Author's Note: Hello! Finally getting back to this, and I'm so sorry for the delay. I'm trying to finish up my degree, hold two jobs, and get married to my long-suffering fiancé, so unfortunately this fic has gotten pretty neglected. I do sincerely apologize for that, as I know it's got to be frustrating. I will try to do better in the future. Thank you all so much for your patience and your kind feedback! Also, for those of you familiar with ASL, the sentence structure has been shifted a little bit here for clarity's sake. I apologize for the change, but I'm not familiar enough with the language to do it proper justice. Enjoy! **** "You define yourself by your company And by the promises you make, And the ones that you keep. Sleep the sleep of the blessed, Dream the dreams of the whole. Forget when you wake how far you've fallen Down below." - Nick Cave **** (Duke)

I can sit in front of a locked store for days, scoping it out. I can go through the same travelling exhibit three times a day for a week to pick up information, weaknesses, security flaws. I can dangle from my heels for hours during a heist. But when it comes to people? I'm not a very patient guy.

It's been three days. Three very long, silent days since we left the Pond, the kid trailing behind me. It's not like he was talkative before, but at least he didn't look dazed, like somebody hauled off and slapped him hard. He just nods or shakes his head, no more pantomime or scribbled notes, even for questions that take more than yes-no answers. Absent-minded is understandable, but catatonic?

Which is probably why I'm sitting in Doc's office, watching him putter. I hate watching Doc putter, but I guess the world's most put-upon field surgeon deserves to fidget if he wants. At the moment, it's the magazine straightening. Next is the dreaded dusting. Hopefully I can get my advice and be gone before that starts.

"It's completely understandable," Doc lectures, flipping through one magazine idly as he talks, sounding very smugly amused. Yay, multitasking. Wonder if I could ricochet a tongue depressor off the back of his head from here. "He's had a shock. His whole protection system just came crashing down on his head. Give him a few days."

How very not reassuring. "What if he needs longer? What if he's cracked?"

Doc glances slyly up, over his glasses. "Thought you didn't care."

"Thought you wanted me to. Make up your mind, old man."

He snorts. "And since when have you obeyed my orders?"

I fold my arms and glare. "Merry Christmas."

Rolling his eyes, Doc doesn't lower himself to answering. Instead, he says, "You'd both best lay low for a while, anyway."

I tense up. "Why?"

"The higher-ups have remembered your existence again, just in time to hear some strange reports. Something about a blond kid hanging around your room, eating your food. might be exactly the reason that they've been waiting for to make an example out of you."

"Uh-huh. I've only got one other eye."

"And two good hands, which is exactly why you piss them off in the first place. Imagine, the lowly journeyman who could steal out from under the noses of the people who are actually in charge. If that got out-"

"It'd change exactly nothing."

"That's not their opinion."

"Well, they're idiots. Thought we established that."

"They're also violent idiots who like to make examples of smart-mouthed underlings." Dropping the magazine on top of a wavering pile, Doc adds, "Unless you've forgotten the boy last year who got all of the bones in his hands broken for sneaking into the food stores."

"No. No, I remember." Mostly because it was Blade who did the breaking. Mostly because said breaking was done right in front of me, with Blade's free hand. The other had been tangled up in my hair, so I had to watch, so I couldn't flinch. I don't forget what finally made me push him into the sewer and hold his head under.

Shaking that thought off, I look up at Doc. "So you're telling me to stay up top for a few days?"

"Something like that. Wouldn't hurt to make the kid get a haircut or some dye or even a set of clothes that didn't look like they were puked up by a thrift shop."

"Those were my clothes."

Doc gives me a single look that says volumes, both about my taste and.. well. About something which I would prefer not to discuss, actually. Thankfully, something over my shoulder diverts his attention. He glances that way, and the small smile that warms his face tells me everything I need to know, even before he says, "Hey."

Oh, hell.

Dive, who is in absolutely no way an acceptable substitute for a Chia Pet and probably five times the trouble, does his damnedest to hold up the door and stare at me. So, as I'm well-accustomed to cutting off my nose to spite my face, I stare right back at him.

