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Partners in Crime

By Starsong Lightwing

 

Cutter sat back in his chair and watched the party whirl around him, occasionally tossing a smile at familiar face. He lifted his wine glass and sipped it delicately. His low alcohol tolerance was a bit of an embarassment at times, but limiting himself was less humiliating than the consequences of overindulging. And it hurt a lot less in the morning.

Voices were raising off to his left. He shifted his gaze idly to the loose knot of people standing around one of the food table. There weren't many of them, two or three really. His attention was drawn to one in particular--not surprising considering the bright reds, yellows, and oranges that splashed a flowered pattern across the fabric wrapped around her slender frame. Kalani's at it again, I see. The Liana Island native possessed an exotic beauty he'd always found rather appealing, but she was far more well known for her propensity and ability to 'discuss' anything and everything. Her large, dark eyes blinked in honest confusion as the man who'd made the mistake of disagreeing with her got increasingly aggitated. Cutter chuckled. That has got to be the only person on this base as successful at frustrating people as I am.

The difference being, of course, that Kalani didn't do it on purpose. Usually. Cutter hid a smile as he watched the unfortunate soul who'd most likely thought to impress her with his high-school debate team skills get positively enraged. He'd lost all semblance of a logical point and was now nearly shouting. The spectators started to look edgy as the man's face reddened in anger and embarassment. Kalani appeared unphased, waiting quietly for him to finish before presenting a counter arguement--though how she could find anything to counter in that tirade was beyond him. She didn't seem the least intimidated by her much larger and higher ranked opponent. And if what Cutter had heard was true, she had absolutely no reason to be. He found it hard to believe that delicate-looking build could inflict as much damage as he'd been told, but no one knew better than he just how deceiving appearances could be.

Less than two minutes later the man stomped off to fume, leaving Kalani looking completely unruffled. She shook her head slightly as she watched him go and absently smoothed her short black hair.

You know , he thought absently, I believe I would like to meet the lady. He knew her in passing, of course, she'd been around for just over two years now, but they'd never really been formally introduced. Cutter pushed his chair back and stood, seeking a familiar mop of blue hair in the crowd.

"Introduce you? Why?" Jedar demanded suspiciously. Cutter shrugged carelessly.

"I merely wish to make the lady's acquaintance, and perhaps ask her to dance. I wasn't aware that you'd been appointed her chaperone. My appologies."

Jedar gave him a dark look, and then grinned slightly. "No."

Cutter shrugged again, as if he really didn't care one whit, and flashed a knowing grin. "Fine, I'll go see if Lessa's free for another dance--"

"No, no, just--wait here," Jedar grumbled, heading off. Cutter grinned to himself, and his grin widened as he saw Ender throw him a pleading look as he was dragged onto the dance floor by a girl wearing the by-now familiar predatory smile they all seemed to develop when he was around. Cutter lifted his hands apologetically. Even if he had been in a position to help, he wasn't sure he wanted to risk life and limb trying to rescue his friend from certain dance.

"Kalani, I don't believe you've met Jay Andrews, our resident hacker and all-around pain-in-the-tailfeathers."

Cutter turned and grinned. "I'm honored, Jedar, I had no idea your opinion of me was so high. Speaks volumes for my unavoidable charm and wit."

Jedar rolled his eyes. "Cutter, this is Kalani Manu-Hekili, and she's got far too much class to be taken in by the likes of you."

Cutter grinned. "And far too much intelligence for the likes of you, I'd wager, but let's not argue." He offered his hand to Kalani. "My pleasure."

She nodded, putting her small hand in his. Her voice, when she spoke, was softly accented with a pleasant lilt. "I'm glad to meet you too, Mr Andrews."

He chuckled. "Cutter, or Jay, but not that, please."

Kalani nodded again, and smiled. "As you wish."

"Well, I can see this is going to be a riveting conversation," Jedar observed dryly. "But I think I'll observe it from a distance."

"Better hurry," Cutter commented, nodding to something behind the older man. Jedar turned abruptly and cursed, hurrying off to intercept Nylessa before the dark-haired Blade Brother could beat him to it.

