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Time had ceased to exist in the dark halls beneath the ground. Days bled together, indistinguishable from the nights. Torture, agony, the stench of blood and sweat and dark eco. He fought back with all he had, screams tearing from his lungs when it became too much. For the longest time that was the only sound he made, unable to defend himself against the words they threw at him-- 'dumb animal', 'eco freak', 'monster'.

He had never spoken before, never had cause to really try. Daxter had always been there, had always been his voice. He was alone now, with no one to speak for him. He would force the words to come, sounds that were alien to his own ears, clumsy and strange on his tongue... words that caught in his throat, threatening to choke him; it felt deeply wrong but he spat them out anyway, in the dark of his cell where no one could hear...

'Prak... sis... m'not stupid... kill you...'

...But then they would come back, soldiers with angry voices and large rough hands, needles and chains and dark eco, and the words abandoned him again... in the end, only the screams were left.

'Dark eco injection cycle complete. Bio readings nominal and unchanged.'

The cool female voice sifted down through the haze of pain. Jak blinked, trying to focus and immediately regretting it; the all-too-familiar machinery rotated slowly above him and the manacles cut into his wrists despite the dirty bandages, and at the edge of the circle of light stood the two men who stalked his nightmares...

'Hmph, nothing!' The first man's voice was as harsh and severe as his appearance-- half his face covered in steel plates that concealed disfiguring scars, overcoat impeccably pressed and boots always spotless. 'I was informed that this one might be different!'

The second voice was clipped, soft with respect and a touch of fear-- not its usual tone. 'He is surprisingly resistant to your 'experiments', Baron Praxis...'

Everything faded as the darkness returned. He thought of sand and sun and sea, tried to recall what it was like back then, but he could no longer remember the smell of saltwater or the crash of waves against the shore, had forgotten the heat of sunlight on his skin. It was hard to believe that world had even existed; sometimes felt as though it must have been a fevered dream, as intangible as smoke against the cold reality of the prison...

'...RRRGH!' A large hand gripped the front of Jak's prison uniform, dragging him upright as far as the chair's shackles would allow. 'You should at least be dead, with all the dark eco I've pumped into you!' Spit misted his face but he didn't respond, glazed eyes half-closed against the too-bright lamps overhead; he dropped listlessly back when the Baron released him, his head throbbing and dark spots encroaching upon his already blurry vision...

His entire world was saturated in the acidic burn of dark eco and the reek of his own fear, the dread and resignation that no matter how long and fast he ran he would never escape, never reach the exit and feel the wind on his face, never taste cool clear water or ripe fruit or fresh-caught fish smoked over an open fire... Never again would he run the length of the beach with a skinny redhead laughing at his heels...

That voice was the only thing that was clear to him now-- the voice that had been there all through his mute childhood, carrying conversations on its own, talking to him and never expecting (never needing) more than a nod or a shrug or even the slightest glance in reply. Back then, it had been enough; there had been no need for him to force half-broken words from his unwilling throat...

'...will not be remembered as the man who lost this city to those vile creatures! Move forward with the final plan-- and finish off this... thing tonight.'

'As you wish,' the shorter man murmured as the Baron strode towards the exit-- then he turned back, fisting one hand in Jak's hair and pulling his head up, leaning in close until their faces were inches apart. 'I'll be back later,' Erol whispered, breath hot and foul against his captive's face...

The commander released him and his head dropped again, darkness clouding the edges of his vision; he could hear the man walking away, footsteps echoing in the vast darkness of the chamber... he recognised his tormenters by the sound of their footsteps yet he couldn't remember the faces of the villagers he had grown up with. He struggled against unconsciousness but only sank further into the eco-haze, his vision shot with now-familiar violet sparks...

...He was running, climbing before the rising tide, racing against dark foul-smelling liquid eco that threatened to engulf him. In another life, another time, he had made it out, had laughed it off afterwards. Now, he couldn't even remember what laughter felt like. The walls stretched above him to infinity, and his legs burned with the effort, and somewhere above him a chilling voice whispered, 'You cannot hide from me, boy...'

Footsteps returned from someplace far away, heavy boots ringing against the metal walkways. 'Well, eco freak, looks like this is it-- I finally get to finish you.' Cold slimy words, laced with a perverse sort of glee--

The monster loomed over him, its many yellow eyes flashing as its cruel laughter echoed in the dark. 'You will now play your final part...'

'Any last words?' Erol paused mockingly, giving him an opportunity to reply despite knowing he could not-- the oppressive eco-haze that followed the injections always stilled his tongue, silenced him; all he managed was a voiceless breath, hissing slightly as it passed his teeth. Erol smirked. 'Heh, I didn't think so.'

'Now that you've been altered with dark eco, you are nothing...'

A soft metallic sound cut through the stagnant air as Erol flicked a switchblade open; the wide demented grin spread across his face as he twisted gloved fingers into long green hair. 'I've been waiting for this, eco freak.'

'...there is no escape.'

The blade bit into his cheek but he hardly felt it against the burn of the dark eco in his blood; his veins were red-hot wires embedded in his flesh and every heartbeat drove fresh waves of agony through his body, pulsing faster and faster; the lights brightened and the shadows sharpened, their edges picked out in flickers of violet lightning--

He cried out, not a scream but a fierce growl that tore itself from his throat like a living thing; he tasted blood and eco and his head felt like it was splitting open. He twisted an arm and the metal at his wrist screeched as heavy bolts tore free-- his fist connected solidly with Erol's jaw; the force of the blow sent the commander flying and drove his own sharpened fingernails into his palm but he hardly noticed another small pain, throwing himself free of the thick shackles that could no longer hold him and crashing down on top of his tormenter.

Long black claws dragged over Erol's face, down across the brow before plunging deep into the eye socket; fluid burst around his fingers and screams other than his own echoed across the torture chamber, but he didn't feel so much as a flicker of remorse for his would-be killer. Dark eco and years of torture left no space for empathy or regret.

Erol still held the knife in his fist and aimed a strike at the prisoner's head-- a desperate and futile attack, as this was exactly the sort of creature he and Praxis had hoped to create when they first conceived their Dark Warrior Project; this was the vision that had inspired them to capture a frightened young eco channeler and subject him to two years of dark eco injections. They sought to create a supersoldier, a warrior of heightened strength and speed, a weapon to cut down metalheads as ordinary men could not.

They had succeeded, but their mistake had been thinking they would control the results.

Jak easily blocked Erol's wild strike, gripping the man's wrist with enough force to fracture bone. His other hand pressed down on Erol's shoulder, claws biting deep into the flesh. He wrenched the arm back and it tore free entirely, blood gouting over his hands and showering the walkway, the screams rising to a higher, sharper pitch.

He felt the footsteps of the approaching guards vibrating through the ground beneath his bare feet, heard their shouts but failed to parse the alarmed words; his mind was filtering out all information not immediately related to one single instinct, to fight, to survive. He rose to a crouch before springing at them, clubbing the nearest guard with Erol's severed arm and spinning to slam his foot through another's mask...

But he could feel that the eco was receding, strength bleeding back out of him as swiftly as it had come; it left him feeling hollow, empty. He clutched his pounding head with blood-slicked hands as half a dozen prison guards piled on him, pinning him to the ground. He struggled weakly against their grip as they held him down, one of them binding his arms securely behind his back.

'Commander, what do you want us to do with him?' The guards hauled Jak to his feet, turning him so he could see Erol-- a medic had applied a compress and some green eco to the mangled shoulder to staunch the worst of the bleeding, and he sat mostly upright, though he leaned heavily against the bank of equipment behind him. The right side of his face was pasty-white and the left was stained dark with blood from the now-empty eye socket.

'Take it back to its cell,' Erol snapped, but his usual arrogant air of command was gone; his remaining eye was wide with lingering terror, his voice pitched an octave higher than usual.

The guard shoved Jak forward; he stumbled and coughed, spitting out blood he wasn't sure was entirely his. He ducked a second shove and looked back at Erol, his gaze calm and level. 'What're... y'so 'fraid of, commander?' he asked softly, smiling as the rage spread across Erol's face-- for once it didn't matter if he slurred the words or pronounced the vowels slightly off; he had already won this fight and they both knew it. 'Ssn't this what y'wanted?' He tossed his head to shake the hair from his eyes, grinning coldly. 'Or di'you r'lly think I'd follow orders like a good li'l pet monster?'

'You'll pay for this, eco freak!' Erol pulled free of the medic's grip, quickly overbalancing without support; the guards only just managed to catch him before his aborted attempt to lunge forward could tip him off the narrow walkway. 'We will break you! You're mine, do you hear?!' He ignored the medic's attempt to calm him, pointing at Jak maniacally. 'I'LL BREAK YOU!'

Jak shook his head, smile fading and voice dropping to a careful, halting whisper. 'You can try, but I'll never give you what you want.'

The guards finally dragged him away, Erol's deranged shouts trailing after them down the corridors. Jak's mind was clearer now than it had been in months, and he thought about his last moments outside-- the unfamiliar city, smoggy and hard-edged, filled with people who quickly looked the other way when red-armoured soldiers approached... Daxter had promised a rescue, but after all this time there had been no sign of his friend, and as much as he trusted Daxter, he had to acknowledge that a rescue was unlikely. For all he knew, Daxter had been captured as well and needed help as much as he did... he couldn't keep waiting on someone else to save him.

He tumbled back into the cell, glaring defiantly at the guards as the heavily barred door swung closed. Praxis might have twisted him into a dark eco channeler, a monstrous creature no better than the Acherons he'd once defeated, but he wouldn't give that bastard the satisfaction of being right. He refused to be their dark warrior, some chained attack dog for them to unleash upon their enemies. Anyone foolish enough to try would be the first to fall.

The weapon they had forced into him would be his best chance at fighting back... and he would take it, even if that meant accepting what he'd become.

---

Daxter had quickly learned that Haven City was not kind to stray animals-- not that he was an animal, thank you very much, but looks were all that mattered to most Havenites. If you were a human who had the misfortune of being two feet tall and fuzzy... well, everyone just assumed you were someone's exceptionally well-trained pet, which got you a lot of attention, and not the good kind. It was better to let people assume you were just a normal stray, because they usually didn't try as hard if they thought you were animal-stupid.

And with what seemed like half of Haven's entire population out to get him, Daxter needed all the help he could get. The pest control jerks and the Krimzon assholes would have been hard enough to deal with on their own, but of course the universe couldn't let him catch a break-- it was nearly impossible to find a safe place to sleep, leaving him in a constant state of exhaustion. He had to avoid fights with the city's actual strays, and tight rations among the lower classes meant that he was in constant danger of becoming some desperate slum-dweller's dinner.

He'd never stopped thinking of Jak, but plotting heroic assaults on enemy strongholds just wasn't possible when every day was a struggle to survive. Finding stability had proved necessary-- he couldn't have made his current plan without a safe place and a trusted ally, but knowing this didn't stop him feeling guilty for having taken so long. And even after setting himself up with connections and determining that Jak was most likely imprisoned at the Krimzon Guard fortress, it still took precious months to gather the required information and resources.

As much as Daxter liked to imagine himself making a daring rescue, he had quickly learned that a flashy entrance would just raise the alarm prematurely, and he had no illusions about the sort of chances a lone ottsel would have against Haven's entire army. A handful of pilfered maps and security passes combined with his small size ensured that sneaking in would be easy enough-- finding Jak and escaping unscathed was bound to be difficult, but he stubbornly refused to accept that it might be impossible. At least his new friend seemed to approve of that attitude, even if they both knew he was just putting on a brave face.

Once he was in, Daxter was almost disappointed with how easy it was to sneak around unnoticed-- the fortress had more than enough ducts and out-of-the-way corners to keep out of sight, and most of the time since his break-in was spent waiting for guards to look the other way so he could check prison logs for any sign of his friend. It might have been boring if he wasn't so tense; the records were lengthy and most of the prisoners he glimpsed looked like average civilians who didn't seem capable of doing anything bad enough to deserve this place.

The fortress definitely had a way of getting you down-- not that the KG seemed to agree. The conversations he listened in on were casual, joking and discussing bets on the racing tournaments, trading tales of bravado and commiserating over getting stuck with the least-coveted assignments. Must be nice, Daxter thought acidly, if getting stuck on sewer patrol was the greatest of your worries-- he wanted to see those babies try sleeping down there; then they'd actually have something to complain about...

If not for the regular shift changes, Daxter would have lost track of how long he'd been crawling around the prison's ductwork. As it was, he estimated it had been about three days-- he was tired and hungry and had walked through more cobwebs than he could count, and after searching the main cell block top to bottom there was still no sign of Jak. According to the records and his own observations, it seemed that the people held in the main levels were primarily short-term detainees awaiting sentencing, while Jak had been captured over two years ago.

He wouldn't let himself think that Jak might not be here anymore. He told himself that he'd known all along that Jak would be in the top-security sublevels, that there was nothing to worry about. Time to make use of his diversion-- some acquaintance of his friend's knew a guy who was pretty smart and had a job working with something called an 'eco grid', and while Daxter was a bit fuzzy on the details he understood that if he pressed the button on the little device he'd been given, something big and important would go up in smoke, something the KG couldn't ignore.

Daxter pulled the detonator out of the little pouch he wore like a backpack, feeling very dramatic as he pressed the button with a flourish. Boom, baby.

Nothing happened immediately, creating a pause just long enough for him to feel slightly anticlimatic... but then the lights went out and the fortress rapidly took on the appearance of a wumpbee nest turned on its head. KGs bumbled around, their comm units crackling with confusion and growing alarm. Ottsel eyes had superior night vision to human ones, and Daxter had little trouble slipping past the security checkpoint.

The sublevels were dark and eerily quiet after the commotion above. Daxter turned a corner to find himself in the prison block, rows of cells with heavy barred doors lining the walls. There obviously wasn't time to search them all; he'd just have to slip into the records office and search for Jak's processing entry... Piece of cake, right?

---

Sometimes he couldn't remember his own name-- sometimes the entire world narrowed to a tiny dark cell and the most basic instincts, fight and survive and escape. He fought whenever he was lucid enough to break the chains and doors and red-armoured forms that stood in his way, fought with single-minded determination even when he only half-remembered why.

And sometimes in the dark echoing quiet he imagined he heard a familiar voice, calm and light-hearted, rattling off complaints to cover the secret secondary meaning that everything would be okay, they'd both be fine, because the voice would never complain if anything was really truly wrong. The voice wouldn't want him to worry. Other people thought the voice was annoying, but they didn't understand.

He fought through the haze, fought until the sheer numbers overpowered him. Fought blindly and wordlessly against a force he couldn't hope to overcome, broken champion for the voice that was never really there. It no longer mattered what was real, no longer mattered as long as he never surrendered, never gave That Man what he wanted. He had to struggle just to understand what they said, and only bothered because he had to know what they wanted if he was going to continue defying them.

He feared that if he ever stopped fighting he would lose himself entirely, lose the final vestiges of his sanity and free will. He feared losing the only thing he had left, the memory of a long-lost voice--

...A voice that was suddenly close and so impossibly real it hurt, echoing faintly against cold metal walls: 'Find Jak, I said. Can't be too hard, I said...'

He lifted his head and flexed his arms against the heavy chains. Here we go again...

---

Daxter was painfully aware that every wasted second was valuable time he couldn't afford to lose, and he wished a million curses on whatever KG architect had designed this damn prison and its absurd cell-numbering system. Nothing seemed to go in any sort of order, and he hadn't seen a single sign to help him find his way. It was a wonder the KGs could navigate this place without getting hopelessly lost, given the average level of intelligence they displayed.

By contrast, the records had been shockingly well-organised-- it had been easy to scan the processing dates during the correct timeframe, and while most of the entries didn't include names they all included estimated ages, and there was only one entry within the correct range of dates young enough to be Jak. Very little information aside from a serial number prefixed 'DWP' (whatever that meant) and the cell designation. Which should have been perfect, except the cells seemed to be numbered entirely at random.

'Fuck you, prison-designers; fuck you with a red-hot yakkow prod. May your underpants be filled with a plague of sand-fleas.'

This place really stank, both literally and figuratively. As he progressed he'd noticed the subtle acidic scent permeating the cool, stagnant air... he didn't think he'd ever forget the smell of dark eco; not when it had clung to him for weeks after Misty Island, constantly affronting his newly hypersensitive nose. Years later, it still set his teeth on edge, which did nothing to improve his mood.

'Piece of cake? What a load of crap. There must be insanity in my fam--'

Daxter stopped in the middle of a corridor lined with unmarked doors that didn't look like regular cells-- the sharp eco smell had suddenly intensified, forcing him to stifle a sneeze. He wiped watering eyes on his forearm, noticing the flickers of violet light that were visible through the crack beneath the nearest door... and he could hear the clink of chains and something growling within.

He held his breath, staying very still-- the thing didn't sound human and he didn't know of any animals that could tolerate dark eco besides metalheads, and he'd heard enough stories about those creatures to know that he had absolutely no desire to meet one face-to-face. He supposed it probably-almost-definitely couldn't get out, but he waited until whatever-it-was quieted again before creeping forward, sticking close against the opposite wall just in case. He had nearly made it past the door when something struck it hard enough to leave a large dent in the inches-thick metal, the loud clang reverberating down the hall.

Daxter skipped back several steps, fur standing on end-- he raised his arms to shield himself as the second blow knocked the door almost completely off its hinges, a surge of violet lightning rolling from the room. 'Hey, watch it!' he yelped, an automatic response fuelled by panic and alarm.

The absurdity of that demand sunk in as the creature straightened and turned to stare at him, claws carving deep gouges in the doorframe... its shape was unmistakably human, clothed in a tattered prison uniform, but everything about it was deeply wrong-- its eyes were a uniform inky-black and dark eco energy crackled and danced along its bare arms. Jagged teeth and too-long canines were bared in a snarl, though the expression turned more neutral as its head tilted to the side. 'Hrr?'

'Ohhh Precursors,' Daxter said softly.


The prisoner looked half-starved, all bones and wiry muscles, but it must have been stronger than its thin frame indicated; Daxter couldn't forget the large dent it put in the door. It took a step towards him, and he raised his hands in what hopefully looked like a placating gesture. 'H-hey now... don't mind me, I'm just tryin' to find my buddy. You wouldn't happen to know where cell B-413 is, would you?'

He didn't expect an answer, didn't even expect the creature to understand, but as a child in a small rural village Daxter had quickly learned that most animals understood differences in tone even if the words were beyond them; perhaps this prison-creature would pick up on his calm tone as well. He held very still, watching as the pale figure blinked slowly and started to reach out a hand--

'Hey, did you hear something?'

'I don't know, check down that hall.'

The creature's head snapped up, twisting towards the voices as its lips curled back from jagged, razor-sharp teeth.

'No, wait, isn't that where they put the--'

A Krimzon Guard rounded the corner and froze instantly upon seeing the creature-- the faint glow from the emergency lights illuminated the slender figure, violet sparks flickering through wild white hair that framed a gaunt snarling face, its eyes like blank dark pits. This sort of encounter must have been every prison guard's worst nightmare.

The creature tensed as though to launch itself at the guard, but then dove towards Daxter instead, fingers closing around the ottsel's slender body. He gave a startled and rather undignified yelp, imagining how easily those claws would slice through fur and muscle, and twisted against the hand that would surely reduce his bones to splinters in a matter of seconds...

'Shit!' The guard fumbled his gun, hands clumsy with fear. 'Call for backup, it's--!'

But he didn't have time to finish before the prisoner reached him, an almost comically small figure ramming into the burly guard's side and tackling him to the ground, ripping the weapon from his hands and swinging it hard into his face-- the mask shattered with a crunch and the guard's scream was abruptly silenced.

The prisoner discarded the battered rifle and dropped to a crouch, and Daxter's brain finally caught up with the panic, realising that the clawed fingers might be wrapped around his middle but the creature's grip was only tight enough to hold him firmly in place, claws carefully out of the way. It-- he?-- moved slowly now, like a predator stalking prey, and Daxter noticed another staticky KG voice, realized that his captor was tracking down the second guard. That alone stopped him from speaking up; the guards were enemies while this prisoner... Daxter hadn't made up his mind yet. Maybe he understood more than Daxter first anticipated; maybe he could be persuaded to help find Jak...

The guy must have had pretty good night vision too, or maybe he used other senses to navigate in the dark, but the ease with which he jumped the second guard without being spotted told Daxter that his senses were beyond those of an ordinary human. The strike was quick and brutal, without hesitation or restraint, though there was also a certain degree of desperation to it, like a wild animal backed into a corner.

He paused over the guard's inert body, still and silent, listening for a long moment before straightening-- apparently having determined that there were no other enemies nearby. Daxter thought this might be a good time to speak up. 'So uh, hey, ya think you could put me down now, tough guy?' This seemed to catch his attention so Daxter continued. 'See, I gotta find my buddy-- maybe if you help I could point ya the right way out?'

The prisoner twitched, stepping back against the wall and scanning the hall leading back towards the cells. The lightning had faded, leaving him a pale ghost in the shadows.

Daxter fidgeted. 'Hey, you even understand what I'm sayin'?'

The prisoner's mouth pressed into a thin line, his eyes narrowing; he almost looked as though he was trying to communicate something, but then a shout and running footsteps echoed down the hall and his head snapped up again. He hesitated briefly, as though trying to determine the number of enemies from only the sound-- then he turned and fled in the other direction.

'Put me d--' Daxter began, but the man curled his arm to hold Daxter tightly against his bony chest, muffling the ottsel's voice in a shirt that reeked of a dozen different kinds of filth. He sputtered into silence, resigned to being carried around-- maybe the guy did know where Jak was, maybe that's where they were headed...

They passed into a large chamber lined with cells and the prisoner emitted a low growl that made Daxter jump and prompted him to twist against his captor's grip for a better look-- the centre of the room was dominated by wicked-looking machinery, hanging from the ceiling over a reclined chair with heavy cuffs along the arm and leg rests. 'Huh, that looks pretty messed up... and that smell, pyeww! Wonder what they were... actually, I take that back, I really don't wanna know.'

The prisoner hissed out a breath, skirting along the wall rather than taking the most direct path across the chamber, his gaze carefully averted from the chair. Lightning flickered through his hair and along his arms, and Daxter could feel him vibrating slightly with anger... or perhaps fear.

When the next guard to get in their way met a particularly grisly end, Daxter decided it was definitely safer to let that particular question go unasked.

Their path through the fortress's sublevels was erratic, often looping back on itself; the prisoner didn't seem to have any sense of direction aside from heading upwards at every opportunity. When he turned a corner and a walkway near the security checkpoint came into view, his intentions became alarmingly clear-- he was planning to break out of the prison, and he meant to bring Daxter with him whether the ottsel liked it or not.

Like hell if Daxter was going to let that happen.

He twisted in the man's grip, struggling to pull free. 'Oi you, prison guy! You gotta put me down; my buddy's still down there and I can't just--' The KGs ahead had spotted them, and the prisoner ran faster, directly towards the gap. 'Hey! Are you even listening to me? I said stop!'

But it was no use. Daxter bit his hand and dug claws into the wiry arm until the eco-taint in the prisoner's blood forced him to let go, yet the prisoner didn't so much as flinch. He crackled with dark eco as he threw one guard into the other; they fell in a clatter of armour as he leapt across to the walkway, hitting the ground with a roll and skidding to a stop near the wall, pausing to get his bearings--

Daxter reached up and smacked him across the face. An ottsel's strength definitely wasn't enough to hurt or even sting, but it caught his attention; he blinked down at Daxter, momentarily stunned. Daxter stared the prisoner in the eyes, his fear of the monster-man nothing compared to the horror of leaving Jak behind.

