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Fringe With(out) Benefits

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2007

The girl awoke on sun-drenched sands, the brutal pain of her injuries matched only by the pain in her head. She couldn't remember how she'd gotten here, or how she'd been injured, but she could at least tell that she'd been running from something, and that someone had helped her. But where were they? And why couldn't she remember...?

She heard footsteps running towards her on the beach. Was it her savior? She couldn't tell. And as her consciousness began to fade, she quickly lost her ability to care.

---------------

A hospital.

It wasn't much, but it was the word her addled mind supplied her to describe where she was. She didn't know how she knew that but couldn't recall her own name, but something told her she would neither find the answer nor like said answer if she did. There was something about the place, sterile and buzzing, that put her on edge, some instinct from the edge of a dream saying she hated this.

On an unrelated note, she hated this. Wherever this place was, she'd been running from wherever she'd been, so sitting still was probably a poor decision. And something deep within her utterly hated the concept of being caged.

First chance I get I'm breaking out of here, she promised herself. Somehow she knew she was the type to keep her promises.

---------------

She didn't know how long she'd been asleep, but when the moment came she was instantly awake. She stared silently at the ceiling in the darkness, not wanting to betray her sudden consciousness to whomever had just entered the room.

"Hey," someone said, a girl, about her age. "Dunno if y'all're awake, but..."

She didn't know this girl, but something about her seemed familiar.

"I...I'm not really one for hospitals, but I wanted to see if you were all right. Me an' the gang, we're skipping town, and--"

It took a while for her to realize why the stranger had stopped: she'd grabbed the girl's hand. Hazel eyes gazed at her through a curtain of blonde and blue.

"I-is...are you...?"

She realized she no longer had to stay silent. "Take me with you?" she asked in a whisper.

The other girl just nodded, speech having apparently abandoned her.

She sat up in her bed, hoping there were no doctors in the hallway to notice--

"Ain't no one there, ah..."

"...what?"

"...Just realized I don't rightly know what to call you." The stranger blushed. "D'you have a name?"

She thought about it. Did she? Her head was an awfully empty place, but she'd known what a hospital was, hadn't she? And doctors, and hair, and...

She scrunched up her face, concentrating, straining for something, anything. "A...A..." She was close--she could feel it--

It was gone. She shrugged. "Guess I don't. 'M just me, I guess."

The stranger smirked. "Well, then, 'A-me', I'm Zannaqim. Zannaqim Sel-Kreeth."

Amy...that works. A beat. Wait, what? She shot the girl an incredulous glare. "There is no way that name's real."

"Nope," the girl confirmed with mischievous nonchalance. "But y'all can call me Zanna."

"Okay, Zanna," Amy agreed. Then: "...wait. 'Y'all'?"

---------------

"Tosh, Kelly, Leeds, Spencer," Zanna announced, pointing out faces as their owners scrambled about for their few belongings, "there's Damon, and those are Kristoph and Wagner."

Amy reeled at the deluge of names. "Uh...hi. 'Y'all'." Zanna elbowed her, but no one else seemed to care.

"Y'all mind telling me why you're bringin' some stranger 'round our last night, or are y'all just gonna stand in the way?"

Amy stared up at the tall raven-haired girl with golden eyes. She didn't know much, but her instincts screamed 'trouble' at her, as if the self-important air and imperious scowl weren't enough indication.

"She's the girl from the beach, Kelly. I told you I was gonna check in on her, and she asked me to take her with us."

Kelly snorted. "And does beach girl have a name?"

"Her name's Amy."

"And am I gonna regret letting you tag along, Amy?"

Amy opened her mouth to answer, but one of the boys interrupted her.

"Zanna, either grab your stupid fish or grab your stuff, he's not letting me do it."

"Oh, shit, sorry Spencer!" Zanna laid a hand on Amy's shoulder. "Listen, Amy, I gotta get ready to go. Come catch up later, okay?" And with that Zanna was off like a shot.

Kelly rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Look, just...stay out of the way and try not to drag any trouble along with us. I don't want no problems popping up to bite us in the ass, you hear?"

Amy nodded. She honestly had no clue if her mysterious past was on her tail, but she'd make sure it didn't hurt these people, for Zanna's sake if nothing else. The girl had come back for her, and something about the gesture meant a lot to her.

"What part of 'stay out of the way' don't y'all understand?"

Thoroughly chastened, Amy rushed to the sidelines, watching the frenetic activity taking place before her. I don't know what sort of life I've signed up for, she thought to herself, but it's got to be better than the one I ran from. For now, that hope would have to be enough.

---------------

"Amy! Hey, Amy!"

The teenager caught sight of Zanna waving at her from further up the procession. Though hesitant to stray from the rear of the pack, the girl suspected that the noise would be less welcome than the seeming breach of status. She trudged forward, careful to keep her gaze lowered beneath that of the others.

"What's up, Zanna?"

"I wanted you to meet someone." The blonde-and-blue-haired girl hefted a fish-like lime-and-aqua Pokémon with a massive jaw full of sharp teeth. "Isn't he a cutie? This is Van. I found him a few days after I found you. You're group buddies!"

Amy smirked at the enthusiastic Trainer before reaching out to lay a hand on the Carvanha's forehead. "Hi, Van," she murmured, the Dark-type calming at her touch.

"Wow, he warmed right up to you. I'm the only one he'll let even close to him."

Amy shrugged. Add it to the pile of mysteries that is my life.

"You should keep him."

"Wait, what?"

"Well, I mean, you don't have any Pokémon, do you?"

Kelly let out a derisive snort from the head of the line. "Until a couple weeks ago you didn't, either."

Zanna flushed. "That's...that's not important. Look, Amy...I've been with the crew for a while. I already know everyone. But you don't, not yet, and that'll take a while. You need a partner, someone who can look out for you even when I can't. Van can be that friend for you, y'know?"

Another snort. Amy could practically hear the older girl rolling her eyes, but she chose to ignore her. "Thanks, Zanna, really, but I'm not gonna take your only Pokémon from you."

"But..."

Amy took both of Zanna's arms, stopping her in her tracks so they could hold Van together. "We'll stick together. All three of us, okay?"

Zanna nodded, a faint smile spreading across her face.

"How nice. Now if the two of you are done giving the rest of us diabetes...?"

Zanna blushed. "Sorry, Kristoph!" Flashing a grin at Amy, Zanna started walking again, happy to have her friends at her side.

---------------

Three Years Later...

Amy wanted nothing more than to tap out a rhythm on the metal bars of the staircase railing, but she stilled her rebellious hands. Zanna had the mark distracted for now, but one wrong noise could ruin everything.

She resisted the urge to look back into the room at whose door she stood. She knew that Leroy, Kelly, and Joanes were hard at work gathering supplies, while Damon and Crews kept watch out the back entrance. Her job was to keep an eye on Zanna and the mark, and alert the team if something went wrong.

