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We Might As Well Be Strangers

Written by: Nemesis
Title: We Might As Well Be Strangers
Era: Season 5, around 5x42
Pairing: Bray/Amber, Jay/Amber, Jay/Trudy, Bray/Trudy
WTF?? Yeah, no Broz in here, people. No Moz either. I think it was tribebohemian who convinced me how good two certain people might be for each other and I’ve become a believer. So, I thought I’d give it a shot. Enjoy :wink:

1. We Have A Past

It had been a long time, since Trudy had felt so lonely and yet so well rested at the same time. Her eyes got heavier, by just looking at the red hotel wallpaper, while the comfortable covers warmed her. She could have taken Mega’s advice, gone for a walk. Talked about what was really bothering her. But if she’d start to talk, it would become real – as if the pain in her chest wasn’t real enough already…

“Momma”, Brady climbed onto the bed and played with some candy, while watching her tired mother with wide opened eyes. “Momma, look!”

“What, sweetie?” Was it this place? She just wanted to sleep. Sleep, and escape.

“Sweet!” Brady smiled, her eyes lighting up at the rainbow coloured lollipop in her hands, that were already sticky from the sugar bomb. Her tiny tongue tasted different parts of the lollo in a curious way, as if she wanted to test, if the green part tasted different than the red one.

“Where’d you get this?” Trudy was still exhausted, but her daughter having sweets out of nowhere awokened her parental instincts. Like an inner alarm bell that went along with “Don’t even let her talk to strangers!” and “Avoid people in long robes, especially blue or white ones.”

“My friend gave me”, Brady replied, reaching out for the Teddy in a Techno T-Shirt she had gotten this morning. The lollipop dropped to the bed covers, where it slid down a few inches, leaving trails of blue sugar.

“Mega? Mega gave you this?” Trudy wasn’t sure, whether or not to be relieved. To her amazement and horror, Brady shakes her head, her two blond braids flying through the air.

“Who then? Was it someone I know?” Maybe Jay came back, she thinks in wild, desperate hope. Maybe he saw his mistake and… who is she kidding? He’ll never love her with Amber there! Trudy bites her tears back, tries to control the deep pain in her chest, as she notices Brady’s watchcful eyes.

“I’m a princess”, Brady whispers, leaning forwards to tell her mother.

A princess… Trudy has to smile at the thought. “Who said that?”

“My friend.”

A dark, foggy thought creeps through the back of Trudy’s head. Night, fire, light wind, blowing up the multi-coloured robes, and all their faces are looking up at her, the little baby in her arms… She smiles, falling into their chorus, bathing in their admiration, and if she just says it often enough, she will believe it, as they believe: “All power to Zoot – and to his Chosen victory!”

Trudy is on her feet, before she can think clear. “Brady, don’t talk to strangers. Get your toy, we’re leaving!”

Brady looks at her with big, innocent eyes, not even asking why. She’s used to her mother being irrational and jumpy, Trudy thinks. She’ll feel guilty about that later, right now she has to bring her daughter elsewhere, where she is far, far away from Technos and … worse people.

The hallways are deserted, but the security cameras are still blinking with red signal lights. Trudy avoids looking directly into them, keeps her head down, while her breath goes fast and panicy. Can’t she ever catch a break?

“Trudy!” Mega catches up with her, trying to look casual. “You’re leaving already?”

“No. No! We’re just going for a walk. Brady misses the playground.” She tries to smile at him, but feels that she isn’t very convincing. “You’re security is pretty high, right?”, she can’t stop herself to ask.

“I would hope so. Why?”

“So nobody comes in here without you noticing?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

He looks suspicious now. “Why, what’s going on, Trudy?”

“Nothing. It’s nothing”, she lies. “I’m just… since this whole Zoot business I feel a little jumpy, whenever I’m without Brady, so I wanted to take her outside, spend a little time in the sun, you know. I’m just a very precausus parent.”

“Well, given your history, that’s understandable.” He waves at one of his men, to hold a door down the hall for him. “Wait a minute, let me just drop something off, then I’ll join you.”

“Okay.” Her eyes follow him, as the door closes behind his back. Stay. Run. Stay. Run…

A hand closes over her mouth and pulls her towards the next dark corner. She wants to scream, but the grip around her torso is strong and she feels frozen in shock, all the fear hammering through her veins, red lights in front of her eyes. Run!

“Trudy!” The voice sounds so painfully familiar, she doesn’t dare to open her eyes. “Trudy, it’s me, it’s all gonna be alright, I’m here now!” She blinks, feeling new tears welling up, as their eyes meet. “I’m your friend, remember?”

Her hands are shaking, as she touches his face, and a dreamy Brady is shaking with her.

“Is it really you?”, she whispers, staring into the same blue eyes she has dreamed about for almost her whole teenage life. He just smiles, and it’s like a mountain of rocks rolls from her heart, as if she can finally, finally breathe again. Her arms fly around his neck, and she buries her face in his neck, while Brady is almost crushed between them.

“Do you have more candy?”, she asks, pressing her little fists into their chests to have some room to breathe again.

“Sorry, beautiful”, he smiles down at her, stroking her blonde hair. “What did you do with the one I gave you?”

“What are you doing here?”, Trudy can’t stop the tears from running down her smiling face now. “We – we thought you were dead, they had documents about all the deleted people and you were in there…”

“I know, I found it, too. Listen, Trudy, we have to leave now. Are any of your friends in here?” He seems so controlled, so calm. Her rock. She just wants to hug him and never let go. Everything’s going to be good now…

“No, just Mega’s people. Why?”

“Good. Let’s go!”

“Bray, what’s … wait, what’s going on?” She struggles to keep up with him, even after he takes Brady. Mega must come every minute… that’s got to be it! Mega! Bray was a prisoner of the Technos, if he was here, that means he must have just escaped them!

“You’re right, let’s run!”

Bray gives her an encouraging smile. “Hold tight, Brady!”, he tells the little girl and starts to run. Trudy grabs his hand, to hold on to him. Feels their fingers interlock, as she hears the explosion.

“Get behind me!”

She doesn’t ask questions, she just does what he says. It’s Bray, it’s just Bray, everything’s going to be alright… When she opens her eyes again to look over the wall Bray has dragged her behind, she can barely see the hotel in all the smoke. There’s fire, high, toxic flames and the smell of burned plastic everywhere.

“What just happened?”

“I don’t know.” Bray squeezes her hand. “Trudy, we have to get away from here as fast as possible!”

The little sidestreets are full of dirt, old newspapers and used, random things lying on the streets. Bray seems very careful for noone to see them and Trudy can’t help smiling, even though she is terrified and confused, at the memory of him guiding her towards the Mall for the very first time.

“Bray, where are we going?”

“Home.” He stops to look around a corner, pressing Brady closer to his side.

“Yes, but why…?”

“Do you see any cameras here?”

“No.”

“That’s why. Can’t risk being seen after everything I did to get out of there. I’m sort of unpopular amongst Technos.”
She has to smile, even though the picture of the explosion creeps back into her thoughts.

“What…?”

“You know me, I suck at this whole being a prisoner thing. Trust me, Trudy, I know the way around the cameras better than anyone else.”

“Except Mega.”

“Better than Mega, I just destroyed all his computer files on the system. This way!”

Their footsteps hall in the sewers, the cold, humid air filling the space up with the various smells that have never been very pleasant. A rat runs around a corner, fleeing from the humans and their big feet coming it’s way.

Trudy looks at Bray, smiling.

“We made it.” He returns her smile, hugs her.

“Do you remember…”

“Like it was yesterday.” He looks around at the brick walls, the dirty water reflecting on the walls, moving, dancing. “Trudy, are you alright? You seemed upset back there. Did they do something to you? What happened?”

She musters his face. He has lost weight, seems more trained than before, but also rougher, colder. A scar on his temple looks like it comes from a serious wound, and his hair is shorter, the cut rough and badly done. He still has the same, calm look in his eyes, but she can feel that he has changed.

“You’ve probably been through worse”, she decides to answer. “And we should go inside now. There’s somebody you should meet. It’s a boy”, she adds, when Bray looks puzzled, seeing his eyes light up, like the first time he saw Brady. He’s still Bray, she thinks, as she sees the trace of a smile forming around his lips, and he will be happy, even if she has to take care of it herself. If Amber and Jay… she has to protect him from this pain, he’s been through enough already. But right here, right now in the sewers, where she first heard him tell her, that this was the safest place for them, that this would be their home, he seems to be happy. And that’s the most important thing.

“I’m guessing from your face, I’m the first one to congratulate you.”

He smiles at her, and this time, he seems sincere, no coldness, no hestitation, no sudden exits. “Thank you, Trudy.”

She holds out her hand to him. “Are you ready?”

Written by: Nemesis

2. Raised by Another

Brady looks disappointed at her new friend, as he puts her back on her own feet and starts hugging other people, who welcome him enthusiastically. She hides behind her mother’s leg, as Ellie’s skirt almost knocks her over.The constant smile on Bray’s face seems weird to Trudy. Yes, he has every reason to smile, but after all these years she can spot the difference between a real smile and the expression that’s on his face right now.

“Has someone seen Amber?” It hurts, saying her best friend’s name, more that she thought it would. But the best way to tell Bray about Amber having moved on, is letting Amber explain it to him herself, before somebody else spills the beans. That is, if they even know yet. Or have known all along… The pain of this new, cruel possibility hits Trudy with new anguish and she fakes a quick smile for Bray, whose eyes pierce her like he is able to guess what she’s thinking about.

“She’s off to see Jay”, Salene tells her, with a broad, unsuspecting smile.

“Yeah, she might be back soon”, Lex reassures Bray who has stopped smiling for a second and pretends to be casual about these news now. He’s better at this than I am, Trudy thinks.

“Who’s Jay?”

“Trudy’s boyfriend”, Ellie tells him after exchanging a quick look with Jack.

“Yeah, he used to be a Techno, but he dropped out to help us some months ago and now they’re kind of making him the enemy on city net, so he had to hide”, Jack adds quickly.

Bray lifts both eyebrows at this new revelation. Technos in the mall… a whole new perspective he might not be ok with, Trudy guesses.

“You didn’t tell me about that.” He scans her face again.

“I didn’t have the time to, yet.” He knows, he knows everything! Wait, how could he know? He hasn’t even heard of Jays existence!

“Well, time to share the good news, now!”, Lex grins encouraging. “You’ve been loverboy’s fan here long enough” (Bray rolls his eyes) “Time to tell him he’s missed his chance.” He chuckles at Bray’s annoyed look.

Trudy bites her lip. All their smiling faces… all the happiness for something she has lost already. She can feel the tears welling up, blinks, but it’s too late.

“Trudy, what’s wrong?” She can see Salene coming closer through her watery eyes, feels her friends arms embrace her.

“Nothing, I’m just… I’m so happy your back!” She smiles at Bray, wiping the tears from her face. He doesn’t return to the oblivious happiness at this statement, as the others do. He looks concerned.

“Do you want to see your son, now?”, Ellie asks Bray, spotting Gel walking out of the kitchen with a bottle of formula. “He’s upstairs, in Amber’s room.”

“I’ll walk you there”, Trudy offers, before someone else can and picks up Brady. Everything to get away from all the happy faces…

It’s the most peaceful picture, seeing Bray holding his sleeping son. She’s happy for him, she really is, but it’s still hard to see this well-deserved family moment of her oldest friend, knowing that his heart is about to be broken. Bray always loved Amber, he probably fell in love with her the day they came into the Mall. She’s seen him lose her once, his hollow eyes, like he’d never laugh again. Of the second time she’s only heard stories, but it sounded unbelievable painful. In a way, he’s like her, when someone takes Brady from her, she thinks, watching her daughter crawl over Ambers bed covers to touch Brays arm, staring at him with big, trusting eyes. As if she remembers…

“Your face is hurt”, she tells Bray, her little fingers pinching his skin.

“That’s a scar”, he smiles at her, but it’s a strange smile. Unreal. “It means, I was hurt and now I’m healed.”

“Do you have more scas?”, Brady tries to pronounce the new word.

“Some.” He looks up, meets Trudy’s eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“What?”

“About your boyfriend, Jay. Is he the reason, you were at the Technos’ headquearter?”

“Yes.” She swallows the bitterness, tries to ban it from her voice. “And no. I, I needed some time away from the mall, and Mega picked me up. I’m not sure, why, but he acted really nice and even gave Brady toys and then you came out of nowhere and Brady was talking about someone giving her sweets and… I was scared that –“ It sounds stupid now, even in her head.

“That I was the Guardian?”

“Yes.” She stares at the floor, feels the mattress beneath her. Amber’s mattress. What if she and Jay… no, they wouldn’t have! Would they? “I know, he’s dead, but lately…” She looks up at him, and then it hits her: Zoot, the fake-resurraction that’s been going on, the pretense reason for the safety zone – if there’s one thing that could hit Bray harder than Amber being with Jay it would be someone making the city believe his little brother was some kind of immortal boogey man!

“Trudy…” He hestitates. “The Guardian is alive. He’s a prisoner of the Technos.”

It’s like the room is getting darker just by… Trudy shakes, feels Brays hand touching hers, squeezing it. “Trudy, are you okay? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have dropped that on you. Listen, he can’t come here. I saw him when they brought me to another work camp, he’s lost it completely. He’s miles from the main land, there’s no way he ever comes back!”

“And you’re sure it was him?”

Bray nods. “Positive. He didn’t seem to recognize me, though. Was talking crazy stuff and sacrifizing his food to Zoot. I guess this time he wasn’t pretending to be insane.”

“Why are you so sure?” Her voice is still shaking.

“Because he’s got noone to pretend it for, anymore. He’s nothing but a brainless idiot in a cage. Trust me, Trudy, he is where he belongs!”

She tries to breathe calm, but all the tension and the bad news combined are too much to hold the tears down any longer. Bray pulls her closer, and crying on his shoulder seems so strangely familiar and comforting. Her head is spinning, everything – it’s just too much, it’s just too painful to keep it inside.

“Jay’s not my boyfriend”, she bursts out. “He was, but he cheated on me. This whole time he was in love with someone else, I knew, I just hoped he’d love me more and…”, she stops, biting her lip so hard it hurts. She can’t tell him it’s Amber, it would be wrong; what, if he and Amber still have a chance? What, if she’d ruin little Brays only chance of having an intact family?

“Who would do that to you? What’s her name? Does she even know?” Bray’s voice sounds so shocked, it hurts her even more while being comforting at the same time.

“She – she knew we were together, she knew how much I loved him, and Brady… Brady was so happy, he was so sweet with her and this whole time he didn’t love me at all…” Stop it!, commands a voice at the back of her head. Stop it, he’ll be hurt enough when he finds out, you’re not the only betrayed person in this room.

“Who is this person? What is wrong with him?” Bray moves away from her, putting his son down to not wake him.

“Momma?” Brady looks at her mother, a helpless, sad look on her face. She looks like she’s about to cry, too.

“It’s alright, sweetie, mummy’s alright. Why don’t you go and play with Gel?”, Trudy tries to comfort her daugther. Brady climbs off the bed with Bray’s help and runs off, away from all the sad grown ups and their talks she doesn’t understand.

“She’s grown up so much.” Bray stares after the little girl, a weird look in his face. “It’s like I’ve been away for years.”

“She seems to remember you”, Trudy tries to distract him from whatever horrifying memory creeps through his mind right now. “She’s not always this trusting. And you used to be close.”

“Yes, so close. Remember, when you brought a baby boy to the mall and I noticed right away?”

Trudy avoids his eyes, uncertain whether to smile at his sarcastic remark or not. She feels his arms embracing her, lets her head sink against his chest. “He doesn’t deserve you”, she can hear his voice whispering. “You’re way too good for this idiot, you know that, right?”

She starts laughing and crying at the same time, her arms wrapped around him as tight as possible.

“He’s not all bad, you know. He… defended your son, when Mega threatened him and he was there for me, when… we had good times, too, you know?” She doesn’t even know why she’s telling Bray this, but he doesn’t seem to understand what she wants to tell him, anyway.

“That Techno was near my son?” His voice sounds controlled, but strangely cold. Not like the Bray she used to know and love at all.

“Jay’s not a Techno anymore”, she contradicts Bray’s statement quickly. “He’s been very good, to Bray and Brady. Like…” She stops herself, afraid to tell him too much.

Bray’s face is a blank slate. “Like what?”

“Trudy?” Amber’s hopeful voice interrupts them, and she enters the room with big steps, out of breath and smiling hopefully. “Trudy, are you back? We…” She stops dead in her tracks.

“Bray?” Her voice is trembling, and there’s an insecurity in her eyes that Trudy hasn’t seen for some time.

“I’ll better leave you two alone”, Trudy presses out.

“Trudy, wait!” Amber throws one last, desperate look after her friend, but Trudy doesn’t react. She sighs, smiling in disbelief at Bray. “Hi.”

“Hi.” His face doesn’t move, but his intense stare makes her heart race. It’s him, it’s really him! “Trudy let me in here, I hope you don’t mind”, he adds after moments of silence with a voice that sounds as shy and awkward as she feels right now, and close to breaking. As if her room was locked property!

“You know I have an open door policy”, she tries to joke, but can’t manage to smile. She crosses the room with weak knees, embracing the man she had loved more than anyone in this world.

“I don’t believe it”, she wispered in his ear, barely noticing his hestitation.

His voice is still a little higher than usual, when she steps back. “So…”

“Yes.” She has to laugh and fight her tears at the same time.

He just smiles. Amber can feel the strangeness, when he steps to the baby’s cradle, watching him look at his sleeping son.

“We never talked about names”, he mentions, a soft smile appearing on his face. And that’s when Amber realizes it – this smile is real. This smile is full of wonder, warmth. It’s the smile that he used to give Brady and it’s the smile that used to appear on his face when he stroked her pregnant belly.

“No. I – I christened him with Trudy. We went to the Ecos and we had a little ceremony on the way, at… She told me how she found your ring and – and when I realized you weren’t coming back…” The memory is painful, even now, that he’ standing in the same room with her.

“Is Trudy alright?” He asks, after another long silence in which they exchange shy smiles. “She seemed really – hurt. And she was at the Techno headquarters, do you know what happened there?”

“She didn’t tell you?” The fear that suddenly rushes to her mind, about Trudy telling Bray her version of the break up, of him avoiding her eyes because he feels betrayed…

“She told me, but it was in confidence. I don’t know if I’d hurt her more by telling people.”

People! Now she was just that to him?

“She didn’t say - ? I thought, since you two used to be so close-“

“We had a fight. Sort of.” Amber steps beside him, looking at their son in the cradle. “He’s beautiful, isn’t he?” Since she gets barely a reaction, she nudges Bray in the side playfully. “Sorry about the name-mix ups in advance. I was kind of trying to keep you to myself, you know.”

His eyes are fixed on the little boys sleeping face and there’s a sadness in his face that startles her. He should be happy, now more than ever. Still… There is a scar in his neck, and one on his face that she hasn’t noticed until now. She puts her hand on his, notices the hestitation this time.

“I missed you.” It’s barely a whisper, linked to an unasked question.

His eyes link with hers. “More than you know”, he whispers back. Turns towards her. “I have to ask… And please don’t take this the wrong way, but – I’ve been away for a really long time. You didn’t think I was coming back.”

That was hardly a question! “I hoped”, Amber answers.

“Are you – do you have someone?”

Her hand feels cold, unprotected, now that he has withdrawn his own. And right then, Amber wants to move the time back, just two days, so she can make a decision, so little Bray can have his father and mother living with him and Trudy… Trudy could be happy, Trudy would still be talking to her. She knows it is nonsense and it wouldn’t solve the problems her and Jay have caused. Their feelings for each other wouldn’t vanish into this air.

“I’m not sure”, she hears her own voice answer and feels the damage, that this lie could cause rushing towards her. “I mean, there is someone I have feelings for, but we haven’t really talked about a relationship. It’s … it’s still very fresh, in a way.”

Bray’s blue eyes fix her with an unreadable expression. He looks hurt, but not surprised, as if he had already played out the most likely scenario in his head. Somehow, this hurts her more than the jealous, mean remarks he used to give her, back then.

“We’ll do this together, right?”, she asks, a sudden, unrealistic panic in her voice. “You, me, and the baby. We… he deserves a family. I tried my best, it’s just… it’s hard being alone and having a baby.” She feels closer to tears, more afraid than all those times she stood in the same spot without him. Alone, at night, a crying baby and the thought of him never coming back. Still, right now the distance between them seems greater then ever. Does he judge her? Hate her? Still love her? Why doesn’t he talk to her? And why is she so afraid of just reaching out and asking him?

His hand touches the little mobile over the cradle, he touches it with his fingertips. “Catch a falling star and put in your pocket…” He smiles.

“… Never let it fade away”, Amber adds, smiling.

“Nobody will take raising my son from me”, he adds, his voice lowered to a whisper again, and his eyes fixed on the little blue plastic star. “Noone. That’s a promise.”

Written by: Nemesis

The moment I said it,
The moment I opened my mouth
Lead in your eyelids, Bulldozed the life out of me

I know what you’re thinking,
But darling you’re not thinking straight
Sadly things just happen we can’t explain
Sit down, come round, I need you now
We’ll work it all out together,
But we’re getting nowhere tonight
Now sleep, I promise it’ll all seem better
Somehow in time

It’s not even light out, oh, you’ve somewhere to be
With no hesitation // Oh, I’ve never seen you like this
I don’t like it at all // You’re scaring me

I’m losing you, I’m losing you
Trust me on this one, I’ve got a bad feeling,
You’re gonna throw it all away with no hesitation

##3. There Might Be Blood

Brady sleeps like an angel when Trudy leaves her. She makes her way through all the toys her daughter has missed terribly in the last two days and which the floor is now layered with, careful not to make a noise and wake the little girl up again.
“Are you busy?”, she asks, knocking on Bray’s doorframe. He seems calm and settled, tired maybe, but Amber can hardly have told him. She’s met Bray who just lost Amber and this isn’t him, clearly.

“Not really.” He shrugs. “I feel like I should be unpacking, but I didn’t really bring anything, so…” He tries a laugh, but it seems helpless. Lost. “Um, how’s Brady? Asleep?”

“Yeah.” Trudy nods, glad to avoid the hot topic for another minute.

“Good… that’s good. I’m – do you know if there’s any other available rooms right now? This one, this one doesn’t have a lock.”

This seems like a strainge thing to mention, Trudy thinks as she looks at the open, empty doorframe of the old hat shop. It certainly hasn’t bothered him before! “Err… no, that’s because it doesn’t have a door”, she teases him.

“Right.” Bray seems wary, less calm and controlled now that he is tired. “So, any other rooms?”

“One upstairs. Why, what do you want to lock up? I promise I won’t walk in while you’re changing.”

Bray makes a weak hand gesture, then straightens up, still looking at the open frame instead of her face. His hollowed face seems empty, somehow. He really needs to eat something!

“Have you eaten yet?”

“Yes, I had some… upstairs you said?”

“Yes. You know what, let me fix you a bed upstairs and you go and have a cup of tea, alright?”

“Tea.” He smiles. “I’m really home, aren’t I?”

“Yes.” She can’t help but smile back at him, her eyes tearing up again. “Yes, you’re really home.”

“You haven’t told me who she is yet”, Bray calls after her, as she heads up to his new room. “The girl who your boyfriend cheated on you with. It’s not someone from his old tribe, is it?”

“No.” So Amber hasn’t told him much, yet. That explains a lot.

“But it’s someone you know?”

“Yes.” She wants to stop talking and tell him everything at the same time.

“Trudy…”

“Yes?” Her voice is shaking. She tries to breathe calmly, in, out, in…

“You didn’t even get to talk to him or Amber about it, did you?”

“No, not really.” She bites her lip, blinking hard now. “I didn’t really want to, I’m sure you understand. And… and Jay had to leave, they were after him and he was hurt. But I’m sure they wanted to apologize…”

“So you caught them?” He stills seems oddly unhurt by this, only concerned for her, which is strange. Then again, stranger than suddenly realizing a room he has lived in for years has no door?

“No… no, I just realized what was going on behind my back, and they didn’t even deny it. I mean, Amber tried to apologize, I think, but … I – it just hurts too much!” She hides her face in his shirt, gives up the fight against the tears and this is the moment he steps back and her heart skips a beat.

“So – Amber knew about this?”

Silence, ringing, ear-splitting silence.

“She – she didn’t tell you?”, Trudy whispers.

“Tell me what? That she knew your boyfriend cheated on you and kept it a secret?”

“Well…” Trudy swallows, stares at his right shoulder to avoid his eyes. Her hands, what does she normally do with her hands? When did this become so awkward? “No”, she finally admits. “Amber didn’t know, she – it was kind of her secret too.”

His face is motionless, he doesn’t seem to swallow, blink, hardly even breathe.

“I’m sorry, I thought you knew. I’ll get your bed ready.”

She quickens her steps, when she’s out of his sight, almost runs up the stairs. Tea, he needs tea. Yes. And fresh sheets. And… she almost screams when she runs into Amber.

“Trudy, are you – can we talk?”

“Not right now. I’m busy.”

“Trudy, please! I just want to explain…”

“Why you went behind my back? Because I’m just a tramp who picks up guys you don’t want right now and you and Jay just were meant for each other?”

“No!” Amber runs after her, gets in her way again. “I’m sorry, I just… I know I hurt you – we hurt you. It was just… I’m…”

“A lousy excuse for a friend? Yes, you are. Now if you would excuse me, since I’m the one who still cares about Bray, I promised I’d prepare this room for him.”

Amber seems to lose her apologetic mood at this point. She seems to have hit a nerve there. Oh, well.

“How can you say that? Of course I care about Bray!”

“Funny way of showing it!” Trudy marches past her and rips clean sheets out of a closet in her room, whistpering now, since Brady is still asleep.

“You know it’s not true, of course I still care about Bray”, Amber whispers after having the nerve to follow her into the room and have this conversation while her daughter sleeps mere inches away from them. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings for Jay! Trudy, please, you have to listen! I never intended to hurt anybody, it just happened!”

“Well, tell that to Bray”, Trudy snaps at her and tries to get rid of this unwanted companionship by tip-toeing out of the room and heading towards the next.

“Bray doesn’t know yet”, Amber re-starts the conversation as she enters the room behind Trudy.

A weird, hot sensation shoots through Trudy’s stomach, fluttering, making her feel shaky and sick. It would be so easy to mock Amber right now, to take revenge, but she feels guilty just for wanting to stoop to that level.

“He just got here, it was really awkward.” Amber sits on the bed, reminiscing, as if their fight just now never happened. “We couldn’t really talk. And I think we just broke up, even though I haven’t seen him in months. It’s weird, you know?”