"Well," Cutter grinned, turning to Kalani, "I realize we've just met, but may I have this dance?"

*****

"Come in," Cutter called as someone knocked on his workroom door. He didn't take his eyes from the stubborn panel he was trying to work lose, frowning in concentration.

He heard the door open and shut, but the panel finally popped off and

"Jedar said you might be able to help me," she replied, her dark eyes taking in the room at a glance. "I have a setting I'd like you to match, if you could."

"Please, come in," Jay flashed a charming grin at the young woman, extending a hand in invitation and examining the small brooch she gave him. "I believe I have exactly what you need, actually."

"Excellent," Kalani nodded. "Thank you."

"If you'll give me just a moment, I'm sure it's here somewhere..." He started poking around the rather careless arrangement of jewels and settings in his drawer.

Behind him, Kalani gasped and Cutter looked quickly up to see pull her hand back from one of the random pieces of equipment that were scattered around the room. A thin line of blood ran across her palm. He reached for his first aid kit and gently took her hand. It seemed tiny in his palm, and he felt her tense slightly as he dabbed the cut with stinging disinfectant. "You're curiosity will be your undoing," he chided lightly.

"So I've been told," she smiled faintly. "I don't mind, so long as I find my answers."

His eyes flicked to her face with a grin. "Do you always find what you're looking for, then?"

"No," she answered, "But I often find something else." Cutter lifted an eyebrow but recognized only honesty in her face. She meant exactly what she'd said, no more.

That was actually rather a shame, he thought as he carefully wrapped the injured hand in gauze. She wasn't what most would consider insanely beautiful, but she had an exotic charm that he found rather appealing. It was her eyes that drew him. Deep brown, soft, and gentle, they held an intelligent sparkle that hinted at her insatiable curiosity. She had rather sweet, delicate hands, too...

"Am I interrupting something?"

They glanced up to see Jedar leaning on the doorframe with an eyebrow raised.

"If you are it's rather late to worry about it," Cutter replied easily, not releasing Kalani's hand. "Did you need something?"

"I needed to talk to both of you, actually," Jedar wandered in, watching as Cutter continued to bandage Kalani's cut. "I've a job to do and I thought you two might be interested."

"And what can we do for you?" Cutter tied off the bandage and Kalani flexed her hand experimentally.

Jedar grinned. "Been watching the news lately?"

*****

"I want four people on the team, plus you and Sparky," Jedar explained, showing them the blueprints he'd brought with him. "Ophelia will go in here, and her target is in that room there. Rob--" He shuffled the large sheet off the desk to reveal the on beneath it, "Will go through here, and up that service shaft."

"I'm certain he'll love that prospect," Cutter remarked, eyeing the obviously narrow space. Jedar ignored him.

"Kalani, you'll have the hardest part, because your target is here," he wrestled more oversize pages off the tabletop and finally pointing to a wide and largely open room with very little cover. "The alarm system is extensive, but I think you can make it through with Cutter's help. I need you," he turned to the drake. "To help coordinate the team from here, and to give Kalani whatever help you can. I'm going along here, through there, and up those stairs, into this room. Fewer alarms than yours," he nodded to Kalani, "But more likely to have guards, and it's farther to go. So, there you have it. Anyone interested."

Kalani nodded thoughtfully. "All right."

Cutter grinned. "Sounds like fun."

"Excellent," Jedar grinned. "If you can think of any way to improve the plan, by all means, speak up. We'll have more detailed information as soon as it can be procured." He gave Cutter a pointed look, and the younger man saluted lazily.

*****

Jay Andrews had two modes--work, and play.

He was working now.

Most of the differences were subtle. He was more focused, less likely to crack jokes. Some of the differences weren't so subtle. The absence of his normal cocky grin, for example. The firm set to his face that gave one the sense that he was a lot more dangerous than he let on. That there was more to him than the cocky, easy-going hacker.

There was a reason he preferred to work alone.

So when he looked up to find Kalani watching him closely, he was caught slightly off guard.