Unfortunately, no one was watching the storeroom itself, which explained how the nervous newbie Leroy managed to back into a stack of boxes, sending them to the floor amidst a clanging clatter of cans.

"Shit!"

"What was that?"

"What was what?" Zanna covered, unfortunately only half-convincingly.

"Probably nothing, but I should check. Be right back, miss."

Fuck. The mark's on his way.

Amy sent up a hand signal, but when she looked back to make sure the message was received it was clear the crew wasn't getting out clean. Joanes was helping Leroy off the ground, her own load set aside, while Kelly rushed to pick up the slack. The group leader looked up at Amy, then behind her with widened eyes. "Amy, think fast!" she called, tossing an apple to Amy.

Amy didn't hesitate, swiping the apple from midair and spinning to add the momentum to her throw. The fruity projectile beaned the shopkeep in the forehead, sending him stunned to the ground.

"Nice work, Ames," Kelly said, draping her arm across her companion's shoulders. "We'll have to move quick, but at least it's not a total bust."

Amy nodded, dragging her gaze from the unconscious shopkeep to the store interior to make sure Zanna had made it out. She couldn't see the other woman, so odds were good she'd already started her run for a cop. Reporting the incident would earn her brownie points with local law enforcement, which would hopefully keep suspicion off her if she was spotted with one of the other members of the gang.

"C'mon. Let's get y'all home."

---------------

Back at the camp, the mood seemed to be one of cautious celebration. Though the operation hadn't been flawless--they'd probably need to move again sooner rather than later--it was still their biggest haul in weeks, and with a move on the horizon anyway it made sense to live it up a little. Someone pulled a bottle of wine out of some hidden stash, and by the time the sun met the horizon almost everyone present was at least a little tipsy. As dusk turned to night Kelly stood in front of the fire and clapped to gain everyone's attention.

"All right, listen up y'all. Today was great for us, and while it was my plan that got us in, I have to give credit where credit is due." Something flashed within the girl's golden eyes as she looked to Amy with a gesture. "This girl, right here. Amy pulled our asses out of the fire today, so y'all make sure you show her your appreciation."

A cheer went up from the rest of the group, and sturdy metal cups were raised and then refilled. Amy acknowledged the praise with a nod of the head, but then went back to staring out into the night. A few moments later she heard the sharp crack of skin against skin, and looked to see Kelly slapping Leroy's hand away from the near-empty bottle.

"Not you," the leader growled. "you're on watch tonight."

"But I--"

"All night," Kelly emphasized, her golden-eyed glare quickly cowing the rookie. "Amy might have pulled us out of the fire, but don't you forget you're the one who started it. You're on watch duty 'til I see fit to trust you again, and if you ever fuck up like that again you're out, period."

The boy paled and nodded with a gulp before heading out to take watch. It's funny, Amy thought, a couple years ago I would have seen that as harsh, but kept quiet for fear of Kelly kicking me out same as him. Nowadays I ain't worried about that at all, but it don't matter 'cause she's right. Life on the streets--or in their case, in remote woods just off the beaten path--was tough, and the group didn't have room for moochers dragging them down. It was part of the few rules of the Fringe, the assorted culture of folks living on the less savory side of society (whether by choice or by circumstance): Pay like with like, honor your deals, but otherwise: survive. If Leroy couldn't support the group, the group wouldn't support him, especially since he'd be breaking the promise he'd made to do his part. Harsh, sure, but it kept them alive, and that's what mattered.

Amy was pulled from her thoughts by Kelly sitting down next to her, bottle in one hand and the other draping itself across her shoulders. "You did good, Ames. Celebrate a little." She offered the redhead the bottle, but Amy refused with a shake of her head. Kelly shrugged, then drained the container herself. "Ain't like you to turn down a drink."

"I'd just barf it up," Amy grumbled. "Too nervous. Waste of good booze."

Kelly raised an eyebrow. "Nerves, huh?" The raven-haired woman danced her fingers slowly up Amy's shoulder. "I could help with that. More'n one way to celebrate, you know."

That got Amy's attention. "You tellin' me you had an ulterior motive for puttin' Leroy out on watch?"

Kelly tipped her head smugly. "Multitasking's the mark of a good leader, ain't it?"

The pair locked eyes, but soon enough Amy ended up breaking the gaze. "Sorry, Kells. But Zanna still ain't back, and..." Amy trailed off with a shrug. She thought she caught a glimpse of annoyance from Kelly, but the leader quickly hid it if she had.

"I get it. But Zanna's a big girl. She can handle herself, and soon as she's back--"

Movement in the darkness drew both women's attention, followed a moment later by Leroy's outcry of "Oi!" Kelly and Amy both got to their feet, ready for anything, but the latter found herself tackled to the ground by a blonde blur who covered her in kisses.

"I'm soooo sorry!" Zanna apologized once her mouth was somewhat less occupied. "I got in to make a report, and then the whole place went on lockdown, something about a Team Liberty attack or something? They kept me there for h o u r s, and I got so worried about y'all, and--"

Amy cut her off with a kiss. "We're fine. We got away with a bunch of stuff, more'n enough to make it to the move, 'specially since we'll have to move it up a few days. Was more worried about you, really."

Zanna grinned, face flushed. "S'fine, was just annoying is all. Glad to hear we still made the haul, did you tell Van the good news yet?"

Amy shook her head, and the two got up and raced off to find their Pokémon, oblivious to the rest of the world.

Alone in the darkness, Kelly scowled after them.

---------------

As it turned out, the milk run wouldn't be the last time Amy and Zanna were separated. As the month wore on, more and more chores popped up that took one or the other of the couple out of camp for hours at a time, some stretching far into the night. As their time near Mauville drew near to a close, Zanna was assigned to scout the woods with Joanes for a series of campsites that would take them towards Fortree, a mission that would last several days. For the first time in a long time, Amy considered challenging Kelly's orders, but one look at Zanna's reassuring smile convinced the redhead that they'd both be happier if Amy was still with the group waiting for her when she returned.

"You've got Van, at least. He'll probably be better backup than the rookie."

"Hey, Joanes is smart, just needs to learn is all. I'm honestly more worried 'bout what trouble you'll get into without someone to distract you."

"Says the girl who decided to skinny-dip in front of cops twice before I came 'round."

Zanna blushed at the memory. "Okay, okay, point taken. Just...keep yourself entertained while I'm gone, y'hear? Long droughts tend to skew your judgment."

This time it was Amy's turn to blush. "Fine. But I'll be thinking of you the whole time."

"Wouldn't have it any other way." One last kiss, and the scouts were sent on their way, leaving a very unhappy Amy behind them.

---------------

Amy was running inventory on the group's stash when Leroy approached her.

"Hey, Amy, we got any spare booze?"

"Lemme check." She hadn't gone over food and drink yet, but it wasn't long before she found what he was looking for. "Couple beers, looks like. I'll let Kelly know ya took 'em." She tossed the cans over, wincing at the boy's naive joy at the sight of the low-quality swill. "Who's the lucky guy?"