'Do you even know what you've done? My best friend's stuck in there and it's been over two years and this might've been my only chance to get him out...' Daxter sniffed loudly; if he noticed the hurt look on the prisoner's face he was too upset to care. 'I don't even know if he's still...' Daxter swallowed hard, rubbing his eyes. 'He's all I've got, the only family I ever had, and now I'll never--'

'There it is!' a guard yelled from behind. 'Call in more backup!'

'Wait, did that rat just talk?' the second muttered.

'Shut up and focus!' hissed a third. 'D'you want that thing to slit your--'

'Hold your fire!' the first shouted in response to several guns going off, the sharp pops bringing the prisoner back to the alert--

KG squads were converging from both ends of the hall and he lunged to the side to avoid the stray gunfire, rolling back to his feet as one of the shots struck an unlucky guard instead. He started to lift Daxter, the ottsel still fighting against his grip.

'What's your problem anyway, why can't you just leave me alo--'

But then the prisoner set Daxter down on his bony shoulder-- the left shoulder-- and Daxter froze, staring at a profile that was suddenly eerily familiar, from the flat nose to the way the ears did that odd little twist at the ends... no, no it can't be, that's not...

A guard with captain's stripes on his armour cocked his gun. 'Surrender, demon! There's no escape; we've got you surrounded.'

'You really think that thing can understand you, Sir?' someone mumbled from behind.

'Of course not,' he snapped back. 'But that's not the--'

Daxter's fingers tightened on the grimy fabric under his hands. '...Jak?'

A broad smile spread over his face, exposing jagged teeth; anyone else might have found the expression menacing but to Daxter it felt like home, even if everything else about that face was wrong. Jak rubbed fingers over Daxter's shoulders as he straightened, staring down the captain as though he wanted to make sure the man was watching-- then he slowly lifted his hand, middle finger raised.

The guards froze, unsure what to make of the gesture coming from a creature they had assumed to be a mindless animal-- Jak took advantage of their hesitation, launching straight at the KGs blocking the walkway before any of them could react. Violet lightning arced out from his body to strike the nearest guards, and they screamed and dropped around him, sparks playing over their armour.

Guards on all sides began firing in a panicked frenzy, many of them swearing loudly or shouting taunts; Jak moved quickly enough that most of the eco blasts struck other KGs, though a couple shots managed to hit him. Daxter leaned over to examine the wounds, but while they bled sluggishly they seemed to be nothing more than light grazes, and Jak continued fighting as though he hadn't even noticed them.

But for every guard he killed or incapacitated, there were plenty more as backup, and the KG grew angrier and more reckless with each fallen comrade. One guard charged Jak while he was distracted, ramming his shockstick into the prisoner's side-- the momentum carried them both into the wall and Jak let out a pained grunt even as dark eco crackled over his skin, sparks jumping the length of the weapon.

The eco-shock forced his attacker to drop the gun with a curse and Jak kicked away from the wall, plunging claws into the guard's stomach... but his other hand was curled painfully over his own ribs and every ragged breath hurt like hell. He stumbled forward and slammed a fist into the ground, the shockwave catching several KGs and throwing them off the walkway. The damaged platform crumbled under his feet as he started running again; several more guards plummeted into the pit below as he made a final leap for the far side, his gore-encrusted claws just barely catching the edge, carving grooves into the platform as he hauled himself back up.

There were only a few guards left on this side of the gap, bright red blurs through the haze of pain; he bit it back and shoved past them, knowing his strikes were weak and they'd get back up, but the corridor ahead was clear and he ran, his vision narrowing...

And then Daxter's voice started again, the familiar weight on his left shoulder warm and solid, assuring him that this time his friend was undeniably real. 'Left, Jak, go left here!... Hey check that KG box, there might be green eco inside... Alright, just gotta climb these ledges, nice and easy...'

Every step sent jarring pain through his chest and his breath came fast and shallow, but Daxter's voice helped him focus, kept him going. He didn't understand how Daxter knew where to go, but he trusted his friend and the pain and eco-haze made complicated thoughts impossible to manage. Just do as he says, and everything will be fine...

He felt the air change, a damp breeze that tasted like machine oil and garbage blowing across his face; it wasn't clean or particularly fresh but it was better than the sterile, faintly chemical smell of prison air. He didn't need Daxter's guidance to climb towards the opening and jump down to the street below-- the rough broken concrete was still damp from recent rain, the early morning sky overcast. Jak straightened and took it all in, not entirely convinced he wasn't dreaming and afraid that the illusion might shatter in an instant.

For a moment, he could ignore the stabbing pain in his ribs and the wailing sirens, the stink of human waste and the hum of zoomers passing overhead. It didn't matter that they were still in the city, still in danger, and deep down he knew it was too late to escape the poison Praxis had forced into him-- but after months of fighting he was finally free, and for the moment that was enough.

Chapter Text

Daxter's celebratory whoop snapped Jak back into alertness-- the sudden noise so close to his ear had startled him and only the familiar weight on his left shoulder stopped him from jumping back. A couple small flashes of lightning escaped his control, leaving scorch-marks on the cracked pavement. Focusing on breathing wouldn't work this time, since it just reminded him of the pain... Daxter's voice, just listen to Daxter...

'...doin' great already! Boy am I glad to be outta that place-- nice to breathe the fresh air again, ain't it?' Daxter adjusted his balance on the bony shoulder as Jak's stance shifted slightly. 'Well, guess 'fresh' ain't really the best word for it, but you know what I--'

Someone screamed nearby, and Jak flinched again-- he dropped immediately into a fighting stance, coiled tensely as he spun to glimpse someone in civillian clothes sprinting away; instinct compelled him to leap after them and silence the cries of monster, demon, thing--

But Daxter's frantic tugging on his ear quelled the reflex. 'Uh, we better get you outta sight before someone else shows up-- like those Krimzon assholes over there, come on Jak, move--' Jak started forward a couple steps; Daxter crouched lower as their speed picked up. 'It's just a little farther now-- turn right, Jak-- I got a nice safe place all set up for you; you'll feel much better once you're cleaned up and had a bit of-- whoa, watch it, geezer!'

The old man reached out a hand, trying to stop them. 'Wait, I'm not--'

'Run, Jak!' Daxter called-- Jak didn't need to be told twice, pushing roughly past the man; he put on a burst of speed, knowing that Daxter had said it wasn't far, he could rest as soon as he got there... Daxter tugged his ear again, his voice lowering to a frantic half-whisper to avoid tipping anyone else off. 'Turn left! Left!'

Jak blindly followed Daxter's prompts; it was getting harder to concentrate and Daxter sometimes needed to repeat himself, tugging Jak's ears or hair before the instructions registered. The entire world had narrowed to the uneven pavement just in front of his feet, the throbbing pain like a knife between his ribs and the voice that guided him...

The sirens got louder and flashing red lights suddenly dominated his vision-- several zoomers were idling in the street and a full squad of KGs had erected a blockade, cutting off all foot traffic. Daxter yelped and yanked Jak's ear harder than before. 'Gah, no, bad idea, not this way!' Jak skidded to a halt and Daxter tugged at his hair to turn his head, pulling hard enough that several strands tore free of his scalp. 'Uh, alright, guess there's gonna be a change of plans; turn here...'

More running, his pounding footsteps carrying them around two more tight corners and down alleys lined with buildings that seemed to tilt inward over the street, as though threatening to fall and crush them; each breath was a sharp jab in his side, coming fast and shallow now. Cold sweat glued the remnants of his prison uniform to his skin, except where tiny ottsel fingers pulled at the fabric. His ears didn't seem able to correctly process sound anymore, and it was a struggle to pick Daxter's voice out of the jumbled mess of sounds, sirens and shouting and engines and footsteps, other voices whose words were garbled and meaningless through the bone-deep fatigue...

'...Hey, Jak, you listening? I was just sayin', those Krimzon assholes blocked the way so we gotta try and find another way around-- jump down there and head left, there should be a grate in the side of the ditch... yeah, I know it ain't the prettiest smell, but the sewers're probably our best chance of gettin' past unseen. Think you can get that grate off, buddy? Great, now we just gotta...'

Jak hesitated, unwilling to venture back underground, but at least the sewer smelled nothing like the prison... and if Daxter was telling him to go there, surely it would be fine.

'...Blech, I hate sewers, but what can ya do? Alright, so we gotta head north, but it looks like we'll need to circle around...' Daxter rubbed Jak's head. 'It'll be a little longer before we can rest, so hang in there, buddy...'

---

Erol paced across the small stadium workshop like a caged animal. There wasn't much room for it, between the workbenches and zoomers and various bits of mechanical clutter, but he was still technically on leave and wasn't needed anywhere else. To make matters worse, the stadium was on lockdown due to the red alert; he couldn't even grab a zoomer and fly some laps to blow off steam...

His hands curled into fists, one mechanical and the other organic-- he'd already had more than enough time to recover and get used to his new prosthetics in the months since the prison incident, but the KG doctors still hadn't cleared him for his return to active duty. Such a waste, he thought with a scowl; the current prison staff couldn't even keep the damn creature locked up, and his new arm already felt as natural as his organic one, a technological marvel that made the official Krimzon Guard models look like cheap toys.

As commander, his rank would have qualified him for any of the prosthetics the KG had to offer, but even their best were heavy and cumbersome, optimised for durability rather than speed and agility. The extra weight would have thrown him off balance on a racing bike, the slower response times keeping him out of the championships forever, and if there was one thing Erol couldn't bear to lose, it was his racing career. He'd taken a chance on a civilian mechanic instead; the KG Medical Review Board had deemed it 'too risky' and wouldn't cover the costs, but Erol had plenty of winnings saved up and didn't mind paying out of pocket, not when it came to something as important as this.

Perhaps it had been a bit of a risk (the mechanic was just shy of twenty and had never worked with prosthetics before) but Erol's instincts had been correct; it had only taken her a few days to review existing models and draw up schematics of her own, and within a couple weeks she had a working prototype that immediately outclassed anything else on the market. Her skill with machines was truly remarkable, what many would rightfully call genius, and Erol longed to see her talents put to better use than some third-rate racing team...

Keira shoved herself out from under a zoomer, her clothes smeared with machine oil. With the races on hold until further notice, there was no rush for her to finish the repairs. 'Hey, Erol... do you know what this is about?'

He knew that technically he shouldn't tell her, but he didn't particularly care about regulations at that moment. 'Prison break,' he grunted, rubbing the parallel scars that ran down the left side of his face, across the eye. 'The bastard who did this.'

Keira bit her lip, studying the scars-- they were reduced to thin, smooth lines, but the medics had been unable to restore the ruined eye, which was now replaced by a prosthetic. She had visited Erol before the wounds had fully healed, and he doubted she would ever forget the sight, or what that particular prisoner was capable of. 'Do... you think they'll catch him soon?' Or at all, her concerned tone implied.

Erol nearly laughed. 'He is savage, Keira, more animal than man-- he's out for blood, but he wields dark eco and it will destroy him. It's only a matter of time before death catches up to him.' Keira shivered slightly and Erol straightened, a flash of his old cocky grin playing across his face. 'But don't worry about him-- I'll hunt him down soon enough.' He flexed the fingers of his right hand again. 'The beast caught me by surprise once. Next time we meet, I'll be ready.'

Keira smiled at him, tugging one of his ears playfully. 'Just don't break that arm-- I worked really hard on it!'

He caught her fingers, turning her hand over to trace the lines on her palm. 'If you would become my personal mechanic, I'd have even less to worry about.'

Keira pulled her hand back, moving to pick up a wrench. 'You know that's not practical... and I like working here.' They'd been over this many times before, of course; Keira never specified any reasons beyond those she'd just given, even when Erol voiced his opinions that she deserved so much better than this dingy stadium workshop. He suspected it had something to do with her boss; Krew came from Kras and had brought both his love of racing and his criminal connections with him... but Krew was too clever to get nailed on criminal charges, and he would never willingly give up his best mechanic's contract.

As much as Erol hated losing, he couldn't afford to make an enemy of someone like Krew. 'Well, if you ever change your mind...'

'I'll know where to find you,' she finished with a smile, turning to clean up her tools.

Erol's communicator beeped loudly a few minutes later, and Keira glanced up, studying his face as he checked the messages-- Erol sighed and clipped the communicator back onto his belt. 'Looks like the Baron wants to see me.'

'Oh... think you'll be taken off leave?'

Erol shrugged, offering her a smile. 'Hard to say... I'll drop by again when I can.'

Keira grinned back. 'Just don't stay away too long.'

'No worries... I don't intend to.'

Erol returned to the zoomer he'd left parked outside. Keira was good company, and he loved racing more than anything... but he knew that as long as he had his score to settle with the dark eco freak, nothing else could truly satisfy him. Work had to come before pleasure, especially when duty came with a side of revenge.

---

Daxter had thought their sewer detour would be a simple matter of turning north at the first opportunity, but he hadn't realised that the route he'd taken last time passed through pipes that were too small to accomodate a human, even one as short and slender as Jak. They were forced to wade across the sluice channel instead, continuing down a different access tunnel that led them into an area Daxter didn't recognise...

He didn't want to admit that his sense of direction was failing him. He supposed it didn't really matter; Jak seemed too out of it to tell he was bluffing... and that was another cause for worry that Daxter definitely did not need. He figured it probably wasn't permanent, as Jak had appeared alert earlier, but that left the sluggishly bleeding wound in his side as the most likely cause for his current lack of responsiveness, which was also a bad sign. They weren't in the actual waste-disposal part of the sewer, but that didn't mean it was clean, and Daxter highly doubted this was a good place to walk around with an exposed wound.

They had found their way into a long dark channel with very few opportunities to change course, none of them appealing. Daxter kept an eye out for convenient grates leading up to the surface in the hope that he could peek out and catch his bearings, but there weren't any of those either, and turning back was definitely not an option. Jak's strength was quickly flagging, and Daxter doubted he could manage another long detour...

Finally they reached a familiar junction, and Daxter recognised where they were-- much farther south than he had intended, somewhere around where the industrial and port sectors met. Making it to the tiny one-room flat in the slums was definitely out of the question now, had never really been practical in the first place. Daxter hadn't anticipated that Jak's appearance would stand out quite so much, and he was beginning to suspect they'd have to leave the city entirely if Jak was going to have any hope of recovering.

That gave him an idea, the beginning of a new plan. Daxter turned to tell Jak the good news-- but at that moment Jak's knees folded and he sank to the ground, heedless of Daxter's alarmed cry.

---

Torn had resigned himself to another long day of sifting through situation reports on the Baron's recent activities-- always a depressing and endlessly frustrating exercise, as the most crucial matters were nearly always the same ones that went straight into what Torn thought of as the 'suicide mission' pile, a graveyard of good intentions and wishful thinking, dreams of a brighter future which the Underground simply lacked the resources to achieve. Torn refused to send the agents under his command into situations that were beyond their capabilities, even if the sacrifice would be for 'the greater good'; he knew the dangers of straying down that path all too well. Better to continue doing what they could, gathering information and helping the people of Haven in whatever small ways they could manage...

But even setting aside his personal morals, Torn knew that the Underground couldn't afford to lose any more of its agents. It had become increasingly difficult to find new recruits to replace those killed or arrested, not to mention many others who had simply come under enough scrutiny that active involvement was no longer an option. People were afraid of taking risks that might put their families in danger, afraid of the consequences if they were discovered supporting the renegades. Praxis's propaganda broadcasts declared that the Underground were terrorists allied with the metalheads, claiming that their attacks against the KG were depriving the City of valuable resources they needed to keep the metalheads at bay. And the hell of it was, Torn couldn't even argue with that; their goal was to depose Praxis, but there was no point in securing Haven's leadership if the metalheads breached the walls.

Public opinion was swinging more strongly in favour of Praxis every day; most citizens wouldn't hesitate to report suspected Underground agents, and Torn's own people were becoming increasingly frustrated by the stalemate. Torn often suspected that no one else, not even the Shadow, truly understood how delicate their current position was... especially when 'delicate' meant that his hands were tied.

Torn's eyes glazed over as he scanned another report, his hand automatically reaching for the flask of whisky he'd stashed in a box of spare gun parts-- the hideout was even quieter than usual today, as the KG had been on alert since early morning and all of his people were lying low. A handful of the bunks were occupied, though luckily no one was awake to give him odd looks about his questionable drinking habits. Precursors knew he needed it.

He was nearly halfway through a mind-numbing summary of food supply shipments (and rather more than halfway through the bottle) when the door to the garage opened. 'Hey, Torn,' said Tess, tugging off her helmet. 'Where'd you put that old radio? There's something going on at the fortress and-- oh honestly, it's not even noon yet!'

Torn tried to shove the whisky out of sight but he wasn't fast enough; Tess snatched it from his hand. He glowered at her but didn't protest, pushing back from the desk and shuffling across the hideout to fetch the radio from a shelf.

'Do you have any idea what's going on?' Tess asked as she tipped the rest of Torn's whisky down the drain. 'The power's out in the central slums near the fortress and I think there was some sort of overheating problem with the grid in that sector-- I tried asking Vinny but you know how worked up he gets when anything goes wrong... I couldn't get anything out of him.'

'Heh... been pretty quiet here.' Torn deposited the radio on the table. 'There's probably something on the KG frequencies, if I can get this damn thing tuned right...'

'Hm, why don't you let me take a crack at it?'

Torn wasn't in the mood to fiddle with the radio, and just shrugged when Tess promptly stepped forward and started adjusting the settings. A couple other agents were stirring in their bunks, and by the time the voices began crackling through the tiny speakers everyone was gathered around the table to listen in.

'--last sighted entering sector five; seal off the area.'

'Roger, continuing our sweep. Sector four is clear.'

'Did you see it? I heard it was some sort of demon...'

'Didn't get a good look, but it was covered in blood.'

'I heard it slaughtered two whole squads in the fortress; caution advised.'

'Target not in sight-- suspect was last sighted heading north on foot.'

'Sweeping sector six; nothing so far.'

'Stay alert, men-- if that thing gets the jump on you, it's the end.'

'Armour's no good against dark eco, huh?'

'What was the Baron doing, keeping a monster like that locked up in the city?'

'I don't know, but if you see that thing, shoot it!'

No one spoke as the radio transmissions continued; the entire room seemed to be holding its breath. It was all rather surreal; the 'monster' seemed like something out of a cautionary fairy tale, something that couldn't possibly be real. The other agents looked between one another and back at Torn, trying to gauge the validity of the claims, but Torn's expression was unreadable.

It might have been some sort of hoax, but Torn rather doubted the KG were actually creative enough to come up with something like that, and he couldn't see what they might hope to accomplish by inventing a fake monster... on the other hand, he hadn't heard anything about Praxis keeping dark eco monsters in the fortress, either before or after leaving the Guard, and that seemed like a pretty big thing to overlook. At least this explained why Vin was freaking out...

Torn sighed and picked up his communicator. He needed facts, not a bunch of insane rumours-- this was going to be a long day.

---

Consciousness returned with a wave of pain. Jak didn't want to wake up, wanted to continue dreaming... it had been a good dream, and the thought of returning to the prison was unbearable. He'd seen the sky, and Daxter had been there... But then tiny hands touched his face and the frantic chatter filtered down through the haze--

'Jak...! Come on, ya big idiot, wake up! You gotta wake up...'

He cracked his eyes open, and the blur of dull orange slowly resolved into Daxter's face. He lifted a hand, clumsily running a finger down the ottsel's spine; tears pricked at the corners of his eyes and he squeezed them closed again. Not a dream... it's all real.

'Sheesh, Jak, don't scare me like that...' One of the hands left his face and Daxter sniffled loudly. 'But okay, seriously man, you picked the worst place to take a nap. I think I actually heard a metalhead a few minutes ago...'

Jak blinked slowly. Tired...

'Oh no, don't you give me that look!' Daxter jabbed a finger at his chest, and the fresh stab of pain forced his eyes the rest of the way open. 'You're gonna get up, and we're gonna get outta here. It's only a little farther, all right?'

Jak exhaled dismissively, his gaze flicking upwards. You said that last time.

'Well... this time I really mean it, all right? Look, I got a friend who lives near here, and he's probably got a bit of green eco we can borrow. Won't come free, but we'll deal with that when it comes. Anyway, we just gotta get a bit closer-- I'd carry you if I could, but you know perfectly well I can't, so you better get that fine hero ass up and moving before something really nasty comes along and tries to turn us both into lunch!'

Jak blew out another breath but slowly started to push himself up. He could do this... he refused to give up, especially after making it this far. Daxter pushed at his elbow; the gesture wasn't particularly helpful but it gave him strength just to have his friend there, making the attempt.

Pain shot across his ribs and his head spun, the edges of his vision going dark, but he braced himself against the wall and tried to breathe evenly, struggling not to fall again... he felt shaky but at least the lightheadedness was passing, and he could deal with the pain. He looked down at Daxter, shifting his left shoulder.

But Daxter didn't jump up right away. 'You sure, buddy? Cause I can walk if I need to... even if the sewer is completely nasty and makes my fur fall out...'

Jak snorted and rolled his eyes. You don't weigh THAT much.

'Well, if you insist...' Daxter climbed up, going slowly rather than taking his usual leap. 'Right, now you wanna cross this room and take a right at the next junction after...'

Jak followed Daxter's guidance, but for all his reassurances it was a struggle just to keep moving as directed. The smells changed subtly, the dank city reek becoming vaguely briney with a hint of rotten fish. It was almost familiar, almost reminded him of Sandover... of home. But the tiny village seemed almost foreign to him now, torn from his grasp and isolated far beyond his reach...

'Okay, Jak... this is it.'

They had reached a path that slanted up towards a grate. Beyond it, Jak could see a dirty alley, and somewhere very close but out of sight a large volume of water sloshed rhythmically against a pier. He couldn't hear the roar of the surf, though, so it couldn't be the ocean he'd thought he smelled... he blinked spots from his eyes and leaned back against the wall, trying to catch his breath without straining his ribs.

Daxter jumped down. 'See Jak? That's the port. Now, you should be alright here for a bit... I've gotta run and ask my friend about some stuff so I can help you. And I guess you gotta wait here, cause, well... he'd be pretty pissed if we turned up on his doorstep with the KG in tow, and ya really don't wanna get in his way when he's pissed. He's gotta keep a low profile, ya see, and you'd draw the wrong sorta attention, walkin' around all dark and gruesome like this...'

Jak was too tired to respond properly, and simply slid to the ground instead.

Daxter hovered for a moment at his side, then turned to move towards the grate. 'It'll be fine, Jak... this won't take long. Just, hang in there...'

The small patch of orange moved away, slipping between the bars and disappearing from sight... Jak's head jerked up and he shifted a little closer, trying to follow, but he ended up curled on his side instead and lacked the strength for another attempt. Daxter...

...He didn't have the strength to run anymore. Tendrils of dark eco curled around his ankles, pulling him down into the depths; he tried to cry out but the air rushed soundlessly from his lips and liquid eco poured into his nose and mouth like cold fire. The bands tightened around his whole body, squeezing the last of the air from his lungs--

Clammy hands gripped his arms and the shackles fell away; turbulent water rushed loudly around him as he coughed painfully, choking on salty fluid that tasted like blood and bile, like seawater, like dark eco-- the fingers tangled in his hair as poisonous words filled his ears. The water was icy-cold, rushing down over his face and he gasped and coughed and choked; harsh lights glinted off tiles and the icy water stung his wounds. Erol laughed at him, smooth gloved fingertips pressing against the nape of his neck. 'Come now, eco freak, don't you want to look nice for Father?'

