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Unecessary Things

By Jadestar

 

The blonde woman walked unseeing down the steps of the professionally immaculate building and onto the footpath, her blue eyes seeing none of it. It was a moderately busy scene, and an old drake brushed past her as he clambered up the steps, wincing. Except he's not so old, she reminded herself. Maybe only five years older than I am, and I wince too, I've seen it in the mirror.

She wandered aimlessly, almost in circles, gradually moving into the seedier districts. She ought to have been a target, a small middle-aged bird, and the only weapon she possessed was the glare she could give when provoked, and the words she could spit. It had always been enough. Everyone had known better than to mess with her.

There were times in years gone past where her cocky step and challenging eyes had drawn admiration from innocent bystanders. Men would stop and watch her go past, sensing the fiery aura that hung close. This afternoon she was invisible, making herself empty and shut-off from the world, and the world treated her the same.

The corridors of the Brotherhood seemed to suck sound into the walls, stealing the echo of her footsteps. Here she did draw eyes; unfriendly ones, indifferent ones. They ranged from openly hostile to rudely curious. On a normal day, she would have held her head up high and kept her eyes to the front, except to send one or two defiant grins at the most unfriendly. Today she didn't even notice the people. Her hands were deep in the loose pockets of her jeans as if she had to hide them, and she stared fixedly at the floor, shoulder-length hair flopping rhythmically. Bad news suppresses even the fiercest of us.

It was only when she reached the door that she started taking any interest in her appearance. She tried to run her fingers through her hair to tidy it, but she was clumsy about it, too weak with her tugs, and failed to make an improvement. Pressing the button with the base of her palm, the door slid open.

Cutter looked up as Xenon waked in, her step purposeful. "Hey Keely," he greeted. "If I'd known you were coming, I would've baked you a cake."

She smiled back, seating herself in his lap without looking for his permission. "That's alright, I brought you something special to nibble on."

He knew the joke, he'd been around. But he let her have the punch-line, because something inside him was nagging at him that something was up with her, something wasn't quite right... "And where is it?"

"It's sitting on you." And she leaned over and started kissing him.

She's not happy, he absently thought as he kissed back. But he wasn't the sort of man to ask, and she wasn't the sort of woman to tell.

*****

Stuffing the heat-pad into her backpack as she exited the toilet stall, Xenon stared into the large mirror. A tired face she barely recognised as her own peered back. She sniffed, and turned away. Sex had made her feel better for awhile, but when Cutter had gone to sleep, she'd felt too unnecessary to stay. Someone was taking a shower further down, and steam hung in the air. The tiles were slightly damp, making her wary of where she trod.

"Maybe I should just go home," she thought aloud.

There was a snort from one of the other stalls. "We can only hope."

Xenon glared at the stall door, inwardly stung. She couldn't identify the voice; only that it was young, and female. That wasn't strange. It seemed the dislike of her by most of the upper members of the Brotherhood had trickled down to the rank and file. She was an enemy on principle. She suddenly had to blink hard to keep the tears from coming. I know I've done things. But I'm sorry. I've been trying so hard to make it up to them... To be what they want... No one listens...

And now that she was in serious trouble, no one was going to care.

She tried to look at the whole thing objectively, as she slunk out of the bathroom. It helped hold a group together, having a common enemy. Something everyone could gripe about. Even someone as insignificant as her.

Except I represent something, she grimly decided as she hovered between heading back to Cutter for comfort or going for a drink. The fact that Jay lo-... cares about me. Me, the brash, manipulative, cruel, dirty bitch with the temper, compared to perfect Kalani. It's not the way they like the fairy tales to end. Nobody wants the mean one to be happy.

She blinked; suddenly realising she'd just been standing there, staring into the distance, instead of choosing a direction.

Going to Cutter for comfort? What sort of oxymoronic expectation is that?

She immediately felt contrite. It's not his fault. Of all people, I know that.

Sighing, Xenon started walking towards the exit to go home. Absently, she wondered who she'd set up as the bad one in her group. She didn't remember consciously singling anyone out for it, but it sounded like her sort of tactic.

Then her stomach twisted, and for a moment she thought she was going to vomit.

It was me.

She instantly spun on her heel, heading the opposite way. No. No, I don't hate myself that much. Not back then.

At least things can't get any worse, she thought wryly. Then she remembered they had.

She wanted that drink. Badly.

*****

Xenon swished the remaining drink around in the bottom of her glass. Was she drunk yet? Maybe. Probably not. Not if she was still in control enough to ask herself that question. Around her table sat a range of people, from juniors to saber students. The one thing they did all have in common was that they were the down-trodden. The ones on thin ice.

Never thought I'd be classified as one of the losers. But then she smiled. At least I'm the most popular loser.

That was true. They were hanging on her every word, because she was painting the picture of a world where they'd dreamed about a long time. The smile turned into a grin. She hadn't seen that look of hope for decades... Since before the Invasion, in the homes of the other anarchists. And then in her own face when she'd started the HACKERS. "The major mistake that people make is thinking that anarchy is about chaos. But there already is chaos. Unemployment, the rich making millions at the expense of others... I could go on, but I'm sure we've all seen it ourselves." General nodding and murmurs. "Everything would be collective, so we wouldn't need to be stealing, we'd have no motive." She paused and held her breath, waiting for someone to get upset about that. No one did. She exhaled, deciding that most of these less-talented members were probably either born into poverty or treated thievery as a job, not an adrenalin trip... "As for crimes, such as murder, half the reasons for murder would be gone with the absence of state. And for those who did do things that the people around them didn't like... everyone could look out for each other, and when things did go wrong, they'd know a better solution than just throwing the person in prison. We'd only have to work as much as needed to survive. Things like rubbish collection could be on a roster." She illustrated her points with gestures, and her hands and wrists throbbed, but she kept going. This was the vision she lived for. "Take the Brotherhood for example. You can do your job just fine without Kel, right?"

Cautious glances in the group, people looking over their shoulder. She rolled her eyes. "For Drake's sake, it's just an example. But you can go and pick a pocket without him holding your hand. Exactly how does he contribute to this place? By enforcing rules and a class system? What I'm saying is that the workers can co-operate and run a business efficiently on their own, because they know the business better than anyone else. And they'd also work better because they were working for themselves, and not someone else."

One of the juniors spoke up timidly. "So... we should get rid of the Leader and the Red Circle?"

Xenon hesitated. "Not get rid of them. Anarchy shouldn't be installed through force..." The realisation that Cutter was Red Circle and technically part of the ruling class made her even more uncertain. "And we aren't exactly a majority. The whole Brotherhood would have to agree on it."

"No force? But if we didn't kill them, then wouldn't they just take over again?" An older drake this time. "We didn't kill the Saurians the first time, and look what happened then."

She started to shake her head, then gave up. Shrugging, she said "I'm not sure. I did try to kill some politicians, once."

All of a sudden, she felt her chair being yanked away from her table. Twisting her head sharply to yell at the offender, the table gasped, and Xenon bit back her anger to hurriedly try and figure out what to do. "Good evening, Drakelah. Care for a drink?"

"Stand up!" Drakelah's black eyes spat fire. When Xenon failed to do so, Drakelah grabbed Xenon's upper arm and hauled her to her feet. Despite being almost fifteen years Xenon's elder, anyone sane would have put their money on Drakelah in a fight between the two.

Xenon swallowed, and let her own indignation rise. "Let go of me!" She yanked her arm out of Drakelah's grip. "What's your problem? If you wanted a seat, you only had to ask."

The anger Drakelah felt would have thrown any normal being into a violent temper, but she held it in. Her voice cold, she glared down at the blonde. "It would be stupidity fer anyone to sit and listen to your garbage." The others at the table melted away like magic, and Xenon found herself alone with Drakelah at the centre of room full of thieves, everyone twisting in their chairs to see the show. "Anyone who had any idea about how we work here would know better."

