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Sean had stayed longer than even a best friend (not best man) could have been expected to, so Christian was unsurprised when he left after one last half-hearted attempt to get Christian off his ass. Off the altar.

Funny how, when it came down to it, Sean had been the one willing to make a commitment to Christian, here in front of God and everyone. Maybe they should have given in to all the rumors and misunderstandings and had a ceremony of their own. It wasn't as if Sean would expect sexual fidelity the way Kimber would have -

Somewhere in the distance, out in the real, moving world, a car honked.

In the dim light of the church, the flowers glowed like ghosts, still fresh and petal-perfect, since no one had told them that their services were no longer required. White roses, white orchids, expensive and pristine like the rest of his life – he'd had a good time pickng them out with Kimber. The roses were almost scentless, he remembered, engineered for visual beauty rather than comprehensive sensual pleasure, just like so many of the facelifts and breast jobs he'd done. He'd been completely satisfied with the roses; he was no hypocrite.

****

When the cleaning ladies came in and started unpinning the chains of greenery and flowers, Christian fled. He went to the office, telling himself that he could have gone back to his apartment if he'd wanted to.

Unfortunately, Quentin was there, sitting in the waiting room and flipping through the design magazines like some pathetic client. He rose as Christian entered.

"Christian," he said. "How are you?" The faux sympathy in his voice grated like a surgical rasp on nasal cartilage.

He was close enough to smell. Christian recognized it. One memorable night, years of smelling it on Sean in the morning, and the recent reminder of Julia's kiss had made it as familiar as the feel of his own dick.

"You're fucking Julia now?" he asked, more amused than horrified, and more worn out than both combined. "Isn't there some sort of psychological term for that? Displacement, transference – I can never remember, my psych rotation was so long ago."

Quentin smiled, his teeth like white corn. "Are you sure you want to go there, Christian? I know about you and Julia and Sean and Kimber. You don't exactly have the psychosexual high ground here. And for your information, I find Julia a deeply exciting woman with a charming wit and a sharp mind. You might fuck Kimber, but we make love."

His gaze hadn't wavered from Christian's during his speech. It was intense, aggressive, and Christian had no intention of letting him win. He stepped closer still. "That little speech about Julia would have been more impressive if you'd said it first," he said, making sure to stand up straight so he could look down at Quentin. "Meanwhile, I have to ask what you're doing here rather than gazing adoringly into her eyes or stuffing another gram up your nose."

Quentin's nostrils flared a little. "I admit, I wanted to see how you were taking it. Being publicly humiliated like that."

Right, like he wouldn't have noticed without Quentin to point it out to him. "Actually, after being falsely arrested and vilified as the Carver, being seen for what I really am is refreshing."

Quentin was still smiling, but Christian could see the edge of frustration, the slight narrowing of his eyes as Christian refused to play his games.

"I should be going," Christian said, stepping back. "I have an apartment to clean out."

****

The apartment should have felt different, emptier. It should have shared his abandonment. But Kimber had always known him too well to make too much of a mark, and the air was exactly the same, cool with a hint of leather.

He put his keys in their place by the door, loosened his tie, and shed the jacket, letting it crumple to the floor behind the chair into which he sank. He stared at the metal-framed glass coffee table, bare except for a few magazines and a small zen rock-and-sand garden. Kit had suggested that only a psychopath lived in such order; Christian had always thought that only an idiot allowed entropy inside.

A pink Post-It stuck out from the pages of the middle magazine. Sighing, Christian leaned forward to see what it was.

The note was halfway thorugh last month's Esquire, on a page with a spread of electronics, next to a description of the new Sony luxury line. "Birthday? Pro: if you know, very impressive. Con: if you don't know, might look cheap?" Kimber's handwriting was loopy, half capitals and half lowercase. It slanted up across the note. She'd used a purple pen.

Disgusted with his own maudlin state, he ripped it off the page and crushed it. Its edges grated against his palm. He wanted to throw it out, but that would mean getting up since there was no trashcan visible. A place where garbage was openly displayed would have ruined the look of the room.

When he at last made himself rise, he went into the kitchen and opened the door next to the sink. The trash compactor slid out, and he tossed the crumpled paper inside. Pink and purple, ridiculous female colors. He was amazed she'd managed to spell "impressive" correctly.

He pushed the button to compact the trash. There was something nagging at him, something about that note. It wasn't right. Why was he thinking it wasn't right? Kimber was a vacuous bitch, and that note was entirely in character – frivolous, image-conscious, yet indecisive, from the content to the switching cases.

Christian staggered back as the realization hit him.

The handwriting was completely different from the writing on the mirror.

Beauty is a curse on the world.

****

Kit McGraw refused to take his calls, and no one else at the police department would listen to him. He thought they were embarrassed that he'd been identified as a Carver suspect; they'd prefer it if he were guilty, since they'd denied that he'd been a victim to his face, and so they didn't want to hear more about how the Carver – like the investigation – had targeted his life for destruction.

Sean called too, even went down with him and tried to see Kit, but it was no good. The cops weren't listening, except to tell him that the Carver's MO didn't include kidnapping. When Christian pointed out that it hadn't included murder before Rhea Reynolds, they gave him fake smiles and suggested that he wait forty-eight hours to file a missing persons report. "You remember that Runaway Bride thing," one of them – fat, fifty and resentful – said to him. "She's probably just off at some spa drowning her sorrows."

When he told them that Kimber would never abandon her business, even if she left him, they looked at him with what was almost pity and reminded him that she was a porn star. That, in their small cop minds, was clearly enough to make her an unreliable waste of space, a half-person with a mind so chaotic that she just might disappear from her own life without leaving a trace.

He left when he realized that he was just hardening their minds, making it more unlikely that they'd investigate even after the magic forty-eight hours had passed. Sean took him back to the office, where they could at least be together as they waited for the Carver to contact them. He had to contact them. Otherwise it wouldn't be as much fun for the Carver.

Christian had to believe that.

And like a port wine stain, Quentin was still there, unwelcome and awkward to ignore. Christian wouldn't have said anything, but Sean couldn't resist explaining. Christian listened to Sean's recitation of facts and fears, staring at the cream walls and wondering whether it would be better or worse for the business if Kimber really had left him at the altar. Quentin said nothing, but at least he didn't offer that smarmy grin.

Sean left to get Julia and Christian went to his office. For lack of anything better to do, he picked up the latest New England Journal of Medicine and stared at an editorial on the FDA's failure to approve the over-the-counter morning-after pill. Ordinarily it would have riled him at least a little, since he approved of anything that made fucking more consequence-free, but he couldn't make the words cohere.

After an endless fifteen minutes, Quentin came in, not bothering to knock. Christian looked up, almost glad of the distraction.

