Life in the Fire: Flayre's Origin




Age Six:

The living room was a disaster, filled to the brim with discarded ribbon and shredded paper in colors God never inflicted on the Earth. Presents were piled haphazardly in the corner to be played with after the guests retreated, and the hordes of little feet thumping up and down the hallway was a deafening accompaniment to the screams of children momentarily left out of the excitement.

The party favors were spread out on the table, splashes of copper and silver and grape and taffy ready for blowing and merry-making. The children were all clamoring for candy, or Kool-Aid, or for the cake to be cut, but the birthday girl with her starry hat on askew first had to blow out the candles.

Her mother lit each one in turn as the children began an earshattering and dissonant version of "Happy Birthday" at the urgings of their guardians. Dad looked on proudly as his girl closed her eyes, made a wish, and blew her little heart out at those 6 little pyres.
The candles flickered…and then raced out like little streamers of their own on a mad, capricious dance along tabletop and carpet, drapes and windows. The flames thickened, became streams, then rivers whose maniacal crackling was drowned out by the terrified screams of children and parents alike.

The smoke billowed up fast and violent, while families raced into each other’s arms and stumbled out of the house as panic set in. They fled to their cars or out onto the asphalt with one lasting image burned into their minds: Candice, eyes opened after her wish, giggling and clapping her hands delightedly as flames engulfed her home.

************************************************** *********************



Age Ten:

The office was cold, antiseptic, so clean its sterile countertops gleamed with an ugly too-white brilliance. The skinny girl perched on the doctor's table hated this room. Sticky, scrunchy vinyl squeaked under her butt as she shifted her legs uncomfortably. She had her arm cradled to her side, a movement she was more than used to. The pain barely registered.

All the usual posters were on the walls: the cut-in-half eye, the half-skinned naked man, a bisected lung with graphic photos along the bottom illustrating the dangers of smoking. The girl glanced at them with macabre indifference and a vague sense of irony.

She watched her mother - who had practically bathed in perfume to avoid smelling like alcohol - tap her foot nervously and glance at the clock again, dragging the girl's eyes up to check as well. 18 minutes and counting since they'd been brought in from the waiting room. Too much longer and He would get upset...

On cue, the door swung open, sending a few of the charts swaying in its wake, and the balding physician poked his head in, perusing her chart notes with an indifference of his own. "Hello, Candy..."

"Candice." Her mother glared at her, but Candice made no apology. It was her name.

"Candice. It looks like we're going to have to get you a cast for that..." His voice trailed off as he flicked a few pages back and forth rapidly. "Third time? Is that right?" The faraway look in his eyes vanished as he studied her intently. "This is the third time in two years you've broken that arm?"

Her mother cut in quickly. "It's that bike of hers. She's always trying the jumps the boys at the skate parks try, and she just..." Here her mother trailed off and made one of those fancy motions in the air that made Candice sick, the one that meant "Does something dumb and lands on her face."

I did not. But she learned long ago not to speak those words aloud. Her eyes burned with a silent anger, but she said nothing, just let her mother ramble about her clumsiness.

The doctor was busy flipping through all the related notes in her rather thick file, noting bruised ribs, burns, broken fingers...and looked back at Candice.

"Is that how it happened, Candice?"

Candice shrugged, then winced at the pain that caused to her arm. She resorted to kicking her heels against the unforgiving steel while she waited for the plaster casting to begin. The wet, chalky paste was almost a refreshing feeling for her; it was someone doing something to help.

Her mother was getting worked up. "Now listen, I told you what happened..."

The doctor cut her off. "Mrs. Douglas...there are only so many times one girl can fall down the stairs or knock a pot of spaghetti off the stove before her clumsiness becomes something else. Radial fractures of the ulna are not easy to do. This is her third one. I've made a note of your 'explanation.' Is there anything else you want to add, Janice?"

Her mom just swallowed and shook her head. Janice. Not mom. Janice, like the way the doctor said it. She liked that. With Janice quieted for a moment, the doctor came back to her. "Are you sure this was a bike accident, Candice?" His eyes were pleading with her to say something else, but she'd tried that once. The beating that night had been a stark reminder of when to keep her mouth shut. She shook her head, sending her stringy red pony-tail swinging, and bit her lip to keep from saying anything to earn herself more pain at home...from Him.