No problem. Flip of a switch. The grin flashed up, and he gallantly offered her his chair. She sat, a faint smile on her beak that, for some reason, made him just a little nervous.

Only for a moment, though.

"This," he leaned on the back of the chair and reached over her shoulder to trace the line the computer had mapped out through the defense system, "will get you through without setting any alarms or getting in the views of the cameras. But it has to be timed precisely. The system cycles; you'll have to start at the beginning of the cycle and stay in rhythm with it, or..." He looked at her. "Need I continue?"

"Point taken. Please go on."

"Once you make it here," he pointed to the blinking dot that represented their prize, "I'm going to deactivate the alarms; so far I've only been able to keep the security protocols off for fifteen seconds, I expect to be up to at least thirty, hopefully forty-five, by the time we're ready. All you have to do at that point is open the door and take the goods. Then you start back along the same path you came in along, at the same pace." He stood up. "It's going to be tedious."

She smiled vaguely. "E ho'a'o no i pau kuhihewa. Or, more simply put--Just do it."

"Right," he grinned, reaching over her to peck a command out on the keyboard. The screen shifted. "The others will be here, here, and here," he told her, pointing. "You'll stay together until you reach this point..." He detailed the plan for her, and she listened with a thoughtfully attentive look on her face. "Any questions?" He quirked a grin at her, but she wasn't looking at him, focused instead on the screen, her fingers pressed to her beak in thought.

"Why not go through here," she traced a line on the screen. "Instead of this one? How is the security on that area?"

Cutter was mildly impressed; that was an alternative he'd also spotted. "Tight, unfortunately. I could get past it, but not in the time frame we're looking at."

Kalani pondered that for a moment. "Do you have something on hard copy that I could look at?"

"Not at the moment, but I can pull something together for you," he answered, laying his hand on her shoulder. "Excuse me, please." She relinquished the chair and waited quietly behind him while he pulled up the schematics and blueprints he had on file. "What would you like?"

"All of it." Cutter lifted an eyebrow and glanced up at her. She didn't even notice, still looking over the screens.

He printed the diagrams, finding himself rather looking forward to this job.

*****

Cutter watched his monitors in satisfaction. Kalani wove through the invisible alarms and make-believe cameras, never once crossing the ever-shifting blocks of red on his monitors. He watched her fluid movements with a pride he couldn't really explain--he'd had very little to do with this accomplishment, aside from a little vague coaching every now and then, but he was proud of her nonetheless. Perhaps pride was really the wrong word...he'd gained a great deal of respect for the woman in the past few weeks. She had a brilliant analytical mind, though it tended toward social puzzles rather than mechanical ones, and she possessed an unrivaled amount of calm and patience that made her a pleasure to work with. Together they'd accomplished a great deal in a very short amount of time. He glanced from her to the screen and back again.

"Watch your timing," Cutter frowned at his computer screen as the timer clicked back. "Quickly, or--" Too late. The computer bleeped, and he frowned in annoyance. He was going to have to give her more time to get the case open. He made a mental note to confer with his apprentice on that later; there had to be a way to keep the alarms off just a little bit longer. But first...

"Let's try again," Kalani sighed.

"Let's not," he spun his chair toward her and grinned, but his tone left no room for argument. "Would you care to join me for dinner instead?"

"I need more practice," she noted in her quiet voice.

"You'll have more practice," Cutter promised, standing up and stretching, "Tomorrow. We've been at this for a long time, and I'm going to go cross-eyed if I stare at this much longer. You've got to be tired. I'm starved. If you'd like to join me, I'd be grateful for your company."

She considered that for a moment, and nodded. "All right. Thank you."

Cutter grinned. "My pleasure."

*****

This is...different , Cutter couldn't help noting wryly. He was known for extravagance, and this was anything but. The small cafe was far less fancy than his usual haunts, but if it was simple, there was elegance in the simplicity. And, for all that it cost him half of what he was used to spending, the food was far superior. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had a simple deli-style sandwich.

"I'll have to remember this place," he commented thoughtfully. "Nice atmosphere." Kalani nodded.