“Well, lucky for you, you’re not single.” Trudy stuffs a pillow into its case with violent moves.

“Do you think he will be mad?”, Amber asks quietly, almost shyly and for a moment Trudy feels almost sorry for her, remembering her meeting with Zoot, the boy she loved standing right beside them, thinking she was doing the only thing she could, trying to feel something, to see Martin underneath all of it… the fear, the little baby in her arms, the confusion…

“He seemed fine to me”, she presses out and starts stuffing the blanket under the mattress.

“You told him?” Amber stares at her in shock.

“He deserved to know, don’t you think?” Trudy steps back as if to admire her work. “But he’ll be here in a minute, you can ask him yourself.”

“Trudy…” Ambers voice is mute, like she’s under water, drowning. Somehow she is. “How could you do that? I thought… you of all people…”

“What? I’d understand? You expected me to understand?”

“I expected you to think of my son! What, if he leaves? What if he never comes back, did you think about that?”

“You think he’d leave? Bray?” Trudy stares at Amber, trying not to think of that possibility. “Do you even know how good you have it? How much he loves you, the things he did fou you? Do you have any idea what you have and how you treat it, constantly assuming the worst of people who worship you while you’re behaving like a cheap streetcat? Why would Bray give up his son, just because YOU decide you don’t want your boyfriend anymore so you steal mine?”

“That’s not what happened!”, Amber shrieks back, now close to tears. “You knew I thought he was dead! You were there, we had a funeral ceremony for him, do you think that was nothing to me?”

“You’re making it hard to think otherwise”, Trudy replies and leaves the room. This time, Amber doesn’t follow her.

Amber sinks back on the covers, her face in her hands. This is like a nightmare, one gigantic… nothing is okay, nothing. She can’t apologize to Trudy, because they always get into a fight when she tries. She can’t try and win back Bray, because she has feelings for Jay. There’s no happiness for her and Jay in the near future, either, because they’ve builty their first romantic moments on other people’s misery and he doesn’t even seem to see it.

Maybe Bray will understand. Her heart hammers against her ribs as she studies the open door, hoping, waiting for him. He could. He won’t. What if he hates her?

“Amber?” Gel peeks into the room.

“What? Is it the baby?”

“No, err…” Gel folds her hands, focusing on the floor. “That cute guy Bray, he came to say good night to the baby and it was sort of weird because they have the same name and he was really sweet. Anyway, he started asking all sorts of questions and he was really, really charming, but don’t you think it’s odd he went to see Jay?”

Amber feels her heart almost stopping. The room seems dark, pitch black dark, if only for a second.

“Amber?” Gel looks at her in a curious and concerned way.

“He did WHAT!?”

Written by: Nemesis

4. Man of Science, Man of Faith

Jay checks the locks on the frontdoor one last time. Closed. Safe. Hist heart is hammering like mad. It felt like a safe place to stay before, but now that Amber has visited him, now that it’s night and he’s hearing all those little noises that could or could not be footsteps of someone like Pride, someone who can get into houses and stand right behind you without you noticing him… someone that might own a zapper.

The floorboards creak slightly, as he walks over to his improvisational sleeping area and sinks onto the covers. He can’t help but smile, thinking about Amber. Her smile, her eyes, her strong spirit. He knows she probably feels bad about Trudy, but he just can’t help but feel this deep, sweet happiness of finally being there, of finally having found what he was looking for.

“Penny for your thoughts.”

The strangers voice hits him unexpected, out of nowhere. He jumps up, staring at the unknown man, sitting there in a chair, right across the room. He can make out a face, as his eyes get more used to the dark.

“Who are you?”

“Don’t worry, I’m a friend.” Clearly, the stranger is mocking him now. “Or maybe I just used to be. We’ll see.”

Jay moves closer to the other man, trying to make out his features in the cold, weak moon light. He seems so familiar… like they met before – but it can’t be…

“Bray?”

He doesn’t get an answer.

“But, you’re dead, you died months ago!” Now that he’s said it out loud, it sounds kind of silly.

“Ah, right.” The smile is distinctive. It’s definitely Amber’s old boyfriend, the one that Mega’s files showed as deleted. “I might be a ghost, you never know.” His eyes are following Jay’s every move, and there’s something in them that he doesn’t like. His opponent is way too calm, too relaxed to be facing him.

“What, are you surprised I’m haunting you, Jay?” He’s biting his lip now, trying not to laugh. That’s no ghost!

“Who told you my name?”

“Your girlfriend.” Bray pauses, his eyes fixating him, alert and almost a little violent. “Aren’t you gonna ask, which one?”

“I know who my girlfriend is”, Jay bursts out, feeling the need to strangle that creepy person that he only knows from stories painting him as the impersonated angel of light, who did anything Amber could ever have wished for and lived up to her moral standards, as if he invented them. This clearly can’t be one and the same person!

“Good. Cause I’m confused, but if you know, that’s a good start.”

“A good start?” Jay has no idea what this crazy person is talking about now.

“Yes. See, here’s what I know. I just came home and my good friend Trudy is devastated. You remember Trudy, right?”

“Right”, murmurs Jay, silently wondering if this is more about Bray’s own hurt feelings because of Amber having moved on, than about Trudy’s.

“And since you’re the good guy, you must spend every waking hour thinking about how you can apologize to this wonderful girl and tell her that you never deserved her and will do anything, to make it up to her.”

“I’m not sure what you’re…”

“That wasn’t a question.” Bray stands up, taking Jay’s jacket and throwing it at him. “Consider it a suggestion. If we leave now, we’ll be at the mall, before Mega manages to set the security cameras back up.”

“Why, what happened?” Jay tries to keep up, his anger rising again, when Bray opens his locked door with a needel in less then a few seconds. “You seem to have a lot of experience at breaking into places.”

Bray shrugs. “In, out, I get around a lot. Do you have everything?”

The night air is fresh and cold against his skin. Half moon. He can see one of the security cameras right across the street, but there is no red signal light. In fact, there is no real light anywhere he can see. It’s like a ghost town, just like the uncivilized, unorganized cities right after the virus. As if time was set back and all their effort was for nothing, leaving this unsafe, destructive environment. Not the kind of city he can picture himself living in.

Bray moves like a shadow before him, without looking back. He seems to know this city. This is his home for him, like he remembers it and walking through the night in a place like this seems like second nature to him.

“Bray?” Amber storms towards them the moment they enter the Mall. “Where were you, what were you thinking, at…” She stops dead in her tracks when she sees Jay behind him, a weak, helpless smile appearing on her face.

Bray passes her without even looking at her. “You’re welcome.”

“What happened?”, Jay asks Amber, since she clearly isn’t in the mood to hug him right now. “All the lights are out, it seems like the whole city is out of electricity.”

“Well, it could be worse”, Amber replies, but she seems clearly worried.

“Worse? What could be worse than this breakdown, this potential for chaos and anarchy? Have you seen it out there? It’s …”

“It’s night”, Amber looks at him with this resolute, distinctive strength he admires so much in her. “We will worry about it in the morning. Right now it’s just a few kids who ran out of light while reading late or playing a computer game, that’s hardly chaos. Besides, if anybody will have to deal with the consequences, it’s Mega. We should thank whoever did this.”

“Thank him? Did you even tell him we’re together, he seemed more concerned about us hurting Trudy than some revolution involving taking out a city’s electronical system.”

Amber seems way more uncomfortable now. “Trudy and I both talked to him. Unfortunately, she got there first.” She pauses, clearly lost in worrysome thoughts and a narrow line appears between her eyebrows. “Did he attack you or something?”

“No, he…” Sounded threatening? He can’t say that, that would sound weird.

“Did he yell, did he seem upset in any way?”

“No.” Jay swallows down words he would regret anyway. “He seemed strangely calm for someone who just escaped imprisonment”, he adds, chosing his words carefully.

Amber shakes her head, looking up at the room in which Bray has vanished. “It’s just not like him. He usually gets so upset… when I dated someone else before, he went out of his way to be unpleasant and now he’s just…”

Jay watches her closely, resting one hand on her shoulder. “It has been a long time. Maybe it’s for the best, we really don’t need more drama right now.” Still, he can’t stop feeling uneasy about having Bray in the mall. The way he seems to be so okay with supply systems collapsing, Amber and him being a couple, the way he is just too calm. He can’t help but to suspect that Bray knows things they don’t.

“No, we don’t.” Amber rests her head against his shoulder. “And who knows, maybe this is a new start, for all of us.”

Jay wants to enjoy the closeness, wants to be as certain as she is, but he can’t help but to feel watched. It’s like a whole new sense of danger, that has arrived with Bray.

“There you go, sweetie.”

Brady grabs the bowl of cereal out of her mothers hands and places it on the table with shaking hands, letting drops of milk spray over her uncle’s hands. She laughs, picking the little white points of liquid off his skin, like it is the funniest game she has ever played.

“So, Bray”, Gel thrusts her chest out, giving him her most beautiful smile. “Tell us more about yourself. You must have had such a hard time!”

“Some of us already know Bray, Gel”, Trudy tells the younger girl, noticing her new, fancy powder blue dress with a smile. She should have seen this coming, with Gel’s tendency to have a crush on any cute guy she meets and Bray having the – often tragic – talent to make everyone fall for him. Still, it seems a little weird.

“But I don’t.” Gel smiles fondly at the mess Brady is making, fishing a corn flake out of the little girl’s blonde hair. “So, Bray, I’ve heard such great stories about you…”

“Momma, my dress!”, Brady cries out, after having managed to spill the rest of the milk in her lap. “Make it go away, it’s cold!”

“I’ll take care of it”, Bray interferes, desperate to get away from Gel.

“Are you sure?”, Trudy teases him. “Because I could…”

“No, really.” He throws a paniced glance at the young girl that smiles at him in awe with wide, gooey brown eyes.

“I could help”, Gel yells after him.

“Gel…” Trudy cleans up her daughters battlefield of cereal, picking her next words carefully. “Bray is a nice guy, and I can see you like him, but he’s a little old for you, don’t you think? And he’s got a son.”

“He’s not that old. And Amber’s with Jay now, so, he can date!”

Trudy swallows down this remark. She really needs another cup of coffee! This isn’t nearly… oh, great, no more coffee! It’s just getting better and better…

“Trudy?” Jay leans against the doorframe beside her, giving her his best sad puppy eyes. “Trudy, listen, I didn’t get a chance to apologize to you yet. I know this whole thing with Amber must have been very hurtful for you. I just want you to understand…”

“Oh, you want me to understand? That’s new!” Trudy bangs her empty coffee cup on the kitchen counter. “Did you ever think that I might not understand? That I might feel used, if you just used me, until Amber was ready to be with you? That you might be the last person in the world I wanna see right now? And don’t give me this hurt puppy stare, because it doesn’t help things. You know”, she takes out the coffee pulver and heats some more water, “come to think of it, you had every chance to tell me. When we first started dating and I asked you repeatedly if you were sure, if it wasn’t Amber you really wanted. Or after she told you she had feelings for you and you swore you still wanted me. But the moment I turn my back on you, you start cheating on me and you don’t even have the guts to admit it!”

“Trudy… I, it wasn’t really – I didn’t want to hurt you, and –“

“Shut up! Just SHUT UP! At least Amber had the courtesy to apologize! All you do is pretend you’re the victim in Jay’s little perfect world. You wouldn’t even have told me, if I hadn’t figured it out myself, would you?”

“I…” Jay looks down; he seems really crushed now.

“Maybe it’s time you wake up and realize there is no such thing as a person who doesn’t have to stand up for their mistakes and you’re certainly not the candidate! Believe me, Jay, you have a lot to make up for and I’m not just talking about me!”

Jay nods, staring at an exhausted, but composed Trudy. This isn’t the Trudy he knows and it certainly isn’t the way she used to deal with arguments. Something, more than just her getting hurt must have happened…

He clears his throat. “Well, if you feel that way maybe we should keep a little distance. So you can sort your feelings out. I really don’t want to hurt you anymore.”

“That is so nice!” The voice sends shivers down Jay’s spine, even though the smile is friendly. That is, if you don’t look into Bray’s eyes. “And very considerate of you. Oh, Trudy, will you make me another cup, too?” He steps closer to Jay, still smiling. “You can go now.” It’s not a whisper, but he talks quiet enough for Trudy not to hear him.

“Oh, so I’m off the hook? How generous!” Jay decides to show some teeth, too. Who is that guy to tell him what to do, anyway?

“For now, yes.” And with that, this strange man walks over to Trudy to help her, as if that was his only task in life. As if Amber hadn’t been crying all night, because he seems to care more about Brady than his own son. He’ll have to talk to him about it, and soon. But without Trudy in the room.

“So, what a jerk!” Bray gives Trudy a smile, taking the boiling water off the gas cooker. “Two girls at the same time, how could he do that? That is so…” He meets her eyes, they both burst out laughing. “I’m sorry, I’ve never really been on the outside just watching this situation. What do you normally say?”

“Oh, you mean, when you’re not the one who has about five girls all over him at the same time?” Trudy can’t help but laugh with him. All those memories, her desperate crush back then, it seems like memories from another life. And kind of funny, if she remembers some of the things she did back then. Will all this seem funny one day? There is a pinch in her heart, through the laughter, through the happiness of just having her oldest friend back safe and sound.

“Bray, you are that guy. You’ll always be that guy. Call it animal magnetism, or let’s just say you can’t draw the border”, she answers, still giggeling, even though it feels a little awkward saying it out loud.

“I’m so not… maybe a little. But I’m not that guy!”, Bray protests, but the moment they look into each others eyes, they have to laugh again.

“So, how’s Gel doing?”, Trudy teases him and pours two cups of coffee that won’t be nearly as drinkable as the coffee they had yesterday, back when the electricity still worked.

“Good, you know.” Bray takes a sip, not noticing the difference since he clearly hasn’t used a coffee machine since the virus. “I told her to wait in my room, if she still wanted to talk. She said something about showing me her neglige-collection… that girl is obsessed with fashion!”

Trudy pokes him with her ellbow, he dodges it. It’s playful, harmless. Maybe one last moment of painfree, nice fun. Before Mega gets back on his feet. Before Bray has to run, hide, and she will be all alone again.

“Hey, it’s gonna be ok.” Bray leans forward, smiling at her. Like he used to, back then. Even before they came to the Mall. His smile, the one she pretended to be hers, and only hers until she had to learn the hard way that Bray would never be with her. So long ago…

His hand stripes her arm, skin on skin, and for a short moment it’s like pure electrcity that accelerates her heartbeat and stops time. For one short moment, until Bray leaves the kitchen to join the crisis meeting about the Technos downstairs. Her heart is still racing when she can hear his calm, soothing voice downstairs, and all she can think about is not again.

Written by: Nemesis

It’s hard, hard not to sit on your hands,
Bury your head in the sand, hard not to make other plans
And claim that you’ve done all you can; life must go on

It’s hard, hard to stand up for what’s right
When every idea you’ve tried has been wrong;
Harder to know right from wrong, when all objectivity’s gone

'Cause you, you are the only one left
And you’ve got to clean up this mess
It’s hard but you know it’s worth the fight
You know you’ve got the truth on your side
And who cares what cowards think, anyway

5. They will understand, one day

Ellie is staring at her former and perhaps current leader with all the impatience that has built up since he came back, the pen resting on the paper in her lap. He still hasn’t answered her question, hestitates, looking from her to Jack and back.

“No”, he finally decides. “It is too dangerous, and we don’t even have any real news, Ellie, this is riddiculous!”

“That’s what I said”, Ellie hears Jack mumbeling in the background.

“Oh, so we’re supposed to do nothing? People have to know!”

“People will either panic or become careless”, Bray disagrees. “We don’t know whether or not Mega was amongst the Technos who made it out of the building. There was a lot of technology destroyed, so they’re low on resources, what was probably the plan of whoever set up the bomb. But these people have a high security system! I’ve been talking to some of the leaders who had news on some technos with burns and other injuries being seen by their people, but the body count is practically zero!”

“Or three”, Jack interferes. “I’m just saying, three isn’t zero”, he defends himself, as Ellie glowers at him for constantly talking when she is trying to do an interview.

“All I’m saying is, we don’t have any real news and anything from within our ranks that we might share could fall into Mega’s hands. You can start publishing the Amulet again once we’re safe and the Technos are over for good, but right now is not a good time, Ellie.”

Ellie searches for a new, convicing argument, as she watches Bray just getting up and leaving. She looks at Jack, desperate for help, but her boyfriend just shrugs.

“He’s right, Ellie. We have kids in here, his kid and his niece. And it’s not like we’re doing nothing. If you want to help, ask Bray, if you can help with his resistance contacts.”

Ellie stuffs away the writing material. “It’s not like I was gonna publish it right now”, she growls. “I would have waited some time. I just need more material to work with, maybe I could make a list of information we have and we could hand it over to the tribe leaders?”

“That is if we can trust them”, Jack points out.

“Don’t you?” Ellie can feel her confidence over this project sinking already, and it’s making her angry. If she just wouldn’t feel so useless…

“To be honest? I don’t even trust everyone in this Mall.”

“May.” Ellie nods. Of course, she didn’t even have to say it. She just wishes she could do something.

Jet is the first to speak. She looks at all of them, her hands shaking with exitement over this day she has been waiting for so long. It’s not like she hasn’t enjoyed using a shower again, or a toaster. But this is about more than that and her tribe supports her, thank god!

“We heard he lost one of his hands, and he’s got only five people left.”

Nobody answers. Some look at her with doubt, others seem exited.

“Did somebody see him?”, Bray asks, his face blank.

“Yes, one of the Roosters. They kept out of the safty zone for a while, but now they want back in. One of the younger members, Marc, has seen six Technos in a building in Sector 3, just at the border. He waited around for more people, but there was noone.”

“And we’re supposed to buy that?”, someone yells in the background.

“Yeah, since when have the Roosters ever been honest?”

“That’s a good point”, Bray speaks up to everyones surprise. “If he saw several Technos, whe didn’t he run? Why hang around to wait for more? And why is a sheer number of people all he’s got, if he was there for more than just five seconds.”

Lex blinks, surprised. This isn’t the Bray he knows, even if he likes this cautious, mistrusting version of him best right now. “I agree”, he pats Bray’s shoulder and stands up to adress the nine tribe leaders who are willing to join them in their rebellion. “If this kid doesn’t bring proof, he’s lying. How hard can it be to make photos? The roosters are one of the most powerful tribes outside the safety zone, if this is the least they can do…”

“Saw from the Demon Dogs sent me a message, the other day”, one leader mentions. He looks nervous about these news, but seems like he won’t shut up until he has shared them. “They’re in. They have weapons, some street kids who owe them favours and will come. We could use their influence over the others to get bigger support.”

Bray nods, looking uneasy with this news, but certain. “If you still have contact, tell them to take down the rest of the security fence and join us here. We need as many people as possible to smoke Mega out. And to capture all of his people, to make sure someone else doesn’t take over like last times. No exceptions. We need to move now, and fast. We need more information, how many they are, if they are armed and equipped with technology that could be dangerous for us, how many are unable to fight right now and what their next steps might be. Jet, you talk to your contacts, Marc, you talk to the Demon Dogs. Lex will leave for Liberty today and fill our allies there in; he’ll be back tomorrow night so we can come up with a headcount of people we can count on. I also need a few people with me to take the cameras down. If we can make sure than we cut them off, it will be a lot easier to win.” He looks at Lex, who nods in agreement, his eyes shining in expectance of a good fight.

The leaders leave, one after the other. Lex turns to Bray, once they’re alone. “Sure you don’t wanna come to Liberty? They’ll just be arguing over whose to take control over the situation. And Ebony would sure love to see you again!”

“I can do without her, thanks”, Bray replies dryly. “Besides, I need to make sure everything is prepared for when you come back tomorrow. And… I don’t really feel good about leaving my son again, it’s just too dangerous!”

“A responsible man!”, Lex mocks him. “Standing up for what’s right and honest, holding a baby in one arm, breaking security cameras with the other. Amber must be so proud! Or should I say Trudy?”

“Funny.” Bray looks out of the window, at Jack and Ellie standing guard. “I’ll ask Ellie to come take down the cameras, really, it’s like noone even thought that they could still be spying on us!”

Lex nods, not really listening. “Why didn’t you ask Amber to come here, by the way? Is it because of her and Jay?”

“I just don’t wanna see her right now.” Bray sighs. If Lex already knows the answer, why is he asking? “Besides, they’re occupied searching the Mall for more bugs and taking the cameras in our sector down, I’ve talked to Amber this morning. Also”, he interrupts himself. “Amber has been talking to May, we want her to go with you. So someone can keep an eye on her.”

“What about Jack?”, Lex protests, since May is not really his favourite person right now. He’d rather take Gel!

“I need Jack here, he has most experience with technology. Of the people I know and trust”, Bray adds, when Lex wants to interrupt him. “Come on, you know how May is! I don’t wanna cause a scene, but with all the chaos, I know someone is with her, just in case. She’s not going to try anything, as long as you’re around, it’s the best option we’ve got!”

They step out into the blinding evening sun, dancing on the bay water, giving it the look of liquid, glittering golden diamonds. Jack and Ellie are chatting and flirting nearby, as if it was just some other day in the city. Being in love, Lex thinks, grinning to himself, even if the constant reminder of Tai San hurts him. He doesn’t even know how his mind got there.

“We’ll find her. Soon”, he hears Bray’s voice, interrupting his thoughts and looks up, only to see his old friend walking towards the young couple in front of them, without looking back.

Lex sighs, starting his way towards Liberty, first stop: Mall. Couldn’t Bray find anyone else to babysit May, so she doesn’t turn her back on them? And why do they even bother to keep up with her?

“How do you do it?”, Jack finally blurts out, holding the pincer, while Bray is handling the wire, to free the camera from it’s mast. Rather clumsy, as Jack sees it, but he’s doing ok. He throws a glance back at Ellie, holding the ladder down on the street.

“Do what?”

“Jay. Amber. I mean, if it was me – when it was me”, he corrects himself, “with Luke, you know. I mean I saw you, this moring, talking to Jay. You seem so… calm about it. When I first ran into Ellie and Luke, I totally freaked out.”

“That’s the difference between you and me, Jack”, Bray grimaces and holds out his hand for the pincer. “You were caught off-guard. I expected it. It’s not really the first time Amber left me, or given up on is in another way. Some things are just not meant to be.”

“So, you’ve given up?”, Jack asks, surprised. “I mean, you’re not over her, are you? Wait, are you seeing someone?”

“It’s me, Jack. I’m seeing ten girls. They don’t know about each other, as always. It will all end in tears, bulimia and a mass suicide, because that’s who I am”, he spits out and loses grip of the pincer, which falls down and lands before Ellie’s feet with a loud thud.

“I’ll get it”, Jack offers, starting to climb down. He stops. “I didn’t mean… it’s not like – I just wanted to know if you’re ok. I know … well, I don’t technically know, with a baby and all and I know it’s not the same situation, but if you want to talk – that’s all.”

“Thanks”, Bray murmurs, starting to attack the wires with his bare hands.

He clearly is not ok, Jack thinks, climbing down to Ellie, who holds out the pincer for him. “Thanks!”

“Did you talk to him?”, she whispers.

“He doesn’t want to.” Jack shakes his head, looking up at whatever Bray thinks he’s doing with the wires right now. “You know, he prefers to brood and stuff. I’m just glad he doesn’t lose it; we need every pair of hands right now.”

Ellie looks up, as someone calls out their names. “Looks like Trudy and Salene are finished with their sector. Get back there, I think Bray will throw one of the cameras at us if you don’t hurry.”

“If he gets it down”, Jack replies, chuckling, but starts climbing the ladder again at the look of her stern face. He can hear Trudy and Salene talking to Ellie, exchanging news. They sound exited, but worried about the possibility that the Technos might still be around.

“Why did that need so long?”, Bray asks, ripping the pincer out of his hand so hard that the ladder starts shaking and Trudy, Salene and Ellie let out surprised shrieks and can barely hold the ladder together. Bray is so not okay!

Written by: Nemesis

Hey little sister what have you done?
Hey little sister who’s your superman?
Hey little sister what’s your vice and wish?
I’ve been away for so long

It’s a nice day to start again
There is nothin’ fair in this world
And there’s nothin’ pure in this world
Take me back home

6. What you don’t know…

Lex’ first instinct is to keep Ebony from knowing. For one part, because time is precious if they really want to beat Mega. And the other reason… well, Slade could ask questions for old times’ sake; old stories might come up and then he’d have to stop himself from making snide remarks that could cause even lovesick Slade to see the true Ebony and that might weaken the core resistance of Liberty before they can pull anything together.

But the most important reason why Lex decides to keep the burning news to himself for just a little longer is that May pointed out to him just how much more fun it would be if they let the bomb drop unannounced when Ebony, Slade and Bray will be in one and the same room.

Lex throws a glance at May. She drowns a glass of water in one sip, her cheeks reddened and her neck glistening of sweat from the long walk in the hot afternoon sun. He pulls his eyes away from the picture with some difficulties.

“Oh, Lexy…” Ram giggles. “You’re never going to learn, are you?”

Here’s another thing that might be interesting, if Bray found out about it unannounced. Lex grins to himself, taking a sip from his drink, while his eyes rest on the still happy rebel-couple of Liberty.

“You want to know a secret?” He leans over closer to Ram, whispering the news over the table, while May rolls her eyes, sitting down at their table. Can’t Lex keep anything to himself?

“Bray?” Ram looks at Ebony with a wide grin that drops off his face when Lex’ boot hits his leg. “Ouch! Wait, is that the same Bray she turned my first proposal down for? Her old fiancé?”

“Her what?” Lex asks, his voice shaking with laughter, while May coughs, having swallowed half her drink from laughing. “Since when?”

“Are we talking parallel universes here?” May asks incredolous. “Last time I checked they hated each other! It was Ebony who ruined his chances of ever becoming city leader and she threw him out of the city when Amber was nine months pregnant!”

“Don’t say…” Ram’s sly eyes dart to Ebony and back.

“Oh, you don’t even know the whole story”, Lex tells him, grinning. They all lean in closer, and Lex starts talking.

“What is going on with those three?”

Ebony looks at Slade quickly, then shrugs. This constant thinking and bothering about people like Lex is one of his qualities that definitely bother her. Right now, with all the pre-battle adrenalin rushing through her veins, she is busy picturing the fight, picturing a one-handed Mega with burns all over his skin begging for the mercy he won’t get, if she has a say in it. Lex will back her up there; that is one thing he is good for, after all.