The doctor sighed. "Okay. Let's get that patched up for you. And more bike riding accidents for a long time. All right?" Both mother and daughter got the message.

His hands on her frail limb were gentle and soft. The plaster was as cool and comforting as she remembered.

And she didn't set fire to the room once, not even when he set the bones.

She was quite proud of herself.

************************************************** *********************



Age 14:

do you worry that you're not liked
how long till you break
you're happy cause you smile
but how much can you fake
an ordinary boy an ordinary name
but ordinary's just not good enough today

Candice blared the music as she towled the sweat off her neck and mopped it out of her hair. 10k was not a short jog, but it almost felt too short now. In order to stay out of the house, she'd become involved in practically every extra-curricular sport available, and found out she was quite good at many of them. Swimming wasn't her thing, but track, softball, soccer...she was getting quite the following in several sports, and was suddenly more than "that strange girl" to the kids at her school.

Which wasn't to say she was popular. Too many people still saw the bruises and shied away, and even her fellow sufferers acknowledged their link in silence and not comraderie.

She'd managed to rein in her random pyrotechnics, however. No more school banners set ablaze or horrible toupees leaking smoke in the middle of class. An accident in a field, where the fire she'd started had driven scores of animals from their homes or burned them where they'd laid, had cured her of any wish to become a pyromaniac.

It was late afternoon, and with any luck Janice would be home before Stan and could take the brunt of his abuse for the evening. Unless Stan was already out at the bar, in which case she might be free of his sweaty touch and slurred insinuations for an entire evening.

She sighed. This is my life. Hoping for a night without fear and loathing. It just doesn't get any better than this... Even in her head, the sarcasm was weary and pained.

She heard the door slam shut downstairs and froze instantly, towel hanging like a dead cat in her hand. The thump of heavy workboots up the stairs forced her to set her teeth and straighten her back. She lifted the towel again and scrubbed defiantly at her face, refusing to be cowed. Tonight was not going to be one of the good nights.

"Hey ther', Candy. Don' you look all...tired out." She could hear the leer in his voice; she didn't need to see his drunken face to have disgust soak into her bones. He'd been tossing back some whiskey on the way home - it was overpowering the lemon freshness of the towels.

His hand pushed her door all the way open; she had left it cracked to better hear his return. "Yer workin' too hard, girl. Maybe ya need a han' relaxin'..." She knew it was coming, her muscles drawing taut across her back with the strain of not flinching...and then he rested his hand possessively on her bare shoulder, thumb stroking in a rough circle. "Tell Daddy whass wrong, Candy."

She couldn't stop it. She shrugged his hand off, and heard her own voice growl out, "You're not my father, Stan."

There was blistering silence between them for a few moments, with only the music calling out its dark beats.

are you worried about your faith
kneel down and obey
you're happy you're in love
you need someone to hate
an ordinary girl an ordinary waste
but ordinary's just not good enough today

And then he slammed his clenched fist down on the tile countertop, bouncing her toothbrush onto the cracked linoleum floor and knocking her glass into the sink.

"Don' talk back'a me, girl. An' turn down tha' damn MUSIC!"

He stalked out of the bathroom, thudding the doorframe with the palm of his hand and making Candice flinch one more time as he stomped down the staircase. She flicked off the music, listening to every step he took. Seven steps to the fridge, the clink of beer bottle on beer can as he reached for another serving of alcohol, any alcohol. Five more to the couch, the slamming of his bootheels down on the sagging coffee table, the crack of the can opening...

Safe. She looked at her shaking hands, swallowed a deep gulp of air, and then let it out slowly. He'll be down there for at least twenty minutes, and maybe he'll forget the whole thing...

But for once his habits did change, and she heard him crash the can down and struggle off the couch, stalking back toward the staircase.

He'scominghe'scominghe'scoming... Taking a stranglehold on her fear, Candice scampered to the bed and sat down facing the doorway. Better to be sitting down, no threat, no challenge... The door burst open, slapped to the wall by his broad, cruel hand.

"Yer talkin' back at me agin, Candy. Tol' you NOT to talk back'a me..." He was squinting at her, piglike with suspicion and rage. One hand worked at his belt, pulling it over and doubling it against his hand, wrapping the buckle around his palm. He slapped it against his palm, testing it, the crack of leather on flesh sending shivers down her spine.

