It's damaging my performance and I have to pull up to breathe for a moment.
"Dee?" he asks below me. "Did I do something wrong?"
I smile and swipe the sweat from my brow. "No, you just overwhelm me. Is this too fast?"
He shakes his head, a mischievous smile tugging at his lips. "No. I want..." Fear stops him from saying more but the helpless, pleading look of him has me moaning aloud.
"Gods, Rhyoh... Uhmmmm... tell me, please? I want to here you say it."
"You, Dee. I want you."
I could die in this moment, hearing those words. Instead, I ease his pants away from his hips and take him into my mouth. Lifting my eyes, I see his head fall back, and his moans reach me easily at the foot of my bed. Flower petals unfold in my mind as I draw him in - satin, salt, and steel.
I'm floating on air... in seas of static, white lava, and lilies. White throated flowers with golden tongues float through my mind as Dee draws me closer and closer to insanity. My fingers clench and unclench, searching for anchorage. Eventually he gives me his hand, tethering me to the moment even as the moment unwinds around me, spilling down the long column of his throat. I think I might have screamed but it takes me long moments come to. Through the fluttering of my eyelashes I see Dee's face above mine.
"Something...for...you?" I manage, feeling stunned, emptied, boneless. I know it was fast, but I don't feel guilty about it. No one could have withstood those lips, that circling tongue... I shudder again, caught in aftershocks.
Dee surprises me by lying down beside me, turning me into his arms. His body is warm, the circle of his arms safe. "Later. I'd rather hold you, right now." He pulls the cover over both of us and I find that I don't mind my nakedness. A few moments later he asks, quietly, "Was it what you wanted?"'
The question catches me offguard. Does Dee not know what an exceptional lover he is? "You were wonderful," I say, kissing his cheek.
The next morning, Dee's gone when I wake. A note says he's gone to grovel to Rothschild - because after last night he's pretty sure he can face even that! Attached to the note is another piece of paper, folded and taped around something. I open it gingerly, wondering. Inside is a gold chain, and Dee's lilac ring.
I know we've been through a lot of ups and downs lately, and I don't want to push you. Still, I want you to know how much you mean to me. They found this ring with me - I think it belonged to my mom. I'd be honored if you'd take it - no matter what you decide. Here for you, no matter what,
Tears lining my eyes, I clasp the necklace around my throat and leave to find my partner.
Dee's nowhere to be found when I enter the station - which is odd, considering I woke up beside him and we work at the same place. There's really no reason for us to drive separate vehicles, but he said he needed to stop somewhere after work, so I let him go. I assumed he would come to work first, of course. I decide to check in with Dragen and JJ - it'll be a good chance to see how they're doing anyway. Gossip has it that they're already together, but I don't know... I almost smack myself in the face. I can't even completely own up to my own relationship, but I'm placing bets on other peoples'!? Sheesh!
"Hey Dragen, you seen Dee?"
He looks up from a series of grisly photographs; our mild fall and uneventful winter have given way to a murderous spring, unfortunately, though the lull did lead to some cold cases getting solved. "Hey, Rhyoh. Dee? Nope, I haven't seen him. You tried his wristband?"
"Yeah, yeah. I wish he wouldn't take off without telling me." After all, the first time was for vigilante justice, and the second time he ended up in deep space.
"What's the date?" Dragen asks me, out of the blue.
"Huh? April twentieth. Why?"
Dragen leans back in his chair and takes a swig of coffee. "I know where Dee is."
Dragen's information doesn't surprise me half as much as my own willingness to drive out to the Tombs to find Dee. After all, two funerals and murder investigations leaves one without much taste for such places. Shivering a little in the cool wind (spring hasn't turned completely gentle, yet) I stroll the paths, eyes out for my dark haired partner.
I find him speaking softly to a tombstone. I can't make out the words but I have to smile at the flowers wrapped in newspaper, the whiskey bottle he's brought to sit atop the grave. Dee has a sense for doing such things right, and it doesn't surprise me that he'd come here to pay tribute to the dead. I feel a sharp pang, realizing that it's been years - since I transferred here, really - since I went to see my parents' graves. I push the thoughts away and go to Dee.
"How bout this for an idea," I say lightly, over his shoulder. "Next time something important comes up, use one of your vacation days."
He shakes his head at me and drags on a cigarette. "Idiot. You have no sense of play. Vacation's are not for stuff like this. Besides, I cleared it with Brushface."
"What about the Lt. Commander?"
"Please. How'd you know I was here?"
"Dragen told me."
"Ah yeah, I guess he knows. We graduated together, you know, me and Dragen."
"Mind if I ask who you came to visit?"
"This dude?" Dee jerks his thumb at the grave. "This is my dad."
My eyes widen. "But..."
"No, not my real one. Orphan, remember?" He looks away and his eyes go distant, remembering. "But he was the next best thing - if not better - than having a real dad." His eyes return to me. "Rhyoh Clarion, meet Alberich Lightner. My last name is based on his."
And so I began to learn the beginning of Dee's story.
