Look Into My Eyes

by Frost

Hurt/Comfort Warning/Disclaimer: Both characters go through intense inner pain in this section. Yeah, I know, like they didn't in previous sections. The fact that I'm repeating a warning should tell you something, okay?

 

Chapter Six

Annie hated hallways. Lit, unlit, narrow, wide, carpeted or bare as Moonscape, she hated them. Stepping out from the enclosed box masquerading as an elevator, her thigh muscles tensed as she resisted the sudden urge to run. Pain stole into her consciousness - like the bitter dregs of regret or loneliness. It was a true scavenger, unable to gain dominance unless the mind was weakened by fatigue or stress. All day she'd been able to brush aside the piercing protests of her leg, to walk without limping.

She stopped for a moment to gather her will and forced the sensation back into darkness. It went. Eventually.

"Mommy!"

Other things wanted to rise, though.

"Help me!" Brian Callaway's voice cried out from the caliginous depths of Annie's mind.

No. She clenched her fists tightly. No, this will not happen.

But she was no longer master of her house...

So dark. So cold. The shaft had been abandoned years ago, all the ore played out. There was no one to hear, no one to help. Only monsters played in this kind of darkness.

Annie lurched into a wall, vainly seeking handholds to clutch. The images arose faster, more vividly.

Brian was terrified...lost in the inky blackness of the mine. No light, only sound echoing endlessly, as if the very rocks were breathing...shifting...

He wasn't alone. Tiny wrists were bound with wire. No blood reached the chubby hands to give them feeling or warmth. The monster touched him... caressed through his hair...down his back...touching forbidden places. Brian screamed. He called for his mother, his father, God...but no one answered. The knife winked at him, seemed to smile. It slid through his shirt...cut away his Buffalo รด jeans...carved into flesh...entered him... moving...in...out... He screamed once more...and again...over and over and over...

"Stop it, Annie." Her voice seemed not to belong to her. Even the wall, so solid, so real, was but a fragile illusion compared to the gruesome images that foundered her consciousness. She forced her eyes open, not truly aware of when they had shut. Soft lighting and lavender called her out of the black mines and away from the ghost who walked them.

That one was bad. She fought to quiet her trembling body.

You've had worse. It was a truth she wished not to face.

Brian was comatose when they found him. His shattered body, coated in drying blood and semen, lay upon the rocky ground, like a petulant child's discarded toy. Shredded jeans were tossed in a heap, and the knife...was still... inside.

Mother of God.

Annie drew in a shuddering breath. She saw his swollen face each night, painted on the screen of her eyelids. The towheaded boy was dying. Any knowledge he may have had, any clue to the killer's identity, was dying with him. There had been no time for authorization, no chance to consider the consequences.

Delving into that child's tormented soul had made her weep. Nothing could stop the tears. She'd followed a sliver of identity to the edge of oblivion, feeling his pain, his defilement. Only a stinging slap from Fogle had roused her.

You went in too deep, Annie. And part of Brian came out with you.

Deep scans engendered bad memories and nightmares. Annie was intimately acquainted with those descendants. She drew breath, willing her wildly beating heart to slow. Most of the time her demons remained locked away in a dungeon. Only Morpheus held the key, capriciously transforming sleep into a war zone. Other times, though, the visions arose on their own, leviathans of pain that overrode her waking awareness. Almost every telepath suffered from these intrusions. The Guild provided counseling, but she had never taken it, not for this. Instead, Annie had buried the incident in the visceral darkness of her consciousness. Scanning a minor without the permission of his parents carried with it the penalty of "retraining," a quaint euphemism for personality alteration. So Annie lived with Brian's memories, or tried to.

I'm losing my mind. A fear never spoken that dogged her every step...

No. It is right where it's always been.

She had to focus. Sleepless nights, space travel and skipped meals had exacted a toll from her endurance. Nor did it help that Angela's headless corpse flickered through the sleepy hollows of her mind. It made concentration next to impossible.

And this miserable marathon of a day is not over yet .

West had conducted a second screening on Richmond and confirmed Annie's findings. He then commandeered a conference room, two secretaries, and four terminals. What followed was a near endless stream of reports, to the Guild, to Shogunata, to Creel... They had just finished the last when Alexandra Aultman sent forth a summons. The senior enforcer gave her leave to go, though he was clearly not pleased.

Like I was. She thought sarcastically.