"I might be able to help."

Christian leaned forward and assumed his most patronizing doctor pose. "Oh good, you're not just a doctor, you're a freelance criminal profiler."

"No, but I know two very good private investigators." Quentin put his hand on the doorframe, posing as if he thought he were some sort of hero.

"I can't pay any private investigators. I blew what little money I had on hand on Kimber's dream wedding." Nothing but the best for Christian and the future Mrs. Troy. He'd never been able to save – savings were boring and hard to use to impress other people.

Quentin nodded. "Then it's good that these people owe me a favor. I could call them, get them to come down and do the work the police aren't willing to do."

Christian stared at him, really thinking about it for the first time. The police were useless, which was funny given that there was an opportunity to catch the Carver. He was obsessed with McNamara/Troy, and obsession made people sloppy. Quentin's friends might be useful. If there was any chance that Kimber could be saved, he had to take it. "Quentin," he said slowly, "I would very much appreciate it if you called these people."

"You haven't exactly earned my undying gratitude with your welcoming manner and openly offered friendship," Quentin said, his eyes glinting. If he had been smiling, Christian might have punched him. "So my offer has a condition."

Christian breathed in and out, unclenching his hands. "What is it?"

"Spend the night with me."

He stood, unable to stay sitting while Quentin was looking down on him. "What!? Did you not get the fact that I am not gay? Are you that much of a moron?"

"Actually," Quentin said, and now he did smile, "I think I understand the situation rather well. I have something you need very much, while you -" he paused to give Christian a blatant head-to-toe assessment – "you have something I want. Do it my way and we all benefit. Even Kimber."

"You cannot seriously think I'm going to stop looking for her in order to fuck you."

Quentin shrugged. "I'm willing to rely on your vaunted integrity. If I deliver the goods – people who can find her, in whatever condition she's in – you give me one night to do whatever I want."

****

Four hours later, which was several hours before dawn, Quentin brought two people into Christian's office. "This is Paul and Sarah Redmond," he said with his usual silkiness, holding his hand out like the ringmaster of a circus. "Paul and Sarah, Dr. Christian Troy. I'll leave you to talk."

He examined them as they nodded to Quentin and seated themselves. Sarah was short, five two at most, wearing low heels that didn't help her any. She had blue eyes – icy, alert, they were her most notable feature — and dirty blonde hair (dyed), slightly wavy, down to her shoulders. She wasn't carrying any extra pounds under her three-quarter-length white silk shantung jacket and matching pants, with a pink knit shell underneath. She would have looked just right brunching at a fine hotel, and she certainly fit the profile for McNamara/Troy's better clientele. Paul was tall, brown/brown with a slightly blown right pupil, straight nose and thinnish lips, bags under the eyes that would have been Christian's first bet for what he'd want changed.

Except that both of them had clearly been under the knife already, extensively so, not that most people would have been able to tell. Even so, they were ordinary, shading towards plain.

There were only two reasons to get reconstructive facial surgery that didn't involve looking pretty: a disfiguring accident leading to an attempt to retrieve a lost appearance, or a need to hide.

The chance that they'd both had their faces comprehensively scarred seemed low, and knowing Quentin, Christian was unsurprised that his miracle workers must have learned whatever skills they had investigating for the mob.

It wasn't as if he had an alternative.

Christian steepled his hands and leaned forward on his desk. "So, what didn't you like about yourselves?"

Sarah glared at him; Paul leaned forward and gave him a twist of the lips that was almost a smile. "Dr. Costa told me about your problem, and I read up on the Carver on the way over here. You're afraid for your fiancee, and you're a doctor so you don't like to be out of control. You're trying to put us in our place. I understand that. Here's what we need you to understand: The Carver only broke the pattern once before, with a woman associated with you, and she died. You need to prepare yourself, and you also need to tell us everything you know."

He only stopped himself from rearing back by stiffening every muscle in his body. His hands went to the desk and flattened, the heels pressing against the edge, grounding him.

Sarah's eyes were flickering back and forth between Christian and Paul; she didn't look much pleased with either of them.

"Dr. Troy," Paul continued, his voice softer now, "I've read the police reports. I've reviewed Kit McGraw's theories and discarded the dead ends. And I'm very good. If anyone can find Kimber, I can. But if she is still alive, her lifespan can be measured in hours. So I need you to put aside those feelings of anger and helplessness, and do the one thing you can to help her. Tell us about the Carver."

Surprisingly, he did. Even though Paul was a man, and even though Sarah was sitting there as a witness, the words came out easily. Kit had been searching for a weakness when she interviewed him, as if a flaw in Christian was a clue to the Carver's identity. Paul and Sarah only listened, which made it possible to describe the paralysis and the certainty that he was going to die. Telling secrets wasn't so hard after all; Christian had always known that the difficulty lay in stopping. Paul asked a few questions, what he'd heard and seen and even smelled.

That question was hard to answer. In the months since the attack, he'd run it in his head again and again, like a late-night slasher film being watched by someone else, until the memories were jerky and distant. Thinking about the smell brought it all back, tight against his skin, the way the sheet had rubbed against his stomach while the Carver was inside him, the taste of blood and fear in his mouth. The only smell he remembered was the gel he'd used to shower with, after. When he'd gotten back from the hospital, he'd thrown away the whole bottle and taken the trash out to the dumpster so he wouldn't have to wait for the cleaning service. He didn't tell them that part, though he thought that maybe he didn't need to.

At one point, after a silent exchange of glances, Sarah asked whether he thought the Carver had medical training. "You've repaired the Carver's damage. Do you think the Carver could be a doctor?"

Christian gave it some thought. "The cuts are clean, regular, they don't vary from one victim to another. They showed me pictures of Rhea Reynolds – he cut open the stitches Dr. Costa and I put in, and even that was clean work on top of the mess she made of herself. But he uses a knife, not a scalpel. I don't know that you'd need to be a doctor to do it clean, just strong and steady. Though I suppose you'd need practice, to be able to cut through tissue to the right depth. He always cuts the zygomaticus major."

"A muscle at the corner of the mouth that's important in facial expressions," Sarah said, glancing at Paul. She seemed more engaged while she was talking, her diction precise and clear. "The depth is consistent across recent victims, severing the buccal nerve, though the first one was cut nearly all the way through the cheek, suggesting that the Carver did start out somewhat unfamiliar with the human face." Her hands were folded in her lap; prospective patients sitting where she was tended to be nervous or excited, and her stillness made her almost as strange as her heavily-worked-on but ordinary face.

