It takes a special definition of suckage to describe the feeling of realizing that you'd be better off in a prison camp. It stabs deep, and twists, and then eats away at you from the inside until there's nothing left. I should know by now; I'm about twenty hours into the process.

It's just not fun.

And that's what I'm supposed to be all about, right? Token stupid teenager. I'm not allowed to brood. Wing never stops, and if I started it might tip the balance of the universe and we'd all implode or something. Which could be good for a few seconds of curious interest, but it'd get real old, real fast. Rather like sitting still, in fact.

Shifting on the bed sends shooting pain from my cracked ribs to my side, and I have to bite my tongue against a yelp. It might set off Wing's Big Brother Radar, which would be a bad thing right now. I don't feel like seeing him looking down at me with the mournful eyes. It wouldn't be so bad if I could look at him without seeing that damned Mask all the time. It sticks with him. It's changing him. Canard never said a thing about that, probably because he knew I would've fought to keep Wing from putting it on. Back then it would've mattered if I thought it was a bad idea, and Wing probably would have refused. Then Canard, the stupid dick that he could... can... be, wouldn't have pulled the martyr act and we'd all be the better for it.

I miss Canard. I never even liked the guy.

I blow out a breath just to make my ribs ache, then stare at the ceiling some more. Sleeping would be good, but, like I found out last night, the painkillers Tanya gave me are seriously not okay, because apparently I started screaming. From the way my throat feels, I had been for a while. Everyone else was out on a mission, and nobody knows how long I was going until someone heard it and came to rescue me. Shyeah, that wasn't humiliating, having a nervous breakdown while Wing made soothing noises and everybody else watched and tried not to laugh and ate popcorn.

Okay, so I'm not sure about the popcorn. But if Phil had known, he could've sold tickets.

And now I have to deal with everybody walking on eggshells and getting impatient with it, like I asked them to in the first place. Nobody said they had to humor the whining moron. Hell, I'd be making fun of me. Besides, they don't even know how this happened in the first place. Not really. They know I was out late, driving like the crazy teenager I'm kinda required to be, and they know that I skidded, and they know I had an argument with a tree that the tree won. Tanya patched me up, Grin did the impassive zen thing, Duke gave me that weird half patronizing look he does so well when he's pissed and worried, Wing fussed over me and yelled at me for a while with Mal, and then they sent me to bed, properly scolded.

None of them know that I hit the tree on purpose.

It's probably a good thing anyway. It would get dismissed as trying for attention or something, and then Wing could give me not only the 'big brother is worried' look but the 'big brother is disappointed' look, which is so close to Dad's 'you're a disappointment' look that it's scary. Except I didn't want attention. I didn't want anything but out.

It was stupid. It never should have happened. If I was smart, which we've all established I'm not, I'd have gone home after the attack by Dragaunus, curled up in bed and nursed my hurt ego in peace. Instead, I decided to go driving. There's something relaxing about it, especially at night. Nothing can touch you, nobody knows you. There's nothing but the other cars, the wind in your hair, and the hum of the tires on the asphalt. For a few hours, I get to be not the stupid kid, not the feathered freak, but me. Alone.

I needed the alone right then, because I was still utterly stinging, all over, from the fight. It wasn't because they'd smacked me around; none of the Saurians even touched me. It was the exact opposite, actually.

We had decided to split up, for some reason I still don't understand, to cover this old warehouse that Dragaunus was supposed to be lurking around in. Wing, naturally, decided to take the most dangerous option, the basement, for himself, and sent me to check around the back. It was supposed to be safe. Yet the second I stepped out of the building and closed the door behind me, I had a Saurian hand wrapped up in my hair, yanking me backwards, hard. When I hit the wall, Dragaunus was standing over me, smirking. It's never a good thing when evil overlords smirk.

It was a first for me. Dragaunus usually leaves me the hell alone, even though I practically have 'potential victim' tattooed on my forehead. There was nobody else there. I was pretty much screwed anyway. So, I pulled an impulsive move, which usually works out for some reason, and tried to knee him in the stomach and pull away. He dodged, let go of my hair, and grabbed my throat with his other hand instead. Figures that he's ambidextrous.

He didn't even strain, hauling me off the ground by the neck. His claws were pressing into my throat, digging in almost hard enough to break the skin. I couldn't breathe, or scream for help, or even squirm in his grip. I was as good as dead. He had it won.