Waves crashed against the shore and he was falling towards the dark swirling water; he jerked awake but couldn't move because shackles bound his wrists and ankles and he could only stare up at the slowly rotating machinery above him, descending until they slammed into his side and electricity jolted through his body and he felt ribs crack, and he woke again curled on his side in his cell--

The footsteps came again, heavy boots hitting the ground in firm strides. Guards, always the guards... at least it wasn't Praxis or Erol this time; the sound of their footsteps was etched into his memory by a thousand repetitions and these footsteps were different... but there was little consolation in that fact because the guards only ever came to take him back to one of the torture chambers. They used to laugh at him, but now they knew he would tear them apart if he got the chance and they avoided coming near unless they had to... He didn't know which he hated more, the old mockery or this new silent fear.

He was tired, and his side ached fiercely-- one of the guards had jabbed a shockstick through the bars, kicked him in the ribs with an armoured boot. The wounds all felt the same to him now, just different variations of pain to be tolerated, endured...

'Jak... Jak, wake up!'

Daxter...? No, you can't be here, they'll find you, he'll hurt you...

Small hands gripped his hair and the ottsel's voice cracked with emotion. 'Jak!'

Jak forced his eyes open-- the light beyond the sewer entrance had changed, indicating that some time had passed, and a large figure stood silhouetted against the grate. Rusty hinges screeched as the large man pulled it open and stooped to enter the tunnel; Jak felt calloused fingertips pressing against his neck and the dim sewer lamps glinted off strange spikey armour and a round prosthetic eye before his vision blacked out again.

'Damn, cherry... you really weren't messing around.'

'Uh... so, can you help us or what? I just gotta get him somewhere safe outside the walls, and then we'll be fine...'

'Better put that crazy idea right back where you found it, chilipepper-- your friend's nearly done in, and you boys wouldn't last a second against the metalheads.' Sig paused, regarding the strange horned youth who lay unconscious before him. Something had clearly gone horribly wrong for Daxter's friend, and instinct told him that it might be very important. '...Guess I better stick around awhile.'

Chapter Text

The lift stopped at the royal palace's highest level, and Erol strode down the corridor towards the throne room. He hadn't seen much of the Baron during the past few months; his injuries had left him unable to perform many of his regular duties and Praxis had been forced to install a temporary field commander, though he had still summoned Erol occasionally to discuss his long-term goals. A faint smirk twisted Erol's face; even while temporarily disabled he had still been Praxis's most trusted subordinate. Not even the Baron's daughter received that privilege, despite being two years older and his only legitimate child.

Didn't I tell you, Ashelin? I knew that one day I would be the one looking down at you... I suppose birth doesn't count for everything, hmm?

Erol swiped his security pass across the keypad on the throne room's large double doors, which opened to admit him. Praxis stood at the far end of the room, gazing out over the city spread below. Erol stopped just inside, saluting Haven's ruler as the doors closed automatically behind him. 'Commander Erol reporting for duty, sir.'

'Hmph, about time. Come in.' Praxis stepped back from the windows, turning to face Erol as the commander approached. 'You know that we can little afford any further delays-- the metalhead leader has made contact again to demand the next eco shipment.' His mouth twisted with contempt. 'The vermin grow impatient, and we are still no closer to finding that blasted tomb.'

Erol stopped near the throne. 'How may I be of service? If you wish me to search for the tomb...'

'No, that won't be necessary-- Ashelin has been filled in on that aspect of the plan. I have ordered her to double her efforts.'

Erol fidgeted, caught halfway between relief and irritation-- of course, the last thing he wanted was to be put on some stupid treasure hunt, but he resented Ashelin's involvement in a top-secret project like the piercer bomb. 'Baron Praxis, if I may be so bold... I'm not sure your daughter should be trusted with something this important.'

'Ashelin is... spirited, and we have had our differences, but she will do whatever is necessary to protect this city from the metalheads. She is under control.' Praxis's tone clearly stated that the topic was closed. 'You have more pressing matters to concern yourself with-- the Underground rebels are still claiming they have found an heir. You must focus on finding that child.'

'But surely the brat can't be a real heir; you eliminated the last of those degenerates a long time ag--'

'The child's ancestry is irrelevant. Real or not, rumours of an heir could stir up dangerous royalist sentiments. We cannot afford to allow those terrorists even the smallest shred of legitimacy-- it is vital that we retrieve the boy, and do so quietly.'

'Very well...' Erol looked up at Praxis. 'What of the new Dark Warrior experiments? If we can't find the Stone in time, we will need other options.'

Praxis turned back to the windows. 'The program is progressing according to schedule-- the early tests have produced promising results, but it is still too soon to say.'

'And the eco freak...?'

'Hmph. At this stage the loss of the creature is only a minor setback, but it cannot be allowed to remain loose in the city.'

Erol's hands twitched, and he looked away. '...I suppose you want me to bring it back alive--'

'No,' Praxis growled. 'We already have all the necessary data on record-- even if there is anything of value to be learned from it, this breach has proven that we lack the resources to safely contain it.' He tapped Erol's forehead with the first two fingers of his right hand. 'Do what you must to destroy it. That thing has outlived its usefulness.'

A slow smile spread across Erol's face, and he bowed. 'As you wish, Baron Praxis.'

---

Ashelin knew there were many things her father kept from her. Baron Praxis was not the sort of man to easily trust others, and she didn't doubt that this was a big part of how he had remained in power so long. But Ashelin knew how to keep secrets, how to cover her tracks. She had been playing this game in earnest ever since she officially joined the Krimzon Guard at eighteen, but the skills she now lived by were deeply rooted in her childhood. As long as she could remember, she had been surrounded by the complex politics of the court, and she had learned to work things out for herself because no one was going to hold her hand... especially not her father.

Sometimes she thought that they weren't so different after all-- she couldn't afford to place complete trust in anyone either.

But when the Baron had given her the details for her current mission, she'd had little reason to doubt his motivations. Praxis wanted to end the metalhead war as much as anyone, and Ashelin had heard many tales of the ancient and powerful artifacts sealed within Mar's tomb. The Precursor Stone in particular was said to contain immense amounts of energy, and if her father thought this was the answer to the current stalemate...

She had set out that morning to begin investigating any ruins outside the city marked with the seal of Mar, and her patience was wearing thin after several uneventful hours searching the mountain temple near Haven Forest-- she had found a good number of metalheads and dead ends, but nothing remotely useful. By late afternoon she had finally moved on to the cliffs above the pumping station, where a number of strange pillars had been reported, but she didn't have much hope of finding anything here and just wanted to get this over with quickly.

Ashelin's communicator buzzed softly on her belt. She had silenced incoming calls while out in the field, but the device had an override code that would allow the calls through-- only a handful of individuals had that code, and they wouldn't activate it unless the call was important. She sighed and holstered her gun, unclipping the communicator and pressing the button to answer. 'What is it?'

Torn's distinctively coarse voice emitted from the speakers. 'Ashe, it's me.'

Ashelin scowled, running a hand over a carving of the seal of Mar. 'This had better be urgent.'

'Something big happened at the fortress this morning and I need information. The early reports indicate a prison break, but that can't be all of it; half the city's on lockdown and there's been strange rumours... something about a dark eco monster loose in the city. Do you know anything about this?'

'I received a report about trouble at the fortress, but was told that everything is under control.'

'The alarms are still going,' said Torn. 'It's been hours since this started. I'd hardly call that 'under control'.'

'Maybe they got unlucky.' Ashelin glared at the pillar; it appeared Mar and his descendents had been overly fond of plastering their emblem all over the surrounding countryside, because this stone carving was no more than it appeared. 'I'm in the middle of something. I don't have time for this.'

'Wait-- what about those rumours? Do you know anything about the Baron keeping dark eco monsters in the prison?' There was a pause, in which Torn likely realised how ridiculous that question sounded-- hey, Ashe, has your dad mentioned keeping any strange pets lately?

Ashelin snorted. 'Since when do you believe every rumour you hear?'

Torn sighed; it came across the speakers as a rush of static. 'Ashelin, please-- with the reports we've been getting, there's no doubt that something got out of the prison, something not entirely human. Praxis isn't stupid enough to shut down half the city for a day unless there's a legitimate threat-- this sort of thing could easily trigger a city-wide panic.'

Ashelin shook her head. 'If I'd heard about anything like that I would have passed it on... but I've never been stationed in the prison.' A flicker of movement in the underbrush caught her eye, and she drew her pistol, eyes narrowed. 'I can check on it later, but--'

The metalhead jumped from the ferns and she snapped her arm up, firing quickly; its skull gem popped free as it struck the ground before her, but she was already scanning the cliffs for more enemies. Metalheads rarely struck alone, especially the smaller grunts.

'What was that? Are you--'

'Later,' Ashelin replied forcefully, her finger moving to hover over the cancel button. 'I told you, this is a bad time.' A quick keystroke ended the call, and she dropped the communicator in favour of drawing a second gun. There weren't enough metalheads to cause her any real trouble, but it was another annoyance she lacked the patience to deal with.

It looked as though investigating the rest of the ruins would have to wait until tomorrow.

---

The waning moon was rising over the city as Sig carried a large bundle out through one of the lesser-known security gates, located in a back alley in the bazaar. None of the regulars here would give him a second glance, many having seen him passing through before, and no one in their right mind would tangle with a six-foot-tall wastelander carrying something that looked rather suspiciously like a body wrapped in a tarp... especially when the wastelander in question was known to work for the biggest and nastiest crime boss in the city.

Krew was bound to hear about this, and that combined with the fact that Daxter's friend was a known fugitive with a very distinctive appearance made helping them a very risky move. Sig still wasn't sure he could afford that risk, but learning that the KG were apparently experimenting on kids presented a possible lead-- he couldn't ignore it, even if he disliked the implications it could have on his own mission.

The security gate's outer door closed behind him with a loud thump and the rattle of turning gears as the gate's locks engaged, keeping the city firmly sealed against outside threats. The Havenites called it a 'security wall', but Sig always felt he could breathe a little easier outside the thick barrier. The wasteland might be dangerous, but it was a simple sort of danger, one he understood. Haven always set him on edge, rife with scheming criminals and politicians and spies-- in the wasteland, enemies came at you head-on and could be dealt with easily as long as you were strong enough... or had a really big gun. Sig preferred both.

Sig set off down the mountain path at a brisk pace. The ruined Precursor temple was visible across the gorge to his right and the air was cool and clean, free from the smog that clung to Haven like a miasma. Just being outside the walls unknotted a little of the tension in his shoulders, and he took a deep breath, enjoying the rare quiet moment.

...Unusually quiet, he realised, given that Daxter was still riding his shoulder. He hadn't thought the little ottsel was capable of going this long without chattering about one thing or another; on a typical day moving around Haven he had to give Daxter frequent reminders that animals weren't supposed to talk, but ever since they had retrieved his friend from the sewers he had been uncharacteristically silent.

Sig bounced his shoulder slightly to get Daxter's attention. 'Alright, chilipepper... think you owe me an explanation.'

Daxter blinked up at Sig. '...Uh?'

'Your friend. I got no idea what's going on with him, but it sure ain't natural.'

'I dunno either,' said Daxter quietly. 'I dunno what those bastards did, I dunno if he'll be okay or if he's stuck like this forever, or...'

'Well, why don't we start with--'

'It's all my fault; don't you get it?' Daxter shouted suddenly. 'If I hadn't taken so long...' His head dropped into his hands. 'It's dark eco... that crud messes you up, and Jak knew not to touch it cause old Greenstuff never gave it a rest, so they musta made him... and I couldn't help him. That's my one job, keepin' Jak outta trouble, and I was too late...'

'Ain't too late long as you're both still alive,' said Sig. 'What you told me about him, he never sounded like someone who'd give up, so you gotta get up and keep movin' forward.'

'But dark eco... it changes people. I should know, with the way those nutty sage wannabes tried to kill us all, and the mossman said they wasn't always like that...' Daxter shook his head. 'What if Jak's not... himself anymore?'

'You got to fight for what you believe in, chilipepper.' Sig smiled at Daxter. 'You already busted into the fortress and got him out, right? Most people woulda called that impossible, but you never gave up before, and you can't give up now-- he'll probably need a good friend if he's gonna get through this.'

'Heh... well I guess he was pretty happy to see me, even if I did screw up...' Daxter straightened a little. 'Come on, big guy, you should know I ain't gonna leave him.'

'Aw yeah, that's more like it!' The trail curved around the cliffs and a short tunnel brought them to the forest. 'So, tell me about when he was taken. You said it was the KG commander?'

Daxter rubbed a hand over his face. 'Yeah, that jerk on the posters all over town, with the ugly fat stripes over his eyes.' Daxter mimicked the position of the tattoos by dragging two fingers on each hand down from his eyes, letting his tongue loll out as well for added effect.

Sig snorted. 'Sounds like Erol, all right... used to be one of the top racers in the city as well as the KG commander-- boss never shut up about him, at least until some sorta accident knocked him out just before the last big championship.' He paused to flick through the filters in his mechanical eye, scanning the surrounding trees for any sign of metalheads or other hazards. 'Think Erol's got a part in whatever happened to your friend?'

'I dunno... seemed like they had some sorta plan they needed him for. When we landed in the city those armoured asswipes cornered us right away, and Erol said him and Baron Buckethead were waitin' for Jak and wanted him specifically.'

'Damn, guess it goes all the way to the top...' Sig frowned. 'Hang on, I thought you said you crashed in Haven by mistake.'

'Yeah, that's right... no idea how they knew where to wait, but I didn't think much of it... that sorta weird stuff happens to us all the time. Fungus-breath used to love yapping on about that shit too, somethin' about Jak having this 'big destiny'...'

'Mm...' Sig gently laid Jak on the ground, pausing to check his pulse. 'Never really cared for that sorta talk myself. Good friend of mine's always said that the only destiny worth havin' is the one you make for yourself.'

'Your buddy sounds like a smart guy; I like him already.' Daxter jumped down to brush a lock of tangled white hair away from Jak's forehead.

Sig's mouth twitched in amusement at the idea-- that particular friend had an impressive knack for making terrible first impressions and Sig suspected Daxter would eat those words in a heartbeat if they ever did meet-- but Daxter was too preoccupied with making his own assessment of Jak's vitals to notice.

'Like I say,' Daxter continued, 'Never trust anyone who acts like they know more about yourself than you do. You can quote me on that, by the way-- that's some genuine Orange Lightning wisdom for ya.' Sig started to stand up, and Daxter jumped back to his feet. 'Whoa, hey, what're you doing?'

'Got to build a fire-- helps keep the metalheads away.'

'But what about Jak?'

'He's stable for now.' Sig grabbed up his gun. 'Hold down the fort, chilipepper; this won't take long.'

Daxter looked back down at Jak, the easy smile sliding off his face. 'Alright, big guy, if you say so...'

---

Tess sat on one of the bunks in the Underground hideout, cleaning a gun that looked much too large for her. Torn paced back into the main room, scowling, and Tess slid two components of the gun back together with a metallic click, distractingly loud in the cramped quiet of the basement HQ. 'Any luck with your KG contact?'

'No, they didn't know anything.' Torn crossed his arms. 'Guess we'll just have to investigate on our own. The Baron wouldn't keep something like that around unless he thought it might be useful somehow. This could be a crucial part of his plans, and we can't afford to overlook anything.'

'I'll poke around a bit as soon as they lift the alert-- Krew's bound to want me at the bar first thing.'

'Mm.' Torn picked up the KG radio again, listening to the current sweep locations and examining the resulting pattern on a map. Tess shrugged and left him to it, content to focus on her own work.

The sweeps were moving away from the hideout's location near the City's outer wall, and several minutes later the door slid open. Torn glanced up out of paranoid habit, making a face at the animal that bounded down the steps, closely followed by the little green-haired boy. Tess saw the grimace and grabbed the Kid, pulling him up onto the bed beside her-- the crocapup growled at the sudden move towards his master, but Tess just giggled and mock-growled back; the soft laughter these antics elicited from the boy calmed his pet.

The old man who followed at a more stately pace gave a faint disapproving sniff as he passed the bunks. Torn nodded to him-- Kor's arrival meant he had one less thing to worry about. This wasn't saying much, considering the sheer number of things Torn worried about on a daily basis, though the small reprieve was appreciated all the same. 'It's good to see you both made it here safely. If we'd lost the Kid...'

Kor smoothed a hand over his long beard, looking rather displeased that Torn would even suggest he might be so careless. 'Oh, I assure you, I have no intention of letting the boy slip away.'

Torn grumbled something under his breath about the Kid certainly not making it easy for them, and Tess grinned and tugged one of the boy's ears playfully. 'Aren't you the cutest little troublemaker around?'

'Hmph, quite.' Kor stopped near the table. 'But I bring other news. I am sure you have heard about the Baron's little problem?'

Torn blinked. 'You've got some information on this... creature?'

'Hm, yes, a rather angry young man... Not at all respectful of his elders, I might add.' Torn watched him blankly, but didn't interrupt. 'I had the... good fortune of stumbling across his path, but I'm afraid that in his haste he disregarded my offer to help him.'

Torn's hairless brows snapped into a deeper frown. 'Wait a minute-- help him?'

'When I last consulted with the Seer, she was very insistant that this escaped prisoner will be of vital importance to our cause-- the currents of fate twist and bend around his presence like a stone thrown into a rushing stream.'

'Uh-huh.' The sarcasm was heavy in Torn's voice. 'I'll need a bit more than that, I'm afraid. I would hardly expect him to just show up on our doorstep, and if the entire KG can't find him I certainly don't have the men for it.'

Off to the side, Tess clicked her tongue-- of course Praxis wouldn't find him like that; a former prisoner would do all he could to avoid the KG, and the red-armoured soldiers didn't exactly make themselves hard to spot... and Tess knew from personal experience that you didn't need an army to find someone-- sometimes all it took was a few smart questions asked in the right places, by someone clever enough not to get caught.

Torn scowled at no one in particular. 'We'll keep our ears to the ground, but we need more intel before we can approach someone like that. I don't care how important Onin thinks he is; my reports indicate that he's dangerous, and I'm not putting my agents' lives on the line for some crazy dark eco man-beast we know nothing about.'

Kor murmured his agreement, but Tess knew as well as they did that the Underground was running short on time; the current stalemate couldn't go on forever and certain mutters among her information network gave her the strong impression that something was going to break very soon. When that happened, 'crazy' might be just what they needed.

Tess's communicator beeped, interrupting her train of thought-- she checked the screen, then shifted the Kid off her lap and got up. 'Looks like that's my cue,' she said brightly. 'The checkpoints are open again, and Bossman wants me at the bar an hour ago.'

Torn just grunted a reply, already absorbed in another report. Tess stashed her gun in an equipment locker and swung by the washroom on the way to the garage to make sure her 'blonde airhead' disguise was firmly in place. It was amazing what people would let slip around her once they'd decided she didn't have enough brains to fill a shot glass.

Finding people in Haven could be a daunting task, especially if they didn't want to be found, but this sort of thing was right up her alley. Of course Torn would never risk her on a mission like this when her current position as an undercover agent was far too valuable to lose, but she also knew that the Underground really didn't have anyone else suited to the job... and technically no one had told her not to poke around.

---

The campfire blazed brightly, casting its warm yellow-orange light over Jak's unnaturally grey skin. Sig and Daxter sat in silence as they stared down at him, both rendered speechless by the sight before them. Daxter had mentally prepared himself for the shockstick burn when Sig had started cutting away the remnants of Jak's prison shirt, but he hadn't expected to find anything like this...

The dark bruises and small burn left by the shockstick were nothing compared to the mass of scars covering Jak's upper body, so dense there was hardly any unmarked skin left. Newer cuts layered over older ones to create a cobweb-like texture; some of them were deep and lumpy while others were smooth and hair-thin, and a disturbingly high portion of the cuts were far too straight and even to be battle wounds, too precise to have been inflicted upon a victim who wasn't restrained...

But many of the cuts were barely visible beneath the unusual burn scars that radiated outwards from the centre of his chest-- they began with a starburst shape directly over his sternum and formed a distinctive pattern like twisting roots, starting off thick and deep, eventually thinning into delicate feathery marks as they branched further outwards. They covered his chest and curled around his ribs and over his shoulders to spread across his back, while a few branches shot downwards, disappearing under the waistband of his prison trousers. The marks were tinted a darker grey-violet, making them stand out even more against his otherwise colourless skin.

Sig felt sick, and going by the look of horror on Daxter's face those scars had definitely not been there when Jak was captured over two years ago. They seemed almost to flicker with their own faint luminescence, though Sig dismissed it as a trick of the light and forced his eyes away. He picked up a cloth and started cleaning the shockstick wound, trying not to think about what sort of torture the kid must've been through to acquire scars like that... 'This should heal right up with a little green eco salve,' he mumbled, but his tone was unusually bleak.

'Scars don't heal,' Daxter replied hollowly.

Sig couldn't think of anything else to say, so he picked up the eco-salve and unscrewed the lid, dabbing some of the cream onto the shockstick burn. The small amount of green eco infused in the salve flared up, playing over Jak's skin before sinking beneath the surface-- the eco-sparks tended to move along the branching scars, and their verdant glow made the marks stand out like frozen bolts of lightning seared into his skin. Sig watched this for a moment, quickly looking away when he realised he was staring again.

He finished applying the cream and put it aside, reaching for the bandages. 'Look, Daxter...'

'Don't say it,' said Daxter bitterly. 'Don't even try.'

'You don't know what I was gonna say.'

'Alright, what was it? That this ain't my fault? That I did my best? That it weren't as bad as it looks and he'll just be okay?'

'...No. No one's gonna be okay after all that, and things'll never go back to the way they were.'

Daxter glared up at him. 'How's that supposed to make me feel better?'

'Wasn't the point-- ain't nothing I can say that'll make you feel better, specially since you don't want to hear it.'

Daxter twitched, watching as Sig finished bandaging Jak's chest. 'So... what were you gonna say?'

Sig started removing the dirty fabric scraps wrapped around Jak's wrists. 'Sometimes bad shit happens, but you can't know what's comin' before it does and there's nothin' you can do to change the past, so you just gotta get up and move on.' Sig met Daxter's eyes. 'You and him, together-- you got a great friend right there, if half of what you've told me is true.'

Daxter sniffed and rubbed his forearm across his face. 'Yeah... he really is, and it's more than I deserve. He wouldn't've taken two years to find me if I got caught.'

'You can't be sure about that-- you know by now that Haven ain't the kindest place, especially for a kid wandering the streets all alone.' Something in Sig's tone said he knew far more about that particular aspect of Haven's underbelly than he wanted to.

Daxter almost asked, but decided he was better off not knowing, and watched quietly while Sig gently cleaned and bandaged the welts that marred Jak's wrists.

'Look, cherry... There's something I messed up real bad once, and a good friend got hurt. I know what it's like, wonderin' if you could've stopped it and hating that you didn't. But you know what? My friend never blamed me for a minute. D'you really think Jak's gonna hate you for this?'

Daxter fidgeted. 'Guess not...' He straightened a little. 'No, course he wouldn't.'

'And that's why you can't give up. My momma always said good friends are one of the most valuable things you can find, so you better stick by them, cause at the end of the day they're all you got.'