Annie owned that she would rather crawl through the sewers of Sylth than meet a stranger, especially the media's beloved and hated "Golden Goddess." The slender CEO was always in the papers - usually with some pretty bit of fluff wrapped around her arm like a grasping set of handcuffs. A new face each time.

They touch one another so casually, these Normals .

Annie pulled away from the wall's comforting surface. She packaged up the pain shooting through her leg and cast it aside before continuing down the hall. No one passed her. It was then that she realized how deserted the corridor was, most unlike the bustling levels below.

No guards.

Ahead were double doors of gleaming mahogany. Silver handles shimmered as if illuminated from within.

There should be guards, McKenzie . Where are they?

She trailed a finger over the smooth wood wishing she dared remove the insulating layer of cloth between her flesh and its surface. Instead her hand closed on metal and tugged the door open.

The office beyond was tastefully decorated in shades of burgundy. Behind a black lacquered workstation was a lovely Asian woman. Annie's breath caught as their eyes met. Her body responded with a wave of attraction that unbalanced her, made her stare too long at the delicate features before her.

"Kimiko?" She heard her voice stammer in astonishment. "What are you doing here?"

Almond shaped eyes widened. The stunned secretary's perfectly shaped mouth dropped open before she replied, "Do I know you?"

"Of course...." Annie stopped herself. The emotions rushing through her belonged to Richmond. She didn't know Kimiko. She had never eaten dinner at the Petal Throne.

I'm in worse shape than I thought.

"Sorry," she fumbled. "I mistook you for someone else." Still, the Asian woman's presence was disturbing. To have so recently seen her reflected in Richmond's mind and then to meet her in the flesh...especially here... When did she start working for Shogunata? Certainly Richmond did not know of it.

Come on, Annie, m'love. People change jobs all the time. What difference does it make?

"Miss Aultman wanted to see me." Annie watched as a veil of nervousness passed over Kimiko's fine-boned features. It was quickly smothered by a coolly professional smile. Fragments of it remained, though, clinging to the air around them, unwanted visitors who refused to depart. Then the slight woman rose.

"Yes, Ma'am," she beckoned. "Ms. Aultman was called away by an emergency board meeting, but wanted you to wait inside. She does not believe it will take very long." With tiny steps she glided toward a second door of dark wood and silver trim. Her pale yellow suit whispered as cloth brushed skin. It softly sang of cherry blossoms and willow trees.

Graceful fingers topped by flawless nails trembled as they reached for the doorknob. Annie's eyes narrowed.

She's nervous again. Why?

A pulse of adrenaline rippled through her veins, spurring her to greater alertness. She moved close to Kimiko and let herself listen.

Apprehension. Anticipation. Fear.

The Asian woman was orbited by these emotions, each rising and setting in its turn. They created tiny pools of discord. Stepping through them, feeling them against her mind like water on skin, Annie moved into Aultman's office. She listened as the door clicked shut, as computerized tumblers engaged the pneumatic lock. The room was dark, filled with shadows cast by what light filtered through a wall of windows. In front of those softly glowing panels was a black desk, huge, oval, more like an ancient altar of sacrifice. Beyond it was another door...locked, no doubt.

As her senses continued gathering data, her mind began computing in an almost absent-minded fashion.

No guards. No Aultman. No exit. Can we say, "setup," Annie?

There was a smell...salt and sour, familiar in its own fashion, but repulsive in the most primal of ways.

Urine.

She did not move, only listened with her inner ear to the echoes that surrounded. Something happened here. Something bad. There were wisps of pain tangled around tendrils of terror. The hairs at the back of her neck stood at attention, paying homage to the currents of this room.

Remember, Annie, only monsters play in this kind of darkness.

It was moving. The monster. She could feel it rise, invisible in the heavy shadows. It was close...so close she could feel its -

Rage.

Molten emotion flooded over Annie's mental defenses. It wrapped around, seeking weaknesses. Instinct made her dive forward. She hit the floor and then rose to one knee. Hissing air behind her confirmed the attack. A silhouette stalked her, crouched over, moving stealthily. With it came a current of electric danger.

Maelstrom.

Four blades glimmered icily from the knuckles of her hands. They winked in and out of darkness like a madman's sanity. Breathing, rough, ragged was almost deafening in the silence. Panther-smooth, her assailant circled. Intermittent shards of light struck chrome-plated implants, creating a predatory glow that chilled Annie to her heart.

