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~:: Shades of Change - Chapter II ::~

Looking around the room, she felt the initial shock wearing off and began to explore her surroundings with greater attention to detail. The room was large: every bit as much as Dawl's own bedroom. A door to the south led into a spacious bathroom, with a huge garden tub, which was surrounded by leaded glass doors. Not stained glass, but heavy clear glass in a beautiful mosaic pattern, cloudy enough to give the illusion of privacy while one stood and showered. The gilt wand of a handheld showerhead rested upon a shining mount, above two ivory clad spigots. The hose was long enough that she knew that even with her towering height, she would be able to comfortably shower every inch of her being. The wall behind the tub was made of heavy frosted glass blocks, allowing the natural light in without sacrificing privacy.

A soft scent caught her sensitive nose, and Az turned to find the vanity and a small dressing table decorated with beautiful gold and purple candles, that exuded an exotic, spicy scent. A bouquet of fresh flowers sat in the middle of the dressing table, along with a note, tied to a tiny, delicate blown glass bottle. She reached out gently, her long fingers dwarfing the small vessel, and gently untied the ribbon, freeing the note. She recognized Dawl's flowing pen, and could imagine the redhead's impish smile, as she read:

I knew you'd enjoy this bathroom. It is a great place to either soak away your cares or enjoy a brisk shower, either alone or...…

Azazela rolled her eyes. Leave it to her sister. There would be none of that, she thought, resolutely. The loss of her last partner and the pain of having to firmly refuse any attempts he made to continue working with her were still fresh in her heart and mind. It had been for his own good, really, to insure peace in his new relationship. In spite of that, it had been hard on both of them. The last thing she needed in her already somewhat arduous existence was further emotional complication.

Many viewed her as unsociable and aloof. It wasn't so much a lack of being social as it was a desire to maintain her quiet, pensive solitude. Yes, she was often dark and brooding. Dawl's friend Shandra had once referred to her, in a rather cutting way, as the 'poster child for Elavil.' That remark still stung her, whenever she was reminded of those unkind words.

Of course, there was always Dawl. She was the gregarious social butterfly, who seemed determined to change the very fabric her younger sister was woven from. Many of their mutual friends unwittingly compared the two, leaving Azazela with a feeling that she could never quite measure up, either as an empath, or socially.

It was not as if she'd wished to trade places with Dawl. There was much about the tiny redhead that Az could not condone. She was known all over Paragon City to be quite free with her bedroom favors. Not that this behaviour should come as a surprise, from a half-demoness, as the hedonistic nature was predisposed. Perhaps this was why Az seemed determined to keep anything resembling desires in such tight check. Her fear of falling to the darker nature of her heritage was strong enough to instill in her an indomitable will to maintain strict control. This internal battle surely accounted for much of her pensive, sullen, ruminations.

Her somber reverie was broken by the sound of bright laughter floating up the hallway from somewhere downstairs. It appeared that company had arrived. This would be rather like living in under the noisy tents of a Carnival event, Azazela thought glumly to herself.

Seeking solace, she fled to the French doors, opening them and stepping onto the balcony. The warm breeze so typical of a summer evening blew in off the water, caressing her velvet soft skin, and gently tousling her white blonde mane. She tossed her head, and with long fingers, combed the unruly locks away from her face, tucking them behind her horns. The last fingers of the rich, violet hued sunset were stretching forth from the western horizon. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, tasting the salt carried inland by the gentle breeze.

The sound of a clearing throat, and a deep male voice broke her suddenly from her reverie. She spun around to face the young man behind her.

"Zakai! You startled me."

"I apologize, Aunt Az. Mother told me to come and summon you to the evening meal."

She looked down at the boy, with a warm smile. She had to choke back pangs of guilt at her initial suspicions regarding her sister's firstborn child. An unfortunate turn of events led to him dying during childbirth. Before his human soul could leave the still warm human form, an alien energy being had arrived. He fused with the infant, sharing its powerful essence, and giving the babe a second chance at life. Dawl had been overjoyed, but Az had been rather skeptical of the motivation of the unusual creature that had joined with the child. This fusion caused the child to grow at a phenomenal rate, and gave him the ability to shapeshift into other forms. Unlike the manifestation powers of his demon forbears, however, he could only assume a few forms which were predetermined by patterns in the consciousness of the Kheldian being he now shared a body with.

Her suspicions couldn't have been more wrong. The boy was a perfect child. He was always polite and respectful. Azazela had grown to adore her young nephew, even when he didn't appear to be human.

Zakai stood before her with his hands folded and his head bowed slightly. "May I tell mother you will be joining us for the meal?"

Az smiled softly and nodded, "Yes, Zak. Please do. I will join you shortly. Please give me a few moments to prepare."

He looked at her as though he had something else to say, but could not find the words. She cocked her head to the side, giving him a puzzled glance, as he fumbled awkwardly.

"What is it, Zakai?"

"It is just that... you may wish to know that there are other guests…" He cleared his throat.

Her eyebrows rose. "Other, as in?"