"It's not garbage," Xenon said, quiet but firm. Her next words held more spite. "It only bothers you because I'm talking about making everyone equals." She sneered. "You wouldn't like that, would you? Getting the same privileges, getting the same ransom price, as the kid who joined yesterday?"

Drakelah's eyes narrowed into slits. "We need a Leader to make quick decisions in a crisis situation. They become the Leader by showing their exceptional abilities as they work through the ranks. The ranks are there to teach, not to assign value."

Looking up at Drakelah, Xenon cursed her small stature not for the first time. "The best teacher stays on the same level as his students."

"How can he stay at the same level? He needs ta move on wit' his own peers, keep on wit' his own challenges, or he won't know anythin' worth teachin'."

Xenon laughed. "And so becomes disconnected from everyday reality. The reality that we," here she waved to the onlooking crowd, "Have to face everyday. Hard reality." She looked around, hoping for support, but finding instead irritation and resentment. Alright, I get the idea. Not quite ready for revolution.

"If ya don't like the way we do things here, too bad. We didn't ask ya ta come." People in the room nodded. Drakelah continued. "You should go back home. If Cutter cares enough about you, he can go visit ya there." Drakelah raises an eyebrow. "Or is he too busy?"

Oh, shut the hell up, what do you know? "What's the point in making it personal? You aren't even trying to understand!"

"And ya ain't listening ta me either. We've been doin' just fine fer thousands of years, and we'll keep doin' fine fer thousands of years after yer dead," Drakelah said in a voice of stone.

Xenon's blood thumping loudly in her head, she would repeatedly kick herself for her next words later. "If Kel and Leila were good leaders, then they'd use their position to teach everyone to think for themselves, instead of following some holy directive from on high. I've got no reason to follow any orders they give to me. Kel, or anyone else."

"That's it. Enough treason. March." Drakelah pushed Xenon towards the door into the hall, and Xenon saw no point in a useless struggle. Drakelah kept harrying her until the door was closed behind them, and they stood in the empty hallway. Xenon started to turn to speak, but before she'd moved more than an inch, she found herself being slammed into the opposite wall. The back of her head thunked hard, and when Drakelah let go of her shirt, her legs wobbled and she slid down the wall, sitting hard.

Drakelah was already regretting her action a little, but shrugged it off. She'd done what was necessary to make the younger woman heed her. "If ya were a child, ya would've been spanked at the end of yer first sentence. Count yerself lucky, and come back to whatever small sense ya got in that head of yours."

Xenon stared up at her from the floor, shocked and gasping. "I'm getting beat up just for holding an opinion! I thought we'd left the dark ages behind! Nice to know we've got people like you keeping them alive and well!" Her head throbbed.

"Everyone else here had ta earn the right to give their advice, you ain't so special. It was never a democracy 'ere."

"Afraid I'm going to cost you a few dollars? Money isn't worth all this."

"If it's capitalism that worries ya, I'd advise ya ta get a new boyfriend. Sleepin' wit' the enemy must be wreckin' havoc wit' yer little ideals."

Oh, crap. What's Cutter going to do when he finds out about all this? She honestly had no idea. For the second time in as many minutes, Xenon found herself being pulled to her feet.

Drakelah let Xenon find her balance before starting to tug the younger woman into a walk. "C'mon, I'm sure Kel would love ta have a little heart ta heart wit' you."

And if I wasn't all out of pain-killers, I'd love to have a little fist to fist with YOU, Xenon thought viciously as she followed Drakelah.

*****

Kel was fast asleep at his desk, head resting on his forearms, when he was abruptly woken up by a rat-tat-tat on his door. He jerked awake, jumping. "Sausages!" he exclaimed before he could bite his tongue. He winced, rubbing his face to look more alive than dead. "I have got to break that habit," he muttered, as he pressed the button to open the door.

Drakelah marched and Xenon stumbled in. The former looking angry, and the latter looking sullen. Kel tried not to sigh.

"Good evening, ladies. What's the problem?" He pointed to the two chairs in front of him. Xenon sank into one tiredly, but Drakelah preferred to remain standing.

"She's tryin' ta start some sort of rebellion," Drakelah said, folding her arms. "An' apparently she don't take orders from anyone, you included."

Kel ran a hand through his hair, and looked to Xenon. "Well? Is that true?"

Xenon shrugged, exhausted and slow-witted from her collision with the wall and the alcohol that was starting to catch up with her. "I suppose so, though the technical term is revolution, not rebellion."

Oh, ferpect. Kel dug out a smile for Drakelah, and nodded. "Thanks Drakelah. I think I can handle this."

Drakelah returned the nod, and left the room. Xenon sat with her arms folded, alternating between tired and seething.

They looked at each other, both guarded. There was silence. Then Kel asked for the whole story. She told him a story, one that was pretty accurate on the encounter with Drakelah. But she left out being thrown against the wall, and any mention of Cutter. Kel didn't seem to notice any details missing.

Back to the staring match, but her expression was more challenging than before. Finally, Kel spoke.

"I can't control your private thoughts, so you're welcome to them. However, I do not want you trying to persuade others that they're being persecuted, or attempting to rid yourself of the system we have running here. The consequences of even a small revolt could cause our downfall, and then we'd all be worse off. Even you." She looked back impassively, and he continued. "If you don't like the way I run things, then you'll have to challenge me."

Xenon rolled her eyes at the impossibilities of that. "It's good to know that brawn is more important than brains. At least I won't form any misconceptions about the average IQ of an Honour Blade after they've had all those years of blows to the head."

Kel smiled thinly. "You become an Honour Blade by being good enough to avoid the blows to the head." What to do... "I've got a job for you."

Her words were toneless, her face empty. "What job would that be?"

Pushing his chair back and opening his top drawer, Kel produced a piece of paper, covered with hand-written notes. He held it out to her.

Xenon looked at the piece of paper, and took it after a pregnant pause. She quickly skimmed it. When done, she looked back up at Kel coldly. "You want me to hack the Remaican National Bank. How refreshingly original."

"Think of it as a test. It would be nice if you started earning your keep. You've got a large debt hanging over your head." He tapped a pen on the end of his beak. "It's not very hard, I'm sure you'll have no problems."

She ripped the paper down the middle, and dropped the two pieces on his desk. "No."

Aw, come on... Kel carefully hid his frustration. "You're refusing to hack for us?"

"Looks like it."

Kel continued on like she'd never said no. "Here's the rules of the test." You want to play games, fine with me, we'll all play. "Either you do the hack, and do it successfully, or I stop giving you so much slack and you start acting like the Junior that you are. You attend classes, and start thieving. You're either a hacker or a Junior. Your call."

Xenon narrowed her eyes, glaring. Kel ignored the deadly stare, taking a piece of the torn paper in each of his hands, offering them back to her. She stood, grabbed them out of his hands, and angrily stalked out of his office.

Kel rolled his eyes as the door closed, and yawned, rubbing his forehead. He grabbed a couple of papers and stood, heading for a few hours sleep in his own bed. I wonder exactly how much trouble I'm in with Zuzanny...

*****

Xenon slipped back under the covers as quietly as she could. Cutter muttered something, but didn't wake up. Settling onto her back, she stared into the darkness of the room.

I have to do it. Going to the Junior's classes would be so... degrading. On the other hand (ha ha), I can't do it.

She frowned resentfully. What's so terrible about anarchy anyway? It's mostly all theory... She floundered in her own mind. Though I mean it to be practical, I used to work towards it... I still think it's right. I just don't do anything anymore... I'm all talk.

