Another three weeks passed. Steve pulled Kane into the study one evening to inform him that Shyla was going to return. Her time of confinement and punishment was at an end, and for some reason she was being returned to the house. Steve suspected clerical error. He and the Agency would be looking into it and getting her removed. While she was there, however, Kane was not allowed to do anything in retaliation for her actions.
It was bad enough she was going to get away with what she’d done. Now she was being sent back? He’d have to face her every day and not do anything? Kane wasn’t sure he’d be able to control himself.
Kane nodded and went upstairs without a word. In the playroom he killed VR enemies for an hour, then took a shower and relaxed in the den with Devin until it was time for bed.
At school the next day, he broke the news to Randolph and asked that he tell the others. Randolph agreed to pass on the news with a look of disgust that he didn’t try to conceal. Kane had explained about what Shyla had done to Devin and had been rewarded by the responses of those he had come to count as his friends. He didn’t know why he trusted them, considering he’d only known them a number of weeks, but he did. It was nice. He went with his instincts. That was the best way. His father had taught him that.
It was weird. He still missed his father, but not as much. Randolph and the others were making it easier -- not easy, not by a long shot, but easier -- to keep his vow. His reputation hadn’t been spread around before he’d started the school. Only his incident with Jessica made people leery of him, and many were getting over it. He kind of liked the new him he was building.
That afternoon, on the way home he and Devin were walking along not really talking, enjoying the warm weather. They had started walking home every afternoon that wasn’t raining. He wanted to get Devin stronger. Walking to and from was a good way to go about it. Devin didn’t seem to mind; he got to spend the time close to Kane, which was all that mattered. Kane had been concerned at first that somebody might say something to them, but after the Jessica incident, he figured they could pretty much do anything they wanted without fear.
Who the heck...? A grin spread over his face when he saw the other figure.
It was one of his friends from “before.” The boy ran up and pounded him on the shoulder. Kane returned the gesture, greeting his old friend. He’d kind of missed his buddy. When he hadn’t been focusing on all the crap that he was going through, that was.
“How’ve you been, Nate?”
“Thing’s are boring now you’re gone,” Nate groused. “The cops came and the neighborhood got wiped out. Everybody got taken to Short-ville or, if they done bad enough or was old enough, Long-ville.”
Kane shuddered. He’d done the short-ville tour. Short-ville was the prison for kids. And it literally was that. Prison. The only difference between Long-ville, the adult detention center, and Short-ville was the size. Other than that...he shuddered again. Once had been more than enough. This time, he was glad he’d been chosen for the experiment if short-ville had been his other option. He would have come out of there nasty. If he’d come out.
“So, you been in short?” Nate had a way of managing to not be there when trouble happened. Nobody was sure how he did it, but Kane’s father had long ago suspected that Nate had inherited a tiny gift of precognition that allowed him to be somewhere else if there was danger. Kane had been around enough to agree that his father had been, as usual, correct.
“Nah. I was off visiting the Aunt.” Kane smothered a laugh. Nate’s Aunt was insane. The only reason she hadn’t been locked up in the psych ward, besides being loaded, was that she kept to herself and didn’t bother anybody with her insanity. She did, however, tell the best damned stories he’d ever heard.
“She was talking about space and alternate timelines again. This time she was saying something about a bunch of timelines converging and how much fun she could have if she could figure out where she was supposed to be.”
Kane liked Nate’s Aunt. Nobody knew what her name was. She refused to answer to anything. At all. Even Nate’s mother didn’t bother to call her anything. There was no point. However, when she called to have Nate come visit, his mother sent him without question or comment. The lady was crazy, yes. She was also, however, very wealthy. Something to do with the timelines and one of the Agencies or something she didn’t explain coherently.
Kane remembered the last time he’d seen Nate’s Aunt. She’d told him that if he didn’t take care of “that dear boy” he’d deserve a fate worse than he’d be saving him from. He had no clue what it meant, but he’d gotten an extra helping of cake – and $50 -- for agreeing to obey. Suddenly he wondered if she’d meant Devin. He shook it off. Nah. She was mental.
“Anyway,” Nate was saying, “I back a couple of weeks ago and found out you were gone. Everybody said you’d been hauled into court and given into Foster. What the hell?”
“Yeah. Cause of Dad’s history they decided to run me into Foster with some weird lady. Weird mean lady,” he clarified. “Wasn’t with her a week before she got put into long-ville for assault on Devi, here.”
Nate looked at the tiny boy cowering beside Kane and got a nasty expression on his face. Kane fixed his old friend with a hard look and shook his head. Nate startled. It wasn’t like Kane to protect somebody that weak, but he’d find out why later. Maybe it was part of the Foster thing. There was no telling.
“So, you wanna go hit the flicks?” Nate offered. “Maybe get something to eat?”
