Battle Athletes Fan Fiction ❯ Pariah ❯ Closures and Openings ( Chapter 5 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

by Vosburg

Part Five: Closures and Openings

Disclaimer: No, still don't own Battle Athletes.

I open my eyes to unfamiliar surroundings, vague shapes visible in the light that enters through the shutters of the window. In a haze of confusion, my hand goes to my cloak, spastically seeking my dagger, before I remember that this is the loft that I rented last night.

Once I accustom myself to the view, and calm myself somewhat, I stand up slowly and give the area a more thorough going over. I ought to have done this last night, but fatigue was clouding my reason.

Not that it's proven my undoing. No one's come in to slash my throat, the cheesecake wasn't poisoned, for once I feel half decent in the morning.

"Ms. Walder? Are you well? Would you like breakfast?"

I whirl to face the trapdoor, before I recognize the voice of the woman who owns this house. I've been more nervous than usual lately, not surprising considering events. I compose myself and open the door.

The woman looks concerned. "You seem alright. However, since you didn't come out for breakfast, and lunch is almost ready, I began to get concerned."

This surprises me. "Lunch?"

"Well, yes. I serve lunch early, for this area anyway, before the midday bell, in about fifteen minutes, and..."

"'s almost *noon*?" I shake my head; I've been asleep for twelve *hours*?

"Not surprising," she says, somewhat more at ease now, "considering you've likely been through a lot in the past few days, from the looks of you. Give me three minutes, and I'll get a plate ready for you."

I give the woman a brief 'thanks', but she is already retreating to the stairs. I turn back to my duffel bag, and get ready to shower.

Not long after, I'm in the kitchen, still rubbing my eyes from last night. Having slept so well, I was sorely tempted to return to bed. The rational section in my head says I've been in bed far too long; another section, just as logical, says that I have yet to recoup all the sleep I've missed out on for one reason or another.

The kitchen is really quite rustic in appearance, something one might expect to find out in a remote country inn. Now that I think of it, most of the house is in the same style, except for two locations (including the loft) which look as if they've fallen into disuse. The aromas of newly cut wood, waffles, and hot syrup fill the air. I barely keep from salivating openly - it's been so long since I've experienced such pleasant scents.

The woman busies herself around the room, preparing lunch. As she sets some dishes and glasses in front of me, she introduces herself as Gabrielle. I must concentrate to listen to her and not watch all the food on the table.

"Well, go ahead," she says, indicating the plate. "Obviously, you are just straining at the bit to have lunch," she says, smiling.

I avert my eyes in embarrassment. Not that what she says is false; however, the statement illuminates my complete lack of manners. Even in my current state, I should conduct myself with some sort of restraint.

"I'm sorry, thank you for th - for everything you've done. I must seem ungrateful," I say, thinking that this is one of the few times I've ever apologized for being ungrateful.

She nods, silently, not offended at all. With consummate ineptitude, I try to make conversation...and that is rare for me as well.

"You...are here by yourself? This seems like a strain for one person to keep in order."

"At times," she replies, "there are periods of surplus and there are periods of rationing. As you can tell, this is one of the 'ration' times. Which is the reason, in part, that you are here."

I incline my head in curiosity, between bites of waffles and dashes of orange juice (fresh juice too - my eyes water in delight - I realize also that my emotions are closer to the surface as of late).

"You, Ms. Walder, are going to ease some of my financial troubles by staying here. While the price for the loft I gave you last night might seem nearly insignificant to you, as compared to some of the places you've been at before, to me it represents the best part of the money I require to repair and improve my place. I'd like to make it a sort of 'cozy inn by the sea', or somesuch. Although I suppose this doesn't really sound interesting to you."

I turn from my lunch to face her directly. For the first time, it strikes me that this does really fascinate me, and that it would not have a while ago. Before I arrived on the Satellite, I never thought that anyone like Gabrielle might have dreams of their own; much less would it have mattered. For me, it's been a major revelation to understand that others have goals and wants that they believe in as passionately as I did (do?). And for all the expense and pain involved, I can't say that *this* lesson is one I regret.

Oddly enough, my new perspective on others hasn't changed my old perspective on one person: Lahrri. I see now that in a way, she was an addiction, a feverish desire that I would do anything for. Despite knowing this, that desire continues. As they say, it's one thing to realize you have an addiction, but quite another to truly suppress it.

It occurs to me that my thoughts have strayed, and Gabrielle is no doubt curious as to why I'm staring at her.

"That's not true," I say, "this would make a pleasant bed and breakfast, at least *I've* found it so - but I might be biased." My voice falters. I meant for that to come out as a compliment, but it didn't sound much like one.

Not that I've much experience in complimenting others.

She doesn't take offense. "Once I get the renovations done, this will be quite a 'looker', so to speak."

I remember a statement she made earlier. "You said that you gave me the loft because I had money, but you also said there was.another reason?"

"Yes, there was. I wander among the harborfront shops often, and as it happened, I saw you twice last evening. One of those times was when you were in the company of a pair of rather dubious young men."

The memory comes back to me instantly, souring my lunch. I see clearly the faces of the ones I had dubbed Smug and Jackal, leering visages; I shake my head in an unsuccessful attempt to dispel the images.

Gabrielle speaks again. "I see you recall them. You are not the first they have propositioned. They make a point of nosing around for women who are in...less than desirable circumstances and offering them 'shelter' in exchange for...well, you know their price. I saw that you had refused them, but, when they left, I thought for a minute that I saw you waver. When you left shortly after, I wasn't sure if you had given in to them."

"No, I was not *that* desperate...yet," I reply, with less confidence in my voice than I'd like - that particular memory of last night surfaces with unsettling clarity. "I returned to my hotel. It was time for me to.well, the manager said I had to leave today, so I had to go back for my possessions."

