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Early in the Rogue Isles
by Karlof VonMandrake (vonmandrake)
at April 1st, 2006 (11:45 pm)

/final draft (Awaiting final edits and proof reading)

Slowing the speedboat down, Karlof VonMandrake closely watched the night-time shore for activity. The less heavily developed areas of the Rogue Isles were beyond most attempts of law enforcement, not even Arachnos had the manpower to fully tame and secure the entirety of the Isles. It was this fact that Karl was attempting to use to his advantage at this moment.

A perpetual fog seemed to rise both day and night off the water in this area. The Vagabond Hills had all the evidence of inhabitants on the island before the British loyalist settlers. But ever since Recluse’s rise to power, the only ones who were able to settle into the area and find out more were the Circle of Thorns. Obviously enough, they weren’t speaking of any finds.

Kristina O’Sullivan sat in the passenger seat of the speedboat, her eyes just taking in the foreboding island shore. As the two teenagers neared the shore line, the outlines of distant stone structures began to make themselves known on the far side of the treeline.

Kris took a sharp intake of breath that was easily heard through her facemask. “Wow… Where’d those come from?”

Karl continued to concentrate on making sure no unseen mystical predators were waiting in ambush. “I suspect the 13th Century. However, many of the structures in this area seem to have either been rebuilt or newly erected by the mages of the Circle of Thrones.”

Kris turned to look at Karl, and he looked back at her briefly. “Yes, the Circle is no stranger to these Isles either, Kristina.”

Trying not to let her surprise show too much in her voice, she also began to search the shoreline. “Oh… Wi-will they be a problem for us?”

“Nein.” Karl pushed the thrust on the boat all the way forward all of a sudden, driving the boat straight towards the sandy beach. “They rarely come to this shore, and I have no intention of challenging them on one of their more heavily held territories. However, we will be using one of their abandoned underground structures that I came across a few weeks ago.”

“Oh…”

Finally, Karl cuts the boat engine just as quickly as he had accelerated it, shutting everything off and letting the momentum finish carrying them in. Satisfied that none of the mystical cult had spied their approach, the young warlock jumped over the side of the boat, and into the shallow water.

Moving quickly to Kristina’s side of the boat, Karl held out his hand. “Alright, let me help you out. We will be making our way to the tree line.” He gestured towards the left, where some of the forest started to thin out, “Once there, you will see a passage open in the rocks. Go in. It is important that you do not hesitate, my dear, and know that I shall be right behind you.”

Kris, knowing enough of Karlof at this point to believe he wasn’t exaggerating what needed to be done, jumped out of the boat without any hesitiation. Surprisingly, as she landed in the shallow water, Kris found that the boots she was wearing were not only fashionable, but quite waterproof also. At least, it would be surprising if Kris wasn’t so focused on the instructions Karlof had given her.

Running along the beach, Kris’s focus became more intense as she thought she heard a rustle off to her side from some bushes. Squirrels? A Raccoon? Or was it a bloated, malignant pile of demonic flesh who’s only purpose was to devour intruders like her? Still, she ran, faster and harder. Finally, Kristina crested the hill, the trees seeming a lot darker than when Karl had pointer them out to her before. Kris was focusing on Stasi, her friend and absolute rock. She was focusing on Lucia, the lucky charm of Quad 5. And she was focusing on Lycia….

“Do not falter, Kristina! Move!”

Karl’s voice, behind her, jolted her out of her thoughts. Her eyes cleared and she saw the large outcropping of rocks. That had to be it! With one last burst of strength, Kris ran for her objective. As she approached, seams in the largest of the stone surfaces split open, sections sliding away and revealing a passageway leading down into the ground.

Kristina ran in without any hesitation, trusting that Karl is still behind her. It wasn’t until she was halfway down the stairway that she realized the torches along the wall were lighting themselves. However, it was only when she was down the stairs and a few feet into the hallway that she stopped to see where exactly she is.

Torchlight flickered over the stone, shadow and light dancing in a chaotic beauty and revealing complex and intricate runes covering the wall and floor. Kristina had seen these runes before, and it finally sunk into her where she was standing. Once, the Circle of Thorns dwelled here. Now, it was to be a sanctuary from those that pursued Kris and her…

…but Kris wasn’t sure what to think of Karlof as. He was doing so much for her, but there was still so much she didn’t know about the Bloodvine student. His periods of time gone… her delivery into his hands… and the fact that he willingly lived in this place. She needed to know more about Karl, but she wasn’t sure how she could find out what she wanted to know.

As she stood looking over her new den of safety, Kris heard the sound of a pair of feet coming down the stairs, and the sound of stone scraping on stone behind that. She turned, looking to see Karlof pulling one of the torches off the wall.

“This is… actually kind of cool!”

Karl looked at her, an amused smile on his face. “Be careful, liebshin, you seem to be taking quickly to many aspects of my home.”

Kristina put a hand on her hip. She had hoped by now that Karlof wouldn’t treat her like nothing more than a tourist. “Well, I do have some sort of big bad buggaboo of a family from what my mom says. She makes them sound like cannibalistic versions of the gypsies.”

Karl moved down the last remaining stairs, torch held high. "Nien. Your family is arrogant, aristocratic, pompous, and Machiavellian. I doubt cannibalism is another of their traits." Some of the amusement seemed to have drained from his smile, but it was hard to tell with the torchlight in such harsh contrast to his face.

Kris ran her hand through her short hair, finding the catch for the facemask she was wearing. Removing her disguise, she smiled at the German boy she had spent the last few weeks with. “Well, there's one less thing to worry about in my dreams.”

"In any case, I would not be so quick to judge the Trudeaux family as your mother does. Without one of them, you would not have escaped Arachnos."

A look of surprise came across the young superhero’s face as the new information came to light. "Really? Which one? That creepy Nieves girl? I still can’t remember everything that happened in D.C. …"

Karl smiled again as he moved past Kristina. Walking down the hallway, he entered into a larger chamber of some sort. His voice echoed off of unseen walls, giving it a haunting sound. "How much do you know of this Nieves?"

Kris followed behind him, "I know she and I were born in the same hospital on the same day... My mom stays pretty tight-lipped about that sort of stuff. Unless she's been drinking. Then she'll tell you things you never wanted to know."

There seemed to be a hint of surprise in Karlof’s voice as he asked, “Drinking? I was informed your mother was a woman of virtue." It was then that he gestured with his hand to a large basin in the middle of the room. With what seemed the merest of effort, Karlof conjured a flame into existence that ignited the inside of the firepit, the fire quickly growing and bringing light to the chamber.

"Normally she is... except on the anniversary. She's a miserable person on that day, almost unbearable. If she gets too depressed then she forgets to watch how many glasses she has, almost not caring.... That's when she’s had too much, and then babbles until she passes out."

Karl looked up at his guest, the light of the fire playing with the angles of his face, and the shadows almost moving with a life of their own. “What does she speak of, Kristina? Please, this seems the bear down on you so much. You can speak to me.”

Kris sank against one of the stone walls. There was so much more than Arachnos that she had been running from, and she had been dodging questions about who she was for so long. "Mostly about my father, and how good he made life. Sometimes she even talks about her early childhood. My grandfather seems to have been the only one who took it easy on her, and would even just take her on occasional trips to South America, and sometimes just forget to bring her back for her lessons with my great-grandmother. Apparently, my great-grandmother was a very strict Church supporter, from what she says, nearly bankrupting the family, sending money to Rome."

"Ahhhh... the denial of guilt through supplication to the holy church... Tell me, Kristina, do you think salvation can be found in this way?"

"I suppose... forgiveness can be given if you truly repent for your actions. So, why not salvation too? Faith is powerful stuff; it makes or breaks a church."

Karl turned to place the torch in a notch in the wall, continuing to gently press the issue. "But do you think that your great-grandmother performed her actions out of Faith, or Guilt?"

"If she is as bad as my mother claims? Guilt. Or maybe fear, even."

And for some reason, at that moment, Karlof VonMandrake began to laugh. It wasn’t cruel or petty, but there didn’t seem to be any sort of amusement in the act either.

A confused look on her face, Kris asked, “What’s so funny?”

Shaking his head, Karl turned back to his charge. “I am thinking of how many families in Europe pay supplication to a church they do not believe in, only so they may, as Americans say, 'cover their bases'."

It was almost as if Karl’s views gave Kris another burst of energy, allowing her to come back just enough to not need the wall for support anymore. "Well, a lot of Americans are just as guilty... Paying lipservice is a terrible crime to one's self, you know?"

There was a spark of knowledge in Karlof’s eyes as he looked at Kris. She was rising to meet his words. Good. “Oh yes, Kristina. I do know.”

The words… the way they were said almost made Kris want to shy away from this topic. "Well, then… My turn. Why you? Why did I end up with you?"

His all too familiar smile returning to his face, Karlof curled a finger in a beckoning motion. His guest was getting inquisitive, and Karl felt the onset of a possibly long conversation. “First, let us sit.”


**OK, Writer/Editors Note: This is a possible cut point, allowing for a shift to events either in Paragon or just with the heroes in general. If no scene cut is desired, then continue.**

Walking into another room, more torches spring to life around Karl. It is in the new light that a smaller room with two cots, a few chairs, and a low table. On one of the cots, there’s a nylon sleeping bag. Sitting down on one of the wood chairs, Karl gestures for Kristina to take a seat across from him.

Steepling his fingers, Karl looks at Kris. He needed to answer this right to make her see what was happening. "Well, let me answer your question with a question of my own. Have I taken advantage of you at any time you have been with me?"

"No," she replied. "Which brings me to another question; Why not?"

