Damaged Goods---Part 3

From the Story Arc: Hope is the Thing With Feathers

Previous Story in the Arc: Damaged Goods Part Two by Victoria Victrix (Wednesday, May 25, 2005)

Next Story in the Arc: Look Down To Camelot by Victoria Victrix (Monday, May 30, 2005)

(posted Thursday, May 26, 2005)

He wasn't the strangest hero she had ever seen, but he was one of the most striking; as a writer she knew that the way to make something truly unsettling, truly alien, was to make it almost familiar, and then, skew it just a little bit--well, there was certainly that about him. Almost human, and yet, somehow more unhuman than a Kheld....

And yet, he drew her, and she could not reckon why, unless it was the flame, and she the moth. Funny that.

"Hey, Azuria!" he said again. She moved towards him involuntarily and the movement caught his attention. He looked up at her; she was caught in his gaze. She couldn't have moved away now if she wanted to. "She's all trancy right now... hate it when she's like this."

And then, as she thought she caught a flicker of recognition in his eyes, her fascination shattered and suspicion overcame her. This was just a little too apt--a high-level hero here, in Azuria's office, where only the lowest of the low ever came?


The words came out, sharp with suspicion; she was out of the habit of self-censoring. "Did Bella or Thea ask you to come here?"

The glow in his eyes dimmed for a moment. "Um.... no. Have business with trance lady here. How do you know Bella and Althea?"

She dismissed the question with an impatient shrug. "Bella's my neighbor, Thea comes over there sometimes. Did she send you over here to 'help' me?" The emphasis on the word "help" turned it into what it was, an unwanted, unwelcome gift.

He shifted, as if taken by surprise by the question. One eyebrow rose "And Why's that, darlin'?"

He seemed genuinely bewildered and now, suddenly ashamed of her bad manners, she felt as if she had to apologize. She looked away. "Um. I'm sorry. It's just--she seems to think I need taking care of. Wants some high level friends of hers to haul me around like a sack of cats--They think I should get out of the house more."

"How do you do, then? I'm Red Djinni."

"Vickie Victrix."

The brow went up again. "House person then, are ya?"

"Yeah....hard for me to get out" She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, conscious of all the places under her armour where feeling---wasn't.

"Why's that?" He seemed friendly, but--why was he asking all these questions?

"You could say I have issues." And why was she answering them?

Because I used to be friendly.

He chuckled. He had a nice laugh. "A lot of that, going around."

She struggled to find some reasonable reply. "Yeah....I....I....have problems. Guess I have to sort through them myself, you know?"

He shrugged. "Well... its good you have Bella as friends then. Girl knows how to listen. You'd do worse than talk to her about 'em."

One thing was for sure. He did know Bella. "I do," she admitted, "But there kind of comes a point where you have to stop talking and start doing."

The eyes above his scarf widened. "Man... you HAVE been talking to Bella...."

She wanted to keep him talking--and keep talking to him. It was a kind of a test, she supposed, like poking at a sore tooth to see if it was still sore. "So, how do you know Bell? I mean, I haven't seen you around the complex--"

"Through the CCCP I suppose. I've been working with them a lot of late," he replied, and shook his head. "No, you wouldn't have seen me, I don't dare go in there."

She blinked, caught by surprise. "What, my apartment complex?"

"No, no, the CCCP complex." Now it was her turn to raise an eyebrow, as he answered some call on his communicator.

"Well," she said, when he was finished, "They're a good group. I've worked with 'em...but not officially part of 'em."

"They are." He checked his communicator again. "I'm surprised you haven't been invited to the team, since you know Bella and Thea--"

She felt a moment of suspicion again, but before she could say anything more a sudden influx of lowbies crowded in the room. One of them was huge, looming over all of them, and the panic began again. She was having trouble breathing, the room seemed too small, and the faces began to shift, subtlely, growing cruel and avid. She felt icy cold, yet broke into a sweat.

He stared at her. Well, it would have been obvious to anyone she was not doing well--

"Are...are you okay?"

She shook her head. "No it's just--I problems with crowds. And people who aren't Seleighe Sidhe."

"Well then," he replied, "Why don;t we get out of here? Unless you have to stay...."

Some had left, but more were arriving, and she began to feel faint and nauseous.

"OK," she said, willing now to go with Jack the Ripper if he would just get her away from the crowd. "Where do you want to go? Bearing in mind I'm on foot." I wasn't doing anything in particular other than sorting through the books."

"Well what was it you had to get out of the house to do?"

Oh, that was a loaded question, especially at this moment in time. "Start--being a mage again, I guess," she managed through teeth that were just a hair from being clenched. "Do...my job."

He raised his eyebrow again. "Heroing?"

"yeah, something like that. She looked down at the tops of her boots. "Follow in the familial footsteps."

He half-struck a pose. "You're in luck, I tend to do some that myself. Maybe I could show you around."

Her eyes narrowed, even as nausea threatened to take over. "You're not gonna haul me around like a sack of cats, are you?"

This time both eyebrows rose. "Actually, I figured you'd do the hauling, and I'd come along for the ride."

The lowbies left; her panic attack ebbed again.

Well, that was a new one. "What did you have in mind, exactly?"

He shrugged. "You must have contacts. They probably have work for you. I could tag along, limiting my powers."

Oh right, Security Level Two. Why was her heart falling? "Um...only Miss Butterfingers there."

He chuckled. "Don't hold it against her, she;s not exactly living on this plane of existance."

Vickie coughed. "She's not exactly living on any plane of existance where I've ever been. Girl is driving in the imaginary lane."

He acknowledged the quip with a tilt of the head. "Still. she helped me out a bit, way back. She knows where the work is."

His communicator went off again. While he looked down at it, muttering "man....lot of chatter tonight on the channels..." she felt her heart dropping. He wasn't patronizing her exactly but--

She had a pretty face...even though the rest of her was....

I won't cry. Not here. Not in front of this perfectly nice guy will never understand until he sees---

And then will run like a gazelle.

"Look, you're obviously a busy guy," she said, giving him the easy out. "You've got lots of friends, things to do, bad guys to chase, yada yada...."

But he didn't take it. "No, not really, not tonight. I've given myself this night to myself, and this seems like...well...the right thing to do." She swallowed hard, as he added, "No pressure, of course, I'm just offering."

He was so tall--

Or, actually, she was so short--

"Um...look, I don't want a pity thing," she said, half desperately. "OK?"

He put his hands on her shoulders. She was so surprised that she didn't immediately react. "This isn't pity. It might be something....I need; okay?"

She couldn't help it; she stiffened. He removed his hands immediately as she went cold.

"Um...look..." she rasped out, as he backed away.

"Look---" He shook his head. "Aw, forget it." He turned to leave.

Dammit! Say something, you dope!

"No--" she managed to get out, through a throat half choked. "Please don't go--"

He turned back and looked at her inquiringly. "Look I said I had issues. I have more issues than National Geographic. I shoulda said I have entire subscriptions!" She wiped her forhead, as he chuckled. "I get...panic attacks. And...ah...this is really hard for me. I haven't been outside my apartment except to shop with Bella ever since I got here." She closed her eyes as grief welled up. "I used to be good," she said, in a low voice. "Really good. Now I've got limitors on my powers until I can prove myself. I kind of ,,,,messed up. So not only do I have issues, I'm a f---up."

Silence. Finally she opened her eyes, and was surprised that he was still there.

"It's times like this....I wish I could smile," he said. "We're all f---ups, darlin'. Some hide it better than others."

Yeah, right. She swallowed. "I'm not sure what's so funny."

"It's not funny. Just...well, it hits close to home."

She could not for one moment believe that he had even a clue how badly some people could mess up their lives. "Well, some of us f--- it up real well. Some of us almost cause wars. Being stupid...that's the worst part of it. I knew better, but I thought I knew better than anyone else."

"Tell me about it," he muttered, as yet another wave of lowbies flooded in, and she clenched her fists at her sides as panic made her sway.

"Is there somewhere, other than home, that you feel comfortable at?" he asked.

She shook her head. "I dunno, I...I haven't gotten out much. Someplace without a lot of people, I guess."

He nodded. "I know a few places...."

"But---" she interjected, "---can I get to 'em on foot without getting squashed like a bug?"

He nodded. "The one I'm thinking of...will require some creative jumping though."

She took a deep breath. She was still in shape, at least. Good shape. The result of a lot of physical therapy. "OK," she agreed. "'Lead on, MacDuff, and cursed be he who first cries 'Hold, enough!''"

He nodded. "Ride the tram with me?"

Hell. Why not. "Sure." If she didn't get out of here soon, she was going to pass out. She felt herself starting to hyperventilate.

"Come on, then. And--ex me down, would you?"

That caught her like an unexpected brick to the back of the head. Exemplar him down to her level? But why? It was such a surprise she offered him the exemplar without thinking, and he took it, making him, effectively another of the lowest of the lowbies.

But the crowd was still there, and she bolted, before she lost it altogether, he running easily beside her.

"Where to?" she asked, as they entered the Tram station.

"Galaxy City," he replied; she made the selection and the doors opened before them.

## ## ##

The view from the top of the Arena was a good one. More to the point, it was open, and they were only having to share it with two other people.

"Well...damn," she said with surprise, looking around, "I didn't know I could do that...."

It had taken a few well-timed jumps but access to the Arena roof had been possible even for her.

"Friend of mine showed me that," Red Djinni replied. "He comes here to think."

"Good place for it." She sat down, and lifted her face into the wind.

"usually empty." He motioned over his shoulder. "Got a couple of chuckleheads here today, though."

"Yeah, well maybe they have issues too," she pointed out.

He shrugged. "Most of us do."

Well, he probably had more than a few at the moment, given he was down to her level. She uttered a rueful chuckle. "So how do you like being the lowest of the low again?" she asked.

He looked surprised. "This? This is preferable. I almost remember myself at this security level."

She looked at him dubiously. "You think? What's so good about it?"

He paused for a moment. "The ignorance."

She snorted. "Maybe for some people. I already know too much."

He gave her a sly look. "But we know better, huh?"

She shook her head. "I know that I know too much, and not nearly enough."

That seemed to give him pause. "Knowing too much and not enough....that's not going to change, you know that, right?"

She sighed. "Oh yeah. When you finally have the wisdom to know how ignorant you are, that never changes,"

He looked out over the vista. "I know things, just being in this city for so long now, that would chill you to the bone. So what do we do then? We could give up. That's always an option. But---"

Tempting as that option had been, it had never been an option for her. She shook her head. "That's not in me. Got my mother's hard-headed Irish in me. And my father's....canine tendencies. Chomp down on the neck of the problem and hold on until it dies, or you do."

He chuckled. She was beginning to like that sound a lot. "That your Mom or yer Dad talking?"

"Heh," she said, with a faint smile. "Mostly Dad. He hasn't died yet."

He was silent for a moment. Then stirred a little. "I...."

Now desperate to introduce a topic that wasn't about her or her problems, she hurried on "You should see him though, when they come to visit, giving kids from the complex rides on his back in the parking lot, five and six at a time...." She was babbling. She was also babbling to a pupose. "I'm stalling, you know. she admitted, as he nodded. "Bell says I do that. Minute things start to get uncomfortable I switch topics."

"Yeah, well...don't look at me to rush ya along," he replied, and shook his head. "I'm trying to slow down myself."

"Maybe that's not a bad thing," she said slowly. "I mean, I don't even know you, we know the same people but...."

Gave her an amused look. "What?"

"Well," she replied, Most people don't climb up on the tops of buildings with guys they just met five minutes ago. But...but I've been in three rooms for months and the only people I talk to are my Mom and Dad and Bella and Thea."

He nodded. "True, that. You feeling uncomfortable then?

"No. It's like...I used to be friendly," she said, forlornly, feeling tears inside, as if she ought to be in mourning for the person she had been. "I used to be---fun. I'd have been the one leading you up here."

"But now you're different..."

She swallowed. "Yeah...very."

"And you don't like it."

She sniffed. "Nope."

He settled back a little. "So tell me about your old self then."

She looked off into the distance for a moment. "The biography, or the substance?"

"Whichever is harder to do."

He wasn't making this any easier...but suddenly she did want to talk about it. Maybe it was because it was a stranger, not someone she would ever have to see again. Maybe because something in his voice suggested he really did want to hear it. Maybe just because it was as irresistable as poking at a scab. "Mom's a witch, dad's a werewolf and they both are Agents for Bureau 13-A in the FBI." She looked at him to see if he believed her. He didn't flinch. "So.....I got a double dose of magic genes. Figured I'd go into the hero business too."

"why?" he asked.

"With great power comes great responsibility" she said, in a faintly mocking tone of voice.

He examined her intently, trying to see if she meant it, and she folded.

"Ah.....yeah, it sounds corny...."she admitted.

He nodded. "Yep. Truth for some people though."

She persisted, "But corny like one of those guys in red white and blue spandex--"

Belatedly, she realized those were the colors he was wearing. "Or the CCCP for that matter, she added hastily.

"Yer funny. go on---and for the record, this isn't spandex."

Her floundering mind saw the diversion and jumped on it. "Oh, got a rubber fetish, have we?"

"Kevlar-based polymer. Tougher than even my old armour. We're changing the subject again."

She tried. "Impressive. Get that CIA , NSA or FBI issue?" she asked with a raised eyebrow, but his unwavering gaze dragged her back to the proper subject again. "Ah...So....yeah, I believe it. I mock it, but I believe it. I was one of those kids that caught the schoolyard bullies in stone cages and waited for the teachers to show up." She laughed a little. "One" of those kids? Heh. OK, the only one...Though the day when Karen Pender had about enough and set fire to Bob Dickerson was pretty entetaining...."

She got the look again.

She sighed. "Well, there's this school in the Hudson Valley. Magic kids only. Funded by a half-elf industrial genius." It was her turn to deliver a Look, to see if he still believed her.

It looked as if his credulity was being...flexed. "....that's.... a new one on me. Go on."

"Rhia Llewellyn. Llewellco," she replied. "Actually, probably made your suit. Made my armour. 'We don't make heroes, we make heroes safer'." she wondered if he got the jab at Crey.

If he did, he didn't show it. "Perhaps, but I believe this was made by Nash Industries.... so, this school?....."

Now it began. Her gut began to tighten. "Well....there's a special program for hot-stuff pupils only. Accellerated study, sort of. You go Underhill. You know what I'm talking about here?"

He shook his head. "Nope. Had me up to Underhill."

Well, hopefully she wouldn't have to undo any preconceptions. "OK. Elves---real elves, the scary shit, the "makes the rocks run like water" Elves, come from another---plane, dimension, whatever. We're not talking Disney, here. And Tolkien wasnt even close when it comes to the Big Guns. Oberon, Titania, Robin Goodfellow.....they want the world changed, they just think about it. Of course, after millenia of doing that sort of thing it's kind of a bore, so they don't. Thing is, they kind of lack the creativity gene. That's why humans fascinate them." She paused. "How much of this are you buying?"

She wouldn't have been surprised to hear him say "Nothing."

"I'm taking it at face value for now. Although....." she could hear real interest in his voice. "Mind's kinda racing. They create worlds by thinking about them. Think they ever read Tolkien? Cause the prospect of a real Middle Earth out there is kind of appealing."

She thought about all that she had seen and snorted. "Yeah. I'd like to take you to see Lothlorien some time."

"That'd be cool. I was thinking more Fangorn." Ha. He had an ent-fetish. Well she could arrange that. Entwives, too.

"Not just any Lothlorien, either. The First Age Lothlorien," she replied. Then was forced to add, "Mind you....Not all Elves have good taste. There's Graceland."

He chuckled. She was beginning to think she would be happy to sit here for hours and tell jokes to hear that. Still....

"I'm not making this up, you know," she said.

"That's why I'm laughing," he replied. "Reality is always funnier."

True, that.

She'd had a respite. Once more into the breech. "Anyway...thing about Underhill, time moves differently betwen here and there, sometimes faster. sometimes slower. This particular pocket, you spend about 8 years there, and when you come out, only 2 years have passed here. I went in when I was about fourteen. Spent 8 years with some very high-powered Sidhe, they're called "Knight-Mages" and they specialize in combat magic." Then as she got the quizzical look again, added, "Sidhe is Elves, that's what they call themselves. So....are you still buying this?"

He nodded. "Aye."

Her stomach was in knots, now. "OK. So, there's not just good elves, ok?

He sighed. "Of course there isn't.....

Huh. He thought stuff he's seen would chill me to the bone. "There's the Unseleighe Sidhe, Dark Elves, get into a lot of negative stuff. I think they may actually have ties to CoT somewhere along the line. The Seleighe Sidhe "use" us as inspiration, and that's kind of where they get their power from. The Unseleighe do what the CoT does. But sometimes you get.....defectors." She swallowed, mouth as dry and parched as the desert. There used to be wars....they stopped them. When you're immortal it's kind of a drag to get killed, I guess. So there haven't been any Sidhe-beg, Sidhe-mor wars in centuries. And there's a neutral zone, the Bazaar of the Bizarre

He did that little head-tilt. "Heh. I like that, the Bazaar of the Bizarre...."

"Unseleighe don't tend to get a lot of Healers, for instance, so they have to come there for medical attention," she pointed out, "And sometimes the Seleighe need something Dark to take out a menace, because they are by no means the only tenants of the joint. Magic is just ambient there, and by concentrating, and knowing the right way to put things together, almost anyone can create something out of nothing."

Now it was coming. All her muscles tensed, as if she was about to go ito a fight for her life. "So....anyway, when you're in your last year at the school, you get to go to the Neutral Zone. And....so I'm this hotshot young earth-witch. I can take on the world. I guess the Overhill equivalent would be Security 40, 50, something like that. Now, Selieghe Sidhe have this counter-glamourie on them, so us mere mortals don't get all hot over them. You know what I'm saying here?"

There was a little crease between his brows, but "I.... think i get it" he said.

She elaborated. "They're gorgeous, but like Barbie dolls. Gotta be a real perv to want sex with a Barbie doll."

Red Djinni coughed,

She added, thoughtfully, "I suppose if they thought you were a perv for Barbies, they'd probably tune the glamorie to eliminate that too. It's a---a safety issue, only for hearts. You look back at some of the old myths---we grow old and die, they don't. Hearts break all around. And in a realm that actually requires whatcha might call "good vibes" to keep going, it's just better this way. Still following me?"

He nodded. "Aye."

She paused. Her breath was starting to come faster, and her heartbeat sounded loudly in her ears. "You're probably a whole lot denser than I take you for if you aren't seeing where this is going," she said, grimly.

He let silence settle between them for a moment before saying, "You're going to have to say it. Out loud."

Her hands were clenched, as if around the hilt of the sword she no longer wore. Her head ached, and her throat was hoarse with unshed tears. "I go to the Bazaar, I meet this hot Unseleighe. Who does NOT have the glamorie. In fact, in retrospect, he probably had the opposite. Pywll ap Tremallian."

She was shaking now, and from the cold and clammy feeling of her face, she was probably white.

"He says he wants to defect So, the hot young earth-witch sees this as the big coup for her graduation, at least at first."

She looked at Red Djinni. There was a big worry-crease between his brows. "You want to stop?"

Perversely, she shook her head. "I got momentum. If I stop now...." I'll never get it out to anyone. "Bell doesn't even know all of this Somehow....easier telling you. Maybe cause you don't live next door." She closed her eyes. "So, he has a line like you would not believe. Saddest story in the world about how he's revolted by all the stuff he'shad to do and learn.... How he'd rather be a mere mortal and give up magic than have to continue to live in the Dark Courts. Probably won't surprise you that I ended up in bed with him."

She opened her eyes. He shrugged.

"And....I'll give him this much," she admitted, though her body was revolted by the thought of him now, "He was good. Like, unbelievable good. Like porn-star good."

He sighed, catching her off-guard for a moment. "There's so few of us, really...."

She managed a tremulous smile. "OK," she said. "You're good."

He nodded. "Yep."

His timing was impeccable. The quip managed to ease the panic attack before it got full-blown. "You're really good."

She took a long, shuddering breath. This was it, "So one day he vanishes. I find out he's in the Morrigan's Court."

"Morrigan...." Clearly he did not recignize the name.

"The Morrigan is the opposite of Oberon," she elaborated. "Lady Sauron, if you will."

"Wicked Witch of the North." he suggested.

Oh, you have no idea. "Celtic Goddess of Blood, Death, and Battle. Literally."

He came in with another panic-defusing quip. "And a she-devil at parties."

"Yep." Now...oh dear gods...now. "So I figure she's found out he wants to defect."

He saw it coming; his body-language spoke volumes without his having to say a word. He lowered his head and waited for it.

"And there's this tradition of mortals being able to claim their lovers back from the Sidhe of both sides by issuing a challenge in the Court. Check your ballads of Tam Lin, for instance. So I do."

Through the Dark Gates, riding up a road edged in dead trees, to a castle out of Frank Frezzettas worst nightmare, the memory rose in her as if it was yesterday. She couldn't really hear for the sound of her hearbeat, she was hyperventillating again. Nausea, dizziness, body trembling with remembered pain and and throat choked with grief, she had all of the symptoms now. "Marched right in, didn't bother to tell my teachers, mind, just grabbed an Elvensteed and marched right in." Stupid mistake number one. " Good thing I turned the 'Steed loose and they let it go because otherwise no one would have known where I was."

She needed a moment. Time to get a grip, time to get a breath, time--for another explanation. Which he would need anyway. "Do you know what a traditional Mage-Battle is?"

Red Djinni shook his head.

She licked dry lips with a tongue just as dry, and concentrated on the words. "You'll find them in Celtic ballads a lot. 'The Twa Magicians' is one. It starts out as a shape-shifter thing. One takes one form, tries to kill the other, the other shifts to something to counter it. Like---actually that stupid Disney flick, Sword in the Stone, had a mage-battle in it. One turns to a snake, the other to a mongoose, the first to a hawk, the second to a net---you getting the picture?"

He nodded.

She closed her eyes again; easier not to see him...the flames...now that she was calling up the memories, if she saw his fire---

"The wounds you take are real, and carry over into each form," she said tightly, with the memories of every talon-strike, every slash, every bite burning in the map of scars on her body and the map of pain in her mind. "So it can get pretty brutal. And it did. The last form you shift into is your Element. Mine is Earth---I took the form of stone. His was Fire. He was strong---old---very uber. He melted my surface."

The pain---the pain---the pain---

She opened her eyes and slowly pulled off one glove, holding out a hand that shook so hard she couldn't have held anything in it. There was, of course, no skin there anymore; it was all a mass of scars on top of scars, on top of scars.

Red Djinni looked away---she felt that like a knife in her heart---

This is where he gets up and leaves---

But he didn't. "Sorry," he said, and turned his head to fully look at the mess that was her hand, and then into her eyes.

He's tougher than I thought. The pain in her heart eased a little.

"It's okay," she said, surprising herself at how steady her voice was. "Not even the Elves can look at it, and they put me back together. It's like that everywhere but my face. But I won. He burned out before he burned me up. And that's when the Morrigan told me that all I'd won was my life. And Pwyll...came down off the dais, and looked down at what was left of me, and basically told me I had been the toy of the moment, and now I was broken and no more fun."

Tears were running silently down her cheeks, scalding them. Red Djinni was silent. "I'd been set up from the beginning. I was the main course for their feast of pain. My teachers showed up about then---there was almost a war to get me out. But the Morrigan had been amused, and I had supplied enough agony for them to be sated, so she decided that winning my life entitled me to being taken back to Silverhame."

She put the glove back on and closed her eyes again; the grief was too great for sobbing, the agony too raw. Tears simply ran down her cheeks in silence out of her closed eyes. "So they carried me back and healed me up. As best they could. I didn't die."

She felt him get up and move.

Yes, now he goes.

But---she felt him sit back down right beside her, and half put his arm around her, offering her a shoulder. With astonishment so great that her normal reaction of pulling back was completely subverted, she didn't even resist. She just leaned into him, resting her head there, shaking like an aspen in a gale. "I didn't get off free. I'd been stupid, reckless, irresponsible. When they sent me Overhill again, they put limitors on my powers. I have to earn my magic back. I'm not sure why I came here. I've been earning a living writing. I write romances, other stuff."

Now the sobs came; now she wept as she had not wept since it happened.

You have to grieve for your past, Vickie. You have to---

Well, she was grieving now. "My---my----my sex scenes---are----supposed to be---really good---"

She felt both his arms close around her, and the simple comfort of it, unasked for, given as a gift, released something in her. She felt it snap---and the flood came.

And yet, so did more words. "Funny---isn't it---when the Champion was burning me---the Morrigan---said---'Let her---keep her pretty face---no man will---want her---when he sees---her body.'"

Never again. Never again the brush of skin on skin, the feather-touch of a lover's hand---

Red Djinni spoke, and his voice was tight with anger. "You say they have no imagination?"

She tried to make a jest of it through her sobs. But it wasn't a jest. It was a cry of anguish. "I'm---Like---the opposite---of the joke---about putting---a bag---over your date's---head---

He snorted. "This Morrigan---She has no idea what a man would think."

"But I do," she whispered.

Now he goes. He takes that as the escape he needs.

But he didn't. He continued to hold her, as gently as a child. "Listen.... Funny thing about being a disfigured man.... you learn which people have got the goods. I don't wear this scarf for decoration. It hides the fact that I have no jaw. Blew it out, when the fire first manifested."

The confession startled her. "I---I'm sorry---"

"The "Djinni" name.... just came when someone saw it for the first time." his tone was urgent, as if he was trying to cut through her pain to clear it away. "It's fine... listen....
It took a while to get over, but the important people sort of rise to the occasion when faced with something like this.: They helped me out. And a few, came to love me."

Long silence. Carefully, blindly, she put one gloved hand up to cover his.

I undress in the dark. But at least I can look in the bathroom mirror...."I---" she faltered. She opened her eyes, and looked up into his. And she couldn't help it; her body reacted for her, and tensed.

He let her go. "Sorry, I..... You've just g