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Duty Bound

By Starsong Lightwing

 

So this is Keltor. Ain't changed much. Never thought I'd have ta come back here, Sheya thought as she trudged through the streets of her hometown. Ifher information was correct, she shouldn't be far now.

She passed through the entrance of the Brotherhood Lair without difficulty; the signs were all there, for someone who knew how to read them, and the entrance mark was a variant on the one used to mark the entrance to the Lair in Seique. I suppose I should pay my respects, she thought grudgingly. It was sort of a professional courtesy that members of one Lair announced themselves to the Leader when they visited another, but Sheya's business was personal. deSilver can just lump it, she decided harshly. I don't give a damn. I'm gonna do what I came ta do and then leave.

*****

"You Cutter?"

Cutter turned and regarded his visitor. She was a tall, skinny Nijhro, rather pretty in spite of her grim expression. "Can I help you?" he asked, walking towards her. She didn't answer, even when they stood face to face. Just looked at him with what he read to be a mixture of distaste and anger.

It was, therefore, no great shock when she decked him.

Or tried too, anyway. Cutter was quite capable of dodging a blow, particularly one thrown in anger without any real strategy behind it. He caught the woman'swrist and gave her a look halfway between bored and annoyed. "Is there something I can help you with?" he repeated, a little sarcastically.

"Yeah," she gritted, jerking her arm back roughly. "Ya can start taking responsibility for yer actions."

Cutter leaned casually against his work counter and lifted his eyebrows, obviously waiting for an explanation. The woman looked sour; he imagined he'd rather spoiled her grand entrance. "I got somethin' o' yours," she grunted, folding her arms. "And yer not gettin'away wit' leavin' it this time."

He made no reply, waiting for her to get to the point. A staring match ensued, which the woman lost. She turned abruptly and walked out the still-open door, returning with a child on her hip. "Here," she said shortly. "He ain't my problem anymore."

Cutter blinked for a few moments, his rather infamous self-assured grin giving way to his complete shock.

There was no questioning what she meant. The duckling she held had brown feathers and rather scraggly black hair. His eyes were a startling green, but the rest of his face was his father's.

Cutter needed to sit down. Badly. He looked hard at the woman, studying her face, and found to his chagrin that he didn't remember her.

"He ain't mine, if that's what yer thinkin,'" she spat. "I got better taste than that. Ayla musta been on somethin', that's all I can figure."

Cutter ignored the insult and concentrated on the name. Ayla, Ayla--"Ayla Goldfeather?" He remembered her, a rather tall and very beautiful Korsain, white-feathered and green-eyed, with a taste for living on the edge and very little patience. He sighed rather heavily. No, he wasn't particularly surprised that she didn't want the baby. Disappointed, but not surprised.Why didn't she tell me?

The woman was giving him a piercing look. "Ya didn't know."

"No. I'd have done something a lot sooner if I'd known." The moment the words were spoken, he had to guiltily wonder if they were true. In a sense, yes, he'd have taken the child rather than leave it to Ayla's neglect--but if she'd told him she wanted the kid, it probably wouldn't have taken much convincing for him to leave them be. Doesn't matter. I know now, and Ican't walk away from it.

Then he sighed. What am I going to tell Kalani?

*****

She might have been carved from mahogany, she was so still. Cutter counted the heartbeats, watching her back anxiously.

Kalani stared at the wall, arms folded. She was stiff. That was a bad sign. Beneath his passive expression and easy stance, he worried.

She was upset. It irked her. But she was, she was angry at Cutter, angry at the woman and angry, even, at the child. There was no logic in any of it, and she shouldn't feel that way. She knew it. Cutter winced inwardly as the pattern of her breathing changed--the only thing about her that did. Slow, even breaths. She was definitely upset.

Sheya watched all of it with a critical eye, the child in her lap. These two were not what she'd expected. Or rather, Andrews wasn't what she'd expected. She hadn't expected a woman to be involved at all. Certainly not one he seemed so concerned about keeping. His expression was calm, confident, and unharried, but his eyes were tense, and he all but hovered near her. The woman had the same calm appearance as she'd had before, but by her silence Sheya guessed that she was more than a little unnerved. Which, she supposed, was not surprising.

