Title: When You're a Stranger Author: Nix Rating: R Warning: Angst, eventual slash (m/m sexual relationship), and so on. And such. If any of that bothers you. well, don't read it, silly. Disclaimer: This all continues to belong to Disney, despite the fact that they canceled the series a few years ago. Also, the title is ganked from "People are Strange", property of the Doors. *** This is how people die. This is how kids wake up to find that their world's been torn apart. This is how you come to and find out that the monsters are real and instead of going to high school, you're going to the mines.

I'd like to know what karma I'm working off here, to wake up buried in trash more than three or four times in less than twenty years. Most people don't get that eerie sense of déjà vu from the smell of rot.

Maybe it's not déjà vu. Maybe all of this, Earth and hockey and the resistance and the Mask, has just been a pipe dream and any second, I'm going to wake up to a Saurian booting me in the ribs.

Not exactly conducive to opening your eyes here, Flashblade.

I don't care. I don't want to open my eyes and see Puckworld again. It's not the place I've been homesick for anymore. It's been twisted and the sky is red, and I'd rather throw myself on the guard's claws than go back to the mines and be broken all over again. I just. I can't. Not again.

Pansy. Wing wouldn't lie in the trash waiting for somebody to come kill him.

Yeah, well. We've already established who got the heroic streak in this family, and it wasn't me, thank you very much.

Something's moving in the trash beside me. There's a warm, heavy weight draped over my stomach, but that's not moving. So. Yeah.

Whatever the something else is, it's still moving, little twitchy motions that keep getting progressively closer. Doesn't sound like footsteps, especially heavy Saurian footfalls. Something smaller.

A scaly thing brushes my hand, and I can't help jerking upright and lashing out. Two things happen simultaneously: a small furry thing goes flying, and the weight on my stomach goes spilling down to slump in an awkward pile around my knees.

Whoa. Well, hello, adrenaline. My heart is pounding loud in my head. My breathing sounds harsh in the narrow confines of the alley. I reach for the puckblaster without thinking, and come up empty-handed. This is not boding well for my happy denial fantasy, here.

I grope in the garbage until something cuts my fingers. Ah, hygiene. I close my fingers around the unbroken part of the busted bottle and lift it up, staring at the place where the furry thing disappeared. It starts to twitch, soft noises coming from the place it went under, and I get ready to throw the bottle.

A small, angular head pokes up, black eyes peering at me balefully. The rat sniffs just to let me know I've been insulted.

I can't throw a bottle at an unarmed rat. Mookie would kill me.

I set the bottle down and hold out my empty hand. It sniffs again and disappears. I think I was just dissed by a rat.

This probably isn't a real good time to break down in hysterics. Or, hell, maybe it's the best possible time to break down in hysterics, depending. I wonder if going completely insane would buffer the mines. I know some people who tried it, but you know, it's kind of hard to hold conversations with people who are playing tea party inside their head. Never mind the slave driver holding the force whips, and all.

I don't want to look up and see red dust, the angry sky. I don't want to know. Avoidance is my friend.

Still. I can't just. I have to know, before I can do anything here. I have to see.

I'm fairly sure I'm cringing, but there's nobody here to laugh. Tilting my face up, I close my eyes and brace myself. Please, please, let me be anywhere else but home.


Oh, stars, thank you.

The sky is dark, but it's a natural dark without the cloudy weight of ash in the air. In other words, it's not Puckworld.

That established, maybe I can convince myself to move.

My arm hurts. For that matter, everything seems to hurt in varying degrees, competing to see which can make me curl up and howl. It just gets worse when I shift my weight forward, getting my knees under me.

As soon as I'm halfway up, I almost fall back into the pile of garbage when the bundle of weight I just pushed off my knees starts moving. Weak movements, but definitely there.

Well. Shit.

Ready to jerk back, I reach out and gingerly poke the bundle of skinny limbs draped under a heavy trenchcoat. An oddly familiar one, at that, but whatever. Lots of people have trenchcoats. Street person chic.

Okay. So I'm supposed to be the alien defender of humanity, or whatever. I have to check and see if he's not dying, even if I have no idea what to do with myself at this point, but if I don't get an answer, I'm out of here. My noble gestures only go so far when I'm sitting in dumpsters.