Alberich Lightner was only twenty-two when he found the abandoned baby, tucked in a blanket and nestled in the shelter of packing crates. A purple ring was tied to the blanket - Alberich was surprised it hadn't been stolen. He might have spent time looking for the mother, but he took the child to the orphanage instead, delivering the dark haired boy into the capable, caring hands of Sister Maria Lane.
That should have been the end of it. After all, he was a Keeper, trained to handle intergalactic crime - drug wars, gangs, crises, drugs were his particular area in fact - but he kept working the 'Brinth, kept coming back to watch the boy grow. Maybe it was because he knew he'd never have a child of his own. Young as he was, he lived a dangerous life - a life he didn't want to entangle a wife in. Instead, he held to Dee, and tried to be the best father he could.
It was difficult in the 'Brinth. Street toughness came early to young Dee and the crowd he ran with, but a dark shadow never crossed his heart. He might drag his feet when ordered to the market to help Mother - but he always chipped in some of his own hard earned money to bring back something special for the younger kids. He held a job from a very young age, and though given to childish pranks like shoplifting, he did no serious damage. He was loyal and hardworking - devoted to his friends and his place of upbringing. Only his eyes ever showed the pain he felt at knowing he'd been abandoned.
Alberich sensed the gifts in him early and pulled every string he had to get the boy into the Academy. They left together on a windy spring morning, leaving Mother weeping in the doorway, eyes bright with pride and tears. Alberich had taken a teaching position inside the Academy to be close to his young charge and another of Dee's friends, Aaron. If it hadn't been for Aaron, things might have been different.
Alberich knew what Aaron was doing from the start... but never intervened. A talented boy, Aaron would have made an excellent Keeper, but he got roped in early by a drug ring that preferred to use young men to deliver its goods. The fact that Aaron was in the Academy made things even easier for them - they asked the boy to deliver information as well as other "special services." What was the Academy teaching its students? What weapons were they being trained with? Aaron, addicted to the very drugs he delivered, would have told them anything to get his fix.
Then, one day, a delivery went wrong.
Several Keepers blocked the building where the murder had taken place, but Dee spun and dodged around them, determined to see, to confirm that it was Aaron lying there, blood spattered on the white stone.
"Kid, get out of here! This is a crime scene!" shouted a disgruntled officer; the boy was in training to be a Keeper, the officer could tell from his uniform, so why was he acting so foolishly?
Dee's wiry frame flashed past him, long hair caught in the breeze of his passage. Slipping under the wires that cordoned off the scene, Dee came face to face with his dead friend. Wide eyes stared, glazed with death, and Aaron's mouth was open in a silent cry. His clothes were torn, pants dragged below his hips. He had not died peacefully.
A senior Keeper noticed Dee at last. "What the hell!? This isn't some kind of circus! You can't be in here."
Dee didn't hear him; he barely felt Alberich's hand descend on his shoulder. "He's with me. He's... he was a friend of the victim's. Just let it go, alright?"
The officer nodded; Alberich was known and respected for being a tough customer. "Alright, but not too long, okay?"
It was the last time Dee ever saw his friend; the casket was closed.
Soon after, Dee put the skills he would use as a Keeper to hard work. Things had been strange with Aaron for weeks, and he started to connect the dots. Keepers-in-training weren't just gunned down on campus for no reason. He remember Aaron telling him that he'd gotten another job, remembered Aaron going pale and shaking, then reviving after biting into a candy bar. It might mean nothing… but then again... He ran out of his dorm room toward that of his friend. With any luck, no one would have thought to go through Aaron's stuff yet. Sure enough, a few candy bars were stuffed in a drawer. Dee took them and went to find Alberich.
"Huh?" the older man asked over his coffee cup. "A candy bar? Why are you freaking out on a candy bar?"
"I saw Aaron a few hours before he was killed," Dee admitted, the words coming hard to his lips. "He was hanging out with some dude that just looked bad. He gave Aaron a small, blue package - and a candy bar like this. I've never seen another one like it."
Alberich had a strange look in his eyes. "And you think it has something to do with his death?"
"The package wasn't found with his body," Dee pointed out. "And Aaron was real busy with work, but when we did hang out he'd get these..." he searched for the word, "Seizures. I offered to heal him, but he said he was just hungry, and he'd always grab one of these candy bars. I know it sounds crazy, but I think there's something to them!"
The insistence in his voice touched something in Alberich. "All right, all right, you win. I'll talk to one of the lab guys about one of these candy bars. They'll laugh their asses off, but I can take it. But on one condition, Dee."
"If it's nothing, I want you to drop this and stick to your classes. You'll have plenty of time to poke around at death once you get out of here. For now, get your education, alright?"
"And shouldn't you be in class now, as a matter of fact?"
Dee shot a glance at the clock and groaned. He was very, very late.
"Get out of here," Alberich told him with a wink and a grin. It was that grin, reaching up under his mustache, that Dee would always remember. After Dee had gone, he set a match to the candy bar and watched as the whole thing went up in a trail of acrid smoke. "Damn it, Dee," he said to the empty room, "Why do you have to be so sharp sometimes?"
It was shortly after that that the official report was released regarding Aaron's death. The investigators stated that he had been a heavy user of drugs for at least six months. Dee received the news from boys back home who had been Aaron's friends as well as his. They wanted to know if the report was true, demanded to know why Dee hadn't done something to help Aaron. Dee let himself seethe for only a few minutes before going to bang on Alberich's door.