Daxter made a feeble attempt at a smile. '...You're actually just a big softie, aren't ya?'

Sig snorted. 'Sure, if you say so, chilipepper.' He shifted to examine Jak's ankles. 'We'll do what we can for him.'

'Heh.' Daxter squinted up at Sig. 'Hey, what's with the we all of a sudden? Thought you said you didn't want to get involved, cause you got your own shit to deal with.'

'Yeah, well... I don't like this. Call me soft if you like, but there ain't no one who deserves this.'

'Heh, you got that right...'

They lapsed into silence while Sig put the medical supplies away, and after a moment Daxter got up and pulled the blanket to cover Jak's chest. Sig had brought spare clothes for Jak to borrow, but they had decided to let him rest instead of attempting to dress him. Daxter curled against Jak's shoulder, idly attempting to finger-comb the worst tangles out of his hair, but even with the scars out of sight Daxter couldn't get the image out of his head...

Sig got out a small pot and filled it with water, setting it over the fire. There were still other problems to address; Sig could hardly take care of them long-term and they couldn't camp out in the forest forever... but he figured chilipepper had earned a bit of a break, and he wanted to make sure Jak got a few solid meals before he left them to their own devices. It was impossible to know whether the starvation had been deliberate torture or simple neglect, but it was clear that the prison guards hadn't bothered to feed him properly-- Sig had been startled by how light Jak was when he first picked him up in the sewers, and he'd been able to feel individual ribs and the ridge of the boy's spine even through the prison rags.

But while Sig had grabbed some packaged Havenite food from his flat, he had always been highly skeptical of the nutritional merits of anything that tasted like chemical preservatives, and as long as he was already here it would cost him very little to cook up some real food... and that way he could leave them the preserved rations for later. He rather doubted either of them could hunt and cook for themselves, especially in their current state, while packaged food was easy enough for anyone to prepare.

Having made up his mind, Sig covered the pot and got up, lifting his gun. 'Think you can hold down the fort for a bit, chilipepper?'

Daxter glanced up. 'Uhh... I dunno, didn't ya say there's lotsa nasty metalheads out here?'

'Ain't gonna go far-- just shout if you need somethin'.'

Daxter opened his mouth to say he really didn't think that was a good idea, but Sig had already started to turn away and Daxter lacked the energy to run after him. He sighed and flopped back down beside Jak, absently tracing a finger over the thin scar that curved along Jak's left cheekbone...

He must have dozed off for a couple minutes because the next thing he knew he was jolted awake by a horrible rasping scream.

---

They were touching him again.

Hands covered his bare skin, lingering too long on his arms, his chest, running icy fingers down his spine. He could feel the fingertips bumping over the edges of scars, grotesque lumpy skin broken too many times and never allowed to heal evenly.

The most recent wounds stung with green eco and alcohol disinfectant, but they only ever treated him enough to keep him alive; they didn't care as long as they could keep him and continue hurting him, using him-- a monster and a weapon, no more than a 'thing'. They didn't care, none of them, faceless red armour and leering grins and angry voices and rough gloved hands that gripped hard enough to bruise...

But it was worse when HE stopped trying to cause immediate pain with every touch, when he dropped his angry clipped voice down to a slippery breathy murmur, because the Commander knew how to really hurt him in ways he couldn't block out-- the mocking sort of gentleness, the words that crawled under his skin like living parasites, rooting deep in his mind where they continued echoing around his skull long after the man himself had left.

He was not allowed to be alone anymore; the whispers were always there, an incessant reminder of his own cursed fate.

The fingers ran through his hair, curling into a fist to pull his head back, and the hot breath across his face was accompanied by soft slimy laughter. Erol was close, always too close, pressing the knife to his skin but not cutting-- this was about power, not pain. The commander knew he could tolerate pain but he couldn't escape the poisoned words or the fingers sliding slowly through his hair or the flat cool metal tracing along the lines of old scars.

Erol leaned in even closer, lips right against his ear, the whisper making his hair stand on end. 'Never forget that you are mine, eco freak.'

The commander's thumb brushed over the scar on his prisoner's cheek and his tattooed face split in a too-wide smile. The left eye socket was empty and oozing thick black blood; it dripped down onto the prisoner's face below, covering cracked lips, but his mouth was too dry to spit and he tasted blood and eco and bile, sliding over his tongue. Erol laughed, the grin stretching even further as the hole in his face widened.

Jak choked on blood that was the consistancy of Samos's thick sticky cough-syrup but he couldn't move; his arms were locked at his sides and Erol's thumb pushed against the scar, reopening the old cut; fingers hooked through the side of his face, threatening to tear the flesh away. He was choking, drowning, couldn't remember whose blood filled his mouth anymore except that he couldn't breathe--

His back arched and claws tangled in the coarse fabric and he tore himself free, gagged on the rush of air leaving his lungs; it took him a moment to realise that the screams were his own but by then he'd already thrown himself to his feet--

The world was dark and cold around him and he stumbled and fell on rolling unsteady ground. Someone else cried out this time, a high-pitched yelp, and he turned towards it, afraid, no nonono not right--

He smelled trees and earth but he couldn't understand them; they belonged to another place, far away, sacred. Cold clear air whispered over his scars and he could feel the eco in his blood; he knew it shouldn't be more familiar than the alien words, but the eco was part of him and that voice was too far away and he couldn't touch it or return to that place because he was all wrong and the corruption must not be allowed to touch anything too precious to lose.

The laughter echoed off cold walls. 'Do you really think anyone could want you, freak? You destroy everything you touch-- or do you not understand what you were made for?'

He knew he shouldn't be here, shouldn't be seen, didn't belong. It couldn't be real and he was terrified it wasn't, terrified it was, had to get out, couldn't be found here couldn't hurt them couldn't--

'There is no escape, eco freak. Not for you.'

He was running, stumbling on the uneven ground; he didn't know where he was going and maybe Erol was right, maybe he'd never get away. Maybe they were all watching and laughing at his efforts, never enough, going nowhere... but like hell if he was going to lie down and take it.

Chapter Text

If Sig had been asked to describe what pure agony sounded like, the cry currently cutting through the night air would have been it.

There were no words to it, but there was something distinctly human about that sound which caused him to rule out animals or metalheads. Sig was no stranger to violence; as a native wastelander he had witnessed a wide variety of grisly wounds, more than a few of them by his own hand. He understood that this was an unfortunate reality of life in the wasteland, had thought he was used to it... but that cry was unlike anything he had heard before, and it chilled him right to the bone.

And there was very little doubt about where the scream was coming from. Sig broke into a run as it abruptly choked off, sprinting back towards the campsite, trying to block the horrible images that wanted to creep across his mind...

He crashed back into the clearing, gun ready in his hands; Daxter's fur stood on end, making him look twice his usual size, though aside from being badly shaken the ottsel didn't appear to be hurt. The campsite was quiet now, undisturbed aside from a handful of ragged tears in the blanket he'd lent Jak-- Sig ran a quick scan of the surrounding trees, but there was no sign of the kid, or any enemies.

Sig crouched next to Daxter once he was satisfied that there were no signs of immediate danger, though he kept a tight grip on his peacemaker, just in case. 'What's going on?'

Daxter opened his mouth, but all that came out was a meaningless string of unfinished thoughts. 'He, he just, I dunno, I didn't--'

'Easy, chilipepper. Look at me.'

'--don't know what he... I tried to...'

'Daxter.' Sig put a hand over the ottsel's slender back, and the lack of a nickname finally cut off the stream of incoherent babbling. 'Are you hurt?'

'He... he didn't... he'd never...' Sig pressed a little harder; Daxter leaned against the hand and tried to stop shaking. 'N-no. He didn't... didn't do anything.'

'But that was him, wasn't it?' Sig inquired softly. There was no need to specify what he was referring to. Daxter swallowed hard and nodded, and Sig let his hand drop. 'What happened?'

'I... I'm not sure. He just... suddenly freaked out, ya know? He was asleep, and fine, and then he-- gods, I've never heard him make a sound like that, it's not-- I mean he's usually so quiet, it's freaky...'

Sig was no longer looking at Daxter; he stared intently at the ground for a moment before his gaze flicked up towards the treeline. 'And then he ran off?'

Daxter followed the wastelander's gaze. 'Y-yeah. Well, he jumped up and stumbled a bit with that dark eco lightning flashing all over the place, and he looked like he was seein' somethin' I couldn't... and then he took off, so fast I didn't even see where he went. Was like... like he was tryin' to get away from somethin' awful.'

'We'll find him,' said Sig. 'Can't've gone too far, the state he's in, and the ground's soft from the rain.'

Daxter hopped up to his usual spot on the wastelander's left shoulder guard. 'Do... d'you think...?' The words were quiet, strained, vulnerable. Is he gonna be like this forever?

'Won't know til we find 'im, chilipepper. Better keep that chin up.'

Daxter sighed, but Sig had a strong tendency towards determined optimism, an attitude that refused to be dampened by Daxter's favourite pasttime of rattling off lengthy lists of everything that could possibly go wrong. It actually reminded him a little of Jak, the way his friend would always grin and shrug off any worries or complaints, though Sig was more grounded than Jak had ever--

No, thinking about how Jak used to be was a mistake right now. And the only reliable way to stop himself from thinking about one thing was to chatter about something entirely unrelated, which he promptly began doing. 'So hey, Siggy, I was wonderin'...' Daxter faltered briefly, casting about for topics that wouldn't lead back to Jak. 'Uh, so, how's a nice guy like you end up mucking around the wastelands anyway? I mean, you feed strays cause you feel sorry for 'em, and you probably spend your free time helping little old ladies cross the street or somethin', but then you come out here and smash metalhead skulls for a living...'

Ordinarily Sig would have told him to shut it while he tracked their quarry; the big wastelander must've felt really sorry for him, because for once he let it slide. 'Nahh, I don't smash the skulls. Boss'd be mad; he likes 'em for trophies.'

Daxter rapped knuckles against the skull he was perched on. 'And so do you, yeah, I get it. But the point is there's lotsa metalhead-mashing involved, and most people ain't crazy enough to like that sorta thing.'

'Ain't about the smashing-- where I'm from, you either strike first or you get your ass handed to you.'

'Huh, wait, you sayin' you're actually from someplace out here? There's people nutty enough to actually live in the wastelands?' Daxter shook his head at the thought. '...So what's it like, where you're from? Is that where you go sometimes when you disappear for a few days? Are all wastelanders as tough as you?'

Sig snorted. 'I could tell you all about it, chilipepper, but then I'd have to kill you.'

Daxter was almost positive that was a joke. Almost. 'No way, man; a big softie like you'd never do somethin' like that.'

'Yeah, you got that right. And that's why I ain't talkin'.'

'Awwww, come on,' Daxter groaned. 'What about the metalhead armour, then? That sorta thing common for wastelanders, walkin' around wearin' the skulls of your vanquished enemies?'

'Nah, not common.' Sig glimpsed Daxter's mouth opening in his peripheral vision and continued before the ottsel had a chance to ask. 'But I can't talk about that neither.'

'Whaaaat? But--'

Something shifted in the underbrush, and Sig gave his head a quick shake, his grip tightening on his gun. 'Quiet, cherry... we got company.'


Daxter peered intently at the trees, trying to spot whatever Sig had noticed, but he couldn't see anything-- perhaps it was the sort of thing only an experienced tracker would pick up on, though Daxter would have thought Jak's pale silver hair and ashen skin would stand out against the deep greens and browns of the forest.

He was just opening his mouth to speak when something took off through the underbrush-- Sig's head snapped around to follow the noise and Daxter had to duck quickly to avoid getting smacked by the wastelander's ear. He scrambled for a better grip on the pauldron as Sig lunged forward, and Daxter finally noticed what he was after-- there was a faint shimmer in the air, like a small patch of heat distortion. It lasted only a second before it was gone, replaced by more rustling undergrowth.

'What's goin' on?' he hissed. 'What'd you see?'

'Not sure, exactly...' Sig frowned at the tracks in the muddy leaf litter, following his quarry into the underbrush; despite his size, he somehow managed to make considerably less noise than whatever he was chasing. 'I'd say Cloaker, but they don't move this fast. Keep quiet.'

'What's a Cloaker?' Daxter asked anyway, though he obediently kept his voice down to a whisper.

'Metalhead,' Sig grunted in reply. 'Real hard to see-- goes invisible to get the jump on you.'

'Invisible?!' Daxter squeaked. 'You gotta be--'

'Shh.' Sig reached up to touch the side of his prosthetic eye as the creature moved again, his frown deepening. 'Anyway, this bad boy's too fast for a Cloaker.'

'Aw, great, so we got some sorta freaky-new metalhead menace that's fast and we can't even--' Daxter froze, his fingers tightening on the edge of Sig's pauldron as he continued in a strangled whisper. 'Ya don't think it... got him, do you...?'

Sig clicked his eye through a few more filters. 'Don't guess there's much chance of that, chilipepper... cause that ain't a metalhead we just found.'

Daxter stared in disbelief. 'You can't be sayin'...'

'Yeah,' said Sig. 'I think we just found your friend.'

---

Krew was in an absolutely foul mood when Tess arrived at the Hip Hog-- though it was no worse than she expected; the crime boss hated any drop in profits, and having half the city shut down for the better part of the day meant that hardly any patrons could make it to his bar that night. Luckily for Tess, his anger was directed almost entirely at the KG responsible for the shutdown, so the worst she received was a distracted growl of get to work toots as she slipped in through the service entrance.

A handful of people trickled in as the night wore on, though Tess recognised most of them as Krew's goons rather than actual civillian customers. This was about as much traffic as she would have expected, and they were a lot more subdued than usual, having picked up on their boss's bad temper. No one particularly wanted to draw Krew's attention at the moment, and they hardly raised their voices or ventured from their booths except when their booze ran out.

She'd been working for a few hours when a rail-thin man with a drooping, jowly face entered the bar. Tess recognised him as a street-ear, one of Krew's information-gatherers, and as the man hurried towards Krew she casually moved to the end of the counter closest to where the boss hovered, clearing away some bottles.

The man spoke softly into Krew's ear, and Krew rapidly went from merely irritated to enraged. 'Sig did what?'

A few of the drinkers shot the informant dirty looks for getting Krew even more riled up, but he seemed unfazed by the glares, or perhaps he was simply used to such treatment. 'So this wasn't on your orders?'

'Hrmmmmmh, certainly not! Ohhh, it just boils my blood, knowing not even my best men can be trusted...' Krew pulled out his communicator and jabbed at the buttons with a fat finger. 'Sig! You'd better get back here this instant, eyy? You've got some explaining to do-- you'd better remember who you work for, mmm?'

The street-ear suddenly glanced towards Tess, having just noticed that she was close enough to listen in. Tess returned the look with her most vapid customer-service smile. 'Can I get you anything tonight, sir?'

His gaze slid over her bland smile, dropping to her cleavage instead, and all trace of suspicion vanished from his expression. 'Well, I suppose I'm done for the night... yeah sure, I'll take a whisky, sweetheart.'

'Right away, sir!' Tess turned to get a glass, giving her hips an extra little swing. If she played her cards right, she might be able to get this guy to let something useful slip before the night was up.

---

Sig continued following the hazy figure for a couple minutes, though he was careful to keep his distance now and its movements had become slower and less erratic. The kid was almost completely invisible to ordinary eyes, appearing as no more than a faint distortion in the air, but the eco-filter in Sig's prosthetic right eye revealed a distinctly Jak-shaped blot of highly concentrated dark eco.

Daxter looked as though he still couldn't decide what to make of this new development. Sig tapped him on the shoulder. 'Hey, chilipepper, I think you better go in alone. Don't wanna spook him again.'

'Where is he now?'

'Just ahead, by that tree,' Sig whispered, pointing.

'And you're... absolutely sure that's him and not some new type of metalhead? Like, completely positive? Cause I really ain't keen on bein' metalhead lunch.'

Sig rolled his eye. 'You think I'd be suggesting this if I weren't sure?'

Daxter sighed and jumped down, though he didn't start towards the smudge. 'What... what do I say?'

'I dunno-- he's your friend, ain't he? Just go with whatever feels right.'

Daxter took a deep breath, then walked forwards, moving very slowly. 'Hey, buddy? Jaaak? Uhh, you seen any heroes lately? Cause we're lookin' for one hero in particular, and he's playin' awful hard to get. Hehe... okay, yeah, that was pretty bad; guess I'm not really at the top of my game today...' He stopped next to the blur; up close it was like looking at a very large, perfectly Jak-shaped soap bubble. He tentatively put out a hand-- an odd tingling sensation swept over his fur, but the skin under his fingertips felt reassuringly normal and solid. '...Huh, that's a pretty neat party trick, buddy, but-- yiiiii!'

Invisible fingers had suddenly wrapped around his middle, sweeping him up off the ground-- the tingling sensation intensified, and he was engulfed in a strange swirling substance that felt halfway between liquid and vapour. The mist didn't hurt, though it clouded his vision and blurred their surroundings into a strange shadowy landscape.

'...Whoa. Okay, that's new.'

Jak turned him around so they faced one another-- while the rest of the world had faded to a weird haze he could actually see Jak a little better, a shadowy form picked out in tiny flickers of violet lightning... and when he looked down at his own arms, they looked much the same. Freaky.

'Holy shi--' Daxter bit down on the urge to panic. 'Okay... okay. I'm okay. Kinda freaked out just a teeeensy bit, but I'm doin' fine, really-- I mean it's perfectly normal to get a little freaked out when shit gets this crazy-weird, right Jak...?'

Jak's head tilted to the side slightly and he uncertainly started to stand up again--

'No, no no no, come on Jak, just... stay calm and take it easy-- sit down and we can talk, okay?' He reached out and put his hands on either side of Jak's face, squishing his cheeks. 'Hey now... uh... nod if you understand me?'

Jak looked a little hurt, but he slowly nodded. Of course I understand...?

Daxter let out a long breath. '...Sheesh, bud, don't scare me like that, alright?' Jak jerked his head back, and Daxter quickly waved his hands. 'What, no, I ain't scared of you! I could never be scared'a you, ya big nerd, don't ya know that already? Sheesh, gimme a break!' He poked Jak on the nose. 'It's just, you runnin' off like that all alone, I thought you might hurt yourself, that's all.'

Jak snorted softly and rolled his eyes. As if.

'So yeah... why did you run off? You seemed pretty freaked out about something.'

Jak shifted into a more comfortable sitting position, balancing Daxter across his knees. He lifted his left hand, hesitated as though trying to work out what to say, then made a small sign. I didn't know where I was. He paused, tilted his head to the side, then signed again. It was 'a bad place', before.

'Ohhh, I see... And, uh, you were screamin' about somethin'. That was the other thing that freaked me out, kinda...'

Jak blinked at Daxter, then looked away, making another sign.

'Ah, nightmares?' Daxter nodded sagely. 'Yep, I think I get that. I mean, just lookit these!' He grabbed one of Jak's hands. 'Lemme tell ya, buddy, we really gotta hook you up with some industrial-strength nail clippers, cause these bad boys are totally outta control!' Daxter grinned wickedly. 'Or if you prefer, I know this great nail place; you could get 'em all done up fancy, maybe hot pink with sparkles...'

Jak shook his head, but a smile was tugging at the corners of his mouth, pulling the chapped lips back from jagged fangs.

'You really should think about the sparkles,' Daxter said, his tone falsely serious. He squeezed Jak's cheeks again. 'And ya knoooow... your smile's even cuter with those li'l fangs; bet all the ladies'll be lining right up to smoo--' Jak scowled and smacked him lightly on the back of the head. 'Hey! ...Alright, fine, but that sorta brings us to the other important thing; and that's... well, this whole invisible thing is pretty awesome, I gotta say, but it makes things just a liiittle bit awkward, so d'you think you could maybe... turn it off for now?'

Jak's eyebrows shot up. Now you're just messing with me.

Daxter dropped his hands. 'Whoa... wait, you didn't even know?! Aw maaan, it's probably some crazy magic eco business, ain't it?' Daxter shook his head. 'But for real, I almost couldn't find you at all; I could hardly see you even standing right in front of me. I had to get my buddy to help; he's got this fancy eye thing that let him see you-- oh yeah, I forgot to mention, while you were busy bein' all cooped up I found myself a new sidekick! But don't you start gettin' jealous, bud, cause you should know you'll always be my number one.'

Jak bit his lip, then nodded slowly, and Daxter leaned forward and hugged his face. The dark eyes closed and Jak inhaled deeply-- there was a faint electric snapping sound, and the odd shadowy mist cutting them off from the rest of the world abruptly dispersed. His eyes blinked open, and he stared at the trees with an odd stunned look on his face.

'Oh heeeeey, would ya look at that! Welcome back to the world of the visible, Jak. Looks pretty different, huh?'

You were actually serious...?

'Course I'm serious, I don't mess around with stuff like this! Now what'd you say to some food, I'm starving...' Daxter shifted to the side, plunking himself down on Jak's shoulder. 'Oh, and you should meet my friend Sig; he looks pretty scary but he's actually just a big softie so you ain't got nothin to worry about-- wait, what's wrong?'

He looked down at Jak, who had hunched over a little more, his hands pressed flat against his mostly-bare chest.

'Uh... ohhh. Um, sorry about that, buddy; we had to take it off to patch you up-- not that it was worth saving, anyway. But Sig's got a spare shirt you can borrow back at our campsite-- ain't that right, Sig?'

Jak's head jerked up as Sig stepped nearer, instinctively wary. Daxter patted Jak's head reassuringly; he tensed but thankfully he didn't try to run again.

'Easy, kid,' said Sig-- he moved very slowly, unwinding his scarf. 'This ain't much, but it'll help a little til we get back to camp.'

When Jak still hesitated, Daxter reached up to accept the scarf instead. 'See, ain't he great?'

Sig snorted. 'Let's just get you boys settled, alright? You could both use a hot meal.'

'Sounds good to me! Whaddya say, Jak?' Daxter helped drape the scarf over Jak's shoulders, grinning when Jak inclined his head slightly. 'Yeah, that's what I like to hear!' He leaned one elbow on top of Jak's head, glancing back at Sig. 'Okay, big guy, we're ready to go when you are; just lead the way.'

Sig shook his head and started walking. 'Alright, but listen, chilipeppers, I wanna make one thing clear-- I ain't nobody's sidekick. Specially not this little orange firecracker.'

Jak smiled despite himself and followed Sig back towards the camp, letting Daxter's idle chatter wash over him. He really had escaped prison, and he still had Daxter... perhaps that could be enough.

---

Sig started preparing the food while Jak got dressed-- a task made more difficult than it should have been, as his claws and horns kept snagging on the fabric. Daxter helped him with seemingly endless patience, filling the clearing with calm chatter. Sig was impressed by the little ottsel's ability to keep his friend from getting too frustrated, and when they finished and came to sit by the fire, the kid seemed... not quite content, but far calmer than he'd been when they found him in the forest.

It made an odd sort of sense, Sig thought as he passed Jak a bowl. It took a lot of strength to survive what Jak had endured, and the way Daxter joked about Jak's appearance, the way Jak half-smiled in response-- those little things were proof of that strength.

Jak glanced up, and Sig smiled at him. Yeah, they'll do fine out here.