The boy is just a baby, none of this is his fault. His existence tells me nothing of Jay that I did not already know. Kalani was slowly talking herself down. Little by little the tenseness left her body, and a sigh slipped past her beak. Her chin lifted as she relaxed completely.

Sheya didn't see whatever unspoken signal passed between the two, but Andrews put his hands on the girl's--Kally? Something like that--shoulders, and murmured something to her. Whatever-her-name was turned to face him and smiled, and said something else she couldn't hear. Well, not the reaction I'd have had, but... The thought was broken off as the woman turned and approached, giving her a smile before kneeling down to speak to the boy. Resentment formed a lump in her throat, and she knew that her expression was more gruff than it should have been. She mentally slapped herself. This was for the best, after all. She couldn't keep the kid any longer, not with her own on the way. Maybe she'd been wrong to keep him for this long. She'd gotten soft and let the little twit grow on her. She was probably the only one in the world he cared about.

In a moment of pure selfishness, she wished she could keep it that way.

"Hello," the younger woman told him. "My name is Kalani. What's yours?"

The green-eyed boy stuck his fingers in his mouth and stared at her.

"He don't talk much," Sheya said gruffly, "Not cause he ain't smart enough, mind you, he's just quiet." She focused her gaze on Cutter. "His momma didn't appreciate noise too much."

"Well," Kalani smiled at the child, "I'm ready to listen whenever you're ready to talk to me." He blinked at her for a moment, and then hid his face in Sheya's shirt.

"He ain't got a name," she informed them, stroking the child's hair in a gesture that seemed half protective, half affectionate, and completely unintentional. "'Sides 'kid' and 'hey you.' So I guess it's up to you what ya call him."

"What do you call him?" Kalani asked, her too-knowing eyes fixed on Sheya's.

"I don't," she said gruffly. "He ain't mine, it ain't up to me to give 'im a name."

"It seems to me," Kalani observed quietly, "That he's yours far more than his mother's."

Sheya's eyes flashed angrily. "But I can't keep him now, can I, so what's the use in givin' him a name for someone else ta use?" She calmed herself forcibly, realizing that she'd let go more than she meant to. "I take care of 'im when I can, but I can't do it no more. Take him, then. I got places ta go." She stood and held out the boy. Cutter came and took him from her. The child looked from one to the other, frowning.

"Thank you," Cutter said quietly. "I'm sorry. If I'd known--"

"Ya didn't," she said bluntly, "So 'if' don't matter." She scowled and turnedon her heel. The door slammed shut behind her, and she didn't come back.

The child in Cutter's arms watched, wide-eyed. "Sheya gone..." His green eyes filled with tears and his face crumpled. "No..." Cutter winced, expecting from the look on the toddler's face that he would wail. Instead, large, silent tears rolled down his face, and he sniffled quietly.

"It's okay," Cutter soothed, a little uncomfortably. "Daddy's here."

The boy gave him a confused look and shook his head. "Daddy gone."

Cutter met the child's green eyes, and shivered slightly. He hugged the child, a little awkwardly. "Not anymore," he murmured. "Daddy's not going to leave you again."

*****

"Not your average kid, is he," Cutter commented quietly, watching his son study his food with a look of intense concentration.

"No," Kalani murmured back. "I would very much like to have words with his mother."

Cutter lifted an eyebrow at that; his lover wasn't known for a quick temper, but the annoyance--even anger--in her voice was obvious. He didn't blame her. It didn't surprise him that Ayla had ignored her baby; her greatest failing had been her complete disinterest in anything that didn't in someway contribute to her further enjoyment of life. It had seemed, at the time, a rather harmless trait. It certainly wasn't uncommon.

Cutter blinked away his musings and found the kid staring at him. He smiled, not sure what else to do, and the boy quickly looked away. Jay sighed. "I don't know if I can do this, Kal," he said, almost too quietly for her to hear. She squeezed his hand.

"This will take time for all of us to get used to," she observed softly. He met her eyes.

"I'm sorry."

She smiled, and shook her head. "I accepted your past when I accepted you, mea aloha. Onipa'a."

Cutter touched her face gently and smiled--a real smile, the kind only she ever saw.