Leroy dipped his head in embarrassment. "Spencer. Dude's way more chill than he lets on, turns out we got a lot more in common than it seemed."

Amy paled, but Leroy had already taken the beer and started to turn away. With lightning speed, she latched onto his arm.

"Wh--yo, what gives?"

Amy quietly, subtly shook her head. "Not a good plan," she warned, voice barely above a whisper.

Leroy raised an eyebrow. "What, someone take him who don't like to share? I know he's into dudes."

Amy sighed. "Listen, kid, you know the word 'no'?"

"Yeah?"

"Let's just say that's something you two don't have in common."

The boy's eyes went wide, the sound of his beer cans hitting the ground startling him out of his shock. He slowly, almost mechanically, bent down to pick them up, then, after a few moments' hesitation, hastily returned them to Amy. "Uhh...thanks."

"Don't mention it." The boy nodded and turned away, forcing Amy to grab the neck of his shirt. "No, seriously. Don't."

Leroy nodded silently, then walked quietly away, heading in a distinctly different direction than from whence he'd came.

---------------

Amy was on patrol duty when she was almost jumped. The sight of the footprints in the forest floor gave her the half-second she needed to slip backwards out of reach of her assailant.

Apparently Spencer didn't care he'd failed to catch his prey. "You unholy cock-blocking bitch!" he seethed.

"Back off, Spencer."

"No. You cost me weeks of planning, now you owe me repayment."

"That's not how things work and you know it."

"That's not the tune you sang in the past--"

"Yeah, well, I ain't a clueless moron anymore, now am I? Unlike some people I could name."

"And just what's that s'posed to mean?"

"It means if you weren't such a selfish, stuck-up entitled prick maybe you'd have better luck getting laid."

"Oh, fuck off you self-righteous cunt."

"Hey, it's free advice, douchebag, take it or leave it. Now fuck off before Kelly gets on my ass for not reporting back."

Furious as the man was, he wasn't about to risk an upset Kelly. With a growl of hatred, he shoved past Amy and headed back for camp. "This ain't over," he warned.

"Yeah, it is." She clicked the button on her Dive Ball, releasing the Carvanha inside. "Van already don't like ya, come after me again an' he won't have the least bit excuse not ta take it out on your ass." The Dark-type gnashed its teeth in reinforcement of her response.

Spencer scowled, but retreated. As soon as he was gone, Amy let out the breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. She picked up her Pokémon and held him close. "I miss Zanna," she murmured.

---------------

Things almost went back to normal, but they didn't. But for a while, Amy could pretend.

Half a week after The Incident, Zanna and Joanes returned, bringing word of an oncoming typhoon and a nearby cave system in which the group could shelter. For a while, things were too busy, urgency shoving thoughts of anything but survival out of everyone's minds. With the storm weathered, however, the tensions re-emerged, and Kelly had had enough of it.

"Amy!" The camp leader's golden eyes flashed her frustration. "You, with me, now. The rest of y'all, stick close while we're off scouting. Zanna's in charge 'till Ames and I are back."

Amy knew when to pick her battles. Now was not the time to fight. She fell in line.

For the most part, scouting with Kelly was boring, the other woman content to take point while Amy watched behind them. Eventually, though, her leader demanded her answers.

"What the hell happened between you and Spencer?"

Amy ducked her head as if slapped. "Bastard tried to seduce Leroy, an' I decided I wasn't lettin' him get to a poor kid too new to know how the douchebag plays. After I told the kid Spencer don't know how to hear 'no', the creep cornered me an' reamed me out for cock-blockin' him, and I told 'im it's his own damn fault no one's puttin' out for him anymore. Why, he complain to you about it?"

"Not at all, I'm just sick of the camp goin' quiet whenever y'all're in the same room. That kinda tension's not good for us, Ames."

Amy snorted rebelliously. "Tell that to him, then."

"I will."

They went silent for a while, pretending the river-side woodlands required their full attention to navigate.

"So, when you say he doesn't hear 'no', are we talking...?"

Amy sighed. She really didn't want to talk about this.

"Look, it's not like I wanted this whole feud thing to happen. But after what he pulled with me, I just..." Amy shrugged helplessly.

Kelly nodded sagely. "I get it. You've just got to learn to protect yourself is all, and you'll be fine."

That startled Amy from her frustration. "Wait...shit, we forgot Van--!"

"Relax," Kelly reassured, lifting her shirt at her hip to reveal the grip of a handgun tucked into her waistband. "You're safer with me than some overgrown beach ball anyway."

"Van's a great partner--" Amy started to protest, before Kelly cut her off.

"An' I'm sure he is, but he ain't a bullet. Trust me, magic critters in little balls're no match for a gun at your hip with some lead in the chamber. Train 'im all ya like, it's still not the same as knowin' you can defend yourself by yourself."

Amy's gaze dropped to her feet, the girl considering Kelly's words. It made sense, but still--

"Oh, for Groudon's sake, lighten up!"

Amy was about to snap at Kelly, leader or not, when she suddenly found her feet falling out from under her. It took another moment to realize she'd been pushed. "Kelly--!"

SPLASH!

Amy soon surfaced, spluttering, only to have to hold her breath once more as Kelly dove into the river beside her.

"Fun, Ames. It's a thing. Have it." And with that, the leader swam on, forcing Amy to shut up and follow her wake just to keep up.

---------------

By the time Kelly clambered onto the riverbank, a slightly-less-tense Amy in tow, the sun had already dipped low in the sky. Shivering, the two surveyed their surroundings.

"Well, reckon this'll be an alright spot to spend the night." With nary another word, Kelly began stripping down, to Amy's embarrassment.

"Kelly--!"

Kelly cackled. "Start strippin', Ames. Unless ya like hypothermia? 'Cause wet clothes on a cold night's how ya get hypothermia."

Amy stared at Kelly incredulously, but began removing her soaked garments nonetheless. She tried to ignore the awkwardness--Why's this weird? S'not like it's anything we ain't seen before...--but still she couldn't shake the feeling something was off. After some hesitation she wrung out her undergarments and slipped them back on, the wet fabric uncomfortable yet strangely less so than Kelly's gaze. She shivered, drawing the camp leader's attention.

"You'll be warmer without 'em, Ames."

Amy shook her head. "I'll manage." She glanced back upriver, the way they'd came. "Ya left the backpack before ya dove in, right? Reckon I'll change out there once I get it." She turned back to Kelly--that was definitely a flash of frustration on Kelly's face--and raised a quizzical eyebrow.

Kelly sighed. "All right. Y'all hurry back, ya hear? Gonna get ya warmed right up once you're back."

Amy nodded and rushed off, trying to ignore how oddly uncomfortable she felt.

---------------

An hour's worth of walking, and Amy was dried, dressed, and almost back to her and Kelly's overnight campsite. A small but bright fire burned as a beacon for her, and despite her tension Amy couldn't help but look upon it with relief.

"'Bout time ya made it back. Was gettin' worried for ya."

