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Akaji De: Familiar Stranger

By Jadestar

 

First the good news
It's gonna feel very nice
Then the bad news
You gotta pay a heavy price...

She opened her eyes slowly. Beneath her was a mattress, a little hard, but decent. One of the better things she'd laid on. There were no windows. The small room looked like some sort of bedroom, perfectly square and lit only by a yellowish light from the ceiling. The walls were a browny, rocky sort of metal. Tanya would have known what it was; she didn't.

The nearly-woman sat up, and took it all in with bewildered surprise. This wasn't really according to plan.

Sifting through the few clothes that were in the cupboard didn't give away much, except the occupant was male and around her dimensions, though taller. This didn't surprise her, just about everyone was taller than her.

She looked in the mirror. Everything was normal. She wasn't hurt. Her blond hair was clean and as tidy as it ever was, so she couldn't have been through too much.

The door wasn't locked, so she went out. It was a long hallway with similar doors going on for quite awhile. The only distinction between doors were the letters and numbers on them. She turned to see what door she'd come out of: B24.

Keep your head down, don't make eye contact, and get out. So she did. Or she tried. Where's out?

She was looking down so much that she didn't see the large cloudy grey duck until she'd barged into him.

"Ooof!" he commented, but stepped back to let her pass. "Ye want to watch where yer going, Dive. If y'run into a petite lass like Milantha ye'll flatten th' poor gel."

Alarm bells rang. Dive? "Yes sir." She spoke with Nosedive's voice, and hurried on blindly, getting further and further from the exit.

Marshall stared after her. "Yes sir?" he mouthed silently, then shook his head and went on.

"Hey! Dive!"

She walked faster.

"Dive, are ya deaf? Get in here!"

Faster.

"Nosedive Flashblade, I want yer tail feathers in here NOW."

She started to run.

"Nosedive, don't ya dare... Oi, Jedar, stop him, will ya?" The female voice refused to be quiet.

She glanced up from the floor. There were three possible Jedars, but only one was coming towards her. Duck and weave, duck and weave...

She thought she was past him when he grabbed her around the waist as she tried to slip under her arm. She wiggled, and he grabbed her wrist. "Nosedive, Leila wants to talk to you. I would have thought you'd figured out that obeying was smart by now."

Obeying? Is that some kind of threat? Is Nosedive a prisoner here? "Of course. Just fooling around." She pulled her already baggy t-shirt further away from her chest, and turned to find a cross looking silver duck who must have been the woman who'd been calling out, Leila. "Sorry Leila."

Leila rolled her eyes. "I'll bet. C'mon, I wanna talk ta ya, if that's quite convenient." She sounded sarcastic. The girl followed her into what seemed to be an office. Another female duck was there, a red headed one who seemed to be wearing something very short. She didn't recognise that one either.

"Dive, you wouldn't know anything about the pack in the bathroom, would ya?"

"No."

"Uh huh." Leila looked sceptical. "So why'd ya get all that hay? Don't think we didn't see it just sittin' there on D level."

"Uhhh..." He got hay and put a pack in a bathroom?! Some prisoner. "I was hungry?"

"This isn't a joke Nosedive! Do y'know the mess that thing made?!"

"I...well...I can imagine."

Nylessa tossed her a mop, looking obviously smug. "Have fun."

She sighed.

Leila suddenly frowned. "Dive, since when do you wear sandals?"

She looked down. "I got them cheap."

Nylessa laughed. "Let me guess, a steal?"

*****

Ten minutes later, Jedar was wandering along the A corridor, when he bumped into a breathless Nosedive. "You sure cleaned the bathrooms fast."

Nosedive blinked. "What bathrooms?"

"The ones you and your pack trashed."

"Hey, that wasn't me! Where would I get a ton of hay from?"

"Who said anything about a ton of hay?!"

"Never mind." Nosedive tried to go, when Leila came up from the opposite direction.

"Nosedive! Get back to that floor!"

"Which floor?"

"The tiled one you're supposed to be scrubbing!"

Okaaaaaaay, everyone's lost their marbles... "Oh, that one. I'm finished."

Leila looked down at his sneakers. "Glad you changed shoes. Sandals are not you."

He wasn't about to let that go past. "I don't wear sandals."

"You just were!"