She turned her attention back to the baby, who was eating his cereal one piece at a time, studying each bit before he ate it. "He needs a name," she observed.

Cutter nodded. "Any suggestions?"

Kalani quirked a slight grin. Cutter gave her a dark look. "I think he's traumatized enough without being Jay Junior, Oull-eyes."

She smiled, and went back to watching their new charge. "I'll think on it."

Cutter scrutinized the kid behind the easy, careless expression that had become as instinctive to him as breathing. The child was rather scruffy, and would have to be cleaned up. The serious expression he wore was almost comical on one so young, but his bright eyes missed nothing. Cutter felt rather uncomfortable. He repressed a heavy sigh; this wasn't something he'd ever planned for, and he felt a growing sense of dread as complication after complication occurred to him. There simply wasn't room for a child in his life, but--

Contrary to appearances, Cutter had never been one to shirk responsibility, and he didn't intend to start now. The child obviously needed a caretaker--more than that, he reluctantly acknowledged, the boy needed a parent. Cutter thought of his own father, and his misgivings grew. Skill, experience, intelligence, quick thinking--he relied on all those qualities to carry him through the kinds of situations that were a matter of course in his occupations, both as thief and hacker. Somehow he doubted his formidable talents would be much use to him in the challenges the next few weeks would bring.

Not the next few weeks. The next few years. And the years after that. He was in it for good, now, committed, tied down in a way he never would have permitted voluntarily. He reminded himself again that he'd brought this on himself, and he'd just have to suck it up and deal with it. He didn't bother to quash the spark of resentment towards Ayla; she was off having quite a fine time, he was sure, while he was stuck with--

Stop it. Stop right there . That was a dangerous path of thought. He wouldn't let his frustration and anger with Ayla leak through like that. He'd inevitably start projecting it onto the boy, and that was most certainly not the most ideal way to start his career as a father.

And therein lay another problem. As a youth, Cutter had severely lacked any sort of role-model to prepare him for this role. His father certainly hadn't played the part well at all, and no adequate substitute had been available, even after he left home. Those whose company he'd tended to seek out hadn't truly been the fatherly type, and even his late mentor hadn't been much more than teacher and, eventually, friend. He didn't even know what it meant tobe a proper father.

Kalani's thumb slid gently across the back of his hand, her gentle touch bringing him back to the here and now. He squeezed her hand slightly, and felt something unspoken pass between them. Cutter took a surprising amount of comfort from that single half-caress, reminded that he did not face his newfound parenthood alone.

The kid looked timidly up at him again, and Cutter tried to look--well, fatherly. The attempt must have failed, because the duckling shrank a little further into himself. "Potty," he whispered, barely audible.

Oh boy.

*****

Leila gripped her calculator like it was a weapon, scowling as she faced one of her most hated foes--the weekly food budget. For the third time in as many minutes she glanced up at the two ducklings in the playpen next to her desk. One was fast asleep, and the other wasn't far off. Satisfied, she kept battling her way down the columns of figures.

Just as it seemed she was winning, she hit the wrong button on the calculator, wiping what was on the screen. "Damn!" she muttered under her breath, and irately pushed her paper away as if it were somehow to blame for the ill-timed mishap. It fluttered down beside the desk as she worked to recall the memory on the calculator. She dropped a hand by her chair, feeling around for the paper as she glared at the calculator screen.

A small hand pushed the paper at her, and she took it, placing it absently back on the desk.

A moment later there was an abrupt click, and Leila frowned, puzzled. She looked down.

A small brown duckling stared back at her, with wide green eyes beneath his shaggy black hair. He stuck his fingers in his mouth and stared at her.

"Gah!" Leila almost fell out of her seat, startling the boy. He took a step backwards and tripped, sitting down hard. His eyes went wet and he sniffled a little, but he didn't wail or cry out.

Leila hurriedly stood up and took a deep breath to slow her heart down, then knelt to face the child. "Hello there..." He shrank shyly away from her. She was careful not to make a move towards him, afraid of frightening him. "Hey, it's okay... can you talk, kiddo? Where's yer momma?" She studied him carefully and noted that he actually did look slightly familiar...but she couldn't place him. She frowned slightly, stumped as to where a kid his age could have suddenly appeared from.

