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Author's Note: samantha2074 in the Yuletide 2004 Challenge. This story takes place during and after "Lessons" and references the events of both "Lessons" and "Dream Thieves."

Strays
by Tara LJC O'Shea

"I lost my daughter and her mother, and nobody took me home." "That's because you're a big boy, and you get to see them at week-ends." — Murray and Edison, "Lessons"

Murray watched with a vague sense of accomplishment as the pirating equipment was loaded into the back of the Metrocops van. He was used to associating the sensation with ratings points, or Cheviot's goodwill. There was something heady about seeing the smile on Blank Bruno's face rather than on a screen, and knowing the fringers and blanks had recognised his part in this small battle won. It was no wonder Edison was addicted to this particular rush.

"Frances! Frances!" Mink called as she raced across the rubble littering the front of the building and was scooped up in her mother's arms. While she had been a solemn, quiet little thing during her time in Control, her face now was alive with a brilliant smile as Frances held her in a fierce bear-hug, the bells in Frances' hair creating random music.

"What happened to the days when children referred to their parents as 'Mom' and 'Dad''?" Murray asked Theora, who trailed behind the mother-and-daughter reunion with a gentle smile.

"Gone the way of the dodo, I think." She threaded her arm through his as they walked. "We live in a world where the head of Research and Development for a major television network was hired before he hit puberty."

"That's right." Murray had a sudden flash of Grossberg hiring Bryce straight out of ACS, a snot-nosed little 12 year old genius, and shuddered. "That kind of scares me."

"Now that we've given Bryce a taste of Control, he may be harder to send back to the R&D dungeon than we think."

"Cheviot would have my ass in a sling, if I stuck his ace researcher guiding someone like Bresson through puff pieces."

Theora smiled warmly, her blue eyes dancing with barely suppressed mirth. "You mean you wouldn't let him keep my job?"

"Of course not. Bryce might be a kiddie genius, but you're still the best Controller in the business." He had never for a second regretted his decision to play hardball with World One, offering her a position for almost twice what starting controllers made at Network XXIII. Cheviot had raised an eyebrow, once the smoke had cleared and he'd actually gotten a look at Theora's personnel file, but Murray knew that no one else could have safely seen Edison through some of the scrapes he'd gotten himself into.

"You were quite heroic in there—fighting off Metrocops single-handed."

"What?" Murray flushed, trying not to think about how his hand still hurt, the skin over his knuckles broken against some poor schlubb's teeth. "No. No, I was just following Edison's lead."

"Murray! I think you're blushing." In another life and another time, he would be giddy that a beautiful woman could still make him blush. However, this was neither.

"I was out in the field, once, you know. Probably before you hit puberty, come to think of it. Great. Now I feel old."

"You are old." Edison jumped down from the cracked cement stoop of the crumbling building, where he had been shooting a wide shot for Control to use when they re-cut and re-cast the story for the Asian market in a few hours.

"Thanks, Edison."

"Tell him I heard that kiddie genius crack," Bryce's voice came over the link from Edison's vidicam. Luckily, the light atop the vidicam was glowing steadily green, which meant they were the only audience for Bryce's snarky comments, and not the entire Network XXIII audience.

"Bryce says 'hi,'" Edison translated dryly, as Theora dropped Murray's arm and moved closer to Edison's side. Murray wondered if she realised how close to the surface she wore her affections. Then again, this was Theora he was talking about. She was always in control, even when she wasn't in Control.

"You gonna stick around for the rest of the carnival?" Edison asked as he shouldered his camera. "The night is young, and so are we. Well, some of us, anyway."

"I'm going to head home," Murray said with a shrug. "But you two have fun—and try not to pick up any more strays, okay?"


Murray inserted his tube into the door, which chimed in recognition, even though Murray hadn't lived there in five years. Lisa appeared a few moments later, not smiling—never smiling to see him, not in a long time—the little worry line between her eyebrows like a permanent mark.

