Advice For The Young At Heart
By
Lewis Smith



www.gunmetalblack.com


Slowly, Kienan Ademetria opened his eyes, lying still while his glance flitted about the bedroom. Even half-asleep he knew something was wrong. Something was missing.

In the darkness, he reached for her, his rough callused hand, gliding over soft satin sheets, his fingertips tracing the impression of where she had been. Through his fingertips he could feel the heat of where she had lain beside him, his arms wrapped tightly around her, as if the slightest relaxing of his grip on her would allow her escape, like so much sand running through his fingers.

He found her sitting naked on the edge of the bed, shoulders bowed, her dark brown hair hiding her face, like a specter at the foot of his bed, a dark silhouette reflecting back at herself in the mirror in front of her.

Quietly, he slid up behind her, the sheets and blankets rustling and sighing as he pressed his body against her back, wrapping his arms around her waist, his fingers tracing the slow curve of her muscled stomach as he nuzzled in her hair, his lips brushing it away as they found the curve of her earlobe.

"Silhouette," he whispered, his soft, rough voice brushing against her ear and making her shiver visibly. "Isn’t this where you usually find me?"

Silhouette looked up slowly, her hair falling away from her face like a shroud. For a moment, she couldn’t recognize the face looking back at her. It looked like nothing she knew as human. Her young and delicate features were draped in shadows and her usually placid blue-green eyes looked hard, metallic and almost silver in the mirror.

"I couldn’t sleep," she said distractedly, almost as if she weren't there at all. "I . . .was just looking at myself. Thinking."

Kienan blinked, one of his hands snaking around her waist as the other pulled her hair from her ear. "What were you thinking about?" Kienan asked, gently brushing his lips under her ear and down the nape of her neck."

Silhouette leaned back, raising her hands. Cradled in a ready position was her gun, cold and silver in the low fluorescent light of the room. Kienan's body tensed, his instincts suddenly acutely aware she was carrying a gun.

"I was thinking about the man I killed today," she said plainly. As she said it, Kienan's palm brushed against her stomach and he felt an audible jolt go through her.

"You shouldn’t think about it," Kienan said, his tongue gently tracing the edge of her ear. "It's done, and you did well. You got close to him when I couldn’t. You were incredible, Sil."

Silhouette leaned back and closed her eyes, leaning back against him and laying the gun beside her at the foot of the bed.

"I woke up in the middle of the night," she continued. Kienan continued kissing and caressing her body. All the while, his emerald eyes looked at her reflection over her shoulder. Physically she responded to him--he could feel her tense, feel her press against him, her body moving to his hands as if to fill them with herself.

But her voice was blank, as if she were a million miles away.

"I got my gun and at here and looked at myself. I . . .keep seeing him. Him and two of his bodyguards. I killed all three of them before they could even draw their guns. Just like you told me . . .one to the head apiece."

"Uh-huh," Kienan said, gently biting her where her shoulder met her neck, determined to get her to consciously react to him. Anything to get her mind off of where he was afraid she was going with this.

Silhouette moaned gently, her fingers fanning out and grabbing handfuls of the bedclothes. "I didn't tell you," she said, her voice deepening. "I . . .kept shooting once they fell down."

Kienan's hands found her chin as he rose up behind her, tilting her head backwards and looking at her. "It's all right," he said. "You didn’t do anything wrong. They deserved what they got. Don’t beat yourself . . ."

Silhouette's eyes opened and clapped on his in a way that almost took him aback. Their usual pale blue green was darkened and something in them called to mind a turbulent sea where he couldn’t see the bottom.

It was nothing he'd ever seen in her eyes, and yet, he felt himself unable to look away. Something was happening to her, and his curiosity was so intent it was almost morbid.

"Shh," she said. "I'm not, Kienan. I don’t feel bad about it at all."

She turned sinuously in his arms, turning to face him. The color had returned to her skin and the same dark eyes now flashed with something Kienan couldn't place.

"It felt so good," Sil said quietly. A deep breath and a ragged exhale as she pulled him tightly to her. "I liked killing them, Kienan. It felt so good. It was like I came alive . . .watching them die."

She tilted his head back, running the tip of his tongue along her throat, then forcing him into a deep and passionate kiss. She held him close, her fingers tracing up from the small of his back to the "X" scar on his back and digging her nails into him.

