*Please read the special announcements, as there is lots of important stuff you need to know.*

Warning: Ahem. *clears throat* ANGST! BITCHINESS! MALE BITCHINESS! AND LOTS OF ANGST! There. You have been warned.

Lyrics: Lyrics at the top and bottom are from Bother, by Stone Sour. Go download this song. Now. And then play it at top volume, because it is best this way. Trust me.


Changelings
(Working Title)

~You don't need to bother
I don't need to be.
I'll keep slipping farther
But once I hold on, I won't let go till it bleeds~


Chapter Seven:

Ceilings are truly understated masterpieces. The one Ange stared at was a particularly fine specimen. It was as pure a white as anything she had ever seen, beveled with plaster. The longer she stared at it, the more the white shone, separating out into different colors and swirling together again like a hippie's drug-bogged dream.

"So do you ever plan to get up? Or should I just assume this practice is over?" The silhouette of head and shoulders appeared over her, ruining the image her addled mind had conjured..

Ange scowled up at it, blinking until the silhouette focused and became Trei, leaning over her spread-eagled body and smirking. "Oh shut up," she snapped, pushing herself up into a sitting position and wincing as her back protested. The floor of the anteroom, though padded, was not exactly comfortable; especially when you had just been thrown onto it for the ninth time in a row.

Still scowling, she searched for her staff, locating it several feet away from her. "You know," she remarked to her fighting partner as she retrieved it stiffly, "when I said I wanted you to help me out with my staff work, I didn't mean that you should beat me to a bloody pulp."

Trei grinned, leaning jauntily against his own staff as he watched her. "I can't help it if your blocking sucks, Angie. If I can't teach you with words, then I'll teach you with bruises."

As much as she wanted to grumble about his teaching techniques, she knew it would be hypocritical. She was teaching Neko the same way. Instead, she swiped her staff at him, hoping to knock him off his feet for once. He grinned as he blocked it easily and returned his own overhead strike. She only just managed to dodge out of the way, and he sighed in exasperation.

"How many times do I have to tell you," he said accenting each word with a hit, "Quit with the dance work and actually block!" The tip of his staff scored again against her side, sending the air whumphing out of her lungs. He paused to let her regain her breath, looking disappointed. "You keep dodging. That's good but you can't rely on that. You get tired too quickly."

"But if my opponent is stronger than me, then blocking only takes more energy," she wheezed out. He shrugged, bringing his staff up and beckoning for her to come at him.

Biting back an annoyed growl, she ran at him, bringing her staff down for a head shot. He blocked deftly, bringing the other end towards her middle. She blocked as well, feeling the reverberations through her fingers. Again he struck, this time at her head. Mindlessly she ducked his swing and he reversed the staff at the last second, swinging it towards her legs. Instinctually she jumped up to let it pass under her, but her mind overrode her natural reaction, telling her to block as he had been telling her. Her concentration lost, she found herself once more on her butt, groaning.

Trei crouched down to look at her, smiling weakly. "That was better."

"Then how come I'm still on my ass?" she snapped, feeling frustration well up inside of her. He offered her a hand that she reluctantly took, but instead of forcing another round, he led her over to a bench and handed her a small towel. She took it gratefully and pressed it against her face.

"You're on your ass because your mind and body are telling you two different things. But at least your mind is speaking now. You're starting to get it," he explained. When she didn't respond, he wrapped a sweaty arm around her. "You're doing better, really."

Ange didn't have the heart to tell him that his arm was only making her hotter and achier. Instead she let her hands drop into her lap and leaned back against the wall. He withdrew his hand and settled against the wall beside her. "So how is Neko coming along?" she asked, wanting to change the subject.

Trei frowned, a look of consternation crossing his dark face. "I'm about to kill the damn kid," he admitted, sounding frustrated. "It's like, ever since Halloween, he's suddenly stopped being interested in his training. He's late to our practice sessions, and when he gets there, he only works halfheartedly. And he refuses to fence with me anymore."

Ange frowned as well, turning to him. "You too?" she asked. When he raised his eyebrows at her, she continued. "He's suddenly gone all lazy on me. Doesn't want to spar with me, and when I suggested he use the weight room to build up his strength, he walked out on me."

They looked at each other, sharing twin looks of confusion and frustration. "Have" Ange paused, hesitant. "Have you noticed anything else different about him?"

"Like the fact that he's had more mood swings in the last week than all you PMSing girls put together? Don't give me that look Ange, I know you don't get like that but some of the others bite my head off on a monthly basis." Ange scowled at him, knowing he was placating her, but not bothering pursue it. Instead she said,

"Exactly. He's all happy and, well, Neko-ish one moment, and then the next he gets this look on his face, and he goes quiet. Or worse, snappish. And lately the happy bits are getting less and less. Frankly, I'm about ready to smack him too." She sighed, feeling discontent, though relieved that she was not the only one to have noticed her partner's strange behavior. Trei's right, she thought, this all started right after Halloween. "Maybe you could talk to him," she suggested. "You know, guy to guy and all. Maybe make some sense out of him."

