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Reminiscence

by The Inimitable Pooh Bah

Date: August 6 - 14, 2001

Rating: PG-13

Summary: Zane is haunted by memories as he settles into a new life. (A very long character piece.)

Spoilers: Plot through "The Kidz are Aiight." Minor characterization information through "And Jesus Brought a Casserole."

Disclaimer: Don't own 'em.

Feedback: poohbah@gray-eyed.com

Website: http://www.gray-eyed.com/

Archive: List archives and by submission. Do not archive or repost without permission.

Note: You know those stories where the timeline is so confusing you have to reread two or three or four times before you understand the sequence of events? Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" is a prime example. I've been accused a few times of similar, though not quite as severe, crimes against straightforward point- A-point-B-point-C storytelling. . . . This story, hopefully, will not add to my rap sheet. It might, though. You never know.


It was Saturday, and Zane was utilizing it to move into his girlfriend's place.

Francie was in the bedroom, shuffling her things around to make room for what little Zane had brought with him to Denver.

Zane and the dog were in the kitchen, busy taking stock of the cupboards and planning a large-scale reorganization and restocking. Francie wasn't much of a cook, and she'd been more than happy to let Zane take over that department. Zane was busy rounding up all the canned soup hiding in the dark dusty corners and putting it all in a central location on the counter. Millie watched through half-closed eyes as she sprawled across the floor by the refrigerator. She'd been more alert--and in the way--when they'd started a few minutes ago, but she and Zane had played hard in the park earlier that morning, and there was only so long that puppy curiosity could hold exhaustion in check. She was falling asleep now, just as Zane intended.

The sound of shattering glass made them both jump. Millie conquered her lethargy in a blink, and bounded out to the living room barking at the top of her still-small lungs.

Zane would have been faster than her, if he hadn't had to restrict himself to normal human speed. Instead, he called out an order to sit, and hoped she hadn't yet reached the broken glass.

She'd obeyed by the time he arrived, stopping just short of the farthest-scattered shards.

"Good girl," Zane told her. "Stay."

Millie didn't even twitch. Krit had been convinced that the dog was stupid, and Zane had never understood why. Maybe Krit just had negativity issues--he was nineteen, so surliness could still be written off as teenage attitude.

Zane surveyed the damage to the living room. The baseball had not only caused a shower of broken glass on the carpet by the window, but kept going and broken a singularly ugly table lamp as well.

"God damn it," Francie muttered as she emerged from the bedroom and saw the window and lamp in pieces.

It still surprised Zane a little that Francie said things like that. None of his previous girlfriends would have. Not even Rita--she would have skipped right over mild language and gone directly to the harshest words she could think of.

--

Rita had always been one for extremes. She dyed her hair black, hated the whole world, and had three suicide attempts under her belt before he even met her in their sophomore year.

All his friends said Rita was bad for him.

He loved her anyway.

She needed him so desperately, just to keep sane. And, for some reason not even he could put a finger on, Zane needed her just as badly.

It was near the end, a week before Zack came out of nowhere and made him leave. He'd come over to her house to compare math homework, but they'd argued instead and Rita had stormed up to her room to sulk. Zane stood at the foot of the stairs for a moment, dazed like he was after all their fights, then put his textbook back into his backpack and turned to leave.

"Wait, Zane," Rita's mother called from the kitchen when she heard him fumbling with the twist lock on the doorknob. "Help me make dinner."

She handed him a knife and pointed to the stretch of wooden countertop. "There's a lot of onions in a pot of curry." She tucked back a strand of graying hair, emptied a mesh bag of onions, and started peeling off the papery skins.

Zane followed suit, and they worked in silence for a few minutes.

"She used to be a happy girl," she said finally.

"I'm sorry." Rita had spoken quietly as they argued and Zane had matched it, but somehow it was more hostile than if they'd screamed at the top of their lungs. He couldn't remember ever feeling this wounded, or this guilty.

"Oh, no, Zane, she's coming back around. Don't you see it?"

He shook his head. Rita had just announced another plan for suicide, and he hadn't believed it, but he begged her not to anyway. . . . If that was turning around, he was a trained seal.

"She has a glow about her." Her mother stopped cutting to put a hand on Zane's arm, and he turned to look down at her. He'd been over six feet tall for months, and she was hardly five feet. She'd always seemed so far below him, but today she was closer.

"You've been so good to her, honey." Her eyes betrayed the wishful thinking behind the observation about Rita coming back. "You're such a wonderful, patient young man."

"Thank you," Zane whispered.

Rita had started the argument by hissing that she was pregnant and hated him for it. She said she hadn't told her mother--he didn't mention it now as they turned back to chopping the onions.

He thought she might have known anyway, because her wet eyes didn't look quite like onion tears. His weren't.

--

The sound of glass crunching beneath Francie's clogs brought Zane back to the present. He watched her march over to the frame of the window and stick her head out.

"How many times have I told you this week?" she hollered.

"Five," Zane heard a saucy little-girl voice reply from the ground two stories below.

"Well, I'll tell you again--"

"'Play ball in the park, not the parking lot,'" the girl interrupted, in a perfect, sarcastic imitation of Francie.

"You broke my Aunt Louisa's lamp!" Francie accused.