Sig knew it wouldn't be that simple, of course. Staying in Haven Forest indefinitely was a poor option; it was close enough to the city to get occasional KG patrols, and it would be foolish to rely too heavily on Jak's new invisibility powers to keep him hidden-- would he even be able to repeat it at will?-- but journeying deeper into the wasteland would pose other risks; there were metalheads big and nasty enough to make the ones near Haven look like harmless strays, cutthroat marauder bands who wouldn't hesitate to attack a lone traveller, not to mention the wildlife that had evolved to thrive in such a harsh environment... and the laws back home were very clear about the consequences for bringing an outsider into a wasteland city.

Maybe he was too soft for his own good, but that was one line he wouldn't cross.

Any attempt to discuss plans would have to wait, though; both of them were clearly exhausted, and now that they'd finished eating they were already half asleep. Sig watched Jak curl up near the fire, then he pulled out his communicator-- and winced as he scrolled through the messages. Apparently Krew had caught onto the fact that Sig was up to something behind his back, and to say that the crime boss was displeased with this development would be a gross understatement. Of all the things Krew hated, traitors were right near the top of the list, just after losing money.

Sig couldn't afford to lose his position with Krew, not when he needed all the connections he could get if he wanted any hope of succeeding at his mission. He shook Daxter awake to give the ottsel instructions about guarding the campsite-- he'd chosen an easily defensible spot near the cliffs and metalheads instinctively avoided fire, and Sig had brought some eco grenades just in case. Daxter clearly hated the idea of being left alone, but he knew that Sig had already done far more than he'd originally agreed to; he only complained a little bit as Sig got up to return to Haven.

Krew's bar was the last place Sig wanted to be, but he knew he'd regret making the boss wait any longer than he already had. He grabbed a zoomer and headed straight to the port, cutting through traffic without much regard for other vehicles. He heard a few angry shouts trailing after him, but they always fell silent once they got a good look at him. He usually had that effect on the people of Haven, even when they had no idea who he worked for.

The Hip Hog was just closing up when he arrived; the last few drunk thugs were on their way out and Tess was busy clearing away the clutter of empty glasses and bottles they had left behind. She shot Sig a sympathetic smile as he entered, then ducked behind the bar with her armful of dirty glasses. Krew immediately swooped down, his heavy breathing drowning out the whine of his hoverchair's motor.

'Sig... I thought we had an arrangement, hmm?' He jabbed a fat finger at Sig, who supressed the urge to wince as the large man's putrid breath washed over him. 'You work for me, and I make sure everyone important looks the other way when it comes to your, ahhh, 'immigration status'.'

'Yeah.' Sig stood straight, his grip firm around his peacemaker. 'And I ain't done work for anyone else.'

'Is that so...? Then what's this I've heard about you sneaking around the bazaar, eyy? Thought you could do side jobs, smuggling things out of the city right under my nose, did you?'

'Was just doin' a favour for a friend,' Sig mumbled. 'Ain't got nothing to do with you.'

'Hmmph. I don't like people cheating me, Sig. Time is money, and I'm not paying you to run around doing jobs on the side...'

Sig crossed his arms. 'So what... I can't do what I want with my downtime? Besides, it ain't a job if I ain't gettin' paid.'

'I don't like charity, either-- everyone's got a sob story these days. People think they can just get whatever they want without paying the price...' Krew's chair drifted down until he could squint directly into Sig's eyes. 'So... this friend asks you to transport something out of the city, and you do this out of the goodness of your heart... I wonder what this mystery cargo could be, hmmm?' Krew's mouth stretched into a wide smile. '...Or perhaps the correct question would be who?'

Sig's organic eye widened slightly, but other than that he didn't so much as twitch.

Krew chuckled unpleasantly. 'Oh, yes... I've done a bit of digging, and my sources tell me this 'mystery cargo' of yours was a person. Perhaps even... a certain escaped prisoner, the Baron's lost little pet?' Krew leaned in close. 'Why not bring it here, eyy? I'm sure we could come to an... agreement.'

'He's probably long gone by now,' said Sig. 'They wanted out for a reason.'

'Hmmph!' Krew spun away. 'Ah, well... I suppose it can't be helped... a real shame. But if the creature should come crawling back, you bring it right to me, eyy?'

'Yeah,' Sig mumbled. 'Got it, boss.'

Krew finally seemed satisfied with his answer, giving Sig a nasty smile before drifting away across the bar. Sig slid into the nearest booth, rubbing his forehead; Krew was the last person he wanted to see Jak get stuck working for... the kid deserved much better than that.

He glanced up a few minutes later, when Tess set two glasses on the table and slid into the seat across from him. 'Long day?'

'Yeah, you could say that.' He accepted the offered glass. 'Thanks.'

Tess watched him for a moment before speaking again. 'So... you really found him, huh?'

Sig sighed. 'Guess you wouldn't believe me if I said no.'

'Krew had word from one of his street-ears.' Tess paused, then continued carefully. 'Did you mean what you told Krew? That they've left Haven for good?'

Sig looked down at his glass. 'Everyone's been calling him a monster, right? But he's just a kid who's been hurt real bad. Those boys deserve a fresh start.'

Tess raised an eyebrow skeptically. 'And... you think they'll find that out there?' She swirled her glass, offering a small smile. 'I still don't understand what's so great about living in a lawless sandpit, but... maybe there's more to it than meets the eye?'

Sig couldn't help but smile at the thought of his home, though he ignored the prompt to share more. This wasn't the first time Tess had expressed a casual interest in wasteland society, but as much as Sig enjoyed her company, there were some things no true wastelander would reveal to an outsider. He sipped his drink, then set it back on the table. 'I guess the wasteland ain't got much to offer a city-slicker like yourself, but if there's one thing we got no shortage of, it's fresh starts.'

Tess regarded him thoughtfully for a moment. 'Well, if they do decide to stick around, give me a call-- I've got some friends who are always looking for good fighters, and I'm sure they'd be happy to help him out if he's willing to work with them.'

'Mm...' Sig looked up at her. 'Sounds like a pretty way of saying they want to use him.'

Tess met his gaze, her eyes bright and sharp. 'Perhaps... but I can tell you for sure that'd be a long shot better than working for Krew.'

Sig snorted, taking a long drink from his mug. '...Guess you got that right.'

They both fell silent for a while, lost in their own thoughts while they finished their drinks. Sig had suspected for a while that Tess worked for the Underground; she seemed to genuinely care about Haven's future and she was too bright to willingly work for someone like Krew without an ulterior motive. He supposed they must be better than Krew (it was very difficult not to be) but that didn't mean he trusted them.

Tess got up to finish cleaning the bar; Sig wished her a good night and let himself out. He truly believed that it would be best for Jak and Daxter to leave Haven behind, but he knew it wasn't his choice to make.

---

Daxter started awake sometime just before dawn, and the first thing noticed was that the blankets were empty-- he jolted upright in a panic over finding Jak gone, but to his relief he spotted his friend hunched over by the fire, forehead resting on his folded arms. Daxter got up and walked towards him, trying to shake himself awake; he hadn't intended to fall asleep, determined to keep watch while Jak rested, but he'd been so exhausted that he must have drifted off.

He plopped down on the ground beside Jak. 'Sheesh, buddy, don't scare me like that! Makin' me think ya might've run off again, I swear I'll...' He fell silent when Jak didn't respond, didn't even look up. 'Uhh... you doing okay, Jak?'

Jak twitched at that question, then seemed to shrink in on himself. He still didn't look up, but after a moment he very slowly shook his head... and something about that gesture seemed to say he didn't think he'd ever be okay again.

Daxter bit his lip, hesitantly reaching out to touch Jak's arm, but he tensed at the touch and Daxter quickly withdrew the hand. '...Hey, Jak... I'm sorry, y'know? If... if I'd been there sooner, if I'd got you out, maybe... maybe they wouldn't've had the chance to...'

Jak's head jerked up and he put a hand across Daxter's shoulders, jerking his thumb sharply towards the city and twisting his fingers. It's THEIR fault. They did this.

'Well, yeah, but... I dunno. I just... I want to make it better, but I know I can't. There's... there's nothin' I can do now, and I only wish there was...'

Jak blinked, then ducked his head and rubbed the back of his forearm over his face. A moment passed in silence, and then Jak looked up again. You came for me.

'I was too late,' said Daxter quietly.

But you still came.

Daxter couldn't think of anything to say for a long moment, then he stood up and leaned on Jak's arm, staring his friend in the eyes. '...We'll figure something out, alright buddy? I promise...' He gestured at the forest. 'I mean, this ain't so bad, right? Sig says lotsa people live out here, so a coupla tough guys like us should be--'

Jak pulled back, making a violent slashing motion with one hand, and Daxter fell silent instantly, cut off by the shocking intensity, by the burning, unbridled hatred in those unnaturally dark eyes--

I'm going to kill them.

Daxter blinked up at him, struggling against the urge to cry, struggling to understand the overwhelming rage and pain that now consumed his once-carefree friend... but he knew that understanding was far beyond him. He couldn't begin to imagine the hell Jak had been dragged through, and if he was being honest with himself, he truly didn't want to know. The scars and the subtle shifts in Jak's body language already told him too much.

He took a deep breath, took Jak's fingers in his hands. 'O-okay, buddy... that's gonna take a change of plans, but-- but we can work with that, okay? You an' me, we can do anything we set our minds to, and whatever you need... I'm there for you, cause ya know, you wouldn't last a second without me. You got that? We're a team, and those assholes better watch out cause no one hurts my best friend and gets away with it.'

Jak paused, then pulled Daxter into his arms, a simple gesture that meant thank you and I'm sorry and I know.

'We can do it,' Daxter whispered into his hair. 'Maybe we ain't okay now, but I'm gonna fix that... we're not stopping until we make everything okay.'

And he really meant it this time. He couldn't afford to doubt himself anymore, not when Jak needed him to be strong.

Chapter Text

By the time Sig arrived back at the campsite in Haven Forest, Jak and Daxter were both asleep, curled up near the dying campfire-- he shook his head at this lapse of caution but let them be; they probably needed the rest. Sig revived the fire and sat down with his back to the campsite, watching the treeline and thinking about Krew.

Of course, Sig had known that a prison break wasn't the sort of thing Krew would miss, and he'd intended to keep his involvement to a minimum for that reason-- helping Jak and Daxter get out of the city had obviously been a risky move, yet the speed of Krew's reaction still bothered him. Another man might have attributed it to bad luck, but one did not survive in the wasteland by counting on things like 'luck'. Krew was exactly the sort of person who would spy on his employees in their time off, and that was a possibility Sig didn't dare ignore.

If he'd actually been what he pretended to be-- just an average wastelander mercenary seeking work in Haven-- Sig wouldn't have been too bothered about this sort of thing, but he absolutely couldn't afford to let Krew learn the true nature of his mission in the city. He'd always been cautious before, but Krew was bound to be on the alert now-- he would have to be even more careful in the future.

Sig didn't have to wait long before the sky began to lighten in the east, the dawning sun tinting the thick smog over Haven a vibrant magenta, but the sight held no appeal for the wastelander; it only served to remind him that desert sunrises were far more beautiful. He squashed down the pang of homesickness and moved towards the fire, reviving it and starting to reheat the leftover food from the night before.

After a few minutes, Jak stirred and sat up at the smell of food-- Daxter slid to the ground, the movement waking him as well. 'Jak, whassgoin'on...?'

Jak's blank eyes turned towards Sig, and he lifted a hand to mouth-level. Daxter blinked, his head swiveling back to Sig. 'Oh, hey... guess you got everything sorted out?'

'Yeah, but listen, I can't stay long-- boss ain't happy with me.' Sig put the lid on the small pot, looking up at them. 'So, you boys given any more thought to what you wanna do now? If you can fight well enough, you'd probably make it as wastelanders.'

'Uhh...' Daxter looked up at Jak, who was staring forward resolutely. 'Well, that's a good backup plan, but Jak's got some... unfinished business with Baron Buckethead and all them lobster-suited goons.'

Sig blinked at them. 'You boys want to stay in Haven?' He leaned his elbows on his knees as they both nodded, regarding them seriously for a moment. 'You know... sometimes it's better to let go, move on,' he suggested. 'I can see you're hurtin', but goin' after them that hurt you ain't gonna make anything better.'

Jak scowled and looked down, a faint hiss escaping between his teeth. What do you know?

'We gotta do this, Sig,' said Daxter softly. 'It's... it's what he needs. Closure, ya know?'

Sig raised an eyebrow at Jak. And you think revenge is gonna get you there? But he didn't say anything more, let the subject drop. Even if a fresh start was what Jak truly needed, it would only help him if he believed it too. Someone else might have been able to talk them around, convince them to take a different path, but Sig lacked the persuasive skill to challenge Jak's resolve if he'd already committed himself to this course.

He sighed, meeting their eyes again. 'Well, if you're sure... I got a couple leads that might help you cherries.' Both of them blinked up at him, and he continued. 'You're gonna need help if you wanna get to the Baron, and I can't always be around to bail you out-- I got my own problems, and Praxis ain't one of 'em.'

Jak glanced at Daxter, who nodded once before turning back to Sig. 'Yeah, no worries... I know you've already stuck your neck out enough as it is. Coupla clever guys like me and Jak, we'll figure something out, no problem.' Jak blinked and raised an eyebrow slightly; Daxter sighed and rolled his eyes. 'So, anyway, what's this you were sayin' about leads?'

Sig told them about Tess's proposal. 'If you cherries are in, I'll call her and she'll put you in touch with her people. Can't say I know much about 'em, but they're your best bet for help in the city.'

Jak and Daxter exchanged a glance, then looked back at Sig. 'So, this girl... is she a smokin' hot babe, or what?' Jak scowled and gave him a firm nudge, and he glared back. 'Whaaaat, I ain't even allowed to ask?'

'Sure, you can ask,' said Sig. 'The answer's that you better keep your paws off her, chilipepper, or else... well, let's just say she's a tough girl and she really likes big guns, so you better not mess with her if you like your tail attached.'

Daxter winced. 'Alright, I get the point...' He glanced at Jak. 'What d'you think, buddy? Want to go for it?'

Jak hesitated, then nodded his agreement and looked back at Sig; the wastelander offered him a smile. 'I'll make the call. And... you boys don't hesitate to hit me up if you need anything, alright?'

Daxter snorted. 'Thought you were done helping... ya big softie.'

Sig pulled out his communicator with a shrug. 'Don't get too used to it, chilipepper.'

---

Torn winced as Tess clattered about the Underground's small kitchenette. The noise was corkscrewing right into the middle of his headache, making it nearly impossible to focus on the plans that were suddenly moving much faster than he was comfortable with-- Tess had called shortly after sunrise to inform him that she'd made contact with Praxis's creature, who apparently wanted to meet with Torn that night to discuss some sort of working arrangement.

It was a dangerous move, and not just for the Underground as a whole-- Tess could easily have blown her cover by taking action, and Torn still wasn't convinced it hadn't been a mistake. Tess was supposed to be a spy, a quiet observer, and she was the best agent they had. Under other circumstances, Torn would have reprimanded her for taking such a massive risk, but the timeline gave him barely sixteen hours to prepare for the meeting and he didn't have any energy to spare for a discussion.

After several minutes of struggling to ignore the noise, he gave up any pretense of working and dropped his head into his hands. 'Tess, can't this wait?' He gestured impatiently at the hotplate Tess was using.

'No, it can't!' Tess crossed her arms, scowling. 'You need to eat before your meeting, and if I don't make you something now you'll forget.'

Torn groaned, knowing there was no arguing with her. 'Fine. Do it less loudly, then.'

Tess raised an eyebrow, giving him a look that said she wasn't the least bit sorry for him. 'If you hadn't had so much to drink yesterday, you wouldn't be so hung over now.'

His scowl deepened, but he supposed there was nothing he could say to that when Tess and the Shadow regularly warned him against drinking so much. He'd only get another round of (probably well-deserved) I-told-you-so comments.

'And you know, you've got to sober up for this; we've taken as many precautions as we can, but it's impossible to account for everything.' Tess snatched up the reports and maps from in front of Torn, replacing them with a plate of food and the strong implication that he'd better eat if he ever wanted to see his papers again.

Torn glared at the plate and growled something Tess couldn't quite make out, but he picked up the fork anyway and halfheartedly stabbed a protein cube.

Tess watched for a couple minutes to make sure he was actually eating, then she pushed a stack of folders aside and sat on the edge of the desk. 'I know things have been a bit rough lately, but... we all believe in you and the Shadow-- you know that, right? We're here because we want to do whatever we can to make Haven a better place... and I guess sometimes that means we have to wait until the right moment to make a move.'

'Mm...' Torn reached for the glass of water Tess had poured him. 'Your contact, Sig... are you sure we can trust him? If he's one of Krew's men...'

'He is, but he's a great guy-- honourable, you know? Nothing like Krew's usual muscle-headed thugs.'

'...But he still works for Krew.' Torn prodded a clump of especially stringy vegetables with his fork-- he was pretty sure the food quality had been deteriorating steadily in the years since he first joined the Underground, but unfortunately they couldn't afford to allocate more funds to acquiring better provisions. Another casualty of Praxis's war... He abandoned the vegetables and looked up at Tess. 'Good men don't work for people like Krew without a damn good reason, so what's his story?'

Tess tapped her fingers against her arm. 'It's strange... he doesn't even seem to like Haven, but he's determined to stay, you know? Whatever it is that's keeping him here, it's obviously important to him, but I haven't been able to figure out what... Every time I've brought up the wasteland he changes the subject.'

'You think he's a spy too?'

'Well, if he is working undercover for someone else, it's not anyone in Haven-- he's got no ties to the city that I can see.' Tess shrugged, idly leafing through the stack of reports she'd taken from Torn. 'All I've managed to dig up is that Krew's the only person in Haven who would hire a wastelander, and he's got the resources to forge papers and keep the KG looking the other way. Krew might not even have anything to do with his reasons for staying in Haven...' She sighed and shook her head. 'Maybe I'm just overthinking it. He deals in weapons and artifacts for Krew; that could be all there is to it.'

Torn grunted in reply, taking another bite of his food. It was known that a handful of nomadic tribes and marauder bands lived in the wasteland, most of them exiled convicts or their descendents, but neither the KG nor the Underground had ever bothered to learn much about these wastelanders. Any deeper political reasons that might drive a wastelander to live in Haven were a mystery to him.

'I looked into it a while ago,' Tess continued a minute later. 'I sorta thought about asking him to join, because Mar knows we could use a good fighter like him, but he's got no investment in resisting the Baron, and there's no way we could offer him more than what Krew pays him.'

'Does he know you're with the Underground?'

Tess shrugged. 'I've never told him, though I think he's probably guessed. He's smart enough to realise I'm not just a barkeep, and there's not many other likely candidates...'

'Fair enough,' said Torn. 'But you made the right call; it's too risky to approach him if he's not already sympathetic towards our cause... maybe he's as good a man as you say, but we can't completely trust anyone Krew's got under his thumb-- or anyone with unknown allegiances.' He paused, then pushed the plate away from himself. 'If it's wastelander business it's probably got nothing to do with us, but we can't be too careful.'

'Mm... well, speaking of Krew, it's about time I headed out.' Tess got up, leaving the papers on the desk, then paused, looking down at her hands. '...I really hope we can help him-- the escaped prisoner. I can't imagine what it must have been like... from what Sig said, the Baron really hurt him.'

Torn nodded; he wished he could say the same, but unfortunately he knew all too well how far Praxis would go down an immoral path if he thought it would lead him to victory. 'We'll just have to see how it goes. Kor seems to think he'd be an asset to our fight, but we can't know for sure until I've made contact.'

'Yeah...' Tess smiled and started towards the garage. 'Anyway, good luck with the meeting!'

Torn watched her go; it was matters like this that ensured he would never give up on the Underground, no matter how bad things got. Men like Praxis had to be stopped, and if this escaped prisoner could help them, could provide them with a path to victory, however narrow... the Underground couldn't afford to turn down any potential assets, and Torn wasn't above using the Baron's own 'creations' against him.

He'd always been accused of fighting dirty, back when he first started in the Cadets and years later as a grunt in the Baron's Krimzon Guard. Torn supposed they were right, but none of that mattered as long as he got results. Battles were never won by those who were afraid to take risks.

---

It was roughly an hour after dark when Torn arrived at the designated meeting place, an abandoned slum house near the industrial sector. The building had been appropriated by the Underground several months ago and subsequently outfitted with numerous traps and hidden exits that made it ideal for meeting dangerous or untrustworthy contacts. Torn considered Praxis's pet monster to be both of those things, so naturally he wanted as many precautions as he could get.

Torn closed and locked the front door before pulling off the full-face racing helmet he'd worn on the drive over. The helmet, combined with some nondescript dark clothing, was more or less the extent of his disguise, as he lacked the time or patience for anything more elaborate. Venturing outside without covering his face was not an option, however; he was far too well-known to risk being seen in public, and the slums were especially dangerous for him, as many of the city's poorest citizens had lost friends or family when Old Town fell to the metalheads. Civilian mobs could be just as ruthless towards a traitorous and disgraced ex-KG commander as the guards themselves-- Torn had learned that lesson the hard way.

He absently tugged at the high collar of his shirt as though to make sure it covered the scarring on his neck, then checked the time; he had over an hour until the fugitive's arrival. He gave the room a quick walk-through, checking that all of the traps and concealed doors were still functional. They received regular maintenance, of course, but it never hurt to be careful. Once he was finished, he returned to his place facing the back alley entrance and waited.

Torn checked his timepiece frequently as the minutes crawled by, fidgeting as the hour came and went. He scowled at the door-- the fugitive was late, and that fact did little to settle his nerves. Had he been delayed, or captured? Torn strained his hearing, but the meeting-house was soundproofed; he had to resist the urge to crack the door open and listen for sirens. If the KG had found any sign of their escaped prisoner, Torn would hear word of it soon enough.

...Or perhaps the man had simply flaked out. Torn ground his teeth; it appeared the evening was going to be a complete waste of--

Something thumped against the back door and Torn jumped at the noise-- he snapped to attention, his hand twitching towards the weapons concealed under his loose jacket. The door creaked open a few seconds later, and Torn squinted warily at the slowly widening sliver of alley...

He didn't see anything right away, just the dingy back alley beyond the door-- and then a slim pale figure materialised seemingly out of the shadows themselves, slipping inside just as the door slid closed again.

The fugitive was almost disappointing, in a way-- still uncanny, but far shorter and thinner than Torn had expected after listening to the rumours of a demonic, bloodthirsty monster. Yet no matter how small this man-- boy?-- appeared, it was impossible to ignore the eerily blank eyes or the long wicked-looking claws, or the curved horns that weren't entirely hidden by the scarf he'd clumsily wound around his head. He looked rather like a cross between a street urchin and one of the small wicked creatures that hid under bridges in folk-tales.

The kid seemed to be assessing Torn as well, though it was impossible to tell where he was looking; his eyes were uniformly black with no distinguishible iris or pupil, seemed to eat up all the light that hit them. A small animal perched on his left shoulder, taking in their surroundings with an unusual degree of intelligence, though Torn was too preoccupied with the kid's empty gaze to spare his pet more than a cursory glance-- those dark eyes didn't seem to need to blink nearly as often as was natural.

'...You're sure you weren't followed?' Torn asked in a low voice.

'Course not-- I didn't hear any sirens out there, did you?' The voice came from the kid's direction, though his mouth didn't move at all; in fact, it rather appeared as though the orange rodent had spoken instead. Torn blinked, briefly wondering whether he wasn't as sober as he'd thought, but then the voice continued. 'Anyway, what's your deal, Dreadlocks?'