“I don’t know”, Darryl bugs in. “They have this one secret about an old friend. I tried to listen in, but Lex told me to shove it.” He thrusts out his chest, trying to look more masculine saying that, until he slowly, slowly realizes that he once again said something that ruined a little more of the image he was hoping to have, one day.

“What old friend? Mega?” Ebony asks, grinning.

“He’s not a friend, how… oh! They were being sarcastic.” Darryl nods, even though he feels more and more stupid. This is what he doesn’t like about Ebony – if she wasn’t so hot, he’d never stand so close to her because she makes him look stupid by outsmarting him at every possibility.

“Oh, you’ve learned a new word?”, Ram joins the conversation, patting Darryl’s shoulder while casually mocking him.

One day, Darryl thinks. One day they will regret treating him as the stupid, goofy one and respect him as much as they respect Slade, who tells them to stop it with a careless smile. Because he can. Because it’s so much easier for him… One day.

“Gel?” Amber storms into the other girl’s messed up room. “Gel, can you… what happened here? Jesus christ, is this how you pick up a dress?”

“Brady happened”, Gel yells back at her, running her hands with all the broken nails through her carefully curled hair that is now as messy as it possibly could be. “Oh, and your son needing a new diaper every three minutes doesn’t help, either. What did you feed him?”

“Well, I’m sorry I can’t do it myself right now”, Amber rests her hands in her hips, secretly thinking that Gel must be exaggarating. “I’m sort of busy saving the city, including you. You agreed to help since you don’t want to be out on the streets, remember? Or helping clean up the kitchen with Trudy and Salene?”

“Well, neither did you”, Gel snaps, throwing a used diaper into a little bucket and quickly throwing the lid on it, holding her nose. “And don’t give me this high-horse speech while I’m doing you a favour! I know what this is really about!”

“Oh, really?” Amber feels herself getting more and more annoyed with Gels attitude. “And what is that?”

“You wanted them both so much that you even stole Jay from Trudy, now he spent last night in another room because you can’t make up your mind and Bray has moved on and is seeing Trudy. And you’re really angry at her, because she’s not talking to you. But no, take it out on your unpaid babysitter!”

Amber notices her mouth has dropped open and shuts it quickly. “That’s riddiculous! Bray is not seeing… I’m not… who told you that?”

“I came up with it myself”, Gel informs her and holds her chin up as high as possible without breaking her neck. “After all, I’m not stupid! And now, if you would excuse me, I’m busy here.”

“Sorry”, Amber mumbles, while secretly thinking that is one theory.

Bray hasn’t stopped for a second for days, not to think, not to eat sitting down, not even to have a cup of coffee in more than two minutes. So when he finally sinks down on the soft mattress of his friend’s bed, it seems so comfortable that he closes his eyes for a second, just one second…

“What are you doing here?”, are the words that rip him out of his rest, seconds later.

“Oh, hi, Trudy – did I fall asleep?”

“No.” She puts off her coat and folds it with her back on him. “No, I just saw you coming in here from the stairs. What are you doing here?”

Bray looks at her with narrowed eyes. “You already asked that.”

“And you didn’t answer!” Trudy shrugs, sitting down beside him while leaving a lot of space between their bodies. The way she barely looks at him confuses Bray more than it upsets him.

“I cam to talk. We’ve barely seen each other in days!”

“We’ve had breakfast this moring at the meeting. If you had spent a minute sitting down to actually look at me, you could have talked all you wanted! But no, you were busy telling Amber and Jay about Bray’s one hundred and one great ways to save the city. What is it, you only can talk to me when we’re alone together?”

“So you’re angry at me?” Bray sits closer to her and gives her the big trusting puppy eyes that would painfully remind her of Jay, if she hadn’t come to the realization that it was maybe Jay who reminded her of Bray, all these times. That a little part of her, without her knowledge, wanted him to be Bray. But what good would that have been?, she thinks bitterly. They both left her and they both love Amber.

“Trudy, I’m sorry I’ve been obsessing about Mega, but you have to understand – I need this now! I need to focus my anger on someone outside of the Mall, if I don’t want to ruin everything we have built up in here!” He takes her hand in his, leans closer, barely noticing Trudy catching her breath. “Do you have any idea, what it’s like being shipped around like a piece of meat, from one cage to the next? And all you can do is think. What you could do if you were home now, what you could do for your kids and your friends… You start brooding, and obsessing and getting so impatient, you have to control all that anger, so you paint stupid little pictures in your head. Of liberty, fresh coffee, home. And when that isn’t enough, your mind starts wandering towards revenge again… Trudy, if you knew half the things I planned and never told Amber, you wouldn’t let your daughter anywhere near me!”

“Like what?” Trudy can feel her heart hammering against her ribs, can feel her head getting dizzy while a prickling heat is running over her face. She doesn’t even know if this is good or bad at this point, but the shivers running down her spine are definitely both.

Bray smiles one of his new smiles, one that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Nothing that I’m planning to do. You know, just – fantasies. Like you don’t actually break your exes watch, even though you’ve done it in your head like a thousand times.”

Trudy’s thoughts wander off to jay’s watch. She hasn’t even thought of that…

“But since you seem to be busy, I’d better go.” He tries to let go of Trudy’s hand, only to find her squeezing it.

“Stay.” She smiles at him, like only Trudy can. The Trudy he’s known and traesured ever since she introduced herself to him back in high school. A million years ago.

“Thanks.” He puts one arm around her shoulders, pulling her closer. “Hey, are you cold or does my craziness give you the chills?”

“It’s nothing.” Trudy lets her head rest on his shoulder, thinking of all the moments they have sat there like this: she, the teenage single mum who was blind from an immature, crazy crush that would never go anywhere and her best friend who liked every other girl that way, everyone except her. For one small second she tasted pills on her tongue, then the creepy memory was gone and there was only Bray, smiling down at her.

“You’re ok, right?”, he looks closer at her, his face only inches apart.

She can practiaclly feel how hoarse her voice will be, before she speaks. “What do you mean?”

“With Amber and Jay – they’re not really keeping their feelings a secret in public.” His voice is a little higher, as he says it. “you can deal with it, right?”

“Can you?” Trudy whispers, doubting that his answer will be honest.

“Of course”, he lies, without hestitation. “I’m fine. I’ve got you!”

1 Like

Written by: Nemesis

I’m selfish, impatient, and a little insecure.
I make mistakes and I’m out of control,
and at times hard to handle.
But if you can’t handle me at my worst,
you sure don’t deserve me at my best.
Marylin Monroe

7. The Invention of Lying

Daryl is the first to step into the old factory building. He can tell that it has been on fire at some point from the blackened, metallic walls on the inside and the thick layer of dust and ashes he’s walking on.

“Hello? Somebody here?”

“Scream louder, the Technos haven’t heard us yet!” Slade steps behind him; closes the door after them as quietly as possible. They can see the dust particles dancing in the hot afternoon sun that is falling through the small, mostly empty window frames just under the roof except for some blackened glass parts and the squared, yellow light fragments it paints on the dirty floor.

“Are you Slade?” Bray steps forward, one hand inside his coat pocket.

“Yes.” Slade holds out one hand towards him. “Nice to meet you.” He is a bit irritated when he doesn’t get the immidiate response he hoped for. “Um, this is Darryl.”

Bray looks at the skinny, smaller and really nervous boy in disbelief. “And you two are the leaders of the resistance?”

“Me?” Darryl laughs nervously. “No, Slade is. And Ebony. I’m just … a regular fighter, you know. Came to support a friend.” He pats Slade on the shoulder.

Bray clears his throat. “Ebony?”

“My girlfriend.” Slade looks around. “Nice place. Are you sure noone can overhear us here?”

“If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.” Bray looks at Darryl again, still not sure why Slade brought this guy when he has fighters like Ebony with him. Did Lex tell her he would be here? Is she avoiding him, when they have bigger issues to solve than evening some kind of score? Then again she’s always been a smart woman.

“I know, I know, Power and Chaos.” Darryl grins, flattered to have a supposed admirer of his acting skills as the reincarnated Zoot in front of him.

Silence.

Bray steps closer, watching Datryls face fall from a grin to an insecure mess confronted with his own, stone cold face. “What?”

“That’s – that’s why you know me, right? I played Zoot – I, I mean, Mega made me do it! I was famous, I was all over the city… no?”

“No.”

Slade laughs carelessly, trying to get over the tense moment. “Darryl was just making a joke. Listen, man, we need to talk business. I’ll get you all the information you need, you give me all you have. Ebony is meeting with the Demon Dogs and the Roosters right now, trying to make sure we can count on them. But first things first. Are you sure your tribe is on board, Jet?”

“I’m not Jet.” It’s Bray who has to laugh now. “Jet is the female leader of the Gulls. I came here for her, she couldn’t make it.”

“Sorry.” Slade grins, reliefed that his opponent has dropped the pokerface. “So, what’s your name?”

Bray smiles, looking at the guy who dates Ebony and the boy who apparently fooled people into believing that he was Zoot and wants to bite his lip, wants to keep himself from doing anything foolish now that the resistance is going so well…

“Oh, it’s okay. I’m Martin.”

Trudy gives her mirror a desperate look and sinks back on her bed. She thought this would be an improval, and while she’s not even sure what she tried to achieve in the first place, one thing is sure: The thirteenth shirt isn’t better than the other twelve!

“Trudy, do you have a minute? Oh, am i disturbing?” Bray makes a hestitant move, as if he’s not sure whether he should go again. He stops in the door frame, unsure whether he should leave again, when Trudy just stares at him with wide, confused eyes.

“No, no… come in.” She looks resignated, while wearing a fragile, almost hopeful smile. Bray looks closer, trying to figure out what it is that seems to have shaken her new won post-break up confidence. It’s nothing visible, she looks great, so she probably still fights her feelings for Jay. They have just broken up, after all.

“New look?”

“Yeah…” Trudy avoids his eyes. “It’s nothing. I just wanted…”

“A clean break.” He catches himself staring at her shiny new earrings, the light they reflect onto her neckline; somehow this doesn’t help him fight his sleep deprival. “Must be nice.”

“Well, it’s just… for a new start, you know? No special occasion.”

He can hear her swallowing, while her cheeks look flushed. It must be hotter in here than he is aware of. “Well, it looks great. What was wrong with the red one?” He tries to grab the piece of silky clothing, but Trudy is faster.

“That… er, that is not a top. I, I thought it was when I found it, but it’s … not. What did you wanna talk about?”

“I need moral guidance.” He tries to shake off the thought that he just almost had his hands on his best friend’s lingerie, especially when it could be what his ex-girlfriend’s current boyfriend found so irresistible about her – not that anyone could blame him…

“Yes?”

“Do you think it’s wrong to take someone’s name when that person is dead, even though you’re doing something that person would have found really entertaining?”

“You mean like identity theft?” Trudy puts the neglige under her bed covers.

“Not like… theft. Let’s assume I’m borrowing it.”

“To do what?” Her hand glides over the sheets that cover up the tiny bit of clothing that really shouldn’t be an issue right now, since it’s just that – clothes.

“Let’s change the subject, what do you think of today’s wheather?”

“Bray…”

“I’m sorry, I just wanted to distract you.” He smiles, tapping her shoulder with his. She seems to shy away from the skin contact, avoiding his eye.

“Distract me, from what? I’m fine!” her voice is slightly higher than usual.

“Trudy, I’ve known you for years. I know you don’t want anyone to see you’re still hurting, but I also know you don’t get over someone in less than a week.” Somehow, he wishes he could take his words back, but he’s not really sure, why.

It’s Trudy’s uncomfortable smile that gives it away. “I’m okay, really. I’m done with him, I should never have started dating him in the first place.”

“Trudy, come on…”

“He’s not you.” She seems just as uncomfortable saying it out loud as she was when it was just a silent statement, filling up the room instead of oxygen. “Besides, you must have more important things to do than listen to my pathetic love life or helping me to pick out tops that aren’t really tops.”

“Sorry about that.” He tries a smile while his mind wanders off to the question when it became so hard to have a simple conversation with Trudy without the weird silences and the awkward conversation topics. “But since we’re still on the topic, you know you could do better than Jay, right? I hear Jack and Ellie just had a fight; if you’re quick they might still be broken up by the time you get to the cafeteria.”

“Oh, shut up!” She folds her arms, ignoring him and trying not to laugh.

“Also, I hear, Lex is single again…” He tries waggling with his eyebrows, a trick he’s never been able to perform without looking the most riddiculous, and Trudy bursts out laughing and throws a pillow at him.

“So that’s what I get in reward… hey, wait, wait! I surrender!”

“Alright, but you’ll stop making stupid suggestions, right?”

“I can’t promise that.” He gives her the innocent puppy look again. “You know, I’m very easily distracted. Also…” He leans in closer in the direction of her ear. “Red really is your colour.”

She stares at him, her jaw dropping about a foot, but he just nods, working on his puppy stare. “Okay, that’s enough! Get out of here!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, wait – did I mention that you look very beautiful today?”

Trudy puts off the attempted suffocation by pillow-attack. “Well, thank you. That was just what I needed to hear from some cheesy wanna-be-con-artist who would like to set me up with Lex! You know what”, she tries to swallow down the weird mix of laughter and anger, since she is not sure in which direction to go right now. “You can leave now, because I’m not going to listen to someone that crazy. And no, I don’t think this is funny. End of discussion.”

Bray gives her his sweetest smile while he has to bite his lip to stay serious, playing with a strand of her hair and ignoring her hand trying to hit his away from her face. “Will you marry me?”

“Erm… Am I interrupting?”

Trudy jumps backwards and almost knocks over her night lamp in panic at Amber’s voice. “No… of course you’re not. What is it?”

“Actually, I was wondering if I could borrow Bray for a minute.” Amber looks at both of them in turns. “It’s sort of important. Do you mind?”

Bray looks at Amber, trying to keep a straight, emotionless face, biting down the wild mix of emotions he has been trying to fight for months now. “I asked first”, he decides to annoy her and tries to keep a light, untouched smile on his face while talking. “So what do you say, Trudy?”

She tries to return his smile, but it looks like he has broken something and it surely isn’t Amber. “I’ll think about it.” She looks at Amber with a polite, but cold face. “Sure, no problem. We’re finished here anyway.”

Lex’ jaw drops. “You what?”

“Ssh!” Bray throws quick glances around them, then turns back to face Lex. “I just wanna make sure we know what Ebony’s up to. I mean, Zoot returns from the dead and she buys it and marries him? Come on, even you can’t tell me you bought that!”

“I don’t care what Ebony does in her free time, it’s her life.” Lex rolls his eyes when Bray stares at him in slight confusion and annoyance. “Ok, bad joke. The truth is, nobody told you because… Amber thought you might freak out. Mega set it all up. He needed an excuse for the safety zone, so he created hologramms and let Ebony’s sister Java send her into Reality Space once she was asleep or something. For the grand effect he needed someone who looked like Zoot, so he dressed up Daryl. That’s it. Look, don’t blame Daryl, he’s a nice guy. A little useless, but he’s alright.”

Bray looks away, blinking into the sun to avoid Lex’ gaze. “I don’t see it.”

“What?”

“Him as Zoot. The resemblance. I don’t see it.”

Lex grins. “Come on, you know how it works, you’ve done it yourself. The outfit, the make-up, yelling some of his favourite slogans and bam, you’re in. These kids didn’t know the real Zoot! Most of the Locos got the virus, or became Chosen and left the city after we kicked their ass. You’re not mad about this, are you?” He looks at Bray, who is still avoiding his eyes and sighs. “Look, mate, if you wanna be mad at someone, try Mega. He’s the one who set this all up, he controlled this city after he threw Ram on a dumpster and he had you listed as Deleted on his computer when Amber came looking for you. Do you think she would have moved on like that, if he hadn’t shown her stuff like that? They trusted him, even I almost did, I just refused to believe Tai San was dead, that’s all!” Finally, Bray looks at him and from the emotional, touched look on his face Lex almost wishes he hadn’t.

“We’ll find her.” Bray sounds surprisingly secure.

“But what if she… I mean, I don’t wanna believe it, but she could be…” Lex’ voice breaks and it’s him looking everywhere but at Bray now.

Bray puts one hand firmly on his friend’s shoulder and their eyes meet when Lex head’ jerks up in surprise. “No buts. We’ll find her!”

Trudy can’t help but smile, looking down on her little girl. Somehow, it is comforting to know that no matter what happens, watching Brady sleep like a little angel with a thumb in her mouth will always put a smile on her face.

“She asleep?” Bray’s voice almost makes her jump into Brady’s bed.

“Yes.” She is suddenly very aware that she’s only wearing a nightgown and at the same time glad it’s nowhere near as exposing as the one he’s been teasing her about this afternoon. “So. You’re back.”

“Yeah.” Apparently he’s distracted by something – or someone.

“So, what did Amber want?”

Bray doesn’t respond right away, but stares at her face in a strange, new way that somehow makes her feel uneasy. This is really weird, but her best guess is, he got back together with Amber and this is pure bliss she’s looking at.

“It’s okay, you don’t have to tell me.”

“What? Oh, it’s nothing. She just wanted to tell me Lex was back.”

“That’s all? And she couldn’t have said that in front of me?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. She makes a lot of excuses to talk to me right now. I guess it’s easier to keep her relationship going that way. He doesn’t seem to bright, you know.”

“Go figure!” She doesn’t even know why this comment hurts her a little.

“He ditched you!” Bray tries to touch her shoulder, but quickly realizes that this move creates more awkwardness and lets go again. “You seem tense.” Trudy tries to copy his casual shrug, but feels useless and bulky, while she does it.

“Here, let me.”

Apparently Bray, oblivious as he always has been to the attraction he causes, has found the one thing that could make the butterflies in her stomach crazier than they already are: a shoulder massage.

“Better?” His hands touch her shoulder blades in experienced, but amateuric moves, which she would notice if her blood would stop rushing through her body like white hot knifes, and if their thighs didn’t accidentally touch, or she couldn’t feel his breath on her shoulder. She tries to swallow soundlessly, fails at it and Bray stops, but he doesn’t seem to notice… otherwise he would stop. Right?

She can feel one of his hands sliding from her shoulders, touching the lines where the tecture meets her back with fingertips, as if he wasn’t aware what he’s doing…

He leans in, and this must be her good-night kiss on the cheek… and another one… She can feel his lips tracing her earlobe, dry, warm, then her neck, her collarbone… her fingers are grabbing the sheets, as she gives an involuntary moan and the strap of her nightgown loses grip on her shoulder and sinks…

“Bray? What… what are you doing?”, she finally pulls herself together to ask while breathing heavily, her fingers clawed so deep into the sheets that there might actually be holes from her fighernails in the them.

Bray moves backwards slowly, staring at her in shock. “I’m sorry, I’m so, so…” He moves over to the place farthest apart from her, stands up, his feet making slow, backwards movements, while he’s still unable to look away from her. Bray stumbles against the balustrades, gripping it with both hands and letting his forehead sink against one of the floor props; the cold stone has a calming effect on his glowing skin.

Trudy manages to pull herself together until he is out of the door, and her arms and legs fail to hold her in a sitting position for much longer. She sinks onto her covers, one hand on her thundering heart, bones that feel like they were just meltled and thousands of vague questions swimming through her head, the most prominent of which would be “What the hell just happened?”

Written by: Nemesis

I’ve missed so many days
In a world that has become an unfamiliar place
Now to you, I’m just an unfamiliar face

I’m losing myself again
You swore you’d be around this time
When revelation calls and everything is blown away
Will you still be there with your heart boarded up
Nailed with my mistakes

Should I start giving up or am I too late
Is losing myself again turning us into friends this time?

These shattered days, everybody wants more
We never change

8. My Best Fiend

Slade shakes his head, watching his annoyed girlfriend. It’s not like anyone’s asking her to clean the floors in this place! Still, she has the same look on her face that he sees everytime Ruby is nearby.

“I’ve never even heard of the guy, Slade!” She looks at her watch. “He’s a nobody, he’s leading us on, and he’s late.” She complains, her voice in an angry whisper, while throwing suspicious looks over her shoulder, as if a troop of Technos might storm down the street at any moment.

“Martin is a great guy. Trust me, I have a good feeling about this. Look, you haven’t met the guy. Once you talk to him, you’ll see – he really knows what’s going on in the safety zone, he knows all about the Mall Rats plans…”

“Then how do we know he’s not a spy for Mega?”, Ebony interrupts him.

“Because he left with Lex.” Slade sighs. “Listen, Ebony, I try to see your point, but this morning it was Ruby, then Lottie’s toys were annoying you and now it’s Martin. Maybe it’s you, did you think about that?”

“I hope I’m not interrupting”, Ebony hears a voice that almost makes her heart stop. She turns around, and behind Daryl a familiar person smiles at her; a strangely friendly and impersonal smile, too.

“Ebony, this is Martin”, Ebony can hear Slade’s voice, vaguely in the background over the alarming humming noise in her head. “Martin, Ebony.”

“It’s so nice to meet you!” He smiles, both hands in a long, brown leather coat that she is very familiar. Her heart is racing, she tries to make out hidden anger in his facial expression. Is he holding a knife inside his coat pockets?

“You could say hello!”, Daryl complains, smiling at Bray like a boy sucking up to his older brother, which seems just wrong to her for so many reasons.

“Pleasure.” Ebony puts on a faint smile that doesn’t manage to cover up her hoarse voice. Her hands are shaking and she isn’t exactly sure where this strange panic comes from. What’s he gonna do, suffocate her with a giant peace symbol? Attack her with sticks? Tell Slade… what? He knows her, but not the version of her Bray knows by a long shot!

Ebony can feel her mouth going dry. Her chest feels intensely tight, as if her lungs were being pushed together. A picture of herself comes to mind, a made-up baby, a banishment; her, falling on her knees, while her heart is breaking, while she’s begging him, Bray, to stay…

If anybody can push Slade and her apart, it’s Bray and his knowledge of her past. That has to be it, that’s why he’s using his brother’s name, that’s why he is making up cover stories for his strange revenge plot!

“So – Martin.” Ebony forces herself to smile. “Are you a tribe leader we haven’t heard of, or are you just a solitary hero.”

“Neither.” He smiles again, and she can see that he’s enjoying his sick little game. “I’m just a guy who seeks justice. Or vengeance, if you prefer.”

Ebony swallows. Vengeance. She can see his lower lip twitching; he’s trying not to smile too much. Bray was always a pathetic actor, but he’s trying hard enough for Slade and Daryl to buy his crap.

“Is everything going as planned?”, Slade asks, ignoring the tension in the room.

“Better. We have all the cameras down, the Demon Dogs have send people into the safety zone as search parties for any Techno they can find. The security fence is still up in some places, but it should be hard to electrify with all the wires we cut. Our plans –“

“So, are you in charge of all this – Martin?”, Ebony interrupts him.

He doesn’t even blink. Apparently he’s much better at this once he’s fought down the urge to laugh. “I’m just doing my part. We all have to work together, right? Although I would understand, if some might not be as eager to join the fight as others. It’s not personal for all of us.”

“And it is for you?”, Daryl asks, trying to look important.

“After what they did with my brother? Oh, it’s personal!”

Ebony’s eyes narrow. She can sense that Bray is serious now, and it doesn’t look good for her. If he knows about the Reality Space Zoot scam, she can be sure he will blame her for whatever it looks like to him. For a moment she considers warning Daryl… If Bray doesn’t blame Mega alone, she might not be the only one he attacks this time.

“What did they do to your brother?” Slade has an empathic, strange look on his face, one she rarely saw.

“Nothing out of the ordinary.” Bray shrugs, but his voice sounds bitter. “Do you have a younger brother?”

Slade hestitates a second, then goes for a gesture that could be either a shrug or mean no.

“Well, I guess he wasn’t innocent”, Bray keeps on talking, carefully avoiding Ebony’s eyes. “Some people would say they don’t even see the difference, after what Mega made of him. But he’s still my brother, and if anyone does things like that to him, I tend to get very… motivated. To take action.”

Ebony searches his eyes, unable to determine whether he’s honest right now. She feels uneasy, slightly sick. And for some strange reason, guilty. Hearing Bray talk about Martin, the real Martin, was always weird since he will always be Zoot to her. And Bray – Bray will never be able to really see Zoot. It seems like he is still stuck in the past on that topic.

“I understand.” Why is Slade so touched by this? This wasn’t a Martin Luther King speech, or an Easy Rider sequel, it was just one of Bray’s strangest statements ever that might or might not be true!

“So, did you talk to the Roosters? Some of the tribe leaders within the safety zone are concerned about them being not trustworthy”, Bray goes on, as if he was really here to do this, with no alterior motives. “We heard rumours that one of them saw Mega, but all we heard was a number of people he saw. Now there are new rumors about some spare troops from another basis station of the Technos’ being on their way. Some of us are getting … worried.”

“Who’s chicken? Jet’s people?” Ebony laughs nervously, trying to get some reaction from him, something she can work with. “Did you let Amber talk to her? You know, the leader of the Mall Rats. People just seem to magically listen to her nowadays. She’s easy to find, lives in the Phönix Mall in Setor 10 with her boyfriend Jay – they’re such a dream couple…” She gives Bray her sweetest smile.

He hestitates. She can see it behind his eyes – he’s going to jump on it, she’s got him… “Actually, I’ve been there. My – girlfriend lives in the Mall.” He returns her smile with a hard, triumphing gaze that really is more an expression of his brother’s than one of his. At least he stays in his made up character, if nothing else.

Ebony tries to find a hinch of jealousy in his eyes, some hurt feelings, some tendency to yell, rage, lose it in any way, but Bray is disturbingly calm about it. Did Lex lie to her, aren’t Amber and Jay a couple after all? Are Amber and Bray reunited, or did Bray in the end bring another girl home with him? It would be like him to have some tragically beautiful Amber-substitute, one who he saved from evil forces, tagging along and having a mindless crush on him – they always do. Pathetic.

“I should be getting back to give my report to the tribe leaders, I’m already late”, Bray’s voice interrupts her thoughts. “Slade, will you check the front door for a safe exit? I take the back.”

He quickens his steps once he is out of sight, moving towards the emergency exit. Unlocked. The rusty old door creaks, when he opens it. Nobody in sight. Bray stands still for a moment, holding his breath to not miss a single sound, when a hand taps on his shoulder.

“What the…” The door falls shut, making all the noise he wanted to avoid.

“What was that?”, Ebony hisses, glowering furiously at him, both hands stuck in her hips. “Identity crisis? Did your sweet, perfect Amber sleeping with the enemy finally get to you?”