It's Doc who finally breaks the silence by clearing his throat and stepping around me, sparing me a single glance back over his shoulder. Right, I'm supposed to be the mature one here. But he started it.

"How you doin', kid?" Doc asks.

The kid in question shrugs. I notice that he doesn't glance away from Doc, either. There's a challenge in the way he stands, coiled energy, that didn't used to be there. He holds himself like he's ready to run.

It's the only way to live down here. You can't trust the world. You can barely trust yourself. So why do I feel like shit for not making sure he stayed the way he started?

I kept him safe. I kept him out of jail and alive, for fuck's sake. I took him back here. I've never taken anybody back here. And here he stands, looking at me with the same blankness I've seen in my own eyes a thousand times over.

Well. So what? I'm supposed to teach him. I taught him. Lesson one: how the truth hurts, but your delusions are what gut you in the end.

Lesson three: how to kill your teacher, hide the body and teach your goddamned self. I'd like to avoid this one, for my sake. I'm not Blade, but I'm no saint. The kid's not me, but he's not the walking billboard for mental stability either. I guess between us, we might have half a shot. Too bad we're keeping this under wraps, the whole Brotherhood could take a death pool.

Shaking off that line of thinking, I nod at the kid. "You in the mood for a field trip?"

He shrugs one shoulder and shoves his hands in his pockets, still watching Doc. I hate to tell him, but the attacks are more likely to come from behind around here. I turn to Doc. "Thanks for the update. I'll be back in a few days."

Doc waves that off. "Keep your nose clean and try not to get the both of you arrested." Looking over my shoulder, he grins at the kid. I've only seen that grin a few times before, mostly for the kids who end up here because it's safer than home. I don't think the kid realizes that it's an honor. "Don't let this one overwork you, now. And remember, you get a cut of everything you two pick up aboveground."

Right. Like I'm going to bilk my own apprentice. I've got some morals. Not much, but some. More than I'd like when it comes to the kid propping up the doorway with his shoulder. If the petty theft thing falls through, I can always use him as a skinny blond doorstop.

At least he's anonymous. In California, skinny blonds are a dime a dozen. Shouldn't be too hard hiding him in the Saturday afternoon crowds, which means we ought to go now.

I slap Doc's shoulder in passing, shoot him a smile over my shoulder. We don't say goodbye. We never have. Considering that we're the one and only constants in each other's lives, it'd be a lot like saying goodbye to breathing. It's always there, even if you're not paying attention, and that's what keeps you alive.

Or maybe I need to lay off the deep and meaningful literature for a while.

"Come on, kid." I take said kid's arm and steer him out of the doorway. "We'll go through the back ways."

And we walk out of the Brotherhood, not looking back. It's what I've done a thousand times, sometimes with the intention of never coming back. It's the best thing going for thieves on the West Coast, but Doc's the only thing that pulls me home again. Otherwise, I'd be out on my own, living the good life. Nice apartment, maybe, regular meals, a commute that doesn't involve sewers and no flunkies waiting around the corner to break fingers should the higher-ups figure out what I've been up to.

I don't take higher-ups well. Go figure.

Judging from the fact that Dive puts up with being steered for about five minutes before taking his arm back, I'm in good company. This is me not mentioning the word 'apprentice', 'assistant' or 'flunkie' to the kid. Unless he annoys me, of course, in which case it's all fair game.

For the first stretch, the 'back way' looks a lot like the way we came in: dark, wet, moderately disgusting. Dive makes a face at me when we get to the doorway, but follows without too much hesitation. This time I can't feel the tension coming off him in waves. This time we don't have to stop, and he barely fumbles.

So that's what he was doing those three days: forgetting. Putting the past behind him. And God, what a past that was. I've heard delusions before, but most kids come up with something better than reality to believe in. As comforting lies go, mass genocide and enslavement? Not that high on the scale.

Or maybe so. Better that it be strange aliens who give you that kind of scars than your own kind, I guess. Better that than your own family. At least then you can pretend you've got somewhere to go.

I wouldn't know. I guess the kid wouldn't either, considering that his 'family' didn't recognize him,

You make your own family. The kid can make his with someone else, thank you.