Torn decided that he didn't care how the rat appeared to be talking, because it didn't change the fact that he was not pleased by this development, and he certainly wasn't in the mood to deal with some stupid joke. 'Neat trick,' he said, voice dripping with sarcasm. 'So what are you, a runaway circus act?'

The rat-creature spread its arms. 'Ain't no act, Tattooed Wonder-- what you see here is the real deal.'

If it was a trick, Torn had to admit it was a damn effective one. He ignored the rat, addressing the kid instead. 'Cut the crap. This is a business meeting.'

The rodent leaned on the kid's head. 'Alright, so let's talk business-- though I gotta warn ya, Jak ain't a big talker. Actually, he kinda doesn't talk at all, but you get the--'

'I hear you're interested in joining the fight against the Baron,' Torn interrupted loudly. He could already tell the chatterbox rodent was going to give him headaches, and he certainly didn't plan to endure it any more than he had to. 'That is why you're here, isn't it?'

Jak's eyes flashed and Torn swore he could taste the electricity in the air. The kid nodded once, but mistrust was written all over his face.

'Glad we got that straightened out,' the rat continued blithely. 'Now, dark-and-gruesome here wants to rip the old tin can a new one, and he's gonna find a way to do that no matter what, but I hear you got something that can help us get there, and you know how the saying goes, never lasso a wild yakkow when you can--'

'We might be able to help you, if you prove you can pull your own weight,' Torn ground out. 'The Underground needs reliable fighters, not some loose cannon with a mangy orange rat on his shoulder. If you can complete our trial mission, then we'll talk about--'

'Whoa now, hold on just one minute, gravel-breath-- firstly, my name is Daxter, and as anyone with eyes can see, I keep myself very well-groomed and I'll have you know that I have never once in my life had mange, and secondly, ottsels are mustelids, not rodents, and for that matter I used to be just as human as you, so you can just--'

'Can it, rat; I don't give a flying fuck what you are or used to be. All I need to know is whether you'll do the damn mission.'

Jak twitched a little, eyes flicking towards the door behind Torn, but Daxter and Torn were too focused on each other to notice the glance. 'Yeah, well, I was just getting there-- and you wanna know what I think? I think Jak's got far better things to do than your crummy test mission, and if you don't wanna help us we'll just find another--'

Torn opened his mouth to retort, but their bickering was cut short when the door behind Torn smashed open, dangling from its hinges in useless splinters.

Jak was already moving before the dust settled, shoving Torn unceremoniously out of the way as a Krimzon Guard soldier stepped through the narrow doorway-- Jak darted close and jumped at the armoured man, smashing his elbow into the guard's masked face; the protective covering shattered with an audible fleshy crunch that made Torn wince. The momentum knocked the first KG over backwards into the guard behind him, who only had time for a startled curse before Jak grabbed the front of his helmet, violet lightning jumping along his arms as he gave the comm unit a sharp twist to disable it and expose the man's vulnerable jawline.

He rose to a crouch a second later, claws dripping blood from the guard's throat. His head snapped around, the dark eyes fixing on Torn's, and for a terrifying instant Torn was positive the kid was about to jump him too-- but then Jak slid sideways to press against the wall by the door, a stray flicker of lightning hitting the naked lightbulb over the entry, shorting it out.

Torn took advantage of the brief reprieve, darting towards the far wall and pressing a catch to open one of the hidden exits, but more KGs stormed into the room before he could finish getting the door open. 'Shi--'

'There he is!' the nearest guard called in warning, hefting his rifle to point it at the former commander, but Jak caught him by the arm before he could take aim, throwing him to the ground; the other two guards couldn't do anything but stumble backwards as they watched the Baron's creature snap their comrade's neck with a violent twist.

Torn spun back towards the enemies, taking the opportunity to whip out his pistol and shoot one in the face; luckily the kid was short enough that he had a clear shot over the top of the horned head. Daxter yowled something about being more careful where he aimed as Jak whirled around and kicked the last guard in the stomach, but Torn ignored the protest. 'Over here!' he yelled hoarsely, motioning towards the narrow corridor beyond the concealed door.

Jak grabbed the last guard's shockstick and slammed it into the gap between chestplate and helmet, crushing the man's windpipe and sending a high-voltage charge through his body-- he glanced up at Torn in the silence that followed, then darted past him into the corridor. Torn snapped the door closed behind them before any more KGs could make it into the room, trying not to think about how easily this scrawny teenager had just taken down four grown men...

...Guess some of those rumours were true after all.

The pitch-blackness of the narrow corridor seemed to amplify the coppery scent of fresh blood that hung heavy in the air; Torn had once been a KG grunt just like those dead men, and even if they were now his enemies he couldn't forget how he had once walked in those same footsteps, how a slightly different path might have brought him to a similar grisly end...

But Torn knew he couldn't dwell on that now, and hid his unease by fumbling for the small handlight in his pocket-- as his eyes adjusted to the dark he noticed that he could actually see Jak; stray sparks flickered through the boy's pale hair and along his arms, veins glowing with a deep violet light that pulsed faintly as the eco shifted under his skin, almost like it had a life of its own...

Torn suppressed a shudder and hastily switched the light on, making both kid and rat blink and twitch back; he ignored their irritated looks and pointed his light down the corridor, illuminating the low ceiling and grimy walls. 'We need to keep moving. This exit is concealed, but they'll find it eventually and we don't want to be here when they do.'

Their eyes narrowed with near-identical looks of mistrust, but then the rat glanced sideways at Jak and gave one of the kid's ears a gentle tug-- Jak's breath hissed out through jagged teeth, but he turned and started down the passage without further protest. Even Daxter stayed quiet, though he continued to watch Torn intently as the older man fell into step behind Jak.

Clearly there was more to the rat than Torn had first assumed-- Jak was far from at ease, yet he kept his gaze forward as though he completely trusted his pet to warn him if Torn made any sudden moves... and there was no denying the humanlike intelligence in the animal's cold stare. Torn was careful to keep his free hand in clear sight so the creature wouldn't think he was reaching for a weapon.

They passed a marker on the wall a moment later, and Torn cleared his throat. 'The exit is just ahead,' he whispered-- and then he swore under his breath, having suddenly realised that he'd left his helmet behind in the meeting-room.

'Oh no,' Daxter moaned quietly to Jak, 'I really don't like that look.' He shot Torn a glare. 'Hey, you're not gonna say we're trapped down here, are you?'

Torn didn't miss how Jak stiffened at 'trapped', and he responded quickly. 'No, it's nothing important.' That was a lie, but of course it was far too late to go back for the helmet now-- he would have to make it back to the hideout with only his scarf to conceal his distinctive tattoos. He could probably manage it without too much difficulty, though he really didn't need any more shit to deal with today, considering that this whole endeavour had already proven itself to be far more trouble than it was worth.

Jak shot Torn a dark glare, then quickly paced down the corridor and kicked open the first door he came to, not waiting for Torn to confirm whether it was the correct exit. He stepped out into the night air, standing just a little straighter now that he was no longer underground.

Torn started to follow, but Jak whirled around with a low growl, blocking the exit and forcing Torn back a step.

Daxter leaned on the top of Jak's head, giving Torn an icy look. 'Yeah, bud, you got a point.' He gestured at Torn. 'This business has trap written all over it.'

Torn scowled at the accusation and jabbed a finger at Jak's chest. 'We wouldn't be in this mess if you hadn't led them right to us! Now one of my key safehouses is compromised, and you--'

'Whoa, slow down a minute, Tattooed Wonder,' said Daxter, grabbing Jak's horns and pulling himself up onto his friend's head to put himself at Torn's eye level. 'You think this is Jak's fault? Well I hate to break it to ya, but if it was us they'd come for there'd've been like... at least one hundred times as many KG goons, not to mention sirens and Hellcats and copious amounts of gunfire and lots of certain death. So excuse me if I don't believe you for one single minute!'

Torn blinked and opened his mouth, but as much as he hated to admit it, the rat was probably right. Praxis and Erol wouldn't move on such a dangerous target without a full assault force, while this attack had been more consistent with the size of a standard patrol sent to investigate reports of suspicious activity. '...Damn.'

Daxter leaned forward on Jak's head, peering down at the boy's blank eyes. 'Wanna know what I think, Jak? I think this beanpole ain't nearly so great as he wants us to think he is!'

Torn sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, taking a deep breath and letting it out. '...Fine. How did you get here without being seen?'

'Oh, Jak's got lotsa tricks,' said Daxter. 'He's pretty great-- course, he wouldn't last a second without me, but he's got the moves, if ya know what I mean.'

Torn groaned and opened his mouth to demand a more satisfactory answer, but Jak moved before he could speak, crouching slightly and... simply vanishing into thin air. Torn took another step back, eyes wide as he looked around, but a faint snickering sound brought his attention back to where the boy had been standing-- he crossed his arms and scowled as Jak popped back into view. 'Hilarious.'

Daxter straightened up. 'Well, as you can see now, we definitely didn't get seen before, so it must've been something on your end.'

That certainly did seem to be the most likely explanation-- it was possible that someone could have figured out where he was going to be, or just as likely, some 'concerned citizen' had spotted him at the most inopportune moment...

His communicator buzzed, reminding him that he couldn't afford to waste any more time here. He glanced at Jak, then took a couple steps away before pressing the button to activate the call. 'Yes?'

'Torn, this is terrible; the Kid has gone missing!'

He swore under his breath, his usual scowl deepening. 'What? How?'

'You know how the boy is-- I took my eyes off him for a moment, and the next thing I knew he was nowhere to be found. I assume he simply wandered off, but it's absolutely crucial that we find him again before the Baron does!'

'...Yeah.' Torn rubbed his forehead. 'Well, he can't have gone far. You've got people looking?'

'Naturally-- Derik organised all our available operatives into a few search parties, but we need all the help we can get-- I swear, I will never understand how that child's mind works. He's going to give someone a heart attack one of these days...!'

Torn took several paces along the narrow alley, peering around the corner to check the traffic on the next street over. 'Okay, I'll be back soon.' He ended the call and turned back to Jak. 'Something's come up. We'll have to continue this another--'

Jak made a strange half-formed gesture, and Daxter blinked and looked at Torn. 'Uhh.... Jak wants to know why the Baron's after some kid?'

Torn blinked at Jak, surprised that he had been able to hear the communicator at that distance-- whatever the boy was, it seemed his senses were far more acute than an ordinary human's. 'There's no time to explain,' he replied, clipping his communicator back onto his belt. 'Even though he's only a child, there's no telling what the Baron will do to him.'

The air around Jak took on a strange electric quality as Torn pulled off his scarf and started winding it over his head, making sure it covered the tattoos on his face and ears. He tried unsuccessfully to ignore the way Jak's dark eyes seemed to follow his every move-- there was something almost feral about those eyes, something that reminded him of a wild animal that had been backed into a corner one too many times...

Torn suppressed a shudder and finished tying off his scarf. 'We'll contact you later-- in the meantime, I suggest you make yourselves scarce.'

He started towards the intersection, but Daxter spoke up before he could go more than a couple paces. 'Hey, Tattooed Wonder-- we're coming with you.' Torn glanced back; both the orange rat and the strange boy wore looks of intense determination. Daxter crossed his arms over his chest, his tone suddenly sincere. 'We ain't gonna let Baron Prax-shits anywhere near any more kids. He's already done enough damage.'

Torn sighed; he could tell that even if he tried to discourage them, they would follow him anyway... and somehow, he strongly doubted he'd have any chance of losing them, despite knowing this neighbourhood like the back of his hand. 'Fine-- but you'd better be able to keep up.'

Daxter patted Jak's head, a knowing sort of smirk tugging at his features as he regarded Torn. 'You ain't seen nothing yet, Dreadlocks.'

Torn shook his head and walked towards one of the public-use zoomers parked in the alley. 'Well, whatever you've got had better be fucking amazing, rat, because the way this night is going, we're going to need all the help we can get.'

Daxter leaned on Jak's head, watching Torn activate the zoomer with mild disinterest. 'Kinda grim, ain't he?' he commented idly. Jak snickered softly and raised one eyebrow, and Daxter gave a loud disbelieving snort. 'Whaaat? Nuh-uh, buddy, there's no way ol' Stumpy has anything to do with this!' There was a pause while Jak shrugged and tapped his ear, then Daxter replied, 'Oh yeah, you wanna bet? Cause I think maybe your hearing ain't so good as you're pretending...'

Torn sighed and kicked his zoomer into gear-- it was remarkable how it took Jak no more than a few seconds to completely drop the menacing air of a deadly warrior, and start behaving like the second half of a circus act. He just hoped the strange pair wouldn't make him regret ever agreeing to meet them.

---

Commander Erol responded to the distress call as soon as it came in, riding his zoomer at top speed through the tangled maze of narrow slum streets, but he still arrived too late-- the confrontation had lasted only minutes, over almost as soon as it had begun, and the fugitives had immediately fled the scene. He touched down inside a ring of crime tape and Hellcat Cruisers, surveying the scene-- the perimeter had been set up quickly, and it hadn't taken long for confused civilians to start gathering beyond the temporary barriers, though they were careful to keep their distance. No one wanted to appear too interested in the disturbance.

Erol dismounted his zoomer, pushing back his mask and waving to a couple KGs. 'Clear the area,' he told them, gesturing at the civilians. 'I want sectors five and six on lockdown-- search for any suspicious activity and question all of these people in case they might have seen something. Detain anyone who resists.'

The men saluted and headed towards the crowd, while Erol started towards the building. 'What do you have so far?' he asked the KG captain standing guard outside the door.

'It was a routine tipoff, sir-- anonymous caller reported suspicious activity at this address. A standard dispatch was sent to investigate, but the occupants attacked when we attempted to search the premises. None of the men who entered the building survived, so we don't have any description of the suspects.'

'Hmm.' Erol looked through the door; a narrow stairwell led down to a basement. The attack had taken place less than an hour before, but summer was fast approaching and the night was warm and humid; the crime scene already reeked of blood and death. 'Have you followed up on the caller yet? They might be able to provide more information, or they could have ties to the suspects if this was a planned ambush.'

The KG shook his head. 'The line went dead before we could get a name, and the tipoff originated from one of the public callboxes. Our operator reported that the voice sounded male and that the caller seemed to be in a hurry, but there's no way to trace them unless another witness comes forward with more information.'

'Damn.' Erol sighed and regarded the basement distastefully, but the task wasn't going to go away or become less unpleasant if he postponed it...

'One more thing, Sir,' said the Captain. 'It seems that the basement of this building has been soundproofed. We think it might have been used as a rebel hideout.'

'Hm... I'll have it looked into.' Erol pulled his respirator up over his face-- that would at least reduce the smell-- then descended into the basement.

At first glance, the cellar appeared to be fairly typical of the area, with a low unfinished ceiling and cracked cement floor, though the walls had been covered in some sort of industrial panelling and the doors were unusually sturdy. There were almost no furnishings, and no personal effects aside from a full-face racing helmet on a small rickety table set against the wall. The space was too empty to be a current hideout, though he supposed it could have been an older base or a location used only for meetings.

The dead KGs were heaped just inside the narrow doorway at the base of the stairwell; they had barely made it into the room before being slaughtered. Erol had already had his suspicions about what was behind the attack, but he bent to examine the deep gouges across a dead guard's throat to make sure. It didn't take him long-- he knew those particular claw marks all too well.

His missing eye twinged with pain at the memory, and he clenched his jaw. 'The eco freak was here; there is little doubt.' Erol waved a fly away from his face and stood up, addressing the lead investigator. 'Clean up, and take this place apart-- if he had access to a safe-house like this, he must have found accomplices.'

The KG's hand snapped up in a salute. 'Yes, sir!'

Erol turned to leave the building, but paused when his gaze landed on the one body that didn't have any visible claw marks-- the man had apparently been killed by a single blaster wound, a perfect headshot. Erol's eyes narrowed slightly; he knew for a fact that the eco freak didn't know how to handle guns, especially not with that degree of precision...

He glanced back at the investigator. 'I also want full autopsies and an analysis of this wound,' he said, pointing at the eco burn through the man's forehead. 'Weapon type, distance at which the shot was taken-- anything that might lead to a possible ID for the accomplice.'

Erol left the building, removing his respirator and dialing one of the channels to the Fortress's Media Distribution Office. 'Commander Erol speaking. I want a message circulated on all media outlets that anyone caught harbouring the eco freak will be considered a criminal and a traitor. We must stress that punishment will be swift and severe.'

'We'll have it ready in time for the morning news,' the Communications officer replied, tapping something into his console. 'Do you plan to release any information about the attack?'

Erol paused. '...No. Not yet.' At this stage, a detailed report would only cause unnecessary panic and a loss of faith in the KG. Better to wait until the creature had been destroyed... or until he did something even the traitors and terrorist sympathisers couldn't ignore. 'Keep it brief-- the eco freak is highly dangerous and should not be approached, though citizens should be encouraged to come forward with any information concerning its whereabouts.'

'Of course, Sir-- we'll set up an emergency hotline and notify you immediately of any new developments.'

'Very good.' Erol ended the call and mounted his zoomer. He wasn't looking forward to reporting this development to the Baron; every passing hour felt like a new failure weighing down on him. Praxis was the sort of man who wanted results, and he demanded them quickly...

Erol growled softly under his breath, snapped his mask down over his face, and gunned the accelerators, driving perhaps a little faster than was generally advisable. You've won this time, eco freak... but one day I will catch up to you. One day you will be mine.

Chapter Text

Torn could hear the sirens growing in volume as he drove back towards the hideout. The escape tunnel had taken them far enough north to be outside the immediate lockdown zone; traffic through this part of the slums still flowed without interruption, but Torn knew all too well that this wouldn't last long-- as soon as the KG found the tunnel they would expand their search. He expected to make it back to the hideout before that happened, but it still made for a tense drive, especially considering that the Kid could easily have wandered far enough to get caught in the sweeps...

But despite the urgency of the situation, Torn kept pace with the languid flow of traffic. Trying to speed his way back would only draw the wrong sort of attention; he could little afford the extra scrutiny when the scarf wrapped around his head would already make him stand out as suspicious. Torn was not a fast or reckless driver by nature; a high speed chase was unlikely to end in his favour, and taking risks at a time like this could prove fatal.

After several tense-but-uneventful minutes of driving, Torn turned into a narrow alley barely wide enough for his zoomer, then slowed and parked in the shadow of the overhanging buildings. Of course, it was a traffic violation to leave public-use zoomers outside their designated parking zones, but his activation chip (registered under a false identity) was due for a replacement anyway.

Jak reappeared just as Torn dismounted the zoomer, squashing a faint hope that they might have lost interest... or just lost their way in the tangle of winding slum streets. Much to his displeasure, the rat lost no time in finding something to comment on.

'Really, Gravelbreath? When you said we'd 'better keep up' I never woulda guessed you drive like someone's grandma.'

Torn scowled at Daxter, but he was too tired to come up with a snappy reply. '...This is close to where the Kid was last seen. If you're serious about helping with the search, we should split up to cover more ground.' Torn paused, waiting until Jak nodded to confirm he was still interested, then continued. 'Do you have a communicator?'

'Yeah, of course,' said Daxter. 'Big hero types like us gotta stay connected, ya know?'

Torn ignored him, looking at Jak instead. 'Let me see it for a minute-- I need to give you my codes so you can contact me if you find anything.'

Jak glanced sideways at Daxter and bounced his left shoulder a little; Daxter gave an exaggerated sigh and pulled the device out of its pocket, handing it over to Torn.

They both watched as Torn pressed buttons on the communicator; the silence lasted for several whole seconds before Daxter spoke up again. 'So, what's this kid look like, anyway?'

At least it was a useful question this time-- Torn could give the rat that much credit. 'The Kid has thick green hair, and he's about this tall,' he replied, indicating the correct height. 'He should be wearing blue coveralls and a leather cap, and...' Torn hesitated, not sure he should trust a dark eco user and his mouthy pet rat with the child's true identity, but it was a bit late to be getting cold feet; they would find out as soon as they saw the Kid anyway. '...And an amulet with the Seal of Mar on it.'

But Jak and Daxter exchanged a perplexed glance at those last few words. 'The seal of what-now?'

'It's...' Torn shook his head. 'Never mind that; it's not important. Just a big amulet made of Precursor metal.' Odd that they didn't seem to know what the Seal of Mar meant; the old royal emblem was still very well-known even under Praxis's rule. Now was hardly the time for idle curiosity, though, so Torn filed the information away for later in case it turned out to be significant.

Daxter's eyes narrowed slightly, as though he could tell Torn hadn't told them everything, but he didn't press for more information. 'Well, that doesn't sound too hard, eh Jak? Find this kid, no problem.'

'Don't count on it, rat,' Torn replied dryly. 'He's got a knack for trouble, and a crocadog pup that follows him everywhere-- I heard the mutt took a few fingers off a KG once. I can only imagine what it could do to you.'

'Well, that's just great,' Daxter grumbled. 'More horrible monsters with huge teeth and bone-crushing jaws; just what I've been missing in my life...'

Torn rolled his eyes. 'Maybe it won't notice you if you shut up for half a minute.' He returned the communicator to Jak. 'Give me a call if you find anything, and... try not to draw any unnecessary attention.' The last bit was probably too much to ask for, but Torn figured he might as well put it out there.

Jak took the device awkwardly, quickly passing it off to Daxter, who put it away. 'Well... Jak says he's got it covered, and Jak ain't the type to give up once he's set on something.'

Torn looked down at the boy's dark eyes, filled with a cold sort of determination; he didn't doubt Daxter's words for a moment, but was far less confident about their ability to handle this discreetly. Unfortunately, the Underground was chronically low on available agents, and he didn't have the luxury of turning down their offer to help, especially not with the Kid's safety on the line... at the very least, he was reasonably confident that Jak wouldn't harm a child, and at the moment that was all he could ask for.

As Jak turned and melted back into the shadows, Torn decided he felt sorry for anyone who got in the kid's way.

---

Safely cloaked by his invisibility, Jak set off at a brisk walk through the streets. Daxter clung to Jak's shoulder, trying to make even the slightest sense of their surroundings-- he had been hoping this particular problem would resolve with time and practise, especially since Jak clearly had no trouble navigating the busy streets without running into things... but the invisibility field continued to render Daxter as good as blind for as long as it was in effect. No matter how hard he strained his eyes, he couldn't see anything beyond the murky fog. All he got for his efforts was a headache.

By contrast, the noise of the city around them was still jarringly clear-- after a particularly loud zoomer-engine passing directly overhead left his fur standing on end, Daxter figured it was probably time to appraise Jak of the situation, seeing as he could hardly help with the search while riding blind like this.

'Uhh... Jak?' he murmured, careful to keep his voice quiet enough that only his friend could hear. 'You remember when we were practising back in the forest, and I said it's kinda hard for me to help keep lookout when we're like this? Cause I really can't see much of anything except you...' Daxter broke off as Jak stiffened under him, suddenly very still-- as though he'd detected something Daxter couldn't. 'Something wrong, buddy?'

Jak inclined his head slightly, staring intently down the street with a single handsign-- Dog.

'...Dog?' Now that Daxter was listening for it, he could just barely pick out the barking and growling amid all the other background noise, and of course Torn had mentioned the Kid had a pet... 'Huh, d'you think--'

He didn't have time to finish voicing the question before Jak took off again, now moving at an all-out sprint; it was all Daxter could do to cling to Jak's shoulder straps with all his strength, and hope he didn't slip off as the world spun and lurched chaotically around him.