Karl raised his eyebrows a bit in a well practiced manner. He wanted to look like Kris was going into an area he hadn’t expected. Looking like he needs a moment to think, he gestures to the table and summons up a plate of sandwiches and bottles of water. He then finally leans back and answers Kris’s question.

"I was raised in high society. My father has always expected the very best behavior of me. While this is not a full answer, it is a beginning of one."

Kris leaned forward to take one of the sandwiches, her mind trying to absorb the words of the mysterious Karlof VonMandrake while her stomach ached for food.

“Now, you have been quite vulnerable while in my care, yes. And I have said that what I have been doing is for your own protection also. And, when I first said these things on my plane, you did not believe me."

Kris couldn’t help but feel guilty. It was true; from the very first moment she had come into his protection, he had done nothing that would have been considered anything less than chivalrous.

"Now, since you have learned to trust me, I have asked little of you other than that you hear the words I speak to you, and consider them. I have also shown you parts of these islands through uncensored eyes. You have seen these isles as I do; not as a Hero, or even a common citizen.”

“True,” Kris replied after swallowing.

"We have dined, we have talked, and I would hope that we have come to an understanding. Ja?"

“Yes,” Kris said, “And you were tortured by Arachnos because of me."

Karlof felt a grimace sink onto his face. How he had received the injuries that he had walked into the apartment with were not something he cared to dwell on.

Kris put her hand forward, touching his knee. She could feel him trying to restrain some sort of emotions. It must have been quite a strain for him to keep himself in check all the time. She had seen that emotional vulnerability was just as dangerous as physical vulnerability in the Isles. "I am deeply moved by that, Karl. I owe you."

Shaking his head, Karl cleared the displeasure from his face. "Kristina, to give you over after everything I have done would have been the act of a coward. I will refuse to be a coward."

Kris thought back to the grand opening of Pocket D, and the circumstances she first met the young warlock under. It was a series of events that led to him assisting a number of Saint Joseph’s students with the recovery of artifacts stolen from the enigmatic Ganymede by Arachnos. Even then, Karlof was risking much to accomplish his tasks.

"And you are not one. I knew that in February, deep down. They hurt you in that base, and you didn't have to be hurt. And then, when you took me into your care... You are truly a... a gentleman... I would even say chivalrous."

Karl made a dismissive gesture, as if seeming to want to downplay his role in past events. "Well, my ways are my own. But, to return to your original question of why I have not made advances on you, I will finish my explanation. If I began to flirt, or to seduce, or even show you romance that I doubt few in your school would be able to show you, what would have happened to that trust if you had not wished my company in that manner?"

“I suppose it would have been badly hurt.”

"And where would you be able to go if you felt uncomfortable with me after those moments?"

Kris’s voice got softer as she saw where Karl was going with this, "Nowhere..."

"And would you have accepted my advances should I have made them?"

"Probably not," she shook her head. "I have a boyfriend back home. And so much has happened with my friends…" All of a sudden, Kris’s cheeks became flushed, and she remembered what she had left behind.

"You are thinking of your friends, aren’t you?"

Kris can’t help but look at the floor at this point, her emotional defenses against the many events of the past few months quickly crumbling. "Yes," she said as the first few tears fell to the floor.

"What is the problem? You will be with them soon?"

"No I woun’t. I’ll be with Stasi and Lucky…" As Kris talks, there is a pain that grows deep in her chest and moves to her throat. She could feel the onslaught of sadness coming, and she didn’t know how to stop it. Embarrassed and flustered, she covered her face with her hands. Through clutching fingers, and ragged breath, "But, she's dead! And I never got to tell her how much she had helped me! I never got the chance to show how much she meant to me, to all of us! I should have taken her advice and run away when she said to. Maybe, maybe then she'd still be alive!"

Karl got up from his chair and moved to be beside Kristina. "Ah, you speak of Lycia. I had heard that you and your roommates were close, but I did not know the ties of friendship went so deep. It was not my intention to be cruel. I felt it best that you learn now, rather than when you were returned once safe passage was at hand. As for her living, who is to say what would have happened? I feel that her death was planned by a calculating and cold hand."

Kris grabbed a hold of the closest person she could, needing someone to comfort her and help her. She wanted it to be Stasi or Tony, but she found Karl. And as she buried her face into his side, she didn’t even think for one moment that that was somehow worse.

"Then maybe I should be at rest, too," she said as she cried into his chest.

Karl held the vulnerable Kristina O’Sullivan close, seeing her let go and trusting him completely. She finally had accepted his words as truth, and she finally saw him as someone to console herself in. He held her close as she hid her eyes from the world, and he briefly smiled.

"You will find much will go through you mind as you come to grips with what has happened. I had lost my mother only a short number of years ago."

Kris slowly began to recompose herself. Hearing Karl talk about his own loss and being able to let go of the sadness…. it was helping somehow.

"And when you return to your school, you will find others trying to cope. But know this; punishment can only be delivered by those who need justice for themselves. Many will try to say otherwise to you."

Still wiping her eyes, Kristina looked at the ground and nodded.

"Kristina, look at me," Karl lifted Kristina’s face to look at his, his penetrating gaze looking into her eyes, "The man who has killed Lycia will in all likelihood kill again. If the time comes to avenge Lycia's death, will you have the strength to stand in judgment of those who made it possible?"

Looking deep within herself, Kris saw what kind of a hole was left by the loss of her friend. She then thought of it happening again; and thought about the pain that another close friend, or of it even affecting someone who lost something even more. She looked back at Karl with bloodshot eyes and tears drying on her cheeks, and she nodded once more.

"And will you have the strength to seek your own knowledge of what has happened, no matter what you are told you 'cannot do'?"

“Yes,” she said as she cleared her face and took shallow breaths.

"Then, you will have done your friend the greatest thing you could do!"

Karl then leaned in and kissed Kris on the forehead.

Leaning back, Kristina looked into Karlof’s gaze and said, “Thank you, Karl, thank you.”

::Untitled interlude::
by Karlof VonMandrake (vonmandrake)
at April 1st, 2006 (12:04 am)

Karl smiled as he watched Kristina speak to her friends on the newly repaired commlink. It was hope he saw in her eyes, but more importantly, he heard it in her voice. Her words had a genuine ring to them that was far more effective than any carefully crafted words he could have chosen. As much as he had studied the students of the Saint Joeseph school, he was still an outsider to most of them. He knew that gaining their trust would take tremendous effort and actions that were possibly beyond him. But it was that knowledge that allowed him to get as far as he did.

It was a shame, though, that his technical skills were not all that good. The static and interference that must have been coming over the line must have been tremendous, allowing only so much to be heard by both ends. In fact, he was glad that it had been Sara that had rigged the communicator up to do that, and not himself. Karl would have probably been unable to rig the sophisticated electronics as well as she had, and he knew that he would have never have thought of installing the remote device that would trigger a critical failure when he chose the moment.

"....it's in Cap au Diable, on the South-Easter-- OW!"

Right as Karlof pressed the small hidden button on his belt, an overload in the power source fried the seemingly damaged communicator's sound systems.

"Kristina, are you all right?"

Welcome to Port Oaks
by Karlof VonMandrake (vonmandrake)
at March 27th, 2006 (02:59 pm)

/1st entry text
/2nd entry text

“Good evening Don Marcelli, how is your family this evening?”

“VonMandrake! I gotta tell you, those tips you gave us on those Wyvern goombahs really helped us out, and probably saved a bunch of my boys a trip to the ER. I don’t care what Don Savini says about you, you’re aces in our book!”

“Well, I am most happy to see that our dealings have been profitable. And that is why I come to you now; I’ve just been informed by another of my contacts that a group of heroes have broken their way through to Port Oaks. Bad business for all around, I’m sure you agree.”

“Are you sayin’ that a bunch of spandex wearin’, boot lickin’, masks have snuck into OUR neck o’ the woods? What are they, a buncha suicide cases?”

“To be honest, they’re not much older than myself. Now that I say these things, I must admit feeling foolish in bringing it to your attention. I’m sure that Arachnos will pick them up as soon as they begin to harass the citizens. They probably are just here…”

“Oh no! Those stinking spiderboys have been gettin’ too cocky lately! It’s time those people remembered that the Family is the real power around here! I don’ care if they’re wearin’ diapers and crying fer their bottles, capes is capes!”

“Well, I completely agree, but I’m sure I could just find some Bloodvine…”

“Hey, I said this is our turf! No, I’ll send my boys down and make sure that whatever pieces get back to Paragon will tell their little friends not to mess with Port Oaks!”

-----------------------------------
back in Port Oaks...
-----------------------------------

Arrow Wraith flicked a few more buttons on the GPS tracker and then smiled, looking up. "Well, as I said, we are in the Rogue Isles, but it looks like this is an island called 'Port Oaks'. Not that that means a whole lot..."

To Hell and Back
by jaderooster (jaderooster)
at March 27th, 2006 (01:41 am)

((Cleared out of the way, see Gathering.))

Through the Portal
by Karlof VonMandrake (vonmandrake)
at March 26th, 2006 (06:04 pm)

/1st update text
/2nd update text

The portals that DJ Zero created felt... strange. Many heroes in Paragon City could teleport; it was a feeling you started getting used to by the time your certification for Security Level 15 came around. No, teleportation was almost like a quick breeze and a flash. You were one place, then you were standing some place else. It wasn't like that with DJ Zero.

In the period between walking through the portal from Pocket D and walking out of whatever door served the purposes of the interdimensional Rick Blaine, there was a span of time that you almost became aware of the dimesional space or whatever it was that DJ Zero manipulated to create his haven. No details, just an impression of something more immense than most could hope to understand.