"What a relief. You see, after you left, I was thinking about your dilemma. However I might disagree with your actions on the Satellite Academy, no one ought to have to suffer through what they planned for you. I think I'd have given you the loft, for a short while anyway, just to keep you out of their hands. I just couldn't believe that you deserved anything like that."

"I wonder if anyone else thinks that. I've gotten the impression that the public thinks that there *is* no humiliation that I should not have to endure."

"Despicable," she says.

"Um?" Not an articulate reply, but I've been off my game as of late.

"Ms. Walder, I don't really know why you did what you did, and I can't say that I was happy about it either. However, just because some citizens felt some degree of embarrassment doesn't justify subjecting you to any debasement that comes into their head, nor does it exonerate their descending to barbarity in the name of 'just revenge'."

I say nothing, but my smile is the embodiment of gratitude. It's one of the few times I've smiled recently.

"About the loft...thank you for allowing me to-"

"Don't worry. As I said, there are certain acts I won't commit for the sake of retribution. Financially cutting my own throat is one of them. I imagine you've been turned away even by some inns that haven't been doing too well, merely because of their distaste for you?"

I nod my head. That's happened more times than it's comfortable for me to remember.

"Yes, well...they might have the luxury to do such, I don't. Not that I'd rent to someone I *really* had a problem with, but that would likely be because I knew them personally. As for you, in person you don't seem such an unsavory sort."

"I...I've been through much as of late, as you said earlier. And while I don't think of myself as unlikable, since I've come back to Earth, I've...sort of had reason to see my actions from a different perspective."

"In my opinion, everyone ought to do that from time to time." She shakes her head, as if recalling something. "Oh, but here I'm sitting, nattering on and interrupting your lunch. Well, I can at least let you finish eating in peace."

She gets up to leave, then stops to give me the regular mealtimes for the house, instructions on where to leave my laundry, and various other items of interest. She then walks out, her thoughts seemingly miles away.

I wouldn't have objected to her staying. It's been so long since I had company during a meal - not that I made a point of eating with others, but now...

Now I'm alone with my thoughts. A solid night's sleep and some wholesome food has brightened my mood considerably. Yet, a nettlesome question refuses to go away:

What now?

That is, now that I seem to have a residence (for the present; I don't delude myself that this is a long-term arrangement) and no longer need to frequent restaurants that are generally mediocre, what ought I to do with myself? The various academies are still no more disposed to accept my application, and my reputation remains in the sewer.

I head back to my room. After familiarizing myself with the loft a bit - as I didn't really get a decent look last night, I begin my exercises. In my improved mood, I find that I've much more energy.

I haven't come up with an answer to where I should go from here, though.

I complete my exercises and sit on the bed, trying to think which path I should follow. I incline my head as I hear Gabrielle climbing the ladder to the loft. She calls out in case I'm unprepared, then her head appears.

"Ms. Walder? I don't like saying this, but please use your discretion when entering and leaving. While I have no objection to your remaining here, I don't think either of us needs any trouble with the local citizenry. Sorry for being so blatant, but."

"Don't worry, it's only reasonable that you would be concerned," I reply; I see that her expression is one of nervousness, it's the first time I've seen such on her face. "And we are in agreement that any trouble is not to my benefit, or yours."

"Well, thank you. Again, I'm sorry-"



"I'm not mad, really. And call me Mylandah."

She nods, apparently reassured, and goes back down the ladder.

As she does, I consider my simple statement with fascination. It seems so trivial, yet a year ago, I would never have considered allowing someone like Gabrielle to refer to me in such a familiar way.

However, we are now housemates. No, more than that, we are symbiotic. I provide capital she requires, and she provides me with a shelter from the inhospitable outside. I'm nearly certain that I've gotten the better deal.

I consider her words as well. However gentle, she's pointed out that I must continue to watch myself, remain on guard. I look at my cloak. With the inclement weather, I've an excuse for holding it tightly around my face, so I'm all right there. I think I'll time my activities so that they begin before morning and end at dusk, so there shouldn't be many around for my departures and arrivals. Perhaps I ought to get some new clothes - too much time in the same outfits could make me easy to trace when I'm discovered (Not if - when. I have no delusions that someone will eventually spot me - the only choice I have is to delay that as long as I can). The trouble is that buying new clothes requires that I show myself at the store, which means at least one person will recognize me, and having sold me the clothes, will know what I'll be wearing.

A thought comes to me, one that might solve some of my vexations, at least. I examine it for flaws, then head downstairs to discuss it with Gabrielle.

By night, I have a pair of new outfits, and she's made a bit of extra money. With the cover story of a 'slightly infirm tenant', she's gotten me some new clothes; drab, loose fitting, and just what I require not to attract attention.

I discuss plans with her over dinner. There are other items to purchase, and I offer rates - over what I'm paying in rent - for her to buy them for me. After I'm assured that she won't be straining herself too much, the bargain is set.

For the second consecutive night, I sleep soundly. Going downstairs to eat is now one of the most anticipated times of the day. I continue exercising, even if I must make myself - with so much wonderful food around, it's an effort to get going on my physical training. I think on my time at the Satellite, when I had nothing but contempt for those who let their desire for food get the best of them. The memory makes me recoil slightly.

I've not gone outside since I've come to this place. But that's only because I need to recover myself after the past week. And with a comfortable mattress (for once!) and food I actually *want* to eat, it isn't surprising that I haven't been hurrying to get away from the loft. Besides, now that I've been able to 'dress my wounds', I can go out at any time and...

I halt, the thought dropping off to a whisper. The idea of going out is...unsettling. When I remember the weather, the glares of the public, the countless incidents of disrespect, the prospect of facing them again is...

Sidestepping the implications of that line of thinking, for the third time I sleep, without going outside.

The third day of my stay, I'm on my way to breakfast. Gabrielle is at the table, looking rather serious.

Again entranced by the food on my plate (omelettes and crepes - am I dreaming this?), I'm only half paying attention. I've gone through most of the crepes before the expression on her face registers.