"We never saw that," Christian said. "We didn't get involved until Naomi Gaines." Naomi, he knew, was getting national contracts regularly now. It made for good 'on our cover' material for the magazine writers, a happy story of survival and improvement. "By the time he cut her, he was an expert."

Paul nodded. "Still, you're well-known for your pro bono practice – unusual for plastic surgeons, isn't it?"

Christian shrugged. "There are some who spend every summer in Africa, working on cleft palates or victims of war. Sean wanted to give something back to the community, but I don't think he wanted to take all the shots he'd need to travel."

"We need to review your files," Paul said. "Pro bono patients particularly, but it would be best to get comprehensive access."

Now that they were off the subject of his attack, Christian was more willing to resist. "Like I said, we didn't get involved for a while. There's no reason to think the Carver was one of our patients."

"Other than the obsession with you and Dr. McNamara." That was from Sarah, apparently willing to back up her husband.

"Because we interfered with his work," Christian finished for her, annoyed.

"'Beauty is a curse on the world,'" Paul said. Hearing it aloud, even undistorted by a voicebox, still froze Christian's spine. "Sounds like someone with a grudge against plastic surgery. Maybe a patient, maybe a patient's relative. Maybe someone who got dumped for a prettier person once a patient's looks had improved. You didn't let the police review your files."

"It's ethically dubious at best and I don't think it would give you anything."

Another round of glances. Paul was the one who spoke. "It might save Kimber's life. It might help catch this monster. My instincts tell me that there is a connection, that the Carver's grudge against you and your partner didn't start with Naomi Gaines. You may be a brilliant surgeon, but this is what I do best, and I am telling you that we need to go through your patient files."

Christian was the one to look away, towards the familiar comfort of the abstract art on the wall, colorful and unchallenging. "Fine. We've had some problems with the on-site records, but we keep a backup set at the bank. I'll take you over as soon as it opens."

"There is one other thing," Sarah said. "We don't … do much investigating any more. This is a favor for Dr. Costa. We'd appreciate it if you don't mention us to the press, if anyone asks. Just say you hired a private security firm and that revealing its identity would compromise its methods."

Christian nodded, more at the confirmation of his suspicions than in agreement. "It makes no difference to me, as long as you find her."

****

They had two procedures scheduled that day. Christian was supposed to have been on his honeymoon in St. Thomas, but Quentin and Sean had been available. They wouldn't let him join them, and even though he was desperate to show that he could still perform, he couldn't really blame them. It was a bad idea to go into surgery without any sleep, and when he watched them work the patients kept turning into Kimber, the scalpels into knives.

For a while, he thought Quentin must be the Carver – obsessed with McNamara/Troy, doing anything he could to get to Sean and Christian. But, as much as he despised Quentin, he could tell it didn't make sense. Quentin hadn't even been in town when the Carver started working, and he couldn't have known that Sean would call on him for help.

While the Redmonds were off reviewing patient files, he tried to remember the ones he'd worked on who seemed most screwed up. It was difficult to be certain. After all, Kimber had tied him up and threatened him with a knife, and he wanted to marry her, so clearly his freak radar was tuned in an unusual manner.

He'd managed to choke down a cup of coffee, though his stomach had revolted at the pastry Julia kept trying to force on him. She was hanging around, in his office when he left the operating theater, following him into the break room when he fled her company. She was dressed for success again, a pale yellow suit with a contrasting blue-and-yellow-striped shirt underneath, elegant pearl earrings and matching necklace. The scars from last year's fall through the glass were invisible to the naked eye, though he could see them superimposed over her skin if he tried. She'd never looked better, he thought; she'd never looked more like a McNamara/Troy client, a career woman whose career depended on being physically perfect at an age when perfection was an illusion.

"Don't you have to be at the spa?" he asked when he could no longer stand her attempts to be gentle. "I know you have a business to run just like us."

"Christian," she chided, "I want to be here for you."

"Well, I want you to be here for me somewhere else. You think you're helping? I can tell that you can't decide whether I'm trying to console myself with the thought that Kimber didn't really run off of her own free will or whether she's already dead, and neither of those work for me."

Her eyes widened and her face tightened in anger. "Fine. If that's how you want it."

That wasn't how he wanted it. It never had been. It was what it was.

But she left, slinging her purse over her shoulder with the annoyance she'd rather have directed at him, and he breathed easier for a few minutes.

****

"Cara Fitzgerald," Paul Redmond said as he entered the office. Christian looked away from his hands. Sarah Redmond was hard on Paul's heels, her face as determined and confident as his.

Christian took a few moments to remember Cara, and then he took a few more to understand what Paul Redmond was claiming. "A girl?"

"It's consistent with the nature of the attacks," Sarah said. "Surprising them with a paralytic, neutralizing the strength of the victims, both male and female. A prosthetic for the sexual assault."

"There was a condom," Christian objected, trying to make sense of it.

"Which could easily have been placed on a prosthetic," Sarah said, as if she were used to explaining her reasoning to idiots.

"But why?" Christian asked. "All we ever did was help her."

"That might not be entirely true," Paul said, putting a sheaf of papers on Christian's desk. "At least, not from her perspective."

He was remembering more now. Sean had told him what happened to the girl, how she was raped by a classmate of hers and Matt's. The boy had claimed that Matt had hit her with the boy's car, causing her injuries, and the guilt was the reason the two of them had started spending time with the girl, at which point the other boy had convinced himself he was in love with her. Matt had denied any involvement in the accident. Sean hadn't said, but Christian knew he'd doubted his son.

Given what had happened with Matt since then, Christian thought he had good reason to doubt. Maybe Cara Fitzgerald thought so too.

"We made her beautiful, and then she was raped," he said slowly. "But how do you know it's her?"

"Cara Fitzgerald dropped out of school last year," Paul said. "There was a civil suit against Henry Shapiro, resulting in a large settlement. Cara left home – we spoke with her mother, who hasn't heard from her since before the Carver attacks started."

Sarah picked up the narration without a pause. "Cara, like her mother, was intensely religious and socially isolated. Given the trauma she underwent, her faith could have been tested to the breaking point, resulting in a new, nihilistic philosophy. She evangelized at school – unsuccessfully – before her surgery. The Carver is also an evangelical, in a perverse way."

She looked over at Paul, who took the handoff with the ease of experience. "She has the resources and the motivation. She's connected to you and your practice. And she's stayed away from Matt and Julia McNamara while targeting others associated with you, which can be explained by a mix of attraction to and fear of Matt, a handsome boy her own age, and by her reverence for her own mother."

"But I never slept with her," Christian protested. "I'm an asshole, but I'm not that kind of asshole. How would she have gotten her hands on a condom I'd used to plant for the cops to find?"

He couldn't tell how they decided who would speak, but the nominee was Paul. "She got into your apartment before, when she attacked you," he said gently.