However, that was not the foremost thought on the mind of the students of the Saint Joeseph School as they found themselves all walking out of a door into some sort of underground parking area.

"Where are we?"

Three simple words. Three words that were on the minds of everyone in the group. Three words that had been said by Rooster before anyone else could say them. Stasis looked around at the rest of the group, assembled in the middle of the street of an island nation controlled by possibly one of the most dangerous individuals on the face of the planet. Where were they? They were in trouble, that's probably where they were.

Arrow Wraith looked down at the GPS tracker he had brought along, and tapped a few buttons. "According to this, we are in the Etoile Islands."

Stasis immediatly spun on her heel to see what it was that Wraith was talking about. "Wait, wait; we were supposed to go to the Rogue Isles! Where did you say we were?"

Looking up, Wraith quirked an eyebrow. "Actually, the Etoile Islands are the Rogue Isles. Rogue Isles is more of a nickname than an offical name for the country."

Barrier snorted as she looked up and down the street. "Country? This place can't be bigger than Paragon by far, and it calls itself a Country? I still don't get why this place gets to stay standing. I mean, look!"

What Barrier was refering to was a man in a stylized military uniform and polished black boots walking down the street across from them. "That's General Havik! I remember when he was arrested two years ago after trying take over Maine! Who knows what other scum are calling this place home now!"

------------------------------------------------
elsewhere....
------------------------------------------------

Karl watched as Kristina curled up into a sleeping bag in the other chamber. She had been tired quite a bit by the run from Port Oaks to Cap Au Diable. But now, she was safe until her friends would be able to come for her.

Which brought Karl to the main chamber. It was here that he had set up a few items that would help him in the next few hours, including his most prized magical artifact: the Mirrored Eye. It was a scrying bowl of great power, and Karl was proud of the fact that he had it not because of it being a gift from his family, but because he had both the strength and cunning to take it from the Legacy Chain that had been holding it.

As he approached the bowl, he saw the waters in it begin to glow of it's own volition.

"Hey, Karlof VonMandrake, come on down! I got somethig I wanna discuss with you!"

Coming over to the bowl, Karl was not feeling quite amused. Whoever was speaking was doing so through a number of wards, into an artifact that nobody should have know he had...

It was, however, the perpetually smiling face of DJ Zero that looked back up at him through the magically imbued waters. "There you are! I love what you've got going here, it's very 'sorcerer chic'!"

"Zero? Why do you seek me out? If it is another problem with that bothersome pixie, I'm quite sorry to say..."

"No, no, no, VonMandrake! He hasn't bothered me for weeks, but you did a real great job keeping him away when I asked you to! And I was thinking, what could I do for you?"

Sighing, Karl looked back at the face of DJ Zero. He had no idea how this transdimensional troubadour kept his attention, but his patience was quickly running out. "I assure you, the use of your bar services when I have been entertaining has been quite sufficient."

Smiling back at Karl, DJ Zero said, "So, I shouldn't bother telling you how the rescue party for a Ms. Kristina O'Sullivan will be entering the Rogue Isles?"

farewell
by stasiskiss (stasiskiss)
at March 25th, 2006 (03:20 pm)

Walking away from Zero, they all felt like eyes were boring into the backs of the necks. Not true of course. But the feeling was hard to shake as they made their way casually through the party crowd to the Rogue access portals. They blended well enough; well, everybody except for Barrier but even she didn't attract that much comment as they slipped through. Pocket D served all sorts.

They were just stepping onto the edge of the dance floor when the music skipped a beat. The dancers lost their step but quickly regained it.

Rooster glanced up at the speakers, high above his head. “Bad omen?” he asked. No one replied. If it was an omen, nobody wanted to acknowledge it.

A moment later, it happened again. The song skipped, once, twice and then stopped. Silence flooded in across the club as the dancers stumbled to an awkward halt. The murmur of voices became louder and a few people jeered at the sound booth. Glancing back they could see DJ Zero gesturing angrily at someone. Bar security was already making its way across the floor. Over the active equipment an argument could be heard: sound technicians shouting at someone. A click shot out over the speaker system like a bullet and now the argument was amplified, projected through the club on every speaker.

“Get your hands off that, you idiot!” one of the sound techs shouted. There was the sound of a struggle. The crowd grew restless, everyone staring around at each other. Were they supposed to do something?

Another sounded like he was in pain. “Security,” he said weakly. The sounds of the struggle got louder, and something must have brushed against the microphone.

A third voice came over the system. “I jus’ need ta— papa yo, let go a me!” the voice said, interrupted only by the continued fight for the microphone. There was a low thud, the sound of a man collapsing. Then silence for a moment. And then, over the system: “Tara? I know yuh here, gyul. Yuh bes’ not tink yuh doin’ dis wit’out sayin’ nothin’.”

The assembled students looked at each other in confusion save for one. It was Stasis Kiss who turned towards the booth, flushing hotly. Embarrassed and yet… something else, too. Infuriating boy. She'd left him sleeping, he shouldn't be here. She almost turned away, to move everyone to the portals but instead she found herself raising a traitor hand to wave towards the booth.

“Over here! Jai!” She felt dozens of people look at her. She tried very hard not to care.

“Tara!” came his reply loudly over the speakers. The sounds of his footsteps faded away from the microphone. One of the sound techs cursed, shockingly loud over the silence and then the music finally resumed. After just a few seconds it was as if nothing had ever happened. People lost interest in the scuffle, the voices. The dancers turned back to their partners and started grooving again.

Stasis watched him vault from one side of the club to the other, his feet only clearing Zero’s head by inches. The DJ scowled but went back to his own world by the time Jai landed in front of them. In front of her. He looked at each of the assembled students in turn. “Wat yuh tink, goin’ off wit’out me?”

“Ginga,” Barrier said, stepping forward. “We need a small group. And no offense, but we have Rooster here to cover our asses and he can take care of himself. You can't. This isn’t a field trip.”

Jai frowned. It was obvious he didn't want to understand. “Yuh goin’ aftuh Miss O’Sull’van.” The students nodded. He thought about it a moment then smiled sideways, turning his head to Stasis. “Dat why yuh snuck out on me? Yuh tink I wouldn’ let yuh go?”

Stasis nodded, feeling unaccountably guilty. She shook off the feeling almost angrily. “Jai, you would have followed me. Ayuh, you did follow me!” She punched him in the shoulder.

Rooster caught Ginga’s eye with a look. “Will you tell her that it’s suicide to go without her med-badge?” He looked scared, exasperated. “She won’t listen to us.”

Jai turned back to Tara but she was already talking, her hands raising in slim placation. “No, Jai. Don’t. Zero wouldn’t let us go without a trade. It had to happen. And there’s no way I’m staying behind.”

She expected a fight, a comment about a silly sometimey gyul and an argument and her shoulders were already tensing for it. But he just smiled and nodded. “Fuh certain. I trus' yuh know wat yuh doin'.”

Stasis blinked. She had won without a fight? The world was going to stand on its head in a minute.

The carib boy regarded the assembled students. “Yuh gon’ be careful, yeh? Good luck, being da gyul back ta school safe.” Barrier gave him a thumbs up and smile. Jade just nodded, his attention elsewhere as Arrow Wraith shifted his impatient weight, one hand tight to his quiver. Any acknowledgement was contained only in his eyes.

Jai turned and looked at Stasis. Then she felt her cool hands surrounded by his, held tight. “An’ yuh gon’ be especially careful, neh?” She looked down at him from that slight distance and nodded.

"Ah. Fuhget dis." That was all the warning she had as he shifted closer, his dark eyes intent. Then his lips were on hers, warm and sweet.

She felt panic for a moment but she didn't, couldn’t pull away. Jai, this was Jai. She'd pulled away once and nearly broken something between them.

That fear was there in the kiss, desire. She felt as frozen as her ice in that moment, something unknown and frightening moving under her heart.

Tentatively his hands moved from hers to slide up her arms. His touch sent electricity through her as hands paused on her shoulders, the fingers of one hand curling around the back of her neck to find purchase in her close-cropped hair.

It occurred to her that at some point, he had stopped kissing her. The reason was that her eyes had closed somewhere and she was kissing him back, almost defiantly. Just like Jai to do this where she couldn't possibly run away.

Then Barrier whistled through her teeth. That ended it; Stasis pulled away and blinked, turning to uncertainly face Barrier and the others. Her heart was pounding so hard it felt like it was going to tear itself out of her chest. Couldn't seem to stop the crooked grin on her face though, no matter what that said about her, no matter what it meant. Infuriating, wonderful boy.

She expected Jade’s face to look different. But instead he looked far away, inscrutable and for not the first time she wasn't sure what that meant either. Barrier tapped her foot but her answering grin was unmistakable, Detective echoing the look. He winked at her from his advantage of greater height. It was Arrow Wraith though that looked like he was in pain, not meeting her eyes.

She remembered then, like a flash out of a movie, Kris and Arrow in an embrace that she'd tried so hard not to see. No, she thought, the smile finally slipping from her face. There's no time for this. Kris.

Barrier finally spoke, breaking the tension. “Saddle up, people.” They nodded. “Time’s a wastin'.”

Walking up to the portal was like walking up to the eye of God. The lazy colors were nauseating so of course they didn't look, staring instead at each other. This was it. Jade put his hand to the mechanism, using Zero's key to unlock its function. The glow brightened, casting uncertain colors on their faces.

“Tara,” Ginga said. She turned and looked at him, almost too shy to meet his eyes. But his face was serious. Stern, even. “Fight,” he said simply. “Win.”

Her breath caught in her throat. Those words. She managed to nod.

Fight. Win.