"You never liked that lamp!"

Zane had to stifle a laugh, because the kid was right.

--

A week ago, Francie had taken him to her apartment for the first time. She unlocked the door, then paused and turned back to him.

"Better close your eyes, babe," she said.

"Why?" Zane asked as he complied.

He felt her take his hand and lead him inside.

"'Cause," Francie explained, "there's this hideous lamp in the living room. The sight of it has been known to blind people. I have to keep it around because it belonged to my great aunt and my mother made me take it when I moved out. In memory, y'know. I never even knew Aunt Louisa 'cause she died when I was only three months old."

"I think your mom just wanted to get rid of it," Zane observed.

"I know she did," said Francie. "But what can you do?"

Zane opened one eye to peek at the lamp. It was a disgusting shade of dull green, with details painted on in a painfully bright red, and a cheap yellowish lampshade. He gave a gasp of mock horror, and fell to the floor clutching at his throat.

"Oh, Francie, Francie--you never told me it could be lethal!"

Francie giggled. "Well, it never killed anybody before. Just put a few in the hospital."

--

Francie looked over her shoulder and scowled at the destroyed lamp, then turned back out the window.

"It's the principle of the thing!" she yelled. "My mamma's gonna kill me, you know that? And now I don't have any lights in the living room. You think I like sitting around in the dark?"

Zane walked up behind her and peered over her shoulder. Several children stood around a baseball diamond they'd outlined with hopscotch chalk, holding bats and mitts. It was pretty clear which one Francie was arguing with--a girl about eight years old, with flaming red hair in a messy pageboy, standing by home plate with her arms akimbo. She wore a grungy baseball cap proclaiming support for a team she'd probably never heard of--she wasn't even born when the Pulse hit and professional sports stopped short. Zane himself only had a vague memory of who the 49ers were, but he knew they weren't even a baseball team.

The girl ignored Francie's scolding, since she'd spotted Zane in the window and he seemed like a more interesting--or at least less damning--topic of conversation. She pointed. "Is that your boyfriend?"

Francie startled when she looked up and found him there. He realized he'd been too quiet coming up behind her.

She leaned back out the window as he snaked his arms around her waist from behind and dropped a kiss on the back of her neck. "Duh," she said to the girl. "So are you gonna pay for a new window?"

"No," the kid said curtly.

"Well--"

"He's hot stuff," she added. Zane figured that was something she'd heard from an older sister and didn't even understand the meaning of.

"Shut up," said Francie.

The girl blew a raspberry and scampered off. The other children ran after her.

Francie sighed and turned around in Zane's arms. "So what do you want to do this month, babe? Get a new window or eat on Wednesdays?"

"I'll get some plywood and board it up," he offered.

"Thanks." She hooked an arm around his neck and rested her head against his chest with a sigh. "I remember when there was enough money to do both, and go out to a movie afterwards. . . . "

"Hmm," said Zane, because he didn't remember any such thing. By the time he'd had any money, Hollywood had ground to a halt and the economy was already in ruins like it was now.

Francie gestured to Millie, who was still sitting obediently. "You should shut her in the bedroom before she cuts her feet."

Zane nodded, and slipped away from Francie to lead the dog off by the collar. He picked up the baseball on the way to the bedroom, and tossed it in behind Millie.

When he got back to the living room, Francie had produced a paper grocery bag and was dropping pieces of glass into it. He squatted beside her and joined in. She stayed intent on the ground before her, and didn't notice that he was working twice as fast.

"That's some kid there," he remarked.

Francie huffed in annoyance and didn't look up. "Name's Penny and she lives in B-43, and I don't know why the hell she's gotta play ball way over here in the G parking lot."

"Maybe we've got better pavement."

"Not even," said Francie. "She's just a turkey. She knows it drives me up the wall."

"She reminds me of my brother Pike," Zane remarked idly.

"So you do have a family," Francie noted. She had a large one, and tended to avoid contact with most of its members. Zane hadn't mentioned his own family yet, and Francie hadn't bothered to ask.

Zane regretted his slip--he bore no real resemblance to Pike and Krit beyond similar heights, and he could never pass them off as his brothers if Francie met them. He'd been able to convince his other girlfriends of a biological relationship, mostly because Phoebe and Colleen weren't terribly observant and Rita and Grace didn't really care about his brothers. The three X5s had shared build once too, which helped--but Zane had filled out when he was eighteen, while the twins had stayed willowy and showed no signs of changing that in the two years before adolescence was a memory. It didn't matter anyway, because Francie was good at picking out family resemblance in faces and she'd notice the differences in eyes and noses and jaws.

A bit of fibbing was in order.

"He's not really my brother," said Zane. "We were in a foster home together, and we've stayed in touch. We're pretty close. . . . I've got a lot of brothers and sisters like that."

"Ah."

"Yeah."

"So tell me about Pike?"

"He's one of identical twins. Pike's the rowdy one and Krit's got a cagey streak, so Pike makes sure they have fun and Krit makes sure they don't get killed in the process. They're nineteen, and they've been driving around in this beat-up Jeep ever since they aged out of foster care. Pike got tired of Krit last month, ditched him at a gas station in Des Moines and peeled rubber."