Amy barely managed not to jump out of her skin. "Hells, Kells, don't scare me like that."

The older girl could barely contain her laughter. "Didn't mean to, but hell if it ain't hilarious." She snickered. "Everything still there?"

Amy nodded. "More or less." She blushed as they walked into the campfire's circle of light, having forgotten that Kelly hadn't had the chance to dress. "Er--here," she offered, shrugging the backpack off her shoulders and holding it out to Kelly while looking away.

Kelly waved her off. "S'fine. Fire's hot, 'n' so am I. Although..." Taking the bag from Amy, she scrounged around inside it before pulling out a package of jerky. She tore off the top and grabbed a piece before offering the package to Amy. "Want some?"

Amy shook her head, still unable to bring herself to look at her naked superior. Kelly cackled, but the laughter faded to a scowl when Amy didn't join in.

"Oh come on, y'all, you serious right now? You cannot be this bad a prude, you're datin' Zanna fer land's sake. The whole camp suffers through your flirtin', y'all tellin' me you're all talk?"

Amy flushed. "Naw, just...feels different. Weird."

Kelly rolled her eyes. "You're weird, Ames." She unhooked her bedroll from the backpack and rolled it out, before fixing Amy with a frown. "I really hope you're treatin' that girl better'n this, 'cause she deserves better."

Amy flinched. "We're fine, Kells, we're happy, okay? It's just...dunno. Guess I'm just feelin' off tonight or somethin'."

Apparently satisfied, Kelly crawled into her sleeping bag and let the matter drop.

Amy stayed awake, watching the fire burn down to embers.

---------------

Once the fire was finally, safely quenched, Amy slipped into her bag and was out like a light.

She awoke to an arm across her bare shoulders.

Kelly was staring at her, eyes full of lust, thumb gently caressing Amy's collarbone, the action rousing memories made by moonlight. She saw Kelly slowly slide open the edge of her bag, the scene sending sparks netherward, and Amy's disoriented confusion was soon overridden by heat.

"C'mere." When Amy didn't immediately respond, she stared at the girl sadly. "Hold me, Ames. I need you."

She knew that look, knew it was one she could never refuse. As always, Amy acquiesced.

---------------

The scouting finished. The camp moved. People settled. A new normal emerged. Amy took to tending the fire at night, staying awake into the wee hours while all but a lookout drifted off, her solitude shattered only by occasional interruption.

"Amy." Zanna's hair was adorably disheveled, the blue-blonde strands made uncooperatively frizzy by Fortree's humidity. "Amy, it's late, wake someone else up and come to bed."

Amy smiled at her partner. "Soon. Just a bit longer, I think."

Zanna made an annoyed harumph noise, but the smirk on her lips betrayed her seeming sternness. Disappointed, perhaps, but not upset.

Amy was glad. She didn't know what she'd do if these nights managed to truly upset Zanna. She didn't know what she'd say, how she'd explain--

Explain WHAT, exactly? What managed to make everything change, to make everything so awkward, so...wrong?

"Hey Amy?" It wasn't Zanna's voice.

Amy looked up at the lookout post, a hastily-erected platform perched atop one of the clearing's taller trees. "Leroy?"

"Thanks." It took him a second to realize Amy hadn't understood. "For looking out for me."

"Oh..." Amy shifted guiltily. "Sorry, Leroy, not that I wouldn't or anything, but this--" she gestured to herself and the glowing embers of the fire "--is kinda a 'me' thing."

"Still." Another pause, this one full of mutual understanding. "I never thanked you properly, so...thanks."

Amy shrugged. "Some things are common decency." She questioned the words even as they came out of her mouth--true words, but somehow they prickled at the back of her mind, like something missing...

Leroy shook his head. "True. But still. 'Pay like with like.' I owe you."

Amy started to shake her head in refusal, but stopped herself. Those were the rules of the Fringe, and breaking him of them wouldn't be doing Leroy any favors.

"You looked out for me when I couldn't defend myself," Leroy continued. "That's a hell of a debt to repay. Frankly, I hope I don't get the chance."

Amy smiled sadly. "Unless I turn into an overnight gunslinger, odds are good ya will." Amy considered herself, the thought of Kelly's advice. "You ever shoot a gun, Leroy?"

Leroy stared down at her incredulously. "You don't see the obvious risk with that?"

"What, shootin' yourself? Sure ya've been a bit clumsy but you ain't that bad."

Leroy shook his head. "I'm at enough risk of gettin' shot without wavin' a piece, if y'all catch my drift. No sense riskin' it even more."

"What are you--?" Amy cut herself short, realization slowly sinking in. "...oh."

"Yup. Mama didn't raise a fool." A pause. "You considerin' it, tho?"

"Considerin' what?"

"Kelly's gun training. Surely she's offered."

"Offered. Not sure I want ta accept."

Leroy shrugged from atop his perch. "Your call. Personally, I'm more in favor of a good hard punch, but then I've never been much for fighting in the first place."

"You got trainin' then?"

"My, ah..." An awkward pause. "My brother. Taught me a little before..." Leroy trailed off awkwardly.

"...sorry."

"Don't be. Was a shitty place anyhow, and at least we both got out alive."

"He's--wait, I thought..." Amy cut herself off again before she could pry too hard into Leroy's past. She cleared her throat. "You came in alone. Where is he now?"

"We split up in Lilycove, when, ah...he said he wanted to start a dojo. I...wasn't ready to settle in, so I left."

Amy nodded. "If I ever see him I'll be sure to tell him hello."

"Tell him I sent you. He'll hook you up, show you how to throw a real punch, the whole works." Another awkward pause. "...He's a good guy. I owe him, too."

Amy couldn't help feeling a little jealous, but she furiously tamped it down just like the stray embers she'd been corralling all night. "Some debts are too big to pay off," she mused as cover, glancing toward the fallen rocks concealing Zanna from view. "But sometimes that's a good thing."

Leroy smirked, looking away to conceal the expression. "Yeah, guess so. 'Night, Amy."

"'Night." Amy paused, then, extinguishing the fire's final embers, she padded over to Zanna and bed.

---------------

It was with strange reluctance that Amy took Kelly up on her offer. An hour's trip to Fortree and some creative 'requisitioning' later, the pair had a paintball gun and some ammo, enough at least for some basic marksmanship.

"It's nothing like the real thing," Kelly cautioned, as Amy cautiously aimed at and missed their improvised target for yet another time, "but it's still a gun, with a sight, a grip, and a trigger. The most important part of shooting isn't your aim, your fire rate, or even your ammo management. What matters is that you can point your weapon at the target..." Kelly raised her gun, pointed downrange, and let off three quick shots, utterly annihilating the Poké Doll they'd set upon the stump. "...and pull the trigger with intent to destroy."

Amy nodded slightly, unwilling to alter her carefully-calibrated aim. She pulled the trigger, sending a paintball splattering against the stump. She growled, pulling her sights just a hair higher, and with the second pull rid the stump's surface of the mess of cotton that remained of the target.