Kienan broke the kiss and looked into her eyes, taking a slow, deep breath. She laughed throatily, kissing him again. This time Kienan met her with equal intensity, holding her wrists tightly in his hands and kissing her back. She moved against him, her body shaking all over. Finally she broke the kiss and stared into his eyes.

"Is this how you feel when you've done it?" Silhouette asked. "When you've killed?"

Kienan shook his head, a smile slowly creeping over her face. He shook his head, his chestnut bangs falling over his face and hiding his eyes.

"No," he said.

Silhouette's face fell for a moment. She thought about what might be behind that "No," then her lips parted back into a smile.

"Then what does?"

Kienan pulled her by her hips against him, his lips brushing her stomach as she ground against him. He kissed his way up her body, climbing her with his lips, teeth and tongue, until his dark gaze caught hers.

"You do," he said, a thin smile crossing his face in the darkness.

Silhouette nodded, her fingernails tracing down his chest as his hands snaked lower, parting her, taking her. She pushed him down against the mattress, unwilling to wait as they took each other. At the foot of the bed Silhouette's pistol was shoved off the edge of the bed by the frenetic motion of Kienan and Silhouette. It loudly clattered to the floor as they consummated wildly, the danger than the loaded weapon might have gone off very far from their minds indeed.

* * *

Kienan didn’t know how many hours later it had been when he woke up. His eyes blinked, protesting against the bright lights that were on at full intensity above him. He moaned and tried to shut them out so he could sleep some more, but failing he sat up in bed.

His shoulders flexed with minor stings. He ran a hand over his shoulder, remembering.

Silhouette, he thought. I've never seen her like that. So wild and unrestrained, almost crazy. He frowned, feeling the other places where her nails, her teeth and her body had dug into him.

Or that aggressive, he thought, slipping out of bed and standing naked before the window. Daylight washed over the buildings beyond like sunrise in the city. Below and above him, tens of thousands of people were starting their day.

He looked over his shoulder at the clock on the beside table as he undid the long chestnut braid holding his hair under control.

Meanwhile, we're just starting ours, Kienan though, smoothing it out and quickly re-plaiting it with the delicate motions one might weave a tapestry. He stretched and yawned, sitting back on the edge of the bed. He leaned back, trying to gather his thoughts.

They refused to be so orderly, unfortunately, just vague feelings and emotions he couldn't give any definition to. Lazily he looked around at the floor of the bedroom, his eyes catching sight of Silhouette's pistol on the carpeted floor. He tried to ignore it, but found himself sliding down the length of the bed towards it, picking it up.

Routine and training taking over, he ejected the clip and slid the breech back. The clip was full, but she hadn’t chambered a round. He snapped the clip back in, looking at the safety.

It was off.

Loaded gun in the middle of the night, he thought, cradling it in his hands, sitting in much the same position she had last night.

Somebody trying to tell me something?

He looked at himself, then down at the gun. On some level, he knew there was something wrong with her. Something about her manner last night, like a child who discovers how to kill and treats it with the detached cruelty of crushing an insect.

Of course, Kienan mused, it's not as if I have any right to lecture her, do I?

He sighed and stood up from the bed, trying to shake the thoughts out of his head as he walked away from the mirror. He walked to the dresser, placing the gleaming silver pistol on the nightstand and looking over his shoulder to the bathroom.

She must be in the shower, he thought. He looked down at the gun on the dresser. Despite his efforts, the misgivings from last night had followed him from the bed to the mirror and now to here.

What the hell is wrong with me? Kienan wondered. This was Sil's first job with me, our first one together. Months of training, all of which she soaked up like a sponge lead up to last night, and she was magnificent.

So, why am I scared?

He padded into the bathroom, Silhouette's body obscured only a little by the rising steam and the frosted glass of the shower door. Kienan leaned against the sink, watching her move.

It's not her skill, is it? Kienan asked himself. Is it that she liked it so much? Or was it when you were touching her last night all of a sudden she felt like a totally different person?

Were you scared?

He sighed and brushed his bangs away from his eyes, cursing himself for thinking too much. He pushed his doubts out of his mind and reached for the door of the shower, opening it and stepping inside.