I look up, squinting in the dark to find the faint sliver of light in the ceiling. I know it's right about. ah. Here. Reaching back, I plant a hand on the kid's chest to keep him from plowing into me. I don't connect. He stopped when I did.

Well, well. Good instincts, when he isn't scared witless. Duly noted. I could use another set of those, if while I'm aboveground I decide to pull a heist-

No. I don't need another set of instincts that badly. Even if it is tempting. The heists are mine, damn it, and no upstart kid is going to change that.

"Sit," I tell him, largely to be annoying.

It's just light enough here that I can see which finger Dive decides to salute with. Laughing at him, I feel along the wall. The notches are still there, slimy with mold and worse. Nice to know that the Anaheim Maintenance crews are taking such good care of the place.

I climb the first notch, nudge the kid with a toe so he knows to follow, and keep going. This little number was designed for people coming from the top down, not from below to above, so it makes it a bit difficult to balance on the notches and open the hatch at the same time.

I manage. Something about that hobby of hanging upside-down from museum ceilings has done wonders for my ability to balance with my knees. I used to be real popular with the ladies.

The hatch flips open, spilling in light and clean air. I'm not the claustrophobic, and I suck it in like I was drowning. There's something to be said for California in its own right. I miss the rush-and-run of New York sometimes, but Anaheim sparkles like a cut jewel and I'm no man to turn down a sparkly thing when it comes to me.

I haul myself out of the hole and on to the concrete platform of the Anaheim Subway. Metrolink. I left New York when I was 13, and I still think in their terms. So much for leaving the past behind. Me, hypocritical?

I turn and offer Dive a hand up and out. He's looking around before he even gets his feet, taking everything in. I don't know if it's curiosity, looking for the nearest shiny thing, or whether he's actually taking in and remembering everything he sees. And that worries me.

Sure, Doc, I'll take an apprentice. What the hell am I supposed to do with him? Aptitude test?

Thankfully, we came up in the shadows on the far-end of the platform, where people don't generally go unless they're crowded there. The tourists are chattering to each other or peering down the rail, and the locals tend not to notice anything short of an explosion.

Another lesson. I touch Dive's arm. "People trying to get where they're going are the easiest mark of them all."

He looks at me, head tilted a little. Guess I should have grabbed paper before we left, but oh, well. This lecture gets to go uninterrupted.

I look the platform over. It's mostly families, couples, huddled groups trying not to bump into other huddled groups. They're too poor, they've got kids, they're probably newlyweds.. aha.

There's a couple towards the back of the group. Older guy, well-dressed, yelling into a cel-phone at someone who's probably his secretary. The words 'stupid', 'careless' and 'fired' keep coming up. Every once in a while he stops to glare at the kid of the nearest group, who keeps edging too far into Mr. Personality's space. Everything about the guy screams privilege, undeserved privilege, and old money.

Maybe it's stupid of me to try to be moral about these things. But, hey. Never said I wasn't stupid.

I nudge Dive, nod towards the steps leading up to the street. He goes, and I follow, weaving through the people. I can hear the faint rattle-shriek of the train coming down the line, and grin. Wonderful. My timing stands.

Mr. Personality is still chattering and cursing away, one hand swinging now like he wants to smack the unfortunate underling across the face. When I bump him, he turns to glower, but apparently it's easier to bellow at people who aren't there to grin dangerously at you. He lets me go, muttering, and never notices that his wallet comes with me. Nobody else is paying attention.

But Dive sees. Oh, yeah. I'm thinking that when the kid looks around, he doesn't miss much. As we head up the stairs, he turns and looks at me. His eyes are dark, reproachful.

I tap his nose with the wallet. "Don't get all moral on me, kiddo." I open the wallet and pull out the pictures. The green bills feather out. Ah, my favorite color. "Look at this. All of this, he earned by fucking over other people and screaming at his secretaries. He probably cheats on his wife, steals money from the company and scars his kid."

