Author's Note: …It's been quite the ride, folks, but all good things come to an end. There will eventually be a "sequel" in the form of a collection of oneshots posted bit by bit, but for now…this is it. Captive Voice exits stage left, Jak II: Renegade enters stage right. Thank you all, goodnight.
Chapter Thirteen: Only a Moment
The months had passed faster than he'd thought they would, day after day just slipping past as he told himself over and over that he was almost ready, just a couple more days to work up the nerve, another week to be able to afford that tunic, another month until he could get those goggles made.
There was no more putting it off now. That realization should have filled Daxter with a sense of purpose, the kind he'd had as he scoured the Palace's lower levels and run through the prison time and time again, but all it did was made his stomach lurch.
Every minute counted, he was sure, but…well, he could tell himself that the days had just gotten away from him, that it was an accident, that the smog and lights had blurred his vision. He could tell himself that, and he tried, but deep down he knew he was lying.
He'd been stalling.
Daxter had found Jak, or at least what was left of him, and he had at his disposal the means to get him out. It wouldn't have been hard to organize a quick prison break on one of his other runs through the rows of cells and metal halls all reverberating with seemingly endless screams, but he just couldn't do it. He was too scared. Not of being caught, not of being hurt.
Daxter was afraid of Jak. And that just made him feel sicker with himself than he had since he finally stopped running, finally stopped to breathe two years ago and realized that he'd just abandoned his best friend. Maybe even sicker than he'd felt back then.
But what was he supposed to do? He couldn't just…just roll with this or some other stupid phrase for "coping" that he'd probably used more than could be considered healthy. He couldn't just accept the possibility—fact, a part of him whispered, fact—that his Jak was gone. And it was his fault. He liked to tell himself he couldn't do anything from the inside, he couldn't help if he'd been caught too, but Precursors damn it he knew that wasn't true either.
If he'd been there, at least he'd have been there.
Maybe he couldn't have gotten him out before he turned into whoever and whatever he was now. Hell, if he'd been there then Jak never could have gotten that bad to begin with!
This was all his fault.
Which was why, finally, after what had to be months of putting it off and pretending the screams echoing through his dreams didn't belong to his best friend, Daxter steeled himself, stood up, and decided this was the day.
He wrote up his resignation. Took his pack, but didn't charge it—he'd just be dropping it anyway. He kept his security pass, only good for this one last run. And then he left.
It was his fault, but he was the only one that could fix it. This time there was no Samos to point him in the right direction or give him a knock on the head for making a mistake. There was no Keira to make the journey easier, to muse and plot and figure out the best way to make things work. There was just Daxter, all alone.
He wasn't a hero, not like Jak, but he thought he understood now what had driven Jak forward against Gol and Maia, even when things seemed beyond his ability to contend. He'd been fighting for Daxter, fighting for the chance to make up for the mistake that twisted his body and stolen his possibilities.
Now it was Daxter's turn to make up for his own mistake.
He swallowed thickly, shivering a little, stepped in through the prison entrance, flashing his pass to the desk worker at the front—familiar by now—with a forced grin, and headed off to face the man that used to be his best friend.
The needles—huge and sharp and shining—spun in their holes, and he couldn't help but thrash. This was the longest injection cycle he'd ever been through, close to an hour long now, and though the eco rattled inside him all he could think was that the injectors hadn't been driven in as far this time as normal. It was barely enough to break the skin, not enough to even do any lasting damage to his clothes.
Nonetheless, his shirt still caught on the metal as he arched and screamed, reflexively pulling and pulling and pulling at his shackles, his entire body fighting to escape in spite of his mind reminding it time and again that it was impossible, there was no escape, and even if there were it wouldn't matter anyway. Daxter was dead, what was the point of getting out? What would the point be in finally—finally—taking Praxis down, if this monster he'd reshaped Jak into was still running free?
But, god, he could hear them. The uneven pacing of Praxis to his left, the steady heartbeat of Erol at his feet, the impatience emanating off them both was almost tangible.
He heard Erol sigh, felt the vibrations in the air when he lowered his head. He thought he could hear the ringing of Erol's pulse off his helmet, the way the threads in his suit rubbed against one another when he breathed.
Everything was so sharp, so strong, such a high as he hadn't felt since his last assessment. Since he ripped out Daxter's throat. It was almost enough to bring him back, the promise of this kind of power always, dancing forever just under his skin, rank on his breath and black in his eyes.