Shields were useless to deflect the waves of feeling sluicing off the dark woman. Annie could only ride the hurricane of fury as it buffeted her mind, leaving her drenched to the skin with emotion. Inside the storm's eye was a silken voice that murmured, "Kill her." Over and over it repeated, a liturgy of menace, of hate. With the voice came memories of pain, flaring like a series of exploding stars.

She tore her thoughts away as Maelstrom leaped forward. The assassin was inhumanly fast. Annie twisted right, stepping back. Her leg objected to the motion as the stress of straining muscle ripped flesh and stitches. She was still too slow. Fabric parted with a sigh as metal slipped effortlessly through her uniform. There was no pull of cloth, no sting of injury, but Annie felt a trickle of warmth spread from her shoulder.

Maelstrom slithered forward, tracking her relentlessly. Matted locks of midnight scarcely hid the twin moons of her silvered eyes. Dark liquid contrasted sharply against her chin and neck. Blood. A low growl sounded, deep in the dark woman's throat. Her consciousness consisted only of perception, wrath, and the desperation of a wounded animal.

"Easy," Annie calmed her voice, lending it a soothing quality belying the pell-mell beating of her heart. She raised her hands, palms out, backing away physically even as she reached out with her mind, using its energy like a hand, caressing over Maelstrom's unraveled consciousness. "Easy," she repeated gently. "I won't hurt you."

Her opponent shuddered. Annie felt those shockwaves reverberate through the anger, crumbling it at the foundation. Behind it was an abyss of isolation, an inconsolable loneliness that rivaled her own. That feeling of kinship stopped Annie in her tracks. She watched as bladed hands quivered, as ebony brows lowered in confusion. Softly, rhythmically, her words blended into a comforting mantra of nonsense. It mattered not what was said. The warmth of Annie's intention, and the assuaging touch of her psionic fingers were what held this woman in thrall.

Maelstrom's arms lowered. Her body straightened. Step by hesitant step, she edged forward until, once more, they stood but inches apart.

Unbidden, Annie's eyes closed as their bodies exchanged heat. The nexus between them strengthened. Stilling her thoughts, she followed the slender thread that bound them, listening. She could almost hear it...

There.

Pulsing currents formed complex chords of harmony, primordial vibrations that thrummed in time with two heartbeats. The consonance between them was nearly perfect. Annie exhaled, slowing her inner rhythm, bringing it into alignment with Maelstrom in the same sure way she tuned her guitar.

A strangled cry thrust her back into stark reality. Emerald eyes snapped open in time to see her darkling companion sag. Instinctively, Annie grabbed the falling woman around the waist and knelt with her. A black-maned head slumped forward to rest in the crook of Annie's shoulder.

It fit as if God himself had machined it so.

Physical proximity intensified their mental connection. Maelstrom's need was overwhelming. Remembered torture, a white-hot incandescence that scorched her mind and burned away her defenses left her craving shelter, safety and gentle contact. Who - what - these were concepts without meaning. Only the warmth of hands on her back, the tender weight of arms wound protectively about her, only these things were real.

Annie pulled the dark assassin even closer. Thin barriers of cloth were all that separated them from knee to shoulder. No one had been so near since she was a child. It felt - wonderful - to touch someone and be touched in return. Such simple pleasure was foreign to Annie, awakening a part of her that had been too long in slumber.

You need this.

She closed her eyes and trembled. All her discipline, her training deserted her in the wake of Maelstom's nearness.

It was absolutely terrifying.

Annie gasped at the onslaught of feeling. As she did, her nostril inhaled the rancid odor of sweat, blood, and waste.

My God. Who did this to you?

Concern for Maelstrom crowded past her own fears. The level of violation sickened her, filled her with a driving desire to protect this dark, tormented creature...and punish the one responsible.

The very notion was ridiculous. As a paid killer, Maelstrom was a living representative of evil, an unrepentant murderer. She was the last person Annie should wish to protect. And yet...this blackened soul was in such pain...how could she turn away?

In an instant, everything coalesced for Annie into a point of pristine clarity. "No one will ever hurt you like this again," she whispered through strands of ebony hair. It tickled over her lips like smooth silk or soft cotton. Every ounce of reassurance she could muster went into those words.