The Keeper staggered to the door in his bathrobe, squinting. He'd been teaching night classes and was less than pleased to be called out of bed at the crack of dawn. "What the hell is it?" he yelled at the door.
Opening it, he found a determined dark haired youth who answered quietly, "Me."
Alberich sighed and let the boy inside, turning to collapse onto the couch. "Aw, c'mon, Dee. You know I work tonight."
Dee was relentless. "I know, but there's something I had to ask you about." He thrust the report into Alberich's hands. "Is it true?"
Alberich squinted some more, trying to get the black squiggles to make sense. "What is it?"
"The report about Aaron's death. I want to know if there's any truth to what they wrote. You worked in drug tracking for years, so you'd know, right?"
His words burrowed
into Alberich's heart like daggers. Still, he had always told Dee the
truth... or at least, as much of it as he had been able to tell. "The
coroner's report looks accurate," he said at last.
"Even the part about the injection sights?"
Alberich nodded. "Yes. They wouldn't print it if they thought there was any uncertainty, Dee."
Dee slammed his fist into an endtable. "Bullshit! I saw Aaron all the time! I wouldn't have missed something that big!"
"Dee, people overlook things all the time," Alberich pacified.
"Then the candy bar - they must have found something, right?"
"Dee, I told you it tested negative. You promised, didn't you?" He was getting angrier and angrier as he spoke; Dee couldn't know that his anger was directed at himself. "Just forget Aaron's case, Dee. Forget everything!"
Dee's voice grew calmer, colder. "Look, if it tested negative, why do I have to forget everything, huh? You're hiding something from me, aren't you, Alberich!!?!"
Before he could protest, a knock came at the door. "Yo, Al, you in there?" All the color drained from his face as the door opened. Dee gasped; it was the same man who had given Aaron the package!
The man came in talking. "So about what we were talking about, Al," He stopped at the sight of Dee. "Hmm? Who's this?" He didn't wait for Alberich to answer. "Oh, I get it. You found us a new errand boy to replace the last one. Good work."
"Are you talking about Aaron?" Dee asked.
Alberich shoved him away, putting his body between the man's and the boy's. "No. He's got nothing to do with it. He was just leaving." His eyes screamed into Dee's: Get out! Go! Now!
The man was not deterred. "Wait a minute, Al. He already knows Aaron. Chances are he's already familiar with the ins and outs of things." He turned again to Dee. "Look here, kid, if you want to make a few extra bucks, I might have just the job for you." His smile curved like needles over flame. "We had an unexpected vacancy, you see."
"Byrn, that's enough!" Alberich shouted, pushing Dee toward the door.
The man turned on him, grabbing his collar. "Shut the hell up! As far as I'm concerned, I'm still the one giving orders around here, and you're certainly in no position to change the pecking order anytime soon." He let Alberich go; cowed, he sank heavily into a chair, hand over his eyes.
"So, which of our jobs would you be interested in?"
"Which one? What do you mean?"
"Aaron didn't tell you all about it?" he asked, surprised. "Well, no matter. You could be our errand boy, run a few errands here and there... or you could provide some friendly bedside service to a few of our special customers." He leered, looking at Dee the way one might look at a wellbred dog or horse. "In other words, let 'em screw you, you know? Aaron did both. You seem to have more fire than him, but then, that might just make you better in bed." He was looking the boy right in the eye, but he never saw the punch coming - never expected the raw power behind it that drove him to his knees. Healers could hurt as well as heal, and Dee channeled all of his hurt over Aaron into pain that the drug dealer could feel.
"Ahhhh! Make it stop!"
Dee's hands were tight on his shoulders. "Tell me what you made Aaron do."
"D-drop offs, pick ups... he'd service clients for us, sometimes service us." Feeling the influx of pain leaving him, he regained his cocky manner. "And just so you know, we might have proposed the deal to him - but it was his choice. Not to mention the fact that he enjoyed it too. Little freak."
A knife materialized in Dee's hand, drawn from under his coat. He held it directly in line with Byrn's eye. For the first time since the beginning of their encounter, the drug dealer knew fear. The boy was obviously capable of killing him, and Alberich was making no move to stop him. "Are you the one who killed him?" Dee demanded.
"No, no, it wasn't me. He was working for me, I didn't want him dead. There must have been some trouble with the delivery and he got mixed up in it. An unlucky break, but I had nothing to do with it, I swear!"
Finally, Alberich stepped in and pulled the young man away. "Dee, that's enough."
Dee slapped his hand away, recoiling from his touch. "You knew, all this time. You knew what he was doing, didn't you?"
Alberich nodded. "Yeah, I knew."
"He needed the
money. He's the one who made the ultimate decision."
Dee knew a cop-out when he heard one. He turned from the only man he had ever thought of as a father. "I don't ever want to see your face again!" Then he walked from the apartment. Alberich knew that in that moment he had lost everything.
Byrn didn't leave him time for grief. "How much does he know?"
"Don't worry, he doesn't know anything," Alberich said in a hollow voice.