And he dropped me.

While I laid in the trash, trying to remember how to breathe let alone fight him, he laughed, and with all the calm in the world, "Yes. I let you live. Just remember this, boy. You're not worth the seconds it would take to kill you."

He was still laughing when he turned his back on me and went inside. He probably would've been laughing even harder if he saw the look on my face when I realized he was right.

I'm not a threat to him. I'm nothing to him. If Wing went down, if every one of the others were laying dead on the ground, if I was the only one between Dragaunus and the world and it was my job to kill him... I couldn't do it. It's a job for Wing or Canard, strong people, brave people who aren't afraid of pain or how it must feel to die with those claws in your throat. I'm nobody's hero. By all rights, I should be back in the mines on Puckworld. And Dragaunus knows it.

At three am in the morning, when you're on an empty highway and you're shaking from the cold and the memory of watching somebody sacrifice themselves when you know it should have been you... being worth the energy of killing and being worth the energy of swerving to miss a tree is close to the same thing. I didn't feel like I was worth either.

Not swerving is easier than it sounds.

Somebody's knocking, pulling my mind back to now. With a sigh, I manage to force the cheerful teenager back to the surface. Wouldn't want Wing to get worried. "It's open!"

I have to hand it to Tanya: we've got a very cool high tech system, complete with Star Trek doors. They even hiss when they open. From the way I don't hear anything after the door closes, it must be Duke. I never hear his footsteps; after all this time in the Thieves' Guild, he does stealth like he breathes.

Sitting half up, I manage a smile. "Hey. Thought you guys were called out on a mission."

He moves into my line of vision, looking like a shadow. His voice sounds... off, in the darkness. "Autograph signing."

"Close enough."

That finally makes him chuckle. "True. I begged off. Need to talk to you, actually."

"Yeah?" Great. Chewing out numero cinco of the day... Pulling my knees up, I pat the empty space and fake a smile. "Sure. I'm not going anywhere."

He takes the invitation, sitting down easily. That's kind of a surprise; Duke's usually more aloof than that, not big on the extended closeness. Pats on the arm, yes; long sitting sessions, no. His artificial eye glows red in the darkness, the only light in the room. I still can't read the look on his face. Taking a deep breath, like he has to brace himself - and Duke never has to brace himself - , he lets it out slowly and says simply, "I know what happened, kid."

And from the calm, serious look on his face, I know exactly which 'what' he means. My insides go cold.

Okay. Okay, major damage control time. Tossing my hair out of my eyes, I ask brightly, "So what am I in trouble for this time? Took the car out and didn't fill up the gas? Didn't clean up the mess in Tanya's lab?... Hey, if this is about the bleach in Mal's shampoo, that so wasn't me - "

"Dive." Somehow, with one word he manages to shut me up completely. He isn't buying it, and we both know it. There isn't going to be damage control.

Taking my own deep breath, I stare at the bedspread for a couple of seconds, waiting for the explosion.

"You drove into a tree." Calm, matter of fact, and completely impossible to argue with. I hate that.

"How did you know?"

He lets out a breath, apparently relieved that he won't have to fight me on that, then shakes his head. "Had a hunch. You looked like hell after that fight, so when you decided to go riding I decided to follow you. You didn't 'just drop off' at the wheel; you swerved off the road and towards the tree. You had time to try to miss, and you didn't use it."

He's rattling the words off like he's reading a laundry list. Hunching my shoulders, I trace the patterns without looking up and nod. Maybe if I act repentant, he'll just go away in frustration.

"Why?" Just a calm, casual question, like he's asking for the time.

I shrug.

"That's not good enough, kid." I could learn to hate that gentle note in his voice.

"Seemed like a good idea at the time." Glancing up to see if it's working, I just get the L'Orange poker-face in return. Once he's got my gaze, he holds it, tight. I try not to squirm. "Look, it won't happen again."

"Damned straight it won't." The edge slips into his voice, then eases as he sighs. "I can't just let this go. You know that."

"Why not?" Even I wince at how sulky that sounds.

"It would kill your brother."

Ah, so that explains it. This is about Wing, the ever-steady leader. Now we're back on familiar territory. With a sigh, I tug a hand through my hair and give him a sideways look. "Think I haven't thought of that already, Duke? He'd live. It's what he does."

