Author's Notes: This is shorter than the last few, for which I profusely apologize. This story has been shuffled around a lot lately, both in the plot and on my priorities list. Lately though, thanks to so many reviews, it's found itself higher that usual. The plot, however, has been changing and twisting out of control. I know where it's going to get to, and a few of the steps in between, but a lot of the things I had planned have been swept away by a new idea that I'm still developing, or more accurately, is developing on its own, quite independent of my input.

Also, in addition to the previously pointed out geographical mistakes I've made, I openly acknowledge that I've got some chronological mistakes in here too..mostly due to the fact that I want time to pass faster than it is and the nature of posting an incomplete work in progress. Just relax and enjoy it and, if it really bugs a lot of people I'll go back and fix it when I've finally figured it out myself.

Thank you all, for sticking in there with me.

Especially Lady Russell Holmes, Wasted Decadence, Harriet, Phire Phoenix, hudsiyfiusnfsudi, Player Number One, Bish, Srawberry Chick, and yomama cakes.

Bish's and Yomama cakes' multipule reviews, in particular, jumpstarted this post.so thank them and read their stories.Yomama is quite talented in the angst department and Bish updated one of my favorite original fics on fp.net. (YAY) You've all said such wonderful things about this story and have kept up my motivation to continue updating. You're the greatest.

!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!NOTICE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I'm also looking for an alternate Beta Reader, because my Alpha Beta, the great and marvelous LRH, is quite often busy actually living real life. (can you imagine that?) If any one reading this fancies themselves great at punctuation (my greatest weakness) and have a mind strong enough to yell at me when I get too far off, let me know in a review or send me an e-mail. Thank you.

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Katherine wandered through a meadow surrounded by tall pine trees while long grass rippled in the soft breeze. Enlarged as everything was, she felt quite small in comparison. A voice beaconed her onward. Pure, undefiled wilderness stretched for miles in every direction except for a small footpath that became more worn every time she came here. It was her favorite place, after all, and Katherine made a point to return several times a week. Not so much for the beautiful scenery, though it was nice, but for the part she knew would come next.

That voice again, sweet, loving. Katherine danced through the sounds as the wind bore it to her. Running. Skipping. Singing. She was almost there, just over the crest of the next hill, beside the crystal clear brook. A furry rabbit hopped across her path and into its burrow. Yes, there she was.

Mother.

"Katherine!" Alice chimed, with arms wide. "Welcome Home." The Twins joined the hug from behind, even her father stood there beaming with pride. Blue birds twittered overhead before being driven away by a large black crow that circled the group. It's caws and screeches coming with mechanized regularity.

Caw

Caww

Cawp

Caep

Ceep

Beep

Beep

Beep

Ah, the alarm. Katherine hit snooze distractedly before closing her eyes, trying to hold on to the fleeting images that made up her favorite dream.

Class proceeded as usual, with the added bonus of having gotten one solid hit on Sensei Gradi during sparing practice, though she paid for it soon after. Her consistently bruised body accepted his retaliating blows. It was still encouraging to have done.

Hails taught knife throwing, but Katherine was still having difficulty with the timing and balance necessary to be really great at the art, so he invited her to stay after for some extra practice.

"Not too long though, or I'll miss my nap," Katherine said missing the target by six inches. The next try bounced off the wood wall and stuck into the floor. Hails clucked reprovingly.

"You're going to have to keep practicing this, it's the only way you'll learn."

"Alright, I'll just take a few of these back to my room with me, so I can." Kitanya pretended to pocket them before Hails protested.

"I have to count them everyday after you leave, or it's my hide."

"Don't worry, Hails, it's not like I could actually hit anything while trying to make my daring escape." Her next throw ricocheted off the board and stuck in the wall.

"Still." He trailed off. "It's game night tonight, you know."

"Hmmm," Katherine nodded distractedly, weighing the next knife in her hand.

"Starling's on the list."

Kitanya's eyes flashed with anger and the knife she was holding found itself solidly imbedded only an inch from the bulls eye. "Is that so," was her only reaction.

"You never said if you wanted me to bar him from coming or not."

"Let him come." Kitanya picked up the last knife and left it trembling in the dead center of the circle before storming out of the room. Later, it took several hard tugs for an astonished Hails to remove it from the wood.