Ginga just watched as they stepped though the portal. Jade was first without even a backward glance, his eyes reflecting crazy colors from the moving surface. Then Barrier, Arrow. Detective went next, his black form settling smoothly into the nexus energy. It flared for him as it hadn't for anyone else, a spark of attraction.

Looking at Jai, Stasis stepped back into the portal. Even as she felt the energies winding themselves into her hair, tugging at her shoulders she saw him do a strange thing: he put one of his hands to his opposite shoulder and smiled.

She mimicked the motion, thinking maybe it was some Caribbean thing. Her fingers came to rest on something smooth and hard. She looked down at her shoulder as the world began to swirl, the portal drawing them far away.

Jai had pinned his med-badge to her.

Passage
by stasiskiss (stasiskiss)
at March 25th, 2006 (02:44 pm)

It's not like she hasn't done this a hundred times before.

Problem is, it's never been this important before. She's trying really hard not to think about it.

At her back she can feel the pressure as they all pile through the club doors. She's been point so often she even knows how they've arrayed themselves without having to look. The tactical map of it shows like lights in her mind even though this is just Pocket D, just a dance club, no danger here worse than ordering too many drinks and being escorted to the door.

This has to be the worst part. Nothing started but everything about to, the terrible prickling feeling of uncertainty. Under the concealing cloak the unfamiliar disguise chafes against her shoulders. She feels silly in it but really, what choice was there? For one thing the suits wouldn’t have fit her at all, too thin through the shoulders and the idea of passing herself off as a Consigliere is laughable at best. At least this one mostly fits although how she's going to fight in it, she's not sure.

Stasis blow the hair out of her eyes and tries to settle the butterflies. It will work because it has to work.

At her side Jade is a shadow of himself. His disguise is not so different from his gi really, but the alien cut makes him seem strange, alien. She has to keep looking out of the corner of her eye to make sure it's really him. He looks so tired.

She shakes her head. He is the one she wants at her left hand.

"Guys, stay here. If this works, we'll be back in a few minutes."

Barrier just nods, having been point many times herself. She moves easily into the position Stasis vacates, her green skin shining near black under some of the lights.

"C'mon Stasi, let me come! I can make the guy see sense." Detective again, impatient enough for all of them. For his Isles disguise he's chosen his black gear, slicked his hair back like a mock gangster. Under the tee shirt the tattoos writhe up his arms, calling attention to their hard planes. He looks bad ass enough but the expression on his face is eager, like a child with a new toy. It’s really the gun strapped across his back belies that though, its silver edges showing mute evidence of hard usage.

Detective is their ace in the hole, their chaos-maker. No matter what they run across he can handle it.

She hopes.

"Detective. No." She smiles because she has to. "Stay here and flirt with something, you know you want to. We'll take care of it."

She runs a hand through her hair and turns but Jade is already moving and she has to stretch her legs to catch up. "Damn it, Rooster," she mutters under her breath, "wait up already. Remember that togetherness stuff." He doesn’t seem to hear her though but she catches him before he gets too far away. Almost as one they mount the stairs that lead to their target, pushing their way through the crowd. She hates crowds; she hates touching people she doesn't know, hates being bombarded by all the noise and motion. She grits her teeth and takes it though, clumsily trying to follow Jade's smoothly moving form. He finds the spaces that don't exist here, slides into them like quicksilver.

He is the one that finds the clear space at the center and as she comes up behind his shoulder, DJ Zero is already beckoning them in.

As they cross the threshold the force bubble snaps into place, instantly closing them off into a private zone. The walls flash opaque; cutting off the rest of the world. There is an intense feeling of vertigo, claustrophia. She swallows both.

Zero floats in the center like a magician in his parlor, his face already smiling with welcome and Stasis rubs her cold hands on her thighs. It's do or die time.

"Stasis Kiss.. and the peerless Jade Rooster! So good to see you again, my friends!" His hands move in a graceful, restless motion. "Your message... the most excitement I've had in weeks! What can I do for you?"

"Zero... we need access to the Rogue Isles."

She's never been good at saying things from sixteen different directions to cover sixteen different agendas. Still, it's blunt even for her. Zero doesn't exactly look surprised but one eyebrow does lift.

"Ah, but that is not permitted! Pocket D maintains its place by sufferance of both Longbow and the rather humorless Lord Recluse. The rules that guide this place are so very strict. You have no idea the hoops I jump through." His hands spread in mock sorrow. "Really, I am sorry."

"That's not true." That's Jade and she shoots him a glance. "You've got your hands on both sides of the water and we need to get to Mercy."

"If it's that urgent then I'm sure Longbow could arrange..."

"There's no time," she cuts in. She runs a hand through her hair, tangling the short silk. "Zero, we need this favor."

He leans forward then, an odd motion for a man without his feet on the floor. A part of her wonders how he accomplishes it. "Come now, that is not a favor! That is asking me to commit professional suicide. You are lovely, my darling, but no skirt is worth that." His eyes flicker to the hem of red swirling above her toes and she has to grit her teeth.

Jade makes a choked sound and for a moment she wonders if he's about to do something rash. She puts a hand out to hold him back, feeling finally the trembling tension of his muscles. No time to worry about it.

"No, it's not. Zero, we're not stupid, don't treat us like we are. An exchange of favors then if you like."

It's not her imagination that his eyes sharpen, a look of sudden interest flickering across his mobile face.

"Favors! Well, why didn't you say so? Perhaps we can find something to talk about after all. Friends helping friends is what it's all about at Pocket D."

"Friends? C'mon, Zero! How many times did we fend off Snaptooth for you?" Jade is up on the balls of his feet, she can feel it.

Zero shakes his head. "I am sorry. I mean, if I granted every request that came my way..."

Stasis snarled in frustration. So close. "But you grant them."

Zero looks back and forth between them, his face inscrutible. Then he smiles, like they've passed some sort of test. "What you're asking... perhaps it is possible." He holds up one slim finger and winks. "For a price."

"Name it already."

Zero leans back a little by some strange alchemy and regards them for a moment. She was starting to feel like some sort of prize heifer beging sized up for slaughter. It was not a comfortable feeling, not at all.

"Ah, but something of this importance.. to break the rules! Delicious but oh, so dangerous. How do I put a price on that? I mean, my very livelihood. Shall we say even my life, should this come to the attention of certain interested parties."

Stasis felt her shoulders tensing. She was going to throttle the guy in a minute, would he just get to the point already? She flexed her fingers, letting the ice crack away to fall to the floor. She hoped it wasn't noticeable.

"I'm sure you've got that problem covered," she said dryly.

An amused chuckle was her response. "Truer than you know," the man said. Without warning he clapped his hands, leaning forward again with an eager expression. "So. Stasis Kiss would owe me a favor. So young, but not so many like you, yes? I can think of..." He waves a hand as if to brush a fly away. "No matter. I am sure something will occur. And you, Jade Rooster. Most excellent. Do you want to know what the Tsoo whisper about you? No?" Whatever expression was on Jade's face, she was glad she couldn't see it from her angle based on the smirk on Zero's face. "Ah, thought so. I am sure that can be a conversation for another time. Yes, yes. Young but rising. Let me think. Passage for two..."

"Six."

That finally earns them an expression of surprise. "Six? What is this, a holiday jaunt?"

"Mo. If it was a holiday, I would have packed my parasol."

He laughs and claps his hands again. "Touche, my sweet. Six it is. Then I think for that passage I have the right to demand six favors then. Three from you and three from him."

"Not going to happen." Jade takes a step forward, his hair glinting dully in the diffused light. "I have a good idea what the Tsoo are saying about me. I'm worth more than you're offering."

Zero smiles and nods, maybe expecting that answer. "Perhaps, perhaps. Then, if not a favor, perhaps something more... tangible might be in order."

That didn't sound good at all. She looked at him, floating there.

"What kind of tangible?"

Gathering
by stasiskiss (stasiskiss)
at March 25th, 2006 (02:42 pm)

It takes some time for the world to pull itself together again.

Jaygo is gone, long gone. And everything hurts.

After days of not being able to let anything go something in that thought makes her smile. She's been hurting a lot lately, why should now be any different? At least this is a pain she can understand.

Standing up seems like way too much effort. Just as easy to prop herself up against a convenient wall, digging her boot heels into the ground. Once accomplished she finds herself just staring at her hands as they dangle limp at the end of her wrists. She's torn the knuckles raw but they're already healing.

She attacked Jaygo. He didn't even defend himself.

Why didn't he defend himself?

Out of the corners of her eyes people are walking away. Nobody comes to talk to her, nobody meets her eyes.

She's been so angry. At him. At everything. At herself.

Discovers then that she's laughing out loud, soft but real. Jaygo. It hurts but it's not so bad, not now. Things are clearer than they were. She feels like a fever has finally broken, leaving her weak. Unsure, unsteady, but breathing.

Alive.

She sits there for a long time, thinking about nothing and everything while the sun rises. Then the comm softly clicks to signal an incoming message. With unthinking haste she pulls the transceiver up, tucking it over her ear. Jade.

"Stasis," says the voice, quick and hurried, "I hope they haven't found a way to tap this but I will have to be brief." His voice over the comm lacks any force at all, tinny with distance. "She is here, but we are being tracked. I will keep her safe for you as long as I can, but I cannot take her out of the Isles by myself. Come quickly. There isn't much time."

No. She's too late though, unable to pick up the line before he disconnects. She grinds her teeth with frustration but what is she going to do, call him back? She ignores the tight feeling in the pit of her stomach. If he's running, the last thing she needs to do is distract him. She considers it anyways.