Christian closed his eyes, feeling violated all over again. The thought of the Carver returning to where he lived turned his stomach – had she been dressed up, or had she just been some girl, like all the other girls who came over, unnoticeable to the neighbors? Had she been there while he and Kimber were asleep?

"How are we going to find Kimber?" he asked, his voice rough with fatigue and anger.

They looked at each other again. It was like they needed each other's permission to exist. For a moment, he imagined them as an ordinary couple come in to consult with him and Sean, seeking each other's permission to be beautiful. He could almost feel Sean in the seat beside him, ready to propose a plan.

"Some people we know are tracking Cara's financial activities as we speak," Paul said. "She's not very experienced, and they're very good; they're the ones who got the police reports for us to review. We should have results soon. There's a chance the Carver is going to try to contact you soon, to let you know what's happened to Kimber. Until we have Cara in custody, we recommend that you, Dr. McNamara, his ex-wife and children, and Dr. Costas all stay away from your respective homes."

Christian frowned. Quentin could get cut up for all he cared, but the others — "I thought you said that Julia and Matt weren't in danger."

"Cara's already deviated from her standard MO," Sarah said. "She's decompensating, probably accelerating. She will become more violent and less predictable. It will make her easier to catch, but she could do significant damage before that happens. Please, Dr. Troy, speak to your partners and Julia McNamara and get them out of their usual locations."

He closed his eyes, not to pray but to block out the sight of that cool, calculating gaze. She was giving a lecture, one she must have given to a hundred other clients, but this was his life. "I'll call them right now," he said. "But I'm going with you when you find where she's being kept. I'm a doctor," he said as they both opened their mouths to protest. "She might be hurt."

"Dr. Troy," Paul said with terrible kindness, "she is hurt."

Silence stretched over them like a veil.

"You should make those calls," Sarah said at last. Christian made himself nod as they exchanged more complicated glances.

"We'll bring you along," Paul said, "but you have to stay back until Cara is secured. Otherwise you might be the last victim."

Christian looked up as they were leaving and saw Paul's hand steal out to rest on Sarah's back.

****

He'd paced; he'd rearranged his office; he'd thought about revamping his filing system. He'd even wished that he weren't so well organized, so that there would be something to do. Wedding-related emails kept being delivered to his laptop: the caterer offered sympathies and reminded him that there was no refund; the priest suggested counseling. Kimber's getting these too, he realized. He'd have to get access to her account and delete them before they could upset her.

By the time Paul came to get him, Christian was almost ready to start wandering the streets himself. "We traced her to a boat docked at the marina," Paul said, not wasting time.

"I'll drive."

"A boat is good news, Dr. Troy," Paul told him as they headed to his car. "It means that sound wouldn't travel."

"What — ?" he began, because he was so tired he could hardly think. Then he realized: if sounds were muffled, there might be someone alive to be making them.

He saw Sarah pull a gun from under her jacket and check it. It was black and looked big in her hand, but then she was a tiny woman. There was a bulge under Paul's jacket that Christian assumed was also a gun.

If Kimber were permanently disfigured because the Carver had been keeping her around to play with, she might not thank him for saving her. Christian himself might not be so keen on living if that happened to him.

No, that was wrong. Christian would insist on living, on finding the best surgeon to return him to greatness, to show that he could. Kimber was the same, solid steel in the shape of a woman.

Cara's boat was called Au Natural, they told him on the way.

They made him park blocks away, out of sight of the boats. They didn't mention calling the police and he didn't ask.

"Dr. Troy, it would be best if you'd wait here," Sarah said as they reached the end of the pier. "She won't recognize us, but if you show up, she'll know that something has gone wrong. She might -"

"Hurt Kimber, yes. Just – don't take long."

Christian wanted to be the hero, sweeping in to save her. He'd been well-trained by the movies. No matter how stupid it was, he felt like a weakling for standing by. He'd become a doctor so that he could fix things, neat and orderly. He was the hero, for Christ's sake, not some pathetic hanger-on. If he'd wanted to clean up other people's messes he would have been an ER doctor instead of one in the business of improving upon nature.

He clenched the handle of his medical bag, a ridiculous anachronism he'd bought himself as a graduation gift and kept on display in his office.

The buzz of his cellphone nearly made him jump out of his skin.

"Dr. Troy. Kimber is alive." Paul's voice was low and droning, and Christian was weeping. "Sarah is giving her some first aid, but she could use your help. We've called 911."

He ran down the pier, looking for the boat through the haze of his relief. It was small and ugly, like the nature for which it was named. Paul was standing on the wooden pier, his gun pointed at a figure curled on the planks at his feet – so tiny, this person who'd hurt Christian so badly. He was tempted, for a second, to stop and kick her until she broke, kick her using all the viciousness he'd learned in foster care, but Kimber was waiting for him, so he just vaulted onto the boat.

"Kimber?" he called out. "Mrs. Redmond?"

"In here," Sarah responded, her voice coming from the darkened interior. "She's unconscious."

He stumbled down narrow steps into the bowels of the boat, where dirty lights hung in metal cages. They were in a small cabin that smelled of blood and urine. Sarah was busy at Kimber's wrists, cutting at the ties that pinioned her.

She was still wearing her wedding dress, what was left of it. She'd been given the Carver's grin, and then some. Her arms were striped with cuts of various ages, and her bodice was soaked through with blood. He couldn't quite see, but he thought that her breasts were misshapen. The skirt was also sodden.

He hurried towards her, opening his bag.

He was grateful that she was unconscious, so she couldn't see his look of horror. Her face was fixable, so were the breasts, but right now she was her own nightmare of ugliness.

"I'm going to take care of you," he told her, ignoring Sarah. "I'm going to make you even better than you were before."

****

The EMTs wouldn't let him ride with Kimber. He had to leave his car where it was parked and go to the hospital in a police car, since the cops were still somewhat uncertain about how to treat him. Paul and Sarah came too, explaining themselves. Christian was amused to hear that he'd hired them to investigate threatening letters he'd been receiving, and that they'd just been checking on former patients one by one when they stumbled upon Cara's secret identity as the Carver. There was no mention of reading police reports or anything else dodgy.

They ended up waiting together in a corner of the emergency room, between a couple of junkies sitting scratching their forearms and a mother holding a bloody towel to her son's temple.

"Thank you," he said, knowing how stupidly inadequate it was. And they knew it too, looking at him with sympathy that grated more for not being condescending. They were used to swooping in to save the day, it was clear. Even with fake identities, on the run from some expected retribution, they were confident and poised.

Then he knew what to offer in thanks.