Trei chuckled. "Sense? Out of Neko? Since when have you started asking for miracles?" He laughed again as she smacked him lightly. "Okay, okay, I'll talk to him. Can't say it'll do any good, but I'll try."

"Thanks, Trei," she said, meaning it. His smile softened as he gazed at her for long seconds, and the silence quickly grew uncomfortable. Clearing her throat, she looked away uneasily. "Anyways, I think I'm done for today. Can't take another beating, and I need to have some of my wits about me for later today. Neko's going to hook into his Eddie computer and see if he can learn anything about the recent information leak."

Ange ignored the disappointed look that flickered briefly over her friend's face. "That's a good idea. And speaking of info, Corr wanted to talk to you." He stood up and stretched. "And I better go. Things to see and people to do, you know?" He grinned at her charmingly and she smiled back.

"See you," she said softly. He paused for a moment, looking indecisive, before leaning down abruptly and kissing her lightly on the corner of her lips. She froze, surprised both at the action and at the sudden, overwhelming fear that accompanied it. But by the time she actually thought to react to either sensation, he was gone. She brought a hand up to her lips slowly. "What was that?" she asked herself quietly, disturbed, before looking around quickly to see if anyone else had noticed. Luckily, the few people in the room with her seemed to be otherwise occupied. The fear she had felt had disappeared as quickly as Trei had, leaving less of an imprint that his lips had.

Frowning, she looked at her watch and decided that now was not the time to be thinking about it. She had just enough time to take a quick shower, meet Corr, and then get back home to help Neko.

Besides, her mind thought treacherously, you don't really want to think about what it means, do you?

She shoved the voice to the back of her mind, along with the fear and the feathery feeling on her lips.

__________

Corr was, as usual, in her makeshift library. When Ange came in, she gave her a relieved smile. "Oh good, you got the message." Ange smiled back, forcing her distracted mind back to the task at hand.

"Yeah, Trei said you had some info for me?" Corr nodded and shuffled through a stack of paper on her desk before holding out a manila folder.

"Yeah. Finally identified that symbol you found. Sorry it took so long; things have been really busy in the research department as of late." Her eyes shone suddenly with worry and disgust. "I've been up to my ears in autopsy reports lately, as have the rest of the department. Ange, something seriously weird is going on."

Ange's brow furrowed. "Corr, what's wrong?"

Corr hesitated, as if unsure whether or not to speak. Finally she gave a tiny sigh. "Bad stuff. Scary stuff. All of our casualties lately have been found withbits missing. Likebrain bits. And those who aren't missing anything have other evidence of tampering. No one knows how long it was going on before we noticed it, so I've been trawling through all the past autopsy reports for our agents killed in action."

Ange looked at her friend somberly. "Do you think it's experimentation?" she asked quietly. Corr shrugged, looking miserable.

"I think so," she said. "And it's been going on for a long time. The further back I go, the less suspicious deaths there are, but they're still there. They've increased a lot this past year though, and they've gotten more subtle about it." She shivered. "Like they're refining the process. There was an unusual amount of deaths from a bullet to the brain in the last four years, but this year they've tapered off, leaving us with this. I think they just aren't bothering to hide the evidence anymore."

There was a long silence as the possible meanings behind that sunk in, then Corr shook her head resolutely. "But I don't want to think about it right now," she said firmly. "Just promise me that you'll be especially safe, okay?"

Ange nodded gravely. "I promise," she said, then opened the folder she had been given in order to change the subject. She took a peek at the papers within. Then she frowned.

"Wait a minute, I've seen this before," she said, staring down at a photocopy of the full symbol that was on top of the rest of the papers. It was fairly simple; a cross that looked like a replica of the Red Cross' symbol, eagle wings spread behind it. Underneath that were the words: Humanitas e Physica Consociatum(1). Humanity and Science United. "Isn't this the crest for the Morton Medical and Governmental building," she said, referring to the building known to be the head research facility for the west coast. It was situated not ten miles from their own headquarters; it had been the main reason for settling where they had.

Corr nodded. "Yes, it is."

"But James Andrews was never near that facility. Hell, we found his body in Montana, not California." Corr nodded again, raising her eyebrows.

"I know," she said. "That was another reason why it took so long to match the right symbol. We were searching in the wrong place. That paper he was writing on was official stationary for Morton's, there's no doubt about that."

"Which leads to the question, what was a piece of paper from Morton's doing in the pocket of a murdered Changeling in another state," Ange mused, staring at the paper thoughtfully. Corr shrugged.