Kane wanted to spend time with Nate, but he didn’t want to leave Devin alone. And he didn’t want Devin around Nate any longer than necessary. He’d been a bully, yes. Nate, however, was mean about it. He took bullying to the extreme. And Devin was way too easy a target for somebody like Nate.
“Can’t tonight. But why don’t we stop in the park here and hang out for awhile?”
This was the safest compromise he could come up with. Nate wouldn’t know where they lived, he’d get to see his friend, and there was enough open space that he could keep an eye on Devin without seeming to protect him. It wasn’t ideal, but he’d only had a few seconds to come up with something and this was convenient.
Nate looked suspicious but agreed. They set their bags down on one of the tables. Devin chose to stay at the table and...probably draw, Kane figured. Either that or work on his homework. But, since the computer didn’t come out, he figured it was drawing. He felt bad for leaving Devin like this, but dammit, he had friends and he should be able to spend time with them, right? Why should he feel guilty about wanting to spend time with his friends?
“So, what’s with the kid?”
Kane looked over to where Devin was absorbed in his drawing. “Him? My ‘little brother’ through Foster. I’m supposed to take care of him.”
“Looks like a waste. Bet he’s easy to keep in line.”
“He’s had it rough,” Kane said, remembering. “Almost died already because of our new Mother. Leave him alone, understand? He’s mine.”
“Yours? What the hell does that mean?” Nate wasn’t used to this side of Kane. In fact, he had never seen or heard Kane try to protect anybody before. Kane had been the one instigating trouble, not trying to prevent it.
“Exactly what I said. He’s mine. Nobody messes with him. Nobody.” The last word came out cold enough to make Nate shiver. Everybody back home knew what Kane could do. He didn’t want that turned on him.
“Whatever. You want to protect him, fine with me.”
They soon got into a wrestling match, typical of them. Kane could have beaten his old friend, but kept his modifications in mind and instead took the opportunity to see what level he needed to be at to keep about even with him. Nate had been a champion wrestler, and had obviously been keeping up with it. If Kane hadn’t kept his enhancements in mind and under control, Nate wouldn’t have stood a chance.
Kane also kept in mind that Nate hated to lose at something he knew he was good at. It was all very well for Kane to beat him in things like basketball, but if it came to wrestling or something similar, the wise thing to do was let Nate win. Otherwise Nate would think of ways to exact revenge. Before, Kane wouldn’t have cared too much. Now he had Devin to worry about. Nate had already determined that Devin was Kane’s weakness. If Kane made Nate mad, he’d go after Devin.
And if Nate went after Devin, Kane would go after Nate. Which would be a very bad idea. He’d end up in Long-ville for sure, and what would happen to Devin then? No, it was best to keep the enhancements under tight control and let Nate think he could still beat Kane at wrestling. Safer all the way around.
Besides, he needed to know how to control the enhancements without having to take time to think about it. He wouldn’t always have the time to remind himself he was stronger now. He’d learned that the hard way in school. He couldn’t afford to mess up. Not with Shyla coming back. If he lost it, she’d have access to Devin. He couldn’t allow that, no matter what it took. Devin was his.
Half an hour later, Steve showed up looking worried. Kane apologized for not letting Steve know where they were, explaining about his old friend.
“Kane,” Steve said with a sigh, “I know you aren’t used to having to report to somebody, but you can’t disappear like this. I know you have a phone; in the future, I expect you to use it. to…”
Nate strode over then, his normal sneer in place.
“What’s the matter, Kane? You didn’t make it home to check in so they had to come hunt you down? You in big trouble now? What, they’re gonna make you wash dishes or something?”
“Actually,” Steve told Nate, “I came because it’s time for Devin to have his medicine.” He handed two small bottles, one prescription and one water, over to Kane. “I presumed that Kane was with a friend and decided to bring the medicine out to him rather than demand he return home.”
Kane took the bottles and went over to Devin, who was still drawing.
“Kane! Ha…have you been having fun wi…with your friend?”
Kane accepted the eager hug and returned it without embarrassment. He handed Devin the medicine and the water bottle. Devin took both without complaint. He never complained. It was one of the things Kane loved but worried about. It would be impossible to protect Devin if he didn’t know there was something to protect him from.
“Yeah, it’s nice to see Nate again. But listen, Devi, I want you to be careful around Nate, all right?”
Devin nodded from around the bottle of water.
“I’m not kidding, Devi. I know he’s a friend of mine, but he’s…well, he’s kind of like Shyla. He’ll wait until he can get you alone and then he’ll do something to hurt you. Bad. I don’t care how nice he acts, you never let him get you alone, all right?”
Devin nodded soberly.
“You’re my good boy, Devi. I’m going to protect you, even from people I called friends. My friends weren’t the best kinds of guys. Not the kind I’d want you around, but they were all I had. And even though I have a better class of friends now, I don’t want to leave my old friends behind. They’re reminders of what I had before.”