---

On nights like this one, with the sirens going off nonstop and the KG patrols out in full force, you would be hard pressed to find any slum-dweller out on the streets who didn't have a very good reason to be there-- those who could afford to cancel or reschedule prior engagements quickly did so, and less-than-vital errands were postponed. For those unfortunate commuters whose business was too urgent to miss, it was a careful balance of reaching their destinations quickly without appearing to be in too much of a hurry, as that could easily draw the wrong sort of attention as well; everyone moved as fast as they dared, with heads down and eyes forward, praying to the Precursors (or any other entity that might be listening) that they wouldn't be stopped.

At first glance, the man and woman walking along one of the bigger streets at the north end of the slums appeared to fit the part; they wore bland nondescript clothes with their ID-tags carefully pinned to the sleeves near the shoulder in accordance with KG regulations, and neither had any particularly distinctive or memorable features that might stand out from the masses. However, had anyone cared to follow the pair for more than a couple blocks, it would soon become apparent that their route had already doubled back on itself multiple times, forming a careful grid pattern; and though they didn't break their brisk stride, their eyes were unusually alert as they scanned their surroundings.

'Any news, Ana?' the man inquired softly.

The woman glanced down at a communicator, its small screen displaying a series of brief messages that would be meaningless to most, but which she understood as a list of major intersections in their immediate area. She didn't look at the man as she spoke, voice pitched so that only he could hear. 'Kaz and Benni just checked in-- still no luck.'

'Mm.' He peered sideways down an alley to their right without turning his head; no sign of motion. They kept walking. 'Left on Kamden,' he murmured, referring to the upcoming intersection.

Ana tapped a code into her comm, appraising the other two groups of their location. 'Could he have come this far on his own? We're nearly to the Water Slums turnoff...'

The man made a faint noise at the back of his throat, but he guessed that his companion didn't expect anything more as an answer. Either way, there was none that he could give; they had already searched the sector closest to the eastern wall and turned up nothing, though (to be fair) a small child skilled at hiding wouldn't be hard to miss... 'We'll circle back once we hit Rutter's Square,' he decided.

They had just made the turn onto Kamden when Ana's comm buzzed. 'Derik, we've got an incoming call from the Boss, do you want to take--'

Derik held up a hand, cutting Ana's question short with the nonverbal warning, then pointed towards the KG who had just come into view around the bend-- and the little green-haired boy who cowered in the guard's shadow.

The Kid was pressed back against a grimy wall, crocadog crouched protectively in front of him; Derik's eyes narrowed as the boy put his hands up in the air, in the common gesture used to indicate one was unarmed. The scene might have been comical under other circumstances, but the deep terror in the child's eyes was all too real, the armoured man's threatening posture all too sincere-- Derik accepted the comm from Ana, but before he could say or do anything else, a pale creature leapt from the shadows and slammed into the KG's side.

The guard's startled shout abruptly gurgled into silence as blood gouted from the deep gash the creature had opened in his neck. The Kid pressed further back against the wall, fingers curled tightly in his crocadog's fur while the animal growled deep in its throat. The nearest pair of pedestrians hastily backed into an alley; and somewhere above them a zoomer's engine went abruptly into reverse, its driver swearing loudly.

Derik pushed the communicator back into Ana's hands and slipped the small handgun out of his pocket. 'Get HQ on the line-- tell them we've found the Kid and need backup immediately.' He didn't wait for a reply, taking off at a run towards the creature, silently thanking the Precursors that Kamden street wasn't particularly busy at this hour.

---

Jak rubbed the back of a forearm across his face as he turned to the Kid-- he noticed the blood dripping from his claws and quickly wiped his hand on the hem of his tunic. The boy's wide eyes locked onto his, holding far too long for comfort; Jak dropped his gaze to the amulet that lay against the boy's chest instead-- large and made of Precursor metal, just as Torn had described; the symbol it depicted was strangely familiar now that he was looking at it, but he couldn't think where he'd seen it before...

Daxter jumped down from his shoulder, breaking the tension. 'Hey there, kiddo, you got nothin' to worry about now that us Big Heroes are here!' The boy looked more curious than afraid as his attention turned to Daxter; the crocadog still stood between them but didn't seem inclined to attack, so Daxter glanced back over his shoulder at Jak. 'Ain't that ri--'

'Hey, you-- step away from the Kid!'

Jak's head snapped around at the shout; the street was nearly deserted but one man was striding towards them-- his appearance was bland and forgettable, with no sign of red armour or other KG insignia, but Jak's focus immediately went the small object in his hand-- something held like a weapon.

The man was shouting something else; Jak didn't have time to process the words but he easily picked up on the tone, confident and authoritative, and the way the man's gaze strayed to the boy, right arm beginning to raise--

He landed on top of the newcomer in a tangle of limbs, going straight for the weapon-arm and slamming it into the pavement with enough force to produce an audible crack; the man's words abruptly cut off in a pained grunt. Jak raised his hand to strike again; even if he wasn't wearing red, this man was clearly an enemy, someone else after the Kid--

'Jak, snap outta it!' Daxter screeched. 'There's more KG coming-- we gotta get the Kid and scram!'

The man took advantage of the momentary hesitation, kicking Jak off of him-- but between the poor angle and his own injury, he couldn't muster enough force to even slow Jak down, and his small pistol had been knocked beyond his reach in the fall. Jak flipped to his feet; backing up a couple steps and glancing over his shoulder at Daxter--

'Come on, Jak, this way!' Daxter tugged at the Kid's elbow and gestured towards the nearest alley. 'You too, kiddo-- just like a game, right? Hide and seek, make sure the nasties in red don't see you.'

The Kid's eyes brightened at that; he gave the crocadog's collar a quick tug and started off towards the alley. Jak edged sideways a few more steps, keeping a watchful eye on the injured man until he had reached Daxter's side and the ottsel jumped back to his shoulder-- the man hadn't moved from where he lay on the ground, tight-lipped with pain; Jak gave a final soft growl and darted after the Kid.

'See, Jak, we're doin' great!' Daxter murmured as they caught up to the boy at the corner. 'Let's just not let these rascals outta our sight again... how 'bout I hop down and keep 'em moving while you watch for more lobstermen?'

Jak nodded, brushing his knuckles along Daxter's spine; Daxter fistbumped his fingers before returning to the Kid's side-- if he was scared or worried, he didn't show it, instead making a big show of crouching low to the ground and sliding along walls to keep the Kid engaged in the 'game'. The boy was no longer afraid either, happily playing along; even the crocapup seemed to have picked up on the 'rules' and followed quietly at his master's heels.

They had made it several narrow winding streets away when Jak's communicator buzzed-- Daxter nudged the Kid into a secluded spot between some bins, and Jak scrunched into the narrow space after them, ducking low so Daxter could fish the comm out of his pack.

'Oi, hold yer yakkows--'

'What the hell are you doing, rat?'

'...Oh, it's you,' Daxter grumbled. 'Cool yer tits, gravel-breath; we've got everything under contr--'

'Under control? The KG are about to close off the entire godsdamned district, and your 'friend' nearly killed one of my best men!'

Daxter winced and shot a glance at Jak. 'Hey, look man, we got your kid safe, didn't we? And not a second too soon, I might add, so you could stand to show a little gratitude! Besides, we were doin' just fine until your 'best man' came runnin' at Jak wavin' a gun in his face-- what did the guy really think was gonna happen?'

Torn's exasperated sigh came over the comm in a rush of static. 'Just-- send me your coordinates, rat-- unless you'd rather the KG sweeps pick you up instead.' Torn didn't wait to hear whatever reply Daxter had in store for him, immediately ending the call.

Daxter glared down at the comm. 'Eesh... would it kill Captain Sunshine to chill for half a minute?' he grumbled under his breath, then glanced at Jak. 'Nah, don't bother answering that, I think I got a pretty good idea. So what d'you wanna do?'

Jak blinked-- he wasn't in the habit of planning ahead, hadn't considered the possibility of not doing exactly as Torn asked... but after a brief pause, he inclined his head in the Kid's direction. He didn't like Torn any more than Daxter did, but they certainly didn't have the means to look after a child on their own; for the moment they would have to continue cooperating, if only for the Kid's sake.

Daxter snorted softly, pressing the correct sequence of buttons to send Torn their location. 'Just hope this goes better than the last time we tried to meet ol' Tattooed Wonder; I could really go for a break from all these red nasties... ya know, nice hot meal and a bath and a cosy warm-n-dry bed to sleep in, nothin' tryin' to eat or shoot us...' Daxter gazed dreamily into the distance for a moment, then turned back to the others. 'Say, Jak, d'you think--'

Before he could finish, a zoomer turned down the narrow alley; Jak pressed his palm over Daxter's mouth and ducked deeper into the shadows, nervously glancing up as the vehicle slowed almost directly overhead... and then it dropped to the lower hover zone, stabilizer fins bumping against the bins in the tight space while the thin beam of a hand-light flashed over them.

The driver didn't seem at all bothered by the poor parking job or the sight of Jak's bloodstained claws, instead waving urgently towards their hiding place. 'It's Jak, right?' she called softly. 'Don't worry, I'm with Torn-- but we don't have much time. Hurry and get in!'

'Yowza,' Daxter whispered, while Jak hesitated; the curvy blonde didn't look threatening, but he wasn't eager to take any more chances, and Daxter's mind seemed to be elsewhere at the moment--

A small hand grabbed at Jak's shoulder and he flinched at the touch, just barely managing not to crash into the bins in his reflexive attempt to get away-- the Kid stood just behind him, grinning and waving at the newcomer; even the crocadog didn't seem to mind her much.

Daxter glanced sideways at Jak, but didn't comment on the unexpected reaction, instead giving his friend's ear a gentle tug. 'Come on, Jak, you heard the lady! See, the Kid and Li'l Toothmonster like her too-- it'll be fine; let's go!'

The sirens were still distinctly audible, and not far off; Jak still didn't know whether he ought to trust the unknown woman but anything was preferrable to being recaptured by the KG. He carefully lifted the boy and stepped up into the zoomer's empty back-row seats, the crocadog hopping up behind him and settling at his feet. The woman glanced over her shoulder to make sure they were settled, then shifted back into the upper zone and took off through the streets.


Jak crouched low to keep out of sight of any pedestrians who hadn't had the sense to vacate the area, while Daxter hopped up to sit at the Kid's side. Their driver expertly navigated the maze of narrow back-streets, avoiding the busier thoroughfares and patches of flashing KG warning-lights; sometimes she drove fast enough that the zoomer's speed dials flashed a warning, though no one attempted to stop them. Jak remained tense, but didn't activate his invisibility; he wasn't sure he could cover both Daxter and the Kid, so it was better to stay fully alert without the added distraction of channeling.

Despite the late hour, the smoggy sky remained oddly bright, thick with pollution from the city's industries; the haze blotted out the stars and left a blurry halo around the moon, reflecting the city's own lights across even the darkest streets... and with nothing else to focus on, the noise suddenly seemed unbearable; beneath the whine of sirens was an incessant jumble of indistinct voices, the hum of engines and electric wires and whatever other machines the city kept running at all hours. Long hours of dead silence and inpenetrable darkness in the prison had been bad enough, but this was too much, too soon...

Jak snuck a glance at Daxter, but his friend didn't seem bothered by the chaos, chattering easily at the Kid. Seeing his friend so calm helped a little, at least... and luckily, they didn't have far to go; only a few minutes later the vehicle dropped back to the lower hover zone, pulling into a garage. Jak stiffened a little as the door closed behind them, and Daxter hopped up on Jak's shoulder. 'Hey, sugarplum... much as we appreciate the ride, think you could tell us where we are? My buddy here ain't too keen on bein' cooped up underground.'

'Oh--' She glanced back at them, though if she was nervous she hid it well. 'This is one of our hideouts. Don't worry, you'll be safe here.'

'Hmm... you sure about that?' Daxter casually leaned an elbow on the top of Jak's head. 'It's just, not that we don't believe you, but the last time we were in one of your boss's 'safe-houses' the KG kicked down the door not five minutes after we got there. And I mean, it's no problem for us big hero types, we can kick KG butt all day long if we got to, but we've got the Kid to look out for, ya know?'

The blonde woman pulled into an empty spot between two other similarly nondescript zoomers, then cut the engine. 'Well, to be honest... nowhere in Haven is completely safe from the Baron's influence.' She smiled at them, climbing out of the zoomer and lifting the Kid from the back seat. 'But right now, this is one of the best-protected places you'll find in the city.'

'Okay, fair enough,' Daxter replied as Jak and the crocadog left the zoomer. 'So... what now?' He leaned in a little, holding onto one of Jak's horns for balance. 'The name's Daxter, by the way-- or you can call me Orange Lightning-- zazaziiing!'

Jak scowled at him, but the woman giggled. 'I'm Tess-- it's great to meet you both.' She started towards a door opposite the garage entrance, gesturing for them to follow her. 'I've got to get the Kid back to his caretakers, and Torn will want to see you just as soon as things have settled down a bit.'

Daxter made a face. 'Gotta tell us off in person, I suppose...'

Tess glanced back at them as she keyed open the door. 'Oh, he doesn't mean it-- I know Torn can come across a bit harsh, but really, we all appreciate what you've done to help.' She winked at them. 'And I think you're really brave, standing up for the Kid.'

Daxter grinned back, leaning an elbow on Jak's head and making finger-guns at Tess. 'Yeah, babe... you better believe it!'

Jak gave his head a quick shake, knocking Daxter off-balance and forcing the ottsel to scramble for a better grip on his shoulder-- Daxter looked quickly at Tess, but if she had noticed his embarassing scramble she didn't show any sign of it, balancing the Kid on one hip as she led the way into a dim and somewhat musty corridor.

'It'll probably take a little while for Torn to get everything sorted out, so in the meantime, why don't you two get yourselves cleaned up? There's a washroom just through here.' She pushed open a door. 'Plenty of soap and towels, and I'll see if I can dig up some spare clothes for you, Jak. How does that sound?'

'Pretty good,' Daxter replied with a nod. 'But, ya know, even a hot bath ain't got nothin' on the company of a beautiful lady such as yoursel--'

Jak smooshed a hand against Daxter's face, cutting off the end of that statement before Daxter could come up with something even more embarassing. He gave Tess a look that meant something between thanks and I'm sorry, and shuffled backwards into the washroom as the Kid giggled softly at Daxter's muffled sputtering.

Thankfully, her smile looked genuine; she didn't seem at all bothered by Daxter's antics. 'I'll leave the clothes outside the door, okay? And when you're done, just head to the common area at the end of the hall-- I'm sure you're both hungry, too.' She nodded in the correct direction. 'Hopefully we can catch up later!'

Jak nodded his thanks; Daxter resurfaced from under his hand just in time for a quick wave. 'Yes! Sounds great! Later!' Daxter glanced back over his shoulder as Jak very firmly closed the washroom door; his friend's disapproving look was impossible to miss. '...Oh, come on Jak, it was just a bit of harmless fun!'

You were making an ass of yourself, Jak replied.

Daxter stuck out his tongue. 'Well, I think she likes me, so there.' He hopped down, investigating their surroundings. 'Anyway, let's see about this getting-clean business! Us handsome hero types gotta keep up appearances, ya know?' He paused in the middle of scoping out the shower stall, ears pointed backwards; but it was as much pure instinct as sensitive ottsel-ears that told him Jak had stopped moving.

He turned back to see Jak standing frozen next to the chipped sink, eyes locked with his own reflection in the rust-speckled mirror that was mounted on the wall above it; and that alone was enough to set off Daxter's mental alarm-bells-- had Jak even seen his own reflection since his transformation?-- but either way, whatever was going through his head tight now definitely couldn't be anything good.

Daxter hurried back to his side and jumped up on the sink, putting himself between Jak and the mirror, towards which he cast a dark look before crossing his arms and turning back to his friend. 'Can you believe this piece of crap they've got on the wall? This'd make even the best-lookin' guy in the whole world look like a yakkow's damp asshole!' He gave an overdramatic sigh and reached out, squishing Jak's cheeks. 'Even my fine mug doesn't stand a chance! Oh, the horror; I can't bear to look again...'

Jak blinked, as though he'd hardly heard anything Daxter said, then squeezed his eyes closed-- for once, he really wished Daxter couldn't read him so well. There was no way he could hide what he was thinking-- that maybe they were right to be afraid. Even the Acherons had still looked... human, and that was after the dark eco had driven them to madness. Who would be there to stop him, when he--

'Hey, Jaaak...' Daxter tugged at the corners of his mouth, pulling it into a fake smile; Jak cracked his eyes open again, but it was hard to scowl with Daxter grabbing his face. 'We came here to get clean, remember? And then get the Baron after that. But if you'd rather sit around feelin' sorry for yourself...' Daxter sighed dramatically. 'It's just, well, I always figured we were the sorta duo who got shit done. And look! We already saved that lil kid from the KG; not too shabby for our first day, right?'

Jak gave his head a shake, then turned away from the sink; Daxter had to let go of his face but climbed up on his shoulder to stay close. Sorry... I know.

'Hey, don't worry about it-- let's just keep movin' forward, like we talked about-- okay buddy?'

A pause, then Jak nodded once. He didn't look convinced, but Daxter decided he would take it anyway. Small victories, or something.

'Good, now that that's all sorted out, how about that shower?'

Jak eyed the narrow stall with trepidation, then very firmly shook his head. No.

'No? You, uh... you sure about that?' Daxter asked, but Jak appeared adamant. 'Okay... no shower, whatever you say...' He picked up one of the smaller towels and hopped back to the sink, turning the water to hot. 'How about this-- we can do a quick washing-up with one of these, get some of that gross sticky KG blood cleaned off... probably ain't too good for the skin, you know?' He waved the towel. 'And, quite frankly, you smell, and I'm the one who's gotta ride around on that shoulder; you know ottsel noses are super sensitive, right...?'

Gradually, Daxter coaxed Jak into accepting the sponge-bath, and after turning out all the lights in the washroom Jak was comfortable enough to take off his blood-spattered tunic. The dark made washing a lot trickier, but it seemed to help Jak calm down, so Daxter didn't complain-- at the very least, Jak couldn't get all fixated on the mirror again, which was a definite plus.

By the time they finished, Tess had already stopped by and left a folded stack of well-worn but clean clothes just outside the door-- and whether by chance or by design, she'd chosen garments that could be pulled on without any difficult fastenings, a detail Daxter noticed immediately. He offered to help anyway, but Jak was determined to try on his own; his claws still made the process much harder than it needed to be, but the satisfaction on Jak's face when they left the washroom was well worth the extra effort.

They reached the end of the corridor, and Jak pushed the door open-- Tess had called this the 'common room', but it looked as though it was primarily used as a storage space; boxes of supplies were stacked in tidy rows between assorted shelves and cabinets, and several mattresses and collapsed camp-beds were propped against the far wall. A couple of rickety chairs and lumpy couches with mismatched upholstry had been crammed into the corner just to their right, set around a low table and a single dim lamp.

An elderly man sat in one of the chairs, watching the Kid play with his crocadog on the floor. All three looked up as Jak hesitantly stepped farther into the room; the Kid beamed at them and gave a little wave with one hand, while the man stood up and shook out his long robe. 'Ahh-- you must be Jak.'

Daxter and Jak exchanged a glance. 'Uhh... who's askin', old man?'

'I am called Kor-- and of course you have already met our young charge.' He gestured towards the Kid. 'It was fortunate that you found him when you did... it would be a terrible day for our movement if the Baron ever got his hands on the boy.'

'Why, is there something special about him?' Daxter's gaze dropped back to the large amulet that rested against the Kid's chest. 'Oh, yeah, we've been wondering-- what's 'mar' mean, anyway? Does that have something to do with it?'

Kor ran a hand over his long white beard. 'King Mar was founder of Haven City. For centuries, his descendents ruled this city and the surrounding lands, though the line of succession was broken when Baron Praxis seized control.' Kor waved a hand towards the boy. 'We believe that this child may be Heir to Mar's grand legacy.'

Jak and Daxter both glanced down at the Kid, who had lost interest halfway through Kor's explanation and resumed play-wrestling with his crocapup instead-- clearly he was too young to care about his potentially-royal heritage. Daxter could tell from the subtleties of Jak's expression that he didn't particularly care either; from his perspective, keeping the Kid out of Praxis's clutches was all that mattered, regardless of whether he was an 'heir' or not.

Daxter hopped from Jak's shoulder to one of the couches, balancing on the back as he looked around. 'So uh, anyway, where'd Tess get to?'

'Ah, yes, she mentioned that she would be preparing some food for you two-- our kitchen area is just through there.' Kor indicated the room's second door with a bony finger.

Daxter glanced up at Jak, who inclined his head slightly towards the door-- when Daxter still hesitated, Jak rolled his eyes. I'll be fine waiting-- you go on.

'Alright, big guy, you keep the Kid company, then. Shouldn't take long, right?' He hopped down and pushed the door open, slipping through the narrow gap.

Daxter found himself in a narrow space with pipes and ductwork running along the walls and ceiling, and some sort of generator emitting a loud rattling hum to his left-- but he could smell the food now, and followed his nose around another corner. The 'kitchen area' consisted of a sink and some cupboards, with two electric hotplates (and a couple other appliances Daxter couldn't yet identify) set up on the countertop. All the lights were on and a small pot sat on one of the hotplates, though closer inspection revealed that the heating element was switched off, and there was still no sign of Tess.

As Daxter moved away from the noisy generator, he realised he could hear voices from the other side of the half-wall that divided the kitchenette from a larger room beyond; he continued towards the gap, and within a few paces he was close enough to make out what they were saying--

'--no better than a bloodthirsty killer. If you refuse to see reason, I'm going to tell Torn myself.'

'Ana, please--' a voice Daxter recognised as Tess's began, followed by hurried footsteps and a door slamming.

A few seconds of silence, then a man snorted. 'Ana's right, of course. Torn must've really gone off the rails, if he's actually serious about taking in some sort of crazed dark eco monster...'

'Maybe it's all a misunderstanding... weird, though; Tess is usually so sensible.'

'She didn't see what it did to Derik's arm, or that KG-- it goes straight for the throat, just like a wild animal.'

'Maybe Torn and Tess are willing to put their necks on the line, but some of us have our families to think of-- we can't afford that sort of risk,' a third voice stated, to murmured agreements. 'It's only a matter of time before that thing turns on us again, murders one of us in our sl--'

Daxter couldn't take any more. 'Hey, you-- assholes!' he spat as he came around the corner.

A small group of Underground agents stood around a large table-- they all looked over at the doorway, which was of course conspicuously empty at human-head-height; their confusion lasted only a split second before their eyes dropped, expressions shifting to various states of incredulous surprise at the sight of a 'talking animal'. Daxter might have been annoyed by that if he were less furious.

'You bastards got some nerve, standing around like a bunch of puffed-up peacats, pretending like you know the first thing about Jak--'

'We know enough,' one of the men interrupted, his arms folded across his chest. 'Ana told us everything, how that demon tried to--'

'His name is Jak!' Daxter bit out. 'And he's not--'

'Who cares what that monster's name is?' one woman snapped. 'It nearly tore Derik's arm off!'

Daxter's fur bristled. 'Ain't you ever heard of an accident before? And it sure as hell ain't like he asked to be that way, so you can stuff all your damn ungrateful posturing up your--'

'Accident?' the first man replied hotly. 'Will you still call it an accident next time, when one of us dies? What will you say then, to the children left without fathers and mothers?' His face twisted into an ugly sneer, glancing back at his companions. 'But then again, I suppose we can't expect some filthy talking rat to understand the consequences of an alliance with monsters-- is that too much for your tiny rodent brain to comprehend?'