"Damn it, Jak…" Erol whispered, and his voice was so full of disappointment Jak couldn't help but feel the sting. Erol was the only one left, the only one that cared, and at that moment, for the one moment, all Jak wanted was to please him. To hell with Praxis, Erol was the one that washing his back and brushed his hair and promised him safety and glory when all he could see was darkness and blood and god, oh god, pale hands in his hair and salt on the breeze and he's not Daxter and he'll never replace Daxter and he touched you, he hurt you, you don't want his approval.
But he did. For that split second when Erol's voice slanted downward, thick with remorse for the first time in Jak's recollection, that was all he wanted. He almost ground out an apology through the pain, but the sudden recollection of a red-haired head shaking and blue—not blue—eyes staring at him in fear froze the word in his throat.
"…You were so close."
Jak choked down a breath, a final breath, and then the eco stopped. The injector let him go, he fell back onto his chair, his head lolled to the side, every muscle in his body went slack. The injection cycle was complete, and the feminine voice Jak knew to be the voice of the machines stated as much.
"Bio readings," she continued, unperturbed, "nominal and unchanged."
Praxis made a gruff sound in the back of his throat, and if Jak had any strength left in his body he would have winced when the shiver in the air collided with his skin.
"Nothing," the Baron spat.
He continued, but after a moment all Jak could hear was the sound of his own breathing, his own heartbeat. He felt a swell of what might once have been pride deep in his chest as he came down from the high—faster than he ever had before, Erol was right when he said Jak was close.
Praxis was right. There was nothing; not for months. Not a change, not a shift, not a spark in his mouth or a sliver of horn on his head. Jak was spent.
Erol's voice cut through the haze like a knife, sharp and too familiar. "He is surprisingly resistant to your experiments, Baron Praxis."
He was unhappy. Jak could hear it in his tone well enough, but he only ever called the Baron by name when he was discontent, when something didn't go his way. When he was disappointed.
"I fear the Dark Warrior Program has failed."
Jak felt the latent barb of a sting under his skin at that. This was it, then. That was why Praxis had come—to see if this was worth it anymore. It wasn't, Jak knew it wasn't, and while that was the smallest, quietest victory he'd ever managed, it was more than he'd hoped for in a lifetime.
Praxis growled, spun—Jak heard him, limping forward—and grabbed Jak by the hair, pulling him up just slightly. Jak winced, tried to open his eyes and look, failed and fell limp again. Praxis spat in his ear, yelled that he should be dead, and Jak wished he had the strength to agree.
Why couldn't he be dead like all the others? Why was he still here?
The two continued back and forth for a long moment; he only understood bits and pieces, snatches of conversation and orders and a spike of fear from Erol when Praxis moved too close.
Then there was a hand on his chest and hot breath on his face and he opened his eyes for Erol—he could manage it for Erol—to just look at him.
"I'll be back later," he said, smooth and sleek and as much a threat as it was a promise. Jak didn't need to be told, and knew that Erol was putting on a show for Praxis. Erol would always be back later, he was the only constant in this place. The only one that Jak couldn't kill.
With that Erol let go, turned and followed Praxis out. Jak was alone.
He lay there for what only felt like a moment, three or four beats of his slowed heart, before his ears picked up on something else. A low drone, the frantic thrum of a much smaller heart beating with all its might, a voice. A voice he knew.
…It was impossible.
A weight on his chest, the smell of sand and sunshine and green growing things, a flash of orange and yellow and red in his memory, and that voice in his ears.
"Jak, it's me! Daxter!"
But Daxter was dead. Jak killed him. He remembered killing him, still couldn't get the taste of his blood out of his mouth.
He forced his eyes open, but couldn't make them focus. There was yellow and orange and red and brown and silver and blue, dark blue, wonderfully familiar dark blue. He closed his eyes again, relaxed back against the chair. No, this was a dream. It had been so long since the last that he could recall, but the eco must have woken up a new dream in him. A good dream. This Daxter wasn't dead—he wasn't changed back, but he wasn't dead.
It hurt to know that it was just a good dream.
Daxter went on, talking and babbling and being Daxter—more Daxter than the one he'd killed, alive and awake and too loud for his own good, familiar and right and not going anywhere—moving and kicking and flailing.
Then he dropped to his knees on Jak's chest, tugged on the scarf Erol had given him. Two years, he said. Had it really only been two years? It felt like longer, like eternity, but Erol hadn't ever given him another happy anniversary, had mentioned his age on a couple forms enough to keep the timing straight.
Two years. It had really been only two years. This Daxter knew that. He sounded right, he smelled right, he felt right. And he wasn't dead.
"Say something!" Daxter pleaded. "Just this once!"
Jak took a breath, and suddenly everything made sense.
It was a lie. A test. It wasn't Daxter, it was something else, someone else, some poor little boy who was in here for something he couldn't have deserved, who'd died by Jak's hand and on Jak's teeth.