Nosedive rolled his eyes. "Sure. I'd wear sandals while I was casing a place." He neatly side-stepped the two, and hurried down the hall. He needed to use the toilet.

Aww, man, this bathroom is gross-city...

*****

Duke blinked as his apprentice poked his head into the Infirmary and disappeared again with surprising quickness. "Didn't even say hello..."

She screamed with frustration as she found yet another dead end. One of the doors had to lead to outside... She found a set of stairs going upwards, and pounded up them. By the time she reached the top level, she was getting very disorientated, and nearly sobbed with relief when she came to a keypad and a door. But what was the code? She banged on the pad in a futile attempt to get it open.

A tall red-head came out of the nearest door to see what the noise was. "Dive? What's the matter?"

"I can't get the door open!" She was too distressed to mimic her brothers voice. "Open the door! Please, open the door!"

Shockwave put his hand on her shoulder, bewildered. "Why are you crying? What's happened?" He stiffened and stepped back as she morphed into battle gear... Not looking quite right... And even less right when she waved an explosive puck in his face.

"Open it or I blow it up. Your choice."

He opened the door, and watched in amazement as the duck ran as though her life depended on it. He went to find someone.

*****

She curled up into a dazed ball under a tree in the nearest park she'd found and cried. It was too much to handle. I don't understand, I don't understand, Drake help me, I'm lost... She startled when someone tapped on her gear.

"Uh... hello? D'ya need some help, miss?"

She flung the well-meaning but strange arm away from her harshly. "Don't touch me! Stay away from me! Get back!" she barked hoarsely, and grabbed her pucklauncher.

The stranger hurriedly looked around for the authorities.

*****

"It's Nosedive Flashblade, sir, and he's got weapons. He seems to have gone crazy..."

The sergeant squinted at the figure in question, who seemed to be rather hysterical. "He seems to have gone for a sex change as well."

His younger office shook his head sadly. "Poor kid. Guess being a hero was too much for him. He's been linked to a lot of big thefts in the last few months."

"More likely it was the death of that other duck..." He fished around for a couple of gas canisters. "But we'd better get on with the job." He fired off the gas, and watched with a little regret as the figure sank to the ground. "Better get in and get him... er... her."

*****

Meanwhile, the real Nosedive Flashblade was curled up fast asleep on his bed after a hard nights ‘work', blissfully unaware of the uproar both under and above ground.

*****

"Hey evabodee, dey got da blond dude! Da got da Dive!" Dude's voice echoed up and down the corridors and circulation vents throughout the Lair. Dude's ‘news system' was in full swing, and this was perhaps the most important message from above that she'd ever passed on. "E's in da slamma now! Dey nicked ‘im in da park!"

Cutter glanced up at the loud proclamation, having just finished hearing Shockwave's complaints. "Well, he didn't waste much time, did he?"

"Doesn't make sense! Why was he so upset? Why was he in the park?"

Cutter shook his head, walking to the door and motioning for his apprentice to follow. "I don't know, and that's a dangerous thing in it's self."

Shockwave frowned. "You don't trust him?"

"I didn't say that." Cutter kept heading for Leila's office, and gave a wry smile at the group of ducks clustered around the door. He pushed his way to the front, Shockwave at his heels. Marshall was trying to keep the thieves out of the office, but upon seeing the two he let them past (amid much protest).

"Ye'd better prepare te be yelled at," Marshall said out of the corner of his beak. "She's in a none too good mood."

"I can imagine," Cutter hissed back.

Leila was looking harassed. "The idiot! The little idiot! Now we'll have to risk ourselves gettin' ta him!"

Cutter nudged Shockwave forward. "Listen to what Sparky's got to say..." So they did.

At the end of the short story, Leila sighed. "Jedar, go tell Duke what's happened. Gentle-like, if ya please. Nylessa, Sparky, go check out Dive's room fer clues. Iliana, help Marshall try and calm everyone down. Cutter, find Dude and... uh..." She paused as Dude's head poked out of the ventilation. "Thanks Dude. As I was sayin', Cutter, take Dude and Lyric ta break out Dive. But wait ta see if Less and Sparky find anything first. Anyone who hasn't got a job, help Iliana and Marshall."