You know what you have to do. Candy bit her lip hard enough to draw blood, smoothed her palms against her shorts, and then blew a breath out long and slow. She did know. She'd made herself a promise the last time. Never again.

She pasted a placating look on her face, twisting her lips in a resemblance of a smile. "I know. Stan - Dad - I'm sorry. It's my fault." Stan frowned in confusion. This was not the way it was supposed to go. Knees shaking, Candice stood up and, hands spread out to the sides, walked towards her stepfather and his leather gauntleted fist. "Let me...let me make it up to you." Her voice trembled, but he didn't pay any attention to it, both fists falling slowly to her sides. She reached up, sickened - Just a bit more, just one more step - and touched the side of his face.

And then, as if a storm has finally passed overhead, she rode in a wake of stillness and calm. No words were left, no amount of screaming or crying or hiding remained for her. Just this touch.

The skin under her fingertips ignited like a bonfire up the side of his face, and his scream was both anguished and terrified. He reeled back through the doorway and into his own room, both hands clapped to his ruined profile. He tripped over the bed and fell to his knees, and his curses and threats were tinged with fear now.

Candice didn't smile. She couldn't feel a thing. Just an icy kernel of nothing in the pit of her stomach, and a vague nausea that cloyed at her senses. It was done.

"I'm leaving Stan." Her voice was so steady; she couldn't believe it was actually her. "I don't know where I'm going, but I won't stay here for one more day."

"Y' don' get to MAKE that choice!" Stan's scream drove spittle from his mouth, but his eyes were completely focused on her. Blistering burns sobered him up quickly. She tried to ignore the red and black tinged labyrinth that crawled along the left side of his head.

Now she did smile, though it was devoid of joy or hope, leaving just the pain reflected. "Stop me."

He lunged for her off his knees, grabbing her by the ankle. It was easier for her the second time, but his scream was the same as he withdrew smoking and contorted digits from her skin.

"Good bye, Stan."

She turned to go, but his rage-soaked rantings paused her mid-step.

"You'll never be anything! Yer nothin', you hear me?" He pushed himself back against the dresser, his voice rising to a screech. "NOTHING!"

She refused to turn around, to give him the satisfaction.

"Maybe. But I'll be nothing somewhere else." And she left him curled in a fetal position against the unforgiving wood furniture.

She started back to her room to pick up some things. There's nothing in there I want. Turning in mid-step, she descended the stairs, meeting her mother coming up in a panic.

"Hello Janice."

"I heard Stan. What have you done?" The wild-eyed fear for her abuser broke Candice's last tie to her home. "What have you DONE?"

"I made a choice." Janice pushed past her and ran into the bedroom, sobbing and rocking Stan in her arms while he muttered for her to call the police.

Candice walked out the front, letting the screen door slam shut behind her, and began her run to freedom.

************************************************** *********************



Age 18:

Paragon University was a beehive of activity, with students and teachers alike racing to get back into the flow of order, regimen and work. Its bluff fa├žade hid the energy of its occupants, but the interior was almost cozy. The brick walls were dark and warm, turning the pale vicious glare of the halogen hall lights into a ruddy, inviting glow that welcomed back its missed symbiotes.

Those halls were bustling again with the restlessness of vacation's end and the trepidation of tests ahead. Christmas and New Year's had come and gone, and Alicia was returning to her freshman year with enthusiasm. At least, until she remembered what class finals she had to take.

"Oh, man, Engineering 102. Next week."

"Are you bitchin' again, Alicia? Dayum, girl, lighten up a little." A pat on the back from a thick, heavy hand made her flinch unconsciously, but she forced the shiver from her spine and pasted a smile on her face as she turned to meet her assailant. A wide, genuine smile and gentle eyes met her gaze, and turned her plastic mask pure. Tony Stubbs had a way of doing that. His bass voice rumbled out amiably as he snuck a meaty arm across her shoulders. "So how was vacation? Your aunt and uncle stuff them stockings full of Cliff's Notes for ya?"

She gave him a good-natured elbow in the ribs. "I'm not the one who needs help cramming, Clayton."

He shushed her quickly, making motions for her to keep it down. "C'mon now, I use your middle name like you asked me to, don't be disrespectin' like that. Tony. Always Tony." But there was a twinkle in his eye when he said it.