She is waking up. She can feel it in the air she breathes, in the careful, so careful stretching of her mind. Her focus... has been all over the place. She hasn't been focused at all. Too wrapped up in the things that hurt and not in the things that matter.

There is only one thing that matters. She clenches her fists rhythmically, thinking. His voice warned her, admonished her. Kris. She has to get Kris back, whatever it takes. The thought sinks, permeating her aching body. If Karl is the link, she will find Karl. That is all there is to it.

So much easier said than done. She has only the vaguest notion of the Rogue Islands and there is no time to start a course of study on them. Kris.. well, Kris is not here to help or even to suggest where to find a decent map. She laughs under her breath, folding herself awkwardly into a loose lotus. She locks her fingers behind her neck, ignoring the instant spikes of pain radiating through her shoulders.

If she doesn't know what to do, what does she do?

They tried already to find Kris, and got nowhere. Lycia's contact, whoever he was, is out of reach. The name trips off her mind without stutter for the first time in days. The videotape from the station didn't yield anything they didn't already know. Even Kris' things didn't tell them anything they could use. Blocked at all angles.

Stasis laughs under her breath, looking up at the sky. How do you find somebody that hasn't told you where they are?

The answer finally rises out of exhausted sleep, pain and memory.

You track them.

She has his cel phone number. No matter where he goes, he always seems to have it, calling her from the places he has moved to. That is his tether, the line she can use to reach him. So far it's the only weakness she knows.

Stasis shakes her head at that, uneasy. He is helping Kris, helping her. Why is she thinking like this? So they aren't friends; that doesn't matter for this. In her mind's eye his fox eyes smile at her.

So how does she find him? Why doesn't he just tell her where they are? It makes no sense.

The meaning is there but she can't seem to reach it. The urge to just punch his number and demand coordinates is nigh overwhelming. She stands finally, bones shifting in her ribcage but the pain is just another focus for thought. She chews on her lip and starts to walk.

Maybe... maybe the means are beyond her. But not beyond the means of all of them. Motion helps, the jigsaw puzzle starting to assemble itself out of the air. She even starts to see the faces that belong to the things she will need.

The sun is fully over the school wall and starting to pick up strength when she finally finishes laying it out in her mind. It's a desperate plan and it depends on so much. So many pieces, all shaky, herself most of all. Can she do this? Does she even have the right to ask the others?

Yet.. isn't that taught here, along with law, along with trigonometry? That friends help friends.

She has to save Kris. It doesn't matter what anybody else is doing, she is the one that has the most need because Kris needs her to come. That is all there is to it.

She still has the comm reciever on her ear, delicately balanced. Slim fingers touch the earpiece, pushing it tight against the bone. The pressure triggers the rough adhesive patches to activate and she shakes her head experimentally until she's sure it's not going to come off. The odd feeling of weight fades after a moment. Before she can talk herself out of it she twitches the vibrational mike from her collar, lining the filament along her jaw until it sits against the side of her throat.

One call she makes quickly, easily, leaving a terse message for Detective to call her back. The second is almost as quick; Arrow Wraith. Her message is brief but to the point. I'm going for Kris. Call me. The third takes the longest because she doesn't actually know the private code. She thinks about what she needs to say, tries to find convincing arguments in her head. Finally she just bites her lip and taps the code for the system wide channel. She'll think of something that'll work.

"Free Range this is Mother Hen. Free Range this is Mother Hen, come in, Free Range, over."

The silly words bolster her courage, deja vu of a time when things weren't so desperate. She waits silently but there's no answer. She can tell its much too early in the morning because nobody replies, not even to ask what's going on. She repeats the message again, hoping. A third time, a fourth; the comm still does not crackle to life with an almost familiar voice.

She rubs the space between her eyes. She has no idea where Barrier is.

"Free Range, it's Mother Hen. Wherever you're roaming, I need you to get your hard gluts back here. I got a lead on Chicken Little, but I need your help. You know, just like last time."

"Last time I ended up face down and sick to my stomach."

Stasis closes her eyes as the gravel voice pours into her ear. "Yeah. Your point?"

"No point. I'm in. Where do you need me?"

Sticky, overwhelming relief floods her mouth, making it hard to breathe. So many answers to that question, none of them suitable for an open channel. "Huh," she finally stumbles out. "Not sure. Can I meet you?"

"Sure. Where?"

So much to do. "The basketball court?" It's on the far side of the school, away from everything. She rubs her hands against her thighs, her stride getting longer.

"Bad idea, there'll be gym classes starting up soon. What about the cafeteria? Nobody goes there if they can avoid it."

"Done. See you in a minute." She hesitates before adding, "Thanks, Barrier."

"Nah. Don't mention it. My morning run wasn't doing much for me anyways."

The comm goes dead. That is one. She has calls in to the others. If not Detective, then Sage. If not Arrow, then Lucas. Stasis lengthens her legs until she is runnning, smooth and clean. The cafeteria is halfway across the grounds but she's long since past the point of being lost here. The thought doesn't give her the sense of accomplishment it once did.

Only an overriding sense of purpose.

_________

"Stasi, I came as quick as I could! How do I help?"

She jerks her head up, startled even though she shouldn't be. He's quiet on his feet for such a big guy and not for the first time she didn't hear him coming. Quiet, that is, until he starts talking.

"Heyla, Detective." She smiles up at him, because she always smiles at him. If she had had a brother, she thinks he might have been something like her gregarious friend. "Glad you could make it."

"I was worried about you. What's this about Kris?" He slides onto the bench next to her, his hair falling in his eyes again. He looks cheerfully awake.

She looks across the table at the other two. Barrier is leaning back, her heels hooked into something underneath the table to support the gentle incline. In contrast Arrow is hunched forward, his fingers laced and tight. She opens her mouth to explain again all the reasons and thoughts that have led her here but then realises... this is Detective. She abbreviates her argument to its salient point.

"We're going to get her."

"About time!"

Barrier flashes her a discreet thumbs up and Stasis ducks her head, running a hand through her hair. "Yeah, I know. Glad you could make it, D. I knew... I could count on you."

"Alright Stasis, I'm on my part." Barrier stands up with no more warning than that. "I shouldn't be more than a couple of hours, tops. I'll stay on comm in case something else comes up or if anybody else gets any other bright ideas for me."

"You know it. Hold on, take this." She plucks her credstick from its small pocket and passes it over. "Just in case."

Barrier looks at the thing, her fingernail automatically impressing on the touchkey to look at the balance. Her expression doesn't change.

"Yeah. Just in case." With that cryptic acknowledgement and a wave Barrier stomps away leaving Detective frowning after her. Stasis can feel the waves of confusion coming off him as he turns to ask a question that's going to take too long to explain.

Arrow chooses that moment to straighten up though, squaring his shoulders. She glances at him and can't help feeling a gnawing pit of anxiety. His is one of the most important links in this patchwork web of a plan and she doesn't even know that much about him really. Just that Kris trusts him. It has to be enough.

"Arrow?" she starts tentatively, holding up a hand to forestall Detective. "How long before you can get an answer?"

"I'll know in an hour." He nods his head abruptly. "Maybe less. Take longer to get the hardware though."

"Time is something we don't have much of," she feels she has to point out.

"Leave it to me. I'll make it happen." He shoots her a look and his soft eyes are anything but. "I won't let her down."

What can she say to that? Thank you is not enough. "Ayuh. Check in, Arrow, stay on comm. If you can't make the deal, come back right away. We'll figure something else out."

He doesn't even say goodbye, just stands and walks away, already putting the comm to his ear. She watches his straight back retreat and sorrow is a spear through her heart. Something in the set of his shoulders reminds her of... well.

"Stasi! What's going on? I don't get any of this. What am I supposed to do?"

She smiles then, because she has to. Turns to face Detective, blowing the hair out of her eyes.

This is going to be a long conversation. Afterwards, she has something she needs to do as well.
_________

She hates it in here.

There is no day, no night, no world outside the forever windows. Walking across the open floor always gives her the vertigo that standing on the tallest towers doesn't. She knows not to look down anymore.

It's quiet enough at the moment, a lull between the waves that rise and fall in this place. She skirts the knotted clumps, listening to her heels click on the invisible surface. A few people look, one even smiles but she isn't here for that. She mounts the central stairs two at a time, a hand to the rail.

DJ Zero floats in the center of his power. He claps as he sees her walk onto the central platform and beckons her over without hesitation. A couple of syncophants in too much leather and not enough modesty sneer as she walks by.

As soon as she steps across the threshold the force bubble snaps up, enclosing her in a pearlescent curve. She swallows the feeling of intense claustrophobia, rubbing her hands on her thighs.

"Stasis Kiss! One cat that really know how to get down! Now what can I be doing for you today?” His hands move in graceful, restless motions. "Got your system check, tapped you into the queue. I hear you have a special request? Need to set up another dance here in my cosmos of groove?”

"Zero... I need access to the Rogue Isles. Today."

She's never been good at saying things from sixteen different directions to cover sixteen different agendas. Still, it's blunt even for her. Zero laughs at her, a warm sound.

”Say, woah!! You know I love you girl, I really do! You're always aces in my book! But come on; the Isles of Rogues? The Land of Recluse?! I got a reputation to keep, you know. I’ve got a hard enough time explaining to Longbow where most of your hero-in-training friends get their drinks!” He starts counting on his fingers, before giving her a slick smile. "You've got to know my dance card is always full.”

”You expect me to believe that? You were awfully willing to send me in when it was your floating threads on the line.” Her only card; Snaptooth. He'd been desperate then. He owes her for that.

”Hey, if I had time to plan this little party, maybe run a few things past my event coordinators..”

