Author's Note: Mine! Sort of. Well, with the exception of Frank, obviously ;-) Many, many thanks to JB and LG for making me wonder what if, and to JS for scaring me a lot (in a good way)!

For Chelle, Lila and Mo, for putting up with my frequently insane character ramblings!

:Theilian:

1: The Middle of Nowhere, Way Back When

When he was twelve, Charlie scratched "FUCK CP" on the biggest tree in town. The only tree in town, pretty much; but more suitable than his original target, the wall of the pub, where he'd planned to scrawl his message of hate in the most enormous black letters he could manage. It was only the nervousness of his younger cousin that made him re-think; and in the end he decided he rather liked the idea of the words being a secret that only he and Frankie knew.

Well - him, Frankie, and that snot-nosed brat of a Deb from the pub, because she'd followed the boys like a sneaky shadow and caught Charlie mid-scrape, penknife in hand and guilty as sin; but Frankie had grabbed her hand just before she made a run for it, twisted her arm up behind her back and threatened to break her wrist unless she promised she wouldn't tell on them.

Charlie hadn't realised his scrawny little cousin had it in him to do stuff like that. He was impressed, in an appalled kind of way. It's this place, he found himself thinking, with the old familiar knot of sickness twisting his guts the same way it always did, every time something happened to re-open his eyes, to make him look around at his hometown and see it again for what it really was. This godforsaken fucking hole-in-the-ground of a place.

He reckoned it got everyone, sooner or later. This place. Like some kind of disease. It looked as though Frankie might turn out to be a sooner. Pity, really, because the kid was just about the only half-decent person he knew.

The only way to stop it is to get out, Charlie decided; and he began to make plans.

: : : : :

That was four years ago.

Now Charlie sits up on the corrugated roof of the pub - there's a fairly easy way up if you clamber up the piles of crates and boxes outside the back door - and gazes out across the red-dust Hell he calls home. He curses himself for not having had the guts to go through with it. Again.

His eyes rise to find the horizon, almost of their own accord. He certainly doesn't mean to keep looking at that impossible place where land meets sky; tries not to look, in fact, because it only makes it worse. Somewhere out there is …

Space, he thinks, and grips one hand with the other, thin dirty fingers knotting painfully together. Space, and freedom, and just

something different. Something more than this.

"Psst! Charlie, hey - "

He glances down, annoyed at being disturbed and worried, now, that they'll get caught. Frankie scrambles up the crate mountain, far too noisily, and squats next to Charlie, hissing at the heat like a scalded cat.

"Fuck, that's hot - "

"So go back down," Charlie shrugs.

"Piss off." Frankie shifts to sit in a slightly more comfortable position, watching his cousin warily from the corner of his eyes. "So."

"So?"

"So when are you leaving?"

Charlie snorts. "Jesus, Frankie. Who says I'm leaving?"

"Well, you do, all the time, for a start," Frankie says, reasonably. "And you've got that look on your face again, and you're up here staring at the sky like a nutter, so I reckoned … "

Charlie sighs and says nothing. Anything he does say will be a lie, anyway, he knows; so why bother?

Frankie scratches at a bite on his leg; shifts a bit more and fishes a battered, almost-empty packet of fags out of his pocket. "Want a smoke?"

"Where'd you get those, brat?"

"Deb-at-the-pub," Frankie grins. They call her that like it's her full name. "Anytime someone leaves any behind, she bags 'em for me."

"And what does she get in return?" Charlie is half amused, half horrified. "Second thoughts, don't tell me. Make me hurl." Frankie and Deb are twelve years old, and Charlie really doesn't want to know. Something - some reaction to the disturbing image in his mind - must show on his face, though, because Frankie pauses in the act of lighting a ciggie to raise both eyebrows so high they almost disappear beneath his hair, and protests loudly, "What? Deb-at-the-pub? Fuck right off, Charlie. Bleeuugghh."

Charlie smiles. He gets the impression that his cousin's noise of disgust was intended to make him seem older, a kind of "I'm far too much of a grown-up bloke to be interested in girls" thing; in fact, it has the opposite effect and Charlie is struck by how young Frankie actually is. Despite the fags and all the swearing. Or maybe, weirdly, because of them.

Frankie, scowling still, sticks his battered fag back between his lips and strikes a match on a rough bit of roof, cupping his hands around it to shield it from a non-existent wind before hastily handing it over. Charlie watches surreptitiously, sorely tempted to laugh. The kid tries hard, Charlie has to give him that, but he really can't smoke properly. He doesn't inhale at all (Charlie suits the action to the thought and breathes deeply, enjoying that first hit, the way it makes his fingertips tingle a bit); instead, he holds the smoke in his mouth and then lets it go in a sudden puff, like a cartoon steam train.

Not that Charlie would ever say anything. It's not so much that he doesn't want to hurt Frankie's feelings, but more to do with the younger boy's reaction to anything he thinks might make him look foolish. It's never good.

Several minutes pass as they sit sort-of-companionably, kind-of-smoking in silence; eventually Frankie begins to shift and fidget again.

"Charlie?"

"Mmm-hmmm?"

"When you leave … "

"I'm not even - "

"No, but … when you do, okay, take me too, yeah?"

Charlie doesn't really know what to say.

"I mean it, Charlie. I'm coming too, right?"

Charlie still doesn't say anything. Frankie apparently takes his silence for consent and nods fiercely, more to himself than to his cousin.

"Cool."

: : : : :

Three days later Mick Fisher makes the mistake of leaving the keys in the ignition when he nips from his ute to take an emergency piss behind the pub.

Streaking down from his rooftop perch so fast he might as well have fallen, jarring his knee in the process but not even feeling it, Charlie races mindlessly across the hard-packed red dust and throws himself into the driver's seat, heart pounding so loud and so hard, right up in his throat, that it's the only thing he can feel; the only thing he hears.

He doesn't hear Mick's roars of fury as, trousers flapping ludicrously around his ankles, he attempts to chase down the ute now skidding around the corner in a cloud of dust.

He doesn't notice Frankie, red-faced with rage and betrayal, come hurtling out of the general store beside the pub, having watched the whole thing through the window.

He remains oblivious to the curses hollered after him, the threats, the promises of revenge.

And he never sees Deb-at-the-pub, sidling nervously up to his younger cousin, putting a cautious hand on his shoulder, trying to offer clumsy comfort.

With a snarl and a slap, comfort is unceremoniously rejected. But Deb, scrawny and peculiarly colourless, but resilient as one of the scrubby desert plants that keep on growing no matter what, merely backs off a step or two and tries again.

"I'm really sorry, Frankie," she begins, but he turns to face her, fists clenched impotently at his sides, cheeks wet with tears he'll deny for the rest of his life.

"Don't call me that," he spits, and in an attempt to obliterate any trace of weakness, draws one fist across his eyes, leaving behind a smear of red, "don't ever call me that, right?"

Deb nods silently. The boy draws himself up, standing as tall and defiant as he knows how.

"It's just Frank now."

: : : : :