"Other MALE guests," he blurted, emphatically. "Or rather ONE other male guest, in particular..." He blushed softly, fully embarrassed at his mother's manipulations, but wanting to ensure that his aunt wasn't blindsided by Dawl's scheming.

The towering demoness shook her head and sighed. First there was the note in the bathroom, and now this. Her sister was not one to give up easily when she decided things should be done her way.

"Thank you, Zakai. I will not mention this conversation to your mother. I shall prepare myself."

The boy nodded and gave her a weak smile, and hurried back to the dining room.

Az turned to her belongings, and dug through the items until she found a t-shirt, and a pair of modest jeans. The purple shirt set off the color of her rather prominent horns, and the jeans were well fitted, but not too much so.

As she descended the stairs she felt the smallest hint of a headache pressing into her temples, and hoped that she could find a suitable moment to excuse herself as soon as possible.

Conversation in the room stopped as she reached the bottom of the stairs. She filled the archway with her imposing height. Her sister immediately pounced on the opportunity to make introductions.

"Azazela! This is Carmen. He works at that little deli over in Skyway. You know the one where I go to get the fresh Italian rolls?" She gestured towards the raven haired, olive skinned man, standing between them.

Az nodded politely. Carmen looked her up and down like she was up for sale and he was considering making an offer. His gaze stopped at her rather well developed chest, and for a full minute he seemed hypnotized. Az sighed almost silently and closed her eyes, wordlessly praying for deliverance, and wondering how long she could remain civil.

Reaching out for her hand, he brought it up to his lips and kissed her knuckles lightly. "My, what big... fingers you have." He laughed, obviously amused at his own innuendo.

"I suppose they are in direct proportion the rest of my frame," Az said, dryly.

"That's okay, toots. I like'em big." He gave her a huge smile, which she was positive, was intended to cause her to melt with desire. It took every bit of self-control she could muster to suppress the urge to roll her eyes.

Once again, his gaze fell to her chest, which, unfortunately for Az, on this fairly tall human male was almost perfectly located at eye level.

"Well," Dawl interjected, "the food is ready, so shall we all head for the dining room and have a seat?"

Entering the dining room, Az saw Zakai setting the table for his mother. He shot her a look that fairly screamed, "I am sorry. I feel your pain."

She met his gaze with an almost imperceptible nod, a silent thank you in her crystal blue eyes.

Carmen entered right behind her. The wall opposite was lined with tall curios, mostly display cases for badges and awards they had all earned through out their careers. Each one had a mirrored backing, and in the reflection Az saw that Carmen was now assessing her rear landscape, with a hungry gaze that had nothing to do with the food Dawl was placing on the table. She fumed inwardly and bit her tongue, once again silently praying for a quick end to the plot that was now being hatched against her.

"Here, Az," Dawl motioned to a chair along the table's long sides. "And Carmen, you can sit right beside her."

He grinned like a child that had just been given a brand new toy. He pulled out Az's chair for her, and she nodded a thank you, as he slid her up to the table and quickly took the seat beside her.

Sheken had arrived, and looking over at Carmen ogling her aunt, exchanged a knowing "Mom's at it again, isn't she?" glance with her older brother. He glanced around to make sure no one but she and Az were watching before rolling his eyes and nodding his head.

Dawl reached out to a panel on the wall and dimmed the lights, bathing the room in the light of the candles she'd lit moments before. "Isn't this cozy?" she giggled.

Az almost choked as she bit back a sarcastic retort, but managed to maintain her silence until, suddenly, she felt the firm pressure of a hand on her right thigh.

Without missing a beat, she turned to the man sitting next to her, and quietly, in her distinctively soft voice, said, "I will thank you to keep your hand in your own lap."

"Whoa, babe," he whispered. "I was just trying to get comfy, ya know? Take it easy!"

She looked him in the eye, and gave him a smile that was closer to a thinly veiled snarl.

He moved his hand but remained in fairly close proximity.

At first, they sat in silence as the food was passed around the table. Dawl poured several goblets of wine, and distributed them among her guests. Az brought hers to her nose, and thoroughly analyzed it's vapours for the slightest hint of a potion or enchantment. Dawl caught the gesture, and giggled. "Don't worry, Az. I didn't poison it." Az gave her sister a very forced wry smile, and sat the goblet down, staring at her plate.

"Hey, toots, aren't you going to drink with us?" Carmen urged her.

"Not at this moment," she replied flatly.

"It might help you loosen up," he offered.

They were halfway through the entrée, when his hand wandered back to her thigh. Lower this time, nearer the knee. She closed her eyes, and tried to compose herself, before quietly addressing him. "I beg your pardon."

"Hey, toots," he said, oblivious to her objection, "Whaddaya say after dinner you and I go for a little stroll, down by the boardwalk." He gave her leg a little squeeze.

"If you do not remove your hand from my leg, you may not be walking anywhere for a few weeks," she told him, in a soft whisper, never once breaking the even tone of her voice.

He raised his dark eyebrows, and once again withdrew his hand. Az got the distinct feeling, however, that he wasn't going to give up that easily.