“Oh, please”, he has to laugh at her attempts to make him drop his cover. She’s good, he has to give that to her, but after all the times she’s fooled him, her strategies become somewhat transparent, predictable, even. “Is that all you got? Do you honestly think that’s all it needs? Ebony, I’ve been captured, tortured and strung up for dead more than just once. I haven’t seen Amber in months and I knew she would eventually move on. It’s called realism.”

“As if we haven’t been there before.” Ebony rolls her eyes. “You were in love with Amber then and you’re never getting over her. Like she’s over you. You know, it even surprised me, how fast it happened. She came back to the city, gave him one of her speeches about morals and values and he had a thing for her ever since. You weren’t even gone three months… I can still see his face in front of me, after he met her the first time…” She swallows her own anger over the memory and gives Bray a honey sweet smile – until he starts laughing.

“Give it up, Ebony, Trudy told me you were his girlfriend. He dumped you, didn’t he? How does it feel, being rejected for Amber – again?”

“Oh, you really wanna go there?” Her voice has been getting louder, without either of them noticing it. “Fine. Jay was with me first. I knew he had something going with Amber on the side, so I dumped him. It was nothing serious. Not like the love of my life forgot about me, the moment the glorious pretty person who send me into slavery walked into the door, is it? What’s it like, Bray? Last time I heard, you were literally dead to her!”

“You’ve got a nerve!” He has his hand in his coat pocket again; his face is just as openly angry as hers now. “Do you honestly think, you still need to do something, so I will hate you? Give it up, Ebony, we’re already way past that stage. Trust, you don’t wanna know, what I’m capable of!”

Ebony glowers at him, as the she feels the rush through her veins. She’s got him now, now it’s easy. When he’s yelling, he’s insecure. Irrational, angry Bray is way easier to push into a certain direction. “Why, do you blame me that little Junior calls Jay ‘daddy’? you’ve gotta ignore that, he’s just a kid, and the names are so similiar. Even Amber might mix you to up from time to time, who knows?”

“Don’t push me.” Bray’s face, while still angry, is back in control and he stares at her, his eyes glowering with hate. “I already blew up one of your houses, don’t think I won’t do it with another, only this time you will be in it, instead of Mega!”

Ebony takes a step back. “You blew up the hotel?”

He smiles sourly at her. “You taught me well.”

“Ebony? Ebony!” Slade rushes around the corner. “What are you waiting for, Daryl’s already in the car. We have to go, before somebody sees us! See you, mate”, he murmurs at “Martin”, while sending him a curious, almost suspicious look. He did spend alone-time with his girl for some reason, after just meeting her. And it’s not like he hasn’t seen the way Ebony looks at the guy…

Trudy looks tired, watching her daughter play with a toy giraffe, downstairs in front of the old phönix fountain. She seems to exhausted to get up from the cafeteria chair she’s sitting on, but strangely absent, almost … dreamy.

Amber choses her words carefully, while she walks towards her friend, a coffee cup in each hand. “I’m glad, she still likes it”, she finally adresses Trudy, standing awkwardly in front of her. She quickly sits down, before Trudy can object. “The giraffe. I got it for her, Hawk helped me carv and paint it.”

Trudy doesn’t look at her. “I remember.”

“I made us some coffee”, Amber points out, buying time, since the following words will be much harder to say. “Trudy, I miss you. Can we talk again? No, don’t… don’t blow me off, please. I already think I’ve lost Bray, he’s not even talking to me if he doesn’t have to. Trudy, you are my best friend and I realize I’ve made a huge mistake breaking you and Jay up, when I just could have been honest about my feelings for him from the start. I wanted to, I just… felt so guilty for him being involved in what happened to Bray. I didn’t want people to see me having those feelings for Jay, because it just felt so wrong and…”

“But it’s okay for Bray to see it, yeah?”, Trudy interrupts her, her voice sour. “Now that he’s not dead. Who cares if he’s been through hell, I’m sure watching you and Jay enjoy your happiness of being together helps the healing process a lot!”

“Trudy…”

“You just stole my boyfriend. Is it too much to ask that you don’t make out in front of me or Bray? I know he isn’t saying anything, but that doesn’t mean he’s okay!”

“I wasn’t assuming he’s…” Amber plays nervously with her necklace. “Did he say anything to you? If there’s some way I can make this situation better, for all of us, you know I will. I owe it to my son.”

“You could start thinking about what you owe to Bray”, Trudy answers, and this time she finally looks into Amber’s eyes. She’s definitely tired. “You might not have seen him in months, but that doesn’t change the fact that you just broke up. He’s… he’s confused, I think. I’m not sure.”

“You sound confused yourself.” Amber dares to smile carefully at her friend. “Something stealing your sleep?”

“Just Mega.” Trudy takes a sip of coffee. “When I was at the hotel he seemed so friendly, so polite. Almost like a friend. I completely forgot what he put so many of our friends through. The same with Jay. I felt sorry for him, he lost his brother after all, and I had feelings for him, it blinded me, you know?”

Amber looks at her lap. The words echo in her head and she can see Bray’s face in front of her again. When he held his son, looking up to her for just a second, when he walked in in Jay and her, kissing, the other day, all the looks, the distance in his eyes…

“But the stories Bray has told me about the other side of the invasion and the work camps he’s been in… I guess it opened my eyes. You know what? I’m glad Jay and I are over.” Her voice sounds slightly higher, like always, when she’s trying to cinvince herself of her own words while talking, just to prove a point. “If you’re willing to live with all that Jay just closed his eyes from and let happen, you’re really made for each other. Now excuse me, I promised I’d help Salene prepare dinner.” She stops after a few steps towards the kitchen. “I don’t mean for our friendship to be over, I just need time. We all make mistakes and I’ve had my fair share, so… I guess I can forgive you. Just not yet.”
Amber nods, surprised by this sudden mood swing. “Thank you. That means a lot.”

“Trudy…” Gel strolls into the cafeteria. “Can you talk to Bray for me? I know he likes me, it’s just – he seems to need a little hint, you know. You’re almost like his sister, can’t you…”
“I’m not his sister!”, Trudy yells at her, making the other girl jump a step back. “And I’m nobody’s messenger! So all of you who want to talk to Bray, just do it yourselves, I have no idea where he is and I don’t really care right now!”

“Geez”, Gel stares at Amber, shaking her head over Trudy’s fiery exit. “You’d think she was dating him herself. Hey… maybe she is!”
Amber rolls her eyes, drinking the last sip of coffee. “Get a life, Gel.”

Written by: Nemesis

Where did you come from, where have you been?
I don’t know that much about you,
but I don’t think that I would like to anymore
No, I literally mean it this time around
I’m sick of you leading me on

The curtain’s rising just like every poison kiss that you blew
That I deflected with an icy cold stare that I learned from you
Oh, not even Hell… could be hotter than you right now

9. Does it offend you?

Ebony has been sitting on white hot coals for hours. What if he doesn’t show up? What if it leads Slade to an investigation, and he comes up with a dead man? He will eventually find out, who “Martin” really was, it will lead to more questions and to answers she doesn’t want to give.

She’s still not sure what she’s afraid of, exactly. Slade has seen her with the Zootists, with her sisters; she put him in a cage, for crying out loud! Still, it seems like he has always seen her as someone who didn’t initiate all of this, and therefore as a victim of Mega. He has always appealed to her softer side, the rest of her, it seems sometimes, is just a wild sex-citten for good times to him. He enjoys the ride, but so did Jay. Even Bray himself used to like her, a long, long time ago. Now he’s just another person she has to watch out for.

“What are you so nervous about?”, Slade asks her. Has he been watching her, is he already suspicious? It seems like it. As much as she hates it right now, he’s not dumb. It’s one of the reasons she gave in to him – his instincts, his being careful, alert of reality. Bray wasn’t. Jay didn’t even understand the term. And Zoot… well, Zoot feels like another lifetime. A different one, with parts of it just having happened in her head, planted there by both her wish to turn back time and Mega.

“What, if he’s not coming?”, Ebony whispers. “He could’ve set us up, did you consider that? Or got caught.”

“I think he can look out for himself.” Slade shakes his head. He should be relieved, after the fleeting impression at their last meeting that Ebony might be attracted to Martin. Instead, her constant complaining about him, her suspicions feel even worse. She has a certain respect for the guy, even if she doesn’t admit it. The way they seemed to argue, the way she watches his every move, as if she’s waiting for something. Slade has been dating long enough to see when a girl is impressed, or when there’s more than she wants him know.

“Maybe he’s looking out for more than just his own interest, did you consider that? I mean, his motives are really fishy. They “did something” to his brother?”

“And family isn’t a strong motive?” Slade looks at her as if this affects him personally.

“He didn’t even mention a name! For all we know, he doesn’t have a brother or a girlfriend, just some deal with Lex! I mean, come on, it’s possible!”

Slade wants to answer, but he can feel from the way Ebony’s whole body tenses up, that Martin as already within earshot. He turns around to see the protagonist of Ebony’s conspiracy theories walking towards them, a worried look on his face.

“Someone has been following me”, he opens the conversation.
“So you thought you’d lead them to us? How nice”, Ebony jumps at the first opportunity.

“Did you manage to shake them off?” Slade interferes, before another fight can erupt.

“I left him unconscious. I’d say, we’re good.” Bray looks over his shoulder. “I’d still say we chose a new location for the next meeting and break this up for now. I have to get back, I didn’t tie him up very good. Is there anything urgent we need to discuss?”

“It can wait.” Slade joins the worried looking-around. “Ebony and I can take care of the guy, we have my bike. Just make sure you get back safe and tell Lex, we have a deal with the Roosters. They will pass on all news directly to me. The Demon Dogs will be in, too, they just haven’t found anything yet, but the safety zone fences are down.”

“Good. Anything else I need to know?”

“No.” Ebony smiles sweetly, relieved that he seems to be leaving already. “Just fasten your seat belt and get home safe. And give the Mall Rats our best.”

Bray fakes hestitation. He’s still not very good at this, but his method acting has slightly improved, Ebony notices sourly. “Is there something you guys aren’t telling me?”

“Hey, we’re in on this together”, Slade shrugs. “If it was relevant news, we’d tell you, wouldn’t we, Ebony?”

Bray looks from Ebony, to Slade and again to Ebony. “You don’t trust me.”

“If we wouldn’t, would we waste our time with you?”, Ebony immidiately responds.

“Maybe.” Bray bites on his lip, looking over his shoulder again. “Look, I realize this is not the ideal time to discuss this. You really should get going. I left the guy who was following me behind the factory building with the red doors, in the bushes on the left side of the building. Lex will tell you the time and place of the next meeting.”

“Alright. Come on, Ebony.” Slade walks over to the bike.

“Just a moment.” Ebony steps closer to Bray. “Alright, you’re good at lying, big surprise, impressive show. What do you want?”

Bray keeps down his smile for Slade’s eyes, but his eyes are shining mockingly, and his lips are twitching. “I don’t know yet. You know me, I have a problem with making big decisions. And trust me, this is going to be big.”

“Ebony?” Slade makes an impatient gesture. “Are you coming, or what?”

Ebony throws Bray one last, angry look. “You can’t win this game. I invented it.”

Bray smiles, leaning over and almost kissing her cheek. “We’ll see”, he whispers, before walking past Slade, a harmless look on his face. “We talked. We’re all good now, aren’t we, Ebony?”

Ebony swallows down a poisonous remark and forces herself to smile back.

The bike shatters, almost falls, as Ebony’s foot hits it. “I knew it! I knew he was lying!”

“What are you talking about?” Slade crawls out of the bushes, an annoyed expression on his face. “Did you just kick my bike?”

“So what if I did?” Ebony frowns at him, one hand positioned on her hip. “I know this is a setup. This guy’s fake and he’ll …”

“Do what? Send us to another location, where nothing happens to us? For the record, he said he hadn’t tied the guy up. He probably just went too soft on him and the guy regained consciousness and ran.”

“Yeah? How likely is that?”

Slade shakes his head, looking up at her. “I don’t know. What if Martin’s just a lousy fighter and the guy was never out in the first place? He cold have just seen a few bad movies. Hit them in the face, they fall, their eyes are closed and you’ve got yourself a save deal. That kind.”

“He’s not.” Ebony glowers into the direction the rusty old car has vanished into.

“How do you know?” Slade picks some leaves from his pants and steers towards his bike. “I thought you just met the guy. How do you know he’s a good fighter?”

“I… instincts”, Ebony decides quickly. “I haven’t lead the Locos for nothing, Slade. I know a real fighter when I see one, and I know when someone is lying to me. Martin is a security risk who just as well could have bought or fooled Lex into trusting him.”

“You know what I think? I think you’re just making this up, because you’re not telling me the whole truth here, Ebony.”

“He has a double agenda!”, Ebony yells at him, swallowing Bray’s name down at the last second.

“Reminds you of someone, doesn’t he?”, Slade keeps on picking.

Ebony can feel her insides go cold, like she’s been forced to swallow a can of crushed ice. How does he… ? Did Bray… ? He can’t have, can he?

She decides to give Slade the cold-truth-number, to win a head start in this argument: “Are we going to leave now, before the Technos actually show up, or will you start an official interrogation based on my dislike of some guy who, for all we know, could be traitor?”

Bread crumbs in both hands and her little tongue in between her lips, Brady looks at her work of art in its final stage, a concentrated look on her face, when Trudy walks into the kitchen.

“Brady! What…” She is momentarily distracted, when she realizes Bray is standing right beside her. He interrupts looking at Brady with the proud smile of a relative who has just witnessed the three-year old in question playing Mozart on the piano in a concert hall, only to look embarrassed at her.

“I… I was going to tell her to stop. But – look! It’s a picture.” He steps closer to the bread crumbs that are already on the kitchen floor. “From this angle, it’s a cloud, and from this one…”

“It’s a mess. Brady, sweetie, I told you not to play with food! Who do you think is going to clean this up?”

“Actually”, Bray takes Trudy’s arm and leads her out of the kitchen, “technically Gel should be watching her right now, so she should at least see this. To be more watchful next time. Do you have a moment?”

Trudy feels her knees getting weak at the mere touch. She shouldn’t… Brady… the kitchen… Amber… Amber and Bray’s son… “I – sure, but only if it’s quick.”

She follows Bray into his room, almost disappointed when he lets go of her arm. “So, what did you want to talk about?” Her voice is higher than usual, her smile probably giving away exactly how nervous she is.

He seems nervous, too. “I just wanted to say – about the other night…”

“Oh, we don’t have to talk about it.” Trudy quickly forces herself to smile even wider. “Really. It’s nothing, you don’t have to explain. It’s forgotten.”

“It is?” Bray takes one of her hands. “Because I haven’t forgotten.”

Trudy looks at their interlocked fingers, her face burning. “Me neither.”

“And…” Bray’s voice breaks, just a little, for just a second. “And I know I should tell you I’m sorry and that this could ruin our friendship, and that it will never happen again, but I’m really not.” He scans her face, testing. “Sorry”, he adds.

“What?” Trudy looks up, now more confused than ever.

“I’m not – sorry, that it happened.” He lets his thumb run over her hand, millions of little electric shocks sending shivers to her nervous system. “Are you?”

“No”, Trudy whispers, unable to lie, to pretend anymore.

“Good.” He smiles, visibly relieved. It’s a new smile, one that he hasn’t given her in the past. Different. “I wouldn’t want to push you into something you don’t want.” He squeezes her hand. “No pressure.”

Trudy looks down on her hand he literally just put physical pressure on, laughing, her whole body being filled up with relief and so much happiness, it’s almost painful.

“Except for that”, Bray admits, still watching her with a certain anxiety. He leans forward, another spontaneous kiss, this time on her lips.

Trudy wants to stop him for a second, hestitates, while his lips trace hers, postpones the decision for another few seconds. It’s just a kiss… just a harmless kiss for starters, no lip-sucking, no tongue. She leans in, returning the kiss, enjoying it while it lasts. Okay, now there’s both!

Trudy breaks away, breathing heavily, when she starts losing track of where his hands are in the heat of the moment. She finds them still over her top, to her relief. “That counts as pushing.”

“Does it? I’m not sure, you didn’t seem to be struggling against me.” He laughs lightly, leaning his forehead against hers. “Except if these are your rejection techniques. In which case they need a serious revision. Trust me, it’s sort of hard to recognize, people might get confused.”
”I’m gonna work on it”, Trudy promises, allowing his fingers to wander down her spine, when they are interrupted by a shreek of purest terror.

“So, I guess, Gel’s found Brady then?”, Bray guesses.

Trudy jumps up at the mentioning of her daughter’s name and quickly leaves the room.

“What was that?” Amber drops her shoes and heads towards the door.

Jay steps in her way. “No, you’re not listening to me!” He looks towards the kitchen, seeing Bray and Trudy heading into the direction of the screaming. “We have to talk about this, now! We’ve made the mistake of not talking about our feelings for a very long time, I thought we were being honest with each other now!”

“That was hardly our biggest mistake, Jay!” Amber steps past him without a second look. “And now excuse me, your personal issues will have to wait. We have a real crisis here and I’d prefer not to ignore it.”

Jay grabs her wrist, but only catches the bracelet. “Just answer my question. Do you still have feelings for him?”

“Jay, this is riddiculous!” Amber frees her bracelet from his grip, stepping a few inches back. “We have an emergency here, and all you do is talk about something that isn’t an issue! I have done a lot for you, for us, that I am sorry for. And I did it because of my feelings. For you. Now, I will go and see who’s in such a state and you do me a favour – grow up!”

Jay stops in his tracks. Her words have hit him almost as hard as the things she refused to say. Again. He follows her agitated steps towards the cafeteria, squirms as she bumps into Bray. They exchange quick words and Amber seems in a state of shock for moments. And just at the second Jay can feel himself getting worried over what might be going on in the kitchen, they start laughing, while a sulking Gel stomps past them.

Jay swallows hard. It seems like Amber has given him an answer after all.

Written by: Nemesis

Once I rose above the noise and confusion
Just to get a glimpse beyond this illusion
Masquerading as a man with a reason
My charade is the event of the season
And if I claim to be a wise man, well

Though my eyes could see I still was a blind man
Though my mind could think I still was a mad man
I hear the voices when I’m dreaming

Carry on my wayward son
There’ll be peace when you are done
The center lights around your vanity
But surely heaven waits for you
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more

10. The Man Behind The Curtain

The young boy hurries to close the door behind him. His breathing goes ragged, his legs feel like they might collapse under his body soon. He holds on to the staircase’s balustrade, catching his breath, before he will make sure his clothes are in order and enter the living room.

“You’re late.” The shadow of his leader has appeared on the top of the stairs; a bit of his hair and bandaged shoulder is barely visible. “Did you get it?”

He nods, clinging on to his shoulder bag and stumbling up the stairs blindly. Flashes appear before his eyes, little green and red lights, dancing. He holds his sides, sweating, hands one of his associates the bag. Tries to breathe calmer. “He didn’t really check me for a camera. Just knocked me down and disappeared. I think – I think my head is bleeding.”

“Did you at least get a got shot?” Mega interrupts him, his voice as much on edge as it was when he left. Reducing the pain medication for his burns hasn’t improved Mega’s working climate with his subordinates. He’s clasping on to the bandaged rest of his hand; the hand without fingers. “What’s taking so long?”

“I’m sorry… disorriented – my head, I told you, he’s a maniac, he really is! I swear, I pretended to be Rooster and virt and all…” He puts the camera on the table.

“A Rooster and a virt are the same”, Mega answers him curtly. He skips through the photos, holding the camera close to his face. “You did well. Take the rest of the afternoon off.”

“Those aren’t really good quality”, one of Mega’s men interjects, having connected the camera to his laptop. “It might take some time before we get a match.”

Salene avoids May’s concerned eyes that seem to follow her every move. The other girl’s presence is strange enough. Love letters that weren’t really love letters, their shared room, Pride, all of it. She sighs, as May sits down with her at the breakfast table.

“May, I’m not in the mood for a conversation right now.”

May smiles coyly, but can’t hide the worried look in her eyes. “Tired already - late night?”

“You know I stayed home and read. You were there, remember?” Sal pours more and more sugar in her tea. She’s not going to drink it anyway, but just watching the white powdered substance run over the tip off her spoon into the dark liquid calms her down, somehow. It doesn’t help not to think of other liquid substances she’s yearning for, right now, though. Not the slightest.

“So, you like your sugar with tea today?”, May tries to joke, as Jay comes to join them in the cafeteria. “I heard the resistance is going well”, she changes the topic, as Salene doesn’t react. “All the cameras and fences are down, the people from Liberty are in… Bray was followed the other day”, she goes for a different angle, as Salene still doesn’t look at her.

“So?” Salene finally bothers to look at her. “He wasn’t caught, was he? It’s not like he can’t look after himself.”

May can hear someone snorting sarcastically and turns around to see where the sound is coming from. “And what’s your problem, Jay? Not feeling important anymore, since we have Bray back? Amber giving you the cold shoulder?” God, it’s so much easier to yell at Jay than Salene!

Jay blinks, confused. “Did I do something to upset you?”

May feels trapped. If he’s going to talk about her past, working for Mega and the Technos, she will be the outcast of the Mall Rats again. She glances over at a still passive Salene, staring into her coffee cup, deep in thoughts. “How about what you did to Trudy?”, she goes into a quick defense, noticing how Salene shifts uncomfortably on her side. “You broke her heart and still your only concern is how to make Amber happy, how to make out with Amber in public, how Amber and her son are – and that’s not even your place!”

“Well, I’m the only one doing it!” Jay defends himself, as a baby’s cry is heard in the background. “Do you see your glorious Bray being with his son?”

“How dare you!” Salene has jumped up, the alcohol abstinence still working hard on her nerves. “Bray has been with his son, but we’ve got other things to do! Like making the city

a safer place, finding Mega. THAT would be your place. Or have you forgotten that you were the one who brought them here in the first place?”

Jay stares at both of them, too confused by this sudden hate towards him.

“And how dare you attack Bray, you’ve destroyed his life! He was part of this tribe long before Ebony brought you here. Not that it did her much good, did it? You just took her as a cheap route to Amber, like you did with Trudy. What did you expect, that we’d respect you for that? Congratulations?”

“What’s with the baby, isn’t Amber with him?”, May notices, switching hers and Salene’s cups, so her friend will have some tea that’s drinkable.

“Yes, shouldn’t you go and look after him Jay? Since you’re practically family?”, Salene adresses Jay sarcastically.

“It’s not like somebody else is doing it, is it now?” Jay responds, before he leaves the cafeteria, trying to calm himself down before he reaches the baby.

The little boy grabs his stuffed animal away and starts to cry, the moment Jay tries to touch him. He takes a step back, sighing. This sort of behaviour is new, Bray has always been a very trusting and peaceful baby.

And now that he and Amber are barely speaking, he has had the feeling that more than just one relationship of his within the Mall has changed, starting with Salene and May giving him her piece of mind about the Trudy and Amber history and blaming him for bringing the Technos into the city to ruin lifes on purpose. Not that he doesn’t know where they got that idea, since he thought they knew him better than this by now. And it’s not like May is the most innocent person in the world, if it comes to helping the Technos.

He bends over the crib, trying to calm the baby down. “Ssshh, it’s alright. Look”, he throws a quick glance over his shoulder. “Do you want your teddy? Or a good night story?”

But the baby doesn’t let go of the newest addition of his toys, a stuffed elephant. Instead he starts crying even louder and Jay can’t do anything but helplessly stare at the toy that he’s seen Amber give her son, whenever he seemed unhappy or couldn’t sleep during the last two weeks. The toy that makes her smile in a melancholic, but uncharacteristic way, making it represent yet another part of her that he, Jay, can neither reach nor understand, no matter how hard he’s trying.

“What do you think you’re doing?” The voice gives Jay chills, and not in a good way. He’s never considered himself a violent, hating person, not even a nervous one. But everytime, he sees that face, hears his rivals voice, it is like fingernails screeching over a black board.

“Nothing, I just wanted to tuck him in”, Jay forces himself to answer calmly, though he has a hard time controlling his mimic, looking at the other Bray. The one who’s not a lovable, innocent baby by a wide shot, but somehow transforms even more women into swooning girls.

“Sure.” Bray glowers at him. “Can I ask what you’re doing near my son in the first place? I thought we had that conversation.”

“Yes, it seems like you had a lot of conversations lately”, Jay spats out. “And besides, I live here.”

“Come here, Junior.” Bray picks up his son and kisses his forehead softly, which seems to calm the baby down momentarily. “For someone who’s supposedly living in this room, you don’t spend a lot of nights”, Bray remarks lightly, in the same sweet voice he uses to calm his son down, while rocking the baby softly.

“Are you trying to say something?” He didn’t mean to get so loud, he shouldn’t, but right now Jay doesn’t care. “How about you say what’s on your mind, once and for all, instead of stirring up everyone behind my back?”

Bray shuts his baby’s ears off from the noise and takes a step back, as if protecting his son from the noise was his only concern in the world. “Would you not yell in front of…”

“Did you talk to Amber, too? Or the kids? What do you tell your son for good night stories, that I’m the man in black who stole his mommy and tortured daddy? That he should be afraid of me?”

Bray just silently shifts the babies weight onto his other arm to reach for the toy that has fallen back into the crib, while a dangerous smile appears on his face. One that says he has stopped finding this game funny, now that his son is crying louder than before, and that he will drop his mask and minute now…

“What’s going on here?” Amber’s eyes flicker between the crying baby, her ex-boyfriend and her boyfriend glowering at said ex in a way that’s making her inner alarm ring, complete with flashing red lights. “And why is my son crying?”

“Ask him”, Jay states accusingly.

Amber takes a deep breath, trying not to explode while some immature testosteron rivalry is making her baby suffer. “What’s that supposed to mean?”, she demands to know, looking at Bray now. “Can somebody tell me please what this is all about? Now?”

“I’m trying, he was like this when I got here”, Bray responds in a hushed voice, still rocking the crying baby softly. “I actually had him calmed down if it wasn’t for all the yelling”, he sends Jay an angry, concerned-parent stare.

Amber sighs, crossing her arms. “Jay…”

But Jay doesn’t even listen to her. “You’ve said something to him!”, he yells at Bray. “You’ve talked to all of them, haven’t you? Salene, Trudy, May… Why not be honest for a change, Bray? You can’t handle your own jealousy, you can’t handle that Amber’s moved on…”

“That is nonsense”, Amber presses out between gritted teeth, even if she can feel her face reddening. “Trudy has every right to be disappointed in us, both of us and May picks at anyone, you know that! And as for the baby you used to be concerned about, he’s teething. Which you would know, if you had bothered to ask. Why do you think, Bray and I got him new toys? This is sterile, he can chew on it. For heaven’s sake, Jay! What is going on with you?”

