Dedicated to: EvaKasumi, DS, KG Bites Baron P, Sabulana, Demyrie, Vasilli, Nu, and whole stack of others who have reviewed my stuff.

--Released--

He stumbled through across the uneven boards, pain lancing through his head, his hands, his body was on fire, cold, cold fire.

He couldn't see properly, tears of pain blurred his eyes as he desperately tried to get away from the machine that laughed hollow laughter at his predicament and wondered what it had done to him this time.

Anger unchained, rage accepted and darkness consuming. I release you from the half life, Dark One.

The black crackle and pain was nothing new. What was new was the lack of anything afterwards. No all consuming anger, no blood lust... nothing.

Just pain.

And the Oracle's laughter as fear took over him, reaching up and feeling the horns, curling from his own head.

He needed to get home. They would fix him. They had to fix him. He ducked behind a building, avoided the people walking past and took the break as a chance to grab one of the horns and try to rip it from his skull.

He couldn't even feel the pull in his head, just the strain of his neck as he tugged.

"Monster! Dark Eco monster!"

His eyes shot up, fastened on the woman who shrieked and pointed. A few of the guard paused, looking towards them.

"No... You gotta help me..."

"Freak! Help! Help! It's trying to grab me!" She backed away, turned and ran to the guard. "Help! Guard!"

"Hey, there it is!"

Instinct took over. He crouched and leapt upwards, grabbing the edge of the overhanging roof and scrambled upwards, felt the crackle of electricity in the air behind him.

They were attacking him.

He bolted across the rooftops, leaping from building to building, the Guard chasing him on the ground. They cut through alleys, he cut over them.

A stray bolt nearly clipped him, he could feel the heat in his shoulder from the charge. He put in extra effort, flinging himself over the next gap and dropping down the other side and bolting into the neat metal streets.

He seemed to have shaken them off his tail.

He kept to the shadows, focused only on getting back to the palace without setting off another alarm.

He didn't look at his hands, didn't look at anything but where he was going, thought only of getting into the safety of the palace.

They'd find out what happened to him and make it better.

They had to make it better.

He couldn't go through life as a monster.

The palace finally loomed ahead of him. It had taken nearly an hour to get back, hiding in the shadows until it was clear, dashing through all the shortcuts he knew to avoid being seen by anyone.

He ached all over, like when Praxis had pumped the eco into him. His muscles burnt and struggled to hold his weight. He stumbled, caught himself on his hands and was forced to stare at the pale skin and the long, black talons that curved from his fingers in place of nails.

Forced himself silent, but he breath would not slow and he couldn't stop the panicked grab at his head, banging his hand into hard horns.

Panic took over. He screamed and kept screaming.

"Jak, what's- Holy Precursors! What the fuck-?"

"Torn, what's going on? Jak? Jak, is that you? What are, get Daxter! You, go find Daxter and then get Vin!"

He went silent, stared at them, wanted someone to come over and touch him, tell him that it wasn't real and didn't matter, that he was not a monster. Not a freak, even if he was.

They stood back, Ashelin holding Torn's arm, both staring at him.

Revolted.

"Jak! Jak?!"

He shied away as he heard Daxter's yell. Didn't want him to see him, not like this... not with these freakish horns and curling claws.

"Jak?"

He looked up, couldn't help himself. Realised he was sitting on the ground when he could look up to Daxter.

Torn's hand reached to Daxter, tried to stop him going close; Daxter brushed it aside. "Jak? You hearin' me okay, buddy?"

Saw a thin hand reach towards him and skittered backwards, away from his best friend.

"Hey, Jak, I won't hurt you. I promise." He crouched and held out his hand. "C'mere, babe."

He was torn for a moment. Just a moment. Then he launched himself into Daxter's arms, trying not to hear Ashelin and Torn reach for their weapons when he moved, as though scared he would harm Daxter.

He wouldn't... he couldn't...

"Shh. It's all right." Daxter's hand, soothing over his back, rubbing circles. He held onto his friend, clutched his shoulders and tried not to start screaming again.

Daxter rocked him for a long time, murmuring nothing much in a manner that should have been irritating but soothed his jagged nerves. Was reluctant to stand when Daxter did, but did anyway, crossing his arms and tucking his hands under them, not looking at the fine rips in Dax's tunic.

Looked down so he didn't have to see people watch him pass.

Small hand on his elbow, guiding him, forcing him to move inside. He felt the weight of their gazes, pressing those abominations further into his skull.

"Come on, you need to rest. You look exhausted."

His bed. It didn't look any different, the wide expanse of silk sheets that were too expensive for a country boy to sleep on and overstuffed pillows that he sank into when he lay on them.

"I can't."

His voice sounded the same. It shouldn't. Didn't know why not, it just shouldn't sound the same.

"Why not?" Daxter's hand rubbing his shoulder, massaging tensed muscles and tendons.

"I... I'll damage it." He hung his head, not able to voice it any better than that. "The..." he fell silent, choking on the word.

Silence.

"Torn, Ashelin honey, get lost. I'll meet ya with Vin." The odd, authoritative voice that popped up now and then, with no apparent rhyme or reason. "Jak needs rest."

They left, footsteps echoing.

"Okay, just you 'n' me, how it should be." He sat down on the bed, patted it. "Just sit."

He sat.

The other boy crawled closer and stared, at his face, nothing else.

"Take off your boots."

Looked at them, didn't know how to undo the laces without slicing them with his claws.

"I'll... they'll break."