True enough, she thought. Tony was one of the only kids there who knew what her life was like before, during the ugly days. After Stan and Janice earned their eight by eight cells she had moved in with her aunt and uncle, finished school, and gotten accepted to college. More than accepted. Several engineering schools were clamoring for her to go. But Paragon U was available, and she'd always wanted to live in the big city. And that's where Tony was going on his athletic scholarship.

Standing six foot four and carved from two hundred fifty pounds of chocolate muscle, he was as good a protector and friend as she'd had in her entire life. He made her laugh when life was hard, he held her when she cried, and all he asked was her friendship in return. He was the only man in her life she truly trusted.

And he was ecstatically, openly gay.

They started walking down the hall, threading their way through the masses.

"So what's on your mind, sister? You still trippin' over that prof of yours?"

She nodded and took a deep breath. "Professor Deynard. He just..." She gestured aimlessly for a moment and then growled. "He's a jerk."

Tony chuckled and hugged her with one arm, rubbing the top of her head with the other til she smacked his hands away. "That's what I love about you, girl. Nobody's safe from the brutal truth. So just tell his *** off, take the low grade and move on."

She glared at him as she attempted to straighten her mass of red hair, but shook her head firmly. "Not a chance. He teaches the freshmen and the seniors, by his choice. No way am I jeopardizing my senior grades and my internships just because he looks like Death kicked him in the balls a few times and he needs to take it out on his students."

Tony choked on his tongue, not sure whether to laugh of scowl. "And I wonder why you ain't got a man hangin' on those fine shoulders of yours."

She smiled at him sweetly. "But I do, Tony. You."

His arm came off her shoulder with surprising alacrity as he scoffed. "Please. And don't bat them eyelashes at me. I already get hassled 'bout that by..." He trailed off, so she supplied a helpful tag.

"The Gay Pride Parade?"

"Don't start with me already, Miss Alicia." His words held more than a hint of warning, and only some of it was playful. "I had a whole break to pretend you were a nice sweet thang. Don't remind me what a [censored] you really are."

Surprisingly, that did bring a smile to her angular face. "I am what I am, Tony. Not all of us can be real human beings like you."

He stopped their forward progress with a hand to her shoulder and spun her to face him directly. " can't go on like this forever. Sooner or later..."

Her face iced up in a heartbeat. "Sooner or later what?"

He leaned over and kissed her forehead, startling some of the callousness from her expression. "Sooner or later you gotta move on." He slid his hands to her cheeks and met her emerald stare with his toffee one. "You hear me miss Thang?"

The blood was draining from her face but she nodded. "I hear you. Just can't obey you."

He nodded too, and let her go. "Get to class. I'll catch up with you after, at the gym."

Alicia watched him leave, wishing that she could feel that sure of who she was and what she was supposed to be for even a second, and then glanced at the clock.

The clock that showed she was late.

Her sprint down the hall was a flash of copper hair and long limbs, but it couldn't turn back time. She eased the door to the classroom open and tried to sneak into her seat, but Professor Deynard, with his withered good looks and all the arrogance of a mid-thirties genius, stared right up at her with a frigid smile staining his lips.

"Miss Douglas. How very kind of you to stop by. Everyone, please give Miss Douglas a nice round of applause for gracing us with her presence today." And as he looked around the room, evidently deathly serious, the students started clapping, a hesitant, staccato thing.

Her cheeks flaming, Alicia found her seat and tried not to look at anyone, but Deynard wasn't finished. "Is that embarrassment I see creeping up your face, Miss Douglas? Good. Next time, don't be late. My classroom is for learning, not for skulking. If a degree in makeup application or jockstraps is more to your liking, please choose a different class."

Her head snapped up at that, and she fixed the professor with a blazing glare that just glanced off his ice-blue eyes. He met her stare casually, but she refused to back down, and with a small smile playing about his bitter countenance he finally turned from her and restarted the lesson.

I want to be an engineer. I want to be an engineer. She repeated her mantra to herself while gripping the text between her hands, trying not to rip it in half. The smell of charring paper wafted to her nostrils and she looked down. Her hands were slowly scorching their way into the cover of the textbook. She ripped her hands away, letting the book clatter to the desktop with a loud smack. Deynard looked back at her, eye arched in condescension, and several of her neighbors looked over at her in either concern or horror.