It had been another one of Praxis' tests. An assessment.
He'd passed, but it was still a lie.
In that instant, all the rage he'd put out, all the fury he'd bottled away with the murder of his best friend and his only hope, flared back to life in brilliant electric violet, flashing and stinging behind his eyes.
Oh god, just once, Daxter pleaded, prayed in the moment of silence after he spoke. Jak's features—already so different than what Daxter remembered—twisted even further, muscles in his jaw tensing as he shook his head. Don't let him be dying, please, don't say I'm too late, don't make this something I can't fi—
Jak opened his eyes, pupils tightening to prinpricks amid that pain-darkened blue, and his voice emerged in a rugged growl.
"I'm gonna kill Praxis!"
Instantly Daxter slammed both hands over his mouth. Oh god, Precursors, that was worse than him being mute. So much worse. Jak was a hero, not a murderer, he didn't kill just to kill!
What had either of them done to deserve a fate like this?
"Shh!" Daxter hissed, pulling back to gesture with one hand, the other still on Jak's chapped lips. "Right now, we gotta get you outta here."
Jak closed his eyes, breath heaving, and Daxter's fur stood on end as electricity crackled through the air around him. He shook it off, fought to shake it off, and hopped over to survey one of the shackles binding Jak's wrists. "Just lemme figure out how to open the security locks on the chair, so that—"
He glanced back at Jak, and his blood went to ice as he saw Jak's skin turn pale, every muscle in his body tensing and expanding, clenched teeth suddenly too sharp and hair a thick, bristling white.
He jumped just as the snakes of electricity shot out around Jak and he ripped himself from his bonds, sitting up and looking at himself, at his bone-white hands and—and, Precursors, he had claws.
Daxter knew with cruel finality then that there was no fixing this. Ever. He was just too late.
Much, much too late.
It was like…falling. Like teetering on the very edge of nothing. Like standing on a boat in the middle of the ocean and spinning around with his arms outstretched, eyes wide and cast upward, straight into burning-white clouds.
And he did burn, fire lighting inside his skull, and the rage that set it to light sharpened into a knife through his chest. No turning back, no giving up. It was amazing.
The only surviving Dark Warrior was ready to fight his war.
He looked away from his hands—claws again, he hadn't had claws in so long—and pushed himself off the chair. He stumbled, bones groaning under the weight and skin screaming at the motion, and bent slightly to ease the pain. It felt better to curve his back like this, to hunker down and loosen his stance and stand like every bone in his body was loose, bent and twisted slightly beneath his eco-tempered musculature.
Black eyes—just black, no blue, barely a hint of violet where the light hit them—narrowed slightly at the flash of orange and yellow before him, shifting and weaving in its place.
Jak moved forward.
Kill it, cried the blade that shattered his psyche, that part of him that always hissed and cackled and whispered horrible things in the silence, reveled in the carnage Jak's masters let him create. I can kill it and eat it so I'll be strong, strong enough to kill Praxis, strong enough to laugh when Erol falls. Stronger than anyone, better than everyone, more than everything all put together.
It was just a lie anyway, wasn't it? Just another test. Another assessment. Like the one he'd killed before. If he killed this one, then he'd be complete, he'd be a success, Erol and Praxis would come back and he could laugh in their faces and strike and watch the life drain out of Praxis' eyes when he ripped his heart out through his throat.
All he had to do was kill this one, the last one, and he could—
"Jak, it's me!"
He was frantic, screaming and retreating, closer and closer to the edge. "Your old pal Daxter, remember?"
Jak gave a guttural growl as he moved in to strike, but broke off with a jerk. His eco-clouded, fury-tainted vision cleared. He blinked, eyes wide, and his voice shook.
The sudden shift back was dizzying, but not painful. He stumbled again as muscles shrunk and bones untwisted, horns disappeared into his hair and claws retracted into his fingers.
It was Daxter. Really and truly, not a dream or a test. Daxter. He'd almost—
But just almost. Jak had stopped himself.
"What the heck was that?!" Daxter hollered, waving his hands around as he came forward. His fur still stood up down his back, hackles raised reflexively, but his tone filled the void where discomfort and anxiety could have rooted.
Daxter knew it, too; knew exactly what he was doing. If he filled the silence he'd be safe, Jak wouldn't have time to get turned around again, that thing wouldn't come back—and he wouldn't have time to be absolutely terrified of his best friend.
"Jeeeez," he said dramatically, one hand on his hip and the other waving off in front of him as he looked up at Jak. "Remind me not to piss you off!"