"Is there anything...amiss?" I ask this out of curiosity, as I cannot think of what I might have done to offend her.

"Are you feeling all right?"

"I haven't been this energized in months. Why do you ask?"

"Nothing, that is...forget I said it."

Sensing that I know the problem, I open the dialogue myself.

"Don't worry, I'm just staying in until I get myself straight again - recoup some lost sleep, resume my exercise patterns, then I'll get back to work...such as it is"

As I speak, I see instantly that the statement is false, but at first I don't know why. For some reason the thought of going outside makes me recoil.

Suddenly I know. The reason comes from my subconscious, refusing to remain silent.

I'm scared.

Rarely have I used that phrase in my life. But that is the only logical answer. After two days of decent sleep, decent food, and above all, decent treatment, even thinking of stepping into a city (more accurately, country) of hostile people is unbearable.

"Ms. Walder...Mylandah," Gabrielle says, slowly, "if this is what you want, to remain here, I won't contest the point with you. But, while I generally don't make a point of suggesting how my guests ought to conduct their lives, in this case, I hope you won't be offended if this is an exception. Although, it must seem imprudent of me to say as much to someone who is paying me so well."

I recognize that she is asking if I want her to continue, in a circumspect manner. I nod for her to do so. I see also that she is making an effort to use my first name. My mother would go spastic if she knew I had allowed someone like Gabrielle to refer to me like that, even now; she would never think of Gabrielle as other than a servant.

"I don't think it will benefit you to remain inside indefinitely. For the first two days, I could understand - you had to rest, clear your head, get back to yourself. But now, you - and forgive me again if I'm being insolent here - seem to have begun to closet yourself in the loft. The reason I breach this matter now is to prevent you from postponing it will be more demanding to go outside the longer you wait."

I gaze at the plate, not meeting her eyes. "Gabrielle, in my head I know that you are right, but...what's the point? Most everyone is not friendly to me, if not openly hostile. I've nearly no prospect of getting back into one of the training academies, and I've really no thoughts as to what else I could do. You say there is no benefit to remaining inside, but I ask you, what could it benefit me to go *outside*?"

She does not reply at once, and for a second I have the odd feeling that she did not hear me, although she must have.

"I don't believe you really want to stay inside."

I look at her in confusion.

She goes on. "News is at times not easy to avoid, even if you're not particularly interested in hearing it. At the time of your 'dismissal' from the Satellite, there were many lengthy stories about this or that aspect of the race you had...interfered with. One of these aspects that I found odd was that you had not interfered for your own benefit, but for another athlete."

I shiver slightly. The image of Lahrri's face seems almost to coalesce in front of me.

Gabrielle seems to hesitate at the thought of saying more. But then, I see a slow look of determination cross her face. She conquers whatever doubts were troubling her, and continues.

"If someone were to risk their reputation and honor for another knowing the consequences if they were caught, this suggests that they must have strong feelings for the person for whom they intervened. While I do not know exactly *what* those feelings were, that they would inspire you to do such says that she meant much to you."

She gazes at me, as if she thinks I already know what she is about to say. What is odd is that, in a way, I think I do.

"What I think is that you have not resolved those feelings - and until you do, you won't be able to go on with your life, no matter what you eventually decide to do. How you will do it I don't know, but you must clear this obstacle before you can accomplish anything. As I said, this isn't really my concern - perhaps that's why I've not made a great amount of money, being overly interested in my tenants' lives - but I don't want you to spend the remainder of your life in some kind of stasis, always stuck at one point in your past."

Gabrielle's voice drops off then, as if she feels she's overreached her boundaries. She excuses herself clumsily and leaves.

She likely thinks I was going to disagree with her. I do not, and I cannot; what she said is so blatantly true that contesting it would be like contesting the existence of the knife I cut my breakfast with: I can say it's not there all I want, but if I cut myself with it, there will still be blood.

With the point of her speech so unassailable, my only remaining option is to determine what I'm going to do about it.

She's right; I've got to see Lahrri again. The nonsense of the statement does not faze me; that I haven't the remotest concept of how I'm going to get back to the Satellite Academy is irrelevant.

Which is just as well, as no thoughts come to me on that matter. I return to the loft, sitting on one of the crates strewn about. I find no answer to my problems. For no real reason, I look around at the loft again.

My gaze falls on a small mirror. I found it earlier while acquainting myself with the surroundings.

The past few days have been a healing experience for me in several ways. With the assistance of the mirror, I've properly seen to some blemishes on my face that have gone untreated for some time. Since I've finally gotten some ointments (thanks to Gabrielle), I've also relieved myself of the chafing near my waist, and not a minute too soon.

However, now I just look at my face in the mirror. While I appreciate that I now look closer to my age, and not Gabrielle's, my face is still unwelcome most anywhere I go. Being in the spotlight for so long is no longer beneficial when you fall from the public favor. My face is...

My face.

My eyes narrow. A whisper of a thought comes to me. The angles and lines of my face sharpen in the mirror as the thought shapes and clears in my head.

Even as it comes into focus, I realize my plan is nothing but desperation. There are so many ways for the plan to go wrong that it almost brings me to despair.

However, I continue to shape it. There is little choice.

This is the only plan I have.

Many hours have gone by. I'm still in the loft; however this time it's not from fear of going outside. I promise Gabrielle that I'll go out tomorrow. Now, however, I've been constantly at my laptop, sending an avalanche of emails. I've also been on Gabrielle's vidscreen several times. I'm using every favor I'm owed, any influence I have remaining. Many of those I speak with have the 'I rather hoped not to see you again' expression on their faces. Some are, putting it mildly, reluctant to speak with me - it is fortunate that I inherited from my mother the trait of having a secret or two to hold over their heads. Nothing like the threat of having old blunders brought to light to make someone more agreeable.

My family's financial counselors are first. I have the least trouble with them, as they continue to manage my funds, irrespective of my relations with my family. I shift my funds into some 'unlisted' accounts - in small amounts at first, as I must make sure I can access them.