With every ounce of courage and determination she had, Alicia opened the book carefully, thumbed through to the correct page, and kept all thoughts of causing permanent physical damage to the professor private until class was over.

* * *

Tony knew something had happened when she was a no-show at the gym. He went to her dorm room and knocked gently. "Leece? You in there? Alicia?"

A soft sob leaked through the hollow core panel, and he instinctively tried the handle. The door swung open, revealing his friend's condition. Alicia was sitting crosslegged on top of her comforter, head in her hands. She didn't look up as he closed the door behind him, just gasped in air between tears and whispered her broken mantra.

"I hate him. I hate him with a fiery passion."

Tony looked at her singed textbook, discarded on the scuffed wooden floor. "I can see that."

"I mean it Tony. He's such a *****, I can't even say. He's constantly calling me out in class - by name - shredding my papers while other people skate by, calling on me for questions that aren't in the textbook and nobody else in class knows either...he's just loathsome."

Tony sat down on the edge of her bed, causing it to sag precariously. "I hear ya...but isn't it good that he knows your name? I bet half the class can swear that he doesn't know theirs."

She looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "I don't think I can take the never-ending criticism. I can't take having somebody else in my life who tries to make me small so they can feel bigger. I can't..."

"Leece..." Tony just dropped it helplessly and pulled her close. A dam broke somewhere inside her and wracking sobs shook her body as she clung to his shirt like a lifeline.

"I can't beat it, Tony." Shuddering breaths punctuated her muffled words. "I can't beat Him. He's still hurting me..."

"I know he is, Leece, I know." He stroked her hair, trying to find some way to heal the crack in her soul. "But you're gonna beat him."

He got no reply, just the tears of the wounded, praying for healing.

* * *



Age 18, con't:

She had to get out of the dorm, get out into the fresh air and away from her frustrations and anger. They followed her doggedly, spitefully, across deserted streets and through darkness broken only by the pools of light dropped from streetlamps high above.

So she walked faster, a brisk half jog that reminded her of all those long runs she fled on long ago, footsteps pounding incessantly, unceasingly, trying to escape her house and her life. Gritting her teeth, she slowed to a reasonable pace, forced her muscles to relax, forced her breathing to slow. I will not let him beat me. I will not run. I'm not running from my own life any longer.

The sounds of conflict from a dim and dingy alley drew her concentration and she stopped in her tracks, glancing over and then edging out into the street, away from the noise. Someone was fighting. More than one someone...

A blast of brilliant, polished energy careened in front of her face before detonating into a building across the street. It ripped a hole in her night-vision and left her with its fading after-effects skewing her sight.

There was a battle going on, she could tell that much. She could make out several blurred shapes, among them a hulking man with a street sign that he was attempting to thrust through the chest plate of his adversary - repeatedly. Another had some sort of battery hooked up to a backpack and two power-lines were held in his gloved hands. He sparked the ends together, grinned nastily, and then jammed both ends into the would-be hero's chest. The shock and resulting blow-back finally knocked the hero out into the street, his armor smoking and scarred with battle creases and disintegrated chrome. Red and silver armor that she recognized at last.

It's Redline. They're killing Redline.

Redline, the self-made hero. He'd built his first suit in his garage, invested wisely, become a reclusive multi-millionaire and now spent every evening on the front lines of the battle for this City.

He was her hero.

Without thinking, she glanced at the road, oil-slicked rainbows forming a gorgeous, filthy path across the water lined street. Straight to the alley. Alicia bent down and touched both palms to the oily surface. "Stay the hell away from him."

And the road went up like a funeral pyre, the fuel on the road stoked higher by her anger, so high even she jumped back. The trash-filled alley-way was set ablaze, the smoke and flames sending the front lines of Redline's assailants reeling. The large one roared and stepped through the curtain of fiery tongues, but Redline had recovered enough to stagger to his feet, and his monotone voice rasped harshly, lined with exhaustion. "Sit down."

Again the butter-gold blast lit her vision, but this time it hit its mark and drove the Giant back into his friends, sending them all wallowing in the embers of Alicia's distraction.

Redline turned toward her, stumbling in doing so, and she rushed to his side, supporting his weight with her shoulders. Even in his armor he was surprisingly light.