"Not through that, he wouldn't."

"You don't have to worry about it anyway." I swallow against the sudden ache in my throat, the feeling of my world coming down around me, and don't care enough to try not to sound bitter. "Once you tell him, I won't be let out of his sight for years, if he doesn't have me locked up with some shrink-"

"And who says I'm going to tell him?"

I freeze.

Duke smiles finally, and alarms start going off in my head. "I'm not gonna tell him, Dive. Or any of the others."

"Yeah?" Suspicious, I ask warily, "What do you want?"

"All you've got to do is talk to me, kid. That's all."

"Talk to you about what?"

"About this." Reaching out, he taps the bandage over my eye, ignoring it when I flinch more from the touch than the pain. He rests his hand on my shoulder instead, gripping warmly. "About why it seemed like a good idea to play chicken with a stationary object. About what had you hurting so badly you wanted to go out like that. About how in the hell you managed to forget that some of us would miss you if you were gone." His smile is horribly, relentlessly gentle. "Y'know. Stuff like that."

I open my mouth to argue, curse him out and shove him away. Nothing comes out, but I can feel the wetness on my face and the feeling of something fracturing deep in my chest. Duke is moving, pulling me into a hug before I can run, and by the time I have the room to get loose it's a lost cause. I'm sobbing into his shoulder, hard.

I'm not sure how long we stay like that, me crying until I can't breathe, Duke making soothing noises and petting my hair. The soothing noises really aren't helping me stop; he keeps telling me that it's okay, that's I'm allowed to do this, that he's got me... it only sets me off harder. By the time I finally manage to stop, I think his shoulder's drenched. When I try to check, he puts his hand on the back of my neck. Sit, stay. Good Nosedive.

The thought makes me laugh, a little unsteadily. He quirks an eyebrow, which only makes me laugh harder. I'm not sure why; it's not funny. Duke blinks at me, then shakes his head, amused. "I take it you're feeling better."

"Kinda." I'll admit it, I feel like curling up and sleeping until next century, but it's a comfortable kind of tired. I don't feel like there's an empty hole in my gut. Even managing a smile, I tell him, "Thanks."

"It's no problem, kid. Seriously." With a sudden smirk, he tugs at my hair. "A nervous breakdown's good for you once in a while."

"Maybe." Letting out a breath, I blow the hair out of my face. "'Course, now I'm gonna sleep for a week."

"Good. Do that." And he sounds so approving that I snort.

"Sure, Dad."

"Shut up, kid." Duke taps my shoulder and points at the bed, almost sternly.

I roll my eyes, but go, watching him slide off the bed and gather a handful of sheets. "Gonna tuck me in, too?"

"Yep." Pulling the sheets up around my shoulders, he messes with them for a second, then nods, satisfied. His eyes catch on mine, and he adds, "By the way, that doesn't count as talking. I want an explanation later."

"Yessir." Man, am I not looking forward to that conversation... With a sigh, I resign myself to waiting and blink when he sits back down on the bed. "Duke?"

"I'm not in the mood to go out into the main room and sit around for hours jumping at every sound. You mind?"

Okay, so it's a lie. It's a touching lie. "Nope."

"Cool." Settling back against the wall, he waits in silence for a while. I can't even hear him breathe. Then, suddenly, he speaks up. His voice is warm with affection, something I haven't gotten from someone other than Wildwing since Canard took his parachute-free skydive into dimensional limbo. "You waiting for a bedtime story or what?"

"Got any good ones?"

"You're not old enough to hear the really good ones."

"I'd kick you, but you're sitting on my leg."

"Exactly. Now, you want a story or not?"

"It can't hurt."

He gives me a mock-glare, then pokes me gently with his finger in my stomach. "Pass out quickly, so I don't have to listen to your mouth."

Making a face at him, I close my eyes anyway. His fingers brush against my forehead, then start pushing back my hair, rhythmic and soothing.

Apparently, I'm worth a wet shoulder. I'm worth sitting up half the night for. If Duke is any judge, I'm worth this.

And maybe Dragaunus was wrong.

"Okay, so I was hired to go on this heist at the Ducaine Museum in the center of town, during a police festival in front of the building..."

For the first time in weeks, I sleep peacefully.

Non-Anime Fanfiction