Kelly clapped her charge on the shoulder. "Good. Good! We'll make a proper shot of ya yet."

Amy snorted. "Hooray, one hit in three hours. I'm sure that's plenty fast enough to win a fight."

"Don't you worry your pretty little head on that, Ames. Speed? Accuracy? That's all part of the ten thousand hours ya need for anythin'. But the guts to actually put your finger on the trigger an' pull? That's a hell of a lot harder ta teach."

Neither of them noticed the pair of amber eyes following their every move.

---------------

Three months later

One-twentieth of the way into her "ten thousand hours", and Amy was getting a little sick of gunplay.

It's not that she was bad, mind--on the contrary, Kelly seemed to take every opportunity to complement her on her rapidly-improving skills, even graduating her to the actual handgun far sooner than she'd first expected. No, the problem was...well, Kelly herself.

Something had changed in their relationship, and it was bugging her. Amy couldn't quite put her finger on it, but whatever it was was slowly changing the camp's dynamic, and she wasn't sure she liked the changes. On the one hand, Leroy seemed to have adopted her into his unofficial protection (never mind she was probably at least two or three years older and by far the more experienced at life on the Fringe), and between him, Van, Zanna, and Kelly, she had more eyes watching her back than ever before. But on the other hand, perhaps that was why she felt so uneasy; for all those who had their back, that she needed the protection left her off-balance, and it was that vulnerability that drove her so vehemently to learn to protect herself. Amy had never liked owing debts, save to those few she favored, and now even those seemed to tower over her, like a thick canopy of trees slowly but surely choking out the final vestiges of the evening light. Where once she'd shared equally in all the camp's needs, now she found herself needing more, and her inability to repay was slowly eating at her.

Amy turned over in her sleeping bag, having taken to it early for once in another vain attempt to reset her sleep cycle. She didn't know why she bothered, knowing full well the effort was wasted, yet still she tried, hoping that perhaps conforming to the others' schedule might improve her feeling of isolation. And it was isolation; while the others were never quite rude (save, of course, Spencer), and she herself had never made a real effort of sociability, she could nonetheless feel the distance growing between her and them, and it worried her. "Pay like unto like"--she had always lived according to that rule, and yet more and more she feared that she was being held in contempt, soon to pay an unearned debt.

Zanna's arm on her shoulder drew her from her thoughts.

"Babe. What's wrong?"

"I'm..." Amy huffed frustratedly. "I dunno. Nothin' feels right, y'know?"

Zanna rolled Amy over with a frown, her hazel eyes brimming with concern. "No, I don't know, 'cause you haven't been talking to me."

The corner of Amy's mouth tightened in a discouraged scowl. "There's nothin' to say. Or--more, there just ain't words for it. 'M just frustrated. Unsettled. Little scared."

"You, scared?"

"You put that eyebrow back down right now, y'hear me?"

Zanna laughed, pulling Amy close. "Whatever's going on, you know we're right here, okay?"

Amy sighed into Zanna's shoulder, reluctantly releasing some of her tension. "I know, that's the hell of it. I got you, Van, even Kelly and Leroy--"

"You've got all of us," Zanna corrected, holding Amy at length to stare deep into her eyes. "We're a family. We all play our part, we all support each other, if you'll just open yourself up to it."

"Maybe."

"No maybes.," Zanna chided. "Tomorrow you're gonna open up and go train with Van. People and Pokémon share common bonds, so if you can open up to him, it'll be easy to open up for everyone else."

"I trust Van--"

"And you can learn to trust him even more." Zanna searched her lover's eyes. "Promise me, okay?"

After a long silence, Amy nodded.

---------------

As Amy turned her attention to training Van, Kelly turned it to tracking targets. "The trick to hitting a moving target," she lectured, "is knowing where the target will move even 'fore it does. Anticipate your opponent and they're yours." The leader handed Amy the paintball gun, still the one of the two with which she was more proficient even after a few weeks' break. "Lotta folks use clay to practice," she said, brandishing a pair of clay discs. Without warning, she hurled them violently to the ground, shattering them. "Useless. Only thing like a live target's a live target." Behind her, a very nervous-looking Leroy in a neon green shirt emerged hesitantly from behind a tree. "Leroy will be our target today."

Leroy grimaced, but tried to offer an encouraging smile to Amy.

It didn't help.

"All right. On my signal, Leroy will start running, and you will start firing. Any questions?"

Although the phrase "Are you insane???" crossed both of their minds, neither Leroy nor Amy admitted such.

"Good. Now, ready..." She raised her gun, taking aim at a nearby tree.

*BANG!*

Leroy was off in an instant, as if he himself had been fired from the gun. Amy, meanwhile, had her weapon up and tracking, but still far, far too slow. Before she could line up a shot, Leroy was gone. Disappointed, she started to lower her weapon.

"I didn't tell y'all to quit. Keep that gun up, keep looking, track his path an' get the bullet there first. If ya can't see 'im, get in his head an' figure it out."

It was one of the hardest exercises she'd done so far. Anticipate your opponent... With difficulty, Amy put herself in Leroy's shoes, tracking the cover, the terrain, the camouflage...

There!

She saw him. A glimmer of green far downrange, camouflaged but not concealed by a darker bush. He wasn't moving, but she didn't think he could see her, the bush thick enough it was blocking his view just as much as hers. She centered her sights, stilled her breathing, laid a finger on the trigger...

And couldn't fire. She threw the practice weapon aside with a grunt, hands shaking, a mixture of disgust and relief flooding her veins.

Kelly scoffed. "Really, Amy? I mean, it's hard, but it's not that--" Her eyes widened, and suddenly her gun was in hand, firing at something off to Amy's left. All Amy could catch of it was an indistinct pink blur, but it was gone too quickly for either of them to track.

Downrange, Leroy popped out of the bushes in concern. "Kelly?"

Kelly ignored him. "Shit", she swore, tucking the weapon back into her waistband, "must be getting rusty. Hey, gimme that," she commanded, gesturing to Amy's paintball gun. With only slight hesitation, Amy handed it over. "Thanks," Kelly replied, a sinister smirk at Leroy enough to send the boy running into the range once more.

Unlike her protégé, however, Kelly didn't hesitate.

---------------

Three weeks later

"Kyogre damn it!" Amy growled, punching her frustrations into a tree. Her focused, intentional swearing devolved into a mess of unintelligible imprecations as the pain set in, while all the while Van just grinned toothily from his pond. Amy scowled grumpily. "Yeah, yeah, laugh it up scale-face. I ain't seein' you doin' no better'n me. Or have ya learned to do more'n nibble at the nearest nimwit over the past five minutes?" Van dropped his eyelids in annoyance, clacking his teeth grumpily at her. "Well, then," she countered, "maybe you an' I can both stand some more practice."

