Florian and Noel were singing. Ray slowed down as he passed the room he'd outfitted as Noel's classroom. The door was closed but he could hear them working their way enthusiastically, if not quite tunefully, through an old learning song Florian had dug out of his childhood memories.

Ray stopped, leaning against the wall to listen. Florian's voice was strong and confident - much different from the way he sounded at night when he cried out in fear. Noel's voice rose above Florian's, full of delight at the song, and at spending time with the man he regarded as an older brother. The sound gave Ray chills.

It was only a year ago that Florian lost his innocence. The knowledge haunts Ray in ways that his own loss a decade earlier does not. Ray had traded his body for food, for medicine, for survival - and he'd had the illusion of choice.

Florian had no choice in his loss. He'd trusted Azura because he was Ray's friend, and he'd been betrayed by him. Then he'd been betrayed by Ray - twice. The first when Ray delivered him into Azura's hands, no matter how well intentioned his motives. Ray counted it as a second betrayal when Florian tried to warn him about Azura and Ray struck him.

Ray should have known that the same man who stood silent while he was whipped wouldn't strike out at Azura without a reason. Florian had only ever struck out at Ray because he'd been goaded into it. But Ray came to this realization too late, and Florian had suffered for it.

Ray had been so intent on clinging to his old friend, so determined to find comfort and safety in Azura's presence - like he had as a child - that he'd ignored all the warnings. Ray had always been too trusting.

He hid that weakness better now, behind clever words and savage intelligence, but inside, he was still the fatherless child, accepting the touch of strange men while longing for kind words and the security of a parent's embrace.

When they first met, Ray had been a little jealous of Florian's devotion to his mother. Perhaps that was why he'd pushed Florian so hard to reveal the location of the one-hundred-twenty carat diamond. If Florian had submitted to the knife and the whip, Ray would have won his prize and forced Florian to betray his parent. It would have been easy to dismiss the man afterward, to make him just another member of Ray s band of misfits. Instead, Florian had resisted, and Ray had been intrigued.

Ray didn't like to think of himself as careless - reckless on occasion, but not careless. His legitimate business as well as his adventures as Noir required great attention to detail and Ray excelled at both professions. Yet Florian managed to bypass all of Ray s usual reserves and quickly became important.

Which only made Azura's betrayal and Ray's own failures worse.

Florian had asked the question only once, on that long trip home from Tunisia when they were both wounded and not sure if they'd ever recover. He'd asked if Ray had ever killed a man. Ray hadn't answered.

Ray had hurt men before, whipped or cut them - made them bleed in order to get what he wanted. He'd even aimed a gun with intent more than once. But he'd never pulled the trigger and he d never believed that a man was dead by his hand. Not until the end, with Azura.

Perhaps that was part of what bound them together, Ray and Florian. Not just their mutual attraction or their longing for the safety and comfort of family. Perhaps it was deeper and darker than that: a shared knowledge of the weight of a weapon, the stench of fresh blood, and the hollowness left when innocence was lost.

::end::