Jay just shakes his head, unable to give an answer that would not make him sink even more in Amber’s eyes. All he can do is helplessly stare at his girlfriend who is being pulled away by Bray.

“I’m sorry”, he hears her whispering, while they share glances that would make it very clear to anyone walking into the room right now, who was Amber’s boyfriend. Or at least who she wanted to be her boyfriend.

“Do you want me to take him tonight?”, Bray offers, having found yet another way to look like Amber’s knight in shining armour.

She smiles, shyly, relieved. “You would?”

“It seems like you have a lot to talk about”, Bray whispers to her, loud enough so Jay can hear him. “Besides, you could use a good night’s sleep. He’s been keeping you up all week.”

Amber sighs, caressing her sons head and giving him a little kiss on his forehead. “Is that okay with you, honey?”, she asks him, as if he could understand.

Jay can’t help but shake his head in disbelief, when Amber and Bray starts laughing at the baby’s little smile, agreeing that he means ‘yes’, while the clueless baby just seems confused about his parents’ behaviour.

The little sounds behind Bray’s half-opened door sound all too familiar. When Trudy pushes the door open, her heart beating like a drum with the expectations she initially had for their meeting tonight, she can see the little boy and his toy elephant making a mess of the bed sheets, with Bray smiling up at her from his book.

“Hey.”

“Hey.” He pauses. “I’m sorry, Amber and Jay were arguing, she had to get up all week with his teething… I just wanted to – you know, it’s not like I –“

Trudy has to fight a touched smile. “Bray, you don’t have to explain. If someone understands that your child comes before anything else, it’s me.” She sits down at Bray’s side, watching the baby play peacefully. “He’s grown so much, it’s unbelievable!”

“Look who’s talking”, Bray teases her. “Your daughter taught me the alphabet yesterday.”

Trudy laughs happily, as he pulls one arm around her. “She didn’t.”

“Well, she started to. Lex interrupted her at c. He’s probably just jealous.”

“Yeah, that’ll be it.” Trudy lets her head sink on his shoulders, thinking how familiar all of this, how easy. If it wasn’t for the uncomfortable, now unnecessary underwear she’s wearing and the burning questions on her mind. “I bet Amber was glad that you helped her out.”

“Trudy…”

“No, I’m not saying anything’s wrong with that. I know she’s had it hard, being a single parent and all.”

“Only that she’s not single.” Bray sighs. “Look, I gave her and Jay the evening to talk things out, I’m sorry that ruined our plans.”

“Why?” Trudy moves away a bit, watching Bray’s facial expressions testing. “You hate Jay! You’ve made no secret of that. So why fix his relationship? With Amber, at that.”

Bray sighs, looking at the happy baby, snuggling against its big blue elephant, half asleep. “I just didn’t want him in there, with all the yelling, the arguing… I don’t want him near Jay, is that so hard to believe?”

“And that was all you wanted?” Trudy plays with the hem of her skirt. She feels silly now, silly for wearing red, silly for what she’s wearing underneath it, silly for falling for yet another guy who is hung up on Amber.

“Can we not talk about this now?” He puts his arm around her again, more firmly this time, pressing a light kiss onto her neck. “Please? I just want a nice evening with you. He’s asleep now, we could just… talk. About other things. Okay?”

Another thing that feels all too familiar, Trudy thinks bitterly. “Sure, why not.” She leans in, lets her head rest against his neck for a moment. Breathes in the fresh night air that comes in through the window left slightly ajar. Candle lights. She wonders if this were the same evening Bray would have in mind for Amber, an Amber who had just broken up with Jay and came her for support, a shoulder to lean on and to spend a night with an old lover and their son, memories coming up, the candles burning down… she wonders if this is the kind of thing Bray fantazises about.

“Do you think I’m being a good parent?”

Bray’s question throws her off track. “Why are you asking?”

“Just… he’s happy, but – I feel like I’m not doing enough, to keep him safe, to keep people like Mega from hurting him. Amber told me he’s threatened to take him before.” He plays with her hand, letting his fingers wander over the exposed skin of her arm, lost in thoughts. “When I see him like this, so innocent, so vulnerable, I just – I’d do anything to protect him. Anything.”

“I know what that’s like”, Trudy answers, tilting her head slightly, and she can see something beyond the tender, thankful smile he’s giving her for her understanding. Something she’s only seen in the mirror, a long time ago. Something that didn’t end well, even if the initial intention was the purest: to do what it takes to keep her baby safe, whatever the consequences.

Bray seems to have different thoughts, as he leans in closer, kissing her upper lip, then her lower lip, a look in his eyes, so intense, burning, that it amazes and confuses her at the same time. “I don’t deserve you”, he whispers, making her thoughts race, around Amber, Jay, explosions, Technos, Chosen, years of longing, wanting him and now this –

“We shouldn’t”, she brings out, breathing hard, as she breaks away from the kiss to look at the sleeping baby.

“You’re right.” Bray looks slightly unfocused, his eyes still hanging on her lips. He leans his forehead against hers, kisses her nose lightly. “You’re right – now is not the best time.”

“Bray, do you think you’re doing the right thing?”

“In – what? As a parent, with the rebellion, what do you mean?”

“As a Mall Rat. With the explosion in the hotel.” Trudy takes his hand, squeezes it lightly. “I know why you did it, I don’t blame you, after what you’ve been through. It’s just – it was really dangerous. People died.”

“I’m sorry if I brought you and Brady in danger, I had no ideas they let civilians in there”, Bray answers seriously, as if that was the only problem. “Believe me, if I’d known…”

“It wasn’t just us, what about your own life? Working with explosives is dangerous, Bray. I see that what you did was effective, but at what price. Do you really want another baby in the Mall to become half-orphaned? It’s hard enough for them to grow up without a dad. He needs you, no matter what you’ve been through, that’s the most important thing in the world.” She looks up at Bray, who’s concerned eyes are fixed on his son. “Think about it. He needs you. I need you. Don’t forget that, will you?”

“We have a match!”

The voice rips Mega out of his sunken position; he realizes just now that he must have dosed off. The room around him, another room that isn’t his work base. Unfamiliar. Wrong. And at the same it strangely reminds him of his old home, of the kitchen his parents’ house used to have.

He forces himself up, making his way along the side of the barricaded windows into the dining room, where several computers are linked to their powersource, the old car batteries they have managed to link to energy transmitters, so the right amount of power goes into each computer.

“Let me see.” He leans over one of his associates shoulders, cursing within about the sad rest of his left hand, as the pain pulsates through his wrist with the careless movement.

“We were lucky, sir. The searched subject was on one of the harddrives we could save from the hotel. He used to be a prisoner of ours until very recently. It was unclear at first, but then we used our face recognition database and…”

“Open the file”, Mega interrupts him curtly. He leans over, as the adressed Techno gives in a code and all too familiar face appears on the screen, a face linked to a file that he let Jay find once, as if it was unwanted, an accident. Not that Jay knew how to work with these files, how to read them, really read them.

Bray… nma943

Mega stared at the computer screen in disbelief. “Not possible. He’s miles away from here, we send him on the deleted list, he can’t have, not by himself.”

“Sir, do you believe he’s had help?”, one of the Technos offers the obvious answer.

“Possibly.” Mega’s eyes wander back at his disfigured hand, then back to the desktop where he can see the scars on his face. “It doesn’t matter. He was off of our radar for too long. That was a rooky mistake, my mistake.” He pushes another button. The flash animation re-appears on the screen. D-E-L-E-T-E-D.

“Sir?” one of the Technos views him questioningly.

“I just gave you something to work with. A nice little lie we created for virts who came into my offices to ask annoying questions. Now get to work, make this one become the truth.”

Written by: Nemesis

I don’t mind you’re someone that ain’t mine
But someone that I’ll get and you don’t know
How Hard I’ve tried to convince myself that I
Can easily forget

But you left this feeling Here inside me
One that never fails to find me…
On a rainy Monday I feel it inside me
In the hopes of one day

I won’t lie, I still can’t say that I Admit we went too far
And you won’t see me change my mind
But I really wish that I
Could forget the way you are

11. The Other Woman

Her neck aches, she feels cold and heated at the same time, and there’s a soft wind from somewhere… Noises, from in- and outside the Mall. Trudy sits up, Bray’s arm slides down to the pillow. She slowly begins to realize that they must have fallen asleep in this uncomfortable position. She looks from Bray to his son and has to smile at the sight of both of them sleeping peacefully, side by side, the baby kept safe between Bray’s body and the wall of the room and holding onto his stuffed animal with both hands.

“Bray?”

No answer. The baby seems to feel that his name has been mentioned, though, it produces a series of little sounds that are like no language Trudy has ever heard, except that they are similiar to past ones of her own daughter. For a moment she wonders whether Brady can understand him better than all of his parents and surrogate guardians at the mall.

Trudy slips into her shoes, brings her clothes in order and looks for a lost bracelet, when Bray slowly begins to shift beside her. “What time is it?”

“I don’t know.” Trudy avoids his eyes; they haven’t discussed spending the night at each other’s places yet. “Morning, I guess. There’s someone in the kitchen, so… I should go. If someone sees me they might get the wrong idea”, she adds quickly, hoping that he will stop her, demand that they go public.

“Yeah, that’s probably the best idea.” He stretches, careful not to wake the baby. “Is that your bracelet?”

“Yes.” Trudy grabs the piece of jewelry from his hands, feeling a weird moment when their fingertips touch. Bray seems to have felt it too, since he’s carefully avoiding her eyes, but making sure his son is covered by the blanket.

“Trudy, listen – maybe we should think about this. Maybe…” he still barely looks at her for seconds. Quick glances, where their eyes meet in uncomfortable tension, and he shifts his view’s focus back to the toy elephant.

“Let me guess, you wanna stay friends, it’s not me, it’s you, you don’t feel like having a relationship, right now is not a good time…”

Bray looks up, truly surprised. “That wasn’t what I was going for.”

Trudy takes his hands, carefully chosing her words. “Bray, I know you.” She pauses, swallows and then says what she feels has to be said. “But if we wanna save our frienship, I can’t be the girl you maybe like, the one you maybe wanna be with. If been that girl before, and it was very painful for me when that maybe became a no. It’s just – if you want out, say so. Now.”

“Oh.” Bray looks at their interlocked hands, his face undecided for a moment. “Trudy, I can’t predict what I’ll feel for you or anybody else in the future. I just wanted to suggest that we don’t tell anyone we’re seeing each other until I’ve had a chance to talk to Amber.” At Trudy’s surprised and confused face, he quickly adds: “It’s just – we sort of just broke up, we have a son together. I can’t let her find out by accident, that would ruin more than one relationship at once.”

“Yeah”, Trudy supresses a nervous giggle. “Been there. It never ends well.”

“She’ll understand”, Bray reassures her, or maybe he’s trying to convince himself. “I mean, she’s moved on, she’s got Jay now.” It still sounds a tad bitter.

He can feel Trudy’s watchful eyes on him, smiles to reassure both of them that they’re doing the right thing, even if he doubts there will ever be a right moment to tell Amber he’s moved on to date her best friend. Not even with the Trudy-Jay-Amber history… espeacially not with the triangle history, it will just make it weirder!

”Have you seen Bray?”

Trudy jumps at Amber’s voice. “No – not lately.” She feels trapped in her lie and quickly adds: “He wanted to go to Liberty for a meeting with that guy Slade. Lex went with him, I think.”

“Oh, okay.” Amber stretches, sending Trudy a happy smile. “I can’t tell you when I’ve slept so well for the last time. I just wanted to thank him for leaving the baby with Ellie this morning so I could sleep out.”

“Been there”, Trudy answers, smiling, as she thinks of Brady’s teething periods. From Amber’s awkward glance she realizes that Amber must have spent the night with Jay, giving her own remark a completely different, but nonetheless true, meaning.

Amber forces the smile back on her face. “Well, I feel like breakfast now. Can I get you something? Coffee? Juice?”

“I already had coffee”, Trudy answers, catching on Amber’s light tune to get over the uncomfortable air of things they can’t talk about right now. “But juice sounds great.”

Amber pours the juice in and raises her glass. “To new beginnings?”

“Yeah, to new beginnings.” Trudy avoids looking at Amber directly. “Whatever they may be!”

Ram feels nervous in his new set of clothes. Slade insisted on it, hinting that his new friend and allie Martin is sort of sensible towards a certain type of uniform, given his personal history. Ram still thinks this is riddiculous, and the unfamiliar texture, itchy and a little tight, reminds him only vaguely of things he’s worn before the virus.

Someone knocks on his door. “Ram?” It’s Ruby’s voice. “Ram, he’s here. Are you ready?”

Ram opens the door, walking straight past her in Slade’s old clothes. He feels riddiculous, all that brownish colour and western-style… a nightmare!

“You look good”, Ruby says, grinning. He can’t tell whether she’s being sarcastic or not, so he doesn’t answer her and just rolls his eyes. “Do you have your story down?”

“The Technos hired me, because of my talents. Mega kicked me out, ruined my life, my wife was killed by a zapper and my name is Gabe, short for Gabriel. If you call me Gabriel, I’ll zap you”, he adds, when he can see Ruby’s lips twitching.

He enters the secluded corner of the main bar room, where Slade, Daryl, Lex, a grim and unusually tense Ebony and the newcomer who hates Technos, are waiting for him.

“Ah, finally”, Slade puts down his drink. “Martin, this is Gabe. Gabe, Martin – he’s working with Lex and the city leaders of the former safety zone.”

The one called Martin barely looks up. They could have saved themselves a lot of trouble with this stupid cotton thing, Ram thinks grim. He pulls the watch off his wrist. “It’s an emergency tool. You pull out the little knob for setting the time right and it sends a distress call to my computer, as long as you’re not further away than two miles.” He hands the watch to Bray, who puts it around his wrist without asking any questions.

“What do I do when I can’t reach the knob? They could zap me and bind my hands”, he asks.

“You could always sit in a corner and brood impressively”, Ebony suggests, a sneaky, but at the same time almost desperate look on her face.

Ram looks at the rebel’s newest member curiously. He has heard a lot about the famous Bray, including Lex and May’s latest gossip. Why he chose to keep his name a secret and why Ebony plays along, even if it bothers her so much, is a mystery to him. And he loves secrets, they make for good suspense and entertainment.

“Thank God you’ve decided to be so helpful today, Ebony”, Ruby mocks her rival in her hopeless battle for Slade’s affection, her hand teasingly on her still slim stomach.

“How rude of me!” Ebony’s voice is pure velvet. “I should wait tables, that would help taking Mega down so much!”

Ruby throws her an angry glance and makes her way back to the bar. She starts violently sorting cleaned glasses back onto the shelves, when someone clears his throat behind her.

She’s confused for a moment, when the new rebel guy, Marvin or Martin, stands before her. After all, their meeting was just about to begin. “Yes, can I help you?”

“Actually, I was wondering if I could do something for you.” He smiles, and it’s a warm, friendly smile. Trustworthy, for some reason, even though she doesn’t know him at all. “You seem distressed. I just felt like I should check up on you, see if you’re okay.”

“Sure.” Ruby can feel herself getting nervous and feeling relaxed and comforted at the same time. “It’s nothing, just a little fight between women. Any decent person who meets Ebony experiences it at some time, you’ll see.”

“Been there.” He bites his lip, throws a quick glance over his shoulder. “So, you’re not exactly a friend of her’s.”

“A friend?” Ruby laughs bitterly. “Far from it! She’s sleeping with the father of my unborn baby, I would hardly call that a friendly action. Or would you?”

“No.” He’s smiling again, and this time it looks conpirational. “Well, it’s nice to mee you, Ruby. I’m Bray.”

“Oh, then I got your name completely wrong”, she blurts out, looking embarrassed. “i thought it was Marvin or – Martin?”

“Yes, that’s what I told Slade.” He grins at her takes a cookie from a plate she was fixing for Slade, hoping that he wouldn’t just spend time watching Ebony eat them. For some reason she can’t feel herself getting angry at him. Curious, maybe.

“So they all think you’re a completely different person?”

“No, I’ve been a Mall Rat for years, they know me pretty well. And Ebony, of course. We dated in high school, don’t ask, why. I’ve been trying to come up with an answer for years.”

“She’s very forward hitting on guys and she dresses as slutty as possible?”, Ruby takes a guess.

“If you say that it sounds so…” He sighs. “It’s probably true. I just like to think of myself as someone who wouldn’t date a girl like her.”

“Why, what did she do to you?” Ruby can feel herself geting more and more curious.

Bray smiles; he doesn’t seem that bitter about it.“Do you have a few hours?”

“That sort of ex?”

He nods. “I should get back, or they’ll start wondering what I’m doing in the bathroom for so long.”

“Hey”, Ruby calls after him and lowers her voice as her turns around. “Why are you telling me all this? Aren’t you worried I might tell Slade?”

“And waste your chance at watching Ebony’s inner torture? You wouldn’t, would you? Slade will find out dozens of reasons to break up with her soon enough – doesn’t mean, we can’t have some fun first!”

Ruby stares after him, stunned after this sudden twist. She moves a little, so she can see them in their corner, Ram as “Gabe” giving “Martin” Bray a list of instructions and gesturing towards his watch, while Ebony glowers at both of them and Lex seems more than just amused. It’s the strangest compilation of events and people in one time since Ram joined them, months ago.

Salene looks at her watch again. Still ten fifteen. And she’s still on page fourty-seven of her book. It’s not just that she can’t concentrate. Or that she couldn’t concentrate with May in the room, peeking over all the time and interrupting her with questions. She just feels like she needs a drink now. And it’s not exactly easy to ignore that feeling.

“Still up?”

She looks up, as Bray and Lex enter the kitchen. Both look extremely busy and way less likely to get drunk tonight than here. Or to ask lots of questions about a book she’s only pretending to read, to distract herself.

“How was your trip?”

“Good.” Lex loads himself a plate with food and sits down next to her, while Bray just sits down, pointing at the book.

“I read that!” He seems really happy to meet someone who shows interest in the same book as him, opposed to burning it, or being more concerned with a bill of rights, the Ecos, or anything else. And for a moment, he looks like a younger, livelier version of himself. “Flash Forward - What chapter are you in?”

“Four. And don’t give me any spoilers”, Salene answers, smiling at Lex’ greedy and fast way of consuming food. It’s nice that some things don’t change, to say the very least. “What have you been doing all day.”

“Saving the city, being heroes, nothing much”, Lex brags between bites.

“Yes. We were just thinking how modest we’ve been lately, you know. While standing on the rooftop in batman-pose, of course”, Bray adds, chuckling lightly at Lex’ statement.

“Forget it, I’m Batman. You can be Robin”, Lex throws in, cleaning his plate and standing up. “Well, I’m off. Have fun chatting about books and interior design or whatever it is you chicks like to do.”

Salene meets Bray’s eyes and they both have to laugh. It feels good, letting all the tension out, relaxing for a few minutes. They’ll have enough to worry about, tomorrow, anyway.

“I have a confession to make.” Salene looks at the book, smiling embarrassed. “I’m not really reading that. I was just looking for a little distraction, it’s been really tense lately.”

“I get it.” Bray picks up the book. “It’s not really a light read.”

“That’s not it.” Salene looks on the empty table. It was sort of nice, having small talk with Bray during the last few days. Him having no idea about her alcohol-related problems, or the whole triangle drama with Pride and May was relaxing, almost soothing for her pain. He expressed his condolences about Pride, having heard that they used to date and they moved on to talk about his past, his time at the work camps. It felt so good, being concerned for someone else, feeling pity, empathy, not for herself. Seeing how she could have had it worse. And of course it was shocking to hear, what he had been through, what May must have been through but doesn’t talk about, and what Cloe and Tai San still could be experiencing. But Salene feels that now is the time to be honest about herself, not to hide anymore.

“I’ve been – having troubles since Pride died”, she confesses.

Bray looks worried immidiately. “Problems, like bulimia?” She can feel his eyes checking her body for a potential weight loss.

“No, it’s not bulimia. I’ve been… drinking a lot. Too much, to be honest. I’ve just started getting over it, but it’s hard, you know? Everytime I feel like I’m better something else happens, someone is being taken or killed, some new enemy turns up and attacks the city, or someone uses citynet to create a new fear… and I’m back to square one.”

“Yeah, I know what that’s like”, Bray nods. “I got drunk once, when Amber was kidnapped.”

“Once? Wow, then you really can relate”, Salene teases him.

“Actually, twice. There was Lex’ bachelor party. And then there was that one time before the virus when I was at a friend’s house and…” He stopps, grinning awkwardly. “I really have no idea what that’s like.”

“Yeah, you’re more stabile than that”, Salene murmurs, looking at her hands. She thought this would make her feel better, but it seems to have back-fired.

“Not necessarily, I just have a different coping mechanism.” Bray looks up, carefully testing her mood, before he speaks on. “You know, I once read, that if people with bulimia don’t get any treatment or heal properly, or if they suffer a personal loss, a high number don’t go back to an eating disorder, but develop another sort of addictive behavior instead. It’s not your fault you didn’t have the stabile environment you needed with the virus and all.”

“I get it, I’m damaged goods. No therapy, so I’m even more of a nutcase now.” Salene swallows down the resentment, but still feels depressed.

“That’s not what I meant.” Bray takes her hand. “Salene, please don’t let it get to you. I may not know what it’s like to have an addiction, but I know what it’s like to be in a bad place – when every comment or bad thing that happens around you seems to drag you down even more. And I know you. I know you’re a lot stronger than you give yourself credit for. And we’re here for you, if you need us, all of us. You know that, right?”

“I know.” Why does this feel so much simpler, so much less complicated than when May says it? Why with Bray, of all people, whom she had such a big weakness for? When did it go from conflicited to uncomplicated, was it when she fell for Pride? When she joined the Chosen, even? It seems like a lifetime ago.

“Was it because of Pride?” Bray asks, trying to go about it delicately and treading right into the minefield.

“Yes. At least that’s when it started.” She swallows hard. “Then other things came into the mix, but Pride’s death… it was just like a part of me died with him, you know? I felt like I’d never recover from it, like I could never find someone I could love that much.” She stopps, when she sees the look on Bray’s face. Now she’s found something he can relate to. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…”

“I know.” He looks over into the empty, dark Mall, somewhere behind the now unlighted light-creation over the fauntain, where Amber and Jay’s room is. “It hurts, at first. It still does. But life goes on. You’ll meet someone, maybe you already have and just never saw her that way. – Him, in your case”, he adds, when she looks at him, puzzled of this unexpected turn.

“You think so?”

“I know so.” He squeezes her hand lightly, looking at the book again. “You know, it’s really not that good. I just got excited when… I’m a book-nerd, Martin always used to tease me about that. Long time ago.”

“Are you guys still up?” Amber strolls into the cafeteria, a half-empty baby bottle in her hands.

“Is he still not drinking enough?”, Salene asks her, feeling weird at the echo of her own words.

“No, he’s better. Just fell asleep before he could finish it, after crying all day.” She sits down with them, picking up the book. “Please don’t tell me you want to read that?” She and Bray exchange a small look of understanding and both have to laugh at the same time. “You remember, when I tried to read it and got so frustrated because it was so boring, so I just left at Jack’s work shop…”

“I was picking it up, and it sounded interesting”, Bray finishes the story. “And I thought it was his, science fiction element and all. Later on I asked him why he’s read such a boring book, and he didn’t even know what I was talking about?”

“Then why didn’t you stop reading”, Salene interjects.

“Oh, he never stops in the middle of a book”, Amber answers for Bray, still laughing. “No matter which one it is or whether he has to defeat the Chosen to get it back for the last chapters.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing”, Bray defends himself, but he’s smiling, too.

“It’s not, it’s just… vintage”, Amber teases a little more. “I’m sorry, I was interrupting you. What were you talking about?”

“Just me being the Mall’s recent alcoholic”, Salene sighs. Their giggly post-relationship flirting isn’t exactly helping her depressive mood.

“Oh, Salene.” Amber puts one hand on her shoulder, pulling her in. “I’m sorry, and I was yabbing on about some book story… how are you doing?”

“Better.” Salene leans onto Amber’s shoulder. “But I guess it’ll take a while until I’m out of danger.”

“Well, you’ll make it. And we’ll be with you, every step of the way”, Amber promises, smiling confidently at Bray. “Right, Bray?”

Bray looks back from staring into the darkness again, looking over at those rooms, probably thinking about the fact that Jay must be waiting in Amber’s room for her. He smiles, but it looks half-heartedly. As if he’d rather talk about something else.

“Right.”

Note:
The following chapter contains a fight that might sound very harsh to you,
but was necessary for this story. Both points of view are very subjective, hurtful and might
come off as mean if you like the character they’re being yelled at. Please be aware that
this is not my opinion, but what I feel the characters might say and feel in the given situation.

Written by: Nemesis

Days, I’ve missed so many days
In a world that has become an unfamiliar place
I’m losing myself again

Will you still be there with your heart boarded up
Nailed with my mistakes // Should I start giving up
When revelation calls and everything is blown away
In sheltered days, everybody wants more
We never change

12. What’s Love Got To Do With It

The room seems empty, no sign of May or… “Salene?”
Bray steps forwards, in the half-darkness, unsure whether to wait in the room or search elsewhere. He almost stumbles over a carton that stands out from underneath one of the beds and curses quietly, while sitting down on the bed.

It seems like a nice place for Salene. He can understand why Amber would be worried, but there are no empty or full bottles anywhere in sight and the room smells fresh and clean, maybe a little dusty; no trace of alcohol. For one wild moment he imagines Salene hiding her booze in one of her drawers or even the carton he just barely missed, but then snooping around in his friend’s business just feels wrong. If she says, she didn’t drink, shouldn’t they give her the benefit of the doubt? And as long as she lives with May, someone is clearly having an eye on her. And searching through her stuff, probably.

“Bray?” Salene is carrying a coffee cup, half-empty, probably cold. She puts the cup down on her drawer, when she sees his face. “Did something happen?”

“No – it’s nothing, just … Amber was worried, so she asked me to look after you.”

Salene’s face grows darker with every word. “She thinks I was drinking again.”

“No, it’s just – she wants to make sure you’re well”, he feels the immidiate need to defend Amber. “Look, if you say you’re not drinking anymore, then I believe you. But if there’s anything you need…”

“I know where to find you.” Salene takes the coffe cup and drinks the last rest. “Was there something else you wanted to see me about?”, she asks, when Bray seems to be hestitating to leave.

“I’m not sure.”

“Not sure … if you need help?”

“Not sure how to ask this from you. You’ve got a lot on your mind, it’s just, if you have time right now, I really could use some advice on something. Someone. Trudy.”

