Dialog 9: Twisted Minds

by Dustin Evermore and Lisa Hartjes

Mika carefully and slowly made her way up the walk to the same house that she, as Fianna, had come to the first time she had met Berengiere. Times can change quickly and recent events had forced her to undergo radical physical changes with the help of Tzimisce flesh and bone crafting. It had been done skillfully and the Tzimisce was powerful enough that the changes would be permanent. Still, it took a lot of getting used to. Mika was now 5'10", a good five inches taller than she had been, and not just stretched, but actually in proportion. She knew better than to ask her Tzimisce friend where the extra living flesh that had been needed had come from.

She had already been dark complected with black hair and brown eyes, but now her bone structure also matched the classic features of a native American plains Indian. She looked a little like the popular view of Pocahantas, actually. She wasn't really sure how she felt about that now, but what was done was done. She certainly still turned heads, but at least those heads wouldn't recognize her for the strange Irish woman she once had been.

Tonight, Mika wore a two-piece outfit including a skirt that clung to her hips and a halter top. Her shoes were a sensible plain white with flat soles. She was having a hard even time trying to look a least a little bit graceful as she tried to keep from tripping over her own feet. Finally, she was confronted with the four stairs set in front of the door. She made her way up the stairs, depending on a strong grip on the hand rail. Her legs were longer than she was used to and it felt like she had to high-step to make it up steps. Invariably, she tripped climbing up steps, but had better luck going down them. Not only had she spent her entire life as a much shorter person, she had had a thousand years to get used to being that size. Mika wasn't good with change.

She cleared her throat a little and ran her hands over her thighs to smooth her skirt. She rang the doorbell and waited for an answer, wondering what the reaction would be. Although she had mentioned in passing that she had undergone some physical changes, she had forgotten to say exactly what they were. At least she hadn't been completely scatter-brained. They knew what name she was using now.

The door opened to reveal Andre, surprisingly dressed in a tuxedo. It fit him superbly, and even with Mika's limited experience with modern clothes, she suspected that it was custom made and cost a fortune. He stood there for a moment, obviously enjoying the view.

Andre gave a rakish smile and stopped back. "Please, come in."

"My, you've grown. Are you sure you want to see Her, and not come out with me for a night on the town," Andre asked with a teasing grin.

"That would be fun, Andre. Perhaps one day," she smiled back at him. Whatever her body looked like, it was Fianna's familiar voice he heard.  "But you are certainly dressed up tonight. Do you have a date?"

"Maybe," he replied with a mischievous grin as he closed the door behind her.  "Are you sure you won't let me help you work the kinks out of that new body of yours," he said, giving Mika a comedic leer.

Mika laughed. "Andre, I don't think it would be as much fun as you think. I'm about as coordinated as a newborn fawn. Patience," she teased back. "Good things come to those who wait."

Andre gave an exaggerated sigh of disappointment, but she could see the humor in his eyes.  "Come upstairs. She's in her office, finishing up some paperwork. I've been trying to convince her to come to the opera with me, but she says she's got too much work to do. And I've got great tickets too. Center of the second row, orchestra seats."

Andre headed up the stairs and stopped at the first door on the left. He knocked on it lightly twice, and opened the door without waiting for an answer.  "Mika's here," he said.

Mika heard the rustling of some papers and a drawer being shut. "Please, come in." Beren's voice was light and pleasant.

"Good evening, Beren. How have you been?"

"Very well, Mika, thank you," Beren replied with a smile as she gestured to the comfortable chair opposite the desk as Andre retreated and closed the door.  "And yourself?"

"Well, I suppose I have 'been' someone else completely, now," she responded with a laugh.

"I hope I'm not keeping you from your work, or going to out to have a little fun." She smiled a little bit shyly. She was never really sure how to act in front of Beren.

Beren shook her head. "I own half a dozen businesses and controlling interest in countless more," she replied. "There is always something that needs to be done." She closed a file folder on the desk, opened a drawer and tucked the file away.

"It is indeed a pleasure to see you again," Beren continued. "I see that Andre approved of your new look." She chuckled softly.

Mika was a little coy, but responded, "Yes, and I was flattered by that." She continued slowly, "I didn't realize that the way I looked was that important to me until it all changed. Now I realize that it really does change everything. I look in the mirror and the face that is staring back has never had the experiences I have or gone the places I have. Those are my eyes that stare back, but there is nothing else I recognize. I am very glad that February and Celeste where there to guide Stazi's hand or I might have become something just too alien to me. So yeah, it makes me feel better that someone thinks I look good."

"Sometimes, our bodies, our appearance, are the only things that we own. Material possessions are fleeting things, especially to those like us. We exist on borrowed time, and we do not change, not willingly. It is only natural that you feel the way you do, your concern about your appearance. It was rather... drastic."

"Yes it was. At the time, I did not realize I would never be able to go back to the way I was, the way I was born to be. I think I'll come to regret that." She sighed. "But enough of that stuff. I have something more important, and of interest to you, I think. I know you prefer to stay away from Kindred attention, but I also know you like to know what is going on in this city. Recently I came to know of some visitations by Kindred who should not be here.

"It first came to my attention when, as a favor to Santorini, I went underground with him to help him be rid of a demonic presence. I took Will with me as well as Colonel Dunkirk (for his hunting expertise) and of course Nate. The creature that tore Santorini apart, but I was able to command, was in fact a Vozhd war ghoul, which I am led to understand are created exclusively by Tzimisce. This little 'favor' and what we discovered unfortunately gained the attention of the Seschal, Cassandra, who then asked us to look into it further. You see, it knew its master was still alive and was obeying my command for it to bring him to us when Nate and Will finished it off. I was asked to find it and deal with it and given the power to bring in whatever and whomever I decided I needed to deal with it.

"So I did, within reason. I did not need a large force trudging around giving away our position and allowing our quarry time to get away. I was also aware that Roma values my safety very highly." She paused to consider. "I suppose there is a very good reason for that. I have sensed some resentment on the part of…" She trailed off.

"Resentment from whom?" Beren asked.

"From Tremere outside of Detroit. I have only one ally among the Tremere outside Detroit. Yet the ones I do call friend go to great lengths to ensure my safety and happiness, when 'natural' Tremere do not have this kind of special treatment.

She shook her head. Anyway, I digress. I chose Celeste as backup for myself and the group since she can teleport. We stayed back and monitored their progress with these wonderful machines. I got this from the ones in that movie we rented. Have you seen Aliens?  A very interesting story, but I though it might give me a heart attack had I not already been dead," Mika grinned. "Anyway, Celeste is most unusual. She can make such machines work, so that we stayed back in safety until I determined the squad needed my direct leadership. On top of this, the Sheriff was holding an extraction team in reserve in case things went badly for us."

"So they entered the lair and had trouble with yet more Tzimisce creations. They were getting chewed up, so I had Celeste send me in directly. It was a very interesting experience, but let it suffice to say that for the second time in a row I came through unscathed. Many of the others are still healing, of course. Will is recovering as well. Had I brought Strong Bow, he would have died, I am certain. But in the end my strategy worked and I was able to come face to face with the most dangerous vampire I have ever had the displeasure of being in the presence of, with the notable exception of the Morrigan herself.

"I learned many useful things, Beren. Many. But I cannot divulge many of them because I have given my word under threat of the alternative, which is conditioning by the Prince himself. But I highly doubt that the things that concern the Prince about this would concern you. What does concern you, and concerns me most of all is the fact that this Tzimisce was old school. Not of the Sabbat. By his word and deed, I have seen it."

Beren raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure of that?"

"Yes because he delivered to me and I took to the Prince, the body and head of the Sabbat Tzimisce that had previously inhabited the place. We entered negotiations after I realized that fighting Max, the Tzimisce from somewhere in the city called Colorado."

Beren shook her head.  "Colorado is not a city, Mika. It is a state - a kind of territory or province inside the United States, which is the modern nation we reside in now."

"Oh? That's not the first time I've made the mistake. Thanks."

Mika continued, "He let slip more with what he did not say than what he did, but I discovered that his master is also still alive. His name and whereabouts are still unknown to me, but I know that if I must have it, I can force the issue. Max told me his Childe was Stazi and her Childe was Nuyen van Faulk, aka Alex Torrence. Very interesting, no?"

"Very interesting indeed," Beren agreed with a thoughtful look on her face.

"It was, until now, thought amongst Kindred society that Nuyen was the master, that he was the Sire of Stazi. Not so. I should have known it, though. Nuyen is not more powerful than I. Stazi should have been much less so.

"That Max had business here in Detroit is beyond doubt. I am certain it has something to do with Nuyen and Stazi. I think they are up to something. Something dangerous. Something that has been going on long enough to draw in two generations of old guard Tzimisce. The Prince and the others do not see it as a threat because Nuyen has been too useful to him. And I doubt that Nuyen and Stazi would do something that would threaten me, personally. Yet I am convinced they would not hesitate to get me into a heap of trouble thinking they were doing the right thing. What is right for Tzimisce is not good for Tremere, or me."

Beren remained silent, still with the thoughtful look on her face.

"Handling the negotiations was less then fun. Less than good, Beren. But it worked anyway. Max essentially ended up being forced to leave or the Prince would destroy Stazi and Nuyen. The Prince was probably bluffing, because he used Brujah to enforce the point and I do not believe they would turn on Nuyen and Stazi. Max took it seriously and upped the ante by threatening to release information. Information I now have and so does one other.

Mika chuckled. "So essentially I played messenger and tried not to get killed when I delivered bad news to them. Max is gone or leaving, the Prince is happy. But I am not. I wonder who Max's sire is and what he is doing. I worry very much."

"What do you plan to do about it?" Beren asked.

"I will point these facts out to Roma, as she is Underprince. I will do it first thing tomorrow. And I will point out that Stazi and Nuyen probably know who it is. Do you know that I even confronted Stazi with this information and she lied to my face?" Mika shook her head. "I couldn't believe she stood there and lied and I knew she was lying and she knew it, too, but wouldn't stop it. I caught her flat-footed in the lie and she finally admitted it. However her claims about her sire hating her and wanting to do Nuyen and her harm is also a bald lie, I am certain. Max made every indication that he was concerned. In fact, I was the one the Prince chose to negotiate with Max for his leaving in exchange for Nuyen and Stazi's well-being!  She's definitely desperate to hide something." Mika smiled. "And I want to know what those two have been hiding."

"That might be a good idea. Knowledge is power," Beren replied.

"It's interesting, too. The other night after practice, Stazi wanted to talk to me. We talked a lot about her sire and Mr. M. She kept calling him simply the Master. Oh, and my assumption that Max and Stazi's master was Max's sire was incorrect. He's a couple generations older and more powerful than Max. And based on what Stazi was trying to tell me the other night, I think he's insane. They have a unique philosophy and dream, that much is true."

"Do you know what that dream is?" Beren asked.

"Sort of. Well not really. She wasn't really clear on trying to explain their philosophy, but she asked me a lot of questions about humans and vampires and their roles. Mr. M seems to have an extremely low opinion of other vampires, but Stazi seems a little hesitant on that point."

Mika stood there unsteadily. She looked a bit feint, but of course that was impossible for the dead. "Of course Stazi isn't the only one I have met with recently," she said with a wry smile.

"Are you trying to make me jealous," Beren asked with an amused smile.

Mika smiled and shook her head.

She sighed and moved to a window, wanting to see the sky. It was a thoughtless gesture and she could ill afford to not pay attention to where she was going. She managed to catch the toe of her shoe on the edge of a throw rug and her tenuous balance was gone. She toppled, graceful as an ox, and fell. She cracked her head against a stand supporting a reproduction of a painting and a lamp, both of which fell over as a result.

Almost an instant later, the door to Beren's office burst open and a man wearing body armor and carrying a submachine gun entered.  Beren said a few words to him in a language that Mika didn't recognize. The man saluted then exited the room, closing the door behind him.

Beren stood up and walked over to where Mika lay.

Mika slowly rolled over to her back while holding her head. She hadn't made a sound when she banged it on the oak stand, but she didn't stand up. She pushed herself into a sitting position and sat there, head in her hands. She looked up with embarrassment, one eye covered with the hand that held the injury a couple inches over her right eye.

"I'm sorry, Beren." She tried to reach up and right the lamp.

Beren waved a negligent hand. "Do not fret yourself," she replied. "You're still learning how to walk. Things like this happen." The elder vampire reached over and returned the lamp to its upright position, then she pulled herself up so she was sitting on the edge of her desk. The movement gave Mika a flash of pale thigh and bare skin shadowed beneath a very short skirt.

Mika looked up with large, deep eyes and reached out to touch the cool skin of Beren's leg.

Beren shifted her position slightly, giving Mika more flesh to touch, should she choose to.  Her eyes never left Mika's and were friendly, but not encouraging (but not hostile either).

Mika took her hand away, but didn't change her gaze. "I've been very bad lately, Beren." She pulled her knees into a cross-legged sitting position. She tried to distract herself from her current train of thought. "And I managed to really get Celeste hurt because she loves me and wanted to protect me from Roma's anger."

"What happened," Beren asked softly.  She unbuttoned her suit jacket to reveal a soft, silken chemise of a purple so dark it was almost black.  Beren slid out of it, then twisted and tossed the jacket over the back of her chair, somehow managing to neither enhance or detract from Mika's view of her.

Mika paused, looking at the fine clothing. "That's really pretty," she said, reaching out as if to touch it. She stopped, looking at Beren.

"Maybe I should start from the beginning. I got a call from Strong Bow's phone. Of course, it wasn't our friend. It was Tierza, that red-headed Tzimisce of the Sabbat who've I've now had many encounters with." Mika shook her head. "I seem to be getting entangled with a lot of Tzimisces lately. Tierza said they had Strong Bow but hadn't harmed him yet. He wouldn't be killed or broken if I would agree to meet with her. Just myself and up to two bodyguards, she said."

"Did they say what they wanted?" Beren asked.

Mika nodded. "They wanted to talk. Just talk. You have to understand, I didn't have a choice." She sounded a little bit as if she was trying to convince someone. "They could take Strong Bow, sure. But if they squeezed him hard enough they might break the Bond. Then they'd have access to all my people and my haven. Everything. I agreed. I did it because I knew that if I told Roma, as she would have wanted, she would have forced me to sacrifice them all just for my own safety. I took William with me, and Nate, too. He nearly attacked me and tried to drag me back bodily when he found out, but I had given my word and I won't break that."

Beren nodded silently.

"I know honor is a fool's weakness, but to me it's not about honor. It's about being honest. And I wanted to know just how far Tierza's honor would go. Once she gave me her word but it lasted only until her superior countermanded it. I would see what it was they wanted and I would see if the Sabbat was better with their word than they are reputed to be and I wouldn't stop."

"You took a terrible risk, Mika," Beren said softly.

"Yes, I knew I could be making a mistake. I didn't realize how badly it could have gone, though. I went out with Celeste first and at the end of the meeting I told her, thinking that she would tell Roma. If something went bad, I wanted someone to know what had happened to me. Things turned out very differently than I expected. I should have stopped to study the stars instead of spending one more night dancing with Celeste." She berated herself, but couldn't help letting slip a little smile at the memory.

"Not even the stars can foresee everything," Beren said, and Mika could briefly see the echo of old pain in her eyes.

Mika looked at Beren's face, watching her eyes. She didn't argue, but wondered what would make Beren say that.

"I ran off before Celeste could recover." She kept talking, slowly and clearly. She wanted to ask what had disappointed the elder so, wondered whether Beren would give her a straight answer. She put the matter aside for the moment. "I felt bad running off and leaving Celeste standing there and staring in shock. I thought I was doing what had to be done. No one would save my people but me. No one would care what happened to them, do you understand?"

Beren nodded silently.

"I met with them on Bell island, I think they called it. Nate knew where it was and drove us there after much convincing. He was convinced that Dutch or the Prince was going to kill us if they found out, but I was counting on the fact that I would take the blame. I made us all go.

"Tierza was there. She had chosen a male bodyguard I didn't recognize and Caitlin, the Lasombra I have come to blows in personal combat with so often now. I don't know what I expected, but I didn't expect Caitlin to be there. I was surprised when she behaved herself.

"It was Tierza that did all the talking, though. Do you know what they would give me if I came to them? Just left here and gave them the answer they wanted? I would be the only member of the Sabbat who could wield magic -- and destroy it. Tierza said they would take her to a place no one could reach. She said they'd take me home to Spain. I would command a pack that I could create myself. I'd be given complete freedom. They'd capture elders and allow me to diablerize them and become far more powerful. I would have my own family and I would be at its head. The price is that I would work to destroy the Camarilla. The offer impressed me. A lot. I even thought of asking them to bring me the last Lhiannon as my price for joining. I have not yet given them an answer but they will want one very soon. Very soon."

"What have you decided?" Beren asked.

"If I had no friends left, if I had not come to trust the Tremere, I would take their offer, I think. But I can't betray my friends. I could have walked away with Tierza and Caitline just like that, right there. But I don't think I could stand to think how it would break Celeste's heart. I had to very hastily conclude the meeting when the phone Celeste gave me began ringing. I knew that it would bring them to me or send me home. When I got there, I saw that that Celeste was crying and Roma was in a towering rage. I think Roma hurt her. I didn't think that Celeste would try to protect me by not telling Roma where I went. I really didn't know!"

"Did I not warn you about Roma," Beren said. "She has her own agenda, and I suspect it has nthing to do with the betterment of the Tremere as a clan."

Mika's eyes darkened with red sorrow as she thought of what happened to Celeste. The image of her friend emotionally beaten like a mistreated dog truly bothered her. "I think Roma ripped it from her mind. I didn't mean for that to happen." She was beginning to repeat herself.

"Go on," said Beren.

"Roma and I had a long talk. Celeste was sent from the room, of course. Things had happened too fast and I hadn't considered the risk I was taking. Roma knows I wouldn't join the Sabbat willingly. And she knows why I did it. But she also reminded me that what I know could ruin everything. I know where Elysium is. I know the secret ways in and out of the Chantry. I know things that if told to the wrong people…  I know what blackmail Max had to keep the Prince and his forces from attacking him as he left. If I joined the Sabbat or was taken by them intact, I think Detroit would soon belong to them again. Not only all of this is a problem, but if they knew I wanted the ancient, buried Lhiannon, they would probably not be able to handle it. I don't know if we'll be able to handle her. They way Roma talked about it, I think even she is worried. You see, I know that in order to even begin to put in place the kind of protections she has, she must be at least three generations lower than I, and probably lower than that because she has not one, but at least two Bovansidhe guarding her. To do that, to bind them to an agreement that has lasted over a thousand years means she must have been capable of unimaginable horrors in order to pay the price. The Sabbat might awaken her instead of remove her guardians and take her, as we plan. And if she awakens… That would be very bad, I think.

"The Tremere have been nothing but kind and patient with me. Even after all this, Roma forgave me. The Sheriff would have hurt me badly as my punishment. I stood there ready to accept responsibility for my decisions, but Roma stood for me and told him that my loyalty had been proven. She told him that hitting me could not teach me any more and he stopped and put away his weapon. He let me go."

Beren nodded.

Mika looked down at her hands. "I'm scared, Beren. Not of the Sabbat or what they might do. I know them now. I know what depravity they are capable of and I know what honor they can show, as well. They did not even touch Strong Bow, when they could have. They only stole his phone when he wasn't looking. I'm afraid of the sleeping Lhiannon, but that's not what I'm worried about either."

"Then what is it you are afraid of, ma petiite," Beren asked softly.

"I'm scared of what the stars show me. Of what the Tremere plan. I never told you what they plan to do after Ireland, did I? There will be a new blood ritual. I think perhaps at my haven because it contains a place of power that I should be able to draw upon by then. They would use this power to do something to me, Beren. Roma told me that after that, no one would doubt that I was one of the Tremere. They are going to do something to my blood, Beren. I'm really afraid now that I won't be able to tell them no. That's one of the biggest reasons why I was actually tempted by the Sabbat offer. I've already don't recognize myself anymore. What will be left if they take my heritage from me, too?"

"Then you must find a solution to your problem," Beren replied.  "You must find out who you are, and find your inner strength." Beren slid off the desk and moved over to where Mika sat on the floor. "It is that strength that saved you from the Sabbat before, and it will be what helps you overcome your upcoming time of trials."

Beren reached out, and in a single motion unwrapped Mika's arms from around her knees, flattened her legs to the floor, and straddled Mika's knees.

"Do you know how the Tremere came into existence, Fianna?" Beren asked.

"I was asked to study it. They were mages once. One amongst their number tried to make a potion of eternal life and he used the essence and blood of a vampire to do it. His haste and ambition gave him immortality all right, but it was stolen from vampires. He tricked and cajoled the rest into joining him. Later he betrayed the Tremere again by taking a third of their number with him when he joined the Sabbat. Last year they were all to have been destroyed by Meerlindia and her people. But after they attained vampiric immortality they discovered that their magical powers had diminished, so they tracked down other vampires, took their power and consolidated their hold on central Europe. The Tremere like to believe they are masters of their own fate, but as you see, they are subject to betrayal and the whims of Fate like the rest of us."

Mika pushed herself up close to Beren and held herself up by putting her arms around Beren.

Mika continued softly, "Beren, I have heard from four sources who claim they would protect me. Two more sources say I should leave the Tremere, but give me no options and offer no assistance or protection from them. The Tremere offers protection, the price being essentially to become their weapon. The Sabbat offers me protection, their price being that I must help them destroy the Camarilla, which means betraying my friends. Stazi asks me to come away from the Tremere and insinuates her Master, this mysterious Tzimisce might help. Even the Brujah have said I should escape the Tremere. Of course they offer no aid or protection at all. You have told me the same. The Tremere are the only ones who would help me and do not ask me to betray anyone. Please, Beren tell me. What can I do?"

"I would help you if I could, but I cannot. I have been forbidden to do so. By befriending you as I have, I am already bending the rules and placing myself in danger, but that is not your concern." Beren reached up and soothed Mika's forehead, and tucked a loose tendril of hair behind her ear.  The gentle, spicy scent that Mika associated with Beren was there, like a soft veil.  "All I can do is give you advice, but the decisions must be your own."

"No one will offer you assistance without a price. Not even me. It is the nature of things. You must decide whose price is the one you are willing to pay.  Try and find out from Roma exactly what she intends to do, how the ceremony will affect you.  Ask if you can refuse to go through with the ceremony.  If you are one of the Tremere, how can you start your own bloodline? Do you want them and all their progeny to be the servants of the Tremere?  Try and find out about Stazi's master. Learn about all your options."  Beren paused for a moment. "Learn about all the things that will happen should you choose that option. What new enemies will you make, and what new allies will you gain. And, if all else fails, disappear.  Take all your people with you, or destroy them. You cannot leave anyone behind, no matter how devoted they are to you."

"But first, you must find a way to purge the fear and uncertainty from your heart, if only for a few hours. You need a clear head to make this decision."

Mika looked at Beren from under worried brows for a moment. She pulled the elder into a tight embrace. "Coming here helps, Beren." She buried her face in Beren's chest and said, "I've had to send Strong Bow away. I made a special goodbye for him, but he can't be near me anymore. He doesn't know the chances of him ever coming home again are next to nothing. But Tierza and the rest know him now. I was able to /blur/ and hide what I looked like at the meeting, but now that they know him, he would only lead them to me now." She held firmly on to Beren, as if afraid she would pull away. For a few moments, there was no sound at all in the room.

Beren held Mika and comforted her, stoking her hair as Beren's scent filled Mika's senses. "It would be kinder to kill him, Mika. To let him love you one last time and feed from him until his heart stops. To separate him from you, the centre of his universe, would be unspeakably cruel. He will pine for you, and it will make him vulnerable, perhaps moreso than if he was at your side."

She looked up at Beren. "I know. I will join him in Ireland because soon enough it will be time to confront the Lhiannon there. He will be laying groundwork for this and when I arrive we will move against her. It is this I do not think he will survive. It would better if he didn't anyway, as you say. It was Roma's idea. She saw that I would kill him rather than subject him to the same torture I went to change my body. Maybe she thinks he could come back after Ireland. I don't know, but I don't see it."

"If he survives, he is strong enough to stay by your side," Beren  said, bending her head to place a gentle kiss on Mika's cheek.

Mika smiled up at Beren and touched the smooth line of her cheek. "Yes. You are probably right. If he survives," she said barely above a whisper. She pulled gently at Beren's waist to come closer, to sit on her lap.

"Are you feeling better now, ma petite?" Beren asked.

Mika smiled and chuckled. "Getting there. I just need one more hug."

Beren smiled and gave Mika a friendly, comforting hug.

The Irish woman-turned-native sighed and finally let Beren go. "I also wanted to mention that I won't be bringing William here with me. The werecat is like a dangerous weapon, only to be brought out when I intend to hurt someone or if someone is intending to hurt me. Before he had left, Strong Bow and my apprentice had selected a new candidate. They actually chose the man I had passed over in the first round because he has certain family obligations. His name is Two Bears and he is probably the most capable of all my followers. He's married and has children so I won't allow a physical relationship with him. His primary duty will be organizing and training all of them in defensive measures in the case of attack on our lands. Secondarily, he'll do some low-threat bodyguarding for me. So you might see him around from time to time, but he's a nice man. Friendlier than Strong Bow, but as I said, he has certain family obligations that I won't deny him to fulfill."

Beren nodded. "I understand," she replied, "on both counts."

"I guess I should be going. It's getting late for me."

"So soon?" Beren asked with a smile as she slipped out of Mika's embrace and stood up.

Mika fumbled, trying to get her feet properly under to stand. Beren offered a hand and she gratefully took it.  "Thank you Beren. For the hand and for helping me those months ago. It led me to something I truly treasure. Because of you, I have been able to let someone close to my heart and she and I are both better for it."  Mika leaned down toward Beren, deep eyes locked on hers, and kiss her gently.

Beren returned the kiss just as gently, not taking any advantages, yet at the same time offering everything, if Mika chose to take. Her hands stayed at her sides, as if waiting for an invitation.

Mika reached out and took Beren's hands in her own. "You are as tempting and desirable as chocolate, which I've been so recently introduced to. I would enjoy spending the rest of the evening with you. But I can't. I'm with Celeste now and I don't thing I could bear the guilt, knowing that just having some fun with you would hurt her deeply if she knew. She'd feel like she wasn't good enough. I know it's just a petty jealousy, but it's also flattering. If I stayed, which I so desire to do, I will pay for it in guilt later. Do you understand?"

"Thank you for the compliment," Beren said with a smile. "I'll try to behave myself. Now, you'd better go before I change my mind." Beren's smile turned into a mischievous grin.

Mika grinned back. "Okay. Don't work too hard if you can help it." She managed to leave the room with more grace than she entered with.

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Credit and thanks go to Jason Monroe, Brian Pint, Ryan McCullogh, Josh Holt, Tom Welch, Holland Erickson, Lisa Hartjes, Curtis Eckerman and all those who participated consciously or not.  And of course...the Partyman R.I.P.