She was wearing a nice cocktail dress, her brown hair loose over her shoulders, but no make-up or shoes, as if he'd caught her getting ready to go out or just getting back from an evening on the town. He was struck, as always, by how she never looked her forty years, while he seemed to carry every year like a millstone around his neck.

She used to find his perpetual hang-dog expression endearing.

By the end, he doubted that was the case.

"I wasn't expecting you until Saturday," Lisa said as he folded his trenchcoat over his arm but kept it with him—a subtle sign to reassure her that he didn't plan on staying long.

"I know," he shrugged, hating how awkward it felt to be a guest in what had once been his own home. "I just wanted... I wanted to wish Annie a Happy Sky Clearance."

"Is something wrong?"

"No. No, everything's fine. I just wanted to come by. I hope that's okay."

"It's fine," she insisted, her expression softening, and for a second, he could see the Lisa he'd known behind her eyes. "She's upstairs, getting ready for bed."

They'd met when he was still a wet-behind-the-ears journalism student, barely out of the drudgework of the Comm room, with his eye on becoming an in-field reporter. She had been getting her masters in communications, and they'd had some extraordinary arguments, those first few years, about the media's place had in a world increasingly reliant on the 'nets. She still carried romantic ideals about the Edward R Murrows of yesteryear, while Murray simply wanted to slip the truth past the Network as often as he could before he got caught and thrown out on his ear. He'd always been more comfortable leaving the crusading to firebrands like Edison.

Once Annie was born, the fights had changed. Lisa hadn't wanted him risking his life out in the fringes, so Murray'd switched tracks—become a junior producer in the newsroom, and discovered he was much better at managing than reporting. Unfortunately, neither of them had been prepared for how much time running a major network's newsroom would take. As far as Lisa was concerned, Murray had missed too many first steps, piano recitals, birthdays, and Xmases to call himself Annie's father sometimes. On bad days, Murray couldn't disagree with her.

He started towards the stairs, when she laid a hand on his arm.

"I heard about Patrick," she said softly, and it hit him like an unexpected blow. "I'm so sorry."

Murray felt a twinge of guilt. She shouldn't have had to find out about Paddy Ashton's death from a stranger. But when Edison had found Paddy's body in the fringes, it had thrown both of them. Put them off their game. It had been weeks since the Mind's Eye story—Paddy's final story—had broken, and Murray and Edison had said their final farewells to the vid screen in Glad Hand Meadows. He should have called her, let her know. She'd known Paddy too, after all.

He and Lisa had invited both Paddy and Edison home for dinner a few times, when they were both cub reporters at Network XXIII, and Murray had just been made producer. Back when he still believed he was a husband and a father first, and a producer second. Lisa and Annie had fed that lie as long as they could before it simply became too much, and it became easier to live without him than pretend he was still a part of their lives.

Lisa had always laughingly accused Murray of taking in strays, but she was always the one who made sure Edison and Paddy never left without getting second helpings. They were both young charmers who had a way with the ladies, but Lisa had always liked Paddy especially. She'd tried for months to get Murray to set him up with her cousin the dental hygienist, convinced a nice young man like that should settle down and start a family. Lisa had been right; Paddy had been nice. In the end, just a bit too nice to cut it as an investigative journalist. She'd understood why Murray had chosen Edison over Paddy, but that hadn't meant she liked him a bit less.

Oddly enough, while they were still married, she had never tried her match-making skills on Edison. That she had left up to Murray.

"How did Edison take it?" she asked, and he wasn't surprised. Edison and Paddy may have been fierce rivals, but it made sense to him that Lisa would remember them as good friends.

"Badly. We both did."

She gave his arm a gentle squeeze, a poor substitute for the hug he wanted: her arms wrapped around him, the scent of her hair chasing away his worries. Just another reminder that the woman he'd married hadn't lived here for a long time. But he didn't—couldn't—blame her. Because he wasn't sure if he'd even met the man she married.