"There's no time." She runs a hand through her hair, tangling the short silk. "Zero, I need this favor."

He leans forward which is an odd motion for a man without his feet on the floor. A part of her wonders how he does it. “Favors are asking if I’ll have the sound techs change the night’s playlist! What you’re asking me to do is remix all the rules, to remaster my harmony! You can’t just expect me to risk it all, even for one as beautiful as you.” He kisses his fingers and she grits her teeth.

”I’m not asking you to.. remaster anything, Zero." She remembers now why she hates talking to him. It's like wading through technicolor sewage. "There must be something I can do to make it worth your...remix."

It's not her imagination that his eyes sharpen. Interest flickers across his mobile face like a shadow.

”As I said, I love you! You always seem to bring such tricked out tales with you when you come in! And for Pocket D to be the place to be, I am going to need to do more…. but who has time these days!”

"Today, Zero. As soon as you can arrange it, I need a portal to the Isles. Tell what what it's going to take.”

Zero shakes his head. “I’m not trying to play hard to get, but I can’t just dance to every tune that one of my patrons want to play! You got to see it from my angle, not every one can get their request granted.”

"But you grant them. You love having people owe you things."

Suddenly he smiles, like she's passed some sort of test. “You’ve got me. But before I can consider your songlist,” he holds up one slim finger and winks, “maybe we need to talk retail.”

Yes. "Name it already."

”But what would make it all worth while?" She's about ready to cry with frustration as Zero inspects his fingernails. "What could I gain? I can already dance with both angels and demons, what more is there? Do I dream the impossible dream, go for broke, and quote other tired old clichés? Or do I look right in the eyes of those buzzkills in Arachnos and Longbow and say ‘nyah!’?”

She can feel her shoulders tensing. "My opinion? Go for 'nyah'. You know you want to."

More laughter is her response. “Well, it seems you know me better than you think!” the man says. Without warning he claps his hands again, leaning forward again with an eager expression. "So. Stasis Kiss would owe me a favor. So young, but not so many like you, yes? I can think of..." He waves a hand as if to brush a fly away. "No matter. I am sure something will occur. Yes, yes. Young but rising. Let me think. Passage for one..."

"Five." She thinks. She hopes.

That finally earns them an expression of surprise. “Whoa, ho! FIVE?!! What, am I booking island cruises now?”

”Zero, if this were a vacation, I’d have my suimsuit on.”

He crows. “Aww, Stasis! I guess those witty banter classes really are paying off! Why not, then! Five passages for five favors! That should do nicely!”

"Not going to happen." She rocks back on her heels, takes a deep breath. "I'm worth more than you're offering."

Zero smiles and capitulates without argument. More than anything else that makes her uneasy. “I guess you’re right; too much tempo, not enough bass! Since you can’t be held to my beck and call for that much, I suppose I should ask for something with more volume! Something more... tangible!”

Okay. That really doesn't sound good at all. She eyes him warily, floating there.

"What kind of tangible did you have in mind?"

The magician brings a knee up, locks his fingers around it. She really doesn't like the expression of avarice in his eyes. She likes even less the next words out of his mouth.

__________

Hours later she can feel the delayed echo in her body as she finally heads back to school. It matches the static in her head; too little sleep, too much confusion, too many decisons made on too little information. She ought to be afraid but she's not, and she can't even be scared about that either. Jaygo took it all, all the anger pouring out of her to paint itself in the blood on his face.

It has to be enough. She's done what she needs to do, as much as she can do. Zero will grant them passage. That is what counts.

Barrier has already checked in, should already be back at school. She has purchased the party costumes, enough plus more for all of them. Lauren was more than accomodating apparently after checking in with Serge and the credstick carried the rest. They have Isle clothing now, enough that they shouldn't stick out on the streets, at least on casual inspection. She doesn't intend for them to be there long enough for it to be a problem.

Arrow has left a terse message. No confirmation, but hopeful. She can only pray that he can pull it off.

There is just one last thing remaining.

She fixates on the largest shadow on the school grounds, clears the wall in an easy rush. For this she needs height, as far into the ever blue as she can get. For this conversation she has to be able to see how far she can fall.

_______

The empty warehouse spins, a blur of queasy movement in his eyes.

He has survived yet another attack of her warriors, defeated them, repelled her. He will continue to do so for as long as he can stand, for as long as he bring all that he is to bear, forcing power into mind and body.

He is not sure anymore of how long its been. Days? A week? Longer? No food, no sleep. Just the flickering memory of fighting, training, running. The dust circles in a vortex in front of him, trapping his eyes into following the hypnotic motion. The concrete is cold beneath his shoulderblades, stealing heat from the fan of his hair against the rough surface.

No qi now, no movement. The sorceress' minions are no longer. He lets it go and waits for the next wave, unconsciousness lapping against his mind like a black tide.

So silent here. So quiet, a small death in all this black and gray and shadow so that his breathing seems the anomaly.

Yet, not entirely empty. Against his ear static sings a lullaby. One open song, one whisper back to who he was and a voice he can barely remember. He lays on the cold ground and dreams with his eyes wide open.

_______

"Jade."

His eyes snap open. Dragon visions wash over his mind, drowning everything else. His name echoes in his ears.

How long? He cannot say, everything is still muted steel and exhaustion. The ceiling is somewhere out of vision, the ground is still cold.

Then the doubt and confusion shatter as the comm signals again.

"Jade. Please, can you hear me?"

No dream, no vision. Her plea pulls him upright with adrenalin a sick thud under his heartbeat. "Sta-sis?" His throat is raspy and hoarse even as he grasps at the thin plastic cylinder extending to his mouth. "What's wrong?" Waking nightmare made real again.

"Nothing. Everything." Her voice is faint through the noise of static, surreal. "Jade, you have to come back."

"Can't. Not ready yet." The lash of it bites in, tears into his weakness, his pain. Not ready, he'll never be ready. His penance for what he'd allowed to happen. He has to make sure she knows he's sorry, that he suffers for what the monster had done. To her. Lycia.

Her voice is strained with an echo of old laughter. "Doesn't matter. I have to get Kris. Jade, I have to leave and I need you." He doesn't understand. "Please... please. At least say goodbye."

Her voice is all spikes. Upset, hurt. The thought alone gives him the energy to get up, find his feet, look for an exit. He won't fail again. "Okay," he swallows. "Just.. just give me time. I'm coming."

There must have been energy on that silent floor, enough at least to give him what he needs to bound and spin, leap carefully across the rooftops. He aims for the stark needle, a school landmark that defies the rising bustle of the campus around it. Teeth snapping together with effort he throws himself up towards its crown. She is always at the highest places.

Stasis Kiss is sitting with her knees pulled close to her body, staring at the eastern sky. She whirls as his feet hit the roof apex in a clumsy landing that turns into an awkward roll. He can't disguise it as anything but what it is. Picking himself up slowly he cracks a ghost of a grin.

"Hey, stranger."

She's up on one knee, facing him. He sees her gaze run over him like hands. "...Jade." He turns his head to the side so he doesn't have to see himself in the mirror of her eyes, the long rents in his uniform, all the bruises that show and the ones that don't. "Are you... okay?"

So soft, so quiet. It nearly undoes him.

"Yeah, I'm fine." It's a lie and he knows she knows. He runs a hand through his hair. "What's the plan?" He doesn't look at the frown that crosses her face. He tries to wipe the exhaustion away, squaring his shoulders.

"I've got a line on Kris; she's with the Bloodvine kid, Karl." She holds up a slender hand for forestall him, sinking back against the bricks behind her. "I know. I have no idea either. But I have his number, and we're going to track where he's at with it."

"We?" Something lodges in his throat, clenches his fists.

She gives him a ghost of her old grin and taps the comm on her ear. "Arrow just called me. He has an in with someone in the Crey Corporation and he's just coming back with a GPS tracker. If we can get Karl on the phone we can find his location. He's been sort of moving around I guess, but I can't wait until he finally settles down. I want Kris back here, tonight." Her voice is quiet but queerly determined.

"Karl." He looks at the sky, trying not to let the concern show. "How did he get involved?

"I told you, I have no idea." She dismisses the question with a shake of her head.

"So, whether it's because he rescued her or took her in the first place, the fruity Bloodvine kid has Kris." He's having a hard time grasping it.

"Yeah, seems that way. We're heading out as soon as everyone checks in." She gives him a tired smile of encouragement. He can see her hands clenching. "We should be in the Isles in a couple of hours. Detective is going to come with us, cause the biggest ruckus he can. Barrier will hold the door open as long as she can while I go get Kris."

Jade swallows hard, letting his eyes drop to the ground stories below them. "Solo mission, huh?" Something stirs in his gut. Something alien. "You can take care of yourself, right?" It's as though the words have their own agenda, spurred on by the answering nod she offers in reply. It's twisting to life again, clawing at the edges of his skin, grasping at every spark of his essence that it could. He forces it into silence, but even then it gives a harsh edge to his speech. "How far will you let me come?"

She looks at him then, pale brows drawing together. The look in her eyes is centuries old. "This far, Jade." Her voice is barely more than a whisper. "I just couldn't go... without saying goodbye."

"No." He can't keep the frustration from his voice, can't mask the rising anger or fear. This was too close to last time and the alien feeling won't let him forget. His channeled force carries itself through his speech instead of his limbs, each word impacting the air between them. "I want an answer. I'm done being unsure. Do I have a place there with you or not?" His traitor body shakes then, beaten by fatigue and emotion.

With an odd ferocity rising in her eyes Stasis stands in reply, lifting her chin in an old, arrogant motion. "There is always a place for you. Always. I'll take you into hell if you're stupid enough to follow." He hears the words but it's her eyes that show the fractured truth. He swallows that too, letting it pull strength into his body. She has said these words before. He needed to hear them again.