"He could have been needing paper and tore off a bit from a letter or something," she suggested. "He just so happened to get a piece from a letter that came from here.

"But there wasn't any other writing on it except for James'. It was a big enough piece that if it was that, then there would be some sort of lettering other than his," Ange countered.

"True," said Corr, leaning forward. "There weren't any fingerprints on it other than James' either."

Ange thought hard, staring down at the enlarged pictogram in front of her. She flipped through the rest of the pages until she came to rest on a photocopy of the original scrap of paper. The name Dominez Valdera stared back at her in scratchy black writing, nearly illegible. There was a page attached to the copy, and on it was a typed up version of their guesses on the rest of the note. "High official," she murmured to herself, then "North." Her eyes narrowed at the scribble next that word. The typed version suggested that it might mean 'Go', but suddenly she didn't think so.

"Corr, look at this," she said, pushing the papers in front of her friend. She pointed at the short scribble. "What if this isn't 'go', but 'Ca'? As in the abbreviation for California? That would make it North California, which could easily mean here. Wouldn't that make more sense than Go?" Corr looked up at her, an excited gleam in her eyes.

"It does make more sense that way," she agreed. "In fact, I'll bet you're right!"

Ange grinned, feeling the elation of cracking a puzzle. "And I'll bet that James was trying to tell us that this Valdera guy is at Morton's. If he is, then it should make it a lot easier to find info on him. And to maybe get some sort of contact with him!" Suddenly her eyes widened. "Oh Jesus. I picked Neko up at the Morton facility."

They stared at each other, wide eyed. Suddenly Ange smacked her head. "I am such an idiot! Why didn't I ask him about this before?"

"You mean you haven't?" Corr asked incredulously. "I would think that would be the first thing you did." Ange flushed. That was the logical step, even without this clue. Neko had spent his whole life within the government's grasp. It was more than likely that he at least knew something. But she hadn't even thought of it. Yet again she had slipped up.

"I don't know what I was thinking," she admitted, rubbing her forehead ruefully. "At first I didn't tell him because I thought it would be better to keep it to myself until we were sure he was safe. I guess I just forgot." She ignored the concerned look in her friend's eyes. "Well I'm definitely going to ask him now. And I'll have him look into Valdera today as well as the info leak. This job may actually be going somewhere." Ange looked down at her watch and grimaced. "But right now I need to be going. I'm gonna be late. Could you tell Jarod about what we've figured out for me?" Corr nodded, then frowned.

"Wait, but what do you think about the fact that James' body was found in Montana?" she asked worriedly. Ange stopped and closed her eyes.

"It's got to be either one of two things," she said at last. "Either it was a body drop, or he was running from something. I don't even want to think about what."

__________

By the time Ange got back to her apartment, her mind was buzzing like a broken wasps' nest with all the thoughts and ideas passing through it. As she had expected, Neko was already in her living room, sitting cross-legged on the floor with Eddie open in front of him. He didn't seem to hear her as she came in, concentrating on the piece of machinery in front of him.

Allowing herself a small grin, she leaned against the wall. "So Lain, hooked into the wired yet?" she asked, referring to an anime Neko had been fascinated by about a young girl with an affinity for computers. Neko snapped his gaze up to her, eyebrows raised and lips set with annoyance. The expression on his face could almost have been classified as a scowl.

"I'm not Lain," he said succinctly, "First off, my hair doesn't do that weird chunky thing and I don't get off on hanging wires from my ears. And secondly, technically, she could only manipulate the internet. I can fool around with anything I can get a good look at."

Ange bit her lip and passed on the argument that, with his longish red-brown hair all mussed as it normally was, it could often pass as a 'Lain' hairdo. Instead she smiled sweetly at him.

"Gee, Neko, I never knew you were such a Casanova," she teased, hoping to break the foul mood he seemed to be in. He only flushed and scowled deeper, hunching forward defensively.

"What's that supposed to mean?" he snapped, sounding oddly nervous. Ange blinked.

"Nothing," she said, perplexed. "I was just joking." He relaxed a bit, but didn't lighten at all.

"You're late," he said, changing the subject abruptly.

Ange shrugged apologetically. "Yeah, I'm sorry, but something really important came up and I got a bit caught up with it."

"More important than finding out who's leaking information?" he asked petulantly, crossing his arms. Ange nearly groaned aloud, wholly sick of his attitude. With all the disturbing and exciting revelations that had been brought upon her in the last hour, she had almost forgotten her partner's sudden regression into spoilt childhood.

"No," she said shortly, "but equally important. And possibly related. You said yourself that this was a long shot anyways. Now would you quit acting like a little brat?"