Next come a series of family associates: Doctors, in-home teachers, clothiers. The queries I make are innocuous, as I must give no inkling of my plans. Some of them do not hide their contempt, and make it known that they are only speaking with me on the understanding that I won't contact them again. The process is much like wading through deep sand. Yet, at some length, I find most of what I'm seeking.

By the time I go to bed, my plan is nearly complete.

The next day, I'm up early. I tell Gabrielle that I won't have time to eat. She insists on giving me some fruit and bread in a small pack. At first I demur, but then I remember what I was eating before, and accept the rations. When I get to the door, the fear of facing people again brings me to a halt. I have to brace myself three times before I finally push myself outside.

The weather is still as it was when I arrived, wind continues to fling debris about the streets, and the air, if not frigid, is cold enough. Even with my cloak, I have to accustom myself to it, after so much time in the warmth of the loft. As it is before dawn, the streets are almost empty; just how I want it. After noting prominent features of the area (it wouldn't do if I were unable to find my way back), I head for a shuttle going to Paris. This involves some risk, as I have to show identification for my ticket, but I cannot avoid it. Luckily, the agent does not spread the news around, and I get to Paris with nothing more than some glares from the other passengers.

As unobtrusively as I can, I make my way through the districts. The various items I ordered on my laptop the previous day I now retrieve and stuff into a musty leather backpack that was in the loft. Since I've no doubt that some of the shopowners will speak of my purchases, I've asked for many items that are extraneous, to throw them off my scent. If my plan is to stand even the remote chance of working that it has, it's imperative that no one know what I'm about to do.

My journey through the city is uneventful, for which I'm grateful. The unassuming clothes that Gabrielle purchased for me work as well as I could hope; no one stops to examine their owner too closely. After carrying the leather pack around, as it's weight grows steadily, I halt for lunch. Reflexively, I look for a sparsely occupied café, before I remember Gabrielle's rations. I find the most deserted spot I can before I eat.

I eat perhaps faster than I ought to, but to remain here any longer than necessary is to ask for someone to recognize me, and I've no inclination to push whatever luck I have. I'm nearly ready to leave when I see some of the locals begin to appear at various places along the street. I restrain myself from slapping my head with my hand - even if I deserve it. I had lunch at the same time as everyone else; of course the streets would be filling with those on their way to and from the various diners. I pull the collar of my jacket over as much of my face as I can, even though it's warmer in Paris than it was in Boulogne. No one is paying attention, though, and I nearly sigh in relief. I'll wait a couple of minutes, then amble away.

As I wait, I hear pieces of conversation from those meandering past. Most of it is irrelevant to me; I'm about to leave when two young men, college types from the look of it, come by.

I pull my collar up and turn my head, hoping they haven't spotted me yet. My worries are unfounded; they are engaged in lively discussion. I catch sections of their conversation; they are talking about some northern suburb of the city, and how it is now rather disreputable. Not the kind of area you ought to wander around by yourself.

The pair amble off. I remain sitting for a minute, then slowly exit the area. I recall now that in one of my emails I asked about a service which was precisely in that disreputable suburb - one that I must make use of. I find a semi-private spot and check my laptop. The reply states that the service I wanted is available, but won't be for long - not surprising. There is also a list of terms. I reply that they are acceptable; I will need to check my mail at frequent intervals today, as if my go-between is able to arrange a meeting, I won't have much time to spare.

Many might be surprised that I would know how to reach such shady individuals, but my mother's business deals periodically involved such types. I found some links to others of this ilk on my own later on, when I ran across the 'secrets' certain associates of my family had, secrets that have allowed me such leverage over the past two days. Odd, however - while I wanted to use the secrets as potential leverage, I never believed that I'd be using that leverage to arrange a meeting with the 'disreputable types' myself.

My mail checks begin at half hour intervals. As the day passes and evening nears, the intervals wither to fifteen minutes. Just as the sky is turning orange from sunset, I see the reply. I'm relieved and fearful at the same time.

My go-between says that I'm to show up at an abandoned shop, gives me directions, and stresses that I have to arrive before 9:00. Naturally, as I reason that whoever is there doesn't stay in one place for long. As much as I'd rather not, I head north, after getting a cab whose driver apparently doesn't know or care about my identity.

With two hours to spare, we are outside the suburb. Even at a distance, it is unsavory, bringing to memory some of the more repulsive motels I've been at.

The driver refuses to continue. Wonderful.

Perhaps in my past, I would have plunged ahead without hesitating, defying any of the locals to interfere with me. Now, I have to stiffen my resolve just to enter. I feel for my dagger, and make sure I can get to it easily. I pull my cloak from the pack, wrap it around myself, hoping it makes me look ominous, and set off. If conditions allowed, I would have gone back to Boulogne to drop the backpack off, then returned here without the extraneous weight. However, to travel is to risk being identified, so I have to get everything done on this journey.

I stride through the area; it doesn't do to look lost in places like this. I memorized the path to the shop during the ride, but I'm not sure I can find the reference points in the fading light. I experience two incidents of near panic when I cannot find the reference points the map referred to. After backtracking a bit, I find my way again. Small packs of locals mill about, or lounge about on the streets; fortunately, most are casting belligerent glances at each other, or clouded in alcoholic stupor, to pay attention to a dull woman in drab clothes. I still have enough of a cold gaze in my crimson eyes to deter the remainder.

When I get close to the location, I slow, looking about before I bound ahead. I spend fifteen minutes dashing from spot to spot, like a thief, trying to remain unseen. Finally, I arrive at an area which seems to resemble my target.

A sign in front of one of the shops says 'Odd Items For Oddballs'; as I near the shop, I see the inexpensive, throwaway flotsam that was the shop's inventory between the iron grates in the front. This is where I'm to meet the person, but I see no one. I glance casually along the street - still nothing. Could the person I came for have decided not to...