The little boy--he couldn't have been more than two or three--pushed himself back up to his feet again, replacing his fingers in his mouth and looking adorably shy. He hid behind her chair, peaking around the side.

Leila held a hand out to him, not too close but too close to be ignored. "C'mon, sweetie... how 'bout comin' outta there? I ain't gonna hurt ya..."

He seemed to hesitate for a moment, his brow creasing as if he were thinking it over. Finally he ventured out a little. Leila gathered the child up and sat him on her hip, looking closely into his face. "Ya definitely look familiar, kiddo... now, what am I gonna do wit' ya?" The child had no answer for this beyond a wide yawn.

Leila couldn't help but smile, and she stood up with him still on her hip. "Well, there's the obvious..." She glanced toward the playpen, where her own two were still sleeping peacefully on the soft mats, and then back at the little boy. "Whatcha think? Care ta join th' sleepin' beauties?"

He peered into the playpen, apparently fascinated. Leila smiled. "I'll takethat as a yes." Without further ado, she crossed to the playpen and loweredhim in carefully. "Feel free ta borrow toys, bottles... you name it." She smiled conspiratorially. "These two're asleep; what they don't know don' hurt 'em." As if on cue, one of the twins moved slightly, but then dropped back into a deep sleep once more.

The child looked around at all the interesting stuff to examine, but turned worried eyes back up to Leila, as if he were afraid she would leave him. Leila recognized the expression. "Hey, I'm gonna be right here, okay? An' there ain't many other places in the Lair you'd find are safer than this." She took a couple of backwards steps to her seat at the desk. "I ain't goin' anywhere until yer momma or daddy shows up fer ya." She got a slight gleam to her eyes. "I'd be interested in knowin' where a kid yer age turned up from.. An' what kinda parent's lettin' ya wander the Lair like this." He watched her for a moment, but he seemed to decide she wasn't going anywhere and turned his attention to all the playthings surrounding him. Before long, though, he was curled up next to the twins, fast asleep.

Leila continued working and watching in the same rhythm as before. Now and then she had to smile at the thought of the child. The little mystery man had well and truly tweaked her maternal instincts.

She'd only been working for a few minutes when Cutter leaned in the door, trying to appear casual but looking very slightly on edge. "If I could borrow a moment of your time, fearless leader?"

Leila glanced up, then did a very slight double-take as recognition hit. She hastily masked her expression, despite her absolute astonishment, not wanting all her cards on the table at once. The playpen was somewhat behind the desk, and not directly in Cutter's line of sight... Standing, she smiled politely. "Sure thing, Cutter. Somethin' up?"

Cutter grin was little sardonic. "I'm afraid I'm having a bit of a problem. Have you seen a child about this big, around two years old? If not, I'm afraid we need to get a search together."

She kept her expression blank. "Dare I ask why you'd be lookin' fer one o' those?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Because I've lost him."

Leila felt slightly impatient. "Let's backtrack a little here, shall we? Since when did you have a two-year-old kid ta lose?"

Cutter seemed to cast about in his mind for the least embarrassing way to explain the situation, and nonchalantly stalled for time. "Since yesterday."

"Care ta elaborate," she asked dryly, "or do I gotta keep playin' twenty questions?"

Cutter folded his arms, deciding for once to be plain. For him, anyway. "I received a visitor yesterday who was kind enough to deliver some information which I had been previously unaware of."

Leila raised an eyebrow and leaned back against her desk. She'd already working out what's going on, but she wanted to hear him say it. He did. "About two years ago you sent me on an errand to the base in Sieque. One of the local thieves was quite welcoming."

Leila raised an eyebrow slightly. "I see." Better keep that in mind next time I'm choosing an errand-boy...

Cutter was getting rather tired of explaining, and he was agitated enough that a little impatience leaked into his tone. "As much as I enjoy chatting with you, Leila, my son is still wandering around this base somewhere and I'd prefer that he was found before he gets into any major trouble."

Leila was a little surprised, and softened slightly. "Yer really worried, ain't ya?"

Impatience now found its way into his expression as well. "Would it speed the process any if I said yes?"