Everyone headed off to their respective jobs bar Cutter and Dude. "Ah'll go find da Lyric dude, yah?" Both ducks nodded, and she scampered off. Cutter looked at Leila as she started to tidy up.

"Me, Lyric and Dude? That's it? Dude isn't even in the Brotherhood!"

She glanced up at him, obviously not in the mood. "Would ya be questioning me, Andrews?" she asked cooly, even a little sweetly.

Cutter paused, aware he was walking on dangerous ground here. Leila certainly did not call him by his last name normally. "Well, no, it's just that... Dude is a child, and Lyric is a saber student... Can't we spare at least a blade brother?"

She scrumpled up a piece of paper and threw it in the bin. "Ya know the way it works. Three thieves ta every one in prison. A blade brother or higher leadin', a good junior an' another capable low-ranked thief."

"You've broken the rules in the past."

"What is yer problem??" She was standing now, patience gone.

"It's just... It's Dive, Leila. He's a pain, but he's a good kid, and he'll be a good thief someday."

She sat back down. "Yer under-estimating yer own importance. Yer an honour blade, somethin' we have very little of. Dude has a remarkable talent fer small spaces, and Lyric will keep yer head on the ground. Dive's gettin' all his rank deserves an' more. This conversation is closed."

Cutter thought it pertinent to leave just then.

*****

The small black box that was the police scanner buzzed away busily in the center of the Mess Hall, where most of the Brotherhood had gathered. Nosedive was not the first thief to have ever been caught, not by a long shot, but he did have a high profile around the Lair, and the circumstances surrounding his capture were just plain inexplicable.

"...fzzzz... They've got him in the local holding cells... They're moving him to Alcabeak later on today... fzzz... Gonna go get a coffee now..."

Cutter glanced at Lyric and Dude. "We'd better go now. Alcabeak makes the job ten times harder." The three quickly exited.

*****

"This is weird... I mean, he was just his normal self this morning..." Nylessa was telling Shockwave as she punched in the override code for Nosedive's door. "Enough his normal self to pull about fifty pranks anyway...Nosedive??"

"What about...whoa. Hoboy."

The sight that had given them such a surprise was Nosedive lying curled up on his bed, fast asleep and clutching a teddy bear.

Nylessa's gut instinct twisted. It's a trap! They're going to trap Cutter, Lyric and Dude! "Dive! Wake up!" she called sharply.

Nosedive pulled his pillow over his head. "Less, t'wasn't meeeee..."

She marched over and hit him over the head with the bear. "Nosedive get up right now! It's an emergency!"

He fended her off and sat up, yawning. "Huh?"

"You're supposed to be in jail!"

"Huh?"

"Just GET UP!"

Nosedive was so surprised by her sudden yell that he obeyed without complaint. "Okay..."

*****

"Ducklin' twelve, this is the motherbird.... Come in, ducklin' twelve..." Leila closed her communicator in disgust as her attempt to get Cutter failed again. "They must've turned ‘em off so they wouldn't get any noise at an important part. Estelle, keep tryin', an' try Lyric and Dude too. Marshall, police scanner. Jedar, watch the news, Milantha, radio. Less, stop fiddlin' with yer hands, yer makin' me nervous... WOULD ALL YOU JUNIORS GET THE HELL OUTTA MY WAY? THANK YOU!" When uptight, Leila's orders always came fast and thick. Anyone sensible scurried to comply. "Dive, get down ta Duke, Drake knows he's probably worried about ya..."

"Aye aye, Captain..." The joke was badly timed, and he left before she could hurt him.

*****

Cutter braced himself against the solid wall as Dude clambered up to stand on his shoulders. Secretly, Dude was tickled pink about being actually chosen for a mission; normally she just tagged along. She wasn't about to let on, though. "Ey, slick! Stop ya wobblin'!" she hissed.

Cutter wasn't impressed. "For something so small and skinny, you sure weigh a lot... Hey! Don't kick me!"

Dude poked her tongue out in a downwards direction, and stood on the tips of her toes to see in the high window, using her hands to pull herself up to the necessary height. "Yah, dat's ‘im. Dis be da cell, alright dudes." She turned and jumped off Cutter's shoulders.

Cutter inwardly groaned as he realised that Dude was too small to climb up and shatter the bars herself. "All aboard, Lyric."