"I find it conducive to thought. I come here as often as possible, given circumstances." She quirked a slight smile. "My face is not so memorable, fortunately. My name is far more infamous, and names are easily enough altered."

"As well as clothing style," he noted. Instead of her normal brilliant colors, she wore plain blue jeans and a deep blue, long-sleeved shirt. She acknowledged this with a nod.

"It's not a change I would choose," she said with an elegant shrug. "It seems to me a denial of my heritage, and I have precious few reminders of it remaining. However, I'm afraid tradition must sometimes take a backseat to practicality."

"Well said," Cutter grinned. "Although you might have difficulties making that argument to Iliana." She smiled.

"The Loremaster and I have had many an interesting discussion on the subject," she admitted, setting her chin in her hand with a rather amused look. "It seems that she and I will simply have to agree to disagree. She's very reasonable about it, in an unyielding sort of way. And she does have her reasons, rather than merely stammering something to the effect of 'but that's how things are done!'"

"A situation I take it you are familiar with," he chuckled.

"More than a little," she replied with good humor. "Along with 'but that's what I was told!' I must say, though, the worst by far is 'because I said so.'" She ran a finger thoughtfully along the grain of the wooden table.

"You're referring to our late president?"

"Canard's regime was without compassion," Kalani said quietly. "They judged where they had no right, they took what no one should be compelled to give, and they were deaf to the cries of the people they had pledged to serve. All because they could." The quiet conviction hardened her voice and darkened her eyes. "And those that have taken their place are only marginally better," she added, barely audible. Her eyes sought the depths of her mug. The sudden aura of sadness about her was heartbreaking. Cutter's hand traveled across the table of its own accord, and he touched her hand gently. She let him take it, and gave him a smile that was almost apologetic.

"I have been told that I care too much."

Cutter watched her more intently than he'd intended. "Do you believe that?"

Kalani shrugged elegantly and withdrew her hand. "Perhaps. But it is a part of myself that I am not particularly motivated to change." She took a delicate sip from her cup. "A lifetime spent caring for nothing seems rather pointless."

*****

"You're sure that's comfortable?" Cutter carefully adjusted the tiny comm connected Kalani's collar, making sure none of the wires would come loose. She nodded.

"Yes, thank you." He gave her a smile, and moved on.

"I do hope you're sure these will work," Jedar commented dryly, holding still as Cutter attached the com.

"If you're looking for something to blame in case you mess up, I'm afraid you're out of luck," Cutter grinned. "I designed these myself, and I'm quite certain that any problems won't be caused by the communication system."

"I'm so reassured," Jedar said dryly. Cutter ignored the comment as Shockwave finished putting the devices on Opehlia MacBeth and Robert Beake.

"All right," Cutter muttered, sitting down at his console and donning a headset. "Let's make sure everything's working..." He checked all the comms, made sure the switching channels were working, and finally grinned and satisfaction. "We're hot."

"Then we're gone," Jedar answered, and the team filed out.

Cutter turned to the computer, and began his second task for this job. "Let me know when you're in, Sparky."

"Right." Shockwave's hands were already flying. Cutter kept vague track of the younger man's movements in the back of his mind, and gave a slight grin as he started his own part of the hack, ready and willing to live up to his name. By the time he had sliced the museum's security encryption, Shockwave had hacked through the low-priority automated system, giving them their back door.

Now there was nothing to do but wait for the team to arrive at their target.

*****

It had taken them less time to get through than the two hackers had anticipated, and Cutter had fallen into a half-doze before the comm channel finally crackled open. He snapped awake instantly, and reached over to shake Shockwave's chair. The younger man started and shook himself more fully awake.

"Cutter?"

"Receiving," Cutter answered, flipping switches to clear the static.

"Were you sleeping on the job again?" Jedar asked dryly.

"We're ready whenever you are," Cutter replied, as if the question hadn't been asked. On the other side of the line, Jedar sighed.

"All right, then, we're going in. Rob, you first."

"Oh goody," the drake in question muttered, clearly very nervous.

