Gunmetal Black 6
Chapter 3: Tête-à-tête
By
Lewis Smith

www.gunmetalblack.com

Silhouetted against the blue-white planet below, The I.R.S. Kralle orbited the planet like a winged predator tracking its prey from the skies. Like most of the ships in the Imperial Fleet, the Kralle had a long and distinguished record of service to the Empire both in peacetime and in combat that stretched back seven generations. The ship's storied reputation made it all the more peculiar that a vessel of its prestige would be ferrying men and materiel to an outpost. Such work was better suited for a civilian cargo ship, and commanding a freighter convoy was far beneath one of the ships that had challenged the Earthers at the Battle of Charon.

But there she was. Waiting. Waiting for the rest of the freighters that would arrive in the next day. Waiting to lead them to a dark and forbidding corner of the Empire not often traveled to or even much regarded to begin their work.

Straeger's work.

Straeger worked best hidden in darkness. It was his preferred climate, and it seemed to fit him like a glove. The spare light inside one of the Kralle's science labs cast long shadows over his face as he stared down at the younger, blue-skinned woman sitting at the desk. She was studying a document he'd brought from the surface, and taking her time over it.

His piercing red eyes glared down at her as she studied the data on the clipboard, clearing his throat impatiently.

The looked up from her notes at Straeger, her dark indigo eyes regarding him with a mixture of contempt, weariness, and a small touch of fear. The fear was balanced by the contempt and weariness of the good Count, and she made no secret of it. There was no need--after all; he could pluck the thoughts from her mind at will.

So she made no effort to hide that, nor her contempt for him, because she knew that despite his disdain for women and his pronounced distaste for her race . . .Straeger needed her.

She was an Onieran, a race of scientists the Rigellians had conquered centuries ago and forced to apply their scientific gifts to the Rigellian's military aims, gifts that had once made the Rigellian Empire preeminent in the galaxy.

But times had changed. The Empire no longer had the prestige and power it once had, as fortunes and forces within and without had changed. In the face of that, the Empire had officially released the Oneirans from serfdom to the Empire. At least on paper. There were still too many Rigellians who remembered the days when the Oneirans knew their place, too many that enjoyed the power of dominance over those they consider inferior. It was a delusion that allowed the old guard to relive the glory days when Rigellia was strong.

Oneirans, by contrast, were creatures of intellect. They always had been. They could recognize that the Rigellians were on the downward spiral of history, and one day the illusions of empire would collapse and their race would step forward.

As to what would happen then, even the greatest Oneiran scientists never speculated. Her race were renown for their scientific knowledge and their analytical minds. Precognition, unfortunately, was not one of their gifts.

"You've had time to study it," Straeger said, folding his hands behind his back. "Now stop stalling and tell me what you think, Indiga."

Indiga set the clipboard down on her desk. "I think it's a cargo manifest," she replied, the green light of the vox collar at her neck translating her words into Rigellian. "And as I am a scientists rather than a stevedore, it means little to me."

"Your opinions, as always, would be best kept to yourself," Straeger shot back; his voice thick with put upon disdain for the uppity help. He gestured to the clipboard. "Given the materials the Empire has provided us . . .how soon can we begin construction?"

Indiga sighed. "Assuming you intend to do nominal testing on the prototype first . . ."

"The data from my ship should be sufficient baselines," Straeger replied. "Extensive testing shouldn’t be necessary. What's important, at least to our masters--"

"Your masters," Indiga corrected.

"They want construction to begin immediately," Straeger continued, ignoring her.

"I'm certain they do," Indiga said. "However, there are practical obstacles that preclude beginning full-scale construction recklessly. Need I remind you that when your people unearthed the first of these ships; it nearly destroyed a moon. Our find blasted a ship out of the stars while it was still buried."

"It hasn’t happened since," Straeger said. "It's docile. I know it is. Should it go rogue again I can control it. That won't be an issue."

Indiga gave him a sharp look. "You didn’t tell them, did you?"

Straeger turned and stared out one of the windows. "Of course not."

"I thought not," Indiga said. "Because even the Rigellian High Command wouldn't have given you authorization for your project had they known their only safeguard against the nacht turning on them was you."