Maelstrom responded with what felt like desperate, pathetic hope. Her arms, which heretofore had dangled limply at her sides, rose to rest feather-light on Annie's hips, a simple, trusting gesture that threatened to break the carefully constructed dams that contained her tears.

No. This will not happen.

Annie's head snapped up as both doors to the office exploded inward. Blinding flashes of white light preceded a veritable sea of armored cybergrunts. The scarlet dots from laser sights peppered both women. Maelstrom tensed, trying to stand. Her anger returned full force and Annie hurriedly attempted to resurrect her shields. She simultaneously latched a death grip on the assassin's chrome-plated arm and prevented her from rising. Voices shouted, mixed with tension that painted a tangible picture of death and violence amid a cacophony of chaos.

"Don't fucking move!"

"Let me see your hands! Let me see them -"

"Watch her! Watch ---"

"I said don't fucking move! What the fuck is wrong with -"

"Shut up! Everyone! Shut the fuck up now!"

Maelstrom's face was once again contorted in a death's head mask of rage. Chromed implants zeroed each guard in turn then froze. Annie followed her gaze to find a golden skinned woman slinking in behind the soldiers. Chocolate eyes floating in an ocean of butterscotch skin roved languidly from the kneeling solo to Annie and a ruby-lipped mouth bowed upward in sardonic humor.

"How - cozy."

That voice. Where had she heard it? It flowed like honey over a bed of rusted nails, sweet unto nausea and jaggedly sharp. So familiar...

The auric goddess continued to speak. "We were coming in to rescue you, Journeyman McKenzie, but it seems you have matters well in hand." Brown eyes fixed upon Maelstrom and the tone became as barren and brittle as verglas. "You've gone too far this time, Ellie, attacking an Enforcer. I knew you were always - challenged - when it came to anger-management, but really, dear, you should have known better."

This isn't about you, McKenzie. Annie's thoughts moved at a frenetic pace. Even without telepathy, the corporate's contempt for Maelstrom was obvious. It oozed from her pores.

The solo's muscular shoulders slumped in dejected defeat as two armed men stepped forward to take her into custody.

You can't leave her here.

"No." Annie released her companion and stood. "She's mine."

She's always been mine . The thought arose of it's own volition, leaving confusion in its wake.

Her wounded thigh cringed, but she ruthlessly suppressed the pain, moving protectively in front of Maelstrom. "Thank you for your...assistance." The words became soft and toneless, as Annie continued to assess the beautiful corporate.

Brown eyes petrified into lifeless rock. "Corporate building. Corporate security. You have no authority here."

"Wrong." It gave Annie a warped sense of pleasure to watch the anger spread over Aultman's features. Here was a woman accustomed to being obeyed without question. "Any criminal act involving or directed against an esper falls under my jurisdiction." Behind her, she felt Maelstrom rise shakily and draw near. The tall woman's tenebrous presence both thrilled and steadied her.

Aultman's tawny brows leapt skyward, then crashed over narrowed eyes. Lips thinned in outrage. "You really don't want to do this, Hound," she hissed. "It could be detrimental to the good relations between The Guild and Shogunata."

"A pearl of wisdom it might behoove you to heed." With those quiet words, Annie twisted slightly and wound her fingers around Maelstrom's arm. The flesh trembled beneath her hand. Through it she could sense the dark woman's consciousness waver under the ponderous weight of exhaustion and shock.

They wound their way past the astonished guards and out the door. Annie kept her gaze locked with Aultman. Brown orbs fairly shimmered with anger, burning from within.

Her essence is fire, and she will blaze like the twin suns above Athalus until there is nothing left. You've made an enemy this day, McKenzie, an enemy to be reckoned with.

She pushed aside her thoughts, half-expecting one of the grunts to start shooting. None did, though, and she and Maelstrom eventually made their way to the somber world of urban gray.

Chapter Seven

El woke slowly. The clean smell of freshly laundered sheets wafted about her. She gathered the scattered fragments of her mind and painstakingly assembled them into a semblance of sanity. Through drawn curtains came an ashy light, the sun's pale blessing on a polluted world. In old, wrinkled pictures, the heavens were blue and vibrant, or black, but aglow with silvery moonlight. Now everything was twilight. Electric fires lit the night and industrial waste occluded the sun.

It's so easy to get lost when there is no line between dark and light.

