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Meera Flame roars to a halt in our driveway, turning up out of the blue, the way she normally does. I'm watching television when she arrives. I know it's her by the sound of her motorbike, which is much louder than Dervish's, but I wait for her to knock before going to let her in. I don't want to appear overly desperate for company.

"Hey girl, looking good," Meera laughs, giving me a quick hug before I can duck. She breaks away quickly, spotting Dervish on the stairs. I don't take much from her, but what I do soak up is new, memories I hadn't absorbed before. It seems like every time I touch a person, I steal something fresh. That's useful to know.

"How have you two been?" Meera shouts, taking the stairs three at a time. She grabs Dervish hard, halfway up the giant staircase which forms the backbone of the house, and hugs him as if he was a teddy bear.

"We've been fine," Dervish replies, smiling warmly. He never smiles at me that way, but why should he? I'm an interpreter, not a friend.

"Sorry I haven't been by more. Busy, busy. It must be spring in Monsterland-demons are bursting out all over. Or trying to."

"I heard," Dervish says. "Shark has been in touch. It sounds bad."

Meera shrugs. "Demons trying to invade are nothing new."

"But in such numbers..."

She shrugs again, but this time jerks her head in my direction. Dervish frowns. Then it clicks- "Not in front of the girl. You might frighten her." I see a small, unconscious sneer flicker across his lips. He doesn't think of me as a girl, certainly not one who can be frightened by anything as mundane as talk of demons. But he respects Meera's wishes.

"Come on up," he says. "We can discuss business in my study."

"To hell with business," Meera laughs, pushing him away "I'm here to let my hair down. I thought it was time me and Bec had a girls' night in. I bought some lipstick, mascara, a few other bits and pieces I thought might suit you," she says to me. "We can test them out later, discover what matches your eyes and gorgeous red hair. Unless you don't want to?"

"No," I grin. "That would be coolio."

Dervish winces-that was one of Bill-E's favourite words-but I don't care. For the first time in months I have something to look forward to. I experience a feeling I haven't known for ages and it takes me a while to realise what it is-happiness.

We eat dinner together, which is a rarity. I normally dine alone. Eating is one of the few pleasures I've been able to relish since my return. I love the tastes of the new world. I never imagined anything as delicious as fish and chips, pizza, sweet and sour chicken. The strange flavours baffled and repulsed me to begin with, but now I look forward to my meals as I never did before.

After dinner Meera banishes Dervish to his study and the two of us shut ourselves in my bedroom. Sitting on the edge of my huge four-poster bed, Meera teaches me the basic tricks of applying make-up. It's harder than I imagined, requiring a subtle wrist and deft flicks of the fingers.

We try different shades of lipstick, blusher, eyeliner and mascara. It all looks strange and out of place to me, but Meera likes the various effects.

"Didn't people wear make-up in your day?" she asks, working on my eyelashes for the fourth time.

"Nothing like this. The warriors were the most intricately decorated. Many had tattoos, and some used to colour their hair with blood and dung."

"Charming," Meera says drily and we laugh. She runs a hand through my hair and tuts. It's longer and wirier than it's ever been. "We must do something with this. And pierce your ears."

"I'd like that," I smile. "I couldn't grow my hair long or be pierced before."

"Why not?" Meera asks.

"I was a priestess's apprentice," I explain. "Priestesses couldn't marry, so we weren't meant to make ourselves attractive."

"I bet that was a man's idea!" Meera snorts.

"Actually it was practical. Our magic worked best if we were unsullied."

"You mean you lost your powers if you made out with a guy?" Meera asks sceptically.


"Rubbish," she snorts. "I've made out plenty and it hasn't done me any harm."

"It's true," I insist. "Things were different. Magic was in the air, all around us. It wasn't like when a window opens now. We were more powerful than modern mages, but we had to live a certain way to tap into the magic. Love of any kind was a weakening distraction."

"Hmm," Meera says dubiously, brushing my hair from left to right. I'm soaking up memories each time she touches me, but contact is brief so I'm not taking too much. I try not to absorb anything at all, to block her memories, but I can't.

"You sound like Billy sometimes," Meera says casually. "You said 'coolio' earlier, and 'weakening distraction' was the sort of thing he'd say too."

"There's a lot of him in me," I admit. "Bill-E spoke much faster than I did, and he used odd words sometimes. I find myself mimicking him. It isn't intentional.