Jak stared, blinking rapidly, and opened his mouth to say something, anything, give words to the friend he hadn't killed. Daxter deserved words, more words than Erol had gotten, more words than Praxis had stolen, more words than anyone in the world. He'd kept his promise. He came back. He remembered.
But all that emerged from Jak's mouth was a short, ragged cough.
Daxter's expression turned almost sympathetic, apologetic, pained, but it faded all too quickly and he waved his hands for Jak to follow. "C'mon, Tall Dark and Gruesome," he smiled, and it was only just forced. "We're outta here."
Jak took a step, and Daxter hopped up onto his shoulder, settling in instantly. It felt different—to both of them—but for that moment, that instant as they looked at each other and Jak began the tired trek forward, it didn't matter how different it felt, or how wrong all this was.
They were together again; inseparable and perfect, the greatest heroes their world had ever seen. Daxter tugged lightly at Jak's tunic, the word "criminal" emblazoned across his chest in crimson, and gave him a nudge in the back with his tail. "I got you some new threads," he said cheerfully, nodding toward the bundle he'd thrown up upon his arrival. "Put 'em on."
He nodded, sitting on the floor and urging Daxter off with a quick nudge of his shoulder, then pulled off his shirt with one hand.
Daxter almost pulled back as he held up the new tunic, watching as grey-green lifted away to reveal Jak's thin, bony frame. He could count his ribs, count his vertebrae, but couldn't possibly begin to count the number of scars slashing and crosshatching his skin.
He swallowed, held up the blue shirt—blue, Jak's favorite color, with long sleeves because this place was so much colder than Sandover—and held his ground. Jak took the garment and pulled it on without a word.
It took three hours to navigate the prison. Three hours of moving from level to level, jumping to platforms they weren't supposed to be standing on and slamming grey-tattooed faces into the floor to keep from being hurt.
Jak was amazing. Daxter hung on tight to his shoulderplate as he spun and kicked and jumped, and he tried not to think about how much better Jak was at this than he had been, the connotations behind the thought definitely not where he wanted his head right now. He settled for being filled with a sort of impressed wonder.
At least until the first time Jak grabbed one of the guards he'd knocked out by his head and dragged him far too easily to shove him off the edge, down into the dark.
Daxter shivered and pulled into himself a little. It was smart, really. Thorough. But understanding that didn't make it any less scary to see Jak doing it.
They moved on, down a refuse slide, into eco-contaminated water that flashed when Jak touched it, the particles of dark reacting to his presence. Daxter pointed to a stack of crates, and Jak just nodded before climbing up over them, onto the platform, and then finally jumped out the ventilation window.
He landed, straightened, and then his legs gave out.
Daxter clung to the metal plate as Jak fell, holding steady. "Hey, hey! You okay?"
Jak sat with his legs splayed in front of him, hands in his lap, eyes closed. He tilted his head back and opened his mouth as wide as he could—wide enough for Daxter to see that his teeth were still a little sharper than he remembered—and took in a deep gulp of air.
It wasn't clean, not by any means, but it was cool and damp and alive, chilled under moonlight and moved through trees and clouds and sky.
Precursors, it was wonderful.
Daxter put a hand on the side of Jak's head, giving his scarf a tug. "Jak?"
"I'm fine," he said at last, giving a slanted smile, opening his eyes and looking up at the stars. His brow creased. "What time is it?" His voice was deep and rough and strong, unfamiliar, but for this moment it was only just barely discontent, curious instead of tortured.
Daxter shrugged. "I dunno…'round midnight?"
Jak's smile faded a little. "Too bad…"
He turned and looked at Daxter then, and his eyes were so blue it was easy to believe that there was no blackness hiding in there, easy to forget just for now that there was a monster hiding just beneath the surface of everything Jak was.
"I want to see the sun."
A moment passed, then Daxter smiled. He patted Jak's back with his tail, waved a hand in dismissal. "Oh c'mon, I can wrangle up the sun for yah," his grin broadened. "Just give me a couple hours."
Jak gave him a look, the same kind he gave him when he slipped on a patch of wet grass outside the farmer's house back home, and Daxter felt lighter than he had in years. It passed too quickly, replaced by an almost businesslike interest.
"Anywhere good to see it come up?"
Daxter nodded. "Yeah. Yeah! I know this sweet spot, just a little ways away."
Jak stood up, Daxter pointed, and he started off. For just this moment, too short a moment, the darkness in him and the thirst for vengeance he'd been harboring for years wasn't enough to pull him down.
He had air, a sunrise on its way, the stars and the moon until then, and Daxter, very much alive on his shoulder.
For this moment, things were perfect.