A hazy kind of gauze coated her thoughts, penetrated only by the weary throbbing of her skull. The room she occupied was familiar in an illusory sort of way. Flashes of beige walls and oyster-shell carpet occupied the spaces between gaps in her memory. There were also spectral images of guns and guards, a lurid slideshow supplied by her mind as she sought more information.

Swimming in the mire was Aultman's triumphant face. With it came pain.

Tremors began and El pulled the covers more tightly about her. She felt dirty inside.

That's nothing new.

In the beginning...when Aultman delighted in torturing her for sport...she'd scrubbed her flesh for hours, until blood ran...and still she felt unclean.

Enough. You survived.

Thanks to a Hound.

Eyelids closed over optics as El faced that stinging slap of reality. Most of what happened was veiled behind a red-rimmed curtain of pain. It was normal for her memory to be jumbled. The chip in her head was designed to deliver many levels of punishment. Intensity and duration were at Aultman's discretion. And afterward...afterward there were lingering effects. Maelstrom's mind always belched forth a blinding rage that made her destroy people and property, in no particular order. After a few minutes, motor skills deteriorated as her body was thrust into shock. Finally the brain simply shut down, seeking velvety darkness in which to recuperate.

Aultman normally became aroused by the brutality. What followed could scarcely be called sex, but El's body craved the sensations, anything to cover the incessant flashes of remembered agony.

But last night was different.

Somehow the little Enforcer had pulled her out, brought her here...washed her. Maelstrom's thoughts drifted to the bath. She'd climbed out of darkness to the feel of hot water cleansing away the foulness of urine and sweat. McKenzie was fully clothed, even to her white gloves, and touched her with clinical, but gentle hands. Part of El had recoiled at the woman's nearness. Part of her had rejoiced. Those green eyes...so lush and alive...something about them captured her, calmed her.

Face it. You fell into them.

It seemed like a piece of her had remained there, wrapped in a quilt of rich, verdant moss.

She affects you.

There was no denying it. The mere fact that McKenzie was still alive when so many others had been ripped to shreds was proof enough.

You killed her sister.

El tried to stave off the image of flying tissue and spraying blood, but it scrolled maddeningly forward anyway.

"How do you feel?" A lilting accent cut through the waking nightmare and banished it. The breath El had been unconsciously holding exhaled in a soft sigh, and she opened her implants to find McKenzie waiting patiently. An untucked white blouse and sock-covered feet gave the slight blonde a mussed appearance, as if recently awakened from sleep. Seeing her like that made El's heart lurch. Instead of a merciless Hound, all she could find was a young woman, tired, curiously vulnerable and completely beguiling.

Slowly white-gloved hands lowered a pile of clothing onto a rosewood dresser. "I had these cleaned."

"Right," El muttered, sitting up. "Thanks." Too late she realized that she was wearing nothing beneath the soft, cotton sheets.

Emerald eyes took in her bare torso, sending a hot wash of red over McKenzie's pale cheeks. The blonde recovered, though, quickly shifting her gaze upward. "We need to leave by 0650 hours," she said, a trifle too fast. "West is quite particular about punctuality."

Perversity made El cast aside the remaining covers. She watched with growing amusement as the Enforcer's blush deepened. "Like what you see?" Her voice lowered and a teasing smile played at her lips.

To her surprise, McKenzie looked up, eyes deeper green than before, golden freckles winking within them. The snoop's steady regard became unsettlingly earnest. Then, deliberately, the jade orbs tracked down El's bronzed length. She could almost feel them sliding over muscle, skin. Her flesh reacted as if touched, coming alive in ways long ago forgotten.

Jesus.

The smaller woman never answered, merely turned away and left. El raked nervous fingers through her tangled locks.

In the poker game of life, baby, you were just called.

She made her way to the bathroom of peach tile and white porcelain. The mirror's unbending reflection showed that the wounds on her neck and face had been covered by pinkish swatches of Nu-Skin. The synthetic flesh had already begun to conform to her complexion and would be virtually invisible in a couple of hours. Chromed optics stared back at her, a reminder that she wasn't human. Surprisingly the flesh around them was not darkened with fatigue. That was unusual. After a session with Aultman... her brain shell-shocked from pain amplification... her body spent from answering the executive's voracious demands... even when she'd been stimulated until sweat pooled with her center's slick secretions...sleep was elusive. When it came at all, it rode a pale horse called Nightmare...and hell followed after.