"Watch yourself," the Count hissed.

"Forgive me Count," Indiga said, rising from her seat and playing the sarcasm to the hilt. "I meant no insult. I was merely observing that entrusting so many resources to someone infected with the same technology he would exploit would be foolish, and such a person would be considered a threat, if for no other reason than in terms of racial purity."

"Indiga, stop this at once."

Indiga pressed the point. "After all, your people already discriminate against any color but your own . . .tell me--what do they do when the differences are deeper than the skin?"

"ENOUGH!" Straeger said, his anger and his will surging to his Lens weapon. In an instant, a blade of solid black light formed at the end of he hand, and with a flick of his wrist, it was pointed right at Indiga.

"Go ahead," Indiga said. "Kill the only person who understands how to bond the nacht to your technology. Kill the only person who keeps that infection inside you under control. Cut the head off of your precious project before it's even begun, and hang yourself because you can't control your temper."

Straeger tensed, ready to kill her. Seconds passed, his rage and his intellect warring inside him. Every instinct and everything inside him told him to kill her, to silence her once and for all. No more insolence from this woman who never knew her place, who flaunted her superior knowledge at every opportunity.

Everything told him to drive the blade through her skull and kill her instantly. Everything, except the knowledge that he needed her. As much for the survival of the Black Talon Project as for his own.

Finally, the blade faded, drawn back into the Lens. Straeger's posture relaxed, and he took a step back.

"I want estimates on construction by the time we leave orbit," Straeger said. "We'll address the issue of testing when my second boards the Kralle."

"Your second?"

Straeger took a deep breath. "She shares command of the Project with me," he said. "But as far as I'm concerned, she's only here to facilitate the project's completion. No more, no less."

"I suspect the High Command assigned her to do more than that," Indiga countered. "I suspect she's also your leash. Whatever my feelings about your race, I must say, that's a very wise decision."

"If I don't care for your opinion Indiga, why would you think they would?"

"Because you understand the lesson underneath all of this for you, Straeger: All power must be checked."

Straeger sneered at her. "I much preferred when your kind weren't allowed to speak at all," he said, gesturing to her vox collar. He spun on his heel and the door slid shut behind him.

Indiga enjoyed the quiet in the room for a few moments. It seemed like the air became a little sweeter to breathe when the Count took his leave from her. Especially when she'd managed to score a grievous injury to his puffed-up pride.

She had no love for the Count or his people, that much she ensured was apparent in all her dealings with him or other Rigellians. She knew that she could push a little more with the Count because she personally saw to it that the side effects from the nacht contamination didn’t incapacitate him. His over-enhanced telepathy was only the merest part of his condition. So many other things were happening to him, and without her, he would be overwhelmed by the physical changes going on within him.

His mere survival was dependent on her, an inferior Oneiran, and the agony that fact caused his ego every moment of every day was enough to satisfy her more sanguinary impulses.

But as much as he needs me, I also need him, she thought, staring out at the stars. Through him, I gain access to the nacht. Through him I can study it, understand it, learn from it.

And so I'll tolerate his bigotry and his smug sense of superiority because he is a means to an end.

The potential knowledge is all that matters.

Knowledge above all was the central tenet of Oneiran society. To learn more, to know more, they would tolerate anything or anyone. As for the consequences of applying that knowledge . . .the second tenet dictated that Oneiran's abdicated all responsibility for how that knowledge might be used.

Indiga found herself wondering on occasion whether those tenets did her race as much harm as good.

* * *

Soldato walked across the long catwalk above one of the central docking bays, pausing for a moment to stare at the Silhouette, moored under armed guard below him. He'd ordered no intrusions save passive scans of the ship, as he was certain Kienan would have a standing order to destroy the ship as a fail-safe should anyone or anything try to compromise it.

The only way we'd been able to board in the first place was to use our disruptors to shut down most of their systems, he thought. The remote units kept directed on it while it's in dry-dock should keep it subdued.

Subdued, but locked down.

Pity. He's made some impressive modifications to it. I'd love to have the chance to study them.

"Excuse me," a voice called from the far side of the catwalk. "Captain Soldato!"