That wasn't quite fact. The twins had always been road warriors, traveling by bus and freight train until they were fifteen and Pike stole the Jeep. The ditch had happened in New Orleans under pressure from Zack, and Krit had lost track of time and stayed for three years. Des Moines was the latest relocation order, and Pike hadn't even been involved in getting Krit there.

Francie laughed. Zane thought it was one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. "So where's Pike now?"

"Somewhere in Mexico. We think." That was true enough. Pike had given Krit a call from the post office in a village near Guadalajara saying he'd gotten a job and a place to stay, but that could very well have changed in the four days since the twins had that conversation.

"And what about Krit?" Francie asked.

--

Krit and Zane had taken their time getting to Des Moines. Then Zane stayed around to help Krit get settled before finally heading off for Denver a good three weeks after Zack had sent them off.

Des Moines, Zane discovered, was a much easier place to set up in than Denver. He found a job within a few days, but was still homeless a week after arriving.

He called Krit from a pay phone.

"Zane!" cried Krit. "Thank God you called! I was about to drink myself to death, this place is that goddamned boring!"

Zane laughed, because Krit wasn't even remotely serious. He loved life too much. And then there was the problem with strong livers running in the family--there wasn't enough booze in the whole state to kill an X5.

"Don't laugh," Krit scolded. "I mean it. This place is the pits. I want to blow this joint, go see Jondy. . . . Flipping burgers is such damned slow money, so I've been picking pockets to form a bus ticket fund. I don't have much--everybody's so broke here. Next time Pike comes blowing through, I'm going with him. I don't even care where. I think he'll be cool with Vegas, though."

"Jondy's there," Zane pointed out. "She broke his arm last month."

"He'll be cool with it," Krit insisted. "Even if she is there. Anyway, how's life treating you, big brother?"

"I'm in love with a wonderful girl, Millie's growing like a weed, and Zack hasn't come by to chew me out for being human."

"'I have no job, I'm sleeping in the Mustang, and I have no clue how to get in touch with anybody but Krit,'" Krit translated.

"I have a job and I've got phone numbers for Tinga and Syl," Zane informed him.

"But you are sleeping in the Mustang, right?"

"Yeah."

"Life's a bitch," observed Krit.

"It's wonderful anyway."

"Whatever."

--

"He decided to settle down for a while," Zane lied. "He got a job as a short-order cook."

"The model of stability," Francie remarked.

"You have no idea," said Zane.

--

Zane came home from work late on Wednesday. So far in Denver, he'd always managed to get off before the sun went down--but there had been a Jaguar with a hellishly difficult wiring problem, and Francie was out anyway at a family dinner she'd been coerced into attending, so it didn't seem to matter if he stayed at the garage until eight o'clock.

The moon was out and full, and there was a street lamp outside. There would have been some light if the window wasn't boarded up. Zane shut the door and stood there waiting for his eyes to adjust, but they didn't.

It was too dark for even him to see, he realized. Francie had replaced the broken lamp immediately and had been turning it on every night before full dark, so he'd never had the chance to test his vision in the living room at night. He turned out to be just as blind as someone normal, and that made him smile.

The place was nearly silent in the dead of the night, but he could hear soft breathing from the corner of the living room, where Millie had been curling up nightly since her arrival there. She didn't get up to greet him--he'd probably come in too quietly even for her to notice.

Zane wasn't tired. He only needed two or three hours each night. He slept longer in a social context, nights when he or a girlfriend had stayed over, every night since he'd moved in with Francie. But Francie was still at her parents' house, and if she came home and found him up she would assume he'd just been waiting for her.

He stretched his arms and padded toward the kitchen, relying on memory to avoid the telephone table and then the chew toy Millie had been leaving in the kitchen doorway. The kitchen hadn't had any windows to begin with and it was just as dark as the living room, but Zane didn't bother turning on any lights there either.

He took out bread and peanut butter and made a sandwich by touch.

--

Phoebe introduced him to peanut butter, in Baltimore when he was fourteen.

He'd met her two years after the escape, when he was squatting in an empty warehouse. She came from a fairly affluent family, and in a fit of rebellion had trooped over to the wrong side of the tracks in search of a bad boy to date. She'd ended up with Zane. (As Pike observed a few months later when they found each other, "Boy, did that ever backfire!")

Phoebe was in braces, and she'd made a list of all the foods she hadn't been able to eat since the brackets and wires went on. She had a habit of bringing those foods with her when she visited Zane after school, and making him eat and describe it as he went. He didn't understand why she would put herself through that kind of torture, but he was happy enough to let her feed him. It was easier than picking through dumpsters or robbing grocery stores.

She fed Zane a peanut butter sandwich one Friday afternoon.

"How is it?" she asked.

"Sticky," he told her.

"Well, I knew that," she said.

--

Zane ate his sandwich, then headed to the bathroom to shower away the workday's dirt and sweat. He came out towel-clad in a rush of steam--he loved to have the water all the way hot, because he remembered too many times when 'running' was enough to ask. His ears were still deafened by the thunder of water, and the shower's warmth had rendered his feel for body heat useless. He didn't hear or feel Millie waiting outside the door, and would have tripped over her if not for the skilled balance he'd been given.