This depressed her enough to think of something else, but the next available topic wasn't much better as far as ease of mind went. Why am I staying here? Why am I taking all this crap from everybody? I have my own home to go to...

Except that wasn't entirely true, because her house was paid for with Brotherhood money. And she was a Brotherhood member, no way out of that. And what good would I be at home? At least here, I might be able to scrape up a useful item or two. Besides... they'd figure it out, eventually. And I'm not done being the independent and resourceful leader yet. Not yet. Better being here, where I can try and gain some respect, then go home and lose it.

And there was Cutter, of course, but she didn't let him rule her life, he didn't effect her decisions, no sir.

Sleep was a long time coming.

*****

She glared balefully at the white plastic jar in her hands. Oh, no you don't! There's no way you're stopping me with a child-proof container! She tried to twist it open, and winced. It wasn't going to work. Xenon looked around the Mainframe. Shockwave was in another corner, fiddling with something. She stood, and wandered over to him.

"Hey, Sparky?"

He looked over his shoulder at her, and smiled. "Hi Xenon!"

She held out the bottle of pain-killers. "Be a man, open this jar for me?"

"Yeah, sure thing." He put down his screwdriver, and happily opened it for her.

"Thanks," said Xenon, truly grateful. That was the good thing about Sparky. You didn't need to flirt or make promises with him. He was happy to help. And he doesn't ask questions either... That Milantha girl sure has him trained...

Back at her own desk, Xenon took a quick look at the instructions on the label of the bottle, the fruits of a trip to the pharmacy that morning. No more than two a time, huh? Okay then... three now, and three half-way through... She popped three pills into her mouth, one after the other, and took a swallow of water from the glass next to her. She switched her laptop on and carefully loaded up the programs she needed. Taking a last look at Kel's paper, she took a deep breath and set it aside. I can do this. A piece of cake, she assured herself. Chocolate cake with frosting and sprinkles, even, ready to get all chewed up.

She typed slowly, knowing that she would have to speed it up once in the system. And there she was, in the system, but her fingers burnt. They didn't do what she told them. Her mind was moving so fast, the bank's security was moving almost as quick, but her hands weren't going. If the tablets had taken the edge off the pain, it didn't show. Every touch of the keys was agony.

She saw them realise that there was someone in the system. I have to get out, she thought as if in a fog. Nothing else matters, just get out. But even that wasn't simple, she had to get out clean, she couldn't give them anything to follow, and that took time. Faster, faster, faster... Faster...

And then she was out with a whisker to spare, and the Brotherhood was safe, at least she hadn't destroyed that, she'd kept the meal ticket, kept the protection for those she saw as her family, but it was plain that she was a broken woman. She rocked back and forth, refusing to cry at the throbbing in her joints... If Sparky turns and sees me, or if Jay walks in, I'll just fall down and die... fall down and die and I wouldn't regret it...

As calmly as she could she turned off the computer. She walked out the Mainframe door and arrived at the room that was technically hers. She went in and locked the door behind her. Dust tainted the air, and there were no ornaments anywhere... just a bed and a desk and an empty wardrobe. Her mind felt as dull and vacant.

Ignoring the fact that it was midday, she curled up on top of the bed-sheets. Need to rest... have to start from the bottom again tomorrow... This time she slept immediately.

*****

In the weeks that followed, she never consciously thought about the humiliation. That would have been like paying attention to breathing. It was something too obvious to spell out in words and feelings. She felt alone, old and slowly greying in rooms full of children and teenagers. Enough life experience to write an encyclopaedia, but helpless when practising to pick a pocket, weak in a fight. Laughed at, teased, taunted... The suspect accidents of others tripped her up, while her own mistakes and lack of ability dragged her down. Too crushed for ambition but too stubborn and full of dull anger to give up.

Some blame she placed on her wrists and hands, for letting her down. Certainly, if they had just functioned properly in the first place, the whole situation would have been avoided. And perhaps she could have held the saber in her hands properly then, or had some finesse when trying to disarm practice security systems. Deep in her heart, however, she knew that she had no talent for thievery. It was too subtle, too much of a dance. She preferred to simply smash through problems, rather than worrying about being quiet and careful.

If Cutter noticed the bruises she carried when she came to him, he didn't say anything. Xenon didn't tell him about her taking junior classes, or the treatment she received. She knew that he had to know, but previous arguments about the way many members looked down at her had taught her that bringing up the topic was pointless. He would have no sympathy for her, he could not be the safe haven she dreamed of, and she had accepted her hopeless position too deeply to feel hurt or upset towards him.

Kel spoke to her sometimes, asked her to do a hack, said he'd keep giving her chances to use her skills and redeem herself. Get her out of the classes and the sparring matches that she invariably and painfully lost. She never answered, just sat in his office, watching him silently with cold eyes. Afterwards, he'd give her a quick private lesson in whatever she was failing the most in that week. She could never tell if they were honestly meant to help her, or if Kel was just reminding her who was the boss and who was the student. If his motivation was the latter, it was a waste of time, because the feeling of failure was never out of her mind.

*****

Cutter sighed inwardly beside Jedar in the Mess Hall. They'd both cleaned their plates, but it had been a more silent meal than usual because Jedar was obviously working out how to talk about something delicate, and Cutter was waiting for him to get to it.

Jedar finally did so when Cutter started acting like he was going to get up. "So... how's Xenon?"

Ah. "Okay, I suppose."

"You suppose?" Jedar raised an eyebrow. "It's not really any of my business, but--"

Here Cutter interjected, "But you're making it your business?"

Jedar frowned. "But she seems pretty much the opposite of okay."

"Do tell." Cutter picked up his glass, peering into it under the pretence of checking for any remaining juice.

"Well, if you haven't noticed, maybe you actually don't give a damn, in which case I guess I'd be wasting my time." Jedar's expression was a mixture of sarcasm and irritation.

Cutter turned his head sideways to give his friend a hard look. "Don't try and bait me."

"She's having a really nasty time, Jay. Everyone's talking about her, and I think you and I are the only ones with anything nice to say."

"That's not very new."

"They're doing more than talking now." At that, Cutter frowned. Jedar saw, and elaborated. "A lot of juniors in sparring practice have been going a lot further than they're supposed to, and for some reason, no one seems to care." Jedar paused, watching Cutter tense up. "I stepped in myself, the other day. I think if I hadn't those kids would have broken her arm, and they were under Drakelah's supervision at the time. Got me wondering why I was the one who rescued her when it should have been you. And then when all Keely cared about was stopping me telling you..."

A minute of silence. When Cutter spoke, his voice was slightly strained, detectable only to those who knew him well. "I have heard a little about it. She never mentioned it to me... so I kept putting off confirming the rumours."

Jedar sounded a little incredulous. "She must be covered from beak to bottom with bruises by now. That didn't seem a little strange to you?"

"She never mentioned it." Cutter looked at him blankly. Yes, yes, I know how terrible it all sounds to a happily married man, all this pretending for the sake of... something, and we're both friends of yours so you're trying to help, but I just haven't worked it out yet. Give me more time.

Cutter excused himself pleasantly enough and didn't start thinking again until he'd gotten safely into his workshop where he could occupy his hands again.

Jedar made it sound like he didn't care about her, which was untrue. Keely was just so complicated. If he tried to help her with one thing, it always seemed to prick at something else, and if he tried to solve that problem, another one would appear. Meanwhile, Cutter was a man who liked to know the results of his actions in advance.

He allowed himself a wry smile. The answers he'd discovered when dealing with problems with Kalani were completely inapplicable. And just when he'd thought he'd finally started to understand.

He wondered if he'd made a mistake, getting involved with her again so quickly, Kalani only three months gone. But that was the way it always seemed to happen, with them...