The kid waves his hands, then sighs and grabs one of the business cards in the guy's wallet. With a pen he'd had in his pocket, he scribbles, /You don't know that./

"No. But you don't know that he doesn't, do you? And you know that of the two of us, I'm probably right. Spend any time with people and you figure that out real fast." I page through the bills, pull out the bigger bills. About a hundred in all, just in big bills. "And he's an idiot for carrying that much. Consider it a lesson in humility."

Pulling out the rest of the money as we come to the top of the stairs, I pocket the money and use a break in the crowd to drop the wallet and kick it under a parked car. Somebody'll return it. Or they won't. Watch me care.

The kid is still watching me, a little less troubled but still wary.

I sigh at him, shove my hands in my pockets. "Look. In that story you told me, with the Saurians and Wildwing and the revolution?"

Dive makes a face, but nods.

"Well. It seems to be that in that story, you didn't get too many choices. You were a kid, and then you were a slave, and then you were a hero. All of it was laid out for you, right from the start, by people who happened to be stronger or older than you." I grab his arm, make him stop. "So. My point is, that story isn't real."

The fact that he doesn't wince says something. No pain, then. No regret. Good. That's encouraging.

"This is the real world, Dive. There aren't any heroes, and not really that many villains. Just choices." Reaching into my pocket, I count out fifty and lay them in his hand, closing his fingers around them. "You never gave me an answer on that petty theft question, so I'm asking you again. You tell me right now that you don't want that money, that the guy in the subway deserves it more than we do, and I'll pay for a cab to take you far away from me. This never happened."

His hand is warm. His eyes are dark. He considers the money in his hand, just breathing through parted lips. The world is slow around us, not important anymore.

He looks up, raises his eyes to mine, and I can feel my heart beating in my ears.

Oh, no. No, no, no. I don't want this.

Then the look breaks, and he smiles. It's a slow smile, but a promising one. Mischief and mayhem with a keen mind behind it, all wrapped up in a dangerous smile. He nods, once, and that's enough for me.

I rumple his hair, which is strange but somehow feels right with him. "Good. Now. Shall we go get you some stuff?"

He nods again, shoving the money gracelessly in his pocket. The switch is amazing, in the way he stands, in the way he smiles, in the way he moves. Confidence. He has made A Decision, and so that Decision shall be, damn it.

I am so amused.

We move off towards downtown, scaring off most of the tourists between my missing eye and the kid's overall grungy malcontent look. The street musicians like us, though; Dive hands off about twenty bucks to a skinny kid with a drum, meets my eye and shrugs, as if to say 'we can get more'.

True enough. I can't really say anything, even though I've been waiting until the kid's back is turned before I start passing out the cash. My Robin Hood complex is the last thing I need getting out on the street.

The sidewalks take us to the center of town, where shops and lights and noise and people crowd together in one chaotic jumble. I tug the kid's arm, guide him over to right side of the street. Here's where it's nice to be abnormal; people see my face and look away after that first gliding glance. They'll think that it's a story of a nice young man guiding his blind friend across a busy intersection. The mute leading the blind, if you will. Heh.

I palm a wallet on principle as we cross, step on to the curb, and catch Dive pocketing his own find. I'd rather he waited, but judging from the notable lack of indignant screaming, he's a natural.

So, I rumple his hair again. He glares, which distracts him properly, and does a doubletake as I sweep past him into the bookstore on the corner.

It's one of those monstrous empire numbers, of course. I target the same kind of stores as I do people. Even if it's easier to bilk a small business, these places are more gratifying. Can't say I don't have a huge anarchist streak somewhere in my black, black heart.

The girl behind the counter, overworked and underpaid, looks up and manages a strained smile. I nod at her, graciously. Can't be rude, after all.

That time, the kid almost plows into me from behind. So much for instinct. Tugging at my arm, he waves a business card reading /why here?/ in huge letters.

I swat at his hand. "Patience, patience. Honestly. Where's the trust?"

That was definitely a snort. Uppity little apprentice. Still, he follows my lead all the way to the back corner, and stops where I stop.

I wait, expectantly. See if he figures it out by himself. In the meantime, the bookshelves welcome casual leaning.

