She awoke slowly, blinking the gunk out of her eyes. She stretched and yawned, then remembered what had occurred the day before.
She was sleeping somewhere she didn't know. She had fainted. She had almost been killed. And she had fallen in love with a
complete and total stranger.
She rubbed at her eyes and looked around.
The room was like some sort of ritzy hotel, complete with a dresser, a vanity, and a four-poster bed. She found herself wrapped
rather comfortably in the silk sheets and full comforter, and she loved the soft rose color. She touched the feather pillow
beneath her head and then felt her hair. Since it hadn't been in a braid, it had gotten hopelessly tangled. She sighed.
Her eyes closed for a minute, and a picture of Saiph immediately entered her mind. She groaned and shifted in the bed, then
stopped suddenly. Something felt ... odd. She sat up and slid off the covers that hid her beneath the enormous expanse of
cloth ... and found that she was in a nightgown. A soft, silk and lace nightgown that matched the color of the room and hugged
her in all the places she'd felt come to life when she'd seen Saiph. Her face burned. It had been bad enough to faint at the
man's feet, but did he really have to undress her, as well?! Dammit!
Had he seen her body? How had he reacted? She'd put herself on a diet because of ... personal reasons, and she'd lost a few
pounds on her stomach, which was her problem area. Had he seen the tiny bit of fat left there? Had he seen how... how large
her breasts were? Depending on the bra, a C cup wouldn't always hold her all in. She'd usually hidden that with a loose shirt
or a baggy sweater. Did he see the marks on her legs from an event that had occurred three year ago? Had he been disgusted,
as she was every time she saw them? And what about her hair? She'd kept it long enough to pass her waist. And her eyes were
a nice, calm jade green, and everyone said they were large and would look beautiful with make-up. Did he see that? Or did
he think that she was ugly? Dammit, why was she caring so much?!
"You're finally awake!"
Ara's head turned so hard bells started ringing in her mind. A woman stood at the entrance to the room, the golden door handle
still within her hand. On the door itself were two pictures, sculpted in gold and stuck onto the outside of the door. One
was of a unicorn, and the other was a rat. She looked at them for a moment longer before turning back to the mysterious lady.
The woman looked only a couple of years older than she, probably around Saiph's ... well, around nineteen or twenty, as opposed
to her own eighteen years. She wore a black, loose tank top that nevertheless stretched across the broad expanse of her chest.
The woman seemed even better equipped than her. Tight, tight dark blue jeans hugged her legs, showing off a curve resembling
one of those ancient hourglasses that are hardly ever seen anymore, let alone used. Her hair was golden silk, shining in the
lamplight of the room that came from an unknown source to her, and it was pulled back in a high ponytail, where it swung sensually
against her neck, a few long strands managing to reach her shoulders. Her eyes were clear skies and relaxing days at a pool's
edge, her skin a sweet tan, making her resemble a Californian girl though they were in Ohio. A frown creased her tough-ass,
sculptured and well-kept face.
Dismay began to take over Ara's entire being.
"My name is Feb." Her voice was just as cultured as she was, and smooth, like wine, to boot. "Saiph brought you here. I've
taken care of you since." She said that last part as if it was a chore for her to treat the dumb girl. Feb stepped forward
then, touching Ara's forehead. She made a small noise and spoke again. "You're fine. It seems you fainted from fear."
The bitch was smirking! Ara's brows furrowed in aggravation, but then she stopped. We. Saiph had said we. "We have a base
two or three miles from here." Had he meant ... himself and Feb? Was this Saiph's girlfriend? Feb was so beautiful, and
she was... well, lacking in that department. And, while she was happy that Saiph hadn't seen her, she was horrified about
the fact that Feb had.
Oh, God, she'd been so stupid! Fawning over the guy when he already had a girl... she was such a fool...
She had to calm herself for a second before she could speak. "I did not faint from fear," she said finally. "I'm not quite
sure what it was I fainted from, but it wasn't fear." And that, of course, was as close to the truth as she was willing
"Of course." The smirk remained in place.
Ara felt anger simmer underneath her self-disgust and brought it to the front almost without thinking. Anger was better than
sadness. Better to claw their eyes out than to cry in front of them. "And how would you know for sure what it was I fainted
from unless you experienced it first-hand?" Her eyes narrowed into her infamous glare, and the woman was riled enough to fight
"Don't take that tone with me, bitch, or I'll throw you back out there and let Alphard crush you under his little finger!"
"What is all the yelling about?" Both women turned to the door, where Saiph now stood, another man beside him. They stepped
inside, and Saiph turned to her. "Good, you're awake."