Leila's smile was small but genuine. "Actually, yeah." Motioning for Cutter to follow her, she walked quietly around the side of her desk to stand infront of the playpen.

Cutter followed her and gave a small sigh of relief as he caught sight of the sleeping boy.

Leila's reproof was surprisingly gentle. "Ya can't let 'em outta yer sight...especially not in this place. But he's okay." Oddly enough, she had a feeling she didn't need to be telling him this.

Cutter bent down and gently scooped up his son. The child stirred and made a small, grumpy noise. "Yeah, I know, I know." Kai curled up against him and blinked sleepily, all his earlier aloofness gone in the haze of sleepiness. Cutter was rather surprised at the flash of tenderness he felt at being clung to in such a way. He covered it quickly, however, giving the sleeping child a look that was supposed to be exasperated. "Amazing how quick the little guy vanishes."

Leila wondered if he really did know. "It is, ain't it." She hesitated. "Listen, if ya ever need any help or anythin'... jus' ask. He's a sweet kid."

Cutter grinned sardonically. "Naturally." In spite of his expression, there was a faint hint of pride coloring the word.

Leila quirked the corner of her beak, trying not to smile outright at him. "Yeah, well..." she said gruffly. "Go on, off wit' the pair o' ya. I got stuff ta do." She paused and then added, "An'... belated congratulations, Jay."

Cutter grinned and winked. "Much appreciated, fearless leader." He turned for the door before she could reply, passing Duke on the way out. The olderman did a double take, and gave Leila a funny look. "Was that...?"

Leila grinned outright. "That was indeed." She trailed off as a realization hits. "Oh, I don' believe it. After all that, I forgot ta ask his name."

*****

Cutter looked at the sleeping child in her arms, and then took in the look of gentle love in Kalani's eyes--the kind of unconditional love he'd dreamed of as a child.

He sat down next to her, sliding an arm around her waist. She settled against him, and for a moment the odd little family was quiet.

"What's the Lianan word for 'mother'?" Cutter asked quietly.

Kalani's soft eyes looked up at him. "Makuahine," she murmured, looking down again.

"That's a bit of a mouthful," Cutter observed with the hint of a wry grin. "How about just 'Maku'?"

Kalani nodded once, slowly, and her eyes shone. The child stirred slightly, and she stood, laying him in a small pallet of blankets she had prepared on the floor for him.

"Kai."

"Hmm?"

"His name is Kai."

Cutter ran his fingers lightly up and down her arm, thinking. "Kai...that means...ocean, doesn't it?"

"I think it suits him. Deeper than anyone can see, and more going on beneath the surface than anyone will ever know." Kalani smiled knowingly. "He is much like you, mea aloha."

Cutter was silent for a moment. He wrapped his arms tightly around her, and Kalani looped hers around his waist. "I love you," he murmured.

"Mmm." Kalani closed drowsy eyes and curled against him, taking a deeply contented breath. Cutter smiled and stifled a yawn. He pulled the blankets higher around them both, and fell asleep immediately.

A few hours later, Cutter blinked awake, listening to the darkness. Something had disturbed him. He lay completely still, and for a moment all he heard was Kalani's even breathing. Then he heard it, a soft sniffle. Kai. He stifled a groan and eased out of bed, trying not to wake Kalani and knowing it probably wouldn't work. He got up and went to where his son was supposed to be sleeping.

Cutter could see the tears on his face in the soft glow of the little nightlight Kalani'd plugged in--something he wouldn't have thought of, that--and the way he was huddled in the blankets. Jay rubbed some of the sleep out of his eyes and forced a smile. "Hey, buddy. Bad dream?" Kai just looked up at him, wide-eyed and fearful. He shrank back when Cutter reached for him. "Hey, now, it's okay, Daddy's here." The words felt awkward, uneasy. Cutter shoved the feeling aside and reached down again. This time Kai allowed himself to be picked up and held. "You thirsty?"

Kai nodded slowly. "Okay, let's go get you a drink." Cutter stood with thechild in his arms, and carried him out towards the kitchen, ignoring thecold of the floor on his bare feet.

The kitchen, as it turned out, wasn't empty. Jedar was leaning against the counter, staring distantly at a tea kettle on the stove.