"Really, Robert, you shouldn't be so excitable," Cutter's calm and permanently amused voice cut in smoothly. "The worrying is my job, so please refrain from attempting to usurp my position."

Rob snorted. "Great. Who's the idiot that gave him that job? He's never worried a day in his life."

"I would be the idiot, thanks, Rob," Jedar replied dryly. "Although in retrospect there were probably better choices."

Cutter sat back a little as the light banter continued, satisfied that his quip had relieved some of the dangerous tension.

"The guard shift is changing," Kalani's soft voice observed, and Cutter checked his monitors.

"Stay clear of the windows near the stairwells for a bit," he advised, "I'm sure some of our health-conscious rent-a-cops will be puffing up and down them shortly."

The thieves all enjoyed a faint chuckle at this, and the operation went cautiously forward. Cutter continued to monitor the status of the security system, making a dry comment every now and again to keep everyone from getting too nervous.

"Good work," he murmured when everyone was in place. "Do try not to mess this up, Jedar."

The older man rolled his eyes and muttered something that wasn't quite audible over the wire as he set up the electronic bypass Cutter had rigged for them.

"Well done," Cutter said a moment later, putting a touch of surprise in his voice just to irk the man. "All right, Kalani, it's your time to shine. I can close the other channels if these clowns will distract you." A series of grumbles came up the line, and he grinned slightly.

"That will not be necessary," Kalani replied with just a touch of humor in her voice. "They are not so hard to ignore."

Cutter had to laugh at that, and at the indignant responses that followed. "Hush now, shame on you. Let the lady work."

"Thank you, Jay. Now please shut up."

"Yes ma'am," he grinned.

*****

Kalani slipped into the darkened room, weaving through it in the dance the computer had laid out for her. She counted silently between steps, avoiding the roving lasers and cameras perfectly.

"Careful," Cutter murmured, watching her tracker beacon on his simulator program, "You just missed a camera there." Kalani adjusted without response and without breaking the flow of her movements as she quickened her rhythm just slightly.

Cutter found himself having to ignore a slight nervousness of his own, and he listened to the rhythm of her breathing, trying to judge her mental state and her progress. A slow but undeniably relieved sigh told him she'd reached her goal.

"Hold still for a moment," he told her, and she did so. "Close your eyes." He gave her two seconds to follow his instructions, then started up his 'attack canid' program. Step one, distract the system. He flicked a switch, looping the cameras back on themselves. Step two, blind them. He entered a series of commands and the casing around their target flashed brilliantly for a moment. Step three. "The system is disarmed, you've got a little over thirty seconds starting now." Kalani didn't waste time, she scooped up the jewels and started back across the room.

It was about then that everything went straight to hell.

Someone yelled in Cutter's ear, and he quickly checked his screens. "There's an alert on the third floor."

"No kidding!!" Rob sounded like he was running. Cutter bit back a curse.

"Time to clear out, boys and girls, the fun's over for the day," he tried to keep ahead of the alarms Rob was setting off as he ran, shutting them down as quickly as possible before they could alert his position. Gunfire sounded and Rob swore vehemently.

"Where is he?" Jedar demanded.

"Too far away for you to help," Cutter answered him, flicking switches. "Party's over, boys and girls, everybody pull out."

"I'm not going anywhere except--" Jedar's words cut off in a curse and there was a sound suspiciously like someone skidding to a stop on a tile floor. Then he was running again, Cutter suspected in the opposite direction. "You're supposed to warn me about things like that!!"

"I can't keep track of both of you, Jedar, I told you to get out of there. You set off something, and I'm too busy trying to keep them off Rob's trail to cover yours right now." Jedar swore again. Cutter didn't have the time to spare for it. "Sparky--"

"I'm trying, I'm trying!" The boy's hands were moving furiously across his control board. "I can't shut them all down, I'm setting off some false alarms for them to chase instead."

"Jedar, get out." Cutter left no room for argument. "Ophelia, that goes for you too."

"Fine, I'm going, I'm going!" Jedar growled.

"Already gone," Ophelia chirped.

"You'd better go faster, Jedar," Cutter observed, "You've got cops on your tailfeathers."