Dive tilts his head at me, then makes a face as he realizes I'm not giving out hints this time. Backing up a little, he looks at the shelves for a minute. Then his face lights up, and he steps on the lowest shelf to reach for a book on the top row. He bounces back down, holding up the book, triumphant. 'American Sign Language.'

I shrug at him. "I figure we might as well save on paper." When he holds it out to me, I wave at him again. "Nah. I already know it. Comes in handy at the job. You know."

He grins, then flops down on the floor and begins to page through it then and there. I consider pulling him up, as we've got other things to do today and all, but it's probably more useful to have him able to talk back than it is to save time. What can a little youthful enthusiasm hurt, really?

Well. Other than a lot?

I watch the tourists and the security guard, who is doing a great job at slacking off, but mostly I watch the kid. It's funny to see someone that intent on what they're doing, so intent they shut out the rest of the world. I lost that luxury a long time ago. Might have to drum it out of him. I'm not looking forward to that.

For now, I just watch him at it, his fingers sometimes moving as he pages through. He doesn't go in order. I get the feeling he's looking up interesting names to call me.

Five minutes, and I start to get a touch antsy. I poke the kid in the ribs with a toe. "Come along, Junior."

He raises his head, then smiles serenely and signs /Jerk./

"Yeah, yeah. Is that any way to talk to the guy who's going to get you dinner?"

A frown, a flip of a few pages, and Dive looks up again. /I'm not talking./

"Close enough." I tug on his hair and make a face. "Dinner and a shower."

He flips me off, gets to his feet and makes a move to go to the cash register.

I catch him by the back of the shirt and haul him back. "Ahem?"

Dive blinks, then grins sheepishly.

"Hopeless," I sigh at him, then step between the shelves. "Block?"

Without any more prompt than that, he steps between me and the security guard. So he had the place cased without me telling him to. He's more than a natural. He acts like a street rat, for all that he looks like a suburban baby.

I stare at him a moment too long, apparently, because he tips his head and signs, /What?/

"Nothing. Nothing important, anyway." I tug my shirt out of my jeans, both of which have seen better days. Ought to pick up clothes for me while we're taking care of the kid. I hold out my hand for the book, then slide it into the small of my back. The jeans are just tight enough to allow it, though if I go any more stretches without food I'll lose that. Tugging the shirt back in place, I give the kid a smile. "Shall we?"

Looking somewhere between impressed and unconvinced, Dive nods. When I go for the door across the store, the one we didn't come through, he follows without comment, but I can feel his eyes on my back. When the security sensors go off, I can feel him tense. That, and my reflexes, are the only reasons why I can reach out and catch his arm before he bolts.

"Stay," I mutter, too low to be heard.

He shakes his head and tugs, hard, to free his arm.

I grip tighter and turn to look at him. "Trust me."

A last, desperate tug. Then he seems to sigh and resign himself to my stupidity.

Now, if I'm right, the security guard is near the door where we came in. They only have one guard on Tuesdays. Which means..

A head pokes out from behind a shelf and blinks at us. "Help you, sir?" the bookseller asks.

Dive is tensing. I let his arm go to spread my hands and give the bookseller my very best charming smile. "The alarm went off on our way in. Guess it must be my cel phone."

The bookseller looks at us for a long moment, then smiles. "Sorry about that. It's a bit strange. Have a good night?"

.. Which means we're in the clear.

"Hey, you too." I shoulder the door open and head out into the clear. Retail stores; they're all the same. So easy it's almost not worth it.

As soon as we're past the store windows, I pull out the book and set it in the kid's hand. "Told you to trust me. I wouldn't get you caught. I'll-" Take care of you. No. I'm not saying that. I'm not making promises. "I'll bet you remember that trick."

The kid turns the book over in his hands, stroking the cover, then nods. /Good trick,/ he signs.

"Now you know where the Doc's library came from. Just don't do that trick more than one or twice every few months per store. Otherwise they get suspicious. People are stupid, but never so stupid it's easy."

He nods, and I can almost see him writing it down in his head. People, stupid, got it.

"Which reminds me. Stop looking so fucking earnest. This isn't a Boy Scout meeting."