Before him Silhouette was bent over, wringing the shampoo from her hair. She shivered despite the rising steam of the shower as his hands found her hips and she rose back up leaning back against him.

"Mmm . . .good morning," she said gently, pressing back against him and smiling. "I was wondering if you were ever going to wake up, sleepyhead."

"I think someone kept me up late last night," Kienan said, smiling wider now.

Her blue-green eyes, bright and wide caught his gaze and she smiled. "I love you, Kienan."

Kienan smiled, taking her by the shoulders, turning her around and kissing her deeply and passionately. He'd never been able to say what she wanted to hear him say, but he was determined to show her what he could never say. His hands ran down her sides, wrapping one of her legs around her waist as they moved together.

Reluctantly, Silhouette broke the kiss, a teasing half-smile on her face. She wagged a finger at him then turned around, looking over her shoulder.

"Well, now that you’re here, lover," she began. "Do my back?"

* * *

Silhouette grimaced, sliding her fingers between her skin and her bra strap and trying to smooth out the twist that had gotten in it. On the other side of the bed, Kienan slowly pulled on a pair of white slacks. As much fun as they'd had in the shower, it hadn't done much to keep his thoughts off the strange side of her he'd seen in the night.

Looking at her now there was hardly any sign she'd been that way. Somehow that made it even more bizarre to him, as if for a few moments last night someone had mysteriously replaced his girlfriend with a physically accurate but somewhat lacking duplicate of her that he'd seduced.

Or she seduced me, he thought, pulling on his undershirt. Or maybe we seduced each other. He frowned, looking over his shoulder at her as he buttoned his black dress shirt over his chest.

"Hey."

Kienan blinked and looked over his shoulder at her.

"Are you OK?"

Kienan shyly finished buttoning his shirt. "Yeah," he said. "Just . . .thinking, is all."

"Oh?" Silhouette smiled. "About me?"

Kienan smiled. "Who else?"

"Just asking," she said, walking over to the dresser for her clothes. "You had that really lost look you get sometimes."

"I tend to when I think of you," Kienan smiled.

Silhouette smiled as she opened the second drawer, reaching for her slacks. Her eyes fell on the pistol on the dresser and Kienan watched her reaction with great interest.

No reaction at all, he thought.

Silhouette rummaged through her drawers, then walked over to the closet. "So what should I wear today?"

"Well, if we were on out own, I’d say your birthday suit would be enough," Kienan said, smiling. "But unfortunately, we're meeting someone."

"You have such a one-track mind," Silhouette said, reaching into closet and pulling out two of her blouses. She held them up for him to inspect.

"The blue, or the red?"

Kienan walked over to her, looking over the blouses and her. "Hmm," he said. "The red."

Silhouette blushed, tossing the blue blouse on the bed. "You like the red?"

Kienan nodded.

Silhouette's eyes darkened a bit and her lips pulled into a thinner smile.

"I like wearing red for you," she whispered as his hands snaked around her waist. Her heart was pounding somewhere under her ears. "Do you?"

Kienan's eyes were so dark she was sinking in them. "Mmm-hmm," he said. "but it looks best here."

He took the blouse out of her hands and tossed it to the floor. She looked at him crossly, then took him into her arms and kissed him, leaning back on the bed, their bodies moving together.

"Kienan," Silhouette breathed. "We really should be getting ready . . ."

* * *

As it happened, they'd only kept him waiting ten minutes.

Toriares Ata'e stared at then across the dark wooden table, his deep brown eyes carefully picking Silhouette apart with the clinical precision an artist might invest in the subject of his picture. Silhouette pressed closer to Kienan, as if trying to hide behind him from Toriares glare.

Lunch with Toriares was usually a pleasant diversion--Kienan's mentor was a man of great wit, insight, and humor, and Silhouette could see that he loved Kienan like a brother.

And sometimes more than others, that annoyed Silhouette. For the three years they'd been together they communicated on a level deeper than she did with Kienan and something about that connection made hers and Kienan's suffer by comparison, and that quiet jealously was stirring in her heart with every furtive glance and awkward silence at the table.

"So," Toriares said, taking his eyes off her to look into his glass of ice water. "How'd it go last night?"

"Mission accomplished," Silhouette replied, not bothering to conceal her satisfaction.