Dawl noticed the tension cross her sister's porcelain features, and quickly tried to diffuse the situation. "So, is everyone ready for dessert? I made some Jell-O."

Both the children turned to their mother and simultaneously gave her a look of total shock, and she laughed. "Not THAT kind of Jell-O. This is just Jell-O, with some peaches and cherries in it."

Carmen looked from Zakai, to Sheken, to Dawl, wondering what "that" kind of Jell-O implied. He then turned his full attention back to the stunning but taciturn female next to him. Giving her another confident smile, he blurted, "So, what do you do for kicks when you aren't running around in tights, beatin' up the bad guys?"

Az raised her eyebrows, ever so slightly. "Kicks?" she queried.

"Yeah, like what do you do to have fun? To enjoy yourself?"

Dawl immediately winced, and tried to hijack the conversation with a second offering of desert, but Carmen was riveted on Azazela.

"I'm sure a pretty lady such as yourself has some way to get her jollies. You can't work all the time, can you?" Carmen said, with a loud laugh.

Az went ashen, stunned by both the boldness of his inquiry, and her lack of a proper answer. Dawl once again interrupted, answering for her. "Az has been very busy, with the recent rise in crime and her just moving here. She hasn't had a spare minute to relax lately."

She shot her sister a look of gratitude for getting her off the hook, even though the fiery little redhead was the one who'd gotten her into this situation in the first place.

Carmen turned to her and put his arm around her shoulder. "Well, baby, you just need someone to show you how to let your hair down and have a good time."

Closing her eyes, she drew a deep breath, and then slowly exhaled. Turning to Carmen, she spoke slowly, in a firm but even tone. "Let me make some things very clear. I am not the kind of female who allows males she barely knows to lay hands upon her in the name of having a good time. I do not need to let my hair down. I enjoy my work here in Paragon City, and do not need other forms of entertainment in order to get what you refer to as 'jollies'…Now, if you will excuse me," she lifted his arm forcefully and placed it in his own lap, "I have to finish unpacking."

As he watched her retreat towards her room, he turned to Dawl. "Feisty little thing, isn't she?"

Dawl shrugged and shook her head. She misjudged the true depth of Az's aversion to socializing. They finished the meal in veritable silence, with Carmen paying Dawl's cooking the occasional compliment. When he finally left, Dawl crept upstairs to find Az stretched across the bed, fast asleep. The pillow beneath her face was damp and an occasional quiet sob escaped her lips, even as she slept.

Sitting down beside her, the movement stirred the girl awake. Her eyes fluttered open, and she met her sister's gaze. "Do not ever do that again," she said, firmly.

"Aww, Az, I was just trying to help you meet some new friends."

"Do not the humans have a saying regarding that? With friends like that... "

Dawl laughed, "Well, I didn't expect him to be so… forward. He must have really liked you."

"Liked is a subjective word. Lusted after would be more appropriate. He doesn't even know me. How then can he like or dislike me?"

"Good point, Az. But human males tend to think with their... umm... I mean they tend to be more interested in the physical attraction."

"It is nothing personal, my sister. You know I love you. I understand that you like to enjoy the purely physical pleasures with men. But I have no intention of becoming physically involved with some human male."

"You mean with human males, plural. Someday you will find a special one you are attracted to."

Az looked at her, the memory of her emotional bond with her former partner opening an old wound. Tears misted her eyes. "I will endeavor to prevent that."

Dawl sighed. "Suit yourself, ice princess. But someday, the right one will come along. Then your attitude will change."

"All the more reason to restrain myself now," Az replied, somberly.

Dawl pulled her sister close, and hugged her. "I only want you to be happy."

"I know," Az answered her, quietly.

As she watch Dawl walk out the door, a flood of sadness and frustration overtook her, and she once again buried her head in the pillow, and let her tears flow unrestrained. She had to admit to herself that she was lonely, but not so much so that she wanted to compromise herself in the way that her sister seemed oh so willing to do. She vowed to herself that she would never let herself be spoken of as a "tramp" or worse, the way others spoke of her sister.

It never seemed to bother the tiny redhead. She had a saying. "Let them talk about me. It means they are leaving some other poor soul alone." She was surely an enigma to Azazela. Part of her was so good and pure hearted. She cared for others and gave of herself to help those less fortunate. But when it came to her wanton urges, she seemed to have no boundaries, morals, nor restraint. Azazela often wondered how her partner could be so understanding, all these years. She knew if she had someone like Keres at her side, she could never be unfaithful to him. She'd always admired the handsome scrapper, and was admittedly jealous of her older sister because of this. Not that she would ever consider any kind of involvement with him. That would be taboo, for both of them. Because of his relationship with her sister, Keres was like a brother to her. Though Az loved him, it was the love and admiration of a sibling, nothing more.

Even with the pangs of her loneliness, she knew she could never pacify herself with the likes of Carmen. How could Dawl do this to her? Instead of making her feel better, it had been like pouring salt in the open wound in her heart. It only served to remind her that she was truly alone in this world.

To Chapter III