"I can make you look ten years younger," he said. "Whoever did your surgery before was good, but I can improve it, and change your apparent age, which will be added protection for you."

"I don't -" Sarah began, but Paul shot her a quick look and put his hand on her wrist.

"Could I have a moment?" he asked, and Christian left. He went to check on Kimber's progress – she was still in with the nurse and police officer. He hoped they weren't subjecting her to the indignity of a rape kit, since the perpetrator was known and wouldn't have left evidence anyway, but procedures could never be trusted to be kind. He would have walked in if it wouldn't have gotten him arrested; he didn't think all the police fully comprehended that he wasn't a suspect anymore.

When he returned, Sarah was standing with her arms crossed over her chest, the obvious loser of the argument. "Dr. Troy, Sarah and I appreciate the offer, and we'll take you up on it."

"I'll have my office schedule it as soon as possible. You'll stay at De La Mer, with our compliments."

Sarah didn't look all that complimented, but Paul seemed satisfied. Christian could tell that he was the kind of man who'd do anything to keep his wife safe.

"Dr. Troy," she said as he turned to leave. When he looked back, she reached out and put her hand carefully on his arm. Her voice was soft and sincere. "To have your body taken away, made different at the whim of someone else — it's a terrible violation. But healing is possible. I know from personal experience."

Maybe she was just referring to the plastic surgery, but he didn't think so. "Kimber's going to be fine," he told her, even though he thought she was probably talking about him too.

****

At last, they let him see Kimber. Her face had been sutured temporarily, to keep the damage from worsening. It looked like a child's jigsaw puzzle. He couldn't see the other cuts, though he remembered the position of each one. Her arms looked like she'd been tossed on a grill, striped with cuts and burns, old and new. The implants had been punctured, leaving her breasts misshapen and collapsed. Her thighs had been lacerated, the backs of her calves slashed.

"Kimber," he said, and found himself unable to continue.

She wouldn't look at him.

"I knew you wouldn't – I never thought you left me." He hoped it was what she needed to hear. "We'll do it all over, even bigger and better this time. Your dream wedding."

That was enough to get her to turn her head. "Dream wedding? I look like the Bride of Frankenstein! You aren't going to want me like this." She said the last sentence without anger, only the flat certainty of despair.

He knelt by the side of the bed. "That's not true. And anyway, I'm going to fix you. You'll barely be able to see the scars before you put on your makeup, and no one else will know they're there. I promise."

"Everyone will know," she said, but she wanted to be convinced, the way she always did.

"They'll be looking hard, but they won't see a thing," he assured her. "You know I'm the best, baby. They'll think you're magic."

She blinked, tears welling in her eyes. The skin was bruised and swollen – how she must hate being seen like this. "You'll make me a ten, Christian?"

He kissed a patch of unblemished skin on her jaw. "Sweetheart, stick with me and I'll make you an eleven."

****

The dumpy police officer looked at him with bemusement when he showed up at the station and explained why he'd come in. "It's stupid of her, but she's been acting real stupid — refused to get a lawyer, and now she says she'll talk to you."

Of course she wanted to talk to him. She'd been speaking to him and Sean all along.

Christian realized that the room he was led to was indistinguishable from the room in which he'd met his mother for the first time. For all he knew, it might have been the same one. Kit McGraw was undoubtedly hidden behind the glass, watching every move.

This time he was going to be in control.

She seemed so small when she was led in. She had a bruise on one side of her face, probably from when she'd been pushed down on the pier. Her hands were cuffed in front of her and attached to the table; her legs were cuffed to the metal chair. The door closed, leaving them alone, before she spoke. "I don't know what they think I could do to you, without my face on," she said, rattling one wrist.

"Why did you do all that to Kimber?" he asked. "Why not just her face?"

"She didn't make her living with just her face," Cara said patronizingly. "I had to be more innovative to show her the error of her ways. And I wanted you to start paying attention, since obviously you'd failed to take heed of my message. Her beauty, being flaunted on video shelves across the country, was greater, and its destruction, like Sodom's, would be a lesson for everyone to wonder at." Christian could hear bits and pieces of Bible sermons in her language, like the ones he remembered from his childhood.

"We tried to help you," he said, sounding like a petulant child in his own ears.

She laughed, and there was an echo of the Carver's distorted voice in the sound. "You helped me. First your son, your beautiful son, hits me, leaves me crushed and dying in a ditch. Then you come charging in to save the day, but you don't just make me healthy. You make me better in the eyes of the world, so suddenly boys start paying attention. Boys like Matt and Henry. And you know what Henry did — you know what it felt like, lying there helpless while he went in and out until he was done.

"And when Henry confessed, did Matt tell the truth? Of course not. And he's so good-looking, why wouldn't anyone believe him? You know there's scientific studies about that — even if the police did charge him, he probably would have been acquitted. Pretty people usually are. Beauty means money, attention, people agreeing with you, because beautiful is better than good."

For some reason, he remembered Mike Shane — Father Michael Shannon, the man whose identifying birthmark they'd removed when they didn't know that it was what all the kids he'd molested used to identify him. "The fact that people like to be beautiful isn't our fault!"

"No," she said, smiling at him. He'd created that smile, and it was good work. It was cheerful and even perky under the harsh jail lights. "You just exploit society's demands for more beauty, always more, never leaving good enough alone. If the wages of sin is death, what do you think the wages of beauty are?"

He looked at her, remembering how much Matt had wanted them to do Cara's surgery. Matt wasn't exactly unselfish — he was Christian's son, after all — and he had to admit that Matt might have been the catalyst for all this, his guilt at his unconfessed involvement with the accident prompting him to help Cara in other ways. Which meant that, really, Christian was the catalyst, since his indiscretion with Julia started it all, the long chain of desire and anger binding them through the years.

No.

He straightened in his chair and stared into her wide, crazy eyes. "What happened to you was terrible, and I am sorry. But what you chose to do was much, much worse, and you did it to people who weren't responsible. You think you're the only one who got screwed by beauty? Honey, you don't have the first clue. Other people suck it up, pretend that if they look okay they are okay. They're strong and you're weak. This isn't King Kong and beauty isn't the killer here. You're the curse. Not some abstract concept or ideal, but you and what you chose to do."

Christian got up and banged on the door to get out. Cara was saying something about beauty and truth, but he was done with her.

****

He spoke with each of the Redmonds separately, to make sure they both agreed to the surgery. Sarah was first. Without Paul sitting next to her, she looked, paradoxically, even smaller, drawn into herself with a combination of dignity and wariness.