"I have his handwriting too," I confess, lowering my voice to a whisper. "I never wrote before. I wouldn't have been able to without Bill-E's memories to show me how. When I write, I do it the way he did, exactly the same style."

"I wonder if you have the same fingerprints?" Meera says.

"No," I frown, studying the tips of my fingers, recalling the whorls from before. "This is my flesh. I moulded it into my own shape. On the outside there's nothing of Bill-E left. But in here..." I tap the side of my head.

"That must be weird for Dervish," Meera chuckles. I go very quiet. She applies new lipstick in silence, then says, "Dervish never talks about you. I haven't been able to phone often, but whenever I call, I ask how you're doing. He's always vague. Says you're fine, no problems."

I grunt sarcastically.

"I don't know about your time," Meera says slowly, "but in today's world, girls love to share. Boys don't so much-they bottle things up inside, hide their pain even from their best friends. But girls know that a problem shared is a problem halved."

"Bill-E hated that clich¨¦," I tell her. "He thought if that was true, all you had to do was tell your problem to dozens of people. Each time you told it, the problem would be halved, until eventually it would be of no real importance."

"That definitely sounds like Billy," Meera laughs, then looks at me seriously "If I can help, I will, but first I need to know what's troubling you."

I chew my newly painted lower lip, wondering how much-if anything-I should tell her. She's Dervish's friend, loyal and once in love with him. Maybe she can only see his side of things and will turn against me if I...

No. She's not like that. Meera's criticised Dervish before when she thought he was in the wrong. She believes in being honest with everyone. I've no guarantee that she'll side with me, but from what I've absorbed, I believe she'll give me a fair hearing.

"He's only interested in Bill-E," I whisper, then fill her in on all that's happened since I stepped out of the cave, only holding back the information about my gift, since that has no bearing on what's been going on with Dervish.

She listens silently, her brows slowly creasing into an angry frown. "The idiot," she growls when I finish. "I guess anyone in his position would want to know what was going on inside Billy's head, but he's taken this way too far. Who does he think he is, treating you like dirt?"

She stands up, fire in her eyes, and strides towards the door. My heart leaps with excitement-she's going to confront Dervish and subject him to a tongue-lashing.

Brilliant! But then she slows, stops, thinks a moment and turns.

"No," she says quietly. "I can't say anything to him about this. You have to."

"Me?" I cry, disappointment almost bringing tears to my eyes.

"I can take you away from here," Meera says, returning to my side. "Dervish is no kin to you, so you don't have to stay with him."

"Actually," I correct her, "we are distantly related."

She waves that away. "Like I said, I can take you from him, but I don't think you'd be any happier. If you run away now, you'll always be running. You need to talk to Dervish, make him see you're not Billy's ghost, but a real child with real needs. I wouldn't treat a dog the way Dervish has treated you."

"He doesn't do it on purpose," I mutter, surprised to find myself sticking up for him. "He's sad and lonely."

"So are you!" Meera exclaims. "If I was in your place, I'd have set him straight long ago. But you're just a girl. You were afraid to hurt his feelings... maybe afraid of what he might do if he lost his temper?"

I nod softly, amazed that she can read me so easily.

"I've known Dervish a long time," Meera says. "He's not as shallow as he must seem. You've caught him at a bad time, the worst of his life. He's lost Billy... Grubbs... that horrible Swan cow didn't help matters." Dervish had been in love with Lord Loss's assistant, Juni Swan. He thought she was a wonderful, kind-hearted woman. When he learnt the truth in the cave, he killed her.

"Any other time, Dervish would have welcomed you warmly," Meera continues. "But he's mixed up and you've become part of all that's wrong with his life.

"That has to change," she says sternly. "He can't carry on like a spoilt child. If he can't see sense himself, we have to make him. You have to. Because you're the one who lives with him. I could shake him up, but he'd feel guilty and shameful, and that might makes things worse. You need to sort this out yourself." She smiles encouragingly and nods at the door.

"What... now?" I stammer.

"No time like the present," she grins.

"I don't know what to say," I protest.

"You'll think of something," she assures me.

"But what if you're wrong? What if he doesn't want to hear from me? What if he only wants access to Bill-E?"

"He can't have it," Meera says softly. "Billy's dead. Dervish has manipulated you to hide from that, but he can't anymore. It's not healthy. Now quit stalling, get up there and put him in his place. And remember," she grins, "he's only a man. They're the inferior half of the species. He'll be putty in your hands."

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