"You can't read, or is it you don't know that iron grates in front of a place usually means it's closed?"

I must use all my control to keep from leaping into the air at the sound of the voice. I spin back to the door, where a thick-set man has appeared. I didn't hear him open the door.

"I'm sorry, I heard you had some rare items, and I have brought news of your sister."

That was what I was to say when I met the person.

"You came out here to give me a message about *that* upper-class lackwit? As if I want to hear from *her*?" The man's voice is more strident now, no doubt for the benefit of any inquisitive ears. "Drop it off near the back entrance, and get outta here."

The door crashes shut.

I head for the back entrance, as I was instructed. That was the proper response, even if he embellished it somewhat. Suddenly, it occurs to me that I never got a clear look at his face. The area in the rear of the shop is close; boxes and debris line the alley. I keep alert for an ambush. I'm at the entrance for three seconds when the door opens. The man speaks again; not as strident as earlier, close on a whisper.

"You aren't inside in three seconds, the bargain's off."

The words surprise me. While I know he is trying to get this over as fast as he is able, the thought comes to me that this could easily be a setup. I'd be in an unfamiliar room, alone, with someone I know is disreputable.and this is assuming he doesn't have someone with him.

If I don't do this, however, my entire plan has even less chance of working.and it's a longshot as it is now. I'll just have to remain alert. I plunge through the door, whirling about as soon as I'm on the other side to scan the room.

I see no one else. I whirl again to see the man by the entrance, sliding an iron bolt across the door. My hand is already on my cloak, casually brushing the surface, seeking my dagger.

"Sorry for the abrupt invitation," he says without a trace of sincerity in his voice, "but I don't like attracting attention. There's a chair to your right, so if you'll get settled, we can get this over with."

As I head for the chair, I can make out objects in the dim room. On a counter is a small porcelain container with instruments sticking out, with the case it was brought in beside it. Presently, I detect the smell of antiseptics. Some of it has spilled down the side, staining the counter. Obviously, this was set up in haste, and will disappear just as fast. I tell the 'doctor' that I have the payment, and withdraw it from the pack, my manner innocuous, completely without provocation. I leave it on the floor and back away. After shifting it to the counter, he counts it swiftly, keeping one eye in my direction.

I look again at the man. While his voice sounded strange earlier, I was too preoccupied to pay much attention to it. Now I see that he is wearing a surgical mask, and a stocking over his head. His face is thus indistinct, and his voice distorted. Surgical gloves cover his hands.

"Seems you got a lot of spare time. I don't. You plan to spend the rest of the day reveling in the scenery, or are you going to get on the chair and tell me what you want done?"

I hesitate. While this is not the best time to recall it, I have a perpetual dislike of doctors (and dentists, for that matter). For most of my life, I've mostly been in control of any situation I came across. That aspect of my personality I got from my mother, naturally. As such, I'm uneasy with *not* having control, the superior position, the upper hand. With doctors, however, you often find yourself sitting or prone. While this might be necessary, the thought of being in a disadvantageous position while someone with sharp objects stands over you and does anything they are inclined to do has never found favor with me. I consider it the same as being a defeated opponent lying at the winner's feet. Instinctively, I react against it.

One of the greatest feats of self-restraint I have managed was not breaking my gynecologist's arms when he explained the position I was supposed to assume.

With a visible effort, I lean into the chair. Briefly, I tell the man what I want done. The 'doctor' nods and turns to the porcelain basin. I hear an object swishing around in it. He goes to the shops sink and washes his hands with water from a canteen. I attempt to keep myself steady.

Finally, he finishes, and comes to the chair.

"You want some cognac or anesthetic?"

"No," I reply, "I'd like to remain alert." That is nothing less than truth. Not only do I still not trust him, but I have to go through the streets of this suburb again when I leave, and I do *not* like the thought of doing so with dulled senses. I must endure whatever discomfort there is.

"Your choice. One more safety measure before I get going here."

I blanch as he reveals a pair of straps. "What...are those for?"

"Little prevention device, same as holding someone's arms when you're going to do surgery and you don't have anesthetics. While the pain might make you feel like clawing at anything you can reach, I don't feel like *being* clawed, so..."

With practiced ease, the straps are around my wrists, binding them to the arms of the chair.

I want to run away. I have no reason to trust this man. If this is a setup, I've no way to defend myself.

"Right," he says, half to himself. "This is the part where I say 'if you got any reservations about this, now's the time.'"

I ought to say yes. If I have any sanity remaining, I ought to throw him the money I brought and flee from the shop and the suburb and try to think of what was in my head when I came up with this.

However, I merely nod, keeping my face impassive. At least until I see what he's holding. I had thought it was a scalpel, but it is a serrated knife.

My impassive stance falters, and my voice as well. "You aren't going to use that...that is...don't you have a proper instrument..."

"You want this cut semi-distinctive, right? Well, this is better than any surgical instrument for that purpose. Don't worry, the scar won't look like anyone else's, I have pride in my work."

That is not reassuring.

The man begins studying my face, peering at it from different angles, like a person studying a sculpture he's working on. An abrupt warning to not twitch is all I get before the knife passes experimentally in front of me, far too close for my liking. The thought occurs to me that even as a criminal, this man might have been as offended as anyone else by what happened on the Satellite - who's to say he does not have a sense of patriotism - and sees this as an opportunity to get even. Conversely, he might just want the money I brought, without having to fulfill his end of the contract...especially if that requires leaving a witness.

Panic rises in me as the knife passes in front of my eyes again. At this range, all it would require is a flick of the wrist, and I'd never know what hit me.

My fear suddenly gives way to memories of my actions on the Satellite. Several of them hurt others. Some were supposed to, but did not for some reason. I wonder if this is where the score is evened.

How ironic, also, that my fate depends on the reliability of a man who doubtless will get several years in prison if he is found by the gendarmes.