"No, really??"

The sound of breaking glass rang out through the com. "Who was that?" Cutter demanded.

"It was me," Kalani's voice was calm but tight. "The fourth floor's crawling, I went through the window and dropped to the third. I'm going after Robert."

Cutter's breath came out in a hiss of annoyance, but some instinct told him that there would be no dissuading her, and from what he could tell Rob was running in her general direction. Cutter had to make an effort to keep his hands steady as he worked.

Finally he spat a curse and gave up. "Sparky, keep up the false alarms, I'm going to shut the whole system down."

His apprentice was too busy to answer, and Cutter fixed a determined glare on his screens. "Looks like this game's going to overtime." It was a race, now, man against machine as he cut through the security protocols, bypassed watchdog programs, and hacked numeric passwords. He followed the comm conversations in the back of his mind, keeping track of who was where as best he could, but focusing his main attention on his work. He was aware when Kalani reached Rob, and a jolt of surprise and worry cost him a precious moment of attention.

"You're hurt," Rob panted.

"Not badly," was Kalani's answer, though Cutter was somehow disinclined to believe her. "We don't have time to stop. You're wounded too, can you walk?"

"Yeah, I think so," his voice was tight with pain.

"Then walk fast."

Cutter's jaw tightened slightly but he forced his attention back where it belonged, and finally succeeded in making it through to the command level he needed. With grim satisfaction, he set off his virus program.

Ten seconds later, the whole building was plunged into darkness, the cameras went off, the water stopped running, and the electronic locks disengaged. He took a deep breath, and his hands went slack.

"Where is everybody?" he asked.

"I'm out," Jedar's voice answered.

"Me too," Ophelia called.

"Kalani? Rob?" Cutter frowned.

"We are safe, for the moment." Kalani panted, sounding pained but calm.

"I would suggest that everyone get out of there and come home, then," Cutter had to struggle to keep his tone light, "Unless you'd care for an encore."

"No thanks," Rob gritted. "Damn, this hurts."

*****

Cutter told Tarrin to get ready for injuries, and then went to wait at the door. Jedar made it back first, and waited with him for the rest of the team. Ophelia was next, with only minor injuries; she was sent off to the infirmary as soon as she arrived. Rob and Kalani were next, and Jedar swore when they came into the light. Rob's bloodstained arm hung limp, and they both moved painfully.

"What happened?"

"I got shot," he gritted. "Kal, you got great timing, but next time it'd be nice if you could make it just a few minutes sooner."

Kalani smiled wanly. "My apologies." Her voice was faint, though, and the men realized with a start that blood was soaking the side of her suit.

Rob spit a curse. "You told me it wasn't bad!"

"It isn't," she said a little too calmly. "I cut myself on part of the window. It's not deep." But she was pale, and it was obvious that she'd lost blood. Cutter was moving even before her knees buckled, and he lifted her gently, heading for the infirmary without another word.

"I didn't know it was that bad," Rob protested weakly. "It was dark, I couldn't tell..."

"It's not your fault..."

The voices faded as Cutter outpaced them, keeping his stride measured but swift as he carried her down to the infirmary.

*****

"She'll be all right," Tarrin pronounced as he checked the bandage. "She needs rest, but the wound is clean and it should heal just fine."

Cutter pulled a seat up by the bed and took her hand. Tarrin lifted an eyebrow but discreetly said nothing as he left.

"Why is it," he said lightly, "That whenever I tell a woman to come back safely, they go and get hurt?"

Kalani opened her dark, doe-soft eyes and looked up at him. "I appologize for worrying you," she said quietly, squeezing his hand weakly.

"You should," Cutter's grin was a little forced. "I would have been extremely put out if you hadn't given me the opportunity to take you out again. And I don't worry easily."

Kalani smiled, closing her eyes. "The offer is accepted, and I'll make an effort not to worry you again."

"All right then," Cutter nodded. "I'm glad that's settled. Rest, now." He ran a finger down her face gently. "I expect a full and preferably quick recovery."

Kalani smiled, already dropping off. "As you wish."

 

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