"Woah," he said, loud enough for only himself and the dog to hear--anything else was unnecessary. "Didn't see you there, girl." He reached down to scratch between her ears, but didn't find them where he expected.

She wasn't looking at him.

He felt along her back, and found that she was staring out into the living room, at something near the boarded-up window. He could feel the tension in her back, under fur and skin.

Zane peered through the dark too, but it was too black to make out even the vaguest shapes. He stood, tense as the dog, waiting. As his hearing returned and the hot steam disappeared, he became aware of breathing far quieter than a normal human being could produce or detect, and a heartbeat both stronger and more hushed than usual. It took concentration to feel the body heat radiating from the corner of the living room, instead of the usual unconscious notice he took.

X5, he decided, and relaxed. He was not at all surprised that one of them was there. All his brothers liked to break in and wait for him to notice.

Zack did it as a test of alertness. Zane usually spotted him quickly enough not to be lectured.

Krit's motivation was mostly an instinctive pause before heading into an open space. He had no problem, however, with playing around while he made sure the living room didn't hold any ambushes.

Pike did it solely for kicks, enjoying every minute of the guessing game Zane played with him. Is it . . . Tinkerbell? The Easter Bunny? Max? And Pike would eventually giggle so hard that any pretense of mystery was lost.

"Hi, Zack," Zane called into the dark. That was always the first name he tried, just in case, and he usually hoped it was wrong.

Zack grunted disapprovingly. "It took you two minutes to notice me. What the hell is wrong with you?"

"I just came out of the shower."

"That was incredibly stupid," Zack informed him.

"Blah, blah, woof, woof," Zane muttered.

Zack began the lecture about alertness and how no soldier should willingly engage in any activity that would diminish that. Showers, alcohol . . .

Zane rolled his eyes--he dared to do that, because Zack couldn't see any more than he could--and went into the bedroom to put on clothes. He shut the door behind him. Zack's voice was still distinct, but the door muffled it enough that Zane could tune it out.

He found a pair of jeans he'd bought on the way to Denver--he would have preferred his old pants, the ones he'd been wearing under his jumpsuit when he had to run from the garage in L.A., but they were in the laundry hamper under several days' worth of other clothes. Francie hadn't done the laundry yet, wouldn't for another two or three days.

The clock radio in the bedroom said it was a quarter 'til nine. Zane sat down on the bed to wait for the end of the lecture Zack thought he was listening to. He waited until it read eight fifty-two before coming back out.

Zack fell silent as Zane moved over to the couch and plopped down on it.

Zane counted several moments of quiet.

"Well?" he asked.

"You weren't listening to a word I said, were you?" asked Zack.

"No," Zane admitted. "And I won't when you repeat it, either."

Zack cleared his throat. He sounded annoyed. "I see you're all settled down now."

"Oh?" asked Zane.

"Dog and apartment and everything," Zack elaborated.

Millie jumped up onto the couch, and Zane ran his hand down her back while she panted dog breath in his face. "Don't even think about moving me again, Zack. I've only been in Denver a few weeks."

Zack must have wondered about that timeframe, since he'd sent Zane there almost two months ago. He didn't ask, though.

"This isn't your apartment," Zack observed. He'd looked around while Zane was in the shower. There were joke books and sappy romance novels, not sci-fi paperbacks and car repair manuals. Most of the food in the kitchen required little to no preparation, though Zane had always loved to cook. The scents of engine grease and dog hair and X5 sweat still seemed foreign to the apartment, overpowered by older smells of sunblock and vanilla shampoo and nail polish. The dresser drawers with Zane's clothes were close to empty even though he'd never taken a Spartan approach to owning things.

"I just moved in," Zane explained, though he was sure Zack had guessed that already.

"Who else lives here?"

"Francesca Giovanni. Francie." He didn't say anything else, even though he knew Zack was waiting for more information.

Zack always feigned disinterest in the others' personal affairs, so long as they remained alert and ready to skip town at a moment's notice. Zane had long been convinced that it was just an act, since Zack always managed to find things out anyway. Mostly, he just asked questions or waited for facts to slip out in conversation--but he'd followed Phoebe around for a week after he first saw her with Zane, and Rita had caught him going through her dresser drawers the second time he visited Philadelphia.

Zane had long suspected that Zack's interest in his love life was spurred by a desire to ruin it. He'd developed this theory when he was sixteen, after the incident with Rita's dresser brought her close to dumping him because of the psychotic-stalker tendencies in his family.

"Where'd you meet Francie?" asked Zack.

"I saw her car broken down beside the road on my way into town, and I stopped to help her."

--

They talked non-stop while he worked on the engine. The attraction was as fast as in Tinga's story about the day she met Charlie. Francie's phone number was soon locked in Zane's memory, and in return she received a promise that she could hit him back for the favor some day, since he'd refused to take any money.

Back in Denver, Zane and Francie somehow found their way to the same diner the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that. The next night they wound up in Francie's apartment instead, and she made dinner.

She burned the vegetables completely black, cooked the pasta down to formless mush, and served chicken breasts with the outsides scorched and the centers still frozen.

She cried.

Zane hugged her and lied that the food wasn't bad at all. He was about to eat it to prove so, because his stomach was engineered strong, but Francie threw the dinner into the trash can before he got a chance.