Strains of music crept out from beneath the rug of her unconscious, bits of melody that chimed with the clear tones of bells skipping over water. Last night, when the hell-spawn locked inside her came to call and every soul she'd ever killed cried out for retribution, the music had washed over her. El frowned at the half-recollection, which gave only echoing notes of songs, softer than a sigh, almost hymn-like in their cadence.

Maybe McKenzie had turned on a radio during the night.

She splashed water on her face, tamed her wayward hair with a generic hotel comb and then dressed. A check of her bio monitor's time function revealed that it was off line.

Fuck.

There could be other problems. In her confused state, she had not even run a diagnostic on her hardware. El braced both hands against the rosewood dresser and executed several mental commands. Cyberscape's logo flashed across her implants as the program began its work. Minutes later a short list of malfunctions flickered into focus.

It was better than she'd thought, and much, much worse.

Residual impulses from the punishment chip had fried the infrared function of her cybereyes. The chips holding translator programs for Russian and Japanese were completely toasted...so was the TIC.

So when McKenzie had been holding her...bathing her...

No.

There had been nothing to protect her mind. The little bitch of a Hound could have ransacked through her brain at will.

El's hands knotted into trembling fists. Four slender blades answered the siren call of her temper, sliding from her knuckles with an audible snick of sound.

Her rapid strides carried her out of the bedroom and into the suite's smallish living area. A sofa and set of wing-backed easy chairs were centered there. Peach blossoms and blue birds decorated their surfaces. The small woman was seated quietly, eyes closed. Her stone-gray uniform was impeccable. Sandy brows twitched slightly as El approached, but otherwise the journeyman did not move a muscle.

Red-gold hair formed a radiant halo and El's implants became tangled in it. McKenzie's face was innocent in repose, and sweetly beautiful. Unlike Aultman's chill loveliness, the young esper brought with her an inner warmth, a caring nature that could not be fully hidden.

El wasn't sure how long she stood there, watching. But sometime during her vigil, the rippers slid back into their housings. Fingers relaxed, hung limp.

Forest green crosshairs zeroed in as McKenzie opened her eyes. For all her apprehension, Maelstrom found herself falling into them once more. Her mind struggled to figure out why, what it was about this esper that pulled her in.

"Are you going to attack me again, or not?" McKenzie's tone was one of polite inquiry, as if she'd been asking about the latest fashion trends. The pale features were drawn looking, haggard in the faint light.

Seeking distraction from the question, El noticed a carafe of coffee and plate of untouched pastries sitting on an end table. She poured herself a mug and sipped. All the while McKenzie watched.

Her traitorous biomonitor reported a slowing of her pulse and breathing. Objective, quantifiable evidence of the Hound's eldritch power. It baffled her, frustrated her.

You're not afraid of her.

No.

That's what really scares you, Maelstrom.

Desperate to escape a truth that pursued her with the tenacity of her own shadow, she finally found her voice. "You invaded my head."

A smile edged with sadness passed over the Hound's face. "I'm sorry." The emerald gaze dropped to some interesting point on the carpet. "Proximity increases telepathic sensitivity. I - should never have - touched you." She drew in a long breath, then looked up. "Should you wish to file a complaint..."

"Fuck that," El hissed. "I'd have to be scanned." She paced in agitation, from the table, to the suite's door, and back. "Look...I don't remember much about last night..."

"I arrested you."

Those softly spoken words stopped El in her tracks. It felt like all the blood had drained into her feet, poured out onto the floor. The little Enforcer made her way over to the table, pouring coffee. Then she continued. "It was the only thing I could think of to do. The alternative, leaving you there, was ... unacceptable."

El pondered the words, looking into the umber depths of coffee as if it were a scrying mirror. But the play of light upon its dark surface did not tell her how to respond.

She got you out.

So? Nobody asked her to interfere.

McKenzie's brows knitted and she walked over to a huge, square window to stare. After a moment, El followed. "Now what?" she demanded softly, implants tracing over etched lines of fatigue in the small woman's face.

Gray covered shoulders shrugged. "Now you'll work with me for the duration of this case."

"I can't do that." El recoiled from the idea. She couldn't stay, couldn't keep looking at the frail blonde, accepting her kindness. There was precious little decency left within the wasteland of her spirit, but even she knew that.