Neko dropped his head. He was silent for a moment before saying meekly, "Sorry." When he looked up again, he looked vaguely ashamed. "I'm just" he trailed off, then shook his head. "Never mind."

Ange sighed quietly. She hoped Trei talked to him soon about his moodswings.

Ange swung down to sit beside him. "So you ready then?" she asked. He nodded.

"I would have already started, but you made me promise not to until you got here," he said. Traces of bitterness threaded his voice; she could practically hear him accusing her of not trusting him.

"Yes, I did. This way if something happens, then there will be someone here to help or get help," she explained with patience she didn't know she had. "It's a safety measure. Now let's start."

"Nothing's going to happen," he muttered quietly. "This is what I'm good for, remember?" Before she could reply, he said in a brisk voice, "I'm going to scan outgoing messages for ones that might be going to government channels first; it's not likely that there will be anything there, but it's worth a try."

"How can you tell the difference between government and regular channels?" she interrupted, curious. Neko shrugged.

"I justcan. It's hard to explain. But I've been using them for most of my life, and they just feel different." Ange subsided. From the few times he had talked about his talent before, she had gathered that what he did was far more organic than what most expected. He wasn't a hacker; technology was just another part of him, much as a hand or foot might be. She knew from her own future-telling talent that it was impossible to truly explain how it worked to someone else. It just did.

When he realized she wasn't going to ask anymore questions, he continued. "From there, if you want I can probably check residential computers for certain key combinations used on the keyboards, in case whoever is doing it is typing their notes and sending them manually." He frowned wryly. "Of course, this is assuming that anything was done electronically, and the information wasn't just passed along in written or oral form. Or writing in code. It's a lot like the needle in the haystack. And it's impossible not to end up breaching a whole bunch of innocent people's privacy."

Ange frowned as well, but could see no way around it. What with the sudden rash of new deaths and missing in actions, Jarod had told her to do what was needed. "Is it possible to narrow down the search to as few invasions of privacy as possible?" she asked, already knowing the answer.

"Maybe if we had certain people who were suspected, or specific keywords that we were positive meant treachery."

"Well, I guess there's no help for it," she sighed. "This is probably going to take a long time, so we should get started."

Neko didn't reply except to roll his eyes slightly and set his thin hands lightly against the keyboard. He let his eyes flutter closed.

Ange waited silently, slowly becoming more and more impatient as her partner stayed still. She was just about to open her mouth and ask him if he was planning on starting anytime soon, when suddenly windows began to pop up on the laptop's screen, scrolling so fast she only had time to read a word here or there before it was gone. She blinked, impressed. She had thought he would have to at least type or something. She should have expected this, but somehow the idea of pure mental manipulation was strange to her.

After almost an hour and a half of silence, he opened his eyes again and shook his head. "Nothing in outgoing messages," he muttered. Then he smirked. "Well, except for several very steamy emails." Ange smacked him lightly.

"Privacy, remember?" she reprimanded him, silently thanking every deity she knew of that her own correspondence was in general very dry. "You're supposed to be looking for treason, not love affairs." Neko pouted, then smiled cheekily, acting for just a moment as he used to.

"Alright, alright. But I can't help it if certain other things slip in while I'm looking." Then he was back to business. "So, nothing governmental. Should I do keyboard searches?"

Ange hesitated, thinking. "How successful do you think it'll actually be?" she asked. Neko shook his head.

"Probably not very," he said candidly. "Besides, Headquarters checks that once a month anyways, don't they?"

Ange raised her eyebrows at him. "What makes you think that?" she asked neutrally. Neko rolled his eyes and leaned back against the couch, stretching.

"I'm not an idiot," he said dryly. "For one thing, Eddie told me, when I asked him if anyone had been checking him." He caressed the laptop. "For another, the government did it; what makes you think Jarod and his twin Jake don't do the same?"

Ange frowned, disturbed. "We aren't the government," she said, "I should hope that we'd have a little more faith in our own people, seeing as we're all here willingly."

"And yet we have an information leak," Neko countered bitterly. "Ange, you really shouldn't kid yourself. The Crew isn't really all that different than the government." Ange narrowed her eyes at him.

"We are very different," she said coldly. "We are not out to eliminate the Changelings, or worse, turn us into weapons to be used by weak rulers."

Neko sat up, eyes blazing. "Turn us into weapons? What do you think we are? Bunny rabbits? What are we training for, if not to become weapons to be used by the higher ups?" Ange gaped at him.

"Our higher ups care about us, at least. We aren't just cannon fodder," she returned, leaning forward angrily. Neko just shook his head, looking vaguely sad.

"Maybe," he conceded, sounding more as if he wanted out of the conversation than that he was agreeing with her. "All I know is the only thing I care about are those I love and those who love me. They have my allegiance before any cock and bull organization, government or otherwise."