*****

Nosedive sat on top of the second bed next to Duke's, legs crossed. "Yup, here I am, alive and free. Well, as free as I'm gonna get anyway, until you let me borrow your car... C'mon man, you ain't using it!"

Duke rolled his good eye. "Very funny. Ya ain't touchin' her. Speaking o' goin' places, where were ya off to so fast this mornin'? If yer gonna poke that fat head o' yours round the door, ya could at least spare me a couple of words!"

Nosedive laughed. "Yeah, comfort for a poor old sick duck, I know, I know." He ignored Duke's protests re the word ‘old'. "Anyyyyyway, I didn't poke my ‘fat head', as you so indelicately put it, round the door today. I've been out all night, and ever since I got back I've been sleeping. Until Nylessa came and demanded to know why I wasn't in jail, that is. Shesh."

The grey duck laughed, a little painfully. "I guess Dude got her info wrong. Eh, well, at least nobody got hurt or nothin' tryin' ta resuce ya, huh?"

"Yeah," Nosedive murmured, nodding. "Yet."

*****

Lyric pressed the small device to the bars, snapping it firmly on. She pressed the button on the top, and the sound frequency it emitted caused the bars to crack and crumble. She carefully made sure that no debris fell into the cell, and leaned her head in. "Dive! Dive!" She dropped a small piece of bar onto the pacing duck. "It's us! We came to rescue you!"

The duck looked up with a start, and climbed onto the bunk bed, trying to reach the window. Lyric held out her arms. "Grab on!"

Cutter held Lyric firmly around the knees. "Dude, grab her ankles and pull. If we pull her down and she keeps her grip on Dive, then we'll haul him out that way."

Dude's answer to that was to simply hang off Lyric's legs while Cutter carefully lowered her down. They were doing well until the blond fell through the window and they all ended up in a heap. To be more precise, Lyric and Dude had their heap, and Cutter ended up underneath the rescued duck. Looking into very large, very frightened, very female, very green eyes. "Dive???"

She scrambled off him hurriedly. "I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry..."

Lyric stared. "Who are you? You're not Nosedive! You're a girl!"

She nervously brushed herself off. "I know I'm not Dive, but they locked me up and you started to bust me out and I didn't want to say anything in case you stopped... I'm lost. I woke up on Puckworld, and nothing's how I remember it! I was just... here!"

Cutter stood up slowly behind her. Lyric and Dude shot him questioning glances above the outsiders head. He shrugged ever so slightly. "When in doubt..." he murmured as he knocked her out cold with the blunt of his saber.

Jadestar Isobel Flashblade, freedom fighter, ice skater, twin sister and dimensional merger crumpled to the ground with a soft sigh.

*****

Everyone who was anyone in the Brotherhood in Leila's eyes, or who could be useful was there. Nylessa, Jedar, Cutter, Nosedive, Lyric, Iliana, Milantha, Shockwave, Estelle, Dalin, Lana, Marshall, Ender, Kel...the list went on and on for so long, the meeting had to be held in the Mess Hall. Leila wished for Duke, too, but he was still in the Infirmary.

And the source of everyone's problems lay on the floor center-ring, bound and unconscious, on her back so people could catch the uncanny resemblance to a certain Resistance hero.

Leila was at a lost, and appealed to the government-minded males. "If she's a clone or somethin', sent ta imitate Nosedive, why is she female? And why did they pick her up? So we'd rescue her and brin' her here? An' if that WAS the case, why haven't they come in and busted us before we get whiff of it?"

Cutter sighed. "Cloning ducks... To the extent of a different sex...I seriously doubt it's possible."

Shockwave agreed. "We would have heard something. Or hacked into it."

Jedar snorted. "Not to mention there's no *reason* for them to do it."

Leila looked heaven-ward. "I just said that!"

Lyric shrugged. "So she's telling the truth. She was just suddenly here."

Instant outcry. It went on for a few minutes before Ender managed to make himself heard over the uproar. "What if she's from another dimension?"

"What, like you?" Lana had thought of it a little before. "There's a female Nosedive in another dimension somewhere?"

Marshall cleared his throat. "Whatever or whoever th' lass is, we've instantly assumed the worse. Whatever happened to innocent till proven guilty? I say we at least untie th' poor thing."