Soldato looked up in the direction of the voice, his blue eyes looking in the direction of the voice. A nervous Ensign approached him, her white-gloved hands nervously clutching a data clipboard, taking shot but careful steps towards him.

"Yes, what is it Ensign . . .?" Soldato asked. From her nervousness, it seemed apparent this was her first chance to meet him, and that saddened him a little. Only a few years ago he'd known everyone in the Vanguard by name.

"Gutierrez, sir," she said, offering him the clipboard. "I'm head of the scanning team assigned to the ship. We've just completed our full spectrum of scans and I wanted to present the report to you personally."

"I see," Soldato said, studying the data. "And where is your section commander? Shouldn’t he receive this report first?"

"He . . .well, I saw you up here and . . ."

"Decided you'd present it to me personally?" Soldato finished, raising an eyebrow. Gutierrez flinched, unsure whether she'd done the right thing or not.

"I . . .yes, sir," she admitted, her brown eyes looking down at the deck between her shoes, castigated.

"Well, Ensign, the chain of command is there for a reason," he began, lowering the clipboard as he turned to face her. "Lines of communication flow best when they flow in one direction with no breaks or no segments jumping over another to get to the end. Don’t you agree?"

"Yes, sir," she said, starting to blush.

Soldato waited a beat, then let a smile play across his lips. "However," he began. "There's something to be said for initiative as well, Ensign, so we'll chalk this up to youthful exuberance and forget the minor infraction."

Gutierrez looked up, nervous. "Sir?"

"It's forgotten, Ensign," Soldato said, letting the smile break into a grin. "Now please--at ease, before you injure something."

"O-of course, sir," she replied, doing as he asked. Soldato returned to studying her report, sparing her a glance every now and again.

"Well Ensign, this is very impressive work," he said. "I only have one question."

"What is your question, sir?"

Soldato gestured with the clipboard. "Where is the data? There's nothing in this report. Your scans all show up negative. You've given me several pages of data about . . .nothing. It's impressive enough but . . .a little thin."

"Well sir . . .the ship appears to be jamming our scans, even with the disruption units," Guiterrez answered. "Since the disruptors should neutralize any active countermeasure systems, I believe that the jamming comes from a physical source."

Soldato cocked an eyebrow. "Physical?"

"I think the ship's armor plating is somehow polarized to disspiate scan wavelengths," she replied, more confident of her findings than being challenged about her decorum. "There's no system to for our disruptors to jam--the hull simply disperses them. I've appended my analysis to the report on page 19, sir."

Soldato punched a series of buttons on the screen. "Ah, yes," he said. "So he's using some sort of stealth material?"

Gutierrez shook her head. "No sir--stealth material would bend our scans around it. A vessel this size couldn't hope to have an effective stealth system--it's too big and too powerful to mask from scanners. Scanning this ship--you’d know something was there, but nothing else. Just a silhouette."

"Ah," Soldato said. "Do we have anything similar to this in our files?"

Guiterrez shook her head. "Our metallurgist can’t identify it without taking a sample of the hull. That would contravene your order, sir."

Soldato nodded. "Yes it would," he began, handing her the clipboard. "Good work, Ensign. The report may be thin, but your analysis was clear and precise. I'm impressed. Present it to your sector commander at once. If our scanners fail us, perhaps there are other sources of intelligence at hand."

"Sir?"

Soldato smiled. "Never mind, Ensign. Just thinking out loud."

Soldato snapped to attention, receiving Gutierrez's crisp salute with one of his own. She hurried off, clipboard in hands and Soldato made his way along the catwalk in the other direction.

I didn’t expect the scans to find anything, but Kienan's methods of thwarting them tell me plenty about him, he thought. He made sure not to place all his faith in systems and technology. Not when low-tech solutions existed that would work just as well.

He approached a lift on the far wall, pressing the call button and boarding the car as the doors opened. A few taps on the panel inside, and he was ascending into the central core of Elysium.

Other methods, he thought, remembering his words to Gutierrez. Or rather, other resources are at hand. And while I suspect they won't be very forthcoming with information about their rather esoteric technology, it matters little.