Ange looked down, surprised at his sudden vehemence. "I'm glad that you're so loyal," she finally said. "If it weren't for that last part, I'd be worried that maybe you were the informant." She gave a weak laugh and looked up at him. "Of course, the leaks were here before you were, so that wouldn't make sense anyways."

Neko gave her a stone faced look before standing up suddenly, snatching Eddie off the floor and stalking out of the room. A second later she heard the front door slam.

Ange groaned loudly, dropping her head forward onto her battered coffee table. "Shit," she whispered to herself. After a moment's mope, she got up and crossed the hallway to Neko's apartment. After knocking twice with no answer, she tried the door and found it open. Hesitantly, she went in.

She found him in his bedroom, curled up on his bed in the half dark of the growing night. Leaving the door open behind her, she sat down on the edge of his bed.

"I didn't mean to imply that you were a traitor," she said wearily. "I know you get the suspicion a lot, because you're still new and all, but I know you aren't. It's just that sometimes you come out with these things like the whole 'the Crew is like the Government' spiel, and it worries me. Partly because I know it's at least a little bit true, but mostly because, more than anything else we need unity to survive. There's a hell of a lot of people against us, and the moment we start agreeing with them, we're dead. Sojust think on that, okay? Even if you don't whole-heartedly agree with what the Crew does, at least believe that we're doing the best we can. The government had to be doing something wrong for you to want to get away from them so badly; hopefully we're at least a little better than that." She paused, and when he still said nothing, she sighed. "I know something's been bothering you lately. I won't ask what, because it's not my business unless you want to tell me. I just want you to know that I care about you, even if I don't always show it, and that if you want to, you can talk to me." She paused again, feeling overly sappy and majorly uncomfortable with her little speech. She stood up. "Okay, I'll leave you alone now."

She was almost to the door when he spoke in a small, gravelly voice. "Do you really?" She blinked, confused.

"Really what? Care?"

"Never mind," he said quickly, but she answered him anyways.

"Yes, I do," she said firmly. The silence between them stretched out.

"Okay then." He pushed himself up into a sitting position and she realized that he had been curled around his laptop as if it were a stuffed animal. She heard him take a deep, shuddering breath. "So do you want me to do the keyboard search or not?" he asked in a subdued voice. She blinked again, disconcerted by his sudden change of subject.

"Um, no. That's okay. Er I did have one other question for you though."

"What?"

"Do you know of a Changeling named Dominez Valdera?"

Even in the twilight of the room, she could see him stiffen. "Whwho?" he squeaked.

"Dominez Valdera. He's a Changeling that we've gotten word has risen really high in the ranks, which is unusual. We also think that he might be at the Morton Medical and Governmental building, which is where you came from. I thought you might know of him."

"Um" Neko seemed to pause, as if thinking. "UmValdera. I don't know him." Ange raised an eyebrow; the way Neko was acting was setting off alarms in her.

"You don't?" she asked. He shrugged, clutching Eddie the laptop to his chest.

"Well, I mean, not know him as in know him," he amended quickly. "Everyone knew of him. He kind of kept to himself, you know?" He paused, then rushed on. "Aa lot of the Changelings were scared of him." Ange nodded in sudden understanding. Neko was scared of the guy. That didn't bode well. Still, she pushed on.

"What can you tell me about him? Anything you can remember would be helpful," she said, coaxing him gently.

He shook his head emphatically. "I dunno. Hehe's older than me, never really hung out with the other Changelings. Uhum, he works with the scientists a lot I think. I don't know, Ange, I can't really think right now."

"Alright," she conceded, wishing he'd had a little more information. "If you think of anything else, let me know, okay?"

"Okay. I'm tired now. Searching through that stuff, information overload. I'm gonna go to bed, 'kay?" Ange smiled wearily. She was tired as well, from her workout with Trei earlier.

"Good night, then," she said. "I'll see you in the morning." He called back a feeble goodnight as he lay back down. She shut the door quietly, then let herself out. Back in her apartment, she thought about how Neko had reacted to the name Dominez Valdera. He had been scared witless.

"That really does not bode well," she said aloud. This case was likely to turn into an assassination. Just like a weapon, a small part of her mind caroled. But who's aiming?

"I am," she said resolutely in the silence. "I am."

__________

He waited until he heard his front door close before he bolted up from his bed, heart pounding hard. "Shit," he whispered vehemently, pacing the room. "Shit shit shit shit SHIT!"

He looked up at his clock, and upon seeing that five minutes had passed since the closing of his door, leapt for his closet and pulled out a jacket. Then he strode towards the door, mind intent on only one thing. He had to talk to Tabitha.