At length, he is satisfied with whatever he was thinking about. The knife comes up to just under my right ear. I can't really see the knife, I just feel it, a light pressure on my face.

A hand appears in front of me. I blink in confusion, then attempt to pull away as it seizes my jaw roughly, pulling me around to face the knife. My panic returns many times over. This *was* a setup, after all and I cannot do anything about it.

I've failed.

I see the dull ceiling of the shop, and think of the Satellite Academy beyond, in orbit. She'll never know what happened to me -

One thought, likely the last, bursts into my head:

Lahrri, please think of me. Remember me just once, wherever you are -

The blade comes at me. I feel sudden, great pain as it gouges me under my ear. It weaves it way down my cheek, bringing more pain.

And as abruptly as it began, it pulls away, and I wince as my face begins stinging from the cut. My jaw has not been released from his grasp, and my eyes are beginning to tear. I see through blurry vision that he has picked an object from a pouch at his side. I have just enough time to recognize the surgical thread before the man begins to stitch the cut. I must say that he does have skill; I barely feel the needle as it travels up the wound. The impartial area in my head suddenly realizes that he's done as I ordered, and not cut my throat as I was certain he would.

As he finishes, my eyes focus again, and I haltingly remove my wrists from the straps. I see a sack, held by the man; he places it on my face. The shock of more pain runs through me as the ice in the sack touches my cheek, then subsides as it numbs me. I grasp the sack myself, grateful for its dulling my pain. Relieved that the ordeal is over, I sit for a while, pinning the sack securely to my face.

Shortly, he returns with a dressing, which he applies to the cut. My attention is drawn to the packaging - while the dressing looks clean, the paper pouch it comes from is old, somewhat yellowed. I wonder how long he's had it. Considering what he does, I suppose that he can't really keep his inventory current.

"So, you about back to regular?"

I nod, gently, fearing more pain from the wound, but it has gone to a dull throb; I'm sure that won't be the case for long.

"You got five minutes. Clear your head, get the shakes out of your system. You exit after that, and put as much distance as you can between you and the shop. I'll find my own way out of the area. And since I never trust my customers, I suggest you not 'coincidentally' appear along my route, as I will think that you are associated with the gendarmes, and I won't be so careful about how I use this knife then. You understand?"

I nod again. I'm not eager to meet him again either.

While I brace myself to retrace the path out of the area, he gives directions on changing the dressing, when to remove the stitches, etc. I express thanks for the time allowed for me to recover, even if I could use a great deal more.

"It's not for you, it's for me," he says. "Customers straight out of operation are confused and nervous. They go right outside after that, sometimes they shriek from the pain, run into objects on the street, that makes noise. Noise draws witnesses. So I give them a couple minutes to calm down."

Not knowing how to reply, I keep silent.

Presently, he brings his watch up to his face. "That's about long enough. Time for you to run. You got any more questions, ask now. Once you head away, don't turn around, even to ask directions, 'cause I'll reason you're about to pull some treachery, and come after you. And if you think you can evade me, you won't, as I'm almost certain I know the vicinity better than you do."

I don't reply. I'm already heading for the door, so fast that I almost forget my backpack. Managing to scoop it from the floor, I close it in haste and wait by the door. The man removes the iron bolt, looks outside cautiously, and waves.

"Nobody out. Go."

I'm through the door even faster than I entered. Despite the assurance that the alley is empty, I scan it myself. My feet are already at the jog as I finish the scan; I reach the street, and begin retracing my steps without a glance back.

As I make my way out, the pain from the wound returns, though not as intense. I press my hand to my cheek and feel blood, the seepage coming through the bandage. The wound now begins to sting again, making me wince intermittently. The effect is surprisingly beneficial, as I now appear somewhat berserk, and likely infected, to the locals, and am not troubled during my travels.

At length, I reach the point where I entered. Keeping an eye alert for any residents who might be meandering around. I traverse the street that is the border between a more reputable suburb and the one I've just left.

I breathe somewhat easier now. I've still got some ways to go to reach the shuttle. I ought to see a taxi in a short while. I keep alert, as I don't really know this area either. I head for the greatest amount of activity for once, and find that I have reached some sort of mall. I cover my face and walk down a brightly lit street, and mange to find a taxi after some vigorous waving.

The taxi weaves through streets that become more crowded as we approach the city, and once in Paris itself, the driver must change course twice to make headway.

I look in surprise at the time. Sure that it must be after eleven, I find that it's really after nine. The length of my 'operation' felt like weeks. As it strikes me that it's really over, tension floods from me, easing the pain in my cheek.

No one pays me much attention on the shuttle. The passengers are tired after a long day, and the bloody bandage induces the ones who do look to avert their gaze. It also distracts them from looking at my face long enough to identify me.

I get to Boulogne at 11:46. Sleep is the only thought I have, what with spending almost the entire day picking up my purchases, and an 'operation' to boot. I almost nod off as I walk. The wind begins to pick up, the cold air stinging me awake. I return to Gabrielle's home about an hour after midnight.

I lock the door after me, fully planning to go right to sleep. Wait, first I ought to change the dressing. The day's events obviously have dulled my brain as well, if I couldn't remember that.

Gabrielle comes down the hall and sees me.

Mylandah! You're all right? I was worried about.wait, your face! What's happened!"

I come fully awake, realizing that I haven't thought about how to explain my injury to her. What with setting up the 'operation' getting to and from the place, not to mention actually going through it, I didn't devote any time to thinking of how she might react.

The concern in her face demands an answer. I summon part of my old self, deception masking my face.

"It's nothing, really. A risk I've grown accustomed to, these days. A man in one of the shopping districts saw me, became outraged at my presence, and slashed at me before fleeing. I didn't get a solid look at him. Truth is, I'm surprised it hasn't happened before," I say, trying to laugh. This only causes my cheek to hurt again, and the resulting grimace puts paid to my attempt to calm her.