"I'll beg to differ - he knows plenty!" He was still smarting over the pain Dee had dealt him, over having a knife leveled at his eye. ""Just knowing about Aaron's line of work is reason enough to have him taken care of, you know what I mean?"
Byrn was oblivious to Alberich's deadly tone, to his hand reaching for a weapon. "Taken care of?"
"Yeah. And I'd be more than happy to erase a snot-nosed brat like that myself. I'm sure the boss would agree with me."
Alberich cocked his gun, heard the bullets fall into the extra chambers. "Why don't you just let me take care of things, Byrn? Or at least, take care of you?"
The single shot echoed throughout the apartment.
The next day, Dee found a bloodstained letter hastily pinned to his door. It lacked any sort of salutation and the scrawl was hasty, mottled with blood.
You were right. The chocolate bar you found was indeed packed with drugs. It's a pretty common control method used by traffickers to make sure that their errand boys don't run out on them. Meanwhile, I was selling Academy information to them. I was one of them. Believe me when I say that I wanted to get Aaron out and failed, just as I failed you as a father. That is something I'll always be sorry for. The gang doesn't know anything about you, so you'll be safe. I took care of Byrn.
You were always a handful Dee - sometimes more - but you were always true, always honest in the path you chose. I wish I could have seen you one last time, but it's better for both of us if I just disappear. Keep living your life as honestly as you always have.
The blood on the letter was still warm when he opened it. He knew Alberich could not have gotten far. He sprinted out of the Academy gates and into the city. It didn't take him long to sense Alberich's pain, to find the alley where they had cornered him.
The killers leveled their guns at him, but a motion from their leader stopped them.
Dee knelt to lift the dying man's head into his arms. Tears dripped from his cheeks. "Alberich? Why?"
"Thought... thought you never wanted to see my face again," he tried to joke.
"No way, Alberich! No way!" To his surprise, the dying man smiled and reached up to cup his chin, leaving bloody fingerprints on his face.
"Dee, you live your life as honestly... as you always have..." Then he faded away.
The leader of the men who had killed Alberich barked a laugh. "As honestly as you always have, huh? What, just because you couldn't, huh, Al? Half-assed mother fucker."
Dee glared, blood and tears mingling on his cheek.
"Watch it kid!" one of the attendants warned, but the man in charge pushed him back.
"Nice look there... If these guys had half your fire... What do you say? Want to come work for me, kid? You'd make a great crook, I bet."
Dee arranged Alberich's head more comfortably against his knees, holding him away from the pavement. "I'm going to keep living my life as honestly as I can." The fire in him flared then. "And one day, I'm going to be a Keeper - and not a half-assed one like you're used to!"
To everyone's surprise, the boss smiled. "Okay kid, I look forward to it."
"And then I tried to heal him," I tell my partner. "Tried to bring him back from the dead. I almost ruined my powers for good and almost killed myself. I was unconscious for six months. That's why I graduated late. That boss was right - Alberich was a half-assed Keeper, and a half-assed crook too. But when it came to being there for me, when it came to being a father to me - he was the best. Second to none." Suddenly embarrassment over my past sweeps over me, catches up to me. I'd always been ashamed to share this with Rhyoh, who had a family and a house and a normal life, but it's out now, it's there between us. Will he want me any less because of my background? "Don't you think so?" I finish weakly.
He smiles at me. "Well, you think so, don't you? That's all that really matters, isn't it?"
I smile back. "Yeah. I guess that's really all that matters."
To my surprise, he kneels behind me and taps me on one shoulder, getting me to turn my head - right into his lips. His eyes are closed - it's a lover's kiss, a soft and gentle thank you for sharing myself with him. Then he throws his arms around my neck from behind.
"You did good, Dee. You kept your promise."
I pull him into my arms, knowing Alberich wouldn't mind. "Thank you."
I'm dusting Bikky's room (he's sitting on the floor playing video games) when I come across the bullet on the windowsill. "Hey Biks, what's this?"
The glare prevents him from seeing, but he holds up his hand. I drop the bullet into it and watch him close his fingers around it. "Oh, this. Remember when Dee came to get me out of the Curved Horn?" He rarely mentions the place and I'd be the last one to try to get people to face things they're uncomfortable with.
"They shot him. They were supposed to shoot me. He got between me and the bullets. This is one of them." He hands it back and watches it get reestablished on the ledge.
I'm confused now. "Did Dee give it to you?"
He rolls his shoulders, trying to decide how much to say. "No, I kinda took it after he healed himself."
I settle on the edge of the bed, thinking. "You don't really mind him that much, do you?"
He grins. "Dude, for twenty bucks I'll tell you he's my best friend." Seeing no cash forthcoming, he shrugs and turns back to the game. "There are worse people than the perv," he says as I leave. I suppose it's as close to a blessing as I'm going to get.
The station's all aflutter. Denine and Rothschild have cooked up some big case against the Alvare family (bigtime drug runners and the same family Alberich got messed up with) and they have the boss's daughter in protective custody. Anyone who rats on the hand that feeds them makes me suspicious, but whatever. It's not my case. There's just one thing that worries me - Leskar is married to the girl. Yeah, Leskar. The dude that messed my partner up, who threatened to sell him into pleasure slavery. I hope Rhyoh will be okay, that he won't do anything rash. As I come around the corner toward our office, I hear Denine warning him against just that.