She fixed sandwiches then, because that was one thing she could do in the kitchen.

Zane hadn't eaten peanut butter and jelly since Baltimore, and Francie must have been concerned by his expression.

"Oh God, I messed that up too, didn't I?"

"No," he slurred around the peanut butter sticking to his teeth.

"So how is it then?"

"It's sticky."

"Well, I knew that," she said.

He didn't say anything else, because he couldn't think of anything to add. He wondered if Phoebe ate peanut butter sandwiches, now that she was twenty-two and long out of braces.

--

"So you've known her a whole three weeks," said Zack. He seemed vaguely disapproving.

"Uh-huh," Zane replied. He'd stopped caring about Zack's approval.

He wondered, though, how Zack had known it was three weeks and not two or four.

Millie rolled over onto her back, and her pet X5 obligingly scratched her belly.

"When did you move in here?" Zack asked.

"A week ago." Zane had discovered that it was impossible to afford your own apartment in Denver on a mechanic's salary. Francie herself was having problems making the rent, and had been looking for a roommate to split the costs with. She put two and two together, factored in that whirlwind romance of theirs, and invited Zane to come live with her when he came over to cook dinner that evening.

"That's too fast."

"Says who?" Zane demanded.

"Me," snapped Zack.

"You should talk. All those one-night stands with surrogate Maxes."

"How do you know?" Zack asked tensely.

--

Zane came home from Colleen's place in L.A. and found the light on his answering machine blinking. It was Krit, who sounded like he'd left the message when he was considerably less than sober. Zane didn't even bother trying to interpret it, and just called the originator instead.

Krit picked up on the fourth ring and groaned something into the receiver.

"It's me," said Zane.

"Oh, you?"

"Yeah, me."

"Just a minute." Zane could hear Krit drop the receiver on the bed and wander off. Water ran, medicine bottles clattered, and Krit returned.

"Hi, Zane."

"You hung over or something?"

"Yeah. Funny how that happens."

"It's what alcohol does to the body."

"I mean, I have to drink three times as much as anybody else to get just as plastered, but I swear I get three times the headache in the morning." There was the sound of a beer bottle opening, and the cap clattering against the wall when Krit threw it.

Zane sighed. "More beer?"

"Hair of the dog that bit you--didn't you know that?"

"No," said Zane. "You called me last night."

"Yeah. The absolute freakiest thing happened. Zack's in town, right? Scowling at the bars, chewing me out for hanging in the French Quarter, all that. I left him at home when I went off to work yesterday." 'Work' was any of several things--picking pockets, running scams, smuggling, brewing moonshine. Krit had tried respectable jobs a few times, but always felt his talents were wasted on them.

"I don't usually come home on Fridays at all," Krit continued. "Too much stuff going on. And I guess Zack goes wandering if you don't come back home when he expects . . . So I'm at a party on this houseboat, and everybody's drinking, and some of those idiots get rowdy and throw me overboard into the bayou. I say, 'Screw this', and go home to get cleaned up."

"And Zack was gone?" Zane guessed.

"Wish he had been," said Krit. "He was right there, on the bed, with this girl. I don't really care, 'cause I fool around with enough loose women, but they looked up at me and I saw her face and she looked . . . well . . . They must have borrowed my DNA from her parents or something. It was like watching my sister get screwed. I even thought for a minute she really was Max."

"Zack's starting to worry me," said Zane.

"The weird thing is, I probably wouldn't give a damn about who Syl or Van or the real Maxie was sleeping with, but it was just so wrong that Zack was messing around with that girl. So I kicked his womanizing ass out onto the street, 'cause I wouldn't respect myself if I didn't, y'know?"

Zane figured it had taken Krit a lot more work than he'd have it believed. It took quite a bit of effort to muscle Zack out of an apartment, and it would be even harder if the evictor was drunk.

Krit groaned, a long, hung-over sound deep in his throat. "The girl didn't appreciate it, anyway. She took me by surprise when I came back into the apartment, gave me a black eye to go with the black-and-blue ribcage Zack colored for me. She had a great left hook. . . . I swear we're related, she hits just like Pike."

--

"Krit told me." Zane felt oddly pleased that he'd been able to manipulate Zack's emotions.

Zack cleared his throat. "It was one time," he said.

"You like routine," Zane pointed out. "I figure she wasn't the first or the last."

"We're not here to talk about my sex life," Zack said prudishly.

"Oh, yeah, that's right--we were talking about mine. I'm sleeping with Francie. Nobody else. We use condoms. Is that enough for you, or do I have to tell you all the lingering details?"

"I don't like it," Zack announced.

"Now there's a surprise," muttered Zane.

Sometimes he wondered if Zack liked anything any of them did. They'd probably get in trouble for breathing wrong if Zack couldn't find anything else to frown about. Tinga and Zane were scolded constantly for having normal human relationships, while Van took heat for being too misanthropic. Mab was in trouble for not keeping enough ammo in easy reach, and Syl had been chewed out a few times for keeping her good-sized arsenal scattered around her apartment where people might see it. Jondy was ordered to stop being so obsessive-compulsively set in her routines because it'd be too easy to set up an ambush, but Pike was told that his unpredictable nature gave Zack headaches when it came time to check on him. Krit was convinced that there was no way to win with Zack, so he didn't even listen to the lectures about the parties, that gun he could never find the right ammo for, his black-market moonshine business, and the way he let Pike convince him to relax his guard.