*****************

Kitanya found it difficult to fall asleep on the couch after that, with thoughts of Starling intruding and being extraordinarily sore from class, she needed a diversion. So she pulled out her notes on the video clip she was editing. Laying with her back on the arm of the couch, feet up on the cushions and a two-inch notebook propped on her legs, it was fairly easy to tune out the rest of the room, as well as her pain, and lose herself in the work. She'd storyboarded the general concept from clips she, well liked wasn't the word for it, but they were certainly the most dramatic footage. She was going for a theme, possibly to music. Some of the CD's Eric had sent were inspiring in that direction. A soundtrack also seemed the best way to cut out the disturbing audio that accompanied the film she was responsible for making presentable. Some of the frames would need touching up, both in color and composition. Thank goodness for digital enhancement. And she could achieve a pan effect by slowing things down, starting full framed and zooming in to the area she wished to highlight. It took quite a bit of planning, but the results of her initial tests proved successful. It was her hope to also include clues that wouldn't be detected by anybody in Snyder's organization but that could be decoded by Detective Hanson or her mother. So far, an opportunity for that hadn't presented itself.

Snyder's laughing made her look up from her notebook. Surprisingly, the room was filled with Red Devils and a few Fiends in folding chairs surrounding Snyder's desk. This was different, and in her experience, different wasn't usually a good thing.

"Kitanya," Snyder called, noticing he had gotten her attention. She flinched and steeled herself for whatever might come of this. "Perhaps you are in the best position to help us out here. We're taking a vote and need someone to tip the scales."

Nope, definitely not good.

Kitanya didn't get up, as she was sure she'd not be able to manage it without showing discomfort, so she made one more notation in her book before replying nonchalantly, "I'll do what I can, Sir."

"The question is a matter of advancement. There is an opening among the Reds and two Greens have chosen to apply for it." Kitanya started taking a mental role call to see who among the Reds was missing. Eric wasn't there, but neither was Bruno or Stilson, and a few others. One of them must have died, she just prayed it wasn't Eric.

"Who?"

"Patrick Smithe," he motioned to a large sandy haired man with steely grey eyes. "And Andrew Starling." Kitanya sneered in his direction.

"How long have they been here?"

Smithe answered, "6 years," followed by Starling's, "almost 3 and a half years, only slightly shorter than you've been here."

"Any large differences in their training?" She asked. Several murmured 'no' in answer.

"And they actually 'want' to be Reds?" Kitanya laughed from the couch, keeping her eyes on the notebook so she wouldn't have to look at all the faces now turned toward her. "What's their motivation for wanting it?"

Snyder answered for them, summing up what must have been hours worth of proposals and niceties into a few sentences. "Smithe mostly wants the raise in pay, greedy as sin, and he wants to command men of his own. Starling is here seeking revenge for the death of his family at the hands of the FBI and is quite determined to encounter his enemy face to face."

Kitanya chewed on the eraser of her pencil before looking up. "Smithe then."

"Why do you say that?"

"Greed is a far better emotion than Vengeance, when it comes to motivating factors. Once he gets his revenge, Starling will be spent but greed is insatiable."

Starling gave her a peculiar look she barely saw over the top of the notebook, far too reminiscent of the one he gave her in the infirmary all those years ago and it unsettled her. There was something different about that man. And given her sentiment on different, it was definitely unsettling. He stepped toward her to plead his case.

"But, my loyalty to he who helps me get my revenge is solid. I can serve Snyder far better than one who only looks out for his best interest." Antony Thomas was nodding his head in approval of Starling in the background.

To which Smithe interrupted, "I know from where all my riches come and have always given Master Snyder my unwavering loyalty."

Men started arguing for each of the candidates and the noise was, quite frankly, agonizingly familiar in its ability to give Katherine a headache.

"Silence!" Snyder yelled, and achieved his wish instantly.

"You make a good point, Kitanya, and have helped me make my decision." Smithe and his supporters smirked at Starling. "And because of it, Starling will be advanced to the empty seat among the Reds.

Some faces fell while others cheered and Snyder grinned at them all until they quieted. "After all, any man you so openly hate has got what it takes to go far, and now you'll have to deal with him far more often." The men laughed at her barely contained rage and she slammed her notebook shut, ready to leap to her feet. At Snyder's hand raised in warning, Kitanya thought better of whatever rash words and actions were running through her head.

"If that is all the help you require. . ." she motioned to the book in her lap, reopened it, and pretended to work in while the men went back to their meeting.

'And now she'd have to deal with Starling as a Red', was the predominate thought in her head. She just hoped that his celebrations for the advancement would keep him away from Game Night.

******************

The cards were laid out, dominoes stacked, and some of Eric's CDs played in a new alarm clock CD player Kitanya had found in her rooms after the meeting. Apparently, Snyder wasn't too disappointed in her interaction with his men, and it was a nice change to have music in here. Classical, to start, then maybe some Jazz or Swing later. Kitanya was bustling around in the bedroom, tidying up, nervously awaiting her guests. Uncharacteristically, Hails was late so it was a relief when she heard a key in the lock and the creek of the door opening.