The two dropped into their familiar stances, Van retreating to the back of the pond in preparation to leap out while she tensed into a lowered stance, ready to leap out of the way as a live opponent. She was almost ready to call her command, when something shifted. A faint chill drifted in on the breeze, and Amy's blood ran inexplicably cold. She and Van locked glances, and the two began slowly circling, struggling to see whatever intrusion lay behind each other's back. As she strafed past a slender spruce, she suddenly sighted the unplanned interloper, sucking in her breath in surprise. Kristoph, by comparison, appeared to have been waiting for her.

"Afternoon, Amy."

"For fuck's sake, Kristoph, do you have to do that?"

"Do what, exactly?"

"That," she said, gesturing vaguely at the young man's cold demeanor. "Showin' up out of nowhere like a damned ghost. Make some noise or somethin', will ya? Least pretend to be a livin' thing like the rest of us."

"...Noted," he bluntly lied.

"Whatever. You got a reason for sneakin' up on us out here?"

The man frowned, his greasy blond hair slipping over his shoddy secondhand glasses as he dipped his head. "Believe me, I have no interest in you or your little pet. However, Spencer asked me to find Leroy, and Joanes said he came out this way, have you seen him?"

"Nope. And if it's a favor for Spencer I ain't gonna see him, understand?"

Kristoph affixed Amy with a cold glare, glasses glinting dangerously as he pushed them back up onto his nose. "Noted." This time, it wasn't a lie.

Amy let out the breath she'd been holding as Kristoph finally disappeared back in the direction of camp. "All right, back to training then--VAN!!"

At Amy's startled yell, Van raced through the water at breakneck speed, gathering all its power to...flop uselessly against Leroy's back. Amy, meanwhile, punched the boy in the arm.

"Ow!"

"Do y'all not have ears? Hell, Leroy, I near sicced Van on ya, you're lucky he ain't learned nothin' useful. 'M half tempted to do it anyway for scarin' me."

Leroy smirked. "I see. Guess violence is easier when it's not you doin' it yourself, huh?"

Amy stared back at him nonplussed. "...Y'know just 'cause you're right don't mean I ain't mad at ya for it."

Leroy let out a snort of amusement, before letting himself get serious. "Anyway, thanks for not rattin' me out to Kristoph."

Amy grunted. "Why's he after ya anyway? You get in a fight with Spencer?" Her jaw dropped as she saw Leroy's expression of sheepish chagrin. "You did not! Leroy, I am best buds with the chief an' even I ain't pickin' that kind of fight, y'all got some kinda deathwish?"

Leroy sighed. "No, 'm just tired of watching him get away with murder while the rest of us walk on eggshells. After you left with Van he started sassin' Kelly 'bout usin' the wrong kinda gun for our target practice, and she just chuckled an' offered to let him teach in her place if he thinks he's so good. You know if I said that I'd've been out in the cold."

Much as she wished she could deny it, Amy couldn't. She might've gotten away with it, but she had three years and Kelly's favor over the rookie, and she knew it. "What'd you say to 'im?"

He shook his head. "Don't matter, he woulda been mad at me for sayin' anything. After that I figured I'd best vanish for a while."

Amy nodded. "Good call." Behind Leroy, Van clacked his own approval, having finally reached the water once more. Amy smirked affectionately at the Carvanha's antics. "Come off it, Van, clumsy oaf like y'all wouldn't know the first thing 'bout vanishin', ya useless sack of scales." The Pokémon retaliated by doing his best to thoroughly splash the two humans, though they easily dodged. Amy leaned condescendingly over the Carvanha, hands on her hips. "Come on, y'all're Water type, right? Why can't y'all gimme somethin' watery?" Van considered, before baring his teeth, a layer of liquid coating their surface. Amy groaned. "That is disgusting even for a fish," she drawled dismayedly.

Leroy grinned as Van Leered grumpily at Amy. "Don't think he likes bein' called a fish, Amy." His chuckle petered out into a wan smile. "You're lucky to have 'im. Him, Kelly, Zanna, y'all all have each other watchin' your back. Only one doin' that for me is you."

Amy possessively clutched the Poké Ball in her pocket. "Mine," she half-joked, half-warned. She frowned. "I mean, I'd suggest you steal a ball an' catch one o' your own, but y'all'd know well as me how to actually train 'em." She squatted next to the pond, selecting a few stones to skip across its surface.

*splish, splish, sploosh*

*splish, splish, splish, sploosh*

*splish, splish, splish, plink*

"rrrrARRRR...!"

A rock Amy had previously assumed merely to be covered in lime green moss revealed itself to be a napping Pokémon. The Larvitar roared its displeasure, launching a volley of Stealth Rocks around Amy and Van, forcing the Trainer to still herself to avoid injury. What in--

Amy wasn't quite sure what Leroy managed next; one moment, he was standing there next to her, the next he was just gone. Apparently, though, the little Larvitar didn't like that much, as it launched itself off its little island in hot Pursuit. The rampaging reptile struck again and again, but Leroy continued to dodge blow after blow. The Pokémon was clumsy...but Leroy was only human. In short order, Leroy lagged, and when he did--

*WHAM*

Amy expected a cry of pain, a splash of blood, but when she opened her eyes she saw that Van had taken the attack. The Carvanha hissed its displeasure, launching a Bite that the enemy Rock-type easily dodged. Though the Larvitar shifted the target of its Pursuit to Van, the Dark-type refused to run, and the Larvitar's offensive proved ineffective. The Larvitar only grew angrier, beginning to glow with a red aura tinged with sickly purple.

"Watch out!" Leroy called from behind Amy, the unexpected interjection almost startling her into injury via Stealth Rock. "That's Outrage, you don't wanna let it hit!"

Amy nodded--carefully, but firmly--and focused back on her own Pokémon "Your new move, Van--you hafta try!"

Van clacked an acknowledgment. The Carvanha tightened its focus, straining with all its might to summon a wash of water to its aid, but nothing came. He hissed in frustration, knowing the enemy's attack would soon strike--

Van's eyes widened, realization chilling him to his core. The Larvitar's gaze was fixed not on him, but on Amy. His Trainer. The girl he was bound to protect.

With a loud open-mouthed hiss, Van lunged forward, the Larvitar in its Outrage doing the same. Water coalesced around Van's fangs, freezing into a powerful Ice Fang as he clamped his jaws onto the rampaging Rock-type. A cloud of steam blossomed outward from the contact as the two opposing energies clashed.

"Van!"

When the dust settled, both Pokémon still stood, but both seemed impossibly weak. A single move from either would win the fight--

A single move did...as Leroy threw a Premiere Ball. The capsule drew the Larvitar in, wobbled once, twice, thrice...

*click*

The Stealth Rocks dissipated, their energy dispelled with their creator's capture. Even so, Amy stepped gingerly over the stony shards. As Leroy stood up, prize clasped tightly in his hands, Amy met him with a shoulder punch.

"Wh--ow!!"

"You little...ya couldn't've opened with that??"

"I mean, you have to weaken 'em first, right? You can't just catch 'em outta nowhere."