"Your relationships don't usually go this fast," Zack observed.

"So what?" asked Zane.

"You've never even had a live-in before."

"No, Grace was about to move in with me when you dragged me off to New Orleans."

"That doesn't count," said Zack.

"Does too," argued Zane. "The intent was there."

"You knew her for two years first," Zack pointed out. "You've only known Francie for three weeks."

Zane shrugged. "So?"

"She sounds fast to me."

"And how fast was your last lay?" Zane demanded.

Zack didn't answer.

"Look," said Zane. "Are you done interrogating me? I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition."

Zack grunted.

"Fine," Zane muttered.

They were silent for a moment.

"You know I just want what's best for you," said Zack.

"News to me," said Zane bitterly. "You've ripped my life apart more times than I can count."

"Only four."

"Five," Zane corrected.

"Four. Baltimore, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City, New Orleans."

"L.A. too."

"I didn't know they had a transmitter in my ear. I thought it was safe to talk to Max about y--"

"Don't give me that, Zack," Zane snapped. "I don't think it ever happened. You never told me about her location." Zack had given himself up for Max in Seattle, and that was all anybody knew. Not when or where he first found her, not where he'd moved her since he escaped.

"I don't trust you with that information," said Zack coolly.

"You trusted Max."

"She's different than you."

"You told me she's worse than Pike," Zane argued. "I don't see how that puts her in a position of trust."

"She's different than you," Zack repeated.

"Yeah. I hear you love her." That was another thing Zane didn't believe. Being in love should have made Zack more sympathetic to the others' romances, but Zack had only gotten more disapproving of Zane's girlfriends and Tinga's marriage and Pike's relentless pursuit of the disinterested Van. Krit was convinced that it was a form of denial, Zack's attempt to convince himself that loving Max was a bad idea by reminding himself what bad ideas everybody else's relationships were.

Zack didn't say anything. He'd never confessed his love outright that anyone knew of--more denial, Krit thought--so Zane was hardly surprised.

"I wish you wouldn't keep her from us, Zack. We miss her."

"Who's 'we'?" Zack asked warily.

"Krit. Jondy. Tinga. Me. Krit says it's like half of himself is missing. Like if you finally managed to keep him from getting together with Pike."

"He knows Max is just fine," Zack stated. "I told him so."

"Seeing is believing."

Zack grunted.

Zane sighed his best lonely sigh.

"She lives in Baltimore now," Zack said with a note of annoyance in his voice.

"Don't lie to me," Zane growled. He'd lived in Baltimore, until he was fifteen. Zack never had two X5s live in the same city, not even years apart. There was no reason why he would have started by putting Max in Zane's old home.

"Fine," said Zack. "She never left Seattle."

"Don't lie to me!" Zane jumped to his feet, and his voice echoed slightly in the dark apartment. That last story was even more ridiculous than the first--Zack never let anybody stay in one spot after Manticore had been after them. They'd definitely been after Max, and close to catching her. Zack would never have given himself up otherwise.

Zack was silent.

Zane was silent too, folding his arms and sitting back down on the couch. He decided that he was tired of this runaround, and he began looking for a way to make Zack leave.

"Can you tell me where Syl is?" Zane asked. "Krit can't find her since she left Chicago."

"She's in New York." Zack didn't seem to care who knew that. Syl had always been able to take care of herself--Zane heard that Zack hadn't visited her in five years.

"Tinga still in Ottawa?"

"Yeah. But she's got some crazy idea about going back to Portland. I told her no."

Zane smiled to himself, and silently cheered Tinga on. Zack needed to be completely blown off by someone besides Pike.

"And how about Ben?" Zane asked. He knew that was a touchy subject, because Zack never said anything useful about it. He was prepared to bombard Zack with questions until he got tired of pussyfooting around them and left.

"He's in trouble with the law." That was the most straightforward thing Zack had ever said on the topic.

"What kind of trouble?"

"Trouble," said Zack.

"Pike kind of trouble?" DUI, criminal mischief, soliciting prostitutes, a few instances of picking pockets, restraining orders all over the place.

"Not like Pike."

"Van kind of trouble?"

--

Van had been caught hacking, once and only once, but it was a CIA database and it got into papers even in Mexico.

Zack helped her break out of prison. She managed to erase most of the records that anything had ever happened, but he left her by the road in Nevada anyway and didn't speak to her for a year. If Van minded that, she never let on.

Meanwhile, in Tijuana, Pike had clipped all the best articles. He saved them in his wallet, folded up behind the snapshot of Van--it was about the only photo of her that existed, taken a year after the escape when she was thirteen, and Pike was convinced that she'd break his nose if she found out he'd kept it.

The twins visited Zane in Oklahoma City soon after, and Pike showed off the clippings.

Zane nodded politely and pretended to read the Spanish and didn't understand a word. But he looked at the picture of Van's arrest, memorized her face at nineteen. She'd changed a lot since Pike's photo was taken. Even a child in Manticore had some softness, and Zane wondered how the world outside could have made her lose that so drastically. Her face was lean, hard, sharp, and he realized he would never have known her if they'd met on the street. He wondered how many times they might have met already, without his notice.