Halfway through his living room, there was a knock on his door. Panicking, thinking that it might be his partner again, he threw the coat behind the couch. Then, fidgeting, for a moment or two with his clothes to make them seem properly bed-rumpled, he pulled open the door, affecting a sleepy look.

It wasn't Ange, but Trei, the black boy who was her friend and had been training him. Training me in things I don't need, he thought bitterly, thinking back on his lover's words. "Trei?" he asked aloud.

The other boy smiled at him, looking slightly awkward. "Hey kid," he said, "Did I catch you sleeping?"

"Er" he fumbled. "Um, no. Actually I was just about to go out," he said, hoping it would get rid of the boy. He turned around to fetch his coat from behind the couch, brushing idly at the dust bunnies that had attached themselves to it. He really needed to clean better. When he turned around again, Trei was standing in the middle of his living room.

"Out where?" he inquired, still smiling.

"Just out," he said, nervousness making him snap at the African American boy. The other boy dropped his smile, a look of hurt and exasperation appearing in his chocolate eyes.

"Well can it wait five minutes?" he snapped back. "I'm going on a mission tomorrow and I'd really like to talk before that."

He stilled at the mention of a mission, then sighed, plopping down onto the couch. "Alright. What'd you want to talk about?"

The other boy came over and sat down in the chair across from the couch, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees and clasp his hands together. "I want to talk about you, Neko. And why you're acting all weird lately." He just stared at the boy opposite him.

"What do you mean?" he deadpanned. The older boy gestured wildly at him.

"I mean this. You're all moody ever since Halloween. And I'm about ready to give up on you when it comes to physical lessons, because it's obvious you're not wanting to be there anymore. So what's up? I want an explanation."

He scowled down at his hands clasped in his lap. "Maybe there isn't an explanation. Maybe I just realized that trying to train myself physically isn't worth it. My usefulness is in my mind and my technokinesis, not my body," he said, parroting the words his lover had told him. He saw the truth in it, why couldn't the others?

"Bullshit."

He looked up in surprise. The other boy looked angry now, eyes snapping dangerously and hands curling into fists. His breath caught in his throat. For just a moment, this boy sitting on the chair reminded him of him. The moment was gone in the next moment though, as the black boy spoke again, his words proving just how different the two were.

"That's bullshit, Neko. Who the hell told you that?" When he didn't answer, the boy lunged forward, grabbing his hands. "Was it the one who did this to you?" he asked savagely, running his fingers over the fading bruises that his lover had left on his wrist when he had reached for the man's dog tags. His eyes widened, and he tried to jerk his hands away. He had meant to hide the bruises, he just hadn't been thinking about it.

The African American boy didn't release his hold, just pulled him closer so he was practically kneeling in front of the boy, both hands trapped in his large one. "Or this?" he said, bringing the other hand up to his neck to poke at the bite marks there. "Don't think I haven't noticed. You might be able to fool Ange into thinking that it's just a rash from that collar you wore, but I've had a lot more experience than her. I've also had enough experience to know that this is no gentle love bite."

He squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lip to stop a whimper, tensing his body automatically in preparation for what came next. He was utterly surprised when the grip on him loosened, hands sliding up to hold him gently by the shoulders. He cracked one eye open cautiously. The boy was staring at him with a severely disturbed look on his face. "Look," he said in a gentler voice. "I'm just worried about you, okay? So are Ange and Corr, and I can't speak for Tabitha, but if she actually cares about you, then I'm sure she's worried too." Suddenly he paused and his eyes narrowed again. "Unless it's Tabitha who did this," he said suspiciously.

He let out a short, barking laugh without much mirth in it. "Don't worry, Tabitha wouldn't touch me. She's my friend." The other boy gave him a wry look.

"Yeah, well so am I. I don't want to see you hurt."

He winced sharply as guilt and confusion washed over him. His stomach ached dully in sympathy, as it had been almost constantly the past week, whenever anyone gave him a concerned look or asked him how he was. Oh god, he moaned internally. Just shut up, please. Stop saying you care for me. Stop lying to me, because I'm starting to believe you.

Blindly he focused on the one he knew truly loved him, visualizing long pale blonde hair and dark dark eyes but it was hard when this other boy was staring at him so earnestly. He looked down.

"Okay," he said by rote. He had said the same to his partner when she had told him she cared. It was what he said when he didn't want to tell the person he knew they were lying. It had worked well in the past, and seemed to now. The grip on his shoulders faltered for a moment. But then suddenly he was crushed against a chest by strong arms, completely unable to move. He eeped quietly in surprise.

"Jesus Christ, kid, you are so fucked up, you know that?" The voice rumbled through the chest, vibrating against his ear. Just as suddenly as he was grabbed up, he was released, leaving him blinking dully as his mind tried to catch up.