Toriares looked at her again, then slowly at Kienan. He cocked his head in Silhouette's direction.

"How'd she fight?"

Kienan's brow furrowed in confusion. He'd seen that look in his mentor's eyes a dozen times--it was the look he had when he was trying to piece together a problem.

Only he keeps looking at Silhouette, he thought. Almost as if he were sizing her up. Damn, I wish I could read him better.

"She . . .gave a good account of herself," he said carefully, his eyes unconsciously going to the table as if his mentor has castigated him. "It went all right."

"Hmm," Toriares said, catching Silhouette's bristling out of the corner of his eye. He put his hands on the table and rose to his feet. "Excuse us for a second please, Silhouette."

"Huh?" Kienan blinked.

Toriares nodded. "You need cigarettes. I saw a machine when we came in. I'll walk with you."

Kienan's hand went to his inside jacket pocket, feeling the hard cardboard square within. He nearly opened his mouth to decline the offer, but then he caught the glance of his master and read the intent as clearly as he might read his mind.

You and I need to talk.

"Uh . . .right," Kienan said, squeezing out of the booth. He looked over at Silhouette, who rested her chin in hands, pouting like a child. "It's OK. We'll be right back."

Silhouette just stared at him, doing an even worse job of covering her irritation than she had her triumph earlier. Kienan grimaced and followed Toriares to the restroom.

Toriares shoved the door open and held it for Kienan with his white cane. Kienan slipped by him and Toriares snapped the lock shut with a flick of his fingers.

Kienan looked at the floor. Something about the cold sterile white of the restroom and the odd glow of the fluorescent lights made him feel even more exposed.

"Okay," Toriares said, sitting on the edge of the sink and brushing his white hair from his eyes. "Now that we're alone . . .what really happened?"

Kienan sighed. "Didn’t fool you?"

"Not for a second," he said. "Something's wrong. She's a little too happy and your nerves are on edge. I'm putting two and two together and all I can come up with is that something went wrong last night."

"The actual job went fine," Kienan said, reaching inside his jacket for a cigarette. His movements became a bit smoother, it was he and Toriares, friends and comrades. Silhouette seemed far away. "She ended up killing Taro, he'd given me the slip. Dropped him and three of his bodyguards."

"You trained her well, then," Toriares said.

"Hm," Kienan said, frowning around his cigarette as he lit it. "I . . .was proud of her. But . . ."

Toriares leaned on his cane, patient.

Kienan took a long drag on his cigarette and sighed. "Maybe it's nothing."

"Very little bothers you this much, Kienan," Toriares said. "Something about Silhouette bothers you and pardon my bluntness, but nothing disturbs you. So what is it?"

"I found her . . .last night, or this morning, I don’t even know, sitting on the edge of the bed with her gun in her hand." Kienan began. "She sounded strange. The mission . . .the killing . . .she seemed really excited by it."

Toriares sighed. "Thrill-killing."

Kienan blinked. "What?"

"It means someone who gets off on killing," Toriares said. Genuine anger and disappointment crossed his face and coalesced into outright disgust. "Worst kind of assassin--they can ruin a whole mission and get everyone killed in the name of their "high." She's gotten a taste of it, has she?"

Kienan nodded.

Toriares tapped his cane on the tiled floor. "Then she's out."

"But she--"

"Kienan, I'm not putting my life in her hands under these circumstances," Toriares said. "We're already breaking the rules just by taking her with us. With her like this, now she's even more of a liability."

Kienan looked away, staring at the cigarette in his hands.

"She won't like that."

"I don’t care what she likes, Kienan," Toriares said. "I worked years making you a professional, and despite some rough edges, I succeeded. If it were anyone else, you'd make the same call. She's risking your life, and personally and professionally, I won’t have it. This doesn't work unless we can trust her, and I don't right now."

Kienan opened his mouth, trying to come up with some last-minute appeal, but nothing coherent came out. He threw his cigarette to the floor and ground it out, angry.

"What'll I tell her?"

Toriares looked at him for a second, considering the options. "I could tell her. It'd spare you some heat."

"No," Kienan said. "That'd make you the bad guy and . . .it'd make things harder."

"Okay," Toriares said, reaching over and flicking the lock open. "So what do we do?"