Jadestar blinked awake. A score of faces peered back. She chose the pitiful act. "I want to go home."

Nylessa nudged Nosedive. "Yeah, she's just like you..."

Nosedive glared. "That's not funny."

Marshall helped Jadestar sit up, but reluctantly left her tied. "Where do you live, lass?"

She stared up at him. "I live in Anaheim... Where am I?"

Leila stepped forward. "Puckworld," she said gruffly. "And we're not sure we can send you back."

Jadestar bit the bottom of her beak. This dimension's Duke and Nosedive seemed to be in some kind of gang. "Where's Wildwing? Is he here?"

Nosedive shifted. "He's on Puckworld, but not here here."

Ender pushed his way to the front. "You been fiddling with any dimensional portals? That could have brought you here."

"Not recently. The last thing I remember is..." She chewed her fingernail nervously. "Duke was hurt...

Ender was still thinking. "My Duke got away..." He looked slightly distasteful on the ‘my'. "Jadestar, you dimension hopped much?"

Jadestar snorted absently. "Yeah. A lot, considering I don't know how."

Ender smiled vaguely at that. "Maybe Genesis jumped into her universe, and sort of swapped with her. Since she's done a lot of travelling, she might be more used to it, and so he unknowingly knocked her out." He paused, and added, "Not that knowing would have stopped him."

By and large, Ender received a host of blank looks, but Milantha seemed to get the concept. "There were just too many ducks on Earth, so one of them had to go?"

Ender shrugged. "It's only an idea. Probably wrong."

Jadestar wasn't listening as it started coming back. "Duke was hurt... Duke was hurt real bad..." She continued sucking the tip of her finger. "I hope he's okay... He wasn't meant to be there. He was supposed to be in New York..."

Marshall was the only one listening to her murmurs, and knew something was up. He steered her into a chair. "What was tha', lassy?"

She gazed up at him, wide eyed and close to shock. "He was there on the ice... Just bleeding... He looked so old... Someone ran him through with a sword or a knife or something..."

Ender turned slowly to stare at the girl. She was hunched over, curling up into herself... Afraid. She was afraid. Was Genesis alive? "What? What did you say?"

"He didn't know my name..." She was too far off, and she lapsed into silence.

Tarrin pushed the others back. "Someone get a warm blanket or something." Marshall complied, and he wrapped it around her as she shivered. "There, you'll be okay."

Leila rubbed her forehead, and glanced over to Ender. "Looks like he's still causin' trouble."

"That's because he's not dead. Yet."

Leila tossed Marshall the keys. "Unlock her. She's not gonna do much."

Ender nodded thoughtfully. "After all, it's not her fault she's here."

*****

By the time she'd had a few hot drinks, and time to calm down, Jadestar was ready to answer their questions. They seemed to know something she didn't, and she hoped that they'd let her in on it soon. Maybe they could explain why she was here. In any case, they'd got her out of the prison... That gave her enough reason to trust them.

"I found him on the ice. I was alone at the Pond, because the others had gone to a game in New York. They didn't take me because it would have left Anaheim alone, and I'd just got back from an ice skating competition. Drake One picked up a problem on the ice... I don't know what, Tanya recently changed all the alert names without telling me. Duke was there on the ice. He was a real mess. He was bleeding really heavily, and I had to try to carry him to the infirmary. I'm no doctor, and I couldn't reach the others because they were out of range. I set the medicomp going, and managed to stop the bleeding..." A look of distaste covered her face for a moment. "He asked me for a hand-held mirror when he remembered that I didn't know what to do. I held it so he could see his own chest, and he... he sewed himself back up." She looked a little lamely around. "I didn't know he could do that... I don't want to know how he learned."

Ender was nodding slowly as the pieces fell into place. "Keep going. Please."

She sighed. "He looked and sounded different, but I guess it was the pain. He couldn't remember my name. Said things were kinda hazy. He didn't know how he got there when he was supposed to be on the other side of the country. After that he went to sleep. May I have a drink?"

Out of the large group of thieves clustered into their own sick bay, Estelle was the closest to the sink. The sound of the tap was loud in the silence, and they could hear Jadestar drink too.

