"Watch out!"

"Turn around!"

" 'e's right on yo' arse!"

The shouts and cries of the group of children lining the alleyway echoed menacingly throughout the belly of the broken city. Hidden deep in the labyrinth of Orokos' rarely used back alleys was the crowd, the clamor and clatter they made suggesting the size of the mass to be much bigger than it actually was. Boys and girls of various ages, from five to twenty five, roared and waved fists; smashed in a tight circle, they raged and hollered like animals. The source of the commotion was impossible to miss, after all the affair wasn't a quiet one. In the midst of the tight knit circle, two figures grappled with each other, the blood of both running in tracks from open wounds scattered across their bodies. Clashed together in a fight for dominance, their fingers intertwined as they tried to force one another into the wall, the floor, anything to get the other to go down. At first, neither seemed to possess an advantage over the other, their strengths were matched. But slowly, painfully, the figure on the right gained the break. Tight, compact muscles straining under the flesh of his bare torso, he pushed his opponent toward the ground, sweat dripping down his sharply drawn face. And then he struck, ripping one hand from the other boy's iron grasp and striking out at his exposed chest with deadly accuracy. A gut wrenching crack resounded over the blaring crowd as the pale boy's fist came in contact with his adversary's ribcage, the victims face turning a sickly shade of green as pain shot through his lungs. He crumpled to a heap, gasping and swearing as his dominator leered over, "An' you watch yourself now, ya hear? Don' go tryin' ta act like a hero when you ain't!" He spat at the fallen victim, a final blow to the dignity of the boy. Then he stalked away, staring blankly ahead as the crowd parted around him as the dead sea had once parted for Moses.

That was what happened the last time Charlie was allowed to go out alone. Three weeks had found him caged up inside his own base, denied egress by his one and only friend (and partner in crime ) Rail. At first Charlie had acted as if this punishment didn't bother him, but that got real old real fast. He tried everything: begging Rail, bribing him, threatening him. But the level-headed street rat held fast, refusing to let Charlie back onto the streets. The punishment was supposed to teach Charlie patience of sorts, to let him know that starting gang fights wasn't a good idea, especially when your 'gang' consisted of two. Of course, Rail and Charlie had been trying to change this, searching the streets in hopes of finding a lone rouge in need of protection. Now, with his partner detained, Rail had been having a hard time finding anyone by himself. More than once he'd come face to face with a rival gang whose intentions were a bit darker. He was easy to recognize, not every street kid had to walk around with a respirator pack slung over his shoulder. And when the offending gangs had laid eyes on him, they didn't waste time trying to slaughter him where he stood. After all, on these crumbling streets, everyone was fair game.

Today, Charlie was suffering from an extreme bout of stir crazy. Pacing back and forth along the wall of the underground hole the boys labeled 'base', he tried his best to reign in his seething anger; the urge to punch out at something was growing stronger and stronger. He almost gave in when he felt cold hands on his shoulders, "Charlie."

Wheeling around, the blonde haired boy struck out, his powerful fist narrowly missing Rail's head. Wrenching back, he barked, "Don't do that. Not unless you wanna get hit, ya stupid bastard." He leaned in close and cupped the boy's face in his rough hands, "Wouldn't wanna mar that pretty face."

Eyebrows drawn in disgust, Rail attempted to push the other boy away. The force propelled him little more than a few centimeters. Anyone lucky enough to learn Charlie's true age often had a hard time believing it. At six foot one, roughly one hundred thirty pounds, the boy was truly haughty, a real rarity it this era of malnutrition. Lanky locks of blonde falling neck length, accentuating steely obsidian eyes added to the image of early adulthood, while in reality, the boy was barley seventeen.

He'd stumbled upon Rail by accident, an instance of dumb luck. Fleeing from the veils of a particularly rough probability storm, he'd run into the respirator boy. Literally. He'd nearly crushed the kid, so naturally he felt the responsibility to at least help the guy get back up and out of the storm. That's when he'd recognized the respirator. It was like something from an old dream, a flashback to a better time, when Charlie and his grandfather had sat for hours by the fire, him listening wide eyed to stories of fanciful gadgets of all types, some that helped, some that hurt. Charlie had helped this strange boy into a safe spot, had watched him curiously as Rail quivered and wheezed, terrified of the after effects the storm might bring. Charlie had talked him through the fit, chatted aimlessly until the storm was over and Rail was breathing normally once again. Brief introductions had rendered the two friendly; they were wonderfully compatible. Rail was quick on his feet, down to Earth, sensible if not a bit stoic. Charlie was flighty, hot headed and energetic, a natural motivator. They balanced each other out. Rail saw this instantly, Charlie caught on. They agreed to accompany each other on a mission to learn the new layout of the city, surely altered by the latest storm. They never split up after that.

Now, almost a year later, Rail and Charlie had proved themselves an excellent pair. But with the steady increase in probability storm occurrences, the two had come to realize that two heads were great, but four or five would probably be better. More mouths to feed sure, but a more complete sense of safety, more members to help earn the little bit of cash they were allowed to survive on. Of course, with Charlie locked up in the house, that two heads had dwindled back to one, and that small amount of cash was turned to almost nothing.

"Are you ready to go out?" Rail wasn't sure if Charlie had really learned his lesson or not; he would never know until the scenario was played over again. He was fully aware of the fact that Charlie was never going to admit to Rail that he was wrong. With a rusty grin, Charlie lunged toward the door, wrenching it open and inhaling deeply the salty sea air wafting through the great city of Orokos, "I've been locked up in this damned hole fer three weeks, Rail. You don' needa ask twice."