"Don't worry," he's saying, "Dee will make sure I don't do anything stupid."
"Woah, that look was totally suspicious!" the Marshall cries. "Have we resolved things at last, pretty boy?" I know I should go save Rhyoh from the embarrassment he's doubtlessly feeling, but I sort of want to hear what he says.
"Sort of," he admits. "I'm doing the best I can, okay?"
Okay, so it wasn't a confession of his undying affection, but it was still a pretty big step for Rhyoh. I let myself in with the announcement that I've brought coffee and spend the rest of the day working beside him.
I'm not sure just how Denine managed to twist me around her finger, but here I am, getting ready to go replace one of her people as Alison's guard. It should be easy enough - even Leskar wouldn't try to take on an entire hotel and a Marshall-appointed security squad. There'd be too much civilian bloodshed, and the Keepers would be forced to track him down and put an end to his organization.
Dee's sprawled across my bed, unwilling to leave until I do. "You sure you don't want me to come with you? You sure you'll be okay?"
I smile at him as I button my shirt. "I'll be fine. Leskar's not going to show up. If he tries to take her back, it will be out in the open somewhere - not in a hotel."
Dee nods, but continues to look troubled. "I still wish Denine wouldn't have asked you - or you wouldn't have accepted. You don't need to have any contact with those vipers."
I touch his hair, run a hand down my face. "Dee, I'm a good Keeper."
"That's the problem," he points out. "If you'd just slack off now and then like me, they wouldn't ask you to do all this special service bullshit."
I give him a light peck on the cheek. "I've got to go. Are you heading back to your place or will you be here?"
"I'm going to go home and try to rest." I know he'll sit and worry about me instead. "If the kids were here, I'd stay, but no sense rambling around by myself."
"Dee Lyghtner - could you actually be missing Bikky and Cal!?"
He lowers his head, hiding his eyes. "No," he grumbles.
"Biks really looks up to you, you know," I tell him as we head toward the door.
"He always did have bad taste." He places his hands on my shoulders.
"What is it?"
"Did you really think I was going to let you get away with that lame excuse for a kiss?"
I chuckle and lift my lips to his. "Hornball."
Sitting outside of a hotel door is not the most exciting job I've ever had - and the other Keepers more than agree with me. We alternate taking turns to go stretch or get a cup of coffee. Alison makes hourly offers of refreshments, but she's known for using sleeping powder for flavoring, so we always refuse.
"Your turn, Clarion," says Jack. "Go get some air."
Usually I prefer to
work straight through, but this sort of work requires a breather
every once in awhile. Without one, the simple dinging of the elevator
would be enough to make you crazy. Besides, Leskar's not fool enough
to show up here.
I decide to make my way to the car to get my briefcase. I may as well be working on something. I smile at the thought of Dee's note on top of my other papers. I still haven't made things completely right between us, but he's still with me, still waiting for me to get the courage to let him in my heart.
"Pretty night, isn't it?" a voice asks me from the shadows.
I stop instantly, hand going to my gun. The figure doesn't even look at me, eyes lifted to a lighted window in the hotel. "And my wife's up there with another man."
His cigarette glows orange in the darkness. "No need to shout. She's seeing the head of a rival organization, did you know that? You should inform your lady Marshall, tomorrow. It's less of a surprise, really, her affair, than how docile you turned out to be. A good quality in a pleasure slave, you know." He smiles, expression illuminated by the cigarette and a slash of moonlight so that it's all violent lines. "Now, I admit that I did a great deal to goad you on, the last time we met. But you were a whole different person, then, weren't you?"
Half words seethe out of my mouth, between my clenched teeth. "...s..posed...act..."
He drags hard on the smoke. "What was that?"
"How the hell was I supposed to react after being told all those horrible things!? You're the whole reason I became a Keeper in the first place - what you did back on Nadj! I wanted to hunt you down... but when I had you right in front of me..."
"You couldn't kill me. And you still can't do it now. You can't do it because you're so afraid of getting blood on your hands."
My heart stops cold in my chest. "Why do you keep doing this? Why do you keep asking me to kill you!?"
"Partly to give you your revenge - after this long, I'm sure you deserve it. And partly to give you a fighting chance."
I spin, scanning the alley for an ambush. "A fighting chance?"
"Yes. You and your organization have taken something of mine. My wife was foolish to go to you, and she will be dealt with - but your people are even more unwise to keep her. If she's not returned to me, I promise you'll regret it, Clarion. I'll make you forget all about your parents' deaths."
My weapon is aimed - sighted - in my hands, but my entire body is shuddering, shaking. I lower the weapon and spin on my heels, running from him, from work, from their deaths - from everything. For so long I've lived just for revenge, just for chasing the man I just let go. It's time to start living for something else, and I know just where to go.
I'm sitting on my floor after a shower, towel around my neck, open beer on the coffee table, when someone knocks on the door. I can't imagine who would be stupid enough to bother me at this hour. "Who the hell is it!?" I yell at the closed door. 'It's way past my bedtime, y'know."