"So you'll go back to Shogunata?" McKenzie turned bits of shimmering green ice toward her. Those eyes drilled into her mercilessly.

It was El's turn to walk away. She was shaking, and for the first time realized how precariously close she was to breaking down. Aultman's torture, her games had exacted high tribute. In two years of torment, El had never begged, never asked for it to end... not out loud, anyway. But last night...

"Please. The pain..."

She'd reached the edge. If oblivion had not swallowed her... Aultman must have been thrilled when those words were forced out.

Going back would destroy her, what was left of her anyway.

"We'll figure something out." McKenzie's voice startled her, left her dumb.

We?

Turning at last to face the Hound, El could only stare in disbelief. "Why?" The question would not be resisted.

There was a moment of silence, as McKenzie seemed to weigh her answer. "Because I know what it is like to be owned," she murmured.

El noticed how deeply tension and weariness had scoured the sweet face before her. Dark circles surrounded jade eyes. Feigning disinterest she snagged a pastry and settled in one of the wing-backed chairs. "Did you sleep at all?" She stretched long legs out in a casual pose, as if the answer didn't really much matter to her. The Enforcer merely glanced at her watch.

I'll take that as a "no."

For the first time El spotted a worn looking guitar standing lonely in a corner. Amber wood was covered in tiny nicks and the pick guard was discolored from long years of touching.

Vibrating notes of music, near as skin, faint as memory blew through her like a zephyr.

She played for you last night. The sound of her music charmed your nightmares into surrender, let you sleep in peace.

How do you even begin to repay a gift like that?

McKenzie followed her gaze, seeming to rouse from whatever hiding place she'd put her mind. "I meditated. It is forbidden that a telepath sleep in the same quarters as a Normal. None of us can maintain our shields while resting, and our dreams will affect those around us." She gestured around her in a sweeping motion. "That's why this room is insulated with the same material in a starship's hull. Thought energy will not pass beyond it...neither will sound for that matter." A little smile awakened one of those endearing dimples. "It at least makes for good privacy." She sat her mug down. "Anyway...I did reserve you a room. It's one floor below. I just...I... didn't think you should be alone last night. Your former employer seemed irate."

"She'll kill you." El flatly informed her, between bites of breakfast. Cream cheese and soft pastry with a hint of honeyed walnuts...a delicacy.

"I don't care." The words were breathed more than spoken. Perhaps McKenzie was not even aware they'd been voiced aloud. Suddenly self conscious, the esper shook her head and frowned. "We have to go."

El set aside her coffee and did a quick weapon's check. The VP-98 was still snugged away in her arm's hidden holster, loaded, oiled, and ready. Her slight companion pulled on a ubiquitous black utility belt arrayed with pouches.

No gun.

West carried one. Perhaps it was a right reserved only for Master-level Enforcers.

McKenzie stepped purposefully to the door. El watched her walk a moment. There was a slight hitch to the esper's gait. "You're limping."

Green eyes snapped round in surprise. They slowly unfocused. The limp disappeared. "I'm sorry." McKenzie's voice was quiet.

"What the fuck for?"

But the blonde did not answer. Her gentle features had become inscrutable. El abided in silence as they traversed the hallway. Finally she selected another question. "What happened to your leg?"

"A bullet."

There it was again, that lifeless tone of McKenzie's. Something in it pulled at El. She wanted to....

To what?

To wrap her arms around this fragile woman and take away her pain.

You are in way over your head.

They took separate elevators at McKenzie's insistence. El didn't argue. She could ill afford for the Hound to hear her thoughts. Food and rest had given her the strength to rebuild her defenses. She felt stupid...weak.

El could only imagine how she looked, smelled when the Enforcer had pulled her out of Aultman's office. Shame burned her insides raw and painted her face in scarlet. She growled in frustration. Her emotions were coming unhinged, unglued. For so long there had only been a - vacancy where her feelings used to be. Lust and anger rented the space for short durations, but nothing filled it. Now, however, her emotional floodgates had opened. In the span of a single day she'd been hit by regret, hope, need, guilt and fear.

I've been afraid of snoops for a long time.

You murdered her sister, and you're terrified that she'll hate you when she learns the truth. Want to lie, Maelstrom? Lie to someone who doesn't know you so well.

The lift doors opened leaving her naked to an uncertain future where the ice was suddenly far thinner than it had ever been before.

Time to dance, El.