"Time to go." He didn't move his head, but she got the impression he was looking back at the alley anyway, and was discouraged by the sight of his adversaries regaining their footing.

Alicia shared his concerns. "Can you fly?"

He shook his head, a surprising amount of sarcasm coming through in his modulated rasp. "Escape is always the first system to go. I think I need to work on that..."

Alicia glanced around, then saw a pair of headlights coming their way and stepped out into the road with Redline in tow.

"What are you..."

The approaching taxi screeched to a halt, the "off duty" sign on its roof glowing a dingy amber. "Lady!" The cabbie stuck his head out the window and started cursing at her. "What in the hell do ya think yer doin?"

Not bothering to answer she staggered to the side of his cab, ripped open the back door and tossed herself and Redline across the back seat. "Drive idiot! Before it's too late!" Swiveling his head around, he caught sight of the Lost making their way for his car with murder on their minds. With more cursing he squealed the tires, the smell of burning rubber added to melted chrome as they sped away. The door slammed shut as they rounded a corner and headed back to the more civilized parts of town.

"I thought those guys stayed in the hazard zones!" The cabbie, a rotund balding man in his late thirties, checked every mirror and turned around to look back, trying not to be followed and almost hitting a few stop signs and light poles as they careened through dimly lit city streets.

"Apparently no one told them that," murmured Alicia sarcastically.

"Heh. Right. two lovebirds out enjoying a romantic evening in our wonderful slums?"

Redline lifted his head at that, and he and Alicia snapped at the driver simultaneously. "Shut up."

"Whatever you want. You're the fare. Uh...and you're on the meter right now. Where we goin'?"

The armored hero coughed, his metallic chest convulsing for a moment. "Uptown. I'll give you directions...when we get closer."

"You're the boss." And the cabbie twisted forward in his seat and left the scrutinizing of the injured man to the pretty young girl in the back.

"How are you feeling, Redline?" Alicia tried to keep her hands from the partially liquefied portions of his suit and her voice free of worry, but his armor was still smoking intermittently and creating a nauseating stench. The driver was protected from it by his armorglass partition, but she rolled down a window to get some fresher, less fragrant air into the cab.

"Like God just...stepped on me." The words were forced and shaky, but the biting edge in them brushed a familiar chord. She hoped he wasn't too badly injured.

"Do we need to head for a hospital?"

The hero shook his head slightly. "Nothing...they can do for me. A bit beyond their...'expertise.'" Alicia nodded and sat back in the ratty seat, feeling helpless and hating it. She had nothing to say, and wringing her hands with worry wasn't something she was accustomed to.

She was startled out of her personal frustrations by his attempt to take his mask off.

"What are you doing?"

Even with the helmet obscuring his entire face, the look he leveled at her made her feel handicapped and inbred besides.

"I can't...breathe...respirator damaged. Take"

He fumbled with the latches and pressure keys ineffectually, until she brushed his hands away. "Okay, okay I can do it, hang on." The snap-hiss release of sealed air whispered against her skin, and she lifted the helmet off of him as gently as she could to reveal the face of her hero.

The ice blue eyes she knew and loathed stared up at her, set in a once-beautiful face that was ravaged by some unknown illness...and creased by that arrogant, self-mocking smile she had grown to hate even in her dreams.
"Deynard." Her voice was a whisper of shock, but she nearly dumped him onto the floor with her instinctual recoil.

"Miss Douglas." The strain in his voice was almost overpowering now, but even the wracking cough that followed didn't blunt his wry amusement. "Not...very focused on our schoolwork to be out...time of night, are we?"

* * *

Her mind was awash in shock. Deynard was Redline.

"What....why...God, I'm an idiot." She ground her teeth together and tried to push her shock, disgust and anger away, to keep it from choking her. The sight of his face, an enemy revealed in place of a friend, sent her mind spiraling down dark, hate-filled corridors.

"I'm sorry I'm not...the man of your dreams." Deynard's sardonic, biting words were interrupted by a small coughing fit, but his eyes fixed on her with an unholy intensity. "We are what we are."

And you're an [censored]!" Her words were half-shouted, half-sobbed. Her hands tightened around his mask until her knuckles shone white and tense.

His voice was both quiet and bitter. "We are what we are."