She coughed, feeling more and more nervous. "I was starting to feel really weird. Sometimes everything would grow kinda transparent, and I felt like I was almost floating away. I put it down to tiredness and worry, and I turned on the set to watch the game." A strange look covered her face. "Before I went to sleep, or faded out, or whatever I did, the weirdest thing struck me. Wildwing would have told me if Duke had changed his mind. And I'm sure I caught a glimpse of Duke skating onto the ice." Shaking her head, she closed her eyes. "But everything after finding poor Duke on the ice feels like it was dream. Or like I wasn't all there. And that feeling just gets stronger and stronger until waking up in B24. I don't have any answers. Sorry."

Ender looked grim. "Actually, you've answered questions you didn't even know about."

She sat up taller on the bed. "In that case, maybe you guys can tell me what's happened. I told you all I know, it'd be nice if you did the same."

Ender looked up to gain Leila's approval. She nodded. This is his damn show, she grumbled to herself. Let him be the ringmaster.

Ender told her the story. All present were happy to hear it again; it needed telling a few times to make a lot of sense. But she seemed to catch on. Ender hit her with the hard news. "We tried to kill him, but he slipped away. And it looks like he got to you."

She was horrified. "He... he did all that? Duke?"

"Genesis," Duke corrected from the other bed. Jadestar swivelled to see him better.

"You tried to kill him? You tried to kill yourself?"

Duke tried to sound as firm as he could. "He's not me. He's not yer Duke either."

"Wait," Nosedive interrupted. "How do we even know she's telling the truth?"

Ender shrugged. "Jadestar, you tried to carry Genesis by carrying him across the back of your shoulder, right?"

She blinked. "How'd you know?"

Gently, he pushed her so she showed the right-hand side of her back to the room, the part she couldn't see herself. There was a long dark streak of blood.

*****

"I have to go after him."

Leila watched him pace back and forth across her office floor. "Why? He can't come back."

Ender kept moving. "He's loose in a world that doesn't even know he's there. Revenge. Destiny. There are a lot of reasons."

"You didn't mention taking Jadestar back."

"Well, yeah, there's that too." He hesitated a bit.

"What?"

"I don't know if I can take two. But I'll have to. Unless I just take her clothes... Which would probably work better..." He turned to look at her, and saw that he'd have to explain. "Her body might not like her universe, but her clothes will. They'll want to go back where they came from. I can use that to get a fix on Genesis."

They both turned to see the duck in question knocking timidly on the door. "I was wondering something..."

"Come in," Leila permitted, and she did.

"I was wondering if you can take me home... Ender?"

Ender nodded, albeit reluctantly, and felt a little better about it when he earned the first real smile he'd seen from her. "Yeah. I'm pretty sure I can."

"Great! I don't like to think of Genesis being there all alone..."

He stuck his hands in his pockets, looking blank. "Neither do I."

*****

Rip-tide, we slide, we ride on a deep forbidden sea
Under we go - so slow
And you're hanging onto me.

*****

A day later, the two were finished running through the checklist of things Ender needed, and they were ready to leave in the Gym. Quite a few people had come for curiosities sake. Ender stood patiently as Jadestar fiddled around with the backpack of things they'd given her, pleased when she was finally ready.

Leila came forward. "Well, Ender, if ya don't come back, goodbye. I don't suppose yer stay was real pleasant, but I'm sure it was... interesting." She offered him her hand, and he shook it gently.

"Definitely that," he agreed. He smiled slightly at Shockwave's eager waves over everyone's heads. "See you all soon."

Jadestar gave them all a slightly uncertain smile, uneasy at the prospect of going back as well as the fact that she was saying goodbye to a bunch of thieves. Oh, they weren't bad, misguided maybe, but... thieves. She gave a small wave. "Thank you..."

Ender pulled her closer, reluctantly, wishing that there wasn't such a crowd. "We need to hang on tight, or we'll both end up in dimensional limbo. And that is not a nice state of being, understand?"

Keen absently pulled his camera out. He was going to get the film developed later that day. Hey, one snap left. He glanced up. Ender and Jadestar were hugging each other very tightly, and he rolled his eyes at the deadly looks Jadestar was getting from some females present. Snorting, Keen focused his machine the same time Ender activated his. "Say cheese, kids."

When the two flashes of light cleared away, all that remained in the center of the gathering was an empty space and the soft feel of a breeze that was from something other than air.

 

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