"I don’t know yet," Kienan said. "I need time, I think. To work out how to say it."

"We've got some downtime coming," Toriares said. "I'll arrange it for you. Take Silhouette somewhere nice, get her away from all this, then break the news."

"Will . . .that work?"

"Probably not, honestly, Toriares said, opening the door for him. "But you get a nice vacation out of it."

* * *

Later that night, Kienan lay on the couch, cycling through the channels on the communications system. Silhouette lay on his chest, eyes closed, a gentle smile crossing her sleeping face. The glow from the monitor bathed the two of them in a pale blue that made them seem almost like ghostly lovers. On the center of the coffee table in front of them their accumulated cigarette butts even seemed to be joined together.

Just like we are? Kienan mused. He'd thought about what Toriares had said that afternoon. And logically and intellectually, he was right--If Silhouette found killing more of an intoxicating thrill than the means to and end, she had no place in Toriares and Kienan's professions.

To them, assassinations were a job just like any other. Not to be dreaded, hated, or anticipated, something to simply be done. No emotion, no considerations.

Six months ago, a dilemma like this would never have occurred to him. Six months ago there was no Silhouette, there was only Toriares and the job, and everything was perfect.

Enter Silhouette.

In a way she's like me, Kienan thought, tracing the curve of her face with his fingertips. A blank slate. Except she genuinely can’t remember anything before meeting me.

I remember everything. And yet, we were both in our way, almost innocent. And I'd never gone as far with anyone else. And I don’t think she had either. But once we let each other in she learned what I did. And still accepted me, claimed to love me.

And, loving me, she let me make her in my image.

He thought about that. How she'd colored her hair a bit to resemble his and how she wore it in a long, loose ponytail, like an imperfect echo of his braid.

I hate that. It's like she's just copying me to fill in her own blanks. That doesn’t feel like love.

He sighed and leaned his head back, staring at the ceiling.

Then again, how would I know?

He looked down at her and gently brushed the bangs from her forehead, planting a soft kiss on her forehead. More than anything he needed that cold clinical professionalism he and Toriares prided themselves on possessing. That cool certainty that no matter how dangerous things were, in the blink of an eye, with barely any conscious thought, instinctively he would make the right decision.

That certainty and anything that even looked like the right decision felt far away.

And Silhouette was so near.

* * *

The next day, Silhouette decided to sleep in. Kienan hadn’t slept at all, his mind still turning over the problem in his mind. He walked the city streets alone, feeling isolated despite the knot of people milling about at the street kiosks and storefronts.

Everything Toriares said makes sense, he thought. He and I have seen it over and over again--our ability to keep our heads in the job always gave us an edge over people who thought a little skill made them invincible.

He walked along, hoping the noise of the streets would drown out the reverie in his head. Unfortunately, if anything, the reverse was happening.

It made them sloppy, and in an indirect way, it made them dead, his hand tracing the outline of the pistol in his jacket. Without discipline, without trust, it's nothing.

I always thought that put us above them. That we were better than they are. But Silhouette's just like them, and I don’t know how to help her. I don’t know if I should.

What right do I have to lecture her about anything?

He sighed, reaching the end of the block. The edge of something formed in his mind, a combination of his own recrimination and something Toriares had said to him yesterday.

He turned, his footsteps becoming faster, more directed. Two blocks down, in a more upscale section of the city he came to an apartment house and mounted the white stairs, moving faster as he came to a certain door on the second floor.

He knocked on the door. Toriares opened it, impeccably dressed and under control as always.

"I thought you’d be on vacation," he said to his friend and protégé.

"Couldn’t do it," Kienan replied. "Can I come in?"

Toriares nodded and stepped aside, letting him walk through.

"I don’t know what to do about the Silhouette thing," Kienan said, standing in the middle of the living room, staring out at the window.

"You know my vote already, so I won't waste time repeating it."

"Yeah," Kienan said.

Toriares walked past him into the kitchen. "It's a little early, but you want a drink?"

Kienan shook his head. "Tell me straight," he began. "It was a mistake to get involved, wasn't it?"

Toriares sat down on the sofa, watching him. "You knew the answer to that before you even asked it, Kienan."

"Yeah, guess I did," he said, fumbling for a cigarette. "How do you deal with it?"