“Trudy.” Salene nods, slowly, trying to figure out where this is going. “What about her?”

“Well, it’s hard to describe. You know, when you’ve known someone for a really long time and you think you’re really close friends, right? And then, all of a sudden, this person comes back into your life in a way you’d never expected and everything is different. Do you know what I mean?”

Salene looks up, surprised at the sudden question, suppressing the image of May from her mind. “I guess.”

“So, what would you do?”

“Do when?” This is getting more and more riddiculous! Okay, so she might have had some wine last night on the roof. But that’s worn off by now, he can’t even tell anymore, so surely it must be his story that has the holes here, not her attention span!

“If you had feelings for someone, but you’re not sure whether it might destroy a friendship. Or more than just one, actually. What would you do?”

“Are… are we still talking about Trudy?” Salene asks, carefully not to tread on any left-over landmines from over three years ago. “You mean you care for her, as a friend, right?”

“That, too.” Bray shakes his head, helplessly staring at her, like he always does. Not elsewhere, not at his own hands, Bray’s always been looking directly at her, really seeing her, in a rather indaubted way. Just looking at her, like she was the only person in the world, like their conversations were the only thing that mattered. This intense, bold care, the way he never seemed to fear anything… Maybe that’s why she fell in love with him all those years ago, maybe that’s what was wrong with her and Ryan. Or maybe it was just what was wrong with her…

“I really don’t know”, Salene answers, just to keep talking. To give some kind of response. “Does – does Trudy know? And Amber?”

“Trudy knows.” Bray has this sort of caught expression that appears on his face whenever someone mentions Amber, or Amber herself appears in a room. She wonders if he knows that’s what he does. As if he’s feeling guilty and happy at the same time. Maybe this is why, maybe it’s because of his feelings for Trudy.

“And does she feel the same way about you?” It just seems like the next logical question.

“To know that I’d have to be sure what I feel exactly, and I’m really not, so – maybe”, Bray gives one of his classic speeches about any girl he’s ever dated except for Amber. “But we – we decided we’d go there and now I have no idea what to tell Amber.”

“And why should Salene know what to tell her?” May asks from the door frame, making both Salene and Bray jump.

Bray looks more caught than ever, but very controlled.

“Were you there the whole time?”, Bray asks, his voice cold and sharp.

Something about his calm, icy attitude seems strange to Salene, very strange. It’s just – not the Bray she knew. The one who always seeked excuses for people, gave them second chances. Who did everything he could, if he cared about his friends. The way he’d live and die for them – for Trudy, all this time she was pregnant… maybe that’s why, maybe he always had these feelings for her and just put them away because of Brady? Salene shakes her head. It’s very confusing.

“Long enough to hear you have a thing for Trudy now”, May responds, shrugging the fact off as if she eavesdropped on that sort of secret-revelation everyday. Then again, maybe she did.

“That wasn’t exactly polite”, Salene hisses at her room mate.

“So? Why do you ask Salene anyway, it’s not like she knows how to tell someone about your feelings the right way. Then again, just avoiding the topic until it hopefully goes away might be just your style.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, May, I just wanted to give some really good advice. Like writing her a letter with all your feelings stuffed and not telling her face to face at all”, Salene blurts out, sending May an angry look.

“You think I should – write her a letter? Doesn’t that seem kind of cowardish?”, Bray interjects, not sure if they’re still talking about the same thing.

Salene looks grimly satisfied with his answer. “Your right, Bray. That is the coward’s way.”

“Really?” May towers over both Salene and Bray, both hands in her hips. “Sometimes it takes guts to write a letter like that at all, did you ever consider that? Maybe this is a joke to you, but it’s not to me!”

Bray looks from one girl to the other, slowly convinced that they’re not talking about him, Amber or Trudy anymore, maybe they’re not even talking about revealing letters, but something they don’t want to say out loud in front of him. “Do you maybe want some privacy?”

“No, it’s great, it’s perfect! I don’t mind if the whole world knows what an idiot I am! Since Gel and Sammy already know, it might not even make a difference, if I just tell you, too!”

“May, please…” Salene looks flushed, unsure of what to do with her hands and avoiding Bray’s eyes at all costs.

“I should really go, it doesn’t seem like a good time right now”, Bray mumbles, leaving the two fighting girls, who didn’t pay much attention to him in the first place, leaving the room, and feeling like it would be a good idea to leave the Mall, too. Just for now, to get out of all the drama that noone seems to able to explain to anybody involved.


The fresh air feels good on her skin. Soothing, relaxing. Trudy can’t think of a time when she has needed a bit of fresh air, a new start and new energy this much. And it seems like life has given her another chance at happiness, even if it is an unexpected one.

Bray sets the picnic basket down. “Do you think this is safe?”

“Sure. It’s not like Mega would sit in some sky scraper with binoculars. Besides, there’s no hiding place, we could see anyone coming.” Trudy opens the basket, takes out the grapes and the juice bottle. “So, would you like to start with desert or the main course?”

Bray blinks into the sun. “Is that a food question?”
”Hey!” Trudy pats on his hand, when he tries to steal the grapes. “So – dessert first, then?” She notices Bray’s amused look. “Oh, who are you – Lex?”

Bray sits up, looking at her sincerely. “That’s a terrible insult. I’ll let it pass, but I want my grapes back.”

“You know, I should’ve had this picnis with Brady, if I wanted a mature conversation.”

“Yes, where is she? Didn’t she want to come?”, Bray asks, his usual oblivious self.

“You don’t think I’m bringing my daughter to our first date?”, Trudy asks him, her eye brows raised.

“Of course not.” He puts one arm around her, kisses her cheek lightly, then her neck. “I’m sorry, I think I’m out of practice. The last girl I actually had a date with… well, there was Danni, but it was a party and she left when I danced with – I the last girl I actually had more than one date with is Ebony.” He exchanges a quick look with Trudy. “Not the right time to bring this up, I guess.”

Trudy takes one of the grapes. As long as he pronounces Ebony’s name that way, it surely won’t become a problem! “Not really.”

“Okay, let’s make a pact. I arranged for a talk with Amber tonight, where I’ll – well, I haven’t figured out how, but I’ll tell her about us. And then I’ll revenge you for all this”, he gestures towards the picnic, “and we’ll have another date. Not on a roof top. Deal?”

Trudy leans forwards, kissing his lips lightly, her heart beating faster for more than one reason. “Deal. So, what kind of date are we talking about?”

Bray returns the favor, spreading kisses all over her face. “What kind would you want?”

“Okay, this is gonna sound stupid”, Trudy admits, hestitating, seeking his eyes. But he’s busy kissing her neck, which is both confusing and oddly encouraging. “Well, back when we were in high school, I used to have this fantasy that you would ask me out – to the movies, you know, really classic, with popcorn and everything. And – there was a movie, I don’t remember which one, but I went there with a friend and I imagined what it would be like, if you were there. I was so caught up in my fantasy of what it would feel like if our arms were lying next to each other between the seats, or our hands would touch when we’d both go for the popcorn, I couldn’t concentrate on the movie at all. ” She falls silent, her face flushed.

Bray’s lips brush her earlobe. “And then.”

“Well, technically it’s a fast-forward, but – we’re at your place, and… I don’t actually know what your room looked like, but I imagined it with posters of the bands I knew you liked and there were candles everywhere and you gave me a flower while music was playing – it was really cheesy.” She clears her throat, since Bray still seems eager for more. “You know, this one boyband I was into, Take That – you would have hated it. I’m not sure if I could still listen to it. Anyway…” Her face feels bright red now. “Then we’d kiss and…”

“And?” He seems caught between amusement and fascination.

“Nothing then, I was fourteen! Why do you think there’s a Take That CD in your room?”

“I obviously must really like them. Or it’s a CD you brought with you.” Bray plays along, then furrows his brow in light confusion. “I forgot, where they the American guys?” He notices Trudy’s bright red face, that she’s now hiding against his shoulder. There seems to be something in his throat, it’s suddenly not so light and easy anymore. There are questions, questions he never wanted to ask. “I didn’t know you liked me so much back then. I thought it was just because I took you in and helped you before Brady was born.”

“Let’s not talk about it, okay? It was such a long time ago… no need to – you know.” Trudy leans in closer, enjoying the closeness, the moment, all of it. Right now, everything is perfect, everything is beautiful. She swallows down the bitter memories of all the other girls who Bray liked that way, all of them. They’re together now, that’s all that counts.


Amber fills up the little bottle with heated milk, when Bray and Trudy enter the kitchen. She gives them a warm smile, which they return. “You made it just in time. Ellie and Salene made dinner for everyone. Have you seen May?”

They exchange awkward glances, shake their heads. Strange. Amber shrugs and picks up her son.

“May’s really strange lately”, Gel tells everyone who will or won’t listen. “You don’t think she’s working for the Technos again?”

Nobody wants to answer her, they all stare at their plates. Jack even avoids her eyes and looks over her head, grinning sheepishly, which confuses Gel a little. “What? It’s possible, wouldn’t be the first time!”

“Gel, that’s enough”, Amber interrupts her strictly.

Gel pouts, putting down her fork with a lot of sound. “Why? What have I done now?”

“She’s, err… standing right behind you”, Jack explains, while Ellie giggles at Gel not getting this herself and needing her boyfriend to point out the obvious.

May turns to leave, but Amber stops her. “Please, stay for dinner. Nobody here suspects you and I’m sure you’re hungry.”

May follows her invitation grudgingly, noticing that not everyone seems to smile at her. Gel still looks doubtful, even if she’s embarrassed, Lex is smirking, and even Bray’s face is suspiciously expressionless, while his eyes look at her, directly and icy, without even avoiding a confrontation. He only gets distracted when Sammy asks him for the bread basket.

“Let’s talk about something else”, Trudy suggests, looking at everyone with that smile on her face. That smile, that always shows how she’s trying to hard, just to have a bit of peace, to avoid anyone having any arguments around her beloved Brady.

“Yes, wasn’t it great of Salene and me to make you all dinner?”, Ellie points out. “Actually, Salene made it, I just cut the bread in slices and set the tables”, she corrects herself, when Jack sets on for a cheeky remark.

“Well, this soup is definitely the greatest thing since sliced bread”, Lex complements Salene and everyone laughs.

“It tastes wonderful, Salene”, Jay agrees, which earnes him a smile from Amber with whom he seems to be on better terms again.

Bray sends the Ex-Techno a challenging look. “Anyone wanna say a prayer?”

“I know one!”, Sammy interjects excitedly, before Jay has the chance to answer. There’s more laughter, mostly because the Mall Rats are relieved that Sammy’s blissful ignorance has saved them from Jay and Bray getting into their toxic-but-polite modes again and trying to make the other one lose their cool. It looks like noone will provoce a fight tonight.

“Isn’t this nice?” There’s a smile on Salene’s face, one that most of her friends haven’t seen in a long, long time. Her eyes are shining, and her cheeks are flushed from the heat over the gas cooker. “All of us together, after such a long time. It’s like a good omen, like it’s only a matter of time until we find the rest of our friends!”

Everyone nods, some exchange smiles, others, like Lex and Ellie, seem lost in thoughts.

May snorts. Really? This is it, that’s what they are so happy about? A couple of friends they’ll probably never see again and that might be dead like Pride and tomato soup?

“Something a problem?”, Bray asks, his voice silky ans harp at the same time. The Mr. Nice Guy, Mr. Perfect tour – Bray, the great leader, the silver-tongued dream of every girl and woman in the city, May thinks bitterly. She never bought it, never saw what Amber, Salene, Trudy, Ebony, Danni were so fussy about. Who does he think he is?

“Sure, we’re all one happy family!”, she blurts out. “Jack and Ellie fight all the time out of sheer sucking love, Salene keeps a gin-collection in a box under her bed, Gel cares more about her mascara than about real people, Lex still thinks his precious Tai San will come back to him and Trudy and Amber switched boyfriends! Great week, really!” She pushes away her soup bowl and leaves the cafeteria towards her room.

Everyone stares after her, awkward glances are being exchanged.

“Salene?” Trudy looks at her friend, a worried look on her face.

“It’s not true!” Salene looks at everyone, tries to laugh it off. “Come on, as if anything she said is true – except for Tai San maybe, and we’ll find her! That box is just the empty bottles I still have; I didn’t get the chance to bring them away!”

Amber puts a hand on her shoulder, ignoring the uncertain faces around her. “We know she’s making this up, noone accuses you. We just need to be there for each other more. You know we’re all here for you. And now, let’s eat, before the rest of the soup gets cold!”

The spoons begin to scratch over the bowl and plates again, and for the rest of the meal, there is silence, only interrupted by Brady’s little giggles here and there. Obviously broken bread crumbs remind her of something funny, even if most of the grown-ups don’t know what it is.


Amber sits down, looking at Bray expectantly. “What did you want to talk about?”

He’s hestitating, she can see it in his eyes. He’s sitting down beside her, avoiding her eyes.

There’s that look, that look telling her he doesn’t want to talk about this and it makes her more than a little nervous. It might be about Jay again. Is he going to request something crazy, like that Jay can’t be around their son anymore? Or is that just some weird fantasy Jay made up in his own jealousy? Does he want to reassure her that May was just talking nonsense, throwing around wild accusations, like so often? Will it be about Bray’s feelings for her, even? Does he want them to give their relationship another shot, for the baby, or for other reasons? A part of her fears a startling confession of love, and another one almost hopes for it, even though she is unsure on how she would respond to that.

“I’m glad we can still talk”, he starts, still hestitant. “And I’m really glad we’re still friends.”

“Me too.” Amber smiles, half-disappointed, half-relieved about this introduction and still in the dark about what it is that he wanted to discuss with her. It now seems that it might be more of a small favour or a minor, daily issue that has to be talked about for the sense of conversation in parenthood or friendship itself.

“I couldn’t do it without you”, Amber continues, since Bray doesn’t seem to feel any hurry for his own revelation. “I couldn’t bear it, if we couldn’t do this together, now that you’re back… as friends”, she adds, because the look on his face is questioning, almost afraid.

“That’s good.” He smiles, encouraged, looking over to the baby bed. “I’m glad, really, it’s just… I hope we can keep it up, even if – well, there’s a chance we might new people, which – you already have and… I don’t want anything to ruin this. i just want you to know there’s nothing that’s more important to me than our son, even if…”

Amber looks at him expectantly. Is this going to be some sort of apology for how he treated Jay? Did he do something she doesn’t know about yet? Will he try to be friends with Jay, too, for that baby’s sake? It seems highly unlikely at the moment, but she can’t think of anything else he would want to discuss with the way their conversation is going.

Bray looks at her, the most apologetic look on his face. “May didn’t lie. I’m seeing someone.”

“Oh.” What else is there to say? She feels like she missed a step while walking down the stairs, that weird sensation in her stomach – and she realizes now how naive her first assumption was. If that is what it feels like, right now, to be replaced in the heart of someone who meant that much to you, why should he want to be friends with Jay – ever?

“Yes?” There it is again, the insecurity, the fear of her rejecting his decision to move on. That look that should have told her right away what was going on.

“I’m just surprised, that’s all. I mean, I knew you were out there, meeting everyone with the rebellion and all going on, I just didn’t think you’d – meet someone. I mean, of course you would, why wouldn’t you – I just didn’t… didn’t think you already had.”

“I know it seems sudden”, Bray answers, choosing his words carefully. “It surprised me too, it just sort of happened, you know?

“Of course.” Amber swallows down her whirl of mixed emotions, places her shaking hands in her lap. “And – who is she? Where did you meet?”

“I didn’t technically meet her”, Bray starts his second confession, stalling time with each sentence. “Or I did, just not now, but a few years ago – we already knew each other.”

Amber nods, still trying to get a hold of her own feelings. She’s not sure anymore, whether she’s sad, disappointed, or anything else. It just feels like one door of opportunity closed for good, like a final seal on their break-up. “What’s her name, do I know her?”

“You do.” Bray doesn’t look at her directly, as if that could buy him more time, as if this was the last thing he wanted to do. Something is wrong, terribly wrong, she can just feel it!

“It’s Trudy. May – May knew, she was eavesdropping when I told Salene.”

The words are like a deafening drumbeat – Trudy. Just like that. She can see his eyes, how he’s looking at her, waiting for an answer, waiting for any reaction at all. When the deafening feeling wears down, she can feel something else, something she really didn’t expect: anger.

“Trudy. Seriously?” Now that she’s started shaking her head, it seems impossible to stop. “I don’t… no – no, you wouldn’t do that. Bray, I know you’re hurt about me being with Jay, you’re angry, I get, okay, but why Trudy? I thought…”

“I’m sorry, I know this must look weird to you – but it just happened”, he tries replacing the bond he just destroyed between them with a physical one by putting one hand on her shoulder. “I was surprised, too, but you can’t control who you have feelings for. You know that, Amber, you know I wouldn’t tell you if it was nothing!”

“Like you didn’t tell me about Danni”, she can hear herself answering before it’s too late, her voice dangerously close to tears. “And Trudy, of all people! Don’t you think she’s been through enough? After she just got her heart broken, after what happened the last time, it’s unbelievable!”

“What do you mean, “the last time”?” Bray seems to have gotten over his apologetic mood pretty fast. His voice is shaking, too, and he seems really perturbed by her reaction. What did he expect, flowers?

“Are you kidding me? The whole Trudy, Salene mess, the way it ended, did you really think it was appropriate to come back for a second shot after that? Look, you have every right to hate me, but please, don’t drag Trudy into this!”

“What!??” He’s taking a step back, looking at her in sheer disbelief.

“She tried to commit suicide, for heaven’s sake, Bray! Don’t you get the effect you have, the way you’re capable of braeking hearts like they’re toys? – Salene’s bulimia, did you think that came out of nowhere? Did you already forget about all that? Because I didn’t! I see it before me, it haunts me, and I’m not even the one who caused it! How could you be so…”, she pauses, breathing heavily. There’s just no words for this!

“Oh, but I am!” Bray looks at her, a strange sense of horror on his face. Does he see now, does he finally see what he’s doing here? “Just answer me one question: Did you ever love me?”

“What!?”

“Well? Did you? By the way you’re talking it doesn’t sound like I ever managed to live up to Amber’s moralistic standards that were required for you to even look at me!”

Amber folds her hand, to be able to hold on to something, feeling her ring, their ring between her fingers. This isn’t happening, this can’t be happening… What happened to Bray that he became like this? “What are you talking about?”

“It was so easy to love you, you know”, he laughs bitterly. “Because to me, you were perfect. No matter what you did, no matter what happened, I would always have loved you. But do you know how hard it was to be loved by you? The entire time we were dating, I felt inferior, because I always wondered how I deserved someone so perfect, so infallible. There was a part of me that always wondered if you felt the same way about me. I guess now I know.”

“That is riddiculous!” Amber throws down the ring, where it bounces off the ground and rolls under the baby’s bed. “Don’t try to change the subject here! How dare you make this about… I did everything for you, I mourned you, I was devastated when you were gone. How dare you say this was nothing to me!”

“I guess now that I have a comparison of what kind of person doesn’t have to live up to perfection, it brings some things into perspective”, Bray tries to defend his argument, but he sounds just bitter. “Be honest: What would you have done if I walked into your life, taking half your friends prisoners and invading the city for some army tribe madness? Would you even have bothered looking at me?”

She doesn’t answer, just feels helpless in all of this – Trudy and Bray… Bray of all people – and Trudy, who used to be so fragile, so desperately in love with Bray, who admitted to her that she had never been so crushed in her entire life, that when she found out he didn’t love her… And now here’s Bray, actually thinking…

“You know what? I’m glad you found Jay”, he suddenly states, a stubborn, almost hateful expression on his face. “I hope you two are real happy together. At least now you’ll know you’re with a cheater, so you can get on his nerves with your trust issues for as long as you want, because I’m done. For good!” He leaves the room without any other words.

Amber blinks furiously, forbidding herself to cry. She bends over her baby’s bed, tries to hide her teary, messed up mood from his frightened little face. “It’s all right, honey, it’ll be alright.”

He doesn’t even cry, when she picks him up, but clings desperately close to her shoulder. She rocks him softly, watching Bray making his way around the fountain and to the stairs, were he meets Trudy. Watches her best friend’s smile fade, as Bray just cuts her off and leaves the building towards the sewers, torn between Trudy’s futural pain and her own, present one.

This is what Bray does. This is what he always does. She guesses that solves the riddle, if people do change, for better or worse.

Written by: Nemesis

I’m looking in on the good life i might be doomed never to find
Without a trust or flaming fields am i too dumb to refine?
Turn me back into the pet that i was when we met
I was happier then with no mind-set

13. The Disappearing Act

Jack views the watch that Bray has given him from all sides with an admiring curiosity. “That’s just… just genius!”, he observes. “Honestly, if I didn’t know, I’d say it’s nothing but a watch!”

“Well, it’s not.” Bray takes “Gabe’s” invention and puts it back on his wrist. “All I wanna know is if there’s a chance it might run out of power anytime soon. I don’t fancy running into the Technos and being helpless, because my watch stopped.”

“Yeah, well… there’s a possibility for that. Hard to say, I mean it runs on the bettery of the watch itself, which is pretty genius, but of course that battery stops at some point and you can’t just put in a new one without the proper tools…”

Bray grimaces.

“Get to the point!”, Lex interrupts Jack. “What we need is a distress call once Bray’s found the Technos, and a location. Now R- Gabe can find the damn thing anywhere in the city over his computer, but we need to know it works!”

“Well it works now”, Jack points out the obvious.

Lex rolls his eyes and exchanges an annoyed look with Bray. “Yes, but for how long?”

“Hard to say, really. Why didn’t you ask R…”, he stopps mid-sentence at a warning look from Lex, while Bray looks up from the watch, his eyes narrowed in suspicion.

“Look, if you don’t find the Technos today or tomorrow, you can still bring it back to me and I’ll put in a new battery, okay? But I’m sort of already busy right now, so unless you don’t expect the watch to stop in the next few hours, would you mind letting me work in quiet?” He gestures towards the door. “Thank you!” He adds, when they finally turn to leave, watching them move towards the corridor to the carpark in relief.

“Jack?”

His head jerks up. His new intruder is Trudy, and she looks worried. As if that’s something new… “Yes?”, he asks her, annoyed about keeping him from work.

“Erm, sorry if I’m disturbing you. I’m moving back upstairs in the furniture store, so Brady can have her own room next to mine. Do you have time to help?”

He puts down his tools in annoyance, gesturing towards all the stored Techno equipment around him, all the things he’s supposed to study and take apart, to see what they can use against Mega. “Do I look like I’ve got time? What is it today, am I wearing some kind of sign on my forehead that says I can do everything at once? I mean, I wouldn’t mind being able to multiply myself right now, Trudy, but I really can’t!”

“Okay, okay, come down!” She looks around. “Do you really think any of this can be useful?”

“Don’t know until I’m done here”, he murmurs, going back to work. Maybe she’ll leave, if he acts like she’s not there in the first place?

“To be completely honest, that’s not what I’m here about. Ellie told me you wouldn’t leave the room” Trudy confesses and Jack looks up in surprise. She’s carrying a cup of coffee and a plate with a sandwich, which she places in front of him. “Here. Am… can I ask you a question?”

Jack hestitates, then takes the sandwich. If she already went through the trouble of fixing him a meal… “Okay.”

Trudy doesn’t seem too eager to talk, though. She watches him chew for a while. “It’s about Bray”, she finally starts. “He hasn’t said anything to you, has he?”

Jack gestures for her to wait until he’s finished chewing and swallows his bite down. “Well, let’s see, he besically said – fix my watch, can I borrow him Ellie for some other work, why am I not already finished with all this, we have to find Mega’s people in the next few minutes, no, it has to be Ellie, since he doesn’t trust Jay, we all don’t need to eat and sleep like him, Lex is the only one who’s doing things fast enough and so on. I’m really trying here, Trudy!”

“I know, and we all appreciate what you do”, Trudy answers quickly and then changes the subject to Bray again. “But did he say where they were going?”

“Liberty. Oh, and before that he’s following up some rumor on Mega, while Lex gets some car. You’ll have to ask them for the details, I’m just here to be yelled at when things don’t go quick enough or he throws another fit about Amber.”

“Well, did he say anything about Amber?”, Trudy asks and there is a panic in her eyes that feels vaguely familiar to Jack, even if he can’t place it. It must be because Trudy panics all the time, he decides.

“No, but they were fighting the day before yesterday, after we all had dinner together, so… go figure.” He shrugs. “I don’t know, I just – they yell some stuff at each other, they stop talking to each other, they’re both spreading their bad mood all over the mall – after a few years you get the routine. I mean, not that I care, it’s probably something with Jay again.” In a way he admires Trudy’s ability to look beyond her own jealousy in order to help Amber and Bray to patch things up – at least that’s what he assumes she’s doing.

“Probably.” Trudy looks down at her hands. Her voice seems strangely shaky and fragile, her smile forced. Girls… “So, do you like the sandwich?”

“Yeah, thanks, it’s great!”

“And he didn’t mention what they were fighting about? Anything?”

“No – wait, you don’t know? Didn’t Amber send you?”

Trudy shakes her head. “No, I just… it’s not important.”

She leaves Jack in a new state of confusion about girls in general. He looks after her for a moment, trying to figure out what she was or wasn’t telling him and then shrugs, taking a sip of coffee.

“Jack, you have to help! It’s an emergancy!”, Gel’s voice interrupts his peaceful lunchbreak. He looks up, forcing himself to not say anything about her weird looking hair. Maybe it’s a new look she’s trying and would start to cry as soon as somebody mocked her about it. “What is it?”

“It’s my hairdryer! It doesn’t work anymore!”

Oh, so that’s why… Jack represses a grin. “Yes, that’s what happens when there’s no more electricity, Gel.”

“But I need it! Look at my hair, it’s a mess! Isn’t there something you can do?”

“No!” Jack puts away his empty plate and takes the coffee cup back to his work place, where he starts sorting the camera-zapper combination from the hotel ruins he’s just taken apart. “And stay away from my batteries, okay? We need them for more important stuff.”

“I know, I know”, Gel answers sulkily and sits down beside him without asking. “Sometimes I wished nobody ever blew up the hotel. I mean, we were happy with electricity and all, and now we have to bottle up water and ration it. I can’t wash my hair like this – let alone style it properly!”

“Well, have you ever tried a simpler hair style?”, Jack interrupts her annoyed, remembering the four hours it cost him to repair the water filter system he and Dal worked out years ago. “I mean, you’re a pretty girl, Gel, you could just wear your hair in a way that doesn’t require all this stuff”, he adds, when she looks like she is close to tears.