Intelligence on Kienan's technology, while beneficial, isn't my main purpose in bringing him, his ship and his crew here. That purpose won't be served trying to sweat it out of his crew, even if that were my way of doing things, and I leave crude tactics like that to Earth.

He stared forward; watching the readout on the lift's touch-screen tick ever higher as the car headed for the section in which the Silhouette's crew was being held.

No, I think the swiftest way forward begins with a gesture of good faith.

* * *

The door slid open, and Horan saw Jenet in the doorway of her quarters. Horan, conditioned by years of service to the Empire, immediately rose to her feet. Whether it was due to her rank, or her self-assurance, the Baroness seemed to fill the doorway with her presence, and for a few moments they just watched each other, Horan somewhat warily, Jenet with her usual intense, commanding gaze.

Horan felt a small spark of anxiety. When Jenet said she'd speak to her again she's assumed the Baroness meant during Horan's duty shift, which had finished two hours ago. Commanding officers never fraternized with the lower ranks and they never paid them personal visits off-duty.

Unless there was trouble.

"Baroness," Horan said, standing proudly at attention.

"Warmaster," she said. The tone of the Baroness' voice was a bit lighter than it had been that afternoon. Though what that meant, Horan didn’t speculate on.

"It's not too late, is it?"

"Baroness?"

Jenet was puzzled by her reticence. "I'd meant to catch up with you while you were on duty, but I was called away. I've been reassigned, and . . .before I report I wanted to speak to you."

"To me, Baroness?" Horan said. Something was off here, certainly, but she knew better than to pry.

Best to hew to protocol, and let her tell me in her own time.

"Yes," Jenet said. "Because I've asked that you be seconded to my service while I'm on assignment as my second in command. The written order should be waiting for you at the beginning of your next duty shift."

"I'm honored, Baroness," Horan said. "What is our new duty?"

"Testing," Jenet said. "On Eisfrei."

"The prison colony?"

Jenet nodded. "I've already chosen the rest of my squadron, but I wanted to see you and give you the news personally, Horan. I was quite impressed with your flying today--I expect you to bring those same skills to our new duty."

"You'll get my best, Baroness."

"I've no doubt of that," Jenet replied. "Nevertheless, I work very close with my second in commands, and I prefer they know my expectations at the beginning."

She brushed a lock of hair from her face for a moment and behind her hand her expression softened for a moment. A dozen emotions passed over her face, but in an instant, she gained control of herself. Only her eyes betrayed a slight uncertainty.

"That said . . .may we drop ranks for a moment?"

Horan blinked. What Jenet had said was akin to blasphemy for a Rigellian, never mind one of her class. Rigellians would rather die than drop ranks, and that went for pretty much anything.

"Baroness?"

"You’re my second. One of my expectations is that we can speak honestly to one another. I can expect that from you, can’t I?"

"O-of course," Horan said.

Jenet took her words as permission, and her posture relaxed at ease. She paced very slowly around Horan's quarters. Horan, like all good Rigellians kept few personal items from posting to posting. A few commendations hung on the wall, there were a few campaign medallions on her desk, but not much that told Jenet much about her new second.

"I have big plans for this assignment, Horan," she said. "I've been waiting for it . . .hoping for it . . .for six years, now."

"I'm afraid I don’t understand, Baro--"

"Jenet," she corrected, with a wan smile. "I told you we were dropping the ranks, didn't I? No, I don’t expect you would, but then, that's part of the reason I came to see you. This is more than a test run or evaluation. This is an order from the High Command itself. The mere fact that it came from them means this is a turning point for me.

"And I had no one to share the moment with, so I came here," she said, her voice somewhat thick with emotion. "I thought I might share it with someone who'd impressed me today. The same day I received this order."

"I see."

"It's one of the reasons I've made you my second, beyond your obvious skill," Jenet continued. "You’re my--what do the Earthers call it? My good luck charm. Yes."

Horan smiled. "It's more your skills than any of my luck that garnered the assignment for you."

Jenet's features hardened. "They've known my skills for years, Horan," she said, bitterness giving her voice some heat. "They knew . . .and they exiled me anyway."