I change tactics. "Gabrielle, it's not that bad, really. I just need some rest, and a change of dressing for my face. If you want, I'll go see someone about it in the morning."

Somewhat appeased by that, she goes off to get bandages for me - but not before insisting I see a doctor she knows. She assures me that he won't reveal my identity; hesitantly I agree. When she returns, she gives me antiseptics, and makes clear that they are only to hold until morning, when this doctor of hers can give me a proper cure for any infection the wound might have given me. When she leaves, it is with great reluctance, the concern in her face quite clear.

Shortly after that, I'm in my loft, the long day over with, and I gingerly position myself on the bed. My face feels much better (she brought me painkillers as well - yet another one I owe you, Gabrielle), but I have to keep it away from the mattress. I find the most comfortable position, and try to sleep.

For the few minutes that I'm awake, the ease with which I told Gabrielle that blatant untruth...irks me in a way. Even if it was to protect her, that I have been dishonest with a woman who has done so much for me.

Not that being dishonest was anything new. For most of my years, speaking the truth has been a matter not of morality, but convenience. If it suited my purposes, I did; if not, I said whatever *would* suit my purposes.

This is different - I feel as if she deserves only my honesty, after all she's done. I determine to apologize in some way, even if she does not know it is an apology.

I remember that I never checked my backpack. Must make sure I have everything I'll need.

*In the morning*, I think, before passing out.

As agreed, I allow Gabrielle to bring me to her doctor. I insist on covering my face with one hand, ostensibly out of embarrassment from my wound, but really because I don't want him to get a clear view of my features. It doesn't seem to affect him at all, and he only shifts my hand away from the cut. I'm given a shot to prevent any infection, the cut is cleaned again, and I get more stitches. Not many, though; he comments that the person who did the original stitches was quite skilled, and it was the nature of the cut that made some bleeding inevitable. I'm almost speechless, it looks as if my other 'doctor' actually knew what he was doing.

As we leave, the doctor says that I'm to return soon to get the stitches removed. Then he turns to Gabrielle and mentions that she hasn't been by in some time, and that she ought not visit so infrequently. At first I think that this is merely a gentle reprimand from doctor to patient, until I see the wistful look in his face. I still do not understand until she responds by looking nervously at the wall, as if...

So, there's some kind of attraction between the two of them. Even with my bandages, I have to restrain a laugh. I never thought of her having a relationship, but the proof is now in front of me. I cannot think of anyone who deserves it more.

I don't ask her about it back at her house - if she wants to speak of it, she'll do so when she's ready. When lunch is brought out, though, she seems to have a spring in her step that I haven't seen before.

I head up to the loft after lunch. At last I get to see all those items I got yesterday up close. After sifting through the 'decoys', I get to the items I really wanted.

I put on the sunglasses first. Not the effect I wanted.

Next are the eyeglasses, As I don't really require glasses, these are only slight magnification lenses. They'll do.

Makeup. Never been one to use it, but for present purposes, it's necessary. I keep it to a minimum, using only some eye liner.

I remove the sunglasses, and sling my new athletic bag on my shoulder. It's much smaller than I really need, and doesn't hold nearly as much as my duffel bag, but.

When I've assembled the items that I'll use the most, I pack them away in the athletic bag, which goes into the duffel bag. I've removed most of my clothes from it, and they are now suspended from hooks on the wall. This place is becoming like a home.

Unfortunate that it's almost time to leave.

I see Gabrielle's doctor once more, to get the stitches removed. The wound is pretty much healed; the doctor says that half of the cut will fade to a barely visible line; the rest though, will stand out on my face, like a small blood vessel standing out beneath the skin. I manage to look suitably downcast as he says this, even if this is how I'd wanted it to appear.

I head back to the loft, thinking how I've been here for several weeks now - a record. I owe Gabrielle more than I could conceivably repay. I've found a reason to keep going, and I doubt it would have happened without her.

I'm going to miss the food. Despite still being able to pass the physical exams for any training academy, I'm aware that I've gotten slightly...rounder in places. Not that I regret it, as I've not eaten so splendidly in what feels like ages. The excess weight must come off, though. I wince at the thought of the extra exercise that awaits me.

More than that, I have to go because of the danger to Gabrielle. Even if I've not yet had someone identify me, the longer I remain, the more certain it is that someone will connect me to her house. Given the widespread hostility reserved for me, I don't think anyone known to have assisted me will be well thought of. And if she gets just a fraction of the treatment I've gotten...not a pleasant thought at all.

I spend the last two days mostly in the loft, searching Encompass, the communication system that was known in ancient times as the Internet. I've been looking for training academies again, and I believe I've found one. Not particularly highly rated, not many students, it should fit my plans.

That night, I gather my possessions in my duffel bag, wistfully looking around the loft as I work; I was really getting to think of this as a home.

I come to the kitchen. Gabrielle turns to meet me, and stops when she sees my bag.

"Mylandah? What's wrong? Are you in some sort of..."

"No'" I reply, "I'm not in any trouble. At least, no more than usual." The words are not the reassurance I had hoped they would be, but I continue. "The truth is, I'm going because I don't want trouble. For you, anyway. I won't risk putting you in danger by staying."

She begins to object, but I stop her.

"Besides, you said that I had to settle accounts concerning my feelings about a...certain person, and you were right. I must. And I cannot do it from here."

"But, where are you going?"

I gaze at her, reveling in her concern for me. My reply is heavy with sadness.

"I'm sorry, but it's best you do not know. I do not want to involve you. The road I have chosen is stony and covered in fog. I do not know where or how I'll get where I'm going, but I'll feel better knowing you are out of any hazards I might run into. You've done more than enough for me already, and..."

I pull a pouch from my cloak, and hand it to her.

"Please, Gabrielle, do me this favor. Accept this."

She looks at me, unsure. After a pause, she slowly places her hands around it.

"Say you'll keep it, and put it to use."

My expression convinces her, even if her reply is unsteady. "If you insist, but...what *is* it?"