It's Rhyoh. Something in his eyes tells me he's been recently broken, and I let him in without a word. I don't ask him about the job he's supposed to be doing or anything else.
"I-I'm gonna go get a shower," he says softly. "Would you mind calling Denine and Biks? Just tell her I had to go... and make sure Bikky's safe. Maybe ask JJ to circle around Cal's house for the next few days."
The fact that he's not taking responsibility for any of these actions himself, the fact that he's leaning so heavily and completely on me, tells me a lot. I nod. "Sure thing." Then the bathroom door closes between us.
It takes everything in me not to yell at Denine for putting him in another situation that upset him like this. She doesn't complain about him leaving his post, though - just says she'll take care of it. The call to Bikky takes longer; he's worried about Rhyoh and it takes a lot for me to convince him that everything's okay, that Rhyoh's just showering and not injured or in danger.
"Wasn't he supposed to work tonight?"
"He went in, but I think things got to be too much for him. This case involves Leskar."
"That bastard who murdered his parents," Bikky says loyally.
"Right. So he's a little shaken up, but I think he'll be okay." I hope he'll be okay. I hope he didn't shoot anyone.
Then Bikky surprises me by saying, "Take good care of him, Dee."
"It's all I wanna do, kid."
"I know. Have him call me tomorrow. Cal and I are hanging out."
"Be good," I tell him, voice smiling.
"And if you can't be good, be careful, I know, you perv. You too." Then he's gone. You too, huh? I guess I finally have the number one monkey brat's permission to court Rhyoh. Huh. Whodathunkit?
Dee's on his bed when I come out of the shower, still shirtless. His eyes meet mine instantly, concerned. "I called everybody. Denine says to get a good night's sleep and Biks is fine. JJ and Dragen said they'll keep an eye on Cal's place for you, too."
"Leskar got to you again, didn't he?"
I nod slowly. "Yeah, but don't worry, I didn't shoot him." I'm not ready to mention his threats yet. I know he has lots of people working for him, but I don't imagine he'll be able to find Bikky at Cal's - at least not tonight. I'll talk with Denine tomorrow and see if I can get some permanent security for him. He's the only one I worry about.
"You better not have, dolt. Because if you did, I'd be more than happy to throw you down again, 'specialy if you're all hot and sweaty from the shower." He licks his lips and I have to chuckle. That's my Dee - a one track mind to the end.
"I just got confused about some of the things he said," I find myself admitting. "And the next thing I knew I was standing at the door to your place. I just wanted to see you."
He hears something beyond my words and pulls me to his chest, a hand at my neck. Holding my face up to his, he kisses my forehead, my cheeks, and finally my lips. I'm shattering in his arms, but it's a good shattering. I close my eyes and open my mouth to him, caressing his tongue with my own. Maybe Denine was right, maybe I have been running from myself, from what I am. And maybe you can't outrun yourself. Maybe you shouldn't even try.
As he lays me down, I reach up to hold him, and he freezes, noticing the difference. He kneels above me for a long time, searching my face as if to find what's changed. I drop my shields and pull him into a long embrace, holding him tight against me. He's all I have left of family, all I have left of home. It's time he knew it. It's time I gave up Leskar, revenge and the past, and accepted what's been waiting for me all along, here in his arms.
When Rhyoh's shields drop, I almost pass out cold at the rush of love and warmth that rolls over me. Is this how I feel to him when I'm open? Gods... This is what it feels like to belong to someone body and soul. This is what love is. And he's finally ready to accept it, to accept the bond, to accept us.
I balance over him again, wanting to make sure that he has no regrets. "Are you sure about this, Rhyoh?"
His beautiful eyes are open and calm - he's not hiding. I can feel his hands on my skin, holding on, holding back. He moves them to my hair, holding my face in his hands. "Yes, Dee. I'm ready to belong to you."
There's nothing left to do but give in to him and receive the one thing I've wanted for the last three years. My life is whole again at last.
I gave in to what I wanted. I welcomed him in, and the world changed. This time when he kissed me, there were no walls between us. There was just his lips on mine - no fear, no running. All the things I finally got to sense, to claim: his deep green eyes, his fingertips on my skin, the taste of tobacco on his lips, the sight of the cool blue moons floating past his shoulders, throwing blue light over his skin. Shuddering, I held him to me; soundlessly, I begged him to enter me - to make me whole. He was worried about hurting me, I know, but the force of the bond being realized at last, for good, overrode what little pain there was. In that moment I was his and he was mine - forever. I cried his name out into the night, knowing I would never call for another.
The next morning, I woke first. He slept wrapped within my arms, breathing peacefully, gently. To think - that peace was what I had been fighting all along. Now, the final piece is in place. I feel whole, complete. I've finally come home.
Rhyoh's gone the next morning when I wake up... but he left me a note saying he'd meet me at work. Wait a minute... did we? We did! Throwing off the covers, I scream my naked triumph to the skies. "Woo hoo hoo!!!!!!" No regrets left in my life! As I walk down the stairs half an hour later, I'm actually smiling. Smiling on the way to work! I'm still smiling when darkness finds me.