He wondered when he’d become so introspective. It wasn’t like him. But it was the truth. His new friends, Randolph and the others, they were of a better caliber than he was used to hanging out with. But Nate and the others were from when he had his father, back before everything got all screwed up.
Yeah, he’d been a thug, and they were a rough bunch, but they’d been family, and his dad had kept them from getting into the really bad stuff. He didn’t have a whole lot left of his dad; he didn’t want to give up what he did have.
“We’ll be going soon,” he told Devin, with another ruffle of the dark hair. “If it’s late enough for your medicine, we need to be heading back for homework and stuff.”
Kane took the now-empty water bottle and medicine bottle, and returned to where Steve and Nate were still talking. Nate was being his normal antagonistic self. Kane could tell that by his aggressive posture. Steve, however, was refusing to allow it to bother him. Kane wondered how the man did that, and if he could be taught how to do it himself. Maybe he could keep out of trouble if he could keep from getting pissed off so easily.
Although, now that he thought about it he didn’t get so pissed off any more. Not as easily, at any rate. Maybe he’d asked for that? No. He’d only asked to be physically enhanced. Maybe not getting pissed as much was a side effect. It was a good one. Or maybe it was all the training with William. Or maybe all of it combined. Whatever.
“Thanks, Steve,” he said as he handed back the bottles. “Sorry I lost track of the time like that. We’ll be going soon. The medicine makes Devin get sleepy,” he explained to Nate, “so we’ll have to head out while he can still walk on his own.”
It was a quarter-lie. The medicine did make Devin tired, bad enough that he couldn’t walk on his own. He’d get sleepy and clingy, needing Kane to keep him from falling over, and Kane didn’t want to give Nate any kind of ammunition to use against his boy. No more than he already had. Nate was like a predator. When he sensed weakness, he went for the kill.
Most of Kane’s old friends were the same. So was Kane. He’d had to be in order to survive. He hadn’t come from money; life was rough. The Social Government made all kinds of claims about how they were working to make sure all people lived well, but as far as Kane and his dad had been able to tell, it was mostly shit talk.
If you had money, you were safe. You didn’t have money, you’d damned well better learn to protect yourself. And take advantage of those who were too stupid or weak to do the same. Unless they’d been in the Protective Forces. They didn’t make a lot of money in the Protective Forces, but it gave them other kinds of protection.
“No maj…,” Nate said. “I gotta be back by dark or Mom’ll send the troops after me.”
Nate was the fifth son in his family. The other four had stayed at home to “take care of Mom.” All had menial jobs that let them stay in the housing block their mother had been assigned. They didn’t quite qualify as a gang, so the police left them alone. But, they were not a group you wanted to get on the bad side of.
Nate had reason to be afraid of his older brothers. They’d all done a lot of time in short-ville. Now that they were old enough for long-ville, they’d started being nicer to others but horrible to their own family members. The youngest brother, Mickey, was so cowed that he was growing up to be a decent person. Kane wasn’t surprised to hear that Nate’s brothers would be after him, not with what all he’d been hearing had been going on.
The Governments were getting harsher in their rules and penalties. They were making more efforts to control the people, not help them. It was a trend that anyone with a working brain would have noticed. Kane wondered why so many people hadn’t. Were they blind? Stupid? Or maybe, like Nate and his family, they never questioned what the Governments were doing.
“How ’bout we meet again, then,” Kane suggested. “Saturday morning, here? About eleven?”
He could take the time to talk to Nate, find out more of what had been going on, what he’d missed. See if he could gather any information that would tie in with some of what his dad had been so freaked out about before he’d gone missing and got declared dead.
Nate agreed. They gathered their things, said their farewells and went their separate ways. Steve offered to give Nate a ride home, but Nate refused. Kane didn’t blame him; he wouldn’t want to be caught riding in the car in that neighborhood, either. The car screamed money and power. Dangerous. Walking was safer.
He and Devin, however, rode back to the house with Steve. It still didn’t feel like home, but with Shyla gone it didn’t feel as nasty as it had at first. There were still staff members that he didn’t know or trust anywhere near Devin, but there was a core group that were friendly and safe. Safe enough that Devin was willing to interact with them on his own. The ones who worked for the Agency or a Government, mostly.
Speaking of Shyla, she was due back in a couple more days. She’d be at the house when they got home from school on Friday. He needed to warn Devin. He decided he’d wait until after they’d finished their homework and were relaxing in the bath. Devin was comfortable then, and he’d be close by. Besides, once the medicine had kicked in, he wouldn’t stress out over Shyla coming back as much.
After homework and dinner, Kane told Devin about Shyla’s return. While he had expected Devin to be somewhat calm about the news, thanks to the medicine, he was still surprised when Devin nodded his head and said that he supposed she would have to come back sometime.
“You aren’t worried about her?”
Devin looked surprised. “You take care of me,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t hafta be scared anymore.”
Kane couldn’t help but pull him into a tight hug.
“That’s right, Devi. Never hafta be scared again.”