"I know we agreed on a price for my room, which I've paid, but that's a...bonus, if you will. Twice the original cost of the room, it's my present to you. If you must have a reason for it, call it a gratuity, a deposit on the loft if I ever need to return, a farewell package. Remember, you said you'd keep it."

"This is so *much*, though."

"And it doesn't come close to what you've done for me in return."

" out for yourself, please. I don't want anything to happen."

Clumsily, I put my hand over hers. I've never been one for compassion, but if anyone deserves it from me, Gabrielle does.

"Don't worry. My road might not be easy, but I think I can finish this journey - now."

With great reluctance, she bids me farewell - but not before giving me several meal packs that she assembles on the spot. I halt before opening the door, and face her again.

"If you could do one more favor for me, Gabrielle?"

"Yes, just ask."

"Go on a date with your doctor."

Even in her worry, the statement makes her look up in confusion.

"You ought to tell someone that you have feelings for them; if nothing else, you won't stay up nights wondering what would happen if you did - at least you'll know. I think you and he would make a fantastic couple."

A smile comes across her face. It is still ringed with concern, but a smile nonetheless. I photograph it with my eyes.

With a nod of her head, she agrees to my favor. Satisfied, I return the nod, flash what is one of the rare genuine smiles in my life, and walk out.

The street is mostly empty again, as I had planned. The winds have become slight gusts, but now it is cold even without them, and no one gives me a look.

I leave what has been the closest place to home I've known in months, in hope and fear.

I make straight for one of the main thoroughfares. I stay on it a while, until I find a street that goes to one of the places I must visit before my shuttle flight.

The cold does not affect me, not with having to concentrate on my work. Soon, I come to the small footbridge I was searching for.

The stream running under the bridge is almost over its banks. There's been a lot of rain in the last two days; I've just been too busy to give it much attention. The water surges noisily through the night.

Just what I was looking for.

I cross to the midpoint of the bridge. A fast search of the area establishes that no one else is around, and I set my duffel bag on the bridge.

I sit, and pull the slightly smaller athletic bag out. I spent most of the morning making sure that it was properly filled. Now I pull two sweaters from it; they replace the cloak I was wearing.

With that out of the way, once again I sift through the 'decoys' I got earlier. One catches my eye, a heavy flashlight, nearly two feet long. I test the light by shining it into the bag, so as not to attract attention. Considering what I have to do now, it could be useful. I put it into the athletic bag as well. The rest of the decoys go into the duffel bag, along with my cloak.

Still no one around.

I heave the duffel bag over the bridge into the water. It lands near the bank, is pushed a short distance by the water, then snags on the bank five meters away. Satisfactory.

I unsheathe my dagger; with my other hand I reach to the back of my head and clench my hair in my fist. I make a mental measurement, adjust the position of my hand, then place the dagger against my hair. Fortunately, I've kept the dagger sharp, but I still have to saw at the braid before it comes off.

I look at the braid in my hand, and the silver circlet that tied it off near the bottom. For most of my life, almost as long as I can remember, putting on the circlet has been part of my daily routine. It's attractive now, just as it was when I first received it. In the moonlight, it shines, lightning seeming to run over its surface. I remain as fascinated by it now as when I first saw it.

I throw the circlet, still attached to my newly shorn hair, into the stream. My aim is better this time, and I see the stream carry it off, out of sight.

I rotate the dagger, gazing at the uncompromising lines, the blade that seems to cut the night air. It's done wonderful service for me. I gently replace it in its sheath.

Without a sound, it strikes the water below.

I stand, silently, on the bridge.

I bend to pick up the athletic bag, and throw it on my shoulder. There is a small abandoned stall near the beach, which I saw on vidscreen during some news segment, the same way I found out about the bridge (and how long has it been since I was inclined to care enough to watch the news?), and I'm going there for some fine tuning to my appearance. After that, I get a shuttle to England, where I'll see if all my schemes and efforts have borne fruit.

I could retrace my steps, or keep going to the opposite side.

Which way to go?

The bridge isn't long, so there's not really a difference.


For some reason, I cannot seem to bring myself to go back the way I came.

Yes, ahead. I must go ahead.

I walk off the bridge, to the sound of the swiftly flowing stream.

At the beach stall, I set up the flashlight and mirror so that I can see my face. With precise strokes, and some of my 'items', I blur some area and highlight others. When the effect is what I want, I go to a nearby souvenir photo booth stand; not long after, I've a dozen small photos of myself. One goes into an Identicard forgery I picked up in Paris, and the rest I save until it's convenient to dispose of them. I then mangle the card slightly, so that it appears to have been damaged in an accident. I know it's a makeshift at best, but this has to do. I pack up everything and make for a small airfield.

When they ask for identification, I tell them that my card needs a replacement, and ask how long I must wait to get a new one. By this time it is late, and the security guard seems to have more enthusiasm for the concession stand at the other end of the building. Hastily, he fills in a 'Special Circumstance' pass, and tells me to get the card replaced immediately I get off the plane, and that he is sending my data on ahead so they'll know to look for me.

I thank him and go to a seat, never allowing my smile to show.

Neither the face nor the name on the Identicard was that of Mylandah Arkar Walder.

Soon I find myself on a shuttle over the Channel, with what is hopefully my new home country about to pass under the wing.

I allow myself to relax slightly, a minute sigh escaping.

Perhaps, just perhaps, this might work.

Notes: While Mylandah didn't say what her plan was, her actions indicate clearly what she's attempting to do. As for the instances of fear she shows (as opposed to the cold manner she was displaying for most of the series), remember that she's gone through a lot since being expelled, not to mention that she was going through emotional collapse at the end of the series. As for the chapter, this is the longest to date, and seems that it could have been two chapters (at least to me). However, this was chosen for the reason that, except for the postscript, I didn't want this going over five chapters. As originally 'written', this story was planned as between 2- 3000 words - at most.