Jay Andrews was drunk, and he knew it. He knew it, because he hated the world, he hated himself, and he hated the bottle that one hand gripped possessively on the no-longer shining wood of the bar -- what was left of it. Still, he poured another glass, making excuse to himself. He couldn't be sure that he was really drunk, after all, because anyone would feel this way after their home was destroyed, and dozens of their friends, acquaintances, and barely-tolerated associates killed, the rest scattered...

"Hey!"

He rose out of his apathy enough to lift his head, and look back over his shoulder across the ruins of the bar, half-expecting to see a gun pointed at him, and knowing with the rational part of his brain that he was still desperately trying to drown that he was too wasted to do anything about it in any case.

The figure picking its way across the wreckage was slight and small, haggard and somewhat shabby, but in better condition than most of the hurried, frightened shadows he'd encountered so far.

Without fear, she swung herself over the bar and dug around in the wreckage behind it, finding, as he had, a dirty but relatively uninjured shot glass. She wiped it out with her shirt, set it on the bar beside him, and swung herself back up onto the bar. She crossed her legs and shoved the glass toward him. "Share."

He gave her a baleful look, but filled the glass anyway.

He didn't remember much about that first conversation, only that her words appealed vaguely to his depression and disjointed thinking. He wasn't sure how much she got out of him that night; he was a remarkably coherent drunk, but he tended to lose control over what, exactly, he said. His memories of her bringing him back to the HACKERS base were fuzzy and unclear, though he remembered what happened after with surprising vividness.

That was the first time he ever slept next to a lover. When he woke up in the morning, she knew his real name, and he had a job.

Cutter sighed. We were so stupid...

And now here they were, again, older but still stupid. Stupid enough, to be always drifting apart from one another. Loving Kalani had taught him, changed him a lot, but Keely was far more sensitive, and he wasn't entirely sure how to deal with that.

Or being properly honest, he was, but he wasn't sure he entirely liked the idea of actually doing so...

His eyes were drawn to a small bundle wrapped in cloth sitting to the side of his workbench.

*****

Bam!

Xenon was on the floor of the training gym, again. Outwardly she was blank and quiet, accepting that her fate was to be attacked and disarmed with more force than necessary by children of twelve. She didn't seem to hear the taunts, the derision, the laughter. Anyone watching saw only that picking her sabre off the floor took up all of her effort and concentration.

Anyone listening to her thoughts would have paled and fainted at the profanities and curses running through her mind. The hotcold anger pounding in her head, as her fingers trembled. The pain made her dizzy, but the fury kept her upright. She clung to it.

"Pick it up," a young girl sneered from the surrounding score of watching juniors.

"She can't, it's too heavy and she's too old!"

"Grandmother can't do nothing but whinge," the boy who'd knocked her down shrugged, apparently ignorant of the fact that she'd never complained. "That's why we gotta teach her. But she don't learn very fast, does she?"

Xenon's wrists felt like they were breaking as she tried to get them to take the weight of the hilt. The hard jarring of clashing weapons always made things worse. A little more pain every day.

"Can't do nothing, don't know nothing, makes you only nothing!" someone sagely chimed in, and the group nodded.

That. Is. It. Xenon jumped to her feet and glared at the rest of the juniors. "You all shut your faces!" she yelled. "I know more than you'll ever learn in a million years! You think you're so perfect, because you can take things from others, and hurt those who can't hurt you back... Like you're all so bloody safe!" She was almost spitting in the eyes of the junior who'd knocked her down. "You'll be old one day! All your friends and money won't stop that coming! You'll be old and fat and lonely and hated and useless and stupid! Stupid, stupid, stupid, because all you can think of is having as much fun as you can possibly squeeze into 24 hours!"

Finally hearing the commotion from the other side of the Gym, Estelle quickly started making her way over to see what all the fuss was about. Seeing Xenon, she slowed down a little. Not too much out of the ordinary to hurry about.

The juniors scowled at her and each other. The girl from before was the first to reply. "Maybe you got old like that," she growled. "But we've got more dignity and grace than that." She cast her eyes around the room, looking for inspiration, and she spotted Estelle moving to the front of the group. She pointed to the Raptrin. "We'll be like her!"

Oh, perfect. Beautiful. Exactly what I need right now, the disdain queen of all things perfect and proper. Why couldn't it have been Kel, or Leila, or Drakelah, or even Cutter! Anyone but her... In her anger, she voiced her opinions verbally. "Oh, honey, sweetie, you don't wanna be like her." Addressing the girl in a sugar-saccharine voice. "You'll never have any fun then." She turned to face Estelle, glaring. "All you'll ever see is the dirt in someone. And you'll never forgive anyone, never ever, even when they didn't actually do anything to you! You'll just be a prissy anal stuck-up bitch!"

Estelle froze for a split second, but was determined not to react further. She folded her arms and looked down at Xenon for several long moments, giving her a glare that could have frosted over a sun going supernova. After the pause, she said, "Is there a problem here, Xenon?"

Xenon looked disgusted. "No, no problem of yours. I'm getting beat up, but that's just par for the course, isn't it? That isn't a problem, it's just a way of life, and a tactic on the behalf of you and yours. You tell Kel he can keep on dishing it out at me, and you can be vindictive and let them smack me up as much as you want. I still won't pay attention to a word you say. So scram." Onlookers exchanged significant glances; a junior didn't usually remain standing for very long after speaking like that to a member of the Red Circle.

"Perhaps it's the knowledge that whoever helps you will be verbally abused tends to deter some rescuers from making the attempt. I've certainly learned my lesson."

"You? Rescue me? I'd rather die. Don't think I'm asking for help, I'm just making sure you can see what you're doing. Maybe it'll sink into your skull that you have a mean side as well," Xenon snorted. "Does it hurt, learning you aren't a saint? But you keep on thinking you're always in the right, your self-delusion has been working pretty well for you so far. Maybe you really could kill me, and rationalise it all away. Take your best shot." She spread her arms wide, as if welcoming Estelle's attack. "Murder isn't a big deal for you, is it?"

Estelle paled and looked likely to either collapse or slice Xenon just as requested. But, ever mindful of their audience, she made an effort to control her temper. "I don't... believe... you know what you're talking about," she managed, slowly and carefully. "And if you don't have the intelligence to sort out fact from fiction, I see no reason to further waste my time here. However, I will give you one more piece of information." She took a step forward, her hand now on the hilt of her sabre. "One of the things you'd learn if you ever graduate past Junior is that you do not threaten those who are higher ranked, stronger, and better than you are. Not all the members would hesitate to squash a particularly annoying bug."

Ha, been there, done that, got the bruise. Xenon scowled, and deliberately flicked Estelle on the shoulder with her finger. "Poor baby, am I bugging you? So bash me up and prove me right. Let's solve it with violence." She took a breath, as if preparing to rattle off facts. "You are no better than me. I'm just as important a person as you are. Also," here her eyes got a bit more fire behind them. "You and I might be the same, but there's someone who's better than both of us, and he chose me." She tipped her head, cruelly quizzical. "Does that irk you? That I might make someone happy? That I was the one who cheered him up when you and your precious high rankers couldn't? Is that why you hate me? Threaten me all you like, you'll never change that, or make me into your idea of someone better."

The gloves came off. "I hate you," Estelle said softly, "because you are the physical embodiment of every vice I have ever seen and a few I haven't. You are cruel when you have no reason to be, you hurt people just because you can. You have no self-control. You would willingly sacrifice your best friend for a dollar or a drink. You have no loyalty, no compassion, and no talents beyond two, and at least one of those is almost gone. You are lazy and ungrateful. You owe everything to the Blade, up to and including your life, but you can't give back one thing to us without trying to make us miserable. You are here on our sufferance, which I see you have forgotten. We don't need you here. You have no useful skills and absolutely nothing to offer us. What I think of you doesn't matter -- I can love you, hate you, or be totally indifferent. To the Blade as a whole you are useless, and when you're trying to survive all that matters is shedding extra weight."