“Thanks”, she sobs, putting on a brave face about the danger of… waiting for her hair to dry, or something. “I mean, it’s not like I have a boyfriend or anything yet, so it doesn’t matter, if I’m ugly, since you’re with Ellie, Jay dates Amber, Lex doesn’t care anyway and Bray doesn’t look at me anyway, since I’m just a stupid little girl, just like May said!”

Jack only listens with one ear, while concentrating on his work. Stupid little girl, May – sounds like someone is holding a grudge on Gel. “Don’t listen to anything May says”, he mumbles over his shoulder.

“Easy for you to say!” Gel responds snappish. “You have a girlfriend! Who do I have? Nobody! I don’t know what it is, I mean I’m not that young, am I? At least none of the guys at Liberty thought I was too young for them, so I’m not too sure what Bray’s so fussy about…”

Jack let’s her babble along in the background and bends over the weapon’s mechanism. It looks like it’s basically the same as a regular zapper, but for some reason it seems to be linked to the moving mechanisms of the camera. So what, Mega planned for it to rotate and kill someone, if he typed the order into his computer? Somehow this doesn’t make him feel better about all the time he spend at the hotel. Or about Ellie running in there and upsetting Mega, to get into the pain game for their plan to show he, Jack, was on Mega’s side. They didn’t even consider the danger she was in!

“… and then he said he liked my top, but he didn’t even look at me! All he did was stare at Trudy in her new outfit! Do you think it’s because he likes red or because he’s in love with Trudy now that Amber doesn’t want him anymore? I mean, there are not so many girls around anymore. He can’t trust May and Salene is…”

Jack puts down the camera. He doesn’t know what Bray wants him to with this, but it’s nothing they can use against Mega or any of his men, since it just works when it’s linked to a lot of power; batteries won’t do here. He’d spend his time better going up to check on the water filter system. “Gel, do you want us to have more water?”, he interrupts her.

“Of course I do! Look at my hair, I didn’t even get all of the shampoo out, since Amber…”

“Then come with me. If you help me with the water filter, you can have some extra water for your hair. I won’t even tell Amber.”

“Cool!” Gel jumps up, running in the direction of the bathroom exitedly. “I’ll just go and get my conditioner first!”

Jack rolls his eyes. “Girls!”

The rain is pouring down like madness. In a way it’s soothing, feels like washing away the rest of Techno city and it’s horrible memories of Ram and Mega. Of course this means that most of the city kids don’t feel like seeking Mega right now, but since the security fence and cameras are down, and some very eager protestors have actually cut open the tyres of all Techno trucks and cars that they were able to find.

Amber only looks away from the constant raindrops hammering against the windows, when her son starts to cry in protest. She looks at her hands in confusion, one still holding the rolled-up, dirty diaper, one the baby powder, while little Bray is lying before her bottomless and freezing.

“I’m sorry, honey, mummy’s sorry!” She quickly drops the old diaper in the trash and puts on a new one on him. “Here you go! Shh, come here, stop crying!”

“Is he still teething?” Jay’s voice almost makes her jump. He pats the baby’s head lightly, but doesn’t earn the most positive response.

“No, he’s just … crying. Can you hold him for a minute? I need to see if all the windows upstairs are closed.”

“Sure.” Jay takes the baby, rocking it lightly. Amber sighs. This was so much easier before the teething, or before his dad came back and started confusing the little baby with his almost constant presence – which, in return, now is crying when he isn’t around.

She gives her son a peck on the cheek, kisses Jay’s lips automatically and leaves the room quickly, not sure why she is confused, or why she feels the need to run from her son and boyfriend at every possibility. Or what she is really running from.

Bray looks over his shoulder nervously. It’s not Lex, someone else must be following him. The Rooster boy from last time? Or is it just the Demon Dog who wanted to meet him, so he could show him where he saw the remaining Technos bring a car full of mysterious subjects that are probably computers or some sort of power supplies?

He looks through his binoculars again, out of the window towards the building said Demon Dog has described in their meeting yesterday. Waikowhai Street 23. It looks empty from here, but it’s still suspicious that all the shutters are closed and the front door is boarded up. Sure, that can mean anyone or noone is living there, but it still could…

Okay, there are definitely steps on the door right now, and it can’t be Lex, since Lex doesn’t know where he is, he’s probably already waiting in the car at their meeting point. Bray carefully moves into the darkest spot of the room, behind the floor-length curtains. His heart hammers, while the person comes closer, then there’s the signal noise of a radio or a walkie-talkie. “He’s not here. The building is empty.”

There’s a voice that must be coming from the walkie-talkie now, but Bray can’t understand what it says.

“Yes, Sir. Permission to search the next house, Sir?”

More of the whirring noises, but this time Bray can hear that voice answering is a male one. Mega! It must be Mega giving one of his men orders, they’ve seen him getting into the building, he wasn’t careful enough! Or have they set up cameras around here, too?

The steps move further away. Bray waits for two minutes, then grabs his binoculars and skateboard and leaves the room with quick steps, careful not to be seen through one of the windows. If he can get to Lex quick enough, they can take the car and get help from the Demon Dog’s new head quarters before Mega’s men even figure out he was here!

Amber meets Trudy and Brady on the stairs, carrying a little backpack and a pile of clothing. She puts on her most careful smile, and notices Trudy plastering a smile over her own face in return. It almost hurts physically to be that estranged from her best friend. “Hi, what are you girls doing?”

“We’re moving!” Brady exclaims proudly and shakes a little from the weight of her backpack. Her mother instinctively holds her so she doesn’t fall.

“Yeah, how so?”

“Well, Brady’s getting a little old for living in my bedroom, so I’m moving her things into the old kitchen ware shop and I’m gonna… – Brady, sweetie, wouldn’t it be better if I carried this?”

“No!” Brady protests, clinging on to the balustrade of the stairs and stomping up in protest.

Trudy sighs. “I can’t wait for puberty! What if she’s gonna be like me?”

“Well, you could do worse”, Amber jokes. “Unless she’s pregnant at fourteen, her boyfriend has an identity crisis, forms a streetgang, dies…”

“You know what? Maybe she is too young to get her own room”, Trudy decides, rushing up the stairs after Brady.

Amber follows her into the kitchen ware store. She can see it has been thoroughly cleaned out and some of Brady’s toys are already lined up on the shelves. “Wow, you already got some work done – do you need help?”

“That’d be great! - No, sweetie, that’s not for eating. It just looks like candy, it’s made out of plastic!”

Amber takes a few of the spare sheets Trudy brought along and puts them on the top shelve. “So, how is that gonna work out, anyway? I mean, you’re living downstairs, she’s here – isn’t that gonna be a little complicated?”

“Oh, I’m moving back into the furniture store. I figured with everything getting that crowded downstairs, we might as well make use of all this space, right, Brady?”

Brady takes a break from climbing on her new bed and looks at the grown-ups without a clue what they were talking about. She doesn’t listen all the time, anyway. They use all those words and expressions she doesn’t know and talk in serious voices way too often. It’s just not her world. Her mum pats her shoulder and tells her not to jump on the bed. Brady considers that for a moment and then, as Amber and Trudy start talking again, wonders if her mum will know whether or not she’s jumping on the bed, once she’s not in the same room anymore. Maybe, if she’s really quiet…

“Listen, Trudy… it’s – sort of complicated to say – I – have – have you seen Bray?”

Trudy smiles broader, but there’s almost a king of desperation in her eyes. “No. Have you?”

“No.” Amber sits onto the bed and puts her arm around Brady. “You’d think he changed, now that he has a son. But he still seems to be running from every little problem, like it’s in his nature or something.” She smiles, when Brady pats her arm encouragingly, mouthing the word ‘sad’. “Yes, Brady, I’m sad. I thought I had figured out your uncle a long time. I thought he had found what he was looking for, that he’s found a reason to stop leaving.”

“Maybe he’s found it and lost it again”, Trudy responds, and for some reason she seems close to tears.

Amber sighs. “Yeah, maybe.” She gets back up, shaking her head furiously. “You know what, I’ve had enough of his drama! It’s unbelievable! What does he think having a kid is like? Does he think he can run off the first time it gets tough, like he did with Brady?”

“That’s not fair!”, Trudy protests, while Brady stops climbing down to the floor for a moment, confused that an upset grown-up she likes is yelling her name. “He had a hundred possibilities to leave me and Brady, and he never did!”

Amber swallows down the questions that swim through her mind. Bray and Trudy, all those years ago, Bray and Trudy now… “Yeah, but this is different, Trudy. This is his own kid! He can’t wandering off at every possibility, just because it suits him right now! He has to be there!”

Trudy sits down with her, while Brady starts decorating the chequered floor tiles with her favourite stuffed animals. “Look, I know you and Bray don’t get along right now. I don’t know why, but he’s not talking to me, either. I saw him leaving with Lex, though, so they might still be in Liberty, at the tribe leader’s rallying. That’s today – or it was yesterday, I’m not sure.”

Amber shrugs. “He could have mentioned he was going there. After all, I’m the leader here!”

“Well, do you wanna go to Liberty?”, Trudy asks her, carefully, since that is probably not what Amber is really upset about.

“No! I wanna be informed, that’s all. And I’d like to know where the father of my son is, if he’s likely to get killed every minute, the way he’s acting! Is that too much to ask?” She can feel her eyes burning, blinks furiously.

“It’s okay!” Trudy hugs her friend closer. “You’re allowed to be worried. Noone expects you to be perfect!”

Amber shifts away from Trudy, tries to shake of the strange, overpowering anger in herself. “I don’t need your permission to worry about Bray!”

“Of course you don’t!”, Trudy answers hastily, almost in panic, and there is this apologizing, guilty look on her face again. “Anyway, why would I… I just thought, Jay was giving you trouble because of this, that’s all!”

Amber sits back, her head’s starting to hurt with all the information everyone around her seems to be withholding. First Bray’s confessing feelings he may or may not have for her best friend, then Salene pretends to have stopped drinking, Bray’s not letting anyone know anything at all and now she feels guilty wanting to ask Trudy what has been going on between her and Bray, guilty about being jealous on the girl whose heart she just broke a few weeks ago, and yet she can’t shake off her anger about the possibility of Trudy starting yet another relationship with a man she, Amber, has confusing and overwhelming feelings that might be love for, out of her own loneliness. Or for whatever other reasons, maybe just for the memory of desperately clinging onto Bray all those years ago, in some sort of de-ja vue of what she used to feel for him.

“Jay, why? Did he say anything to you?” The picture of catching Trudy and Jay in bed together, about finding out about their betrayal in the most painful way possible, swims in front of her eyes again. And yet, this thing Bray might feel or think he feels for Trudy is way more painful. Because it makes her feel that she doesn’t just lose the man she loved for so long to her best friend, it also makes her feel left alone to raise their baby, yet again.

“No.” Trudy avoids her eyes. “He just helped me and Ellie move the furniture for Brady. We… we don’t really talk, lately. It’s just too fresh. I mean, I get that he tries to go back to being friends just like that, it’s – it’s just Jay, you know! But it’s not that easy to just forgive and forget.”

Amber nods. This does confirm some of her theories of whatever Bray and Trudy are trying to be or to become – Trudy tries to numb her feelings for Jay, tries to forget about being second choice for him, while Bray does… is it the same? She decides to get out of that way of thinking, since she’s dangerously close to it’s-just-their-revenge territory again, when she doesn’t even know if something actually happened between Bray and Trudy.

“Trudy – can I ask you something? You’re not still angry at me and Jay, are you?”

“I think I’ll manage”, Trudy answers curtly, but she doesn’t seem too upset.

Amber swallows, desperately trying to find the right words. “Look, I’m saying this, because you’re my best friend and I don’t want you to get hurt anymore than Jay and I already did…”

Trudy has gone back to put things in shelves, she doesn’t even look up. “And?”

Amber looks at her friend’s face closely. “If there’s anything you want to tell me…” She stops again. “Be careful about who deserves your heart. That’s all I’m saying.” She gets up quickly, before Trudy can ask anymore questions and leaves the room, passing Sammy, who brings in a carton with picture books and pillows. Whatever she wants to say to Trudy, it has to wait this time – until she is in control of her feelings, or at least in enough control to talk about this within reason. Their friendship is shaken enough.

Lex’ fingers drum against the car’s steering wheel. Bray should have been back twenty two minutes ago. Sure, maybe he’s found something. Or maybe he’s caught his own reflection in the mirror, or is too busy brooding about Amber and Jay to remember that they’re on a time limit here.

It’s not that Lex can’t understand Bray there, trying to work overtime to get over his woman with a guy he considers the enemy, even if he himself doesn’t mind Jay much. But he’s on Bray’s side, he can remember what it felt like just seeing Tai San holding the Guardian’s hand and he knows he would feel horrible, if she hooked up with some Techno. But the thing is, if Bray can’t concentrate on what’s at stake here 24/7, he shouldn’t be in charge. Even if it is fun accompanying him to mess with Ebony’s mind and even if this means that he, Lex, is being treated as a second leader of the resistance by all of Bray’s old fans from the Chosen-rebellion days.

Lex looks into his rearview mirror when he sees a movement in it, but noone’s there. He sighs, leaning back, when something catches his eye. It’s a piece of folded paper, a lined one, like the one Bray read some information from yesterday.

He leans over and picks it up from the floor. There is information inside. Lex can make out some of the letters and the number 23, with the letter ‘A’ behind it. Must be one of those appartment houses on the very long streets, like in that big residential area that begins a few blocks from here. The word before it is something he’s seen before, ‘St.’, so it must actually be the street name. Lex holds the paper closer to his face. There are letters he knows, but the word is nothing he can make out. Wai… Wei… Vi – no. He curses, crumpling the paper and throwing it into the empty passenger seat. Screw it! If Bray won’t tell him where he goes, he can’t expect him to come and save his sorry ass, even if he’s as careless as to lose his information like that. That idiot knows he can’t read! What does he expect, some kind of miracle?

Bray retreats into the entrance of a building, waits in the shadow of the canopy for thirty seconds. If someone is following him, he could see them over the mailboxes from where he stands right now. It’s strange, the street seems empty, but there’s still that feeling that someone is following him and he doesn’t want to lead them to Lex.

He waits for another thirty seconds, then gets back on his skateboard, pushes off with one foor until it runs fast enough, letting it roll down the street. Right now he would prefer a motor bike, even if the noise could set the Technos off. Every minute could count!

He drives for five blocks, then takes another break, before he’ll turn into a side street where Lex is waiting. He presses himself behind another set of mailboxes, feeling slightly paranoid about being so careful when time is running out and he’s already late… until he hears someone screaming.

“Help!”

He presses his ear to the entrance door of the buiding. It’s definitely coming from the inside.

“Help me! Doesn’t anyone here me?! HELP!!”

Bray freezes, recognizing Salene’s voice. Shouldn’t she be back at the Mall? He tries to think as quick as possible, when the door he was leaning against gives in against his weight. He stumbles into the dark, empty corridor, leaving his skateboard behind. Did they catch Salene? And if yes, would it be better to get help first, or to see where they’re keeping her first? He sneaks further down the corridor towards the sound of his friend’s desperate voice, when he notices a quick movement behind him.

He turns around in horror, noticing that he must have walked into a trap. It happens so fast, he can’t even see the red laser power rushing towards him. He is unconscious, before his body hits the floor.

Written by: Nemesis

Conversation’s not me at all // Could it be…you feel for me?
You’ll never know me at all… I’m standing across from you

Truth be told, my problem’s old
You mean the world to me, but you’ll never know
You could be cruel to me // Why risk the way I see you

14. Mockingbird

The Techno boy shivers, when his leader sends him a testing look. Yes, Mega already acknowledged the fact that he went out of his way to find and catch Bray. Yes, the ghettoblaster with the old tape from Salene’s kidnap was a genius idea, he knows that. Mega knows that. It’s just a question of good luck now, whether he will have managed to restore his good reputation in Mega’s eyes.

“That was a very risky idea, Stats”, Mega finally states. He looks back from the one-way mirror of the little police station, through which they can see Bray, but he couldn’t see them, even if he were conscious.

“I know, Sir”, Stats answers, his voice shaking in anticipation.

“But you went out of your way to prove your loyalty lies with me now, even if it was a amateuric and highly dangerous approach.” Mega sighs. “The main factor is, it worked. Those Virts… always so naive. Always out to fall for the good old damsel in distress trick.” He watches Bray closely, as he shifts and his eyelids flutter slightly. “Which power level did you use on him?”

“A four, Sir.”

“Good… then he should be up in a few hours. Get me some Aspirin, he’ll need it. I need his full attention, if I want useful information”, he adds due to Stats questioning look. “We’ll make this quick and painless – unless he doesn’t cooperate. Then it’s time for plan B.”

“Realitiy Space, Sir?” Wizard asks eagerly, throwing his best friend Stats a look. Why should he get all the credit? They’ve both worked hard to redeem themselves in Mega’s eyes, they both came up with this plan together. All he wants is his old Techno life back. Without people pretending he’s dead, while he works his ass off to get back in the game. Mega must know that he isn’t just a follower of Stats ideas!

“No, that is plan C. I don’t want to waste any unnecessary energy on this.” He looks up from Bray’s limp figure to his associates. “Don’t act so surprised. I always have a plan C.”

Lex almost runs into Ruby, when he storms into the new meeting place. She’s carrying a picnic basket, and is smiling for some reason. He assumes it has something to do with the fight over Slade she and Ebony are having. Some girls just don’t get it when they don’t have a shot!

“Hey, watch out!” She stumbles backwards, almost drops the basket. “It’s not that dark yet. Don’t you have eyes?”

“No time, babe”, Lex calls over his shoulder. “Have you seen Slade?”

“I’m right here”, his friend answers, stepping out of a corner of the room, holding a delicious looking muffin. Ebony is right behind him, without a muffin and looking rather sulky. “What’s happened? Where’s Martin?”

Lex feels like a carpet is being pulled away under his feet. That was his last, desperate hope: “What, he’s not here?”

“Does it look like he’s here?”, Ebony snaps at him. Whatever Ruby did now must have really pissed her off.

“No… damn it!” Lex feels like screaming, like hitting a wall. “Did he at least send a signal?”

“I knew it!” Ebony looks around, a triumphing look on her face. “He screwed up, didn’t he?”

“I… I couldn’t find that place”, Lex answers very fast, avoiding Slade’s face and tossing the piece of paper into Ebony’s hand, hoping she won’t channel her anger on him and tell Slade he can’t read. “I drove around, but I didn’t know where to look for it, it’s like a maze out there!”

“Waikowhai Street 23 A?” Ebony looks confused. Apparently she’s not up to the newest developments. “Where did you get that?”

“Bray dropped it. That’s where he went, the leader of the Demon Dogs gave this to him after the last meeting. It’s where they saw those Techno cars last.”

Ebony balls her fists. “And he went there alone? What, is he totally insane now?”

Lex smirks at her. “I knew you’d be worried.”

“What are we talking about?”, Slade butts back in. “In which sector is this building and why did Martin go there alone?”

“That would be very risky, if he was on our side”, Ebony agrees thoughtfully, but Lex can see the hidden smile in her eyes. She’s loving this: Bray out of the way, information on Mega and Slade getting suspicous against her ex.

“Just get lost, Ebony!”, he bellows at her. “He didn’t go into the real building, he took binoculars. They must have had guards or cameras or something.”

“They’ve been following him the whole time”, Slade suddenly says out loud what they both feared. “That Roosters kid must have been a Techno spy, he told the truth. The kid could have made pictures of him, or given Mega a description.”

Ram has stepped closer, but for some reason he doesn’t seem too worried.

“How much could they know?” Slade looks at Lex, but the real question is obvious: Could Bray sell them out?

“He won’t talk. He hates the Technos more than anybody!”, Lex feels the need to defend his old friend, but there is a tiny bit of doubt in the back of his head. What if they threaten his kid? Or his niece? Or some random other person? Loverboy can’t see people suffer, he could snap like a twig as soon as they brought in a crying girl!

“Faith in your allies is good, it’s honorable”, Ram speaks up, a relaxed smile on his face. “But control is better. Allow me!” He gestures towards his computer equipment on a table nearby. “I took the liberty to build in a nice little thing called microphone. With a little time and one of those delicious looking muffins I could track your friend… Martin down for you.”

“That is, if he’s pressed the distress call button”, Ebony disagrees, while Slade hands Ram his blueberry muffin. “What, if he doesn’t want to be found?”

“What if he can’t press it”, Lex decides to ignore her and talks to Ram instead. “He could be unconscious, or tied up – he could even be dead by now!”

Ram tips his temple, initiating what might become another “I’m so effing brilliant” speech. “You underestimate me, Lexy. Do you really think, I just trust anyone who comes along? No, it just needs my computer a bit longer to find our dear friend, if I have to do it without his cooperation.” He takes a bite from his muffin. “Excuisite. Tell Ruby I’ll take another few of those.”

“Mega wouldn’t kill him”, Slade declares with a strange certainity. “He’ll want to know who we are, where we are. He won’t risk his only witnesses life before he has any bit of information he can get.”

“Then why aren’t you tracking him down already?”, Ebony bellows at Ram. “What are you waiting for, better weather?”

Trudy doesn’t even react to her knock. Amber tries it again, then decides to go in either way. She needs to finally talk openly to Trudy, and it needs to be now. There’s no point in waiting for more people to be hurt.

“Trudy, are you… are you going somewhere?”

Trudy looks up from the backpack she’s stuffing with water bottles. She’s already wearing her coat and street shoes, and she didn’t seem to plan on waiting to tell someone about leaving the Mall.

“Where are you going? And what’s with the backpack?”

“Jack just got a message. They lost track of Bray, something went wrong.”

Amber can feel a pinch of fear and confusion. “And where you planning on telling me this?”, she answers, unable to hide the anger in her voice.

“I thought you already knew”, Trudy answers, putting the backpack on. Amber can sense that this isn’t true; there must be a reason why Trudy is avoiding looking her into the eyes.

“Trudy, wait a minute! What happened? Where are you going?”

“Sector 2; Jack already left.” Trudy passes by her, but Amber manages to hold her.

“Who will look after Brady?”

“Salene. Now will you let me go?”

“Yeah, but why are you going? What is there you can do?” Amber fears the answer won’t be anything she would want to hear.

“I don’t know yet.” Trudy seems on the edge of losing her nerves. “I don’t know, okay? All I know is that he’s out there and he could not come back and … and he hasn’t explained why he won’t talk to me yet and I need to know!”

“Alright.” Amber tries to make sense of all this non-information, slowly rubbing Trudy’s shoulder. She knows she can’t keep her friend her, not if she’s in panic about someone she… loves? The thought hurts, but maybe this is the time to find out. To be there for Trudy, to see if she can save their friendship by supporting her now. “I’m coming with you.”

“What?” Trudy looks up, close to tears. She seems confused, hurt, but almost grateful.

“The father of my baby could be in danger, and you’re clearly not yourself right now. You shouldn’t go alone. Besides, it’s too dangerous to be out there alone. Let me just get my jacket, alright?”

Trudy nods, biting her lip nervously. She looks after Amber going down the stairs, disappearing into her room. Counts the seconds. Anything could happed to Bray any minute now and she’d never know… He’d never come back – and then what? What about his son? What about her? She can’t remember being this worried since Brady was taken from her.

Her feet wal down the stairs almost automatically. She doesn’t even hear Amber and Jay’s voices getting louder, there’s just doubt and fear and confusion around her, and it’s filling up her head. Do Amber and Bray still love each other? Does she love him, or is it just a memory that she’s clinging to? Does it really matter? She’s known Bray for so many years, and yet she feels like she never really understood him and his motivations. Ebony, Amber, Danni, Brady, Martin, Zoot, her. What do they mean to him? What does he mean to her, Trudy?

“This is much too risky.” Jay follows Amber out of her room. “Trudy, tell her it’s insanity!”

“Jay, don’t tell me what to do!” Amber closes her coat buttons and steps past her boyfriend with an almost furious determination. He grabs her arm.

“Amber, listen to me: We don’t know whether Bray is in danger or not! And besides, he wouldn’t want you or Trudy to risk your life searching for him!” He ignores Amber’s flaring nostrils and the anger in her eyes. “Think about your son, think about Brady! Aren’t they more important?”

“I’m going to tell you what’s important here, Jay!”, Amber yells back at him. “That you get your petty jealousy under control and let me make sure my son still has a father tomorrow. We need Bray, his son needs him and so does his niece. And if you can’t trust me, maybe you should keep in mind that I’m not the person who doesn’t know what she wants – or who. Maybe you should take a look in the mirror and think about that for a moment! Come,Trudy!”

Trudy follows Amber silently through the car park. It’s not that it doesn’t feel good to hear Amber yell at Jay, but somehow it makes her even more disappointed in starting their relationship behind her back. If it can’t last longer than a few weeks, why did they do this to her? Jay was happy with her, she was sure of what they had together. It was far from the confusion she has now about a love that used to go so deep back then, that she would have done anything, anything in the world for it. And she still doesn’t know if Bray feels remotely the same.

“Shouldn’t we try and get a car or something?”, Trudy interferes with Amber’s stubborn strut.

“They’re all damaged from Techno-haters”, Amber replies, still angry. “Why aren’t these people more cooperative? Why don’t they listen, instead of lashing out uncontrollably? Sometimes I think we’re surrounded by brainless idiots, Trudy!”

Trudy looks at her friend in surprise. “Are you sure you’re talking about the other tribes?”

“Among other things”, Amber answers curtly and starts to walk faster. The first raindrops begin to fall again. “Great! Just great!”

“Hold on, I’ve packed an umbrella.” Trudy begins to roam around in her backback and finally finds what she has been looking for. She opens the umbrella and makes sure Amber is underneath it, too. “If you think about it, this is even better!”

“Why?” Amber looks at her and for a moment they’re both quiet and insecure from all the uncovered topics they still need to discuss, all the unspoken apologies.

“The Guardian always used to say, fog, rain and the dark of the night will work in our favour”, Trudy answers quietly, while they walk on, both trying to stay under the small black umbrella. Somehow it feels good to have Amber, the only person she could ever talk to about these things, without feeling judged. “He said they won’t see us coming. No matter how many spies they keep out, if they can’t see us, we’re not there.”

“Smart psycho”, Amber murmurs, but can’t hide a smile. She hooks her arm around Trudy’s.

“The smartest ones are always the most dangerous ones”, Trudy agrees, glad they can at least talk about something. Anything.

“Then I guess we should watch out for Jack, once we’ve beat Mega”, Amber jokes lightly.