"Alright, I know that I'm probably not going to be able to convince you of anything, but promise me something, okay?"

He nodded. Anything to get the boy to leave so this queasy, uncomfortable feeling within him would go away. "Promise me that you'll start training with me and Angie again so that the next time whoever it was that did this," a hand lightly touched the bite mark again, "tries again, you can kick their ass six ways from Sunday."

He nodded again, pressing a hand against the dull throb of guilt in his stomach as it kicked up once more. The other boy seemed convinced, as he stood up abruptly.

"Alright then," he said, sounding oddly satisfied and disappointed at the same time. "Well I really have to go. Like I said before, got a mission to do, and I've got to be on time to headquarters to be fully briefed. We'll talk more when I get back though." The last part sounded more like a threat than anything else, proving that he was not fully satisfied with their conversation. He nodded one last time then saw the boy out the door.

He stood for several long minutes with his head against the door, focusing on breathing and upon the quiet buzz of the various appliances around him, allowing them to sooth him. They couldn't get rid of the stomachache though, and neither did pressing his hand against it. It didn't help that slowly the panic he had felt earlier was returning full blast and stronger from the wait.

He pushed away from the door, his frustration propelling him nearly across the living room. He snatched up his jacket again, as well as his keys. The next second he was out the door and into the elevator, impatiently pushing the down button.

He practically ran to Tabitha's house. She didn't live in the same apartment building as he did; instead she lived about two blocks down. Almost in retrospect he pulled the hood up on his jacket to cover his face until he got inside her building. Standing at her door, he pounded loudly and not too stably on her door until she opened it, blinking at him. Frowning, she pulled the door open all the way.

He stumbled towards her clumsily, and she grabbed at him, shutting the door behind him and propelling him to her couch. Some small part of his mind that he was quite sure was insane noted that she seemed to have the same affinity for black silk as her brother, if her slinky black nightie was any indication. He laughed, knowing it sounded hysterical.

"What's wrong?" she asked in alarm, sitting down next to him. "Neko, what's wrong?"

"Oh God, oh God, I don't think I can do this anymore, Tabby" he said, knowing full well that he was gibbering in panic but unable to stop. "Ange was asking me about Dominez Valdera, and I didn't know what to say, because it was all out of the blue, and so I was stuttering and I think she must know that I'm not telling her everything, and before that I think she was accusing me of being the informant because I got all pissy and started talking about how the Crew isn't that different than the government and --"

The blonde girl clapped a hand over his mouth to still his babbling. "Calm down, would you? Deep breaths, for God's sake. Things are going to be okay." She took her hand slowly from his mouth and he gasped in several hiccupping breaths. "Good, now stop freaking out okay? Explain to me everything that happened, and then we'll figure something out."

Slowly, he told her what had happened, calming slightly as her hand remained in the crook of his elbow, steadying him. When he finished, she nodded, looking perturbed, but not panicked.

"Okay, first of all, honey, the Bitch doesn't think you're anything other than what you seem. You have the worst habit of only cluing in on the bad stuff and not listening to the rest. It is worrying that they know Dominez's name, but it's not a crisis. I'll let him know and he can get someone to take care of it."

He looked up, dread adding to the mixture in his stomach and throbbing there. "What do you mean take care of it?" he asked bleakly. She looked thoughtful for a moment.

"Well, either they'll move him away from Morton's for a while, or they'll get rid of those who know about him." She stopped when he noticeably blanched. "Are you worried about them moving him? Because it probably wouldn't be for long. They need Dominez way too badly there."

He looked down at his lap, and pressed a hand to his stomach. "I guess," he said, not sounding very convincing even to his ears. When he glanced sideways at her, he saw her eyes had narrowed.

"You like the Bitch, don't you?" she asked. He shrugged helplessly.

"Yeah, I kinda do. She's been nice to me, and so has Trei." He heaved a huge sigh, letting her pull him down so his head lay in her lap. He squeezed his eyes shut tightly. "I just wish they'd stop lying to me. I know they don't really care about me, but they put on such a good act of it."

The girl was quiet for several moments, as if thinking. "Honey, they aren't lying." He turned to look up at her. She shook her head. "They do care about you. But if it helps to believe that they lying, then do it. Because don't for a moment think that they'll continue to care if they found out about you and my brother. They'll turn on you fast as a snake, believe me. They like you, but they don't love you like he and I do. I know it's hard. Just keep reminding yourself of that though. And for God's sake, don't start to love them back. That'll be the ruin of us all."

He stayed quiet for several minutes, thinking about what she had said. Then he groaned and wrapped his arms around his torso in misery. "And on top of it all," he said wretchedly, "I think I'm getting an ulcer."

~But once I hold on, I'll never live down my deceit. ~

*~*~*~*

Many, many, many thanks to all my lovely readers for their patience in me during the huge break between this last chapter. You guys are really appreciated.