--

"No," said Zack. "Not like Van."

"Syl kind of trouble?" asked Zane.

--

He visited Syl in Chicago once. She had a studio apartment, and the sparse furnishings seemed to be there only as places to hide weapons and ammo clips. Zane had to pull a rifle and two Russian hand grenades out from under the thin sofa cushion before he could sit comfortably. Syl actually slept on that sofa, and she said she never removed her arsenal first--Zane wondered how she could do it.

They made dinner together and talked until midnight, then Syl claimed a need for more sleep than Zane required, and they turned in. Syl took the sofa, after replacing the rifle and grenades. Zane took the recliner, after removing Syl's collection of hunting knives and switchblades from along the sides of the cushion where she'd stashed them. Krit had speculated that she had squirrel or packrat DNA, and Zane was beginning to believe it.

Zane woke up a few hours later, and the sofa was empty. He didn't hear her in the bathroom, or see her elsewhere around the apartment, and one of the switchblades was missing from the pile he'd made beside the book case.

He found her three sectors away, standing on a stretch of beach. Her fists were stuffed into her coat pockets, and Zane could see the shape of the closed switchblade beyond the width of her small fist.

He walked up behind her. She didn't look up as he approached. Zane followed her line of sight to the police tape and search lights miles down the shore.

"Syl. What's going on?"

"They pulled a man out of the lake about an hour ago. Throat cut, feet wired to a concrete block. . . . "

"You seem upset." That was strange, Zane thought. They'd been trained not to be affected by death, by strange faces staring up at them with glassy eyes, by their own brothers' and sisters' skin gone cold. Syl shouldn't have cared about some man she never knew, a body she hadn't touched and couldn't even see clearly from so far away--Zane himself wouldn't have.

Syl didn't say anything.

"Did you know him?" asked Zane. Maybe that was it--Manticore hadn't been able to eliminate concern for friends, family, lovers. Even Zack and Van cared a little about those.

"I did it," Syl whispered, voice far beyond what a human ear could pick up, almost below their own hearing.

"What?"

"I did it," Syl repeated, just as softly.

It took Zane a moment to think of something to say. "Who was he?"

She shrugged. "Just some guy. A bum. I walked by him every day on the street downtown."

"What did he do to you, then?" If it wasn't a personal grudge, it had to have been self defense.

"Nothing," said Syl. Zane watched her pocket move as she shifted her switchblade in her fist. The murder weapon, probably.

"Why?" Zane asked.

"I don't know."

"There has to be a reason."

"Does there?"

The search light on the police helicopter swept over them, and they froze for a moment like two deer caught in headlights.

Zane put a hand on her arm when it was dark again, and tugged lightly. "We should go. The Mustang's right over there."

Syl followed him wordlessly. They didn't talk about that man again. Zane didn't visit Syl again, either.

He stopped worrying about her when he mentioned Syl's homicidal streak to the twins and they blinked in puzzlement and asked what the hell he was talking about.

--

"Not like Syl," said Zack. "Not quite."

"'Not quite'?" Zane asked.

"I don't want to talk about it."

"Please?"

"No."

"Well, where is he?"

"He drifts."

"Like Brin did," Zane said, just to raise Zack's discomfort another notch.

Zack shifted in the chair. "Yeah."

"Maybe he'll come by Denver sometime."

Zane could practically hear the glare Zack shot at him. "If he does, I want you to knock him out and call me."

"You're looking for him?" asked Zane.

"Yes. We need to talk about some things."

"Like?" Zack didn't say anything. Zane heard him get up and march into the bedroom. The window there opened and closed.

Zane sighed--he'd been worried for a minute that Zack would never go.

He turned to Millie, still sprawled happily beside him as he scratched her stomach. "You know, girl, you're a pathetic watchdog. You should've knocked Zack over and stood on his chest growling, not waited for me to come out of the shower and deal with it."

The puppy barked.

"Yeah," Zane sighed. "I guess I don't really want you doing that to him. But maybe you could lick him into submission, and make him toss your tennis ball down the hall for you?"

Millie seemed to like that idea alright. She gave Zane's face a slurp, ran off, and returned with the ball.

"We gotta work on pronouns," Zane informed the dog before pitching. "Fetch."

She bounded after the ball, and came back to have it thrown again. She didn't mind the dark any more than Zane.

They played a few more rounds of fetch before Millie's attention wandered and she trotted off into the bedroom. Zane hoped her motivations hadn't involved the headboard, where Francie had noticed some puppy-size tooth marks the day before. He listened carefully, but the chewing he heard was on the squeaky hamburger, not the furniture.

Francie would be home soon, if she'd been able to make excuses. Zane listened for her footsteps in the hall, but everything was quiet.

Five minutes later, he picked up the sound of Francie coming up the stairwell, her arrival at the door, her key scraping in the lock. He squeezed his eyes shut a split second before she flicked the light switch, but the sudden brightness still hurt.

"Ouch."

"Aw babe, I'm sorry. I didn't know you were there."

"'Sokay." Zane shrugged and blinked a few times. It hurt more than Francie guessed, because his eyes were so much more sensitive than hers, and it hit him that he'd never be able to tell her about that.