They did the standard dance of informed consent: Christian listed all the things that could go wrong, and she nodded in rhythm. Never in the history of plastic surgery, Christian was convinced, had a patient been deterred by informed consent. By the time people came to a plastic surgeon, they were generally pretty committed. Even if they wigged out, it had nothing to do with the chance the procedure would fail, but the chance it would work and they'd nonetheless find out that they'd changed the wrong thing. For Sarah, still on the run from whoever wished her ill, informed consent was even more beside the point. She listened with a kind of detached condescension, as if this really wasn't happening to her, which he supposed was somewhat accurate.

"Is there anything else you'd like done while you're out?" he asked at the end. "We've only discussed the facial rejuvenation, but given what you've done for me I'd be happy to add a tummy tuck, breast augmentation …?"

Sarah's face twisted in instinctive rejection. And then – just as with so many women who had so much less reason to have their appearances altered – she really considered it. He could practically see her inventorying her body, trying to decide if there was something she hated enough to be willing to admit if the admission would get it fixed.

She looked into her lap for long seconds, then raised her head and, staring past his shoulder, pulled her blouse from her skirt and began to unbutton it, bottom up. She stopped halfway and stood, pulling the yellow silk apart to reveal an ugly gunshot scar on her stomach, slightly to the left of the midline. It was heavily keloided, several years old at least and not going to get any better-looking with time.

Was this the reason she and Paul had gone into hiding?

Christian rose and came around the desk, grabbing his penlight so he could take a better look without making her go into an exam room. He knelt beside her, examining the raised scar, shaped almost like an eye. Emergency room work, cutting into her to save her life but not sparing any thought to what it would look like afterwards. He ran a finger over the top edge; she didn't flinch away, suggesting that she was still trying to impress him, or herself. "I can fix this," he said. "It won't go away completely – it's been too long for that – but you'll probably be the only one who notices."

He looked up and caught a tiny smile, as if she were thinking about the only other person who probably had a chance to notice. "What did he look like, before the surgery?" he asked, because he wanted to know and she was as open to him as she was going to get.

She half-turned and began to button up her shirt. "He was a very handsome man."

Christian wasn't about to tell her that looks weren't as important for men; that might have been true forty years ago, but not now. "Do you miss that?"

Now her eyes were arctic as she turned back to glare at him, but he looked up at her with nothing but distant curiosity. Finally, she breathed out and answered, "I have him with me every day. It's enough."

He nodded. She finished tucking her blouse back into her skirt. The Redmonds had abandoned their appearances, security, friends who knew them — all the things that made life bearable except each other. Sean had been willing to do it too, leave him behind for a chance at a newer, happier life.

He understood the desire to change the self by changing the form in which it was imprisoned, but he couldn't have deliberately made his face uglier. It would have felt like corruption, like being crippled.

There didn't seem to be much more to say, and he had to go through the process with Paul before he could get back to the hospital to be with Kimber.

****

He made Paul the same offer, though this time he specifically mentioned scars. Paul just smirked and said that all he wanted was the facelift. "I've earned my scars," he said with unconscious arrogance.

"In my experience," Christian told him, "people rarely have the scars – or the looks – they've earned, but it's up to you."

Paul sat up straighter in his chair, as if Christian had poked him. "Did Sarah want anything done?"

"You should really talk to your wife about that."

"Since she is my wife, I expect I'm going to see the results, so you could just tell me now and spare me the mystery."

Christian considered. Technically, it was a violation of Sarah's privacy, but it was unlikely she was going to file a complaint with the state medical board. "She asked me to get rid of a scar on her torso."

Satisfaction washed over Paul's face before he controlled his expression.

"Does the scar bother you?"

He shifted in his seat, considering his answer. "She almost died. I'd say that bothered me."

Christian knew that wasn't an answer, but his status as a doctor would only allow him so many questions. And he had a much more important one left. Maybe if it was just Paul who'd given up his looks, he could understand a little better — if he'd loved Sarah enough to want to be closer to her level. "What did she look like before the surgery?"

Paul's eyes shuttered briefly. "She was stunning. Sometimes she'd walk in the room, and time would just stop. I used to watch other – men get flustered, trying to deal with her. Bugged the hell out of her, but now -" Now she misses it, Christian guessed, because that was only natural, and her husband was too polite to say so.

"And what do you see when you look at her now?"

"The most beautiful woman in the world."

It wasn't the same, Christian knew, a lover's forgiving gaze. Sometimes you wanted to meet the standards of the unforgiving. "You should tell her that." Paul made as if to shake his head in negation, but checked himself even though Christian could already see the rejection. "Paul, I know a lot about beauty and insecurity, and I'm telling you that she wants to hear it. You think she's getting rid of that scar just because it reminds you that she's mortal? I don't think she's that kind of woman. She thinks it's ugly."

He left it there, because he'd reached the limits of his interest.

****

Kimber was in good spirits, with occasional flurries of tears and demands for reassurance. If you didn't know her, you might have thought that disfigurement would have been cause for despair. But Kimber had never looked in the mirror and seen total satisfaction until Christian had worked on her; she was used to thinking she was really hideous, and as long as he kept talking to her about the corrective surgeries, she did well. Like Naomi Gaines, she knew that displaying a perfect face to the world was the only way to fight back against what had been done to her — to prove it was worth it after all.

Christian remembered the male Carver victim they'd worked on, the one who wanted an incomplete repair of the scars so that he wouldn't be seduced by beauty again. He couldn't imagine thinking like that. People would always worship beauty, and the only question was where you personally fit in the pantheon. Kimber, he vowed, would be qualified to sit at God's right shoulder.

He scheduled her for just after the Redmonds, who were anxious to get away from McNamara/Troy and the reporters who kept trying to get appointments so they could score interviews.

Then he checked himself in the mirror — tired, but not destroyed — and headed out to Quentin's place.

Quentin had rented a house in an up-and-coming Latino neighborhood, full of rich second-generation families. A lot of their paying clients lived here or places just like here. Quentin was in a single-family monstrosity, a mockery of Southern architecture with two-story-high pillars out front and vinyl on the sides.

He rang the doorbell. Quentin waited a bit before letting him into a foyer that, like the pillars, took up two stories. Wasted space, showing that he could afford to waste it. Flagstones on the floor, carved wooden banister curling up the stairs. Off to one side Christian could see a living area populated with leather chairs and a dark red couch some decorator had probably called "masculine." The other side held a dining room table long enough to seat fifteen and chairs to match, fashionably rectangular skinny things with wooden slats like prison bars.

Quentin allowed him to look around in silence. When he had finished his assessment (if Quentin had asked, Christian would have said the real problem was the absence of art; he needed a bit of quirk to show that he actual taste and not just a lavish budget), he turned to Quentin, who was watching him avidly. Quentin was wearing tan slacks and a white polo shirt, wanting to look casual and relaxed but really coming off more as a cheap gigolo. "So, where do you want to do this?"