Katy: Thanks chica, even if you haven't read this chapter yet. *growls* You bug me and bug me for the next chapter, then I give it to you and you have too much other stuff to read! NOOOOOO. Very NOOOOO. Heh. Pedro rocks. Okay, am shutting up now. Love yah on!

Faith-chan: *snuggles* I love you honey. This is for you.

Alo: Thanks for telling me about the Fiction Elimination thing. I'm telling my readers now, so yay! The contest looks like much fun.

Mike: Hey! You read it! That makes me very happy. *does happy dance* Hope you like the rest too!

Cianna Greenwood: *perks up* Fruit basket? Yum! I'm sorry about the jack hammer, and I'm sorry that it didn't really get updated all that too quickly, but I was having huge problems with my real live Eddie laptop (I'm not even gonna get started on that) But here is the next chapter, and I am honored that you like this story so much. And on the Neko/Ange thingI know exactly how you feel. We shall seeI am tentatively planning a sequel for Changelings. And I don't much like Blonde Guy either, but it has to be done.

Sarajii: Thank you! Your praise makes me feel all warm and tingly inside. And I'm happy that you like the story line so far, because up until now, I hadn't really. Too many plot holes. But those are mostly fixed now, so yay! And I really am sorry that I can't give you a LJ code. I ran out. I really need to take that advertisement downsorry! And thank you once again!

That Firefly Chick: Yay! Squeals! *is happy she wrote a squeal inducing chapter* My brother gives me weird looks sometimes too. But that's okay, because I often give him looks right back. Thank you for reviewing!

Cinaed: Hey! Thanks for reviewing even though stupid FF.net ate it so many times. *glares at ff.net* AnywaysI don't like Tabby's bro eitherhe is damn fun to write though, which is worrying to me. I'm glad you liked the outfits. I tried to put as much work as possible into them to make them seem real. (plus it was fun!) Poor Neko. No boytoy for him. He is the boytoy. And yes, he should definitely get someone better*is sealing her lips now* Waityou have a twin? That's kickass! I want one! Writing about them is so much fun, and fraternal is better. Although identical can lead to some fun schemes as wellI miss Zamiral. I haven't been doing much of anything lately. I think as soon as I'm done uploading this, I'm gonna go read Minstrel boy. Yay for rewards!

Lonely Schizo: Glad you liked the story! It makes me all happy. Blogs are cool. I'm glad you didn't want an LJ code though, because I'm all out and I hate having to say no.

Satsuki: Heya! Me is happy you liked chapter 6. I hope you like this one too. And I know! He bit him! Poor Neko. Laudious should most definitely bite Blonde Guy (as he has been dubbed). *gets all kinds of evil ideas* Mwahahaha!

Snow White726: That's okay about not reviewing the last chapter, I certainly don't expect you to review every one. I'm just happy that you reviewed ch 6! And as to your questionsyes, Tabitha's brother is Neko's loverheh. That rhymes. Anyways, and why he doesn't tell anyone, well, you get part of that answer in this chapter. Otherwise though, I not telling! Because that would be giving things away!

Ishi: Fruitcake? Heh. I did warn you there would be shounen-ai. *snickers* Ange showing skin? I just got this image of Ange Marilyn Monroe style with the white skirt flying up. "I'm ready for my close up, Mr. Deville." *snickers uncontrollably* Ok, I'm shutting up now. Glad you liked the chapter, in spite of itsfruitcakeyness.

Aurenne: Pretty boys + long hair + mystery = very happy fangirls. It's a common equation, neh? But a good one. And Ange and Trei are cutenot to mention (to me at least) completely unexpected. I truly hadn't planned on a relationship, but they just keep running off to empty rooms topractice. Yes, practice. *looks shifty-eyed* I blame Trei. Glad you liked!

Death's Counterfeit: Am glad that I surprised you. And I'm glad that you don't mind the Shounen-ai-ness. *Smirks* Trei and Ange were completely unexpected, at least to me (actually, I think it might have been a comment by you that made me think about it). But it seems to be working out nicelyand don't worry about not liking manga/anime that much. This story really hasn't got a whole lot to do with that aside from a few little references which will ultimately probably be taken out when I try and publish this. The fact that you still read it even though you don't read or watch the Japanese stuff makes me feel all happy and tingly inside. Thank you for the review!

Well, once again thank you to all, even those who choose not to review *sniffs*. Any and all reviews, comments, critisms (even flames, I am ready for them), thoughts and ponderings, fanart *looks hopeful*, guesses as to the future, and suggestions are welcome. In fact, they are set upon a pedastal and adored, as are those who review.

Until next time!


Kae
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© 2002 Kendall Schmierer