“I think Ram is a more likely danger”, Trudy answers laughing, trying to forget her sorrow for a few minutes. At least until they are in Sector 1. Maybe they’ll meet Bray there, maybe it was just false alarm from Lex.

“It’ll all be alright, Trudy.” Amber squeezes her friends arm. “It has to be.”

“So…” Mega enters the room quite cheery for someone who’s missing his right hand. The burned side of his face still looks fleshy and swollen, but his expression is as calm and controlled as always. “The famous Bray! I have to say, I always wanted to meet you.”

“No, you didn’t”, Bray interrupts him, a small, mocking smile on his lips. If he’s still suffering from a headache, he’s not letting it show. “You had the opprtunity, you had the resources for months and you did everything, from shipping me from workcamp to workcamp, to faking my death to keep people from finding me.”

Mega’s face is cold and expressionless at the accusations. It’s not like Bray impresses him that much, but he doesn’t care about all those heart-warming Mall Rat stories, either.

“I had you flown in”, he confirms. “If it wasn’t for me, you would have never seen this city again.”

The smile still hasn’t quite left Bray’s face. “And that was a very, very bad mistake of you.”

“Apparently not, since you’re here and I have … a lot of possibilities to make you talk. According to my sources, you’re the center of the rebellion, their leader if you want. That sounds like someone with a lot of knowledge. Knowledge I might be interested in.”

“I don’t believe in leaders”, Bray responds without blinking. “And as for an organized rebellion, I haven’t heard of one. Sorry to disappoint you.”

“Don’t be foolish.” Mega sits down, placing one hand and one bandaged knuckle on the table. “I have so much information on you, it could fill ten hard disks. I know about your weaknesses, your motivations and fears – I know everything. It was very simple; one look in your personal history, and I had everything I needed. I flew you in, left your door badly locked, waited for you to join the resistance and now… you’re going to tell me everything you know.” He smiles at Bray, tired but satisfied. The painkillers have been exhausting him, and he has to ignore the pain, since he had to dial them down. It was that or being in a state of constant dizziness and a lack of concentration. Not a very hard choice to make.

Bray doesn’t even blink, or bother to look at him. But there is an unexpected smile, playing around his lips. As if he’s pleased, as if this situation amuses him. “You overlooked something.”

“And what would that be?”

“In my so-called personal history. You overlooked my family history.”

Mega avoids to smile. What a sad, weak little bluff! “Zoot, I assume.”

“He was my younger brother, what does that tell you?” Bray pauses dramatically. “It should tell you something that I had an out-of-control sociopath in the family. It never did, to other people, but you aren’t that easy to fool, are you, Mega? You would never ignore such a simple clue to who I really am. You’ve seen the way they used to trust me, like they used to trust you. They’re like lemmings. And it doesn’t even matter who it is. Locos, Mosquitoes, Techno Generals, Chosen… Everyone can walk in and tell them he’s one of the good guys now and wants to build a “peaceful and progressive future” with them, where rainbows sparkle and milk and honey runs through our water pipes.”

Mega looks back at his prisoner, his face unmoved. “That’s quite a tough statement from someone who used to be a Mall Rat for such a long time, their leader, even.”

“Tough words?” Bray laughs, a joyless expression on his face. “You should hear Ebony talking! I joined the Mall Rats, because I needed a place to stay, where I could get food, leave Trudy and contact Zoot. It’s not that hard to impress a bunch of scared kids and some girls enough to let me stay. I could do whatever I wanted, they still saw me as their leader.”

“Which you liked, I suppose.” Mega isn’t sure if he should be impressed by Bray’s ability to lie or to scam the Mall Rats. Something tells him he’s not being honest, but he has no proof for it, he can’t quite put his finger on what’s bothering him of Bray’s self-presentation. “That they all believed you for such a long time amazes me… even Amber?”

“See, there’s your first mistake.” Bray shakes his head, looking at him with a challenging expression. “I’m nothing like Amber. I blew up your precious hotel, and don’t even think I was aming for your computers, or one of your hands, I did it to kill you. All of you. So, you see you can’t vaguely threaten to hurt someone I might or might not care about. It won’t work on me.”

Mega smiles at him. That is his first mistake. Now he’s got him. “I could, actually. Getting you in here required a lot of effort. Getting your son will be a lot easier.”

“That’s an interesting idea.” Bray shrugs, leaning back in his chair and biting his lip to not cry out in pain. The fall after he was zapped left quite a few bruises. “But as far as I know, I don’t have any children. I left Amber when she was giving birth, so I don’t know whether my son or daughter has ever even survived. I don’t even know about Amber, did she ever come back to the city?”

“She did. She brought your son, your niece and her mother, Trudy, with her. I could have them all here withing hours. Though it would be easier if you just decided to talk.”

“I see. And how exactly would I know, that you’re not just letting me see two random babies? Because I don’t recall ever meeting mine and about Brady – you’re familiar with the story about Trudy bringing home a male substitute from the Chosen? Because I couldn’t tell the difference then and I don’t think I could now.”

Mega swallows, ignoring the blazing, recursive pain in his wounded arm and hand. What if he was wrong, what if Bray isn’t lying at all? He’d have nothing, they would have to return to the torture method and if they actually managed to break Bray, he could tell them anything to stop. There was a reason Mega despised torture as an investigation method and that was the mostly incorrect results it produced. Confessions out of pain, just to make the pain stop, just to satisfy the investigator, tell them what they want to hear… He’ll give it one last try, he decides: “So, it would be okay with you, if we had our hands on two random infants, because you don’t have any prove that they’re related to you? Because we could in fact do that.”

Bray looks at him with an almost concerned look. For a moment he seems to change his mind. “You really shouldn’t have your hands on kids, that’s just wrong. Did you ever see anyone about that?”

“Okay.” Mega supresses an angry smile. “Okay, maybe this will convince you.” He opens the laptop he brought, starts a video file and presses ‘play’. A little blonde girl is tapping through a fenced in piece of grass, surrounded by other prisoners. Ecos, city kids. The tape is a little older, back from Brady’s short imprisonment when Ram was still in power, but if Bray fell for Salene’s cry for help. He fitted the heroic, but slightly naive picture his friends painted of him up until he opened his mouth and started talking, and Mega for one is still not convinced of his words.

Computer-Brady starts to cry on the desctop, clinging her little hands into her teddy bear’s soft fake-fur. “Mommy?”

Bray looks at her, a concentrated look on his face. He leans in closer to the desktop, as if he’s looking for something in specific “And that’s supposed to be Brady? I’m sorry, but I’ve never seen this girl in my live. Of course, she could still be Brady, I haven’t seen her in so long… I think she barely could walk when I was taken.” He gives Mega a suspicious look. “You’re not really a pedophile, are you? She looks really disturbed.”

Mega decides to play his last joker: “Not as much as her mother might be right now. Your current girlfriend, if I’m not mistaken.”

Bray looks back at the desktop. And there’s the smile again, that smile that’s too calm and challenging for someone in his situation. “I understand.”

“Do you?”

“Sure. This here is “Brady””, he makes an ironic hand gesture towards the crying little girl on the video, “and you’re referring to Trudy, in the assumption that it will wipe the smile from my face and I will cave within seconds, begging you not to hurt my loved ones. - Since this is all an act and you’re seeing right through it”, he adds, a mocking look on his face.

“Your loved ones…” Mega smiles to himself. “Interesting way to put it.”

Bray throws him an annoyed look. “Just give it up, scarface. I don’t have a girlfriend, or a wife, or any siblings that are alive. And you’re closest guess is Trudy, really? Do you think my whole world comes crashing down, just because you mention a girl I know from high school?”

“My sources tell me, that’s not exactly true.” Mega informs him quietly, even though for the first time in a long while he feels like screaming, just screaming into this pretty face that doesn’t have enough scars for his taste. Unlike him… “We have photos…”

“So what?” Bray snaps at him. “Yes, I’m seeing a girl who’s just been dumped. She’s on the rebound, she’s always been the most desperate girl around, she had a soft spot for me since high school and I didn’t have sex in months. Satisfied?”

“Not quite.” Mega sinks back in his chair, a feeling of peace and calmness coming over him. He knew sooner or later Bray would contradict himself, it was just a question of time. “You said you haven’t seen your own child, or Brady in months. You said you didn’t even know Amber was back in town and you were apparently unaware of any rebellion going on in the city. How can all of that be, when you’re with Amber’s best friend?”

Bray’s quiet for a moment, very quiet. It’s when he looks up that Mega notices he still won’t give up what he’s doing these past weeks, no matter what he’s being told. “There is no rebellion in this city, because there is no more oppression. The security fences are down, there is no more camera supervision, no more curfew. It’s anarchy down there. You’re not their enemy, you’re just a memory. People think you’re dead. And as for the Mall Rats”, he shrugs casually. “Tell me one good reason why I should go back there. From what I’ve heard they nowadays take every piece of trash in who comes through the front door. And as for Trudy, I met her after the explosion. She didn’t have a kid with her and she didn’t mention Amber.”

He smiles at Mega, almost laughs in his face. “Something must have come up during their all so holy friendship. It might have been Trudy’s time as a Chosen, where she sold out the whole city after Amber spent a year in the woods, or the fact that they’ve been really, really close before we travelled to Eagle Mountain. Best friends for one week, enemies the other. So tell me, why would I try and find Amber over Trudy?”

Trudy shakes the water out of her umbrella before she and Amber enter the old ware house. It’s strangely silent. People turn their heads as they walk in, look at them in shock.

Slade is the only one who doesn’t even look at them. He’s glowering at Ebony who seems caught between anger, fascination and amusement of something on the computer she and Ram are bending over. Lex is avoiding Amber’s eyes as hard as he can.

“Seems this just got interesting”, Ebony welcomes them, her voice as smooth as silk.

Written by: Nemesis

I’m coming up only to hold you under,
I’m coming up only to show you wrong
And to know you is hard; we wonder -
To know you all wrong; we warn.

Really too late to call, So we wait for morning to wake you;
That’s all we got
And to know me as hardly golden;
To the outside: the dead leaves, they’re on the lawn
For they don’t have trees to hang their own.

15. What Bray did

“I… I don’t believe it!” Amber puts one hand over her eyes, as if that could erase the memory of hearing Ram’s tape. She avoids Trudy’s pleading look, the glee on Ebony’s face, all the awkward stares from people she doesn’t know… It’s just too much to deal with right now. “This is a lie… how do we even know that’s Bray and not some reality space scheme you’ve created!”

“Bray?”, Ram mimics her voice. “I thought it was Martin?”

“What would make you think that?”, Jack interjects, bringing even more confusion into the conversation. “That was… his brother’s name, right?”

Slade turns to Ebony, trying to make sense of this mass of accusations and contradictions. “Did you know about this?”

She steals a glance at Amber attacking Ram with new accusations, Trudy trying to calm her friend down while fighting her own pain, Lex being busy outside with chatting up Ruby… “Yes”, she admits quietly. “But I didn’t have a choice, he was blackmailing me!”, she quickly adds. “I tried to give you hints, I hoped you’d figure it out… I just couldn’t… he had me, okay? You’ve heard what he’s like, there was nothing I could do!”

Slade tries to process these news, but it all leads to one big question: “What did he have on you?”

“Can we talk about this another time?” Ebony gives Slade her most beautiful, vulnerable victim-of-the-real-bad-guy smile and uses her most pleading voice. Damsel in distress, that will work for now. It has to!

“Amber, I’m sorry, I didn’t want you to find out like this…” Trudy does her best to avoid breaking into tears. “I just… I didn’t know how – everything happened so fast…”

“So it’s true? He – he- … no! He can’t have done all this! Bray would never… there were people in there and… you – you’ve heard him, didn’t you? That’s not him!” She clings on to this hope with all the energy she has left in her. Yes, Bray foolishly used Trudy to get over her, but would he really do it so cold-heartedly, so calculating?

“Well, it doesn’t look good for his little fanclub, does it?”, Ebony raises her voice, when she is sure Slade is outside talking to Lex and can’t hear her. “But at least Trudy should be used to getting used as a leisure activity until Amber wants a man, am I right? If you ask me, Bray’s set us all up. And the way he’s talking to Mega, it’s just a matter of time until he sells us all out!”

“No!” Trudy looks around in disbelief. “He hasn’t told Mega anything true about us, he’s lying to him, to buy time! We HAVE to get him out of there, before it’s too late! What if they’re torturing him, what if Mega kills him?” She turns to her best friend. “Amber, you have to help me convince them! Bray is on our side, I just know it!”

“I … I’m not sure anymore, Trudy.” Amber sinks on a nearby chair, staring into empty space, her voice shaking. “I really don’t know what to believe anymore!”

“Better late than never”, Ebony comments her change of mind, while Trudy just stands in the middle of all this, helpless and fighting her own, little piece of doubt. “I could have told you a lot sooner what he’s really like! But you barely ever listen to me, Amber. It’s a shame, it really is.”

“Oh, what?”, Trudy yells at her. “You have a nerve to talk about your lies to Amber, you’ve caused enough damage with that already and you know it! What should we listen to, now? Does he have another imaginary baby with you? Or genuine feelings for you? Like you told Ram, he was engaged to you? Yes, I know about that! Tell me one word of his conversation with Mega that was true!”

Ebony smiles, letting the rising aggression sink in, savouring it. Aggression that will turn against Bray, once he gets out of there, she will make sure of that. “Look, don’t turn on me, alright? What about the explosion of the hotel? He admitted to that! And why are you even defending him? He used you, why can’t you see that?”

“No… no, Bray wouldn’t blow up a house with people in it!”, Amber interferes, slowly coming out of her trance.

“He wouldn’t! Trudy and Brady were in there…”, Jack chimes in, shocked at the idea of the little girl being trapped under bricks and computer parts, or worse…

“That part is true, actually”, Trudy interrupts her quietly, and it’s so silent you could hear a needle fall. “He didn’t know Brady and I were there. He… he wanted to make sure the Technos couldn’t follow him and bring him away again – he risked his own life to get Brady and me out of there! Amber, I know it doesn’t look good, but I also know that he still cares!”

“Why are you even defending him?”, Ebony interrupts Amber’s hestitant response. “He used you for sex – or is that something you’re so used to that is doesn’t bother you anymore?”

“He didn’t”, Trudy responds, her voice shaking and her cheeks burning brightly from having her private life exposed like this. She can see Lex in the background, a look on his face that almost reminds her of pity, Amber and Jack’s sympathy, can see Ram grinning and Ebony enjoying all the drama and destruction she’s causing… until it just becomes too much. “Oh, shut up, Ebony! We both know you’re talking of your own past with Bray here, because whatever you had in your two-week-High-School fling that you obviously didn’t get over in the last years, it can’t have been much more than that! And for your information, I did not sleep with Bray, so there’s hardly a chance of me being his random sex kitten, he’s just saying that to keep Mega away from me! Or why do you think he’s pretending he doesn’t care about his son and doesn’t even know what Brady looks like? He’s protecting them, he’s trying to protect all of us, by telling Mega the most riddiculous lies he can come up with! So why don’t we stop wasting time and get him out of there, before it’s too late?” She looks at Amber, who is still coping with the fact that the peaceful, loving Bray she knew has blown up a building and seems to be more skilled at lying than any of them could have known. “Amber? Lex?”

“Yes”, Lex says quickly. He tries to repress the thought that Bray might actually be using Trudy, the girl that defends him so passionately, beyond all doubt. In a way, he feels angry at Bray for… if that was what he was doing, he feels responsible to defend Trudy’s honour in a way that surprises himself. But she’s right with the fact that Bray does love his kid more than anything, and would’t give up Brady’s safety for his life - probably. But there is something she is not considering and that is the kind of torture the Technos are capable of. Everyone has a breaking point, including Bray. They have to act fast, if they want to keep Mega from that, not to speak keep him from torturing one of their friends.

He can’t bring himself to care much for the blown-up hotel. He suspected it might have been Bray all along, and kudos if it was him – it brought them a big step closer to liberty, by setting the Technos back in time and numbers. Trudy and the kid got out in time, so everything’s okay, right? A glance at Amber shows him that everything might not be alright for Bray, even if he makes it out of there alive. But that’s not his problem.

“If I may offer an opinion…”, Ram interferes in the general confusion, smiling mockingly at the chaos of emotions around him; something that doesn’t seem to affect him one bit. In fact, it’s as if he knows something they don’t. “We don’t know, how much your … friend has been honest to you or Mega, but he hasn’t given up the rebellion, not yet anyway. Where the hysterical lady is right is the time factor – we have a location. Whether he’s the perfect boyfriend or not, we have to get him out of there for our own good. What happens after that, I will leave to his various lady friends.” He gives Amber ,Trudy and Ebony a mocking little bow. “I’ve got it right here. He’s in the old eastern police department along Victoria Street, corner Maning Lane, according to my data.”

“That I figured out, while you were enjoying the drama”, Jack points out, but nobody listens to him.

Amber leans over Ram’s shoulder, determined to take the current problems one step at a time, in the most reasonable way she can. Right now there are a number of reasons to save Bray, even if he is not the person she thought he was. “That’s a pretty big building, right?”

“Big? It’s more than just big!” Lex shakes his head, trying to come up with techniquest to storm a police building. “They must have great security in there, maybe guards on all entrances, and if they have an alarm system, they could place shooters at the windows, in case we come close. Hell, they’re gonna see us coming from miles away. This building has at least twenty stories and you can only use the fire exits from the inside!”

“Looks like we need a plan”, Jack concludes, exchenging grim looks with Lex, while Trudy hardly dares to breathe. “And one that doesn’t kill Bray in the process”, he adds, which causes an undetected spark in Ebony’s eyes.

“Have a nice night.” Mega stepps back from the prison cell. “I’m afraid the toilet is not usable. We still have running water in other floors, but for some reason the pipes might be damaged in this one. Oh, and we had to dispose of the cell mattresses. Who knows what’s in there, right?” He feasts his eyes on his enemy’s misery for a moment. It’s nothing Bray isn’t used to already, he’ll have to do better than that. Plans and constructs begin to build in the back of his mind at a rapid speed, bringing a smile to his face. Bray won’t know what hit him… and he certainly won’t keep his stoic silence about the rebellion forever.

Bray listens to the disappearing steps on the cold cement floors and leans back against the wall behind his iron bed. He’s slept worse. In fact, his biggest fear was that they wouldn’t let him sleep at all, like the Guardian did back in his time.

He looks at the watch, trying to avoid obsessing about whether or not the signal worked. It’s a miracle, Mega didn’t figure this out and take it from him yet. A question of time, it’s all a question of time… The only comfort he has is knowing who is still on his side, who still needs him enough, needs the knowledge he has to keep his current plans up. And that is knowledge Mega couldn’t come up with even in his wildest dreams. That is, if he in fact does have dreams, and doesn’t just power down over night like the cold, weird robot he is.

He still has an ally that only one other person in the world knows about.

Amber lets her head sink on her crossed arms, while everybody is roaming around busy and hectic in the background to let her mind wander. This is insanity! It’s Bray they’re talking about – the same Bray who retaliated from any kind of violence if he could. The Bray who’s promised her he would do anything to create a new, better world for their son, who would have died to make that happen, like she would. Without hestitating.

What happened to him? What did people like Mega and Ram create out of the most peaceloving man she ever met? It hurts to even think about, and she regrets not asking about it. She’s seen his scars, but then she’s never even seen him shirtless since he came back – so she has really no idea of the pain he must have been in to take such an extreme step. Still, she can’t understand, can’t even begin to make excuses for him. It seems like Trudy still can, for some reason, but she, Amber, is at the end of her nerves. How could he – how in God’s name could he intend to kill so many people? Was it revenge? Did they mess with his head in Reality Space? He couldn’t have been that afraid, or else he would have been in a much worse state at his return. The calm, collected person who embraced his son, played with his niece and didn’t have the heart to tell Gel that she was nowhere near his type – how could he be the same person that blew up an inhabitated building in cold blood, not to mention without checking it for any civilians but Trudy and Brady, first?

Lex passes by her, carrying a few flashlights to the old truck Slade is setting up to take them to the other end of the city. He notices Amber, lost in thoughts and stops to give her a few comforting words:“Don’t worry, we’ll get him out of there. Right, Jack?”

“Yeah, I’m… pretty sure.” Jack balances a carton with grean leaves to create smoke and loudspeakers for some elaborate Plan B that noone but him and Ram fully understands. “Er, I mean, of course we are!”, he corrects himself, when Lex hits him with a flashlight. “That’s… 100 percent… Amber, would you mind giving us a hand here?”

“Right.” Amber fights off her fears and doubts about this whole mission and grabs the first aid kit Trudy brought. If she knows one thing about Bray, one thing she can still be sure about, it is that he will keep his silence long enough that he might need bandages, if Mega hasn’t set up his technology fast enough to use reality space on him. And with two location changes in that short time, it doesn’t look like had the chance to do so.

She passes by Trudy giving frantic orders, while running after Ram to find out the exact plan in every little detail and can’t help but feeling worried for her friend. They both have little kids to look after, and Brady is Trudy’s everything, but Amber remembers a time when there was someone Trudy loved even more than her daughter, and even though that is unlikely to happen again, it seems like Bray has an almost equal position in her heart. The way she defends him, the way she refuses to believe anything he says, even though she knows what he did – it makes her wonder. If she and Bray had gotten back together, would she be that person? Would she refuse to see any evil, if self-caused or created by Technos, in him? It doesn’t seem likely, but then the things Trudy said about Jay’s involvements in the Techno’s crimes, the hate Bray has for her boyfriend, didn’t either, before she heard it from both of them herself. Maybe love does blind you. Maybe she has stopped loving Bray, somewhere down the line.

Amber puts down the boxes on one of the car’s back seats and puts both hands on Trudy’s shoulders. “Trudy? Trudy! Listen to me!”

“What? Do you want to talk me out of it, too?” Trudy’s voice sounds hurt, broken, she’s obviously close to a mental breakdown. “Forget it, Amber! I can make my own decisions!”

“I don’t doubt that! But I don’t think either of us should go into the police building, at least not right away. Leave it to Lex, Ebony and Slade, they have more experience!”

“Oh, as if I would trust that snake to bring Bray out alive!”, Trudy snaps at her. “Didn’t you hear her? I bet she’d use the first opportunity to push a knife into his back! Wouldn’t be the first time.” She sends Ebony’s back a murderous glare.

“I agree that we can’t trust Ebony, but Lex promised to keep an eye on her. And we need her! If we wanna do this right…” Amber can feel her legs losing their power, slowly but steady. “Come on, let’s sit down. Tell me about this Martin business. What was Bray up to? I feel like I don’t know anything at all! He talked to you, didn’t he?”

“About… some things, yes.” Trudy sits down besides Amber, the cold off-set wall sending shivers up her back. “It was nothing, really.” She can feel the old grudge over her own behavior, about being the girl that explains all of her boyfriend’s faults and mistakes away, if Bray can even be seen as that. Not that she believed any of his words towards Mega, but it still hurt to hear it like that, to know that maybe, just maybe, there was some truth to it. Maybe her body, her company, was all Bray was interested in during his wait for Amber and Jay’s break-up.

“Well, he said something about using someone’s identity and that that person would have thought it was funny what he did, so my best guess is, he walked around as Martin to torment Ebony”, she starts, even though it sounds like a very strange plan. But it’s the only thing that makes any sense.

“Why?”, Amber points out the most obvious question concerning this whole scharade.

“I guess… some old grudge?”, Trudy tries to explain it the best she can. That part she understands. Hating Ebony isn’t a thing that she managed to stopp doing over night, it only makes sense that Bray would have his difficulties, too. “I don’t know! I guess he and Lex thought it was funny to threaten exposing Ebony’s past to Slade, maybe it was blackmail or something.”

“And Zoot would have thought that was funny?”, Amber interjects. “Wait, that actually makes sense”, she adds, rolling her eyes. She didn’t get to know the infamous Loco leader in person, but tormenting people seemed like his style.

“Zoot? Martin would have loved it!”, Trudy answers, snorting joylessly. This would all be so much easier, if Bray hadn’t spent his time running around and upsetting people within the resistance of Liberty with half-truths and fake-identities. “But, yeah, Zoot too.”

“Idiots!” Amber pulls a muffin out of her coat pockets. “Share?”

“Thanks.”

They stare into the dark sky that is slowly turning from stormy grey to black, while chewing on Ruby’s home-made blueberry muffin without speaking another word. Then tension of the upcoming mission is laying heavy on everybody.

“Ebony…”

“What, Slade?” She turns around, facing Slade’s questioning look. He’s leaning in the cardoor, looking hot as always, but also annoyingly boyfriend-like. For someone who played her and Ruby at the same time, until one of them ended up pregnant, while he chose the other, he’s acting mighty self-righteous about his suspicion that she might have a thing for Bray. Which is pure nonsense, but it still upsets her.

“We have to talk.” The dreaded words, after her victory over Ruby, after all this time of fun and adventure, casual sex and the beginning of a relationship – great. Just great!

“I think we’ve got more important things to do right now”, she cuts him short, thinking of a neglige that could buy her at least another weak, before he asks questions again, once they’re through this. Granted that Bray keeps his mouth shut… though, why would he? And on another note, how did he even have time to come up with this stupid fake-identity with all the love-triangles that should keep his pretty head good and busy? “Look, Slade, I want to talk to you, too, but now is really not the time. We could be exposed at any moment and I don’t trust Bray anymore than I trust Mega.”

“Can you at least tell me what he blackmailed you with?”, Slade tries to convince her. “Look, Ebony, I know you’re not an innocent little flower, it’s part of what I like about you. I know a lot of the stuff you’ve done, and it doesn’t bother me. Just tell me – I promise, I’ll hear you out!”

Ebony hestitates, for a moment fighting the wish to just get rid of all the secrecy, expose Bray and his cruel mind games. But there is still so much he could tell Slade that she doesn’t want him to know – her weaknesses, her obsession with him, the story with Amber, all of it! How would Slade take it, if she told him that she asked her infuriated ex-boyfriend to have a baby with her, after faking his girl’s death? It seems like too much to swallow, and it’s just the beginning… “After”, she decides quickly, trying desperately to pick her brain for some way to make all of this seem alright… There is really only one way to fix this, to keep her life the way it is – and that is to make sure Bray is silenced once and for all.

She leans against the truck, her breath forming a white cloud in front of her face, watching Trudy and Amber share one of Ruby’s annoying muffins and talking quietly, laughing, even. She wonders what it is that makes their bond this strong, feels a short, sharp pain over the thought that the only people in the world she ever felt this close to, were Bray and Siva. And tomorrow, they will both be dead. It will hurt, she figures. And it will have to look like an accident. She has to come out of this with her hands clean.

FIN.