"Then no more of this 'going in alone' crap, okay? I think," Jade coughs before beginning again, "I think I'm done letting people pull stuff like that with me." Something tight eases around his heart, the frustration washes away. His old smile creeps on his features.

Stasis is the first to look way, awiping an angry hand across her eyes. "I don't even know what he wants," she says. He doesn't understand for a moment but then he does.

When she looks back, he catches her eyes. "It doesn't matter what he wants. If he's on our side, he's giving Kris to us. If he's not, we're taking her back." His words echo firmly betweem them, a declaration of fact. There is silence then, the wind here blowing through their hair, lifting strands of white and black.

Finally, he speaks again. "It's good to see you, Stasis."

She closes her eyes. "S'good to see you too." Another whisper, but it's her voice again, the one that used to laugh. "C'mon."

She turns then, kneels before launching herself in a massive leap that sends her sailing towards the dorms. He can't help but smile as he does the same, taking a small running start before bounding down from the tower after her.

Into hell, if he has to.

Jaygo's bit or Stasi's lead up to it
by stasiskiss (stasiskiss)
at March 25th, 2006 (12:04 pm)

The far wall is the wrong color and her neck hurts.

She blinks at it. No, it doesn't change to the color it's supposed to be, remaining this odd green shade when it really ought to be some tilted color of blue. The angle of the light on it is wrong as well, coming from behind instead of streaming into her eyes. Did she fall asleep on the couch again or something?

Under her cheek, something shifts and an arm tightens around her shoulders.

She sits up slowly, untangling herself with infinite care.

Jai is still sleeping. He's half braced against the arm of the couch, his face turned away so that all she can see is the curve of jaw and his hair, wild and messy. His shirt is rumpled, pulling away from the waistband of his jeans. She can even see the impression where her cheek was resting on his chest.

He must have held her all night.

The television is blank static now, the only noise in this alien space.

As carefully as moonrise she stands, her armor creaking faintly. It seems a miracle but Jai doesn't stir, his hand lax now in his lap where it's fallen away. The empty bottle of rum is still standing on the floor.

She swallows, tasting faint bile. So much care and she deserves none of it. When is he going to see that she doesn't deserve it?

She feels pulled tightly enough to break, exhausted from days of grief. Nothing will be right, ever again. Her eyes burn but she can't cry anymore. She's cried enough to drown rivers.

She walks to the window, holding her elbows. Under her empty gaze the dawn creeps over the walls, touching things with tentative fingers. She remembers dew on her armor not so long ago, waking up to find herself alone in the center of a battlefield. Her eyes track a shadow, motion picking itself out of the morning haze.

Arcing over the wall a graceful form lands in the courtyard, going down to one knee with the kinetic force. He's wearing civilian clothes, something strung over his shoulder; a backpack maybe or weapon. He stands after a moment and starts to walk purposefully away.

The light changes, his profile facing the dorms. She is suddenly awake as ice crystallizes in her blood.

Jaygo.

Her mouth is dry, her heart hammers. Jaygo.

The crucifix rises in her eyes, stained and red. He is the one. He could have prevented everything. He was the one that killed Lycia, that let Solomon take her, break her, destroy her. Jaygo is the one who betrayed them all.

She is across the room in a soundless rush. She doesn't even look at the sleeping boy.

She knows where he's going, although she couldn't say how. She runs down the hallway even as the ice wind starts to trail across her shoulders, down her arms. It is early enough but the dorms are never empty; eyes track her as she runs. Some are even close enough to know which room she came from. Not that it would matter if she understood. She is down the wide stairs and out the doors into the cool morning without breaking stride.

Swiftly then, across the green space. Her heart is pounding with something like fear, something like exultation.

He is the one. He is the one that needs to pay.

She knows where he is going. Her thighs tense, coil, and the top of the wall is under her feet. She springs and twists, landing in front of him without a word. She rises into a crouch even as her fists tighten, as demon light begins to grow between her fingers.

His green eyes are hooded, empty. She looks at him and feels nothing. For once she feels nothing at all. He adjusts the strap at his shoulder and frowns with all his old arrogance.

"I don't have time for this."

TLM2 - the setup - Stasis/Ginga
by stasiskiss (stasiskiss)
at March 25th, 2006 (11:42 am)

She'd never known that funerary flowers could smell so pretty.

On the roof of the quad the scent is overwhelming, rising to wreath her like a halo. Where did they come from? So many flowers it's like the school courtyard grew into a garden overnight.

In her lap her fingers are as pale as the lilies below, with blood-moon nails torn to the quick. They seem almost fragile, too thin for her hands which is a lie of course. She hasn't been fragile for a very long time.

Against the chalk of her skin it is the dark functionality of the comm that seems out of place. She spins it over and over gently, fingers touching its delicate curves, stroking the smooth metal. Small coded lights flash along its slim length in a holiday display.

Each wink is a message. A tiny voice needing to say sorry, sorry, I just heard, so very sorry something to her, to touch her as if that will make everything all right again. As if she can be made whole again. A breath surprises her by catching in her chest, hands spasming on the blind metal, stilling the restless motion.

They don't care. She doesn't know them, they never knew her, never knew her girl, never cared enough to do more than whisper behind cruel hands. Half remembered faces blur in her eyes until she barely see the lighted voices clamoring, all trying to demand her attention when she has none left to give.

With a spastic motion she silences the cacophony, consigns them and their sympathy to oblivion. In the sudden stillness one light remains steady, unblinking.

The channel is still open.

Wherever he is, he has not shut her out.

Her thumb rises without thought to caress that tiny spark, touching the charm of it. His comm will show the same; that one steady light that was how they reached each other once upon a time, when it was too hot to run with gate metal burning against her back. When Lycia listened to them argue and told them both to hurry up already. When Jade would laugh and offer to race.

It has been silent for days.

The daylight is near gone when she jerks wakes again. She is frantic for a moment until she realizes she is still holding it cupped in her hand, not lost, not broken. The light continues steady and something panicked under her heart eases back, just a little.

She remembers then what she has to do, what she meant to do when she climbed up here over the flowers she doesn't understand. Her eyes blur but her fingers dial a number from a memory she hadn't known she'd kept. She holds the transceiver to her ear, presses the voice line to her throat with fingers that shake.

She'll find the words from somewhere.

He is not there. Smooth as silk his voice translates down the line, the burr of it so carefully judged even in this small matter. The small click is startling at the end as she listens to the static silence. If he had been there... what would she have said? She remembers oddly the color of his eyes, the flame of his hair. What had he wanted to tell her at the dance?

"Karl. No games. You have something of mine and I want it back. Now." She is not sure if she's saying it right. She is not smooth; the burr in her voice is from crying, not from calculation. "You know how to reach me." Stupid, probably. Maybe she's supposed to threaten or beg or invite him for that drink they never had. November would threaten, she's sure. Francis would flirt.

Her girl is dead. Every breath she takes it sinks further into her, like a stone falling through dark waters. Dead. Dead. Dead.

How will she tell Kris?

She disconnects the line as she hunches over her pain, sucker punched. No. No. No.

She tries for again for the lucency of the morning but now nothing is clear. Not with twilight falling over the flowers, over her eyes. Her chin touches her chest as her eyes close.

She stands then, forcing motion into limbs trembling with exhaustion. Ready again to run even if there's nowhere to go.

The edge is only a step away but it's nowhere near far enough to the ground, nowhere near enough of anything to be what she needs. She has to wait for Karl, for Kris. She has to wait for the steady light to flash. After those things are made straight, she will find her answers in hands that trail darkness. She doesn't know if she can't take him. She only knows that she will try.

After that she can fall forever if she likes. She knows the place.

She takes that step then, the wrench of gravity a familiar jolt as she starts to dive headlong to the ground. Fallen angel maybe although that isn’t right. She’d been comet bright once upon a time.

She doesn't mean it, she doesn't but the motion is so familiar, ingrained in muscle and bone. With a twist, a reach she rights herself against the quad window. Her window, her boots barely knocking the jamb. There is no glass here, not anymore.

It's like an old, stuttering film; one moment she is there on the outside looking in and the next she is here, caught in the center. Her eyes are drawn to a pale square on Lucky's bed. She doesn't want to see anything else, will do almost anything not to see anything else.

A letter.

She walks across the ragged floorboards and picks it up. Thin, thin, not black, no white flower to lure anybody into danger, no sweet words to poison. Lucky's tiny handwriting wobbles across the face of the paper. She can just barely make it out - To Stasis.

She doesn't need to open it. She can tell the suitcase is already gone, the snow angel missing. It doesn't matter what it says really, this place is desolate but for her. She drops the note back to the bed.

She hasn't looked but finally she has to. It's been staring at her like a crooked raven the whole time, hanging on the wall. Her promise of vengeance, dark with shadows.

Wounded light rises in her hands to splash against the walls. She looks again at the sword, the armor. A trick of her eyes makes it seems to dance, cavorting as if in pain. She tries to imagine Jaygo there, that sword buried through his heart. He'd known something. He could have saved Lish if he'd only spoken. It was his fault she'd died.

No, not his fault, not his, just yours, you were the one that held him from following, put a hand to his spine, pinned him there with your voice, you are the one that wanted to see his eyes look only to you, you are the one...

A thin whine escapes her lips without conscious thought, makes her turn away from the ugliness she has made reality. Jaygo, dead. For some reason Kali's voice rises in her ears. No words but she hears the denial, the frantic plea for an excuse, a reason. Had she said something back, something terrible? She thinks she might have. She is almost sure she did, screaming it into the Terra Volta reactor, hurling it halfway across the world to bury itself back into her heart.