The cabbie laughed nervously. "Love at first sight. How grand." Alicia slammed the helmet against the bulletproof glass between them and the driver, and it bounced off with a dull thump. "Shut up and drive." The weariness in her voice was only slightly overcome by the anger. He shrugged and turned on the radio so he wouldn't have to hear every word of their argument.

A small smile twisted Deynard's lips. "I have to wear that helmet again, Miss Douglas. Please don't dent it. I'm fairly certain you haven't even the modicum of skill needed to fix it."

The fact that he was practically incapacitated and she could just kill him right there briefly made itself known to Alicia. She dismissed it - reluctantly.

"Shut up, Deynard. Just...we'll get you to your house, and then I'm gone. No more of you, no more of your class..." She bit off the damning words and just sat in stony silence, while he regarded her with that irritating mixture of contempt and curiosity.

The cabbie delivered them to a small 3 story building, unassuming and unremarkable sitting in the heart of the reconstructed business district. He turned around in his seat and pointed to the revolving cash drawer.

"Here ya are. That'll be $37.50."

"Give the nice man fifty dollars, Miss Douglas." Deynard reached out for his helmet which she jerked away, disbelieving.

"You want ME to pay it?"

His raspy chuckle irritated her newly-forming migraine. "I have money inside to pay you back. I just don't want to...keep the meter running any longer."

Alicia growled. "Why would I go inside with you? Go get the money, pay the man, and then I can have him drive me to my home far, far away from you."

Deynard's deathmask of a face just crinkled as he arched an eyebrow. "You aren't going to see me in? I might fall and injure myself."

I might trip you and help, she thought, but she was already reaching for her wallet. Pausing to consider the why's of that decision, she reluctantly paid the man and kicked her door open. "Fine. Inside." She slammed it behind her a bit harder than necessary, ignoring the cabbie's protests, and moved to the other side of the car to help Redline to the door. "Just keep your hands to yourself. You wouldn't be the first jerk I've put in the hospital."

Deynard stiffened, and let out a slow breath. "You're not my type, Miss Douglas."

For some reason, that thought struck her as hilarious, and her laughter chased down the deserted street after the swiftly departing cabbie. "No, no of course not." She propped him up against the doorframe and looked at the keypad. "What's the code?"

He just looked at her, sucking deep breaths at the exertion it had taken him just to make that short walk, and she practically stomped her foot in frustration. "Look, Deynard, just tell me the damn code so I can get you inside. You can change it tomorrow."

He paused, still reluctant, then relented. "1181435943327543."

She blinked. "You think you have a long enough code there? Nevermind. Again, slower this time."

He repeated, she typed, and the steel door swung back on silent hinges. He slapped the button on the wall as they entered, and with a cheerful chirp the entry system reactivated and the door swung shut.

The lights on the floor came open, revealing offices, a kitchen, some seats and more rooms toward the back.

Alicia looked around, interested despite herself. "Cozy. You don't really live here, do you?" Deynard motioned for her to take him to the back room, and together they staggered onward.

"Only when I'm working."

The back room turned out to be a bedroom. Alicia stopped as if she'd hit an invisible wall at the sight of the sheets and mattress, but Deynard just disengaged himself from her and landed heavily on the end of the bed, disregarding the metallic corrosion his armor left on the comforter.

"I can...take it from here, Miss Douglas. Thank you for your assistance."

Like I'd brought him a phone book, she thought sourly. At least I don't have to help him undress. "Sure, right, whatever. Just tell me where the phone is so I can call another cab."

"There's another bedroom two doors down. Feel free to...sleep in there." His breathing was coming a little easier, but the wheezing rattle with every exhalation gave her grave concerns. He mistook the expression on her face, and another mocking smirk twisted his face. "It has a lock, if you are worried about your...virtue."

Alicia's eyes widened. "God! You're such an...argh!" She turned to leave, but his voice, a memory of its usual strength, cracked out like a whip.

"Stay." She paused in mid-step, but didn't turn. A moment later, his tone softening just enough to reach her. "Please. Stay. We have...much to talk about in the morning."

Her jaw clenched, but she nodded briefly before shutting the door and closing him off from her. She sagged against the wall, fighting back tears. He was right, they had to talk about what had happened. She had to make sure he was all right. But she wasn't sure how much more of him she could take.

* * *



saved for pt. 6



saved for pt. 7



saved for pt. 8



saved for pt. 9