"Deal with what?"

"Uh, not having," Kienan stumbled, doing even worse explaining himself than he was with lighting his cigarette. "Not having . . .someone, I mean."

Toriares smiled. "I wouldn't say that."

Kienan cocked an eyebrow. "You? But . . .I never knew you went out."

"Well it's a little different from you and Silhouette's relationship," Toriares said. "I'm promised to someone, and that's all we'll say about that right now. I want to talk about you and Silhouette."

"I can’t let her go," Kienan said. "Toriares, you could ask me to do anything else, but I cannot let her go."

"I'm not asking you to," he replied. "I'm guessing you've got something else in mind?"

Kienan took a thoughtful drag of his cigarette. He exhaled a thin slow stream of smoke, drawing out the time before he spoke.

"I was just thinking about the first day I worked with you," Kienan said.

Toriares smiled. "Considering we spent a good portion of it fighting, it seems unlikely we'd end up as friends, doesn't it?"

"I wondered why you felt like you had to do that? Kick the crap out of me."

"Simple psychology," Toriares said, lacing his fingers together. "You were going to be my assistant, but you were already a hell of a fighter. I needed to get your attention, make you receptive and make you listen and . . ."

"And?"

"And honestly, I just wanted to take your measure," Toriares said. He leaned back, cocking an eyebrow at Kienan. "Besides . . .for a person to be willing to learn, they first have to be put in a position where they admit they don’t know anything. Once you put your pride and arrogance in your back pocket, the rest is easy, because trust takes over.

"Why, what made you think of that?"

"I . . .had an idea about how to solve this problem," Kienan said.

Toriares gestured for him to continue.

"You’re going to think this is absolutely crazy, Toriares."

Toriares smiled. "I've always respected your consistency, Kienan."

* * *

Silhouette walked into the circle of fine sand, dressed for a fight. Her hair was pulled into a loose ponytail, her pistol holstered at her side, her white-gloved hands clenching and unclenching with tension. Her blue and black outfit clung to her body as if painted on, her colors a stark contrast to her opponent.

Toriares was dressed for battle as well, his white and blue outfit contrasting with his bronze skin. Silhouette remembered something Kienan had said about how he eschewed armor to allow for maximum mobility and also to taunt his opponents--to be that exposed without fear told you all you needed to know about how skilled he really was.

To complete the effect, he affixed his golden mask to his face, giving him a countenance whose gilt features called to mind something angelic, but whose dark eyes, lit only by soft blue pinpoints, suggested something else.

On the edge of the stone-lined circle stood Kienan, dressed in his familiar blue, black and red outfit. Silhouette took notice of it curiously--Toriares had insisted this was between him and herself--Kienan was just there to watch.

Well, if that's the case, Silhouette wondered, what is he doing here dressed like that? I love him, but he's the last person who I’d pick as a referee . . .

Toriares looked her in the eye, pointing a black-gloved finger at her. "Kienan says you’re ready to run with us," he began. "What you did last night proves it--you're skilled, fearless, and when necessary, ruthless enough to get the job done.

"I don’t agree with him," he said, any warmth dropping out of his voice. "I think you're still inexperienced. I think you got a taste of what we do and got lucky, and now you think you’re ready to stand with us as an equal."

"If you're not sure," Silhouette said, trembling inside. "Maybe you should find out for yourself."

"I intend to," he said. The blue pinpoints bored into her. "No weapons, just skill to skill. But this fight's a foregone conclusion, Sil . . .you're going to lose."

Silhouette bit her lip, eyes narrowing in anger. "Don’t be so sure," she said. "Kienan's taught me a lot, and I'm tougher than you think. Definitely stronger than you."

Toriares' golden lips curled into a sneer. "You think that's all you need?"

"No," Silhouette said, turning to look in Kienan's direction. He was talking all this in quietly, no sign in his demeanor about whose side he was on.

Silhouette pivoted on her heels, launching off her heels and vaulting into the air in a rolling arc, sticking her leg out.

"Showy. Skilled," Toriares said, striking her leg with a glancing shot from his forearm and pushing her down into the sand.

"Stupid."