Small sigh. "Okay, tonight, I'll be nice and do it. Only because you're Jak. Don't think Daxter gets on his knees for anyone else."

He choked on his breath, torn between being embarrassed and laughing at the cheeky grin as Daxter undid his boots and pulled them off, setting them aside.

The pain in his feet was from the short, stunted claws. Not sharp, not long, but black and curling, stark contrast to pale skin.

"Okay, arms up."

He let Daxter strip off the metal shoulder plate and the leather straps. Flinched as he reached his head and gently undid the goggles, pulling them free of his hair. The red cloth follows, bundled together and laid aside.

Gloves, eased over his claws, careful not to catch. All the professional detachment of a nurse as his belt is undone and the straps holding the cuffs of his pants belted are removed.

He feels vulnerable, in just tunic and loose pants, watching Daxter pile up the pillows and pull the sheets back.

"I can't sleep here."

"Yes, you can. The pillows don't feel. You need the support if you're goin' to sleep flat on your back."

An old habit, Daxter curled up on his chest, keeping him flat on his back, lest he disturb him.

"They'll-"

"Maybe. Doesn't matter. You need sleep and you need to be somewhere comfortable. Now lie down or I'll take off your pants next."

He crawled into the bed, pulling the sheets around his waist.

"You want a hand with your shirt?" The red head winked. "Too warm?"

"Bit."

He closed his eyes as the other undid his tunic and slid it off, not able to stand seeing barely concealed disgust in his best friend's face. Fortunately, Daxter misunderstood what he was doing.

"You're asleep on your feet. Lie down and get some sleep." He slid down and let the sheets be pulled up to his chest. "Get some sleep. You're beat."

"Okay." He shifted tentatively, trying not to puncture the pillow. Daxter was right, he needed the pillows for his.... so that everything sank, rather than craning his neck.

"Night, Jak."

"Night, Dax."

"Sweet dreams."

He heard the door open and shut, clicking softly. Sat up and found himself looking to the mirror, visible from where he sat.

Long, bleached hair, green fading to blonde, blonde paling to white. Pale skin, not white, not quite.

Freakish black horns, curling from his head. He reached up and touched them, saw a pale hand and long claws scratch at the hard surface without leaving a mark.

"I said I don't know! I'm an eco expert, not a biologist!"

Vin's voice. He could just hear them, talking... yelling about him.

"What the hell is he?!"

"How am I meant to know? Maybe he's learnt to own his own anger, accepted what he is, I don't know!"

"You mean, the change reflects Jak's inherent violence."

"What do you mean, Ashelin!? He's not inherently violent!" Daxter, always the loudest.

"He beats people up for getting in his way. He kills without remorse."

"So do you!"

"I don't tear their limbs off, Daxter!"

"Neither does he. He isn't Dark Jak. The eco just gets to him sometimes, makes him do things he wouldn't!"

"He's a monster, Daxter! A monster!"

There was silence after Torn's comment, long enough for Jak to contemplate its meaning.

"Don't you dare ever call him a monster! He saved this city, saved your worthless hides! You use him whenever it suits you but when you gotta face the down side of his problems, you turn, you two faced Lurkers! No, I lie! I like Lurkers compared to you! Leave him alone! He doesn't deserve this!"

Silence.

These claws had killed so many he could barely remember. Was he a monster?

Of course he was. People screamed when they saw him. Horned, clawed, killing machine freak.

The door cracked open. Jak buried his hands in the sheets, desperate to hide them.

"Jak? You're still awake?"

Daxter looked upset. There was blood on his right hand. He hung his head, not wanting to see the blue eyes.

"Jak?"

He wouldn't cry.

"C'mere, babe." He was there in a blur of motion, wrapping his arms around Jak, skin blissfully cool against his own, a hand burying into his hair, pulling his head to rest on one thin shoulder.

He forced back the tears but the sobs came anyway, choking on his own breath, Daxter's lips against the shell of his ear, whispering, shushing, sobbing as well.

"They're... going to make me leave, aren't they, Dax?" The fear he didn't want to voice, didn't want the answer to but had to hear, had to say, had to know. Needed Daxter's name on his tongue for the second of comfort it gave. "They're leaving."

And the real fear. "Please don't go with them."

He felt broken, pleading with his best friend not to abandon him, knowing, deep inside, that he would.

"Oh Jak," Daxter pulled him closer, and he felt the hand in his hair slide to gently stroke his horns, a sensation of pressure and Daxter wasn't scared of them, why wasn't he scared of them? "Never. I promise, I won't ever leave you."

He had laughed, cried, laughed, must have been both at once, because Daxter was grinned through tears at him, kissing him on the forehead. "It takes more than horns and claws that to get rid of me, Jak. You won't ever get rid of me. I promise." Another desperate press of lips, against his horns, grabbing his hands to stroke his fingers and their deadly talons. "I promise, I will never leave you."

He grabbed Daxter, crushed them together, needed to feel him, make him real. "Never."

"Never." Daxter agreed.

"Even if-"

"Never." Daxter cut him off, pushing his fingers to his lips. "Stop asking. Not if you pull apart Torn and Ashelin, and they deserve it, not if you trash the room, not if you decide to have a sex change, not if the changes go closer towards your dark and gruesome alter ego than they are, not even if you ban me from using the Jetboard. I will not ever leave you." He leant his forehead to Jak's. "Wanna know a secret?"

He nodded, his voice failing him.

"I think the horns are sexy."

He started to laugh, only a touch hyterical, Daxter folded safely in his arms, laughing right along with him.