Will Kali mourn when Jaygo dies? Will Kali make her own crucifix then?

She crouches then, there in the center of wreckage, hugging herself with hands made raw with power.

"Jeez-an-ages. Tara. Whappen?"

She looks up to find him standing uncertainly in the doorway. His dark eyes take in the shocked room, the gruesome parody pinned to the wall, the broken glass over everything. She sees him look from point to point and she watches the motion of his throat as he swallows.

It is a silly question. She didn't do anything.

"Neh, it don' mattuh." His eyes settle on hers then, shutting out the rest with a near audible click. "C'mon gyul, getcha bamsee up. The groun' ain' no place ta be." He makes no noise at all, even over the things that have shattered here until he kneels carefully at her side. Another shadow in this place.

He is close enough that she can feel the heat of his body.

"Jai." Her voice closes over that one sound, locking in her throat. Jai. A trick of the light makes his face look wet again.

"C'mon. Up. Shif' yuh cahcass."

She shakes her head. "How... did you know?" She is not thinking. She hasn't thought for days.

“Well, yuh don' like usin' de door so I watch de windows." His voice is soft, like a comforting hand brushing against her face. "An' wen I see de glow, I come runnin'."

"There's nowhere..." She swallows something thick like candy. "Jai. She's gone. She's really...." A fine shudder runs a finger down her spine, shaking the shadows on the wall.

"Yeh. Fuh true. I see de GPS aftuh yuh lef', see yuh bouncin' aroun' like yuh goin' orf. Peruhgrin’..? Dat ain' nuh place t' be, sometimey." He hesitates. "Yuh ain' dat strong, not yet."

She can only shake her head. She's strong enough. She is. Karl will call. Kris.

Jade.

She doesn't even realize she's put her fist through the floor until the pain spirals up her shoulder in a riptide. It feels good, more than good with the familiar sick taste in the back of her mouth which means broken. His breath hisses out; angry maybe, or scared. "Tara, yuh stop dis! It ain' doin nobody no good!"

Stupid, stupid. There is no thought as her other fist lashes out, meant to inflict yet more pain, more harm. She hurts. She will make it hurt more.

She is standing and so is he in an instant translation of vector, yet another hiccup of the film. She can't finish the strike, twist of both body and mind held fast. She feels the strain in the arm that holds her back. Her power coats his fingers but he doesn't let go, doesn't flinch against the pain. His dark eyes hold demon light this close to her.

"Tara. I say... yuh stop dis." Even now, his voice is soft although she hears the thunder rumbling beneath it now. "Yuh jus' hurtin' yusself, like yuh always do. I tell yuh I ain' gonna let dat happen no more. Not now. Not evah."

His grip tightens on hers. Slow deliberate pressure until she has to finally give way, surrender, or run. She can't run anymore. There is nowhere else to go.

She shudders as the power fades as suddenly as it came. His dark fingers thread carefully through hers then, hot to the touch like a flame.

"Dis ain' no place fuh yuh now, wit dis ruckus. Yuh come away now, Tara."

One step at a time as he backs them both out of that terrible place. His dark eyes never leave hers, pulling like a soft chain.

In the hallway though he frowns. She’s not sure what he sees but he obviously doesn’t like it. The lighting is too bright in her eyes, harsh and artificial. They stand there for a moment before he nods, as if making up his mind.

“Sometimey, we goin' back t' my dorm, okay? It empty 'cep fuh me and I be tinkin' you need sleep more dan anytin’ else. I'll watch yuh tonight, make sure yuh safe. You okay wit' dat?" He looks into her eyes, his hand shaking hers as if to get her attention. "Tara?"

"Ayuh?" Nothing makes sense. Go where?

"I said, yuh okay wit dat. I ain' gonna drag yuh dere, gyul. You wanna be somewhere else, I take yuh. Mebbe we go see Roostah." Something in his voice changes, another rumble of thunder. "Yuh always talk t' him."

No. No. She shakes her head so violently that her short hair whips across her mouth. Jade hasn't called. She has to wait until he calls. Panic wells up from somewhere to spill across her face.

"Neh? Okay. Okay. We leave de Roostah outta dis fuh now." He mutters something under his breath that she doesn't catch. "Yuh okay wit dat? Come wit me t' dorm fuh sleep?"

"Please, Jai. The light... hurts."

He makes a sound, disapproval maybe, or worry. "Dis way den."

As they walk the feel of his hand in hers is the only thing that's real. Hard calluses brush against her skin, tease her fingers with the urge to trace them, ask how he got them. She finds herself staring at the sliver of skin above his collar, at a single curl tight wound just behind his ear. They cut close to the library and she can feel the wave of their presence cresting in front of them. People turn, stop talking, stare. She keeps her head down, not wanting to meet anybody's eyes. Her fingers tighten painfully in his.

"Wat yuh lookin' at?" Jai's voice is impatient. "We comin' tru so make way, yuh macos." He tugs her forward.

One set of eyes burns hard enough that she has to meet them. She doesn't recognize the boy, but the expression on his face is clear enough. He takes in the sight of their joined hands, dark and light entwined and sneers. It's enough to raise a ghost of anger and she raises her free hand, forming a fist. A red flower starts to blossom. Nobody has the right to judge.

"Tara? Wat de matter, gyul?" Jai has half turned to look back at her and when she looks back to where the strange boy was, the spot is empty. She is crazily relieved. He didn't see it.

"Nothing. Just .. thought I saw something. It's nothing."

"Well, yuh know dat I worry about yuh nothin's." His smile brings an small answering one from her even as his fingers tug her forward again. "Yuh tell me if yuh see nothin' again."

"Ayuh, Jai."

Past the library the student traffic eases and she can feel the prickle between her shoulderblades dissipating. Eventually the sound of their walking changes, the flooring altering to something older as the ingrained dirt of hundreds of days vanishes under her boot heels. A few more students pass them but thankfully nobody in authority.

An eerily familiar door appears in front of them. Jai pulls a chain over his head, the silver key on it glinting for a moment in his grasp. The door rattles then opens. He pulls her gently into the room and closes it behind them, flipping the light on.

Without thinking her hand flashes out, slapping it off again. Too bright. Much much too bright.

"Tara?"

"Hurts .. my eyes. Sorry, Jai. Please." She's not even sure if it's true.

"Ah, fuh certain. Jus' a sec, den."

His fingers slip out of hers finally and she bites her lip with the loss of comfort. In the semi-gloom he moves easily around his quad, turning on a few smaller lights, one next to a messy bed, another near the little color tv. He looks over at her. "Dat bettuh?"

She nods, walking uncertainly into the center of the large room. Two couches have been squashed together, a rickety table holds the little tv. An overstuffed chair from a hundred years ago is wedged like an old grandmother into a corner.

She's never been here before and she finds herself herself holding onto her elbows. It looks like hers, in mirror, but three of the beds are clean made and untouched. She does her best not to look at the one corner that is his. She sits without thinking on one of the couches.

"Yuh hungry, Tara?"

He puts something under her nose but it doesn't smell good, not at all and she yanks her head away in disgust. He laughs over her head.

"Don' skin up yuh nose, gyul. Me cookin' ain' dat bad, fuh true. Yuh sure?"

"Not.. I'm not hungry." Her voice sounds odd in her own ears. She swallows the scratchiness of her throat. "Thanks anyways."

His smile is pleased, as if she's done something clever. "Suit yusself." Every move he makes is oddly deliberate, slow. She watches him put the food back into a bar fridge, fuss with something she can't see. He comes back then with that soft footed grace and sits down next to her, taking her hand. She shouldn't be surprised but she is.

"Yuh wanna talk?"

As simple as that, but that is Jai. Does she want to talk? She shakes her head but again isn't sure if it's true or not. She looks up and something catches her eye. A glint of glass standing on the windowsill. A half full bottle of rum.

You can’t see my dress until tomorrow!

She leans forward, wrapping her arms around her stomach in useless protection. Lycia, yelling at Jai through the thin bathroom wall. Happy, looking foward to the dance. Lucky trying to drink the rum without gagging from the large plastic cup. Jai's head so close to her knee, watching the movie, singing that silly song. She closes her eyes and does her best to breathe around the pain.

"Tara?"

Her name is soft enough to be a feather, laid against her cheek. It drives her up, to her feet, to the bottle before she's even aware she's moved. The glass is smooth and heavy under her fingers. He's half up himself as she turns back, one hand tight against the back of the couch, his expression uncertain.

Cold rips down her arm, hits the bottle in an audible snap. Use yuh power fuh somtin’ constructive. She remembers. She thrusts it out to him like a challenge and he glances from it to her.

"Lish had the world's worst hangover the next morning. Drink, Jai Marchan. Play the movie."

Let me remember her.

Maybe it's on her face, all the things she can't seem to figure out how to say.

He takes the bottle from her hand then, unscrews the top and takes an easy mouthful. She takes it back and touches it to her lips. The alcohol is burning hot and her eyes water.

She sits down, a puppet with her strings cut. With infinite care Jai leans over and pulls the dvd off the top of the stack, inserts it into the machine underneath the small tv. He gives her a look over one shoulder before pushing 'play'.

When the opening credits start to roll, she takes another defiant drink. Worse than the first, or better, it's hard to tell. Tears scald her eyes.

She doesn't protest when he pulls the bottle out of her fingers. When his arm wraps tentatively around her shoulders it seems right. He's so warm, the rough weave of his shirt against her cheek. He smells like spice and lime.

But it's only when he sings the silly song into her hair that she is finally able to close her eyes.

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