"Go on up. I'm sure she'll be glad to see you."


Annie's door was, Murray supposed, a typical example of a normal sixteen-year-old's bedroom door. It was decorated with yellow Metrocop crime-scene tape—something Murray was used to seeing under very different circumstances—and a variety of tin signs with messages such as "Hazardous Waste", "No Entry", and his personal favourite, "Max Headroom 2.3 M." He could see a crack of light under the door, and heard an explosion of noise that sounded like something Blank Reg would have on permanent rotation at Big Time.

The only sixteen-year-old Murray had spent any amount of time with in the last year was Bryce. Sometimes, that skewed his view of teenagers in general. He was always forcibly reminding himself that not every ten year old vanished into the Academy of Computer Sciences to be regurgitated two years later, seemingly devoid of human emotion. And to be fair, Bryce had his moments of pure kid-like behaviour. Unfortunately, he had a multi-billion dollar television network at his disposal, and so his idea of diversions could be more dangerous than setting a bag of dog poop on fire and ringing a stranger's doorbell.

He knocked lightly, and the raucous din emanating from the TV was turned down a hair's breadth. He waited, shifting his weight from foot to foot, and then knocked again.

"Annie? It's Dad. Um... Murray."

The door opened, and noise and light spilled into the hallway. Anne Murray was definitely her father's daughter, but Lisa's genetic contribution balanced out some of the hard knocks that Murray's side of the family had dealt her. She had her mother's startling blue eyes, and he swore she'd grown three inches since the last time he'd seen her. She wore bike shorts, a long purple shirt, and green socks, her light-brown hair twisted up into a series of spikes and braids held in place with ribbons and clips and a violently orange silk bandanna tied beneath her ear in an approximation of the hairstyles he saw in the fringes every day.

He remembered Crane complaining to him about having to do a filler story a few weeks back on the 'Plex babies, and how they had—to the great consternation of their parents—taken to aping the rag-tag styles of the fringers. The difference of course being that in the 'Plex, a suitably distressed pair of ripped jeans cost more than most fringers saw in their adult lives.

"Huh," she said as she looked him up and down, an it was hard for him to remember she was half on her way to adulthood and not still eight years old.

"What?" he asked as she stepped aside, skirting the edge of piles of clothes in the middle of her floor, so he could come the rest of the way inside. The walls were festooned with flimsy pin-ups of Scumball players and whatever idol singer Zik-Zak was currently pushing. The shiny red bicycle he'd gotten her for Xmas the year before was serving as a coat rack in one corner.

"Now I understand why Mom says you always look like you sleep in your suits."

"I look like I slept in this suit?" Murray glanced down at the charcoal grey three-piece suit he was wearing. True, he'd put it on that morning expecting to go to work and stay there. The jacket had spent most of the day draped over the back of Theora's station as he'd filled in while she accompanied Edison out to the fringes. And the tie had seen perhaps better days. But he thought it was one of his nattier ensembles.

"More like you look permanently rumpled," Annie amended, flopping down on the edge of her bed, and cycled the volume on the TV set down to the third lowest setting. "Somehow, it works for you."

"Now you sound like Edison," Murray grumbled, and she grinned.

Annie's grin was something he didn't think he could live without, and he as glad that no matter how badly things had ended between him and Lisa, his daughter didn't consider him "the enemy". He supposed, in these days of short-term contract marriages and domestic partnerships, Annie was hardly alone among her friends in being raised by a single parent and only seeing her father on designated week-ends and holidays. Having grown up in a simpler era when divorce was a rarity rather than a given, it was just another thing that made Murray feel his age keenly.

He glanced at the screen, which showed the city sky, the shower of glowing metal like falling stars, raining down on the fringes.

"Did you, ah... catch the show tonight?"