"Clarion, I need to talk to you," says Commander Russelford, pulling me out of our office. I figure it's about Dee and I brace myself. Sure, he's an hour late, but Brushface... I mean, Russelford, has let him get away with a lot more than that. I follow him into his office and stand waiting,
"Clarion, this isn't going to be easy for you to hear. You may want to sit down."
I blanch. Leskar's threats! "Has something happened to Bikky, sir?"
His face screws up in puzzlement. "The boy you adopted? No, no, he's fine. This is about Lyghtner."
Oh gods, no! I just found him! To lose him now... The Commander must see my shock, because he guides me into a chair. "Easy, Keeper. As far as we know, he's still alive. We're doing everything we can to recover him safely."
"Leskar. He's taken Dee and is demanding we trade Alison back to him in return for him. Now, Randor, you know we don't negotiate with criminals..."
I don't even hear the rest. "It's my fault," I murmur. "I thought he'd go after Bikky... Dee's a Keeper - how?"
"Even Keepers can be caught offguard. We're not sure how they took him or how bad off he is, but we think we can find out. Leskar's asking to talk to you. Are you up to it?"
Caught in memories of all the times I could have killed the man, I can't even answer. And now Dee will die for loving me, die for my weakness. Russelford walks out of the office, shaking his head. He's giving me leave to compose myself, but I can barely breathe.
I wake to find knives embedded in my chest, my legs. I'm bound to something, but my vision is clouded by a red and black haze. I try to reach for my powers, but fall short. I'm too weak.
Someone flicks one of the knife handles, vibrating the blade. "Interesting thing about healers - how their skin will just heal right up around everything that's done to them. I imagine it will be hell to get those out." I know the voice, but it takes me awhile to place it, to remember it taunting Rhyoh, goading him to fire.
"Why are you doing this?"
"Simple. I don't want my wife to testify against my organization, well, her father's organization, but it will be mine. Your officers have her. I have you."
"They won't make the trade," I tell him, trying for defiance but not quite making it. Defiance would take too much strength.
"They won't, true. But what about Clarion?" He vibrates the knife blade again, making me sick. "You're leverage, you see."
The only thing I can think is better me than Biks. Rhyoh will at least have him.
It's the eighth day of our negotiations with Leskar. He only wanted to speak to me to gloat that he'd made good with his threat. I started punching the comm-screen and got myself sedated, but Dee's still his. I've been sleeping in the station, going out with every crew that's trying to find their location. They've got scramblers on the comm-channel, so it leads to different places every time. I feel certain that he won't allow Dee to live much longer. Then he will have killed all of my family.
I try, again, to plead with Rothschild. "Please, Sir. Give the girl up. Dee's a Keeper - surely he's more important than a case?"
"Clarion, I find it as regretable as you do that Keeper Lyghtner has gotten himself into this situation, but Leskar's organization is responsible for thousands of deaths. We cannot allow your personal attachment to Lyghtner to override that fact."
"Sir, if you're punishing me because Dee is my lover..."
"Keeper, that will be quite enough. Dismissed."
I've been too weak to try to reach for Rhyoh's mind, and I'm not getting any stronger. I don't even know what all they've done to me, but I'm pretty sure I'm dying. Even healers die. I cast my mind out, ready to say my goodbyes to the only person I've ever really loved. Tears seep out of my eyes at the thought of Penguin, Cal, and the brat, but Rhyoh will have to say those goodbyes for me.
I'm half-asleep on a couch in the station when I feel the moth-flutter of Dee's mind against mine. He pulls me up, over the city, over the canyons created by towers of steel, over the spires and glittering stone. I'm suspended above him when he presses a kiss to my mind; I feel it like lips on my forehead. I always loved you, partner, but I gotta go. It's my time.
And then I'm slipping away, falling back into my own body. "Dee!" I cry aloud. "No..."
Alison is behind me; I know she shouldn't be, but I don't even wonder about it. "Bad dream, Keeper?"
I swipe the tears from my cheeks. I don't know how to explain. "It's a... it's a lifebond. My partner, I can feel him."
The knowledge doesn't faze her. "Can you use what you feel to find him?"
The idea sounds absurd, obscene, until I remember that it's exactly what we did before on Stlenskoe. Gods, I've been a fool! I could have found him days ago if only I'd used the bond... but then, I've felt nothing from him in all this time. He must have been sheilding to protect me, to keep me from feeling his pain! "Yes. I think I can... but I think it's too late."
She takes my hand. "I don't think so. Leskar won't let him go without getting something in return. Track your partner - I'll go with you."
"But... but... how did you even get in here?"
"Your Marshall. I told her that I wanted to go back. I don't think she cared as much about me as about you, though. She said that you and your partner have been through too much to lose each other now. Take me to my husband, Keeper."
"Don't lose him," someone says. I was going somewhere peaceful, somewhere deep and black... but there's light coming through my eyelids now. Someone's pouring something down my throat. Something bites into my arm... but the knives are gone. Gone? I float away into white haze again, and don't return for a long time.
"How did you find them, Clarion?" the Commander asks me as we sit in the waiting room of the medical center, waiting for news of Dee. I try not to think of the burns, cuts, and bruises that adorned his torso when I found him.