"This?" Quentin mocked.

That was pathetic, and Christian had no trouble responding. "Is this the part where I'm supposed to be uncomfortable with the fact that I sold you a night with my body to save the woman I love? Get real, Quentin. Johns are the only ones who have illusions, not whores."

Quentin's face went blank. He'd probably been hoping to play the whore card himself. It wasn't as if it mattered; no one would ever believe Quentin if he claimed to have fucked Miami's most notorious pussy-hound. Even if he did tell the story, he wasn't likely to mention that the only way he could get Christian to put out was to offer his fiancee's life in return.

Anyway, it was a lot better reason to fuck someone than to get twenty dollars for fast food and video games or to stave off a malpractice claim.

He was still staring at Quentin, waiting for the next move. Quentin must have realized that Christian wasn't going to crack that easily, so he switched his smile back on. "I appreciate your honesty, not to mention the fact that you're honoring your commitments. So few people do, these days."

"I'm a real tribute to humanity," he said. "Now are you planning to make me stand here all night, or did you want to use furniture?"

In response, Quentin gestured to the stairs. Christian went, knowing that Quentin was ogling his ass and that there wasn't a damn thing he could do about it. There were dust bunnies in the corners of the stairs, small ones. This place wasn't Quentin's home any more than McNamara/Troy was his partnership, and he couldn't even keep up appearances by hiring someone to come in and clean. Christian's contempt for him found new depths.

The bedroom was underdecorated in brown and tan, all right angles from the widescreen television to the enormous armoire. The door to the walk-in closet was open, and Christian could see Quentin's extensive sportswear collection.

"Take off your clothes," Quentin said.

Christian went to the closet and looked around until he found a padded hanger for his jacket. Quentin made a little exasperated noise. They'd reached mutual disrespect, he thought, which made him wonder what exactly Quentin got out of all this. He hung up the jacket, then unbuttoned his shirt and put it on another hanger. He coiled his belt and placed it on one of the empty shelves in the closet, then toed off his shoes and pushed them into a corner. He refused to close his eyes as he unbuttoned and unzipped his pants, letting them fall before he knelt to pick them up, taking off his socks at the same time. Pants folded on another hanger, since Quentin didn't have a proper press; socks balled and put into the shoes. He looked around for a place to put his boxer briefs, then gave up before Quentin could accuse him of stalling and just took them off, kicking them into the corner with his shoes.

He turned around and held his arms out like an illustration in an anatomy book. "What now?"

Quentin looked at him, and it felt like the temperature had dropped five degrees. He kept his arms out, his shoulders relaxed, his posture straight but not rigid. His nipples were hard. He could see a bulge in Quentin's slacks.

"Very nice," Quentin said. "Come a little closer."

He stepped back into the bedroom. Quentin circled him as if he were a patient getting evaluated. Sure enough — "You could use a little lipo in the middle," Quentin suggested with faux detachment. "More time at the gym to give those abs greater definition. But your ass is fantastic, Christian. Congratulations, really."

"Thanks. Really."

"You're going to suck my cock and then fuck me. How does that sound?"

Christian met his eyes. "Respectively, unappealing and trickier than fixing a deviated septum, since I'm going to have to resort to extreme fantasies to keep it up." Quentin should have known better than to ask a question like that. Nowhere in the deal they made had he agreed to pretend to want it.

Or possibly Quentin had been counting on Christian's venom all along, because his face flushed with what looked like pleasure. He unzipped his pants and sat down on his ocean-liner-sized bed. "What are you waiting for?"

He probably thought that keeping his clothes on while Christian was naked was a way of asserting his control, but Christian was fine that way. He did some of his best work naked, and it meant that he didn't have to touch more skin than necessary.

Christian knelt between Quentin's splayed legs, like he'd knelt to propose to Kimber, and reached for the cock.

It wasn't as big as his, but it was uncircumcised, which was different. He drew a breath and smelled sandalwood — at least Quentin was clean. Mr. Troy always smelled like he didn't like to wash down there.

Quentin's voice buzzed in his ears as he bent to take it in his mouth. Salt, smooth, hard to breathe. A hand in his hair, pushing. He opened wider and tried to balance himself, his hands braced on his knees. You wanted this, you said yes. Pushing, pushing, it couldn't last forever. The room should be dark, it was always dark, who'd want to see him doing this?

A hand on his shoulder, hot against his skin, digging into the muscle. There'd be a bruise, but no one would see it.

He sucked, keeping his eyes closed, taking gulps of air whenever he could. The world was black and white sparkles, wet smacking sounds, a tugging at the nape of his neck.

Noise — an exclamation — and sourness flooded his mouth. He pulled away before Quentin's dick stopped pulsing and immediately spat onto the white carpet, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

Quentin was panting, his head tilted up towards the ceiling, his face tight with bliss. There was a line of semen along his slacks, darkening the fabric. Christian got to his feet, moving back and to the side so he wouldn't be swinging his dick right in Quentin's face.

Quentin brought his head down enough to see him. "That," he said, "was very good. You really know what you're doing."

Christian ran his tongue across his bottom lip and spat again, not at Quentin. He considered saying something like, 'even though my standards exclude half the human race, I've still had more blow jobs than you'll ever merit,' but realized it wasn't worth the cost of looking like he gave a shit. "Are you going to take your pants off or am I supposed to do you through them?"

That got him a grin, one that probably would have been charming if he didn't know the man. "Give me a minute, tiger." Quentin took a few deep breaths. "You don't exactly look like you're raring to go just yet."

"Have no fear about my performance," Christian said grimly.

Quentin let himself fall back on the bed, writhing like Kimber in one of her credit sequences. He laughed at the ceiling. Christian couldn't even write it off to drugs, since Quentin had shown no physical signs before.

Eventually, Quentin looked back at him, standing exactly where he'd been through Quentin's recovery.

"There's condoms and lube in the side drawer," he said, waving a hand in that general direction.

Christian was used to anal penetration — these days, it was the edgy thing to do with a woman, to prove she really wanted you — but with women he was better-motivated.

The paralytic agent had limited what he'd felt during the Carver's attack, and Mr. Troy had never dared to go so far with him. Probably it had just been his foster father's deal with God: Dear Lord, you let me get away with the hand jobs and the blow jobs and I'll be real good to Christian, I won't do any more than that.

Christian guessed that, given a few more years, what Mr. Troy was willing to bargain for would have changed. Fortunately Christian had escaped to college early, and then God had cut Mr. Troy's deal short with a heart attack a few years later.