"Finally, Hails, could you pop the pop corn. The machine has gone weird again and. . ." but when she turned around her voice trailed off. Starling, with his new red stripes, stood in the shadowed doorway, alone.

Composing herself quickly, Kitanya asked, "Where are the others?"

"They are running a little late. Convenient, because I wanted to talk to you for a moment, privately."

Kitanya moved so the most amount of furniture was between them and mentally catalogued everything in the room that could be turned into a weapon. Forks, the glass bowl, if shattered, chairs. He saw her darting eyes and raised his hands as a sign of peace.

"I don't want to hurt you. In fact, I just wanted to ask why you don't seem to like me. I've never hurt you. Was it something I said?"

"I," Katherine paused, unsure of how to say it.

"You get on well with everyone else, from Mr. Snyder to his nephew to most of the Yellow's. Almost every one I talk to has something good to say about you, now, but we've hardly said three words to each other and it's like you hate me more than everyone else. Why?" Starling was babbling, almost pleading, and it was too conflicting with the mental image she had of him to ignore.

"You, I, well. That day in the infirmary, you know." Katherine paused and Starling nodded slowly. "And then," Katherine couldn't say the words. Thinking about it was bad enough, and she'd begun to shake. So, she lead him back to the door and pointed at the key marked White 12. It hung there, so innocently, and Starling didn't seem to get it, just cocked his head to the side, wondering what they were looking at.

"That was the day I earned my Green cords." He said by way of prompting after she didn't speak for several minutes.

"It's the same day I earned stripes of my own," she whispered.

"Huh?"

"After you caught me escaping, Mr. Snyder, he put me in there," she pointed to the key again, "and for three days," she trailed off again, then turned to look at him properly, capturing his eyes in her own. "Yours was the last face I saw clearly for quite some time, and is unfortunately associated with quite a bit of pain."

"But, I didn't, I never h-hit you." He stammered.

"You didn't have to."

"I meant what I said that day." His voice lowered to barely a whisper. "Help is coming. Just keep hoping."

"I don't understand."

But he didn't elaborate. "I just did what anyone else would have done."

"Then I would associate them with 'that', and not you. Look, it's not personal, and not something I chose to feel, I just do."

Katherine turned away from the conversation and listened to the music. Actually thinking about it, she realized he was right, any of the men she'd been becoming friends with would have done the same, they were all 'Starlings' and eager to prove their worth to their Master. The thought sickened her and she didn't feel like hosting Game Night anymore. He'd shattered her 'dorm room' illusion that had made these nights fun.

Even worse, somehow Starling had managed to put her off guard and break through all of Kitanya's barriers into her more essential self. Now the man she openly disliked the most knew more about her than she would have ever wanted. This morning she'd had every intention of tormenting him during the games, but now. . .

The door opened and Hails walked in with one of the 'Georges' from Surveillance, his laughter stopped abruptly when he saw the two, previously alone, occupants at the room and the girls visible trembling.

"Kitanya? Are you alright?" He looked at Starling accusingly before his eyes widened noticing the Red stripes and change in uniform. Not one to trifle with a superior, he nodded his head in a small bow before going toward Katherine.

"I don't want to play tonight, Hails," she said without turning around. "I'm sorry, but could you please go away."

"What happened?" His concern was evident, even as he knew that he was in no position to fix anything that may have transpired between his young friend and one of the organization's newly appointed elite.

"I'm just not in the mood," she offered lamely, taking deep calming breaths. Kitanya hadn't been this out of control in a long time, and for the life of her couldn't figure out why she was having such a strong reaction to this now.

"Sure she is. Just set up like normal." Starling interrupted. "Either of you play poker?"

"We don't play those kinds of games, mostly Uno or dominoes." George offered.

Hails looked back and forth between Starling and Kitanya. "Maybe we should just go."

"No." Starling ordered. "We'll play as usual, right Kit." She nodded but retreated to the bathroom. Torn between an order and a friendship, Hails stood still, unable to decide.

"That's settled then," Starling said quietly, staring at the closed bathroom door longer than strictly necessary. Picking up the cards and beginning to shuffle them he returned to his full voice and asked playfully, "So, whose in?"

An hour later, when it became clear that Kitanya wasn't going to join them, the men scrapped the game and Hails offered to clean up so that Starling and George would leave. He knocked softly on the bathroom door.

"Kit. Kit, please tell me what's wrong. It's just me, Starling's gone. Please come out." He waited for what seemed like an eternity before the door opened. To his great shock, Kitanya's face was red and blotchy and still wet from tears.