Whoa. Whoa, okay, just...don't gasp. Don't move. Don't cry. Ignore her. Retaliate, damn it! Dress sense, hook beak, hurt her somehow, do something! But Xenon's self-orders all failed her one by one. She did gasp. She did move, a stagger backwards, then another shaking step. And tears in her eyes, salty and burning, blurring. A surprised crowd parted the way for her, as she burst into sobs and ran towards the door.

Estelle watched her go, frowning and feeling a little guilty, even if she had only told the truths as she saw them. Then she remembered all the things Xenon had said to her, and felt like crying herself. Stronger than that, she started to try and get all the juniors back to practice.

*****

Tears rolled down her cheeks and onto the pavement below. Xenon made no effort to stop or conceal them. She walked fast, with no goal or thought of stopping, ever, in her mind. She was just Going Away.

But that state of mind can only last so long before practical reality comes seeping back in somehow. In Xenon's case, it was hunger that brought her back to herself. She stopped dead in her tracks, and sat herself down on the gutter, watching leaves float into the sewerage system, some getting caught on the grate protecting avians from suffering the same fate.

*****

The bell rang for lunch. Dale Eggert smiled as his class turned hopeful eyes on him. "Yes, yes, I heard. I'll see you all after lunch." The eleven and twelve year olds jumped out of their seats to race out the door. "Keely, stay back a moment." The girl groaned, slumping back in her seat.

He waited for the rest of his students to leave before walking up to her table. "Did you deliver the note to your parents?"

Keely sighed, scuffing her feet on the floor. "Yes," she muttered sullenly.

"Well?" he prompted.

"Not interested. I told you..."

Dale studied his smallest charge carefully. Short and skinny, enveloped in old and ill-fitting clothing. Her sneakers were almost falling apart. Her blonde hair was long, down to her waist, and would have been pretty if it wasn't full of tangles and dirt. She was always a mess, but he'd seen her with the other children; she didn't take anything even resembling a put-down without insulting the offender half to death. And she was smart. Real smart. Which was why they were having this conversation.

"Not interested? You explained what an opportunity it was, didn't you?"

She rolled her eyes. 'What an opportunity' was his favourite phrase to use with her. "Yeah."

He frowned. "And you're okay with that?"

She shrugged. "I don't give a damn either way, special school or regular school. It's all school."

"It's more than just school. It's an education." He paused to think, absently adding, "And don't swear."

"Can I go eat now? I'm starving, and the cafeteria will be outta food soon," she whined.

"Okay, fine. We'll talk about this later." She jumped up and ran out of the room before she had to think about it anymore. Because she didn't want to think about her father laughing at the scholarship offer, at the idea of a girl needing any fancy 'education'. At the very thought of spending any of the little money there was on his daughter when it could be spent on his sons. Too angry to consider the whole thing any longer, Keely pushed it all away and started wondering how best to get past the lines in the cafeteria.

Back in the classroom, Dale thoughtfully pulled out the roll, and wrote Keely's address on a piece of paper.

That night at the kitchen table, Keely ate her food as quickly as she could. It was always a fight to get a plateful in the Rink household, and when you were competing against a grown man, a grown woman, two big brothers and a little brother everyone doted upon, you had a distinct disadvantage. The house was small and old, full of furniture missing legs and arms, clothes hung up to dry in every room. A musty smell, created by mould and sweat, permeated everything. Keely's father Leon was a butcher, a butcher who barely scraped even. His family lived surrounded by other families making the same struggle to survive. Tough people, and proud. Strong enough to continue to try and make more money to get out of the government housing, and determined not to be looked down on.

When her mother appeared with the visitor who'd knocked on the door, Keely tried to sneak away from the table unseen. No luck, Leon caught her wrist, while looking inquiringly at the guest.

"This is Keely's teacher," her mother mumbled, before taking her seat again to get back into her share.

"Dale Eggert," he introduced himself, smiling like a friend. "I won't be too long."

"Okay. What?" Leon looked somewhere between curious and amused. "She in trouble?"

Dale looked around for a seat, quickly seeing that there was none left. He stayed standing. "It's about the scholarship for the talented students high school. Keely said that you were against the idea, but I guess I wanted to make sure in person. It would be a great opportunity for her."

"I said no, and I meant it." Leon chewed, shrugging. "Be a waste of time, all that for her. Regular school'll do her just fine. She's getting snobby as it is." He waved his fork around the table. "You wanna send one of the boys, fine, but Keely doesn't need all that."

Dale tried to tread carefully. "Your daughter is very bright, Mr Rink. She beat a lot of children to win the scholarship. It would be such a shame..."

"What about Edon?" Leon patted the shoulder of the teenage boy next to him, who smiled. "He's gonna be President someday, aren't you, boy?" Edon shrugged with a smug modesty.

"I'm confused. Why did you sign the permission form for her to take the exam if you didn't intend on letting her go?"

Leon scowled slowly at Keely, who attempted to melt away. "I didn't."

Dale gave Keely a reproachful glance, not without a good deal of sympathy. "Oh..." He sighed. "Well, if I can't change your mind..."

"Not at all." Leon hurried Dale to the door, getting rid of him. Keely quickly stuffed the end of her dinner into her mouth, swallowing it all almost whole in her haste.

When her father returned, his voice and face was cold with anger. "You signed my name, you good-for-nothing lazy girl! I can't believe even a sneaky, back-stabbing child like you would do that!"

"I really wanted to go!" she protested, staying a safe distance out of reach. "I beat all those people, dad! All those rich people!"

"No arguing back. Whatever made you think I'd let you go? You've got too much work around here for any far-off fancy school. You let your chores slide as it is. The boys have to worry about those things, not you. I ought to pull you out altogether."

She held back her retort about that being illegal, but stamped her foot and yelled at him, little fists clenched. "I'm smarter than them! A million times smarter!" She gave him a pleading look, the rest of the family watching the two of them silently. "If you let me go, I'll be President for you! I'll make you proud of me!"

He laughed. "A female president? Even I wouldn't vote for you." His amusement turned cold. "You just sit down and do what you're told. All we ask of you is that you keep out of trouble and help your mother, and you can't even manage that. Why can't you ever be useful?"

The front door slammed behind her as she ran out of the house, bare feet slapping against the pavement as she pelted down the street. Tears stung her eyes, and she collided with a man who yelled after her. "I wanted you to say you'd miss me too much," she whispered furiously. "You were supposed to be impressed, you were supposed to notice me... not just some girl..."

*****

"Running..." Keely mumbled, pushing twigs into the drain through the gaps in the grate, at the same time wondering idly where they would end up. "Yeah, I'm good at that. Running without a destination."

One thought surfaced. I could go to the Seique base. No one would know me there.

And no one would let me in, either, because I'm out of talent. Damn, damn, damn.

Not that she had wanted to go. It had just been an idea, a way out for a fleeting moment. The dull ache in her stomach clenched, when she thought of Cutter.

I can't go back to him. Not like this. I want to be equals.

I'm so lost...

No. No, I'm not lost yet. There has to be someone left... Someone who might care.

Fyber...

Fyber was the closest thing Xenon had to a proper friend. After spending many years arguing and making snide comments to the other's face, the fact that he was still there stood out in her mind. Cereal Killer and Cutter both had come and gone. The father of her son had done little more than spread his seed and run. But Fyber, the man who'd never made her any promises, never gave her any guarantees... He was still around. She clung to that.

Devising a test, she stood to head in the direction of the HACKERS house. He and Estelle are supposed to be such bosom buddies... But he has to like one of us more. If it's me, then Estelle was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

If he doesn't...