"A watched pot never boils, Jedar, didn't anyone ever tell you that?" Cutter grinned, surprising a yawn. Jedar jumped, snapping out of his reverie, and did a double take at the pair. "What the...?"

Cutter nearly laughed out loud at his reaction, but just lifted an eyebrow instead. "Something wrong?"

Jedar stared at him, then at the child, then back at Cutter. He seemed at a loss for something to say. "Cutter, what have you been doing?" he asked finally.

Cutter gave him a dry look. "Growing babies in test tubes, Jedar." He sat Kai down on the counter and set about getting a glass of water for him, moving Jedar aside so that he could get to the cabinet of glasses behind him.

Forgetting about the kettle, which had boiled while it wasn't being watched, the older man found a chair and sat down. "Well well well. Daddy Andrews."

"Yes, Daddy Stormwing, that is indeed the case."

Jedar grinned. "I never pictured you as the father type..." He gave Kai asideways look. "So he's yours and whose, exactly? I'm pretty sure it would have been all over the grapevine months ago if Kalani was pregnant, so where'd he come from?"

Cutter handed the cup to Kai and stood by, ready in case he dropped or spilled it. "A young lady from the Seique Lair who's apparently decided that she's too busy enjoying her life to take care of a child."

Jedar watched the boy too. "What's his name?"

Cutter smiled slightly. "Kai."

Kai finished his water and promptly stuck his fingers in his mouth, watching Jedar.

"I see you chose not to inflict your taste in clothes on him," the blue-haired drake observed, smirking. Kai was dressed in one of Kalani's t-shirts, the bright crimson cloth falling well past his knees.

"I suppose a shopping trip is in order," Cutter sighed. "One set of rather worn clothing is not going to be enough."

Jedar grinned sardonically. "I'm trying to picture you shopping for babyclothes, and failing rather miserably."

"I always knew you had no imagination." Cutter grinned, and picked up Kai, making his exit before the older man could reply.

*****

"Jay, you didn't."

"I can't have my son going around looking like a vagabond all the time. What would people think?"

Kalani gave him a look, and then pointedly looked over to wear Kai was sitting, the sales tags still hanging out of his new black jeans and T-shirt. He looked, in short, like a miniature version of his father.

She looked back at Cutter, who grinned proudly. Kalani shook her head on her way out the door, unable to keep an amused smile off her face. "Perhaps I'll do a little shopping myself later."

Cutter chuckled and glanced at Kai. "When she's done with you, you'll probably be so bright you'll glow in the dark."

Kai didn't look particularly disturbed. Cutter grinned again, and took apair of scissors out of the drawer. "Now, let's get rid of those tags." Hesquatted down beside the boy and reached for the price tag on his shirt.

Kai's eyes went wide, and he let out a high-pitched shriek of pure terror. Startled, Cutter jerked back and lost his balance, landing on his rear. Kai scrambled away, howling at the top of his lungs.

"What the--" Cutter stared, not understanding. Kai huddled in a corner, his little body racked with moaning sobs. Cutter set the scissors down and went to his son, not really sure what to do. He reached out, but Kai screeched and shoved him away, wriggling past and fleeing to another part of the room, veering away from the scissors still laying in the middle of the floor.

"Is that what's wrong," Cutter muttered under his breath. "Okay, okay, I get it." He picked up the scissors--at which Kai's wailing doubled in volume--and put them away. "There. All gone." He went to Kai again, but the closer he got, the louder the child screamed. "I'm not going to hurt you," Cutter frowned impatiently. He tried for several minutes to calm the child down, with no success.

Cutter repressed his frustrated anger with great difficulty as Kai's angry shrieks continued their assaults on his eardrums. He never would have believed the quiet little kid was capable of producing this level of volume. Right now, Cutter wanted nothing more than to walk out and slam the door behind him.

Which, he realized in a sudden flash of insight, was exactly what Ayla would have done. Perhaps, in fact, that was what Kai expected, maybe even wanted--to be left alone. Something about those scissors obviously terrified him. Maybe he thinks if he makes enough noise I'll just leave, and whatever he thinks is going to happen won't.

For a moment he fought with temptation--it'd be so easy just to leave and let the kid scream himself out.