"Wha-?" he croaked, before she launched herself past him and under the covers of the bed. He stood indecisive, yet again that day, unsure of what to do or say, or if it was even his business to say or do anything. But she trusted him more than most anyone else here, so it was up to him to do what he could.

Fortunately for him, she started first.

"It's not fair."

"I know, you shouldn't even be here, you should,"

"Not that," she interrupted. "Well, always that, of course, but now I just don't know what to think."

"Then what is it?"

Kitanya rambled quickly with a shaky voice, "I just remembered you're one of them. All of you are. And it all goes back to him, Murdstone or Snyder or whoever the heck he is. And he controls everything and I have nothing. He only give me the pretense of choice, but it's all part of his grand scheme. I'm just a stupid little girl he manipulates for fun and I've fallen for it all."

"Huh?" Hails asked, turning his head in confusion so reminiscent of Starling's gesture that Katherine's pent up anger exploded.

"So, what's it for you. Greed or Revenge? Or do you just get a sick pleasure out of torturing the innocent."

"What are you talking about?"

"Why are you here!? I'm here by force, you're here by choice. So, go on, tell me. What's you motivation that keeps you here?"

"My mother."

Caught by surprise, again, Kitanya paused. "Your mom?"

Hails sat next to her on the bed and exhaled slowly. "You really want to know?" At her nod he continued. "My dad abandoned my sisters and I when I was fourteen. Since I was the oldest and the only boy my mom said I was the man of the house and, to me, that meant bringing some money in. There's not many profitable jobs out there for fourteen year olds and the house was going to be foreclosed on if we didn't get our hands on some cash. Some of the older boys in the neighborhood were going to rob a store and said they'd pay me well for being a look out. It saved my family from being homeless, so I rationalized that it was ok. Years later, those same boys introduced me to Mr. Snyder's organization.

"That was about seven years ago and now I'm 24, my mom's house is free and clear, she's got a bit to live on and a retirement account. A few more years and my sister's educations will be paid for."

Katherine thought about what he'd said before posing her next question. "Do you think your mother would accept the money if she knew where it came from?"

"Honestly, I don't know." Hails answered, slumping against the wall and looking at his hands. "But I don't think I can regret supporting my family and making a better life for them all."

"And now, why not leave?"

"Nobody leaves the Master's service alive, without his say so." Hails shrugged and Katherine snorted.

"So, we're just two suckers who play the martyr too well, eh?" Kitanya leaned into his shoulder with a heavy sigh and they each sat in deep contemplation before she realized how comfortable it was to sit like this and needed to move. Quickly Kitanya whipped around and gave him an accusing stare.

"What?" he asked, on edge.

"What to the other men say about me?"

"Huh?"

"Starling said that everybody had their own opinion of me. What do they say?"

"It's just guy stuff," Hails mumbled, finding his fingernails quite fascinating.

"Just a general consensus, you don't have to betray any fraternity locker room pacts or anything."

"Well, if that's all." He scoffed and searched his memory for the right words. "Most of the guys think you're real nice. Refreshing, I think is the word. Those that come to game night think it's really fun, if a bit weird. You know, given the dynamic of the prisoner/guard thing."

"Yeah, that's sometimes a bit weird on this end, to say the least. Anything else?"

"Well, last week, after you sparred Fullerton and held your own really well, you remember that?"

"Hm hum," Kitanya nodded, smiling with the fond memory.

"We, some of the guys were talking about you after you left. One said it was like having our own mascot around, cause you're a link between the big guys in the center of it all and us peripheral henchmen. A morale booster, and all that. Another guy said you were closer to a little sister, but that didn't fit either. So they decided you were kinda like a best friends little sister. In an endearing yet off limits sort of way."

"Really?" Kitanya crinkled her nose. "How many of their best friend's little sisters get to beat them up on a regular basis?" She slugged him in the shoulder for added emphasis. He pushed her back and they began an impromptu wrestling match on the bed, escalated by the fact that Kitanya found out Hails was ticklish.

Breathing heavily, they collapsed and called a truce. Still laughing as they detangled themselves from the blankets that'd fallen on the floor. Hail sat up, sobered, and caught Kitanya's attention.

"It's not true, you know."

"What's not?" Kitanya asked, matching his seriousness.

"You said you don't control anything in your life."

"Well, yeah. Snyder dictates everything, when I sleep, what I eat, where I go, what I do. Any choices I have are just illusions, part of his manipulation. Sometimes it's like he's in my head, driving from the inside," she pouted.

"But it's not true. He may have control over all of that and more, but only you control how you react to it and your attitude toward this life."

************************

Snyder, watching the surveillance cameras from his office, made a mental note to make sure Eric was in attendance at the advancement ceremony the following week.