She pushed that thought away. There was no 'doesn't'. He had to.

*****

The HACKER home was slightly out of sync with the quiet surrounding suburbs. It's outside was neither particularly dirty nor clean in the late-afternoon sun, but inside the carpet was askew and everything had a feeling of stress and tension attached to it. The only sound came from the kitchen, where Fyber noisily fixed the dishwasher. Fyber looked much worse than the house. There were dark rings around his eyes, his brown hair dishevelled, and his movements tight and sudden, frustrated. Oil seeped onto the tiled floor from the bottom of the machine.

He heard someone stomping up the front path and recognised Xenon's pattern of walking, her angry, jerky steps. The steps stopped, and keys jangled before falling to the path with a clink. Sounds of the keys being pushed about on the ground, a lot longer than he expected. A short cry of frustration and upset, and she kicked the door bitterly. Fyber sat for a moment, then sighed and clambered to his feet to let her in. Opening door, he managed a rather tired version of his usual grin. "Well, look at this," he said dryly, "the prodigal leader has returned."

Xenon was on her knees, and she finally managed to get the keys into her palm. "Thanks," she muttered, standing up. Glassy-eyed, she pushed past him into the house.

"No problem," he said quietly, shutting the door a little harder than necessary to compensate. Sighing again, he rubbed his eyes tiredly and returned to the kitchen. "The dishwasher's broke, the stove and the microwave 've both just about had it, so if you want somethin' ta eat it's gotta be cold and ya'll have to wash up after yerself. Sorry."

Xenon followed him, looking around. "Where's Mina? I thought she was taking care of feeding everyone."

"She's out. So are the others. She'll be back later... 'nother half hour."

"Right." She used the base of her hand to turn on the light-switch, but the light sputtered and died. "Doesn't anything around here work?"

Fyber turned and stared at her silently for a moment. "No," he said finally, "Not much works right now. After I fix this hunk a' junk I gotta replace the lightbulbs here an' in the hallway outside. Then I gotta fix the wirin' down in the basement which damn near caught fire last night."

Xenon took in her surroundings, rather helplessly. "Maybe it's true," she whispered. Then she fixed her eyes on Fyber. "Vince... who do you care about more?" Her words were soft and hesitant. "Me or Estelle?"

He blinked. "What the hell kinda question is that to ask?"

"I need to know."

"Why?" He sounded aggravated. The last thing I need right now is one of her damn games...

She scowled, glaring at him in the absence of anyone more deserving. "Because all she does is give me crap! Day after day, she makes me feel so... so... OH! The term 'bitch' is too good for her!" She clenched her fist, and a sudden cringe of pain crossed her face. She shoved her hands in her pockets. "I need to know."

He continued to stare at her for a while, then threw himself down into a chair with a muttered curse. "Xen, I ain't had much sleep fer the past three weeks. D'ya wanna know why? 'Cos I been up on my little lonesome, hackin' like crazy ta make enough ta keep everyone here fed. Cipher's just as bad, I've hauled him up a few nights for a team hack, but since that 'flu he had 'bout a week ago he's been too tired ta work right so Mina's had to start pickin' pockets ta make ends meet. We can barely pay the damn electricity bill anymore. Meanwhile, Cass an' Zee are both comin' home next week fer a while before they run off ta separate ends a' the continent again so we gotta get enough food stocked in ta feed another couple a' stomachs, an' if that weren't enough Neko's arrived at the stage where she's startin' ta notice guys, an' ta make that even worse we've had that Stormwing kid bunkin' down in the basement fer a few days an' I swear ta Drake he's been eyein' her the whole time!" Fyber's expression was a fierce scowl of parental distress, but this faded after a moment into something resembling desperation. "We're losin' it over here, Keel. It's not workin'. I don't know where the hell ya been lately, but it should have been here."

Xenon stood there, digesting that for awhile. Silence. Then she replied, coldly, "Sometimes nasty things like this happen, Vince. We won't starve. I'll..." Here her firmness trailed off a little, as her own desperation crept into her voice. "I can't make you any promises right now. I'll try and find some money..." Images of her teenage occupation flashed into her mind unbidden. She pushed them away. "Somewhere."

"An' what have ya been doin' the last few weeks? Dallyin' wit' the Brotherhood?" he said, almost scornfully. "Ya got responsibilities here too, ya know. As a leader, as a cracker, as a friend... We barely hear a sneeze from ya fer weeks then ya drop in ta ask me which of two friends I care about more? Xen, you are a friend. And I like ya... most of the time. But right now, I'm not sure we can depend on ya."

She blinked at him, slowly. "And you can depend on Estelle?" Dull and bitter.

"She's got a tongue that can strip paint at forty paces, an' she'll cheerily cut ta ribbons anyone who gets her angry. But, dammit, Keely, when she says she'll do somethin' then she'll do it whatever happens, an' woe to what or whoever gets in her way. You used ta have that, too," he frowned. "But I ain't seen nothin' like it fer a while now."

He was startled when her saw Keely's eyes start to fill with tears. What the...?

She closed her eyes and leant against the kitchen table. Trying to compose herself, she took two tiny but shuddering breaths. When she spoke, her voice was equally small. "I never wanted... to let you all down..."

Fyber made a face, and reached to place a hand on her shoulder. "No, I really don't think ya did. It's... we need ya here, Kee, but you just ain't around much."

The instant his hand touched her, she shrugged him off, opening her eyes to glare. "You think I've just been having a nice jolly picnic?"

"I'm well aware the Brotherhood ain't no picnic."

"That's right! It's not! Especially not when the entire place hates you, and acts like you killed someone's wife, and stupid freaking twelve year olds..." She stopped halfway through her rant as if she'd lost the energy to finish, her shoulders slumping. "It doesn't matter. Estelle's right. I'll get the money. There's one thing I still can do." She shook her head, smiling with too many teeth. "I think my face is still worth $50 an hour, don't you think?"

He looked at her carefully, wary with a growing sense of alarm. "What's that supposed ta mean?"

She stared unseeing at the wall for a moment before walking to the back door.

"Xenon." Fyber turned to face her, but didn't follow her. "Kee..."

She paused briefly, her hand resting on the doorknob. "I had so many ideas. A bunch of stupid dreams. We were going to make Puckworld better, remember?" She laughs softly, staring at the bottom of the door. "But I can't do it anymore. They were right, all along. I've done nothing, become nothing." Dark humour tainted her voice, and Fyber could hear the grin. "So here goes nothing." She twisted the handle, and slipped out into the evening.

Fyber grimaced as the door shut. "Always a drama queen," he muttered as he turned to return to his chores. However, there was a pit of worry determinedly gnawing away at his stomach. The look on her face... I've never seen her look that hopeless before, he suddenly realised. I've never seen her defeated.

That tore it. "Argh... why'd I let her go?" He walked into his workroom to set up a voice connection to Brotherhood Mainframe. She was threatening to do... things... and the only person he could think of that might talk sense into her again was Cutter. Though why he hasn't done anything already, I dunno...

*****

Cutter carefully cleaned his tools and returned everything to its usual place. Everything was finished and ready, and his mind was carefully trying to work out what was needed from him.

What she needed was to hear that he loved her. She needed to know. She needed to see it in him. She needed him to understand. Simple, really.

Something inside him seemed to shrink away, to curl up protectively, and he observed it passively as he had always done, letting it fold itself into a cold, protective blanket of apathy and distance.

Before him on his workbench lay a cool metal circle, a simple band of entwined yellow and white gold, without any kind of stone or other ornamentation.

There was a match to it on his own hand, in front of the band of alternating amber and onyx that had become so familiar.