Then anger took over. Bad enough that Kai had been neglected, but someone had hurt him. Probably one of his mother's...friends. Ayla better pray I never, ever see her again. Cutter forced himself not to glare, afraid of frightening Kai, and resigned himself to the certainty of the pounding headache to follow this encounter. With a sigh, he sat down on the floor not far from Kai and waited.

The boy wailed, screamed, kicked, and beat the floor with his fists. Finally, he curled up where he was, and sobbed as if his heart would break.

Cutter softened, and, after a moment's hesitation, went to his son. Kai jerked at his touch and stared up at him. Cutter stroked his hair gently, and gathered him up. Kai made no resistance, and, after a moment, actually curled up against his father and clung to him. Cutter rocked the child, who was still shaking from his outburst. "I said I wasn't going to leave you," he murmured. "I meant it." Kai gave a shuddering sigh, and sniffled, burying his face in Cutter's shirt.

Kalani watched all this from the door with a slight smile, enjoying the rare opportunity to watch her lover with his guard completely down, and a growing sense of certainty that Kai was the best thing to come into their lives since each other.

*****

From that moment on, Kai became Cutter's shadow, refusing to be left even with Kalani for more than a few moments. The two new parents decided that was probably to be expected. The poor child had been left by everyone he'd come to care for, and he obviously was afraid Cutter would leave and never come back. So, compromises were made until such time as Kai could be reassured. Cutter cleaned out an area of his work shop and set up a small 'fence' to keep Kai from wandering off. He and Kalani baby-proofed the area with admirable efficiency, and made sure there was nothing within reach outside of the little fence. Kai spent hours fascinated with the toys they procured while Cutter worked in relative peace nearby. Cutter started planning to remodel B11 somewhat, deciding to add a door between the two rooms and set B10 up for Kai. The new little family was the grapevine subject of choice, and while most extracted a significant amount of glee at seeing the hacker get his just desserts, it was also agreed by all that Kai was adorable and that fatherhood would be good for Cutter.

Kai became rather a subject of curiosity, and to his annoyance Cutter foundthat his number of visitors increased drastically over a few days as people came to get a look at his son. The shy boy seemed rather unnerved by all the attention.

"He's not very social," Cutter commented to Kalani as they watched Kai trying to figure out his newest toy. "I wonder if we should be worried..."

Kalani squeezed his hand. "He is not you, remember. Under the circumstancesI don't think it's all that unusual that he should be reserved. He may grow out of it, but if he does not, I don't think it will cause any trouble. If it does, we will deal with it when it arises."

After a moment of thought, Cutter agreed, and did his best to keep the attention on Kai down to a minimum. Kai endured most of the interviews silently, from the safe zone behind his fathers legs. In spite of Kalani's observations, Cutter continued to worry. He kept hoping Kai would respond to someone, but he hung back even from Sparky, whom children normally adored.

Give him time , Cutter consoled himself. He's still getting used tothe place. Someone'll get through eventually.

He hoped.

*****

Cutter set Kai down and knocked on Ender's door. The younger man opened it, looking puzzled. He raised an eyebrow in recognition. "Hey."

Cutter half-grinned, feeling a little sheepish and, as usual, not showing it. "I think I left my tool wallet in here the other day. I can't seem to find it anywhere else." Kai clung to his dad's pant leg, fingers in his mouth, and watched Ender curiously.

Ender glanced down at the child briefly, then back at Cutter. "Yeah, uhh..." He opened the door a bit more and moved over to his desk. "I was gonna runit back to you, but...Got distracted." He tossed it to the older man, then looked at Kai again silently.

"Been busy, I take it?" Cutter asked, checking to make sure the wallet was intact, and then reaching down to pull Kai's fingers out of his mouth.

Ender nodded slightly. "Paperwork. Got a guy...possible police informant. Leila's asked me to check him out." He cocked his head at Kai and bent downs lightly, raising an eyebrow. "Hey there."

Kai looked shy, but, to his father's surprise, he answered in a very quiet voice. "Hi..."

Ender gave Kai one of his 'almost smiles'. "So...you're Kai, huh?"

Kai hesitated, and then nodded. Cutter's surprise grew.