"Exiled you?" Horan asked. "I know the base isn't the most glamorous posting in the Empire, but exile? Forgive me for saying, but that seems a bit dramatic."

"It is if you had gone from the greatest flyer in the Empire to a glorified trainer at some flyspeck base in a backwater system in this . . .this benighted part of the Empire," Jenet hissed, her anger loosening her tongue and emotions she'd held in check far too long. "And in between that humiliated you, disgraced you, subjected you to inquisition after inquisition . . ."

Jenet closed her eyes, her white-gloved fists clenching tight, as though she were bringing herself back in control by will alone. She took a few deep breaths and opened her eyes again, looking over at one of the documents Horan had posted on her wall.

"You were at Athalwulf Praxia?" Jenet asked, her voice completely calm, as if her rant a few seconds ago had never happened.

"I. . . yes," Horan said, adjusting slowly to the shift in topic. "I graduated third in my class in fighter combat."

"I once taught at the Myrmidion Praxia," Jenet said, looking at Horan for a moment. She walked over to Horan's desk and pulled out her chair. Horan gave her a curt nod and Jenet sat down, crossing her legs and relaxing as though she hadn’t sat down all day.

"In fact, it was my teaching that led to my downfall," Jenet said with a sigh.

"I can’t imagine that your instruction would be found lacking," Horan said. "For one thing, I very much doubt they would still allow you to instruct pilots if that were the case."

"It wasn't, Horan," Jenet said. "No, it was tradition, our stubborn need as Rigellians to cling to traditions no matter what . . .that was what finally downed me."

"I'm afraid I don't understand?"

Jenet blinked. "Who was your instructor?"

"Count Vormund."

"Vormund," Jenet repeated. "No, I can't place the name . . .he wasn't one of mine. It's a tradition, Horan--if you’re an instructor--to take one of your students as a lover. The idea, at least as it was explained to me, was to encourage competition against the most favored pupil among the students."

"You must forgive me again, Jenet--I've honestly never heard of this tradition before," Horan said. "I'm not disputing you, I just . . .that was not my experience."

"I'm certain it's been all but eradicated now," Jenet sneered. "Another of my accomplishments--not every Rigellian can destroy a long-cherished tradition, can they? You see, Horan, six years ago I chose a young Baron named Jagun as my lover. He was pompous, arrogant, insolent, had more respect for his title and his family than the chain of command . . .but his flying, his flying was amazing. He understood what I'd been teaching every student I ever had--that flying is a beautiful, deadly game, and if done properly, it's even an art form."

"For that I forgive his other deficiencies. When he flew, he was all I'd ever wanted. It made the rest . . .not matter so much."

Horan took all this in silently. Jenet looked away from her, staring at her various honoraria. She felt extraordinarily uncomfortable; watching her and listening to her like this. Something about her confession was too raw, too honest, and so . . .well, un-Rigellian.

Horan had spent some time around humans--that hadn’t been a lie. She'd become numb in a way to how emotional they were--how even in battle they were loud and anarchic and seemed to feel everything so strongly. She'd told herself it was simply a condition unique to the species.

But here is one of my own kind, sitting here, doing the very same thing, she thought. I shouldn’t pry, and yet . . .I want to know.

"What happened?" Horan asked.

"To Jagun?" Jenet responded, blankly staring past Horan and far into the past. "He died. I killed him. One of the other students accused him of only being top of the class because he shared my bed. It was a lie, of course, because it was all due to his talent. His pride, however, wouldn’t accept that.

"So he challenged me to a duel," she sighed, staring blankly ahead, miles away from everything. "Another venerated Rigellian tradition, that. Naturally, we battled in the skies. He lasted fifteen minutes against me.

"It's strange," she said. "I can’t remember what I was thinking when I destroyed his ship. I . . .remember most of the fight. I'd tried to incapacitate him, I all but shot his fighter out from under him. I begged him to surrender, to yield. I even offered to surrender myself."

Again, more blasphemy. Horan could hardly believe it. "You would have done that for him?"

"Not for him," Jenet said. "I hated everything about him but his flying, but it was reason enough that I would happily have sacrificed my honor for him to go and use it to serve the Empire.