He walked over to the night table Quentin had indicated. There was a curved metal lamp on the table, along with a thriller that had been on the USA Today bestseller list two months ago. He opened the drawer. The plastic wheels stuck and squealed but allowed him access.

As he removed a condom from a package of Trojans, he heard the sounds of Quentin undressing. "I like it on my hands and knees," Quentin said, his voice bright and chipper. "But if you need any help getting ready, I'm happy to lend a hand."

Christian shot him an annoyed look. "If you think that would actually help, you're more deluded than I thought you were."

"Touchy," Quentin commented, his tone indicating that he truly believed that his sexual magnetism had the power to turn straight men gay. "Would it make it easier if I pretended to be Sean?"

"It would make it easier if you stopped your incessant nattering," he snapped.

He concentrated on getting an erection. There had been times before when the lure of a particular pussy had faded by the time he'd gotten the woman alone, and it was too late to start looking again; he'd always been able to focus on some trivial feature and get the fucking out of the way. Even from behind, there was no way to mistake Quentin for a woman, but if he looked just at the ass, maybe –

No, that wasn't the way. He took his cock in hand and focused on it, the feel of his own skin, all the nerve endings that loved to fuck. It had nothing to do with thoughts or emotions. It was just the body, his body, a body, and bodies were made to behave themselves.

He could feel the blood rising, swelling in him, obeying him. The sound of skin on skin filled his awareness — he rarely needed to jack off, but he was as good at it as anything having to do with the body. Soon he was able to put on the condom.

Quentin was stretched out on the bed diagonally, looking over his shoulder at the show Christian was giving. Christian tossed the lube onto the cover next to his hand. "Get yourself ready."

Christian ignored Quentin's raised eyebrows. "If you want I'll do you now, but I can't promise you'll be able to sit down tomorrow."

Slowly, Quentin's hand moved to the little half-empty bottle. The liquid was thick and white, like come, and Quentin closed his eyes in bliss while he stuck his fingers in his ass.

Christian's knees hit the bed and he advanced until he was behind Quentin. He put his hands on Quentin's hips and pulled, forcing the other man up and back.

"All right," he said, and pushed in. Quentin was no tighter than some women he'd screwed, and the grunt of pain he got in response was rewarding. He had to work back and forth to get balls-deep, but it happened in short order. He could see his knuckles, white as he gripped Quentin's hips to keep him in place.

"Is this what you wanted?" he asked, slamming against Quentin hard. "Is it good for you?"

No answer. Christian stopped moving. "I asked you a question," he said. He let his hands fall away, loose at his sides.

Quentin made a small noise of protest. Christian waited; he could keep this erection for a while, now that he had it.

"Yes," Quentin said.

"Yes what?"

"This is what I wanted."

Christian started moving again, imagining his cock as a jackhammer, breaking up the ground beneath him.

"You think — because you look good — and you charm people — you can do whatever you want. Like you're special — like it means something. You're a waste of space –"

Quentin groaned. Christian smacked his ass, hard. "Shut up." Quentin groaned again, so Christian gave him another whack. It was getting harder to keep his balance — his knees were slipping on the high-thread-count cover — so he braced his hands on Quentin's shoulders, staring at Quentin's back as if his vision could turn into a laser scalpel.

Christian kept up the rhythm, easy as doing crunches at the gym. "All this — just to get fucked? A real man — would get it for free. Like I do." Quentin's hand was working furiously underneath them, jerking himself off. Christian was speeding up now, letting his hate move him. "You're just — an imitation. You want Julia — you want Kimber — you want me. You've got nothing — you are nothing –"

Quentin's body convulsed around him in orgasm, and he came, his vision flashing white and red.

As soon as he could see again, he was off the bed, throwing the condom to splatter somewhere on the carpet. He dressed mechanically, efficiently, ignoring Quentin's heavy breathing.

"Christian."

The voice stopped him at the bedroom door. "We're done here," he said without turning around.

"Absolutely," Quentin said, his voice dripping satisfaction. "It was quite an experience. We'll have to do it again sometime, what do you say?"

"I say, I'm not gay."

He turned and saw Quentin sprawled on the bed, his chin pillowed on his arms. "No, you aren't. But you're not straight, either, are you?"

Christian kept his mouth shut and left.

****

Paul's facial surgery was first because Sarah insisted. She also insisted on watching, gowning and gloving up with the ease of long familiarity. At least she didn't interfere. Christian worked his magic, tightening and tucking and tugging away at the evidence of time and gravity, stealing away the years with every flick of the scalpel. It was good work, he could tell, and Sarah even shook his hand afterward, before she went to get prepped herself.

Her surgery went just as smoothly, maybe a little better. With skin as fine as hers, there were greater risks, as the keloid scar on her torso showed. But he was as careful as he'd ever been, and the results were sure to be more than satisfactory. He almost wished he had license to make her prettier, but maybe she would be unhappy with half measures. If she truly had been beautiful before, which he was willing to believe, then it would be cruel to take her only halfway back.

He understood why they'd done it. Beauty was noticed. It wasn't a curse, not unless someone decided to make it a curse, but it wasn't entirely a blessing either. People who came out from under his knife, though, were always improved. They'd shown they were willing to commit to what they wanted to be, even if it involved pain.

When he came out of the OR, Quentin was waiting. He ripped off his mask and gloves, throwing them in the hazardous waste. "What are you doing here?"

"I work here, as you may recall."

"Sure. But why are you waiting for me?"

Quentin grinned and stepped closer. Christian refused to give him the satisfaction of moving back. "What, are you afraid I'm going to want to go steady? You're not that good. I just wanted to make sure Paul and Sarah came out all right."

"They'll be fine," he said tersely, preparing to brush past Quentin.

"They were good-looking," Quentin mused. Christian stopped. "Not classically beautiful, either of them – too distinctive, especially his nose. But striking."

"They must have been highly motivated," Christian said, despite his desire not to get drawn into conversation.

Quentin shrugged. "I never knew why. Safer that way, I'm sure."

"Yeah," Christian agreed. "Look, charming as it's been, I've got to go. Kimber is waiting for her new look."

"I'm sure you'll do your standard superlative job," Quentin said. Christian knew it was just to piss him off, and he chose to ignore it. As he left, Quentin was peering in on Sarah, who was still under sedation. Sarah and Paul probably thought Quentin was a nice guy, since he was charming, handsome, and had helped them when they needed it. Christian wondered, a little, what they thought about Dr. Christian Troy, after all they'd learned about his life.

It didn't matter what they thought. He and Kimber were safe now. They'd survived. They could afford to be beautiful together, even if the Redmonds couldn't.

Christian and Kimber understood what the Carver and Quentin just couldn't grasp: it wasn't the scars that made them strong, but what they'd do to hide them.

End

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