Said Boy Scout narrows his eyes at me, then signs something I can't repeat. He learned the obscenities quickly. Yeah, that's my apprentice.

"Come on." Another smile sneaks up on me. I don't think I've bothered to smile this often since. since a long time ago. "I'll steal you dinner." **** Dinner, it turns out, is of a higher class than cold ravioli from the can. Steak and wine, swiped from one of the finest restaurants in town. I don't often get in the mood for snobbery, but y'know, I didn't sign on to be a thief so I could live in squalor and eat from trashcans. I got enough of that in New York. I'll take the squalor, as it's safer squalor that I was used to coming from the alley of Hell's Kitchen, but give me the fine wine and caviar, sweetheart.

Even if I eat it with my fingers.

The kid is devouring everything like he hasn't eaten in days, which I suppose he hasn't. Every once in a while his eyes roll up in his head and he hums happily. I think in a normal person that'd be a happy moan, so I'm kind of glad for him being a mute. I don't know that my nerves can take it.

I take a sip from the wine bottle, pass it across to him. Thanks to Lesson 432 (entering high class establishments sans invitations) we made it to the rooftop of an apartment building I can't even afford to look at. Lovely view, really, Anaheim laid out like a glittering net of lights. It's coming up on dark now. Took me a while to get the food.

The kid takes the wine bottle with a guilty smile, but drinks. Considering how many laws we've broken today, and how many people I had to sweet-talk to get to it, he damned well better. Here's hoping he can hold his alcohol.

The food is good, though so rich it's almost too much after months of apprentice rations. If I lived off that alone, which I'm technically supposed to, I'd probably starve. I'd definitely not be in any shape to pull heists. Which is the whole point.

I'm not Blade, and I won't be. No matter how much I could make off the kid's back.

Honor? What's that? No, living around Doc hasn't affected me at all.

I take the bottle, sip, consider the view. After a moment, I nudge the kid. "Game's starting at the Pond."

He fumbles, but recovers admirably fast to glare at me. /Not real,/ he signs, and manages to do it angrily.

"Yeah, I know. Just checking."


"Hmm." Tipping the bottle by its base, I watch the police cars pace the block around the arena. Diversion. Thank you, asshole aliens, for giving me an out and an apprentice, all in one week.

I never thought I'd be grateful for that. Probably shouldn't be, either, considering that the kid's got me softening up and tossed out of the sewers for the week. But somehow, I think I might be. It's. nice. to have somebody walking the streets with me. To see that feral smile whenever I turn to look. To teach, which is sad, as I've got all the patience of a junkyard dog. To have an excuse not to go back into that little tomb of a room, curl up and pretend to live.

Overdramatic. I bite the edge of the last bone, toss it off the roof just to watch it fall. Overdramatic and untrue. I live. I just don't live like a Hallmark commercial. There's a difference.

I'm a grumpy old man, and I like it that way. Alone, cranky and independent.

I'm also a grumpy old man with his own signing shadow, and I also like it that way. Which, in case you hadn't noticed, presents a problem.

This is my worldview. This is my worldview being utterly fucked.

His hand waves to catch my attention. I turn to look, and he signs /What next?/

I smirk. "What, this isn't enough?"

/I want to learn./

"Pace yourself, kid. One thing at a time. No skipping ahead." I tap the stone where his carry-out box rests. "Enjoy the moment."

The kid rolls his eyes, then makes a show of eating the last piece of steak with his fingers. He licks the last of the juices off, then signs, /Moment enjoyed. Can we go now?/

I look away. "Smartass kid."

His hands edge into my view to sign, /I'd enjoy a moment of kicking you right now./

"Oh, really?" Since he's ignoring it, I steal the last bit of garnish off the edge of the box. Who knows when we'll get a moment to eat again? "Were you always this bad, or is it just me?"

Dive stops to give that a moment of serious thought. He looks young and grubby in the faint light of the sun about to die. Finally, he shrugs and signs, /I don't know./

I grin at him, which I don't think he expected. "Hey, the first step is admitting you have a problem."

Which is about when he rolls his eyes and kicks me in the shin.

I could get to like this kid. I could get to like him a lot.

Fucking hell.