I open my mouth and ask, "You okay?"

Or I should have. Theoretically. If all was right and fair in the universe. This isn't the case, obviously, because instead of 'you okay', all that came out was a rusty, airless squeak that made my throat scream.

My urge to swear and kick something is scaling up by the second. I'm good, though. I clear my throat and try again. This time, instead of an airless squeak, I get a vowel sound and the feeling that I've been chewing glass.

Stars. Because the garbage thing just wasn't bad enough for one night, nooo.

I rub my throat. There's something strange about the way my shirt is laying over my neck, over everything, but I can worry about it later. For the moment, I reach down and shake trenchcoat guy's shoulder hard enough to bruise him or something. I'm not entirely sure what I'm planning to do if he wakes up. Maybe play charades?

Funny, Flashblade. Hilarious. You're in the middle of nowhere, unarmed, with no way to call Wing. Joke out of this one. Go ahead.

My head is pounding. I've mentioned that, right?

Trenchcoat guy moans something and rolls away from my hand, exposing one side of his face to the light. He doesn't look great, but judging from the various scars and such on his face, that's not such a new thing. There's a streak of gray inching up into the mop of dark hair, even though he doesn't look that old by human standards. I don't see any blood on this side of his face.

Okay. All I have to do is flip him over and make sure there's no blood or any reason why he'd kick it, and then I can go. Shut up, conscience, I'm busy listening to self-preservation for once.

I grab a handful of coat and turn him over, trying not to snap his head around or another. If he broke anything, rolling from my stomach to my knees has probably messed him up more than a head tilt could. Still, I try to put his head at a natural angle before bending to look at his face.

Which is. oh. Ow.

It doesn't look like he was hurt recently. He's actually not all that bruised or damaged, unless you look at the patch of empty skin where one eye used to be. It's smooth, old wound healed over, looking so horribly naked that I feel bad looking at it. And yet I look anyway.

It looks like the eye was cut out. There's this small, pale mark like the tip of a blade.

Or a saber.

The thought sinks into my stomach like a heavy weight. It's crazy. Crazy for me, even, the sort of wild idea that regularly gets me chuckled at and patted on the head. But the gray streaks in his hair, the scars and the crook of his nose like it'd been broken more than once, the eye.

I'd like to say my hand isn't shaking when I reach down and tug open the trenchcoat, but I'd be lying. The coat slides apart and I find myself staring at the familiar gear I've seen him wear into battle. Stained and torn, yeah, but it's the same.

It's Duke. A very human Duke.

So it would follow that I'm.

My throat feels tight, and my head very light as I reach down and tug at the glove covering my hand. My fingers are clumsy, shaking, making it kinda hard to work the straps, but after a few frustrating fumbles, the cloth pulls harshly away.

And here I sit, staring at a hand I don't recognize. It's the same shape as mine, I guess, but the feathers are gone. It looks bare, naked. I flex my fingers once, and they flex with me, familiar and alien at once.

Stars. I'm not sure whether to laugh or be sick. Canard was right; the universe has a strange, sick sense of humor.

My hand feels cold, so I pull the glove back on. I'm too tired to freak out in earnest. I guess this must be shock.

Wing'll fix it. Wing always fixes it.

Duke's face pulls tight with what looks like pain, then eases. His eyelashes flicker. It feels too personal, without the feathers or the eyepatch, so I look away for a few seconds. When I look back, his eye is open. He turns his head, taking everything in with a few quick motions, then stops when he sees me. His eye narrows.

I smile. Or at least try. Hey, it's something.

"What.?" It's jarring, to hear that familiar voice sliding from a very unfamiliar mouth, but I don't think I've ever been this glad to hear him talk.

All times he's been condescending or made a really, really bad joke is officially forgiven. He can call Wing and we can go home. Stars, thank you.

Except. Except the look he's giving me is not exactly friendly. Except he's propping himself up on his elbows and reaching for a weapon that isn't there, then narrowing his eye when he comes up empty-handed.

His mouth twists in a hard smile that makes him look that much older, and he says, "Okay, kid. You mind telling me who the hell you are?"

Yeah. Definitely my bad karma.