He heard Francie's shoes hit the floor next to his, and she came sock-footed to the couch to sit beside him. She tucked her feet up under her, and put an arm across his chest and her head on his shoulder. Zane wrapped both arms around her.

"Why were you sitting around with no lights on, anyway?" she asked.

"It's easier to think in the dark. How was dinner?"

Francie sighed. "Long and bitter. My parents hate you." News traveled quickly, even if Francie never called or wrote or visited. "Everybody spent the whole evening telling me how shocked they were that a good Catholic girl like me would invite some man to come live with her, 'specially when she'd only known him two weeks. And that's why they didn't invite you to come too, I guess."

"I'm sorry," said Zane with a kiss on the top of her head.

"Aw, it's not you, babe. You shoulda seen how they stomped and hollered when I was sixteen and spent the night at my boyfriend's place. So I'm just a slut and I'm doomed to hell, and they wonder why I don't talk to them much."

"Hmmm."

"I bet your family doesn't criticize your sex life every chance they get," Francie sighed.

"Oh, they criticize plenty," said Zane. "I was on the phone with one of my bros tonight, and I was telling him about you. He says he doesn't like me getting involved with someone this quickly."

Francie laughed. "And you hate his guts for that, right?"

"Yeah."

"Aw, c'mon, Zane. That sounds like he cares a lot about you. Wants you to be careful, so nobody goes stomping on your heart."

--

"She's bad for you," Krit insisted. He'd just met Grace, and dragged Zane out to a hole-in-the-wall diner to talk in private. "You had sex with her on your first date, and you didn't break it off after that, and now she's dangling it over your head. You're like putty in her hands. She's gonna stomp all over your heart, just because she can."

"Why do you hate every girl I care about?" Zane demanded hotly. "Are you just jealous that I'm capable of a long-term relationship and you're not?"

"Woah, woah," Krit admonished around a mouthful of hash browns. "This isn't about me, bro."

"Like hell it isn't," Zane muttered, and stirred his coffee furiously even though he hadn't put in any sugar or cream.

Krit set his fork down and looked Zane squarely in the eye. "I just call 'em like I see 'em, and what I see right now is my big brother involved with a woman who gets her kicks manipulating him. That's all."

"I love her," said Zane.

Apparently, that explanation didn't satisfy Krit. He snorted. "You know how many times in history love has been self-destructive? Thousands, Zane. Millions. Maybe even billions. Romeo and Juliet. The highwayman and Bess the landlord's black-eyed daughter. The subjects of every breakup song in the history of country music."

Zane pushed his eggs around his plate with his fork. "How 'bout a real-life example, wise guy?"

"Pike and Van," Krit supplied instantly. "He declared his love last week, so the bitch smashed his nose and put this nasty gash in his thigh. That's why he's not here with me--too busy sitting around in a tent in Minnesota feeling sorry for himself and mooning over fuzzy pictures of her she doesn't even know he has."

"Pike was the victim of ill-advised lust," Zane corrected. "He's just horny. I'll bet he was drunk too. And double or nothing Van told him at least three times to bug off before she defended herself."

Krit shrugged. "You and Rita, then."

"That wasn't self destructive," said Zane.

Krit frowned in puzzlement and didn't say anything.

"What?" asked Zane.

"It was all one big mind game," said Krit hastily. Somehow Zane didn't think that was Krit's real basis for his judgment. "I mean, haven't you noticed that, looking back? 'You don't really love me, it's just about the sex.' 'I hate you.' 'I'm gonna kill myself.' And you'd go scrambling to prove that life is good, or you loved her, or she ought to love you. She liked that, she liked watching you jump."

"Well, Grace isn't playing mind games."

Krit had the audacity to laugh out loud. Zane seriously contemplated getting up and strangling the twit.

People were watching, though, and he had to satisfy himself with glaring darkly at his little brother.

"Do you think," Zane asked, "that I'd be stupid enough to hang around if she was?"

"Love is blind," said Krit.

"You don't know a thing about love," Zane insisted.

--

"Do you think we've gone too fast, Francie?" he asked. It felt like he'd known her for years, but when he counted the days the relationship seemed hasty and cheap. Maybe it was wrong to number days and weeks and months when it came to love.

Francie shrugged, shoulder moving against his bare chest. "It's too late to change it if we have."

"But do you think so?" asked Zane. He could move this quickly into a new relationship because he was growing desperate--he'd had to pick himself up and start over too many times. That was all the more reason to appreciate his time with Francie before Zack moved him like always.

When he thought about it, he didn't know why Francie had let things move along so fast. He didn't really care.

"I like it right where we're at, babe," said Francie. She reached up and ran her fingers through his hair, tracing a path around his ear and down his neck, and smiled up at him. "I don't regret a minute of it."

Zane returned her smile. "I love you, Francie."

"I love you too." She stood up and bent to kiss him, then started toward the bedroom.

There was no way in the world, Zane thought, that this relationship could be wrong. If Zack didn't like it, and Francie's parents didn't like it, and if Krit decided he didn't like it once he met Francie, that was only because they'd never had anything half as good.

Francie turned back to him at the door. "Come to bed, babe."

"Okay."

And Zane got up to follow her.

--

[ END ]


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