Two rings, two colours, two lives twisting and criss-crossing over and over and over...

In his heart, he knew that he and Keely were alike, too much alike. There were moments they could overcome it... like after they had first met, both needing something to cling to in the chaos...like when she had come to him after Kalani's death, as they both sought comfort for the emptiness they suddenly found in their lives...

But the barriers were too constant and numerous. The distrust, the memories of pain, the fear. Kalani gave her heart openly and without fear, and in the face of such obvious vulnerability, Cutter's own fears seemed groundless. In contrast, he and Xenon circled one another, testing, always testing, giving just a little bit, but ready to retreat immediately at the slightest threat.

Cutter picked up the ring on the table, slipping its cool weight over his little finger for a moment; no particular reason. It had been finished for a couple of weeks, now...he had put off showing it to her, at first; on the excuse that he should finish his own. Now he was out of excuses.

Now he was forced to face the fact that he was afraid.

Someone was going to have to take the first step... someone was going to have to put it all on the line and become vulnerable, or they were doomed.

The beep of an incoming vid-call made him jump, and Cutter wondered if his heart had been beating that fast before the shock. He slipped the smaller ring into his pocket and crossed the room to take a seat at the computer, punching up the call. Surprised at the caller's identity, he blinked. "Fyber?" Is he sick or something? He looks terrible.

"Yeah, it's me. Is Keely there with you?"

"No. I haven't seen her since..." He suddenly realised he wasn't exactly sure when. "Yesterday."

"And ya don't know where she is now?"

Cutter sat back, folding his arms. "Since she's not with you, I assume around here somewhere."

Fyber's tone turned more accusatory. "Yeah, well, since she just stumbled outta here in a rock-bottom way, I doubt that. Something happened to her today."

Cutter searched for something to say while his expression remained unchanging. "Alright."

"Look... I think you'd better go find her. She was pretty depressed, in an unpredictable female way..." Fyber tried not to feel stupid. "I dunno where she's gone, but I thought you might."

Cutter nodded. "I'll go now."

Fyber reached out to disconnect them, and the picture vanished.

*****

Cutter pulled on his jacket, shrugging it into place as his door shut behind him. He strode the corridors briskly, knowing only that he was heading for the exit. After that... Keltor was a big place. He didn't know where she'd go for comfort, if comfort was even what she'd want... If that was what she wanted, why didn't she come to me?

Guilt began to emanate from that frightened part within him, guilt that even his defences couldn't keep at bay.

She had come to him, once, back months and months ago. When things had first started to grow painful for Xenon in the Brotherhood. He remembered the fight, over the way she was treated by his friends... her tears...

They stand apart, facing each other, the man playing the quiet spectator to her upset fury. "You don't understand! You don't know what I want!" she hisses.

He looks vaguely annoyed, but that's all the emotion he shows. "Of course I don't. Neither do you."

Tears start rolling down her cheeks. "If I walked out, and never came back, you wouldn't care at all." She can't stomach the way he watches her so passively. If he won't fight with her, will he ever fight for her? "Get upset, get angry... You can hit me if you want, I won't tell anyone. Just don't stand there!" She screams the last two words, and punches him in the side of the head as hard as she can, so hard that she cries in pain herself.

He grimaces, putting a hand to where she hit him. "Feel better?" He tries to take her hand and look at her fingers.

She doesn't let him, pulling away. She presses her sore hand to her chest, and wipes her eyes with the other. "I hate it. I hate you! I'm only here for you, and you tell me to suck all this garbage up and spit out a diamond!" She reaches to slap him across the face, but he takes a neat step back. "I'll make you remember me!" She strikes out at his body in any way she can, kicking his legs and pounding on his chest, keeping her hurt right hand clenched to her body.

He sighs, getting a uncharacteristic look of almost desperate confusion. Finally, he has to settle for catching hold of her and pinning her against him so that she can do as little damage as possible. "Keely, I've told you I'll do anything you want me to do to make it easier for you. I don't know what else I can promise! All I want is for you to be the way you were, fire and spunk, all go no quit...What do you want? What do you want me to do?"

She cries into his shoulder, gasping for breath. "I want to be that way, I hate pretending... I thought you wanted a nice person, everyone wants a friendly person, I can't be everything!" She thuds her forehead once against his collarbone. "Say you like me anyway! Tell me I can stop pretending to be a good girl, let me be myself without being blamed for her dying! Make people stop acting like I killed her!"

He holds her tightly to his chest. "I don't want a replacement for Kalani, I want to see what you and me can make together. It won't be the same, but it doesn't have to be. As for everyone else... well, I don't know so much what to do about that, but we'll figure something out."

Cutter stopped still in the stairwell up to A Level, frozen with realisation. I never figured something out. I never did anything to change the way she was treated. She didn't mention it again, and I forgot about it.

He heard someone coming down the stairs, and stepped to the side, out of the way. It was Estelle. She smiled a slightly wobbly smile.

"Hi, Jay."

"Hey Estelle."

She was a couple of steps below him before he thought to ask. "Have you seen Xenon?"

Her steps slowed, but then she shook her head, never turning back, and rounded the corner at the bottom of the stairs.

Cutter frowned as he finished making his way up the stairs. That was a good example of how he had broken a promise. He knew very well that Estelle couldn't stand Xenon, but he'd never spoken to her about it. He never mentioned even her name to any of his friends, except Jedar and Sparky. Everyone else always acted as if she didn't exist, and he played along.

I mightn't be able to change the way they see her, Cutter thought grimly. But she ought to know how I see her.

*****

The outside of the club showed that it needed a good paint. It had needed more than that the last time Cutter had been there, that time a certain blonde had swung her legs over the counter and into his life. Coming here was the only idea he had, the only place he could think of with shared sentiment attached, be it good or bad. If Xenon wasn't here...

He went inside, joining the crowded dancing and drinking patrons. There were blonde heads everywhere, but he knew that Keely was too short to be seen from the door, even if she were only a few metres away. Cutter made his way through the throng carefully and methodically, old skills making it fairly simple for him to avoid being jostled.

He had worked his way to the very back of the room, most of the bright lights behind him, that a woman caught his eye. Small, tiny even, with tousled blonde hair, wearing what he recognised as Xenon's gym clothes. They stood out among the short skirts and barely-there tops, made her seem grungy. Her back was to him, and as he moved closer, he recognised her voice in conversation.

"A hundred," she said, to a yellow-feathered man, who was looking her over.

"How old you think you are, twenny-five? Seventy, and I better be paying for experience."

She shook her head. "Ninety an hour is as low as this bird goes."

"How 'bout one-fifty for two?"

The eye-roll in her voice was audible. "Little man, you won't last that long."

Cutter bumped into her shoulder as he moved to her side, hands in his pockets. "How much for life?"

Xenon stared at him, shocked. The yellow man scowled. "Hey, I was here first. Wait your turn."

"Actually, I was first." Cutter's voice was cold. "I'd advise you to move along."

"And I'd advise you to mind your own business, grandpa," came back the sneer.

Cutter must have been more angry than he looked, because yellow-feathers seemed surprised to be against the back wall with a sabre pressed at his throat quicker than most can blink.

Once the defeated man had slunk off, Cutter looked down at Xenon. She was looking down too; staring at the floor. The air was stale between them.

"I know we're not living happily ever after," Cutter finally said. "But are we really this bad?"

Her voice was strained. "Of all the times you could have shown up, why now?"

Jay had no answer. They left, together.

*****

The night they walked out into was cold and eerily quiet. Their footsteps echoed off the buildings. Neither was leading the way, or suggested a destination.

Cutter gazed off somewhere into the distance. "Maybe we should head back to your house. Get you into some better clothes."

"Oh, these aren't good enough for you?" she snapped. "Surprise, surprise."