Silhouette pushed deeper into the fine sand as he moved behind her, attempting to smother her in the sand. She shoved back against him, catching him across the chin with her shoulder. Toriares crumpled forward, ducking the elbow strike she propelled herself backwards with, but as she missed that one, she caught him with an uppercut to the stomach.

Toriares groaned, sliding off her fist as she rose to her feet.

"Maybe you should re-think the armor thing, Toriares," she said.

Toriares sank to his knees. A sound like "hmph!" came from his doubled over form as he swiped his arm out and knocked her backwards into the sand again.

"Maybe you shouldn’t talk so much," Toriares said, beckoning her up. "Get up. I'm not done with you."

Silhouette flipped up to her feet, her blue-green eyes blazing with fury. "I was just about to say the same thing. You’re not dealing with Kienan now. I'm stronger than him, and stronger than you!"

She rushed forward, throwing a combination of punches Toriares' way. He snaked his arms between her, blocking the punches, and striking with the flat of his hands knocking her off-balance.

Toriares relaxed his stance a bit, trying to hide the pain in her blows had cost him. No doubt about it, he thought. Kienan wasn't exaggerating how powerful she is physically. It's like having a brick wall slug you. Standing toe to toe with her is a mistake.

This isn't a physical fight. I know that. She doesn't.

Try hitting her where it really hurts.

"I never said you weren't strong," Toriares said. "But you can’t make the most of it, can you? I was able to shove you back with a simple move like this. Admit it, Sil--when it comes down to it, you’re really powerless."

"Hmm," Silhouette said, digging in her toe in the sand. "I don’t think so."

She flicked her foot upward, kicking the sand up into his face. It wouldn’t blind him, she knew, but it was enough of a surprise to where it allowed her to rush forward, snake her arms around his right leg, and toss him to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

Toriares flicked his left leg up, intending to crack her against the chin. She seized his ankle, squeezing hard enough to where Toriares could feel the pressure through his boot. Slowly, a thin smile crossing her red lips, she began to twist it.

"You might wanna think about giving up, now, Toriares," she whispered. "Or I'll break your damn ankle."

"No . . . I . . .don’t think you will, actually," Toriares said, able to turn and pivot on her, tossing her off him with his free leg. He rolled to his feet, wincing underneath his mask as he tried to put weight on his tender ankle.

Silhouette came back with a handful of sand again. Toriares sidestepped it slapped it out of her hand before she could release it, taking and twisting her arm and flipping her into the sand again. He hopped over her, heading towards the edge of the ring as she rose to her feet, covered in grit and seething with enough anger to fuse it to glass.

"This isn't a friendly contest anymore," she said. "I'm going to kill you. You know I can do it."

Toriares rolled back onto the balls of his feet, running one of his hands behind his back.

"I know you can," he said, not bothering to conceal the pain in his ankle. "The question is . . .will you?"

Toriares rolled onto the tips of his toes and dove for the outside of the ring, simultaneously reaching behind him, unholstering his shotgun as he seized Kienan with his free hand. He wrapped Kienan's braid around his fist, pulling his protégé tight against him as he wrapped one arm around his neck and put the barrel of the shotgun against his chin.

Silhouette had her pistol drawn before she was ever conscious of it. She tried to level it at Toriares' head but Kienan was struggling trying to free himself, and it was throwing her aim off.

"LET HIM GO!" Silhouette shouted.

"Why?" Toriares said. "If you're as good as you say you are, you can pick me off without hurting him."

"Toriares, stop playing games."

"I'm done playing with you," he said. "I told you you'd lose this fight before we started, and one way or another, you will. Either you'll give up, or you'll kill him trying to kill me. Go on, try it."

Silhouette's aim wavered. "I swear I'll . . ."

" . . .Probably kill Kienan trying to kill me," Toriares said. "After all, even if you get me in the head, I'm fast enough to squeeze the trigger and blow his head off. We'll go together. Then you can be the best of us. You can stand alone."

Silhouette willed her arm to steady. "I'm willing to risk it."

"Are you?" Toriares said, jamming the shotgun even harder into Kienan's chin. "That's what this is all about. The thrill of killing has fooled you into thinking you can do what we do. But you can't.

"You won't risk killing him. You love him too much," Toriares said, the anger in his voice gone, replaced by patient, if shouted wisdom. "And that's what's making you hesitate right now. When you killed Taro and his three bodyguards it was easy. No real risk, no consequences. I bet it was like they weren't even real.

"But now? Risk losing your pride by admitting defeat or lose the man you love? What's it going to be?"

Silhouette grit her teeth and aimed at him again, tears rolling down her cheek. Her arm trembled, wavered and finally fell to her side as she sank to her knees, sobbing. She covered her face with her hands, sobbing so hard that her tears escaped through her gloved hands.

"A-all right," she said. "You win . . .just let him go."

Toriares immediately let Kienan loose as he holstered his shotgun. Kienan steadied himself on his feet, looking over his shoulder at his master. He raised an eyebrow, and again it was as if they were communicating without words.

You think she understands, now? Kienan seemed to say.

I called her bluff and gave her a dose of cold water, Toriares replied silently. The real test starts now.

Silhouette kept crying as Toriares walked over to her. He put a hand on her shoulder, and despite herself, Silhouette flinched and jerked backward at first. He tried again and took her hand in his.

"It's all right," Toriares said. "You're not ready yet. But you will be. Kienan and I will help you."

Kienan couched down behind her, sliding his arms around her waist and helping her up.

"I . . .don’t understand," Silhouette said. "You’re going to . . .what?"

Toriares removed his mask with his free hand, taking her hand in his. "I'll train you. Kienan asked me to this morning, but before I could approach you I had to be sure you’d take me seriously. Had to be sure you could put your arrogance and recklessness aside and take what we had to offer to heart.

"I had to do the same when I took Kienan under my wing," He said. "One thing I'll say for the pair of you . . .you're charmingly hardheaded."

"So," Silhouette sniffled. "The fight, threatening Kienan . . .all that was a test?"

"Uh-huh," Toriares said. "And I'm happy to say you passed."

* * *

That night, Kienan awoke to find Silhouette standing in front of the mirror, arms crossed around her naked body, staring at her reflection with bright, inquisitive eyes, studying it as if her reflection would walk out of the mirror and explain everything to her.

Kienan quietly got out of bed and crept up behind her, pressing his body against hers as he brushed her hair from her neck looking at their reflection.

"Now there's a picture," he whispered.

Silhouette's expression looked pained, as her fingertips danced over her forearms. "You've seen it dozens of times before," she said wearily.

Kienan tiled her head up and kissed her softly, looking into her eyes. "Sil," he said. "No one's ever seen you before."

Silhouette looked back at her reflection. "I . . .really don’t know what to think about today."

"What do you mean?"

"I should be angry at you and Toriares for tricking me, making me think that he'd kill you," she said quietly. "I am angry about that, that you . . .lied to me, almost."

"You wouldn't have listened, otherwise," Kienan said. "Two days ago, I found you sitting at the foot of the bed, convinced killing had made you divine."

"Yeah," Silhouette said quietly, blushing slightly. "That's . . .why I'm not that angry. After I’d gone with you I felt so . . .wild. Out of control. All I could think of was killing again and being with you. And the more I had of both, the more I wanted.

"Something about the idea of bloodying my hands by your side, then coming to you . . .made me feel dirty and clean at the same time," she said slowly, taking a deep breath as if the words were barbs she were pulling from her flesh.

"And I liked it, Kienan. I loved it. I craved it like I crave being with you. Part of me would have killed you and him too. And I would have enjoyed it."

Kienan kissed her ear. "It's OK."

"No," she said. She put her hand on the mirror. "I didn’t like what Toriares was showing me about myself. I don’t like knowing that's inside me. It scares me. I think about it, and I think about what I don’t know about myself and I wonder if that bloodlust might be how I really am, and all the rest is pretending to be something I'm not.

"And that scares the hell out of me, Kienan."

"I can't promise that'll ever go away, Sil," Kienan said, gently brushing his lips along the nape of her neck. "But I can promise I'll never leave you alone with it. And whatever you are, whatever you become . . .I'll be here with you."

Silhouette turned from the mirror, stepping on tiptoe and kissing him, looking deep into her eyes.

"And I'll never leave your side, Kienan," she said. "I love you."

They moved together back to the bed, curling up together and looking into each other's eyes. Finally, they fell asleep in each other's arms, together for now as they'd promised to be forever.