Daxter launched himself up onto the table. 'You absolute piece of--!'

'And what will it be next time?' the man continued loudly (though not quite enough to cover up Daxter's stream of insults). 'A rabid Lurker? A fucking metalhead in a wig?'

Daxter sputtered indignantly, a wave of red-hot anger was building up in his chest and he could hardly manage to string words together anymore; his fur stood up along his spine and his short claws dug into the surface of the table, one more insult away from jumping right at the man's throat--

Suddenly the colour drained from their faces, and a second later Daxter felt Jak's hand brush against his back. He jumped and looked up; Jak's expression was tight and closed but he shook his head very slightly. Let it go... it's not worth it.

'Like fuckin' hell it ain't!' Daxter hissed in reply, but he let Jak pick him up, let himself sink into his friend's arms-- stupid; he wasn't supposed to be the one who needed comfort at a time like this...

Jak stared them down, his blank dark eyes hard and cold; they flinched and cringed away but Jak did nothing more than that-- after a very uncomfortable and tense moment, Jak turned on his heel and carried Daxter back through the kitchenette.

Daxter tried in vain to stop himself from shaking, gave it up as hopeless as they passed the generator and slipped back through the door, into the quiet darkness of the storeroom. Kor and the Kid were both standing very still, watching Jak.

'Hmm... it seems some of our less-experienced members still need more time to understand,' said Kor. 'Perhaps you should wait here-- keep an eye on the boy while I attempt to locate Tess.'

Jak nodded as Kor gestured towards the Kid, then stepped back against a row of stacked boxes to let the old man pass.


The door swung closed behind Kor, and after a moment of oppressive silence Jak bounced his arm a little-- Daxter looked up, and immediately noticed the strangely quizzical expression on his friend's face.

'What the-- course I'm mad! The fuckin' garbage those ungrateful yakkow turds were spoutin' about you, any decent guy would be mad!'

Jak looked away, a conflicted tangle of emotion that even Daxter couldn't quite decipher-- maybe he was still too riled up, or maybe Jak really didn't want him to pick up on whatever it was. He could guess well enough, though.

Daxter reached up, holding Jak by the face again, but there was no humour to the gesture this time. 'Jak. They're not right about you. They got no idea, and they're wrong.'

Jak pulled away, setting Daxter down on the back of the nearest couch. The crocadog bounced up onto the cushions; Daxter eyed the creature's jagged teeth with trepidation, but the pup was only interested in ear-scritches from Jak, who carefully obliged, grateful for the excuse not to meet Daxter's eyes. ...You don't know.

Daxter watched the Kid crawl up onto the couch next to his pet, wishing he could offer Jak something more in the way of comfort. 'Yeah... I do.'

Jak's gaze snapped up. No, you don't know what I've--

'Fine, maybe not,' Daxter replied, rolling his eyes. 'Mister Dark-and-Gruesome is tough as nails and kinda scary lookin', yeah, I get it. But none of this--' he gestured vaguely at Jak-- 'is who you really are.' He hopped to Jak's knee, leaning forward so their faces were inches apart. 'You're the best friend I could ever ask for, and that's gotta count for somethin', right?'

The sullen glare Jak gave him in response was a mix of friendship has nothing to do with eco and you're being ridiculous, but Daxter could work with that.

'Besides, if you were crazy, I'd be the first to see it, and... well, sure, you've always loved diving right into crazy-dangerous shit, but that's got nothin' to do with dark eco. That's just normal-Jak-crazy.'

Jak looked into the distance for a minute, then slowly raised his hands again. But if I ever... if I end up like Gol and Maia, will you--

'No,' Daxter interrupted, grabbing Jak's hands before he could finish the thought. 'No, cause you ain't gonna end up like those nutjobs. Not a chance.'

Jak scowled at him. But--

'Hey, look buddy, I may not know the first thing about eco, but I do know you, better than anyone else. You're a good dude, and not even dark eco's ever gonna change that.' Jak still didn't look convinced, though, so Daxter leaned into him, giving him a gentle nudge. 'Aaanyway, maybe you just need more practise-- I bet there's loads of other cool stuff you can do, if you put your mind to it.'

Now Jak was looking at him like he was the crazy one-- channeling dark eco when it was his only chance of survival was one thing, but to keep using it intentionally...?

'Oh, come on Jak, I'm serious! I mean, think of it like learning to ride Keira's a-grav back in Sandover-- that thing handles like a drunk yakkow if you're not used to it, so if you'd just hopped on for the first time and tried to ride the lava-tube you'd've crashed and burned for sure, but with enough practise...' Daxter swooped a hand smoothly through the air, making a small whooshing noise. 'Piece of cake, right?'

...Samos would have a fit if he heard you say that, Jak replied, with the faintest hint of a smile.

Daxter grinned in return. 'You figuring out cool new eco stuff, ol' Stumpy showing up to spoil the fun and probably spout off some more useless stuff about the Precursors... It'll be just like old times!'

Jak shifted to sit beside the Kid on the couch-- thoughtful, almost at ease. A moment later, he looked up at Daxter again. Do you really think practise will help?

'Dunno,' Daxter said with a yawn. 'You're the eco guy; you tell me-- but practise gave you better control with the other kinds, didn't it? Why should the dark stuff be any different?'

Jak was still pondering this when they heard Kor speaking from beyond the closed door a few minutes later. '--had them wait here.'

'I'm still not sure about this, Torn,' a very familiar voice replied as the door swung open. 'Dark eco is very dangerous, you know!'

Both Daxter and Jak sat bolt upright, scrambling to get a better look-- and sure enough, standing between Torn and Kor was a very short man wearing tall wooden sandals, his skin very distinctly tinted green.

'Oh no, not you!!' Daxter groaned loudly and dramatically, before any of the three newcomers could get another word in-- then he turned to Jak, his expression of distress only slightly exaggerated. 'Ohhh, come on; I was kidding about the insufferable-green-fart-shows-up bit! I swear, the gods must be laughing at me...'

But Jak was giving the newcomer an odd look-- while the man's disapproving scowl was as deeply familiar as everything else about him, he also looked... younger, somehow, than the Samos they had known: his face bore fewer lines, his hair thicker and not yet gone entirely white...

Torn peered from the maybe-Samos to Daxter and back; there was a strained look on his face, as though he'd had more than enough surprises to last him the rest of his life and didn't think he could take one more. 'Have you... met these two before, sir?'

'Certainly not!' maybe-Samos exclaimed. 'I would remember a creature as rude and insufferable as that one.' As he said this, he gestured offhandedly towards Daxter, who crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue; the man ignored this, turning to Jak instead. 'And you must be the dark eco user... Jak, is it?'

Jak nodded uncertainly, and Torn cut in before Daxter could speak up again. 'This is the Shadow-- founder of the Underground, and leader in our fight against the Baron.' He shot Daxter a very pointed glare. 'If you want in, you will show him your respect.'

Daxter glanced at Jak, then gave a loud sigh and slouched down against his friend's shoulder; he glared sullenly at the two resistance leaders, but saved any further insults for later.

The 'Shadow' nodded to Jak, his dark eyes cautious behind his thick spectacles. 'Torn tells me you were very helpful in rescuing the Kid-- even if your methods are, ahhh, somewhat unconventional.' He paused awkwardly, then clasped his hands together. 'So, you wish to join the Underground?'

Jak seemed to study the Shadow's face for a moment, then nodded once. The silence drew on, until Torn cleared his throat and added, 'He doesn't talk, apparently.'

'Hmm.' The Shadow raised his eyebrows. 'Well, if Torn believes you are worthy, I suppose I see no problem with it.' He looked at Torn. 'It's not me you will have to convince, though.'

Torn sighed. 'I know, sir.'

'Well, then-- I must be on my way,' said the Shadow. 'Good luck, m'boy.' He clapped Torn on the back (Torn's shoulders were too high for him to reach) and departed.

Kor promptly followed the Samos look-alike's example, leading the Kid and crocadog along with him (with a comment that it was 'well past the boy's bedtime'). When the door swung closed again, Jak and Daxter were left alone with Torn.

Daxter, of course, was quick to break the silence. 'Ya know, Tattooed Wonder... we thought you were leader of this joint. Never guessed you'd answer to someone like ol' Greenstuff.' Jak caught his eye, and Daxter shrugged and gave Jak's shoulder a gentle shove. 'Oh, come on Jak, you know as well as I do it's gotta be him-- you said it yourself when you heard his voice!'

Torn rubbed his hand over his face. 'Look, rat-- I don't have the time or the energy for more yakkow-shit. If the Shadow says he doesn't know you--'

'Yeah, yeah, sure, whatever,' Daxter replied, flapping his hands. 'Anyway, what was all that about? This 'Shadow' guy, whoever he is, and the stuff about convincing people...?'

'The Shadow has agreed that Jak may join the Underground,' Torn explained, turning to Jak. 'You're clearly a good fighter, and there's no doubting that you'd be an asset to our cause.' He took a deep breath. 'However...'

Daxter sighed. 'Of course... there's always a catch, right?'

Torn folded his arms, glancing between them. 'As I'm sure you are both aware, Jak makes the other fighters... uncomfortable. To put it mildly. The man who was injured-- Derik-- is very well-respected among the other operatives, and the Underground can't afford a large-scale mutiny.'

Daxter's fur bristled. 'What the-- don't tell me you're actually gonna cave in to those limp-witted, spineless--'

'That situation could have been handled better on all sides,' said Torn. 'Including mine.' He leaned one shoulder against the door-frame, his gaze surprisingly sincere. 'Look, Jak-- I'm not trying to accuse you of anything, but what's done is done. I can't afford something like this impacting my operatives' work, nor can I force them to change their preconceptions... and I don't want them doing something rash out of fear.'

Jak blinked, thrown off by this explanation. Daxter glanced at him, then squinted at Torn. 'So, uh... what happens now?'

'We will need to come up with a different arrangement-- at least to begin with,' Torn replied.

'What sort of 'arrangement' are we talking about?'

'I'm not sure yet,' Torn admitted. 'Unfortunately, I can't guarantee I'll be able to come up with something right away, and under the circumstances it would be a bad idea for you to stay here indefinitely.'

Daxter sighed bitterly, throwing his hands up in the air. 'Of course... once again, we get the rawest deal. Why'd I expect anything else?'

Torn pressed his fingertips to his temples-- watching as Jak's clawed fingers curled inwards, sharpened points digging against his own palms-- and Torn let out a deep breath. 'For what it's worth... I'm sorry. You have more reason to hate the Baron than most of us-- you have every right to be a part of our fight.' He made a vague gesture around the space. 'I know it's not much, but you can stay here until nightfall tomorrow, rest up and plan your next move-- I'll make sure the others leave you alone until then. Beyond that... if you still want in, I'll be in touch as soon as I think of something.'

Jak hesitated, then nodded, and Daxter gave another sigh-- resigned this time, either too tired to be properly angry anymore, or maybe he was convinced that Torn was genuinely sorry. There didn't seem to be anything else for it, either way.

Torn had just started to turn away when there was a knock on the door; before he or Daxter could say anything Tess let herself in. 'Sorry, I didn't mean to overhear,' she began (and Torn shot her a very skeptical look in response), '--but if you don't have anything else for them, maybe they could help on my end.'

'Hmm...' Torn looked back at the duo, his naked brows raised. 'I wouldn't have figured they'd be cut out for that sort of thing, but if you've got something in mind...'

Tess smirked. 'Come on, you know the best spies are the ones you'd never guess fit the part.'

Jak and Daxter looked blankly from Tess to Torn, and Daxter voiced what they were both thinking. 'Wait, back up a minute-- spies?'

Tess just winked at them, and Torn's mouth twitched. 'It's not so dramatic as that-- Tess aids our movement by gathering useful information about other factions within the city.' He glanced at her. 'I suppose you've already got something specific in mind?'

She cast another warm smile in their direction, though there was also a highly intelligent glimmer in her eyes as she looked them over again. 'Yeah-- I think I do.'

Chapter Text

At the southernmost end of Haven City lay the Port District, largely dominated by the broad expanse of murky water that had given the city-section its name. A narrow strip of shops and eateries clustered along the central section of the waterfront and lined the three broad thoroughfares that connected the Port to the rest of the city, while the two southernmost ends of the crescent-shaped district contained warehouses and shipyards for unloading and storing cargo. Twin communications towers rose from the water, connected to the main road by broad pedestrian bridges and the steady streams of zoomer traffic that criss-crossed the open air above; these artificial islands also served as the Air Train terminals, providing transport to the work-camps and outposts beyond the shield-walls.

In more peaceful times, it had been a highly prosperous district-- the sturdy sea-gate at the centre of the southern wall once saw regular use, providing entry to the sea-vessels that travelled between Haven and its outlying satellite towns, and civillians could rent pleasure-barges that circled the walled port, or go on short sailing trips in the calm waters of the broad outer bay beyond the sea-wall. But then the current Metalhead War had hit, causing a sharp decline in traffic to outside settlements, and after Praxis took control the sea-gate had been permanently sealed. For the good of the city, he'd said, as boatloads of refugees were turned away, left to uncertain fates.

Two decades later, the waterfront was grimy and run-down, overlooking the stagnant (and often foul-smelling) waters of the Port; its back alleys were filled with cramped and dilapidated flats and boarding-houses, and the city's Red Light district occupied the sectors along the western wall. Haven was rife with criminal activity, and the Port was where the most powerful criminals gathered to do their business. Here, it was possible to buy a wide array of illegal items and servives-- weapons and equipment, controlled substances, forged papers and false identities, dangerous and banned medical procedures, professional hits-- almost anything you desired could be yours, assuming you knew where to look, and had the money to afford it.

Daxter listened intently as Tess chattered on, though Jak suspected he was less concerned with the information about Haven's history and its organised crime syndicates than he was with her low-cut shirt and the bright smile she kept flashing in their direction. For his own part, Jak was too nervous about the fact that they were riding a zoomer clear across Haven in broad daylight to pay much attention to what she was telling them.

That morning had dawned bright and clear, and they had quickly discovered that Jak's invisibility was far less effective during the day-- under direct sunlight, what Daxter called the 'soap bubble effect' was far more pronounced, making Jak look not unlike a living glass statue, and he still cast a hazy shadow, more than enough to draw unwanted attention. On top of that, the strong energy field generated by his active channeling disrupted the zoomer's delicate calibration-- or at least that was what Tess had told them; neither Jak nor Daxter understood Haven's highly sophisticated tech very well, so they took her word for it.

With the invisibility ruled out as a viable option, Tess had put together a simple disguise for Jak-- a wrapped scarf to hide his horns and ears and the grey skin of his face, dark-tinted glasses, fingerless gloves-- and cheerily told him to keep his head down and everything would be fine. Despite his strong misgivings, they'd all loaded up onto her zoomer and set off across the city.

Nerve-wracking as it was, Jak could see that she'd been right. Their zoomer was one among thousands that moved back and forth across the city, and not even the KG gave them a second glance as Tess expertly wove through traffic. It was almost like the zoomer offered them invisibility of a different sort, the ability to blend in among the masses... though Jak doubted it would work if he tried it alone; Tess seemed to absorb and reflect the same energy as the people around them, gave off the air that she was just another typical civillian on her usual daily commute.

'Anyway, we're almost there,' said Tess, pointing out one of the bars on the west side of the Port as they started across the water. 'That's the Hip Hog-- it doesn't look like much, but it's the main front for Haven's biggest crime syndicate, which is headed up by a man called Krew. There's very little that goes on in the city that doesn't pass through his network at one point or another, so it's one of the best spots to place our own agents.'

Jak and Daxter exchanged a glance. 'And the ol' chrome-dome just lets it go?' said Daxter, tapping his knuckles against his head. 'Seems like the sorta thing that'd offend his, uh, delicate sensibilities.'

'Oh, Praxis and the Krimzon Guard know all about the sort of stuff that goes on here,' said Tess. 'But Krew can afford to pay massive bribes to keep his freedom, and he even uses the KG to his own advantage-- Torn told me that during his time in the Guard, Krew's intel led to more arrests than any other--'

'Waiiiit, wait, hold up-- Torn used to be a KG?' Daxter nudged Jak with an elbow. 'See? No wonder I didn't like 'im!'

Tess blinked at them. '...You didn't know?' They gave her near-identical puzzled looks in reply, and she couldn't help but smile. 'Sorry-- I guess you two must be pretty new to the City, right?'

'Uhh-- yeah, we're just a couple country boys, here to make it big.' Daxter smirked and made finger-guns at her. 'So if you ever wanna show me around, maybe some nice romantic--' Jak scowled and knocked him over. 'All right, fine!!' he whined, and turned back to Tess. '...Anyway, how'd you guess?'

'Well, all KG have those tattoos, but Torn in particular is famous-- or infamous, depending on who you ask. There's not many people who leave the Krimzon Guard and live to talk about it, and Torn was their top Commander before Old Town fell-- it was a huge scandal when he renounced everything Praxis stands for and joined the resistance.' Tess slowed as they neared the west waterfront, her eyes sad. 'He almost didn't make it out alive-- we're lucky that the Shadow found him when he did. I know Torn's not always easy to get along with, but he's really good at what he does; without him we wouldn't be able to accomplish half as much.'

Daxter shifted and looked away-- skilled or not, Daxter still didn't have to like the man. '...So uh, anyway, you were sayin' that Krew... sells people to the KG, or something like that?'

Tess nodded. 'Krew collects protection money from a lot of small-time criminals, and those who can't or won't pay up get the KG turning up on their doorsteps-- and Praxis goes along with all of it, because he gets plenty of fresh convicts to feed into the KG's Forward Guard and the heavy labour camps.' She turned smoothly towards an alley a few blocks south of the Hip Hog, her eyes sad. 'Praxis's policies do a lot of damage, but Krew's every bit as bad.'

'Yeesh... no kidding,' Daxter mumbled, then his ears perked up again ad the zoomer slowed and dropped to the lower hover-zone. 'So, Sugarplum, what about this mission?' Daxter punched one tiny fist into the palm of his other hand. 'You want us to rough the scumbag up a little? Give 'im the ol' one-two?'

Tess laughed and switched the zoomer off. 'Oh, no, nothing like that! Attacking Krew directly is way too risky-- even if you managed to take him out and get away clean, that sort of power vacuum could turn out to be even more dangerous for all of us.' She smirked and winked at Daxter. 'What I have in mind is a bit more... sneaky.'

'Ohh, riiiight... spy stuff.' Daxter put a hand to his chest, giving Tess a sultry eyebrow waggle. 'You know, I'm a super tough hero guy of course, but I'm also very sneaky when I want to be. Back in our village, I was sneak-expert, well known for my clever and cunning ways.' Jak snorted, and Daxter shot him a glare. 'What, don't give me that look! You know it's true.' Jak flicked his gaze from Daxter to Tess and back, and Daxter sighed and looked up at Tess. 'Okay, so what's this mission about?'

'Right-- so Krew keeps his personal office on the premises here at the Hip Hog, and even though a lot of his work is on the shady side of the law, he's meticulous about contracts and documentation on all of his business engagements. If I can get in and out without him suspecting anything, it's bound to give us a huge leg up... but something like this is way too dangerous for me to try solo, and I can't risk compromising any of our other agents either.'

'So you want me an' Jak to sneak in, right? Use my lithe and supple body to slide right in through the vents, or something?'

'Not quite,' said Tess. 'I've managed to copy this week's security codes, so getting in isn't the problem-- but I do need some help to keep watch and warn me if someone's coming.'

Daxter deflated a little, but kept his smile in place. 'Oh... well, lookout's great too. No problem for a couple of guys like us!'

Tess returned the smile with confidence. 'Excellent! I'll show you the best places to wait once we're inside. The bar doesn't open until evening and Krew always naps in the early afternoon, so that's when we'll time the mission, but there's always a chance some of his goons will stop by unexpectedly. I'll need you to give me a warning as soon as you see anyone, so I have time to lock up and get away. Sound good?'

'You got it, babe,' Daxter replied, though his eyes were sincere this time-- like he wanted her to know he really meant it, that he wasn't going to goof around or mess this up. And to Jak's surprise, she seemed to take it seriously too.

They paused to snack on the sandwiches Tess had packed, clearing up the finer points of the mission, then they left the zoomer where it was parked and set off on foot. Tess set off along a meandering route through narrow back alleys that soon had Jak and Daxter completely turned around, but Tess had no trouble tracking where they were-- soon enough, they had circled back around to the waterfront.

At first glance, the Hip Hog looked no different from the dozens of other equally-seedy bars and nightclubs that crowded the Port District's waterfront-- in fact, now that he saw it from street level, Daxter was fairly sure he'd passed it more than once during the years he'd spent alone in the city, never giving it a second glance. Certainly not what he would've expected from the headquarters of the biggest and baddest crime boss in all of Haven... but then, maybe that was the point.

Tess led them around the back, through a small courtyard with bins along one side, and quickly keyed open the service entrance and waved them inside. The loading area and kitchen were as unremarkable as the rest of the place, and as they left the kitchen they caught a glimpse of the main room, dark and empty at this hour. Tess led them past that door, along a short narrow corridor and up a stair. The building was dim and quiet after the noise and bright sunlight of the city, apparently deserted, though they still walked as softly as possible and didn't speak.

At some point in the past, someone had rather unceremoniously connected the Hip Hog's upper floor to the old boarding-house at its back-- an uneven doorway and a sudden step down brought them into the adjacent building. Tess whispered that this was where they should wait, suggesting that they hide at opposite ends of the corridor; if anyone appeared, they would contact her over the comm, and if necessary she would slip out through a fire escape. Between Daxter's small size and Jak's invisibility, they would be able to return to the kitchen on their own, and she would meet them in the courtyard.

It sounded easy enough, so they took up their positions while she turned down another corridor and vanished from sight.

As the minutes stretched on in the dim and musty corridor, Jak and Daxter rapidly came to the conclusion that, far from the exciting espionage they'd envisioned, real 'spy work' was dead boring. Neither was much a fan of sitting around in one place for any length of time, and at opposite ends of the corridor they couldn't even keep each other amused... but still, they dutifully kept to their positions. They had promised Tess, and they'd heard enough about Krew to guess at the sort of things he would do to a spy caught going through his office, so there was nothing else for it.

The boredom made it feel longer than it was-- in reality, they hadn't been waiting more than fifteen minutes before Daxter's ears pricked at the distant sound of a door opening, followed by voices-- Jak flattened himself against the wall and dropped his invisibility once he was out of sight of the newcomers, holding up three fingers.

Daxter quickly fumbled for the comm, his heart suddenly racing as he scampered along the hall towards Jak. 'Tess!' he hissed into the tiny speaker, 'we've got company!'

'Ohh-- can you stall them for five minutes? I'm so close!'

Daxter exchanged a look with Jak, who nodded once. 'We got you covered, Sugar.'

'Great-- I owe you bigtime. See you soon!'

The call ended with a click, and before Daxter could ask Jak what the plan was, his friend darted around the corner, still fully visible, and placed himself right in front of the unsuspecting trio.

The men stopped short, everything going very still and silent for a few seconds-- and then all three of them were screaming and stumbling back in fear, making enough noise for a far larger group.

'Yiieeeergh!! What in the fuckin' hell is--'

'--shit what the fuck're ya waitin' for, shoot the damn--'

'--fuckin' piece of crap's jammed again, I'm gonna kill that cheapskate sonnuva--'

Daxter leapt up to Jak's shