6:45 p.m. Evergreen, Gala Opening

Nathaniel shook the rain from his jacket with a slight smile. The sudden squall had reminded him of England. He handed his ticket to the doorman who gave him a slight smile and offered a towel. Nathanial dried his hands and ran the towel over his jacket quickly. Smiling a thank you to the doorman, he walked in.

The hall was modern white, the displays of art placed so that the majority of the marble floor was clear. A small group of players, violin, piano, cello and flute where adjusting their sheet music. A few seconds later a quite melody ran softly through the small gallery.

Already several couples were moving among the art. A server in white, with white makeup and all seams including eyes, mouth and clothes lined in black silently offered Nathaniel a glass of wine.

Taking the drink, Nathaniel noticed that tonight's theme seemed to be colors. Another server walked silently by dressed in blue lined in red. Another near the end was black, lined in white. He paid his respects to the hostess and moved among the pieces. He was looking at a modern piece that seemed to be abstract straw art, when a hand touched his arm.

He turned and his whole world narrowed. Gina Weiser stood there. Her dress was a deep burgundy, cut just low enough to expose a hint of her breasts. Her auburn hair was in a simple braid and hung over her left shoulder, almost hiding her earrings. She was smiling at him. And standing so close.

Nathaniel forced himself to breath, he shifted as his manhood pressed painfully against his pants. She's so beautiful. He could feel himself blush.

"Please forgive me," she spoke softly, "I know you can't possibly remember me. I am Gina Weiser," she extended her hand, "From Tiffany's on Friday? You were so gallant. I was afraid I would never see you again."

Nathan inhaled deeply, tasting her scent like a fine wine. Her beauty was breathtaking to behold. Standing this close was at once exhilerating and painful. He knew that she was forbidden fruit, yet he longed to sweep her up in his strong arms and hold her until the pain was no more. Until they were two no longer; until they were one. Then the moment passed and the spell was broken. He was once again standing amidst a crowd looking longingly at a complete stranger. Where were his manners?

"Pardon me. For a moment I was struck dumb by your beauty." Taking her hand gently in his, he brought it toward him and, bowing slightly, touched it to his lips while staring deeply into her eyes. "I am Nathaniel Hawkins and I do indeed remember you. I must apologize for not returning that day, but the officials had me detained for quite some time with bureacratic paraphernalia. You and the young lady are well, I trust?" Nathaniel smiled broadly, his perfect teeth and thin lips accentuating his regal features and delicate handsomeness. His posture and bearing spoke of proud lineage and proper upbringing.

"I'm afraid I only just got here; fashionably late and all that. The feel of the place is positively festive. Much more exciting than what I'm used to." He glanced absently around the room, then returned his gaze to her. "Are you alone this evening?"

She looked around and sighed as she spotted someone. Looking over, Nathaniel saw a middle-aged man take a glass from a server. He was standing on the edge of a small group of people.

"I might as well be," she sighed and then smiled uncertainly at him, bitterness entering her voice. "I am with my husband. He uses these events to hobnob. Makes him feel as if he could still legitimately move in those circles." She flushed. "I'm sorry. I don't know what possesed me to say something like that." She forced a smile. "And you? Are you alone this evening?"

"I'm afraid so. Most women don't find my line of work very interesting, and I have been accused of being a workaholic." Nathaniel winked at her and continued, "You see, I am an untenured professor of humanities at the University of New London." Nathaniel deftly pilfered two drinks from a passing server after depositing his own empty glass on the tray. He then offered one of the drinks to Gina.

"I find it hard to believe that they would let that get in the way of being with you. Thank you." They walked slowly around the art displays. "Untenured professor of Humanties. Found any brilliant students yet? You must be a fine teacher. And no doubt have many female students lusting after you."

She blinked and took a large sip of her drink, blushing slightly, "I am sorry. I guess I shouldn't have said that."

"Not at all, I am flattered. The lusty young college girls think me a bit too stuffy, though. I prefer to garner my passions for a woman of breadth and substance." Nathaniel lowered his voice to a husky whisper. "A woman with a soul so vast that a man could lose himself in its depths. A woman like you, Gina." His tone turned conversational once more. "Now where do you suppose I could find someone like that? Tiffany's, perhaps?" He was grinning broadly again as he looked at her appraisingly.

This is possibly the most incredible woman that I've ever met, Nathan thought to himself. Why must things be so complicated? Here I am exchanging flirtations with this perfect woman while her husband rubs elbows with society across the room. I cannot let this go much farther… and God, it has gone so far already…

She is a prime candidate for queen, a voice whispered into the back of his mind. She would produce good offspring, as she has proven with the girl.

Ah yes, the girl. There was something curious about her. Something about the way she looked at him. Rebecca, that was her name. There was also the amulet and its secrets, to say nothing of the Sphinx and Ankh. Shit, I was getting so googoo-eyed over Gina I had forgotten how impossible it would be to get close to her, husband notwithstanding. I cannot possibly put her in the kind of danger my life is surely to attract.

"Nathaniel, are you okay?" It was Gina. He must have gone glassy-eyed for a moment.

"Uhm, er, yes. I think so. Excuse me, Gina, I have to leave you now." Without giving her a chance to rebut, Nathaniel brushed past and headed toward where he believed the restrooms to be. He was feeling lightheaded and queasy. For the first time in as long as he could remember, Nathaniel was afraid.

6:50 p.m. Evergreen, Gala Opening

Joe Tatsunoko shut his umbrella and grinned at Lyta. She smiled wryly back at him as she handed over the invitations. She had noticed Joe shooting her looks the whole ride over and she smiled softly to herself. Guess there's some good to dressing up after all. She took a moment to steal her own small glance. Damn, he looks good in a tux. Then again, he looks good in jeans, and a damn sight more comfortable.

"Remember, sweety," she whispered in his ear, "you can take off that tie as soon as I get to take my ballet slippers out of your pocket."

"Would that be the only thing you'd want to take out of my pocket?" Joe smirked.

"You mean that was a gun in your pocket? Hmpf. I'll have to lower this neckline another inch."

They walked down into the main area.

"What's the color code for non-alcoholic?" Lyta asked a server.

"Green on brown," the server promptly answered and gestured to the appropriate server.

"I'll have a ginger ale, please."

"One for me, too, please," added Joe.

Joe surprised to notice a Japanese man with a small Japanese woman in formal, ceremonal attire, walk in behind them. It was like watching an old movie. The woman the correct distance behind him, her steps small, her attitude absolutely correct. For a brief instant, his mind superimposed an image of the weathly samurai around the small man in the business suit.

Joe shook his head and smiled bemusedly. Don't see much of that anymore, he thought, then turned to examine the artwork.

6:50 p.m. Evergreen, Gala Opening

Kinuko closed the umbrella and stood demurely as Mendo-san offered the doorman their invitations. The family had not asked where she had been or what had kept her out, but had merely informed her that her services would be needed tonight and again in the morning.

As she had dressed, she had also prepared for combat. The lowest layer of her clothing was a pair of tights and a long-sleeved leotard–not traditional, but protective against chafing. Over that, she layered her sapphire mail, then the intricate, many-layered robes of formal Japanese women's costume. Carefully concealed within her robes, though, were many instruments of mayhem: a tanto on her outer right thigh, bo shuriken in her hair, under her obi a flat-link manriki-gusari. The ribs of her fan were made of an artificial carbon allotrope she had dubbed Hexite. And hidden throughout her robes, in folds and hidden pockets, were working materials: 6 hardboiled eggs, a flexible (and inert) pouch of salt water, several crude diamonds she had converted from charcoal briquettes, a bag of banana chips, and several pouches of wood shavings. An observer would think her merely a demure and old-fashioned Japanese woman. An acute observer would know from her movements and actions she was more. But short of a personal search, no-one would know just how dangerous she really was.

She entered the building a step behind Mendo Genji. For a brief second she thought that she had stepped into a Noh play, but the sensation passed quickly.

She politely refused the offer of refreshement, well aware that her role this evening was one of bodyguard. Her eyes swept over the establishment, categorizing threats.

She was surprised to spot a familar face. He was talking with a woman dressed in a conservative dress of black. She noticed that neither held a drink and that they stood within each other's personal space–an oddity that she had observed among some Westerners.

He looked up and smiled, spoke briefly to the woman and they drifted over. Kinuko knew a brief moment of panic. Father O'Mallory would give insult to Mendo-san by speaking directly to her!

She offered a silent prayer to the kami: Let him not address me directly–or if he does, let Mendo-san realize that he is a barbarian and knows no better. She did her best to keep her expression neutral and calm, as befitted a fine Japanese lady.

7:00 p.m. Evergreen, Gala Opening

Julian made no effort to keep dry as he walked up the steps to the small building. The night was in keeping with his mood. Though, he mused, it's a good night not to be patrolling.

Peripherally, he noticed others arriving. Couples. There a man and woman dashed hand and hand up the stairs. He could hear their laughter. His mood darkened. Another lady slammed the door to a cab and fought with her umbrella. Julian could hear her curse from where he walked.

He gained the entrance and waited behind the couple, then handed his invitation to the doorman, ignoring him completely. He walked in past the couple.

7:00 p.m. Evergreen, Gala Opening

Sara wiped a hand across her forehead and sighed. It would blow when they didn't have an umbrella. She glanced over as someone brushed past Josh. He was slightly taller then Josh with muscular arms. His suit, white, was soaked and his demeanor demanded for someone to make an issue with him. She recognized him — Julian Locksley, son of John Locksley, the Archer tycoon. Sara seemed to remember reading something about his wife being killed.

Josh klicked his tongue. "I feel soggy," he whispered to Sara, "I'm going to the men's room."

Sara nodded, "Me too."

Josh flashed her a teasing look. "I don't think they'll let you in there, sweetheart. Better use the ladies'." Sara laughed lightly and gave him a playful push.

As they separated towards their respective facitities, Sara was headed off by the hostess and two ladies she saw only at these functions. Sara plastered a hopefully sincere smile on her face.

"Linda, Judy, how nice to see you again."

Linda smiled at her. Judy raised an eyebrow, Sara could tell she was already well into the drinks. "Are the two of you taking turns?"

Linda hissed and gave Judy a small jab. But Sara was divereted from following up the suspicious display by the sudden lull in conversation. She saw the surprised look on the ladies' faces being replaced by… adoration?

"I had hoped…" the hostess trailed off.

7:05 p.m. Evergreen, Gala Opening

Akemi smiled to herself as they stepped through the entrance. The wave of awareness could be measured by the lull in conversation, like a double-sided domino display that Desmond had tipped. Soon all eyes were on them as they paused on the landing. She would like to think that it was her, but it was obviously Desmond.

She looked on in amusement at the open stares of desire he generated. She slipped her arm more tightly through his and grinned at the few looks of calculation and envy that winged her way.

With an outward display of charm honed through innumerable similar circumstances, she kept a smile on her face. But her thoughts were whirling as she whispered to Desmond, moving her lips as little as possible. "If you brought me here as an arm decoration, it's clear you didn't need it. Every woman here would take a number and stand in line for you. Some of the men, too, I'm sure. I'd say it's a waste, but then, I've gone ten rounds with you." Her smile rose just a fraction, meant for him alone.

Desmond smiled at her, but Akemi noticed the tightness around his eyes. They stepped off the landing and headed towards the hostess. The crowd parting before them, swells of conversation starting in their wake.

"Well, this might be a nice place to have an orgy," she continued in her high-society prison whisper, smile still securely in place, "but clearly that's not in the cards. So what are we doing here? You're not having any more fun than I am. Less, probably. So if I'm going to back your play, I've got to know what it is. As it is, they could exhibit me here as an example of a fifth wheel."

Sara turned and stared at the couple on the landing as they made their way towards her small group. Sara felt her breath catch. He was gorgeous, sensual, his hair was so fine. A brief fanstay assulted her–running her hands through his hair, feeling his skin against hers. She was snapped out it by Linda almost fainting when he stopped and smiled at them.

Kinuko noticed the woman at the Father's side stop and her grip on his arm tighten. She could feel the mood in the room change. She turned, dropping unconsciously into the First Path, placing herself between Mendo-san and possible danger.

Her eyes fell on the cause and stopped. He was the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He moved with a grace and economy of movement. Recognizing the flashes of desire for what they were, Kinuko shifted them aside to better access the situation.

It was then she noticed his shadow. In his own way this man was beautiful. But deadly. Kinuko shivered slightly at the thought of entering into the dance of battle with this one. His head moved, eyes never still, then passed over her, dark, evaluating. A warrior.

One to mark this night, and watch–though not to exclusion. She continued her survey, knowing in her heart that he had marked her as well. But there was far more to her than any could see, and she took comfort in that knowledge.

Good lord. Lyta knew she was staring. She couldn't help it. She had never seen such a specimen of manhood as that which walked by her. After he passed, Lyta took a deep breath and became aware of Joe standing beside her. She flushed, embarrassed and angry. Who was this strutting peacock to distract her from Joe? Her own fiancé and she had forgotten he was there!

Still tense, she put her arm around Joe's waist. Creepy, too creepy. I can't help noticing the scenery sometimes, but it never makes me lose my focus like that. She pulled in close and put her head on his shoulder. Closing her eyes, she breathed in his scent. Her mind and muscles relaxed. I love you, Joe. I wish we were home alone right now.

Joe had been critically examining the nearest canvas when he noticed Lyta pressing against him. Almost by reflex, he put his arm around her waist and kissed her hair, and as he did so, he caught a brief glimpse of what had just walked by. Oh my God. Joe looked skyward. Who let the fashion victim in here?

Joe cast surreptitious glances about the room, noting the responses from the crowd as the man strode past–a head turning, a wide-mouthed gape, a speaker arrested in mid-sentence. Oh, please, Joe groaned internally, don't let anyone actually swoon in front of me, or I'm going to puke all over this painting. He turned his gaze back to the artwork on the wall, cocked his head to one side. Well, on second thought, I suppose it could use the color.

They reached the hostess, and Desmond accepted her twitterings about how pleased she was that he had decided to attend. Out of the corner of her eye, Akemi was amused by the near fainting of one of the other women who had been with the hostess. The other two reached out to steady her.

The one that caught her eye was so obvious in trying not to react to Desmond's presence that she obviously was having one. She was wearing a floor-length strapless black evening gown that hugged her curves, and when she moved it revealed a long shapely leg ending in elegant black two inch spike heels, the slit in the skirt going practically up to her hip. Definitely an athlete's figure. Her long ash-blonde hair was piled in a riot of curls on top of her head, several long locks having escaped from their confinement to hang artfully beside her face and onto her shoulders. She wore very little makeup, preferring soft subtle colours.

You're being disgusting, Sara. Control yourself. You've got your own delicious hunk of man. But who are you, mister? And that's one powerful spell you weave when you enter a room. Sara looked over the man and the woman on his arm with a professional eye. Now wouldn't you two make a fantastic cover shot for Macleans magazine. Too bad this a pleasure night.

The hostess introduced the others at Desmond's prompting. "And this is Sara Mclintock, the news photographer."

"Freelance photojournalist," Sara corrected out of habit. Calm and cool, Sara. Just let it flow. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Reach. Ms. Rhodes." She extended her hand. A calm, firm grip. Remember what Jenna taught you. Just picture them… No, I don't think that's appropriate.

Akemi was a statuesque green-eyed brunette of medium height, standing about 175 in her 6cm open-toed golden sandals. Her hair hung straight back to her shoulders, managing to look somehow untamed nonetheless. She wore a jade-green silk cheongsam with a golden phoenix embroidered across the bust, knee-high slits on both sides, and piping in gold and black around the hem, collar, and sleeve openings. The stretches of leg that peeked out were sheathed in skintone silk stockings. Her only jewelry was a pair of pearl teardrop earrings set in gold fixtures. The most visible part of her makeup was her eyeshadow. The rest was done so well that it almost seemed as if she wasn't wearing any.

The dress was of a type designed to give curves to women who had none of their own; thus it almost exaggerated Akemi's naturally generous, yet muscular, physique. She was well-formed without being grotesque. Her features might be best summed up as "Eurasian." In another age, she might have been called a "dragon lady."

Akemi took Sara's hand in turn, matching Sara's grip with a firm clasp of her own. "How do you do, Ms. Mclintock. Please call me Akemi. You're a photographer? If it's not too much trouble, a photographer is just what I'm looking for right now. Maybe we could discuss it later, if that's all right with you."

At the same time, she was thinking something else. You've got muscles to go with those looks. Very nice. Definitely not just another pretty face. Her smile didn't change, but her green eyes swept the length of Sara's figure, taking her in with a single practiced glance, communicating a warmth which her handshake echoed in that extra moment before she let go. I like you, and I'd like to get to know you better. Making love with you would be an honor as well as a pleasure. But I doubt you'd understand my condition.

"Certainly, Akemi. And please, call me Sara. Here's one of my cards," she said, slipping a hand into her purse and pulling out an elegant gray linen card. "Just in case we don't get a chance to speak later." The card simply had Sara's name, phone number, fax number and email address.

"Thank you, Sara," Akemi replied, looking the card over before slipping it into one of her sleeves. The cordiality remained, but the "look" was gone now, almost as if it had never been. "Unfortunately, I don't have any cards with me right now, but I'll contact you sometime this week. Is that all right with you?"

Sara watched the pair walk away. What was that look for? Is she…? Does it matter? She could be bi, though. One would think the fantastic Mr. Reach would have someone for some after hours entertainment.

"If you'll excuse me, I need to go check if the rain did any damage." Sara slipped away before the two women could try and stop her again.

When Akemi and Desmond were out of earshot again, Akemi whispered, "Now I know why you got me this peacock's plumage. Without it, no one would notice me. Even so, I could be naked right now, and I don't think anyone would care. And that's insulting," she said with a mock pout.

Then she continued, with a twinkle in her eye, "And what do you think of Sara–Ms. McClintock? She seems to think a great deal of you. Maybe you could teach her about rhythm too," she said, making her smile momentarily genuine for his benefit. "I know I'd like to."

Desmond raised an eyebrow. "There are other women in this room? I hadn't noticed." He smiled softly and kissed her.

Akemi could hear the reactions to that. Several women and one man threw her looks of ice as the walked past them.

"Flatterer. I'd be hurt to think that your world would be so small that I alone could sustain all its needs and wants," she replied, with a smile of her own. "Jealousy is a terrible thing, the antithesis of love."

"As to Ms. Mclintock, I have seen her work. You could do worse."

"I'm hoping she may have contacts in the local film and art communities as well."

He lowered his voice to a whisper that couldn't be heard even by Armond. "And she is entirely unavailable to either of us, hmmm? But I think you picked that up."

She nodded imperceptibly, little more than a slow eyeblink. "Yes, I did, thanks to you. It's such a pity, though," she answered, in the same manner as he had spoken. "She's much more beautiful than she gives herself credit for. She could be a real success in her own right. But I know better than anyone now what a difference a day can make–again, thanks to you."

"Excuse me, Mr. Reach? I need to talk to you."

A small man, skinny with glasses that he kept pushing up, planted himself in front of the pair. Desmond sighed and nodded.

"Why don't you amuse yourself for a little while." Desmond kissed her again, and pulled her closer, a soft whisper against her ear, "Business."

She pressed up against him in response. "Time and tide wait for no man," she whispered back. "OK. Holler if you need me." She kissed him back before he walked away.

Akemi watched as the Desmond and the little man walked out on to the veranda. Armond closed the double doors and turned an impassive face to the general assembly.

Yes, Armond, you stay right with Desmond, she thought as she looked at him. And if anything happens to him, you and those responsible will answer to Jadestorm. Akemi looked around. Not four people away stood a young man, his Spanish heritage obvious. He was gorgeous. Black silky hair, a body that the tradional tux only accented.

Kinuko went back to surveying the gala. She noticed that most of the women in the place were following the first man's every move. The men who weren't scowling at their dates were watching him as well. She noticed Father O'Mallory had his head down where the woman could whipser to him, her face was redder than her hair. O'Mallory gave her hand a squeeze, and she smiled, relaxing briefly against him.

At the top of the stair, another couple arrived, it seemed to break the trance that everyone had unknownly fallen into. Slowly, conversation started up again. Father O'Mallory and the woman started towards them.

"Ah," Mendo gave a slight bow, "Professor O'Mallory, it is a pleasure to see you again."

The woman smiled and gave a slightly deeper bow back, "I am honored that you remember me, Mendo-san. I performed such a brief service for you."

"Ah, but an important one, O'Mallory-san. The article that you translated was of great use to our company." His eyes cut briefly to the priest at her side.

"Mendo-san, may I introduce my husband, Father Raymond O'Mallory."

"It is an honor to meet you, Father-san." Mendo bowed a bit deeper.

O'Mallory bowed back. "Thank you, it is an honor to meet you as well. May I ask after the health of your companion?"

Mendo blinked. "Of course, Father-san." He drew the professor off a little as they continued to talk about ancient languages and forgotten dialects.

"And how are you?" O'Mallory asked softly.

"I am well, Father-san. And yourself?"

He smiled softly. "I too am well. Destine was worried that you had maybe left too early. I will be happy to inform her that all is well. I wish to thank you again for your assistance. You do not know what happened to Tango, do you?"

"I did only what was necessary; thanks are undeserved. Sadly, I do not know what has happened to Tango. What of the other priest? Do you know?"

"I think that Lucifer now has him. The dagger is troublesome–I can not find it, but I should be able to. Anything with such evil and hunger surrounding it should stand out like a beacon. But I can not. It worries me. Could I enlist your assistance again, in trying to find Tango?"

"Certainly–if Mendo-san permits?" A very faint note of pleading entered her voice–faint by Japanese standards, very faint to Westerners–but compared to her normal ultracalm, it was equivalent to desperate begging.

Mendo raised an eyebrow. "You must return before noon tommorrow. We have important business at Kogowa."

"Domo arigato, Mendo-san. [Jap.: I owe giri to this man, and to Tango; thank you for allowing me to discharge it.]" Then to the Father, "Since my lord permits, I will be honoured to help you when it is time."

Nathaniel squinted at himself in the bathroom mirror. His finely crafted composure had nearly collapsed and he was not pleased. What was it about Gina that shattered his self-control? She was beautiful without a doubt, but he was used to attention by attractive women.

Appraising himself in the mirror, he recalled the pretty blonde girl in his Humanities 101 class last semester. She had watched him closely for most of the eighteen week class until the day before the final exam. Her come-on was anything but subtle, but he had tactfully declined her invitation. The board looked down upon fraternization of that type, but the real reason that he had turned her down was because he had seen her intention to steal the test and sell the answers. The ability to read thoughts is often rather useful, he mused. Still, she had been very attracted to him and would have willingly given herself to him regardless of her other interests.

Gina was different. Though he knew her only casually, there was something special about her which he couldn't explain. Something which left him breathless when she was near. The danger she posed to him was clear: if he were to become attached, his attention could suffer and he could make a potentially fatal mistake. Worse yet, she would be endangered by his enemies. He clearly could not get too close to her.

There will come a time when you must choose a queen to stand by your side. Fear will not be an option then. Remember this: you must be strong and productive to remain the Horus. When that is no longer possible, you must pass the throne to your son and become the Osiris, the voice whispered to him from the back of his mind. "Huh? I've obviously been working too hard. My subconcious is beginning to relate my life to my studies. Besides, she has a family already."

Nathaniel was startled by the sound of someone clearing his throat. "May I use the washbasin please? If you are through, that is." Nathaniel looked over his shoulder, noticing the man standing behind him. It was Gina's husband! The man grinned sheepishly and motioned toward the only sink in the restroom. Nathaniel apologized and stepped aside, taking one of the checkered towels from the counter to dry his hands with. He absently dried his hands while avoiding the man's gaze.

Nathaniel stepped out after Gina's husband. The man ignored his wife standing only a few feet away, and strode back to group he had left. She watched him and then gave Nathaniel a half shrug. She walked over.

"Would you like to dance? It looks like Niclos is going to be too busy this evening. Do you perfer Nathaniel, Nathan, or Nate?"

Nathaniel sighed softly. It was going to be even harder than he'd realized. Smiling again, he said, "Nathan is fine, and I'd love to." Holding his arm for her, he decided that he would indulge himself this evening. Only the gods knew what was in store for him, but he might as well make the best of it. They stepped out onto the floor. Perfectly correct distance, but he could feel her touch on his shoulder, his own on her hip.

Gina Weiser gazed at this man who had seemingly come like a whirlwind into her life. Am I seriously thinking about this man? She licked her lips as a wave of desire swept over her. Stop that, Gina. You are a married woman. You took vows before God. It doesn't matter if this man finds you desirable or that it has been a long time since anyone, including your husband, has looked at you like this. Adultery–the word hung unspoken between them.

I can feel her desire and it fuels my own. Is this some trick that the "Eye" is doing, or is it my imagination? Regardless, I will enjoy myself without giving in to my emotions. My will is strong. What's that? I feel her loneliness too; how it reminds me of my own. Her husband is standing not twenty paces from us… and pointedly ignoring his wife dancing with another man. My will is strong. Her eyes are like beautiful little windows into her soul. She is so open to me, I feel that I could walk right in and she would welcome me… so open. He felt himself drifting as he stared into her eyes, drawn to her by an irresistable force. Before he knew it, he was inside her mind, her thoughts all around him.

So long. To feel his heat. His touch. Her thoughts tumbled chaotically. He was in most of them. Touching, strong, loving. And then the little girl. Rebecca. Thrashing in sweat-drenched fever. Gina's fear. Her only child. The doctors baffled. Niclos had been there, taking time off work. He loved Rebecca, even he no longer loved her. Superimposed rings. Trembling, threatening to break apart. All it would take was one touch, one word.

"I understand," Nathan wispered into Gina's ear, "You are confused and frightened by events surrounding you. Your marriage is in trouble, your daughter nearly died… What you need right now is a friend. I would like to be that friend, Gina. We hardly know one another, yet I feel a bond between us and I know you feel it too. Let me be your strength in this time of weakness."

He felt her hand on his hip tighten. "How did you know all that?" she whispered.

Nathan smiled comfortingly, "I can feel your pain. With the way your husband has been acting toward you this evening and the incident friday with Rebecca… I'm sure you must be terribly lonely and confused."

"Yes," she whispered, and then moved away from him, breaking the dance. She headed for the other veranda, closed against the rain. At the door she paused, glanced back at him, and slipped through, leaving the door ajar.

What are you getting yourself into, old chap? Nathaniel thought to himself, pausing for a moment to spot Niclos busily chatting with the hostess. He then snagged two more drinks from a server and moved to join Gina on the veranda. No telling yet, but mustn't be rude to the lady.

Mmm, Akemi thought, there seem to be more than a few diamonds-in-the-rough here tonight. I may have missed you before, but I'll make up for that now.

She strode over to him, turning on the charm. "Hello," she said, smiling. "I saw you standing here and I thought, with your looks you must be a model, perhaps for a sculpture. If I had the chance, I'd be only too happy to immortalize you. My name is Akemi. And you are…?" she finished, extending her hand.

"Josh," he smiled and shook her hand, his eyes scanned the crowd. He laughed, he had a nice laugh and his eyes sparkled, "And no I am not a model, I am an agent. And you?"

"Me neither," she replied. "I develop computer software, mainly entertainment-related. What the uninitiated and the tragically trendy call 'multimedia.'" Wonder who he's looking for? "What sort of an agent are you?" she asked, genuinely interested.

Akemi turned and snagged a drink. When she turned back, she caught his eyes going back up, there was definitely appreciation in his eyes.

Her smile widened just a fraction as she met his stare. "You like what you see?" she asked rhetorically as she handed him a glass. "I'm glad. I like what I see, too. You know," she continued, "events like this always seem to me to be full of boring people trying to find some way not to be boring, and simply ending up being boring together instead of separately. I'm still not entirely sure what I'm doing here."

She came closer to him. "Which brings me to you," she went on, an added trace of husk in her voice. "It's rare enough to meet someone as beautiful as you at a gathering such as this. What makes it even nicer is that you're not the first beauty I've met this evening."

He laughed again, his dark eyes twinkled, and perfect white teeth flashed. "If you are not careful, all this flattery will go straight to my head."

Her answering laugh was low and seductive. "I certainly hope so. The night would be such a waste otherwise," she countered, her bottle-green eyes dilating as her gaze swept frankly from his crotch to his face.

As Sara stepped out of the bathroom and passed the small lineup, she gazed around the room looking for Josh. She finally spotted him halfway across the room. He was talking to Akemi Rhodes. Sara could see him laugh at something she said.

An uneasy feeling swept through her. Whenever they went out, Josh hardly ever left her side, and when he did, he was always looking for her. He wasn't now. He was talking to Ms. Rhodes, not even attempting to look for her.

Sara took a deep breath to calm her nerves. He loves you, you idiot. The conversation is just that. She's a very attractive woman, and they're probably talking about art. She began to work her way across the floor to where Josh was, smiling and mouthing pleasantries to people she passed.

She watched as Akemi stepped close to Josh, she said something. Josh didn't move. As she drew closer, she caught his response.

He laughed, his dark eyes twinkled, and perfect white teeth flashed. "If you are not careful all this flattery will go straight to my head."

Her answering laugh was low and seductive. "I certainly hope so. The night would be such a waste otherwise," she countered, her bottle-green eyes dilating as her gaze swept frankly from his crotch to his face.

"I own the Colors of the Wind gallery. I deal with native art. This," he gestured almost hitting Sara with the glass.

Sara took a step backwards to avoid Josh's outflung hand, then moved to stand close to him. "Sorry I took so long, sweetheart, but I got waylaid by our illustrious hostess and her friend. I had forgotten what dangerous events these galas are." She smiled at Josh and placed her hand on his forearm, her fingers curving lovingly. Sara looked at Akemi, her smile friendly and confident. "Hello again, Akemi. What do you think of this place so far?"

Akemi noticed several things right away. One, the two had been together for some time. There were no small adjustments to personal space that people new to one another exhibited. Sara slipped into his personal space like she belonged there, and the space became theirs, not his or hers. The second, which she wouldn't have seen right away before Desmond, was the minute sense of tension. It was there in Josh, and an echo in Sara. As if she sensed subconsciously that something was wrong. And neither were aware of it.

Akemi maintained her friendly, inviting manner, treating them both the same as she had been all along. "Oh, Sara! I'm glad to see you again. I was afraid we might miss one another altogether. I was just telling Josh that apart from you, he was the only beautiful person I'd met here this evening. Good reflexes, by the way. Not many people could have sidestepped something stuck out so suddenly."

She took a sip of her drink, then added, "I didn't know you were together, though now that I see you like this, it's only logical. Beauty and intelligence seek out their likenesses." Her gaze over the rim of her glass took in them both, unmistakably.

Josh gave them both a smile.

"Thank you," Sara said, pleased at the compliment and glad to be able to keep from blushing. I am SO glad I'm getting used to receiving compliments that I don't make a fool of myself any more.

Fortunately, Akemi's social experience was sufficient to keep her thoughts off her face, for her mind was racing again as all of this was going on. I've seen people who fit together like this before, but this couple is closing itself off, where Mom and Dad, among others I've known, would be open. Especially her. Life's too short for insecurity like hers, especially when there's no reason for it. But what's causing this tension between them? It's one thing to sense it, but quite another to know what it means. Let's find out.

At this point, Akemi's expression changed to one of concern. "Excuse me, is something wrong? Is there something on my dress that shouldn't be?" she asked, looking down at herself. Then she smiled again. "Am I doing anything to make you uncomfortable?" she asked, addressing the both of them. "I assure you, that's the last thing I have on my mind," she added, again seductively, to put them at their ease. She had had couples as lovers before, and thus had no trouble relating to this couple as if they were a single person, since that was how they presented themselves.

Josh laughed, "No. Not at all. Sara?"

That woman is a walking sexpot, Sara thought to herself before answering. "No, not really. I just hate big crowds. As Josh can tell you, I don't normally come to these things," she said, indicating the gathering. "But we're both very big supports of Native art that I felt I owed it to the artists to show up for their big night."

A glimmer of comprehension appeared in Akemi's eyes. "Oh, so that's what this is for," she said. "Two hours ago, I didn't know that I would be attending, let alone what this was about. I went to a lot of formal events such as these when I was younger, and I think I developed an allergic reaction." She smiled. "Well, at least there's a chance for me to learn something new at this one. I only moved here recently and still don't know very much about my adopted home, so maybe you'd care to teach me something about the natives of this area and their art?"

A couple stepped onto the dance floor. A few seconds later another joined them.

"On second thought," she said, extending her hand, pointing it at the middle of the couple, "might I have the pleasure of this dance?"

Sara looked at Josh to see what his response would be. If he wants to dance with her, that's fine. I think I saw a couple of friendly faces over by the totem pole. She looked out at the dance floor. Though I'd hoped we'd dance the first dance of the evening together.

Josh paused for a second and then took Akemi's hand. "I'd be delighted."

The two stepped out onto the dance floor.

So, it's out into the jungle for me. Remember what Josh always says, smile and look pretty, they'll forgive you anything. No, Sara laughed softly to herself. That's not right. Silly me. You belong here as much as anyone else does. Let's see, is there anyone here I recognize that won't drive me crazy or to tears with boredom…

Glancing around, Sara spotted a couple of very familiar faces. Father Raymond O'Mallory had just finished speaking to a small Japanese woman and stood off to one side, waiting for his wife Elizabeth to finish her discussion with the Japanese gentleman. The young Japanese woman wore a traditional kimono, her hair piled onto of her head. She looked every bit the traditional Japanese woman, even to standing slightly behind the businessman. It was a sharp contrast to the Japanese man's grey business suit.

Father O'Mallory wore his typical uniform, dark suit and collar. Elizabeth wore a simple black dress. Her long red hair was tied back simply as well. She and the businessman seemed deep in a discussion that was a passion to both of them. As Sara made her way over, she realized that they must be discussing linguistics, Elizabeth's unbridled passion and work.

Sara smiled to herself. Father Raymond and Elizabeth are a perfect match for each other. Both full of passion about what they do. She approached the edge of the group, politely waiting to be acknowledged and brought into the conversations.

"Good to see you, Father. It's been a while," Sara said with a brilliant, friendly smile.

"Sara," he smiled, "a long while. Kinuko Oomuri, may I present Sara Mclintock."

Sara turned to Oomuri and executed a perfect bow, yet again thankful her friend Mai had taught her how. "A pleasure to meet you."

"Konbanwa, Mclintock Sara-san." And the young lady bowed from the hips, ten degrees forward. "And you know the honoured Father how, if I may ask?"

"We met when I was fifteen, under some rather unpleasant circumstances. I am a student of his, of sorts. I volunteer when I can with the organizations he supports and runs, and I donate what money I'm able. It's not a lot, but I do what I can. I am honoured and privileged to call Father O'Mallory a good friend, both to myself and my family."

"So ka. Then you will be my friend also," and Kinuko bowed again, a bit more deeply.

Sara returned the bow, deepening it as Kinuko did as a gesture of respect and thanks. "I am honoured. And please, call me Sara." She glanced quickly out at the dance floor to see where Josh and Akemi were, then looked back at Father O'Mallory and Kinuko.

"Do you live here in New London, or are you visiting for business or pleasure?"

"I live here. And you?"

"I've lived here all my life. It can be a great city most of the time."

"Excuse me, Father-san," Mendo interrupted, "but I must take Kinuko-san now. It was nice to meet you." The Japanese businessman ignored Sara and walked off, fully expecting Kinuko to follow.

As the two walked off, Father Raymond met his wife's eyes and she sighed, nodded, and casting a smile at Sara, walked off to find someone else to talk to.

"Care to dance?" O'Mallory asked.

"I'd be delighted. Josh abandoned me in favour of dancing with Akemi Rhodes, Desmond Reach's companion for the evening." She extended her hand with a laugh, her previous nerves and anxiety a faint memory.

"I may need the help of a mutual friend," he whispered. Sara was surprised. It was the first time that Father Raymond had asked for her help.

"What's the problem, Father? You know she'd do anything she could to help," Sara whispered back, trying to keep her concern out of her voice. She turned gracefully, following Father O'Mallory's lead in the dance.