"But I burned him down all the same. He never had a chance to. His pride, his stupid pride . . .I think that as much as anything I did killed him. But in the end, I think he won."

"Because you were disgraced?"

"No," Jenet said. "Actually, in terms of tradition and the law, I was in the clear. I'd been challenged to honorable combat and conducted myself properly--death of one or both combatants is expected. But Jagun's family valued their son's life over tradition, and their words carried more weight where it could do the most damage.

"And then came the Lensmen and their inquisitions, my removal from Praxia, and . . .here I am. And here . . .I thought I was going to rot here, forgotten, for the rest of my life."

Jenet rose from her chair, turning to face her. The emotion was gone, the sadness and regret vanished as if they'd never been. Her expression now was one of cold determination and confidence.

"Until today. They're giving me another chance, Horan, and I intend to take it. No mistakes, no tripping over traditions. This time I'll do it right . . .with your help.

"I can count on you, can’t I, Horan?"

Horan rose to her feet, snapping to attention as Jenet turned to leave. She was asking for Horan's loyalty, and more than that, asking for her help in something that went far deeper than a subordinate's duty to their commanding officer, Jenet was as much asking her personally to help her.

And Horan now had to look her in the eye and lie to her.

"Absolutely. You may depend on me, Baroness Jenet."

* * *

She'd tried to look away from him, then turned and watched him quietly for what felt like hours. Watched him tumble the lighter in his hands, his emerald eyes deep and darkening, like a detective trying to piece together a mystery from the single clue he held in his hands.

Silhouette could remember seeing him like this so many times in the past. Completely wrapped up in the work, the hunt, the chase, whatever. That skill, and that concentration was what made him such a good assassin--he would pursue his quarry tirelessly and relentlessly until he made the kill.

Yes, he was a good assassin, she thought. Too bad he's terrible at everything else.

She'd come to expect the flood of memories that came every time she saw or thought about him. She hardly even bothered trying to stuff them back down into the corners of her mind, now--Kienan would, for better or worse, always have that effect on her. She would always feel conflicted every time they crossed paths.

And why not? Silhouette thought. After all, he's the first man I really remember. He took me in, trained me, shaped me in his image, almost.

And I fell for him. Hard. There was plenty in him I wanted to possess--his strength, his will, that passion that drives him . . .and there was just as much in him I wanted to fix. The loneliness, the anger, the hurt at the core of him . . .the things that were almost impossible to reach.

She felt herself blush at the thought of their time together, a blur of violent days and passionate nights that she'd always expected (and hoped) would fade as the years apart grew but somehow never seemed to. But the memory of those wild times never seemed to fade, and it always seemed to take her by surprise what Kienan had brought out in her.

She watched him set the lighter flat on the bar and turn away from it, staring at a paining on the far wall. It was a large, abstract thing, only a few splashes of color distinguishing it from the white wall behind it. Kienan's brow furrowed with annoyance, and Silhouette guessed whatever answers he's come to, he didn't like the taste of them.

It's strange, she thought. When I left him . . .when I went renegade, I barely had anyone to count on, surrounded by what I was sure was a galaxy full of people who'd happily seek my death.

Now the shoe's on the other foot. Kienan's the renegade; I have Soldato behind me, and more besides. Kienan's surrounded, cutoff from all his resources, and not only caught, but allowed to roam around with the full knowledge he's caught.

But I don't feel like throwing it in his face.

Why?

"Take a picture," Kienan said, his eyes meeting hers. "It'll last longer."

Silhouette blinked. "What?"

"You've been staring at me for the past five minutes," Kienan said. He looked away for a moment and then back at her. "Where were you?"

"The same place I always end up every time we get back together," Silhouette replied. "Confused. Feeling like I should be angry at you because every time you do show up, you screw everything up for me."

"I'm sorry," Kienan said. "It's not like I asked to be here."

"I know you didn't," she said. "Look . . .it's not anything you can help, Kienan. It's just who you and who I am . . .and how things are now. Understand?"

"You make it sound like nothing ever changes."

"You mean to tell me it doesn't?" Silhouette said. "When I visit you there's tension between us, between Vain and the rest, just . . .nothing but tension, really. When you visit me, it always seems to end up with you trying to kill my boyfriend."