Amy raised an eyebrow. "Says who?"

"Uhh...'people'?"

Amy snorted. "'People' say a lotta stuff. That don't make it smart."

Leroy rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "Worked fer me."

Amy shot him a sour look, but she knew she'd lost this particular argument. "So what're you callin' him?"

Leroy shrugged. "Dunno." He stared at the ball for a second, screwing up his face in concentration. "How 'bout 'Harvey'?"

Amy stared at him incredulously. "Harvey? For a Larvitar? Really?"

Leroy pointed at Amy's Carvanha. "Van?" he observed defensively.

"Zanna," Amy countered. Leroy shrugged. Amy rolled her eyes.

Leroy regarded Amy nervously. "Hey, Amy, could you...maybe keep this quiet?"

"Why? Spencer'll maybe leave ya alone if he knows he's gonna get mauled by some crazy lizard next time he messes with ya."

Leroy stared at Amy in disbelief, before shaking his head sadly. "Won't work that way. Maybe for you, but end of the day, you're off-limits. Me? Just makes me a threat."

Amy sighed. When'd he get so smart 'bout camp politics? "...yeah, all right," she admitted. "Secret's safe with me."

"Thanks. Looks like I owe you another one."

Amy shook her head. "We helped each other out. We're square."

Leroy grinned stubbornly. "If that's what you want to tell yourself."

Amy rolled her eyes. Retreating her own Pokémon, she headed back to camp to get him some healing.

---------------

Back at camp, Zanna was waiting for Amy.

"Amy! How was training, did Van manage to learn a Water move yet?"

Amy shook her head as she brought the Water-type in question back out and began applying a Potion from Zanna's stash. "Not yet, but he's gettin' close."

"Great!" Zanna beamed at the pair, Van basking in the praise. "Anything else happen?"

"Hey, Amy, could you...maybe keep this quiet?"

"...yeah, all right. Secret's safe with me."

"...not really."

---------------

Three days later

"Amy?"

Already on her way out of camp, Amy turned at the sound of Zanna's voice. "What's up, love? Somethin' wrong?"

"Yeah," Zanna replied, "I can't find Van anywhere, have you seen--?"

Amy let out the breath she'd been holding, and held up the Dive Ball. "Right here. Was just about to go out trainin' again, why, you need 'im?"

"Oh." Zanna smiled, but strangely the tension didn't release from her shoulders. "No, that's fine, sweetie, I'll just have Kelly help instead."

"You sure? 'Cause if you need us--"

Zanna held Amy at arm's length. "Nah, it's fine." Catching the look in Amy's eyes, she added, "Babe, really, I'm fine. It's inconvenient, but it makes me so much happier to see you and Van gettin' along so well."

Amy regarded Zanna with apprehension. "Ya sure?"

Zanna nodded. "Positive. Now get out there an' get stronger, ya hear?"

Amy snorted. "I know yer tryin' ta be inspirational, but really ya just sound like Kelly when ya put it like that."

Zanna rolled her eyes. "Get movin', girl. Forge those bonds. Be a great Trainer. Fulfill those dreams!"

"See, now I know yer messin' with me."

"Don't stop 'til ya reach the top! Rise ever onward! Achieve th' pinnacle of greatness an' then go on! Make yer enemies question who the hell they think you are!"

Amy shoved Zanna playfully. "Dork," she accused with a giggle.

The other woman wrapped her arms around Amy and drew her close. "Your dork," she corrected. She gave Amy a kiss. "Love you."

"Love you too, Zann."

Zanna sent Amy off with a gentle push. "Now go make us proud."

Amy rolled her eyes and started off. "Whatever."

"Tonight's the night!"

Amy did her best to ignore her girlfriend's silliness, and set off to train.

---------------

Three hours later

"Yeah, this dream'll last forever, hmm hmm hmm hmm-hmm hmmm-mm, we will rise to meet the challenge...dangit, Zanna!" Amy chuckled at the song now stuck in her head. "You doin' any better, Van?"

The Water-type shook its head, before going back to its efforts. Thus far, the Carvanha had managed to at least partially surround itself in water, but still hadn't quite perfected its use as propulsion.

Though the sun hung low in the sky, Amy figured they still had a little more time to train. "Well, keep at it. I dunno if 'practice makes perfect' 'pplies t' Pokémon, but if it does y'all gotta be close, 'n' I know y'all got it in ya."

The Carvanha clacked out its compliance and got back to work, summoning the water from its pool to try and propel itself to the next one. Though it managed to launch itself halfway, the stream dissipated before it could complete the move, and Amy was forced to go retrieve the flopping fish.

"I tell ya, I swear I've put on a half-pound of muscle just from carryin' ya back an' forth, the hell's Zanna been feedin' ya to make ya so--" The Trainer stopped short as she spotted a pair of amber eyes staring out at her from the underbrush. "Be very, very quiet," she cautioned Van, the Carvanha almost clacking its teeth in reply before realizing his near-blunder.

The eyes vanished for a moment, before returning reluctantly. Slowly, a pink arm with razor-sharp claws emerged from the bush, beckoning the Trainer closer.

Not human, then, Amy noted. "All right. Y'all lead, I'll follow, that what ya want?"

They eyes bobbed up and down as their owner nodded. Before Amy could get within arm's reach (even if they hadn't been full of fourty-odd pounds of fish), the Pokémon in the bushes shot off, revealing itself once more from a second shrub further along the path.

Sharing a glance with Van, Amy hesitantly continued along the way.

---------------

Thirty minutes of walking brought them to the back side of camp, approaching with a level of stealth she hadn't thought possible. Where is everyone? And how'd we manage to get past the sentry, someone slackin' off again? Something in the mysterious Pokémon's demeanor demanded silence, something Van apparently also understood, to her gratitude. Something felt wrong, and if she didn't know any better she'd swear the strange Pokémon was trying to warn her. C'mon, critter, she mentally muttered, get to th' point, please. I need to know what yer--

Amy's train of thought was cut off by voices coming from Spencer and Kristoph's corner of camp. "All right," she heard Kelly say, "Zanna 'n' Leroy are out, an' the others are out foragin'. Where's Kris?"

"Out," Spencer replied, "so we're alone for this."

"Fine. Now, what's your grievance?"

"Reckon it's same as yours."

Amy could practically hear Kelly raising an eyebrow. "Stirrin' up trouble an' refusing to cooperate?"

"Gettin' in the way when it comes t' fun."

"Oh, fuck off with that, Spence, just out 'n' say yer still pissed she cock-blocked ya. Ain't no crime."

Wait, they're talkin' 'bout me?

"What happened t' 'pay like with like'?"

"Cool it, Spence, I meant y'all bein' pissed ain't a crime."

EXCUSE me?!?

"Yeah, well..." Spencer trailed off, trying to reign in his impulsive anger. "'Bout that. 'Pay like with like.' She ain't paid me back for what she took from me. An' she keeps gettin' in the way."