"With the missing girl?" Annie asked as she pulled off her socks and threw them in the general vicinity of the hamper. Her toenails were painted a livid green. This little piggy went to market... his mind supplied, and he felt a lump form in his throat.

"Her name is Mink. Yeah."

"Part of it," Annie said as she began removing all the clips from her hair. The bandanna she wound around the knob at the foot of her bed. "Did Edison find her mom?"

"We did, yeah."

"Cool. She looked like a cute kid."

"Yeah. She is. And you know what?"

"What?"

He tweaked her nose. "You're a pretty cute kid, too."

She rolled her eyes, every inch the restless teenager again, not the little girl who would stay up past her bedtime to greet him when he came through the door after a long night.

"Hey, I brought you something." Patting the pockets of his suit jacket, he pulled out a shiny square of metal.

Annie turned it over in the palm of her hand, then held it up to the light. "What is it?"

"Well... it's either part of a downed Zik-Zak satellite, or a piece of trash someone threw at my head." Too be fair, he genuinely wasn't sure which it was, but he figured it was the thought that counted. "I thought you might want it as a Sky Carnival souvenir."

Annie pouted, her full bottom lip reminding him of when she had been a baby stubbornly refusing to eat her Zik-Zak soy cereal. "Mom wouldn't let me go to Sky Carnival."

"Well, it's in the fringes," he said by way of explanation.

"You go to the fringes," she pointed out. "All the time—"

"—not all the time," he said quickly, then realised that lately he'd spent a lot more time there ever since they'd met Dom and Reg. Prior to Edison becoming embroiled in various schemes that seemed to call for him to get shot at, drugged, and occasionally slapped by beautiful women, Murray could count on one hand the number of times he'd ventured beyond the safe, clean CitiPlex streets since taking the producer job. He still thought of the fringes as a war zone. The fact that the chopper pilots like Martinez and Shaw likened their Network jobs to combat probably did little to diminish the similarity.

"It's not all that safe for little girls out there," he reminded her, thinking of Mink and the other fringer kids, living in squats, having to learn in secret schools because they couldn't afford access to the subscription channels.

"Dad, I'm not little." Annie was still pouting, and he gave her a one-armed hug.

"You're sixteen. See? I pay attention."

She leaned her head on his shoulder. "You didn't make it to my birthday dinner."

"There was a Global ratings sweep."

"There was a birthday cake. Chocolate, with raspberry. Your favourite."

"Next time, maybe I should just sic you on Ben Cheviot. Nobody can say no to my little girl."

She leaned over and carefully set the chunk of metal down on top the television, next to her school ident tube, and a hair-tie with purple feathers dangling from it.

"Dad? How come you came by so late?"

He thought back to when Annie had been little, and how she'd learned her ABCs from Dr. Friendly. He'd completely taken his middle-class lifestyle for granted until he'd seen the grin on Mink's face when Theora had punched up the programme at her terminal.

Part of him wanted to make Annie understand just how lucky she was, so she wouldn't take anything for granted. Another part of him—the part of him labelled "Father"—wanted to shield her from harsh reality as long as he could, so she could have a shot at growing up a happy, well-adjusted kid for as long as possible.

"Just missed you, kiddo."

"You're gonna see me this week-end," she reminded him.

"I know. But can't a dad miss his daughter, once in a while?"

Annie paused in the middle of unplating her hair, her blue eyes travelling over him again, as if he was a puzzle that she had to figure out. She lingered on his right hand, and he glanced down to see purple and red bruises forming across the knuckles.

He nonchalantly slipped the hand in the pocket of his suit coat.

"You're acting kinda weird."

"Now you definitely sound like Edison," he chuckled, and pressed a kiss to her forehead. "It's late, and don't you have school tomorrow?"

She rolled her eyes again. "See you Saturday?"

"You bet."

"Even if there's a global thingie?" The question was almost a challenge.

"I promise."

He closed her bedroom door behind him, and hoped it was a promise he could keep.