"I didn’t know he was your lover when we fought," Kienan retorted, gesturing to the door. "He instigated that fight. My problems with Soldato frankly had nothing to do with you two being together."

Silhouette took a breath and decided to pin him down. "And now that you know?"

"It doesn’t make a difference."

"I don’t believe you."

"Why do you ask me a question and then immediately say I'm lying?" Kienan asked, audibly annoyed.

"Because, " Silhouette said. "Like it or not, Kienan we're still hung up on each other and it leads to . . .trouble."

Kienan scoffed. "Who said I was still hung up on you?"

"Why do you keep trying to kill my boyfriends, then? Why does seeing you, or thinking about you make me so upset? It's like you come into my life and ruin everything."

"You know something," Kienan began, leveling a red-gloved finger at her. "You have a lot of nerve. I'm not the one who seeks you out--you always seem to find me. And why? Not to see if I'm all right--whatever you say at the time. But to salve your conscience about the way you left. And you always interfere with what I'm doing, whether by second-guessing it, or by selling me out to people like Soldato."

"That's not true," Silhouette shot back. "I come to see you to make sure you're OK, and to make sure the people who rely on you to protect them--"

"Spare me the forced concern," Kienan shot back. "I'm fast getting sick of it. I'm not still hung up on you Silhouette, and I don’t care if Soldato's your lover, or whatever. You’re still hung up on me."

Silhouette glared at him.

"You know my business with Soldato has nothing to do with you," Kienan said. "I told you, he told you, and you as much as told me that's pretty much how the two of you got together. So which of us is trying to make this about the past, then?"

Silhouette's eyes began to water, and she clenched her fists to force the tears back and force her hands to quit shaking. "I . . .Kienan, I don’t want to fight."

"I don’t want to fight either," Kienan said. "You or Soldato."

"Then why are we fighting?" Silhouette asked. "Why do I always want to pick a fight with you, or tear you down? I mean, I see you, and part of me gets so angry, and I don’t really know why."

"I don’t know, either," Kienan said, his voice dark and sullen. "But . . .sometimes I feel the same way about you. Maybe there's just something about the two of us that makes each other crazy."

"There always was," Silhouette said. "That was . . .kind of the problem."

"You didn’t like that I made you crazy?"

"I didn’t like the way I was . . .being crazy, I guess," Silhouette said. "I needed more. I can’t explain it any better than that."

She leaned forward, balancing her elbows on her knees and resting her head in the palms of her hands. Her long dark hair fell forward past her shoulders, covering her face. She sighed, loud and slow and she pulled her hair back and leaned back on the sofa.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"It's all right," Kienan said. "I . . .guess I can’t blame you for being angry. Or for trying to look after me."

"I shouldn't," she said. "I should let you go, and get on with your life. But I keep wanting to look after you, somehow. Whether you want me to or not. After all . . .it's due to me you’re here, right? I thought Soldato could protect you, the way he's done for me--"

"Sil, I don’t honestly think Soldato thinks the same way about me as he does about you," he interjected. "If he does, then I think you and he should have a long talk."

"I . . ." Silhouette began. She blinked, then looked up at him.

"Was that a joke?"

Kienan smirked. "I suppose it was."

Silhouette, despite herself, laughed.

"No, Kienan," she said. "I can safely say that there's no way he feels that way about you."

"That's a relief."

Silhouette smiled and laughed under her breath.

Kienan looked nervous for a moment and was grateful that Silhouette wasn't looking as he visibly gathered the courage to ask the question on his mind.

"Sil," he asked. "Is he . . .good for you?"

Silhouette blinked, looking up at him caught off guard and completely surprised.

For a moment she was tempted to lie to him, even though she couldn’t quite reason why that would be a good thing. She wondered, looking back on everything that had brought them to this point, that perhaps the lack of communication, the eternal dance of leaving things out and hoping the other understood the meaning in the silence had been the problem all along, and maybe, just maybe, it was time to be honest with him for once.

In any case, it's something that certainly hasn’t been tried, she thought.

"Yes," she said. "I . . .I think he is."