A/N: I do not own The Cal Leandros novels. They belong to Rob Thurman. All kudos to her.

Crack low and soft and bristly, change of direction heralded too late by the end of a braid. Shrill high sing of the blade, notes changed in the barest of whistles, aligning the strike - flickerflash of light down sleek steel and blonde hair alike. Body lean and powerful, all grace and utter control. Perfection in the control, power restrained, and the rainsoft tap-tap of bare feet on matting. Nothing to betray the sheer power of the strike, thunder and lightning together in one swift blow, and grey eyes glittering like the steel - only hot and harsh, like the smell of ozone in the storm. Hurricane bent to will, focused into a single calm center surrounded by devastation.

Niko took the training room apart in methodical strokes, moving from target to target in silence.

And under the still calm surface beat a thundering heart and red blood raced down every limb, flushing olive-dark skin. The iron control hid a core of firey passion, rejoicing in the song of the blade with every scrap of soul, every beat of heart, delighting in the resistance, the cut. Perfection and still the hunger for something more, to be best of all, to rise above the limits flesh set. To strain farther still - he could feel that if he could just move faster, hold on, there was something just out of reach and that, that would be something wonderful, incredible...!

Forever reaching for beyond that perfection, because he felt he could reach it with just a little more.

And when he reached it - then, ah, then Cal could be safe forever.

Niko just had to reach that point.

He could make it, he knew, if he just tried a little harder, just a little more, and it was ever closer, with every straining breath, every driving flickerflash of sword.

But not today, and he knew it, felt the shift of body and give of wearied flesh. Limits again reached, and Niko came to a silent halt, braid swaying softly against his bare sweaty back. Disappointment keen, and he felt the goal recede into the distance, a distance reddened with the ache of tired muscles like a bloody sunset.

Not today. But soon. (How long had he told himself that?) But soon.

And Cal would be safe.