"So what do y'all want me t'do 'bout it?"

"Simple. Stop protectin' her. It's time to set things square."

Okay, wow, what a lunatic. Really glad I got Kelly on-side, otherwise--

"...done."

Amy's blood froze.

"Just like that?"

"Just like that."

"...and what's in it for you?"

"She owes me, an' she's more interested in her little fairy-tale romance than in payin' her dues. 'M sick of havin' t' fight 'er on it, 'specially since she's the one who took what was mine in th' first place."

"So she wronged both of us the same way."

Kelly snorted. "Close 'nuff, sure."

...you slimy, backstabbing little bit--

"So what're you plannin'?"

"Go wait with the stores. I'll find Amy an' send 'er in, then make sure th' rest o' camp has somethin' t' believe in the mornin'."

"What about her Pokémon?"

"Get bit."

"Wh--?"

"Scar on th' leg, you got carte blanche, self-defense. Just keep the rest to those in the know."

"...Right."

A tap on the shoulder almost caused Amy to yelp and give away her presence. She slowly turned to see the Pokémon--a Sneasel, possibly, despite being the wrong color?--tugging at her sleeve.

Right. Right, we gotta... The full prospect of what the others had planned for her hit her like a charging Tauros, the realization suddenly sinking in. The Sneasel kept tugging, the somewhat shell-shocked Amy drifting along with her guidance. They're...they're actually planning to...I have to go, or else they're going to...

As Amy passed into a little alcove she dimly recognized as her own, she felt Van slip from her arms and hit the ground hissing. She didn't care, she was too busy being shocked they would actually go through with their--

"Got you," a monotone voice declared. She heard the distinct snkt of a switchblade extending.

The shiny Sneasel took off like a shot, eyes wide, pursued by the man with the hate-filled scowl half-covered by his lifeless unkempt locks. No, Amy realized, it was her he was after, only Van’s valiant efforts keeping her from him.

Kristoph growled, kicking at her Pokémon partner, but Amy was too stunned to stop him. She saved me. He’s in on it, and she saved me. They both saved me. The young woman finally noticed her former friend attacking Van, only the Carvanha’s snapping jaws keeping Kristoph at bay. I have to help, she realized.

I have to help. I owe them my life.

"I knew we should have brought more of the others in on this. One person is not enough surveillance, and there are ways to ensure others' silence."

While Kristoph was busy dodging a Bite, Amy lunged for the knife, barely dodging a deadly backhand of retaliation as she hit the ground and rolled. "Why--? How did you...?"

"Your training grounds got too quiet. When I went to check on you and you weren't there, I realized that, as usual, you refuse to cooperate." With a grunt of exertion, Kristoph managed to punt the snapping Van across the clearing, leaving him alone with his victim. "But I can recalculate. Spencer will be disappointed, of course, but he'll be more than happy your interference is ended." The man raised his knife for the finishing blow.

A jet of water surged across the clearing, crashing into Kristop and slamming him into the wall. Van landed where he'd once stood, hissing hatefully as the human slumped to the ground.

With great unease, Amy forced herself to her feet. "Van? Is he...?"

The Carvanha clacked his teeth loudly, nodding toward the unconscious body before them. It seemed that, as he hit the wall, Kristoph had inadvertently stabbed himself. Amy was in no state to diagnose the lethality of the injury, and frankly she didn't care. "C'mon," she told Van, retreating him to his ball for easier transport, "let's go."

---------------

A majority of her meager possessions gathered into a small backpack, Amy made her way silently across the camp to Kelly's clearing to gather her final, most important acquisition. She quietly mumbled to herself as she dug through the transient leader's surprisingly plentiful belongings.

Matches...cigs...where the hell did she leave her--

"What are you doing?"

In her wired state, Amy nearly jumped out of her skin. Behind her stood the last person in the world she expected to see...Zanna.

"Shit, Zanna, you can't sneak up on me like that. 'Specially not now. The hell you doing here, anyway?"

"Van caught up with us, he seemed worried so I left him with Leroy and came back."

Fast little sucker, ain't he? Amy thought to herself. She saw now the gun she'd been seeking tucked in at Zanna's waist, a sign she'd been sent scouting before Amy and Van had gotten back.

"Listen. Zanna. We gotta go. Now, before anyone realizes--"

"What? Amy, you aren't making sense."

"It's Spencer. He's lost his mind, and Kelly's backing him up. You should've heard him, Zann, what he's planning to do...he's a monster, and he's got the rest of camp on his side."

Zanna stared warily at Amy, as if she was the one who'd lost her mind. "That's crazy talk. These are our friends, Amy, they'd never want to hurt us. Besides, Kelly's solid, she'd never let anyone pull anything too bad."

"Wanna bet?" she asked, mind drifting back to the woman's sinister mention of "dues". Suddenly that night in the forest made a lot more sense.

"I do wanna bet, actually. Amy, you're being hysterical, let's just calm down and we can work things out--"

"Calm down? Work things out?? Zann, do you have any idea what he...?"

Zanna broke the gaze. "Look, I know Spencer's kinda...yeah...but he's family. We look out for each other. We keep each other safe. That's how Kelly's always done it, and that's how it'll always be."

A dull ache spread through Amy's chest as she stared hard at the woman she loved. "I know. An' that's why I have to leave."

"What?! No! Amy--"

"Listen, Zann, I get it. I'm not gonna ask you to leave your family, I can see how much they mean to you. But I can't stay. It ain't safe for me anymore."

"No...no, you can't do this. You can't tear us apart. They took us in, Amy, both of us. They care about us, how can you betray that??"

They betrayed me first, she didn't say. "I'm sorry, my love. But I have to leave."

"No you don't. You...you won't." Zanna's voice trembled, though only half as much as her body. Without warning, she drew Kelly's gun. "I...I won't let you!"

Amy knew, to the core of her being, that Zanna wouldn't shoot her. She knew this woman, in every sense, and she knew the woman she loved would not--could not--pull the trigger. It was child's play to tear the weapon from her lover's grasp. The distraught woman didn't even resist, transferring her desperate grip to Amy herself.

"Please. Stay with me. Please."

Amy looked into Zanna's eyes, seeing the primal terror within. Zanna wasn't going to let go, would fight, would scream, would do everything in her power to stop her.

Even alert the others.

Despite her naiveté, the blindness from which she'd so recently been cured, Amy was no fool. To stay was a death sentence...and worse. No matter Zanna's intentions, the woman was going to kill her.

There were three rules to this life. A deal is your life, pay like with like, and survive at all costs. Once, in what seemed like another life, they'd made a promise of passion. "I'd never hurt you," Zanna had said. "I promise."

"Ditto."

Eternity crystallized into a single moment of clarity.

*BANG*

Amy gently, lovingly bore her burden to the ground, heart rent by an unavoidable choice. She lit one of Kelly's matches, then dropped it, leaving all else to be consumed amongst the flames.

Amelia Zann fled into the night, trusting only the darkness to hide her.

end