JJ, Dragen, Tieg, and Rothschild are looking at me too, waiting for me to answer the question. The official story (courtesy of Denine) is that Alison drugged her guards again and escaped to Leskar's hideout. I just happened to find them both there. "Dee showed me where he was," I tell them. "He was too weak to send much - he wanted to tell me goodbye before he died - but I saw his location in the sending."
They're gaping now, disbelieving. "Let me get this straight," Tieg says. "You're saying Lyghtner can send you images?"
Russelford is less shocked than the other two. "You're bonded to him, then?"
I nod. "Yes, sir." I wonder if I should ask him if we're still allowed to work together, assuming Dee can work again. Dragen and JJ are together now, though, and no one has said anything about separating them.
"Humph," says the Commander. "I guess I was right to partner you up after all. No wonder you make such a good team."
I smile weakly. "Thank you, sir." Everyone else is still staring. I no longer care what they're thinking. Dee is all that matters.
When JJ nudges Rothschild in the ribs and says, "I guess you never really did have a chance, huh?" I actually laugh.
"I'm perfectly fine," I tell my lover, who stands trembling in the doorway. He's been coming to see me for two weeks, but the first sight always gets to him. I know he's thinking how close we came to losing each other. "Just come in, would you?"
"I brought company," he says, quickly swiping at a stray tear. "They refused to wait 'til you got home."
I smile as Cal and Bikky come into the room, loaded down with food and gifts. "If anyone had ever told me I'd be glad to see the monkey brats..." I say, shaking my head.
"I'd be careful who you compare to a monkey," Cal tells me after kissing my cheek. "That's a sure way to make sure you don't get any fried chicken!"
"I recant," I tell her, reaching for a plate. Leave it to Rhyoh to organize a full-scale hospital picnic.
Bikky perches on the edge of my bed. "Dude, you're missin' all kinds of stuff, being cooped up in here. I have a science project I need help on, and I had to stop playing StarBlasters, 'cause I didn't want to leave you too far in the dust. And I've had to feed your stupid bat!"
I can't help laughing. "How's Ma'at doing?"
"Pretty good," Biks tells me, "but she freaks me out at night, sometimes, y'know? I get up to pee and something comes flappin' out of the dark!"
We share other family gossip: Biks and Cal have a dance coming up, Rothschild and Denine have finally started dating, and Rhyoh's about to be talked into getting a pet. I'm voting for a tortoise myself, Biks wants a dog, and Cal wants a cat. If I know Rhyoh at all, he'd prefer something that stayed in a clean little caged in environment... like a pet rock, for instance.
"So it's been two weeks and you never did tell me what happened with Leskar," I point out over fried chicken and Styrofoam cartons of mashed potatoes.
"Well, after you finally contacted me - were you shielding or what?"
I'm surprised he's openly mentioning this stuff, but Biks and Cal are engrossed in lunch anyway. "Yeah. I didn't want you to feel if... you know."
"Well, I thought I was just an idiot for not being able to track you. Don't ever do that again, huh?"
"Dude, if you think I'm planning on being kidnapped again, you're crazier than I thought."
"Crazy enough to put up with you," he says. He has a point, there. "But anyway, Denine decided to let Alison go without telling the other Keepers or Marshalls, but Alison apparently had a plan of her own. I think she knew Leskar would kill her."
"So she killed him first?" I guess.
"Right. And I found you."
"What happened to her?" I ask, wondering. I had seen from the start that she was unhappy. But then, being married to a monster will do that, I guess.
"Ended up with the head of a rival organization, but I doubt we'll receive invitations to the wedding."
I flick the lilac ring at his neck. "Well, I guess we won't invite them to ours either."
He just smiles and I hear Bikky tell Cal that this is what they'll have to put up with when they move into my place. I raise an eyebrow at Rhyoh. "My place, huh?"
"It's bigger," he points out.
I've got to find a way to hide the fact that I've got tears welling up. I pull him against me. "You scamp! Planning on reorganizing my life when I'm out flat! Some friend you are!"
He can't stop laughing. "Well, I mean, Biks is already feeding the bat - we may as well put everything in one place." He sobers to take my hand. "That is, if you want to. What do you say, Dee Lyghtner, want to move in with me?"
Instead of words I make a soft sound that's like a sob, while Biks and Cal cheer and pummel me with pillows. Rhyoh takes my speechlessness for consent and explains that everything will be settled by the time I leave the hospital.
It took some doing - trying to find out what we had two of, deciding what to keep, what to throw away, and what to store for Bikky when he goes off to college in a couple of years. But now, after two weeks of hard work - even the guys from the station chipped in and helped with the furniture - everything is in place. After a three year battle, I'm home at last.
Dee comes in, panting a little from roughhousing with the kids. "I'm gonna grab something to drink. Want me to get you something?"
"No," I tell him. "Nothing for now."
Something in my voice strikes him. "For now? What do you mean?"
I walk up and draw him closer. "What I mean is that, right now all I want is you beside me."
His green eyes light up. "And this out of my shy heart," he says, kicking the bedroom door closed. "Sounds good, but how about on top instead?"
I can't help laughing as he lays me down on the bed. I guess it doesn't matter how we're together, as long as I'm with Dee for the rest of my life.