"That wasn't what..." He trailed off, and gave a frustrated sigh. He stopped walking. When she ignored him and kept going, he grabbed her elbow. "Xenon, listen to me."

She instantly twisted out of his hold. "Let go! You've got no right to lecture me, no right at all!"

"This isn't a lecture. This is me saying sorry." He frowned slightly as he watched for her reaction.

Xenon stood still for a moment, looking at him disbelievingly. "Come again?"

"I'm sorry."

"And that's meant to make me feel better?"

Cutter blinked. He very, very rarely acted out of contrition, and all the apologies he had ever made had been accepted as the exceptional jewels they were. "I want it to."

She rolled her eyes, spun on her heel, and started walking away. "Big deal. So everything that's happened sucks. I'm already sorry about that!"

This time he didn't try to stop her, or follow. "No," he called after her. "This is an apology to you for what I've done." Her steps slowed, but she didn't turn. He raised his voice further. "For what I didn't do. I broke a promise to you." She stopped walking, listening, and Jay took two steps closer. "I said I'd do everything I could to make things easier on you in the Brotherhood, and I haven't." A few movements closer, and he was close enough to touch her. He carefully placed his hand on her shoulder, and left it there when she didn't shrug him off. "I got..." He hesitated a moment, and made himself continue. "I got scared, Keely. I got terrified." He shrugged, helplessly, and it tinged his voice. "If things didn't work out, and you knew enough of me to break some off to take with you when you left..."

He let go of her shoulder and found he had nothing to do with his hands. "But now it seems like you are leaving, and damn!" The curse was so sudden and spat out that Keely turned around to look at him. He looked back. "I don't want you to! I don't understand why you're doing all this, and sorry isn't the magic word that's going to fix us, but if we went our separate ways again, this time I'd regret it for the rest of my life." Finding himself more emotional and upset then he was used to, Jay ran his hand jerkily through his hair and took a couple of steps away, fixing his eyes on the sky. He took a deep, careful breath before looking at her again. "So give me a second... no, a third chance. Third's charmed, right?" He stared down at her, surprised by the anxious pounding of adrenaline in his stomach.

There were tears brightening her eyes. "I'm frightened..." she whispered. "I'm terrified too."

And as they clutched each other closer, holding and hugging, Jay decided not to wipe off his own tear that was making a path down his cheek. There was no one there to make him feel ashamed of it.

*****

The motel room was clean and sparse. A double bed, a two-seater table, a kettle, a bathroom, and a glass wall looking onto a balcony.

Jay hung the keys on the hook by the door, and took himself out onto the balcony while Keely showered. It was colder outside than he'd expected. Maybe there'd be frost tomorrow. The city lights glowed reluctantly. And when Xenon was clean and warm, she'd most likely tell him what was going on, and he hoped he reacted properly. The reaction that would get them out of all this, if one existed.

When he heard the water stop, he went back inside and sat down at the table. She reappeared in the complimentary robe, too large and fluffy. The ceiling light, brighter than anything at the Brotherhood base, revealed a bruise on her cheek. She sat down across from him.

"This is nice," she said, nodding and taking in the room properly.

"It is. Xenon, you haven't been yourself lately. Letting people knock you around without retaliating?"

She frowned at him. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm not very able to stop them."

"Physically, no. Mentally and verbally, yes." He paused, while trying not to. "Besides, if you'd told me, I could have stopped them."

"Could isn't the same as would," she mumbled. Before he could reply, she went on. "I like to fight my own fights."

"You have asked for my help in the past," he pointed out bluntly. "What's changed?"

"Everything."

"You'll have to be slightly more specific, my dear."

Staring out of the glass behind his head, Keely started to chant, as if reciting from a textbook. "Rheumatoid arthritis caused my fingers to swell up and put pressure on the median nerve. This, combined with years of repetitive strain injuries from typing added carpal tunnel syndrome to my list of problems. They could have fixed it all with surgery, but it's been going on for years and I refused to pay any attention to it, so I've aggravated it all to the point where I'm incurable."

Spiel finished, Keely rested her head on the table. Jay stared at her.

"Cold," she murmured. "This table is cold."

Half a minute passed in silence. When Jay spoke, it was slowly and carefully. "Okay. So you can't use your fingers anymore. Is that what you're saying?"

"Or my wrists."

Realisation was starting to dawn on Jay. "That's why you've been refusing to hack."

She smiled thinly at him. "Bingo! Despite what everyone says, you really are quite intelligent."

Jay started to remember little things - her grimace when he took her hand, the cups she'd dropped and broken, the way she didn't hit him anymore... as much... "But why do all this? You could have just told me."

At that she sat up straight. "No. No, Jay, I couldn't have just told you. I worked so hard - so damn hard - to get your respect..." She shook her head, and stared past him at the view from the sliding doors. "I don't want it replaced by pity."

Sighing, Cutter leant his elbow on the table and rested his cheek in his hand. "Keely, after everything you've done, I don't think I've got any pity in me." She opened her mouth, looking irritated, but he continued before she could speak. "I do, however, want to get this right. I'll steal you whatever medicine you need. We'll write a voice-recognition system for the Mainframe. Hell, I'll carry your dinner tray for you. Let's at least make an attempt at being together."

She raised an eyebrow, studying him closely. "You make it sound so simple," she murmured wryly. "But what do you want from me?"

"Your company. Keep making me think. Keep my life interesting." He paused with a grin. "Keep sleeping with me."

"Finally!" She grinned back. "Someone's requesting something of me I can actually do!"

Jay took her hand, gallantly kissing it. He held onto it carefully. "I think I understand why you didn't come to me. And it's not going to be easy to change. I'll try."

She gazed at their hands. "It wasn't just you... it's me." She hesitated. "I think I define myself by pain. I get bored with my life, so I screw it up. Then I'm busy again because there are things to work through. Maybe it's why I've made so many bad choices... chased all the people I knew would run. Made a martyr of myself." She sighed, rubbing her forehead with the back of her wrist. "This time, I wasn't the only one who messed up. But I was too tired to try and fix it, so I wanted to make things worse, so bad that one day Xenon wouldn't wake up, and Keely could just fade off somewhere..."

Jay stared at her across the table, surprised. Then he leaned over, cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her forehead. "Keely," he said cheerfully. "I'm right here. Don't be that stupid."

She blinked. "Er... okay." A smile. The smile grew as he ran his fingers through her hair. "Okay, I'll try."

*****

Cutter held her protectively that night as she slept in his arms, and stared into the dark long after she had drifted off, trying to sort his jumbled thoughts and come up with some kind of plan of action. He remembered, suddenly, his earlier thoughts of stepping out onto the ledge, and realized to his shame that she had taken the first step long ago, and he'd simply taken no notice until now. He remembered the fight they'd had before over the way his friends treated her. He thought of the pain and humiliation she must have endured in silence, the efforts she'd gone to fit in. Now he was truly ashamed, ashamed and angry with himself for being so stupid, knowing that he had failed her in almost every way possible.

And he was angry, too, at Kel. Extremely angry, in fact, almost unreasonably so. He burned with indignation, and resolved to start making up for his previous inaction as soon as Keely was otherwise occupied. Which shouldn't prove too difficult, as he intended to start on the voice program right away. Least of all because it sounded like the remaining HACKERS needed the money Xenon brought in.

She stirred, and Cutter carefully reached across her to the table beside the bed where he had emptied his pockets. "Mmm?" she murmured sleepily, not quite awake as he slid a hand down her arm to find her palm. He kissed her as the cool band of double gold slipped over one of her afflicted fingers. Jay felt her tense slightly, and then her hand slipped from his, and he didn't mind the chill of the metal sliding against his back, warmed more than a little by the touch that accompanied it.

 

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