Ender nodded. "I'm Ender," he informed Kai solemnly. The boy smiled a little, still holding on to Cutter's jeans.

"Well I'll be damned," Cutter muttered, his eyebrows raising. Ender gavehim a puzzled look, and Cutter shook his head. "He's barely said a word to anyone since he arrived, and he's never once smiled."

Ender blinked and looked down at Kai again. "Well..." He bent down slightly. "Maybe he's...I dunno, recognized a kindred spirit or something." He gave Kai a half-smile. "Whattaya think, pal? You wanna hang out with me once in a while?"

Cutter watched in amazement as Kai let go of him and shyly lifted his arms to be picked up. Ender calmly obliged, raising an eyebrow at the look on Cutter's face. "Well...I take that as a yes..."

Relief and amusement rapidly overcame his surprise, and Cutter shook his head in mock woefulness. "I have got to teach this kid some taste..." Ender gave him a dry look. Cutter grinned. "Well, we'll let you get back to your work."

Kai reached worriedly for him, afraid of being left. Ender shrugged and gently set the boy down. "See ya around, Kai. Make sure your dad doesn't leave his stuff around anymore, okay?"

The child resumed his grip on his father's leg. "Byebye!" Cutter chuckled slightly, and guided Kai out the door.

*****

Cutter had to smile slightly as he watched his son from where he was crouched by his motorcycle. Kai was seated on the floor of the enormous room that was the Brotherhood's garage, carefully stacking blocks in a single tower. He looked puzzled when they toppled over, though they'd done that at least twice now. Kai gathered them back up again, and began stacking again. Cutter chuckled and turned back to the adjustments he was making on his beloved bike. "A master architect he's not," he muttered beneath his breath, still smiling. "But at least he's tenacious." The smile faded as his concentration increased; this was a rather delicate moment. The occasional clatter of falling blocks informed him that Kai was continuing his personal war against the laws of physics.

Cutter had almost finished when it occurred to him that it'd been several minutes since he'd heard anything, and he quickly looked up. Kai was gone. Cutter spat a quiet curse and looked around. I'm going to chain that boy to my wrist next time, he thought in frustrated annoyance--more at himself than at Kai. He should know by now not to let the child out of his sight for even a second.

Fortunately, Kai hadn't gone far this time, and was apparently just wandering about the floor of the garage. Cutter sighed and turned back to what he was doing; it'd only take a moment to finish, and Kai wasn't--

He dropped his wrench with a start to the floor as the sound of someone hittinga gas pedal far harder than was necessary to cover the relatively short distance to the garage door. He whirled, getting a sick feeling in his stomach even as he did so.

Sure enough, there was a very large vehicle heading straight toward a very small Kai, who'd chosen to seat himself directly in the path to the exit. "Shit," Cutter gasped, throwing himself into a dead run. He caught a glimpse of Keen's startled face as he ran in front of the vehicle, roughly grabbing his son by the arms and throwing them both out of the Jeep's path. There was a squeal of breaks, and Keen jumped out, staring open mouthed.

Cutter's heart rate had quadrupled, and he went to his knees on the pavement, panting. He gave Kai a quick check, ensuring that the boy was okay, and staggered to his feet, fear giving way to fury.

"WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU!" Cutter snarled, storming up to Keen with his saber in hand. "That was my kid you almost ran over!"

Caught off-guard, the burly man backed up on instinct, hands raised defensively. "I didn't see 'im, I'm sorry!!"

"Sorry? SORRY?? You nearly killed him!" There were quite a few people in the garage that morning, for various reasons, including Duke and Jedar, and all of them stared in disbelief as the annoyingly unflappable hacker went far beyond annoyed and passed into the realm of mindless fury. "I ought to smear whatever's inside that great melon on top of your neck all over the walls!"

"Daddy..."

Cutter turned immediately, though the voice barely carried. Kai sniffled, still curled where Cutter had left him. Cutter went back to him and scooped him up, then walked out without another word, leaving his scattered tools and half-finished bike behind.

Everyone stared after him for a moment. Duke and Jedar exchanged a look, and started to chuckle.

"Welcome to fatherhood, Jay," Jedar grinned rather smugly.

"Kiss yer sanity goodbye," Duke agreed.

 

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