"What time is it?" she asked, because it was the only thing that came into her head to say to him that didn't sound like a
"It's nine o'clock a.m., Wednesday. You've slept for fifteen hours."
She was beginning to feel it, but was so embarrassed she couldn't even think to ask where the bathroom was. She merely nodded
and looked at the newcomer. He had blond hair like Feb, but it was cropped very short, with only a few wisps of bangs floating
on his forehead having a length one could measure in inches. His bangs fell into gray eyes, ones that reminded her of stormy
weather and thunderstorms. He wore a simple sweat suit in an odd green color that she thought one could only find in chemical
bottles. He wore simple sneakers, as well, and raised a hand in greeting, a smile and mischievous glint in those serious-looking
eyes. She smiled back at him, feeling at ease in his presence.
"So. I survived the night. May I go home?" She knew it was a stupid question, but it hinted at the one she wanted to ask:
will I ever be safe enough to return home?
"Sorry, Pretty," the blond guy said. "We can't let you leave. It's too dangerous." He quirked her a grin. "My name's Nash.
You can call me Nash. Or Love. Or Honey-bunch."
"Or lecher?" she asked sweetly, and won a bark of a laugh for her efforts.
"Honey, I'll take that as a compliment, especially from the likes of you."
She rolled her eyes, but found herself smiling nonetheless. It was this kind of nonsense banter that she was best at. She
thought of it as part of an evasion dance. Or repression dance. Or whatever.
Feb ruined all her hard work with her next sentence. "You're both imbeciles. Now let's get back down to business." She turned
to Saiph. "Sorry if we disturbed anyone. You can take the brat downstairs and introduce her to everyone. She's going to be
staying here for a while, so she might as well meet everyone."
A while. Ara's gaze went back to Saiph. He was wearing a shirt and jeans instead of that armor, and everything was covered.
His shirt was navy blue and said, "As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live." She looked at that sentence
for a long time before turning her gaze away from the jeans wrapped around his legs and the boots hitched onto his feet. Her
eyes went up into that cobalt gaze, and then she felt herself falling. It didn't matter how long she was trapped here, she
realized. As long as I'm with him.
And that sounded so corny and pathetic that she looked away and tried not to laugh out loud at herself. "As soon as you trust
yourself..." Damn him; even Saiph's shirts were reaching out to her.
"Hey, I can show her around!" Nash offered, and she twisted her gaze to him.
Feb laughed at him. "And have her running off in fright. Or fainting." Ara saw the smirk and wanted to smack it right off
the bitch's face.
"I'll show her around."
"You do that," Feb nodded, glaring at the girl. "Just get her out of my room somehow." Ara felt like the epitome of foolish.
She felt ... pathetic.
"It's not necessary," she murmured. "I can survive on my own. I..." She stopped herself from saying something self-deprecating
and quickly changed what she was going to say. "...don't want to get in everyone's way."
Saiph's eyes locked with hers, and she knew that he'd caught the infinitesimal hesitation in her sentence. Fortunately, it
seemed no one else had. It was Feb who spoke first. "Too late, little girl. You involved yourself in a battle that you had
no right taking part in."
She bristled, but kept her anger in check under Saiph's scrutinizing gaze. "I hadn't meant to-"
"Well you did, and now we're stuck with you. Looks like everyone here will just have to deal with it."
"That's enough." Feb stopped her insults when Saiph spoke. "I said I would show her around." His eyes were hard, condescending.
She prayed that gaze wouldn't be turned on her, lest she start blubbering apologies for nothing in particular. His eyes did
turn back to her, but they were gentle. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Feb simmer. She'd made her second enemy, and
she doubted that this one would be as easy to avoid. That had been easy?! "Let's go."
She nodded, her eyes on the floor, and passed Nash. He followed them out, and the door slammed behind them. "Hey, sorry about
Feb," he started, but she quickly butted in.
"Don't apologize for someone else. You can't control them." She peeked a look at him, and he was smiling at her, surprised
a bit, she thought.
"I'm sorry about it, anyway. She had no right to act like that." He shrugged. "I guess she's just used to being the only girl
here and doesn't want any competition for the prettiest miss."
"That's just what you'd be jealous about." They both turned to Saiph, her in shock and Nash to clap him on the back, laughing.
"Touche, you bastard," he chuckled, and she just watched.
He'd been so serious just a moment or so before. He'd put Feb in her place, and had led Ara away before a cat fight ensued.
He'd been so ... solemn and dignified, and now he was cracking jokes. She didn't understand. She had seen his poise and strength
in this little group, yet here he was taking on a more personal role than what he'd given to Feb.
And speaking of this little group, who else, exactly, was she going to meet? Two more, three more? She didn't know if she
could handle being in a house with so many people. She followed Nash and Saiph through a few more passageways before really
looking at the place. The walls were painted and inordinately furnished, with fine draperies hanging along both of the walls.
The carpet below their feet had been red ... when there had been carpet. Now, there was a sort of ... it looked like marble,
but that couldn't be possible.
All right, how freakin' big was this place?! She'd been walking for a long time, the two men's bantering going in one ear
and out the other. Would they ever get to ... to ... hell, where were they going?
She looked at the two men in front of her, but didn't want to interrupt their conversation. Her feet padded silently on the
floor while Saiph's and Nash's squeaked a bit ... she looked down and almost had a seizure. She was still wearing the nightgown
and nothing else. She blushed to her roots, looking herself over. She wore nothing at all underneath the gown, and if she
looked hard, she could she the dark blush of the hair underneath and the rosy peaks of her nipples. Her cheeks burned until
she thought the skin was peeling off.
The boys seemed to notice that she had stopped and turned to face her, but she found herself unable to look them in the eye.
"Something wrong?" Saiph asked, and she thought her skin was just slipping off in chunks now, her humiliation was so grand.
She bit her lip, trying to find the words to say what she was thinking without internally combusting. "I ... I don't think
I'm decent enough to..." Well, her combustion theory seemed to be occurring, after all. She felt almost faint at the embarrassment.
She couldn't believe this. What next?
Nash burst out laughing. "Don't be embarrassed, m'lady," he chortled, "I can't think of anyone who would speak up against
She made a horrible face. "I'd rather not..." She had no idea how to tell them how vulnerable it made her feel to go out with
her hair down, let alone going out in such an ... evocative state. It was utterly humiliating to be getting this personal.
"We're almost there, and I don't feel like going back." Saiph's gaze pierced into her. She glared at him despite how she looked.
"Then don't. I'll go back on my own."
"I don't think Feb will allow you to wear her clothes," Nash said, seeming to think about her reaction.
Ara had to admit, the thought of going up to the bitch and asking for clothes was daunting at best. "Where are my clothes?"
she asked, skipping that obstacle for now.
"We threw them out." Her head spun to Saiph so fast it brought pretty pictures to her mind for a second.
"Don't get mad, Missy," Nash started, but she glared at him and he shut up.
"What were you thinking?!" she demanded. "I can't believe you ... what am I supposed to wear? Think hard before you answer
that," she added. "I'm not going anywhere until I have clothes!"
"This is ridiculous," Saiph muttered. "I'm not dealing with it. If you're going to complain about everything, then get out
of here. Leave."
Her nose flew into the air in a heated show of defiance. "Which way is the exit?"
His eyes showed surprise, then a flash of awe and concern before he scowled. She watched in fascination, sadly noting that
the kindness the boy had shown her before were gone. Had she merely imagined them in her torrent of lust, emotion, and fatigue?
That would be beyond pathetic. "It's down the hall." He pointed to her left. "There's an exit that way. About 200 meters.
When you come to a dead end, just say 'out' and you'll be let free."
Nash turned on Saiph. "You can't just send her out there! They'll get her in no time!"
"She's the one being unbending. She should be grateful I saved her life in the first place!"
Why was he being so harsh? She hadn't done anything wrong! "How would you feel, walking around practically naked in front
of people you didn't even know! I'm not asking for you to... to kiss my feet! I only want some decency so that I don't feel
so damned vulnerable!" She battled valiantly against meaningless tears. She couldn't believe she'd said that. Had she completely
lost her mind?!
"Saiph, you're being an asshole. I don't know what's suddenly gotten into you, but this is where it stops. The lady's made
a very good point, and-"
"If you wish to side with her, fine!" Saiph spouted angrily, turning away. "Do as you wish. I'm leaving."
"Saiph-" Nash began, but she hurried forward and grabbed the dark-haired man's arm.
"Saiph, you can be pissed at me all you want," she told him, "but please, don't take your anger out on Nash. He's-"
"I don't give a shit if you two are already lovers!" Saiph snapped. "Just get the hell away from me!" He stormed down the
hall before she could make her mouth work again.
"You don't want to lose a friendship like this!" she cried, but knew he was already gone. She felt hopelessly lost and confused.
And hurt. Damn if it didn't hurt to watch him leave her, to hear him screaming at her. She shuddered in pain.
"It'll be alright," Nash assured her. "I'll talk to him later."
"I'm sorry," she murmured, but he merely hushed her. Silently, he led her back the way that they had come. She didn't know
what to do. Saiph had switched from kind and ... and ... and helpful, and sweet, to being just like all of the other men she'd
been around in her high school, like an uneducated, self-loving jackass. She couldn't understand it. Was the guy schizophrenic,
Nash nudged her slightly, and she looked at him, then smiled when she saw his kind expression. This man was being nice, just
as Saiph had been originally. His silent patience had her talking before she could stop herself. "Was it something I did or
said, or does he just ... I mean, am I..." She tried to shut up, but it was too late.
Nash shook his head. "I don't know what's gotten into him, but Saiph has never acted like this before. As I said, I'll talk
to him. He's just... probably riled up about Feb. Those two always fight."
Never acted like this before... so, it was her fault. She hated it. She hated meeting him, seeing him, falling ... falling
for him. She hated being trapped in this place and having to meet God only knows how many people. She wanted to go home. She
wanted to go to school, believe it or not. She hated Feb. She hated all of this. She hated not understanding anything that
was going on. What in the hell was going on here?!
She blew out an exasperated breath. And Saiph. He was so beautiful, so wonderful, and she wanted to be near him. But he hated
her. Why? What had she done to him? Did he just hate having to deal with her? Had she been in the wrong? Had demanding clothes
been too rude? He had saved her life, after all ... No! She had been perfectly right. She had nothing to be guilty about.
She had said nothing wrong. Nothing! Wanting to look half decent isn't a bad thing! She was practically naked. That wasn't
right. It ... it wasn't, and she hadn't deserved his harsh words. She'd done nothing wrong! Nothing. Nothing...
"The world hasn't ended," Nash said conversationally, and she turned back to him. He was trying to pull her mind away from
her depressing thoughts, she realized, and smiled for him. He smiled back, and she struggled to make conversation.
She looked at the draperies on the wall and finally spoke. "Do you know who did these?"
Nash looked at them. "I believe they were all done by Mon Horun, a man who lived in the palace all of his life. He was quite
the artist. He had an odd way of drawing people, sometimes making them look almost comic. However, he still kept everything
very lovely, don't you think?" He smiled. "But I'm definitely not the artist out of all of us. If you want to learn more,
you'll have to talk to Deneb. He's a poet through and through."
She perked up a bit. "He enjoys writing?"
"He enjoys anything that has to do with art," Nash corrected. "Sculptures, poetry, paintings, music, anything. It's kind of
embarrassing, sometimes. He starts to talk in poetry instead of English."
She laughed a bit. "Sounds like something I sometimes do. I have the bad habit of enjoying writing. I draw a bit, but I'm
not that good." She looked at the draperies again. The one they were now passing depicted a lion's spirit rising from a man
trying to take down an enormous serpent. His weapon was a pair of what appeared to be knuckle dusters. She looked at the lion's
mane, then face, and nodded. "This is very beautiful." Beautiful. Seems she'd been using that word a lot recently.
"Anything you enjoy isn't a bad habit. Saiph ... he used to believe that. I don't know what's wrong with him." He shrugged.
"C'mon, let's get to Feb's. I'll make her give you some clothes."
"I don't want to get you in trouble with anyone," Ara began, but was cut off again.
"I don't mind," he said, "I'm used to them yelling at me. They don't think my jokes are all that funny. Can't imagine why."
She smiled. "Maybe they just don't have a sense of humor?"
He laughed. "Maybe." They shared another sweet smile, then she sighed and looked away. He seemed to realize where her thoughts
drifted to and tried to reassure her. "It's not that Saiph doesn't like you," he told her, "it's that he's worried, and he
hates worrying about things he can't control. And I think he might be jealous of me."
"What?" she asked intelligently.
Nash seemed to be planning his next words. "Now that I think about it, he did make a rude comment that insinuated a budding
relationship between us." She watched in confusion as an evil grin came onto Nash's face. She began to ask him what he was
thinking when he spoke again. "Ah, here we are! Feb's humble abode." He snickered a bit at the irony of that before knocking
on the door. There was the sound of running feet, and then the door opened.
"Saiph, is that-" She recognized who was standing before her and scowled. "What do you want?"
"The little lady needs some clothes," Nash told her, and Feb's lip curled up into one of her infamous sneers. "We'd be much
obliged if you'd lend her some until we're able to provide her her own." Ara was ready to bolt at the first sign of trouble.
"Saiph said that it would be best."
Ara looked at him out of the corner of her eye. Saiph had said no such thing, and she was a bit amazed that this guy would
lie to his friend like that. However, Feb stepped aside with little more than a grumble and allowed her into the room. She
then picked out some old, ragged things that were mostly torn up and snapped, "now go!" before slamming the door in their
"Well," Nash muttered, "that went fairly well, I think." Ara merely shook her head and let him point her to the nearest bathroom.
She thanked him and went inside, locking the door.
She sagged against the wall in relief. Thank God that was over, and she finally had a little privacy. She sighed and looked
at the rutty garments in her hands. At least Feb had thought to add a pair of underwear and a bra into the mix of ruined outfits.
Her mind created erotic scenarios of how her clothes had gotten into this condition, but quickly banished the thoughts to
safer ground. Clouds and rainbows were safe, right?
But both lived in the sky, and that color was quickly replaced by the color of Saiph's eyes, and the soft feel of the clouds
changed to the hard, warm contours of Saiph's chest and back, and she shivered and swallowed a groan. Damn him for all of
this. He'd been so kind, offering shelter and protection and a friendship that she wanted very, very badly. And then he'd
thrown it all away for no good reason, hurting her feelings and, oddly enough, crushing her heart. Damn him. And damn herself
for thinking of him so totally and completely while Nash got agitated waiting for her to bloody well change.
She tried on three of the shirts before finding one that wasn't ripped right across the breasts. She wondered if Feb had meant
to only give her revealing articles of clothing, then shrugged and looked through the pants.
She gnawed her lip. The only one that wouldn't show off her ass or get terribly close to showing her womanhood was one that
very obviously showed off her scars on her legs. She honestly couldn't tell which was worse. Ever since she'd gotten the scars,
she'd never shown them to anyone. Ever. She didn't want to go to people she didn't know and show off how disfigured she was.
She looked at the splotches on her legs and closed her eyes. Heat and pain immediately came to her mind. She could remember
screaming, could remember no one coming to help her. She'd been alone. She'd tried to crawl out of her room, and one of her
cats lay dying on the floor. She'd grabbed him, she'd put the fire out, and he'd looked at her with his beautiful brown eyes
and then ... nothing. The next time she screamed, it was out of anguish.
The pounding on the door brought her back to reality. She changed into a pair that had a cut right along the top of her leg,
slicing over to her inner thigh but not quite there. It didn't show off any of her scars, and it wasn't as revealing as the
rest. The last thing she needed was questions on either her sex life or her scars. There was a lack of memories in the former
and too many in the latter. "I'll be out in a minute!" She called to Nash, then took care of her business and washed her hands.
She checked herself in the mirror and looked at her outfit. Thankfully, the pants were simple blue jeans that matched the
skin-tight brown shirt. The rip on the jeans was on her right leg, and the rips on her shirt were mainly around the sleeves,
where nothing important was shown. There was one across the stomach, but she only had a tiny bit of fat there and wasn't as
embarrassed as she once was.
Until she thought about Saiph seeing her. Then she was a nervous wreck thinking about what he thought about her. Then again,
he'd shown quite clearly what he thought about her, hadn't he?
She finally walked out of the bathroom, only to find that Nash had left. She panicked for a moment before she heard his voice.
He seemed to be angry at someone, and she took a step forward before she heard just who it was he was talking to.
She backed up twice, hearing Saiph's words clearly. "That girl is nothing but trouble! I want nothing to do with her! If you
want her, then take her! I don't give a damn what happens to her!"
She couldn't really explain what happened then. It was like... her whole body just... crumbled. Her soul... died. Her heart
just... stopped wanting to beat. Her breathing got heavy, then shallow, then she found herself unable to breathe at all. She
backed up again, unable to think straight. He didn't care what happened to her? He didn't give a damn about her at all?
Fine! Screw him! She turned and ran off, hiding her pain behind her anger. Damn him! Why did he bring her here in the first
place if he hated her? Fine then, she if she cared. She'd just go home and continue her old life. She'd act like she'd never
met him. So what if she died? He didn't care. He... didn't care...
She felt the tears come and yelled at herself. I'm being so stupid! "Stupid," she murmured, then stopped and looked
at the dead end in front of her. She remembered what Saiph had said to her. What had he told her to say? "Out," she said,
and sighed when the wall cleared and showed the forest around it. She would have been awed ... if she weren't so hurt. Saiph.
She wanted to stay with him, no matter how horrible he was to her. She wanted ... but no. He wanted nothing to do with her.
He'd said so. He'd practically screamed that he wanted her to die.
She shivered. The heat in his voice when he'd said that he didn't care what happened to her... she could still hear him yelling
at Nash. She'd caused dissension between friends, and, as he'd said, she was nothing but trouble. It... would be best if she
left. She'd get in trouble one more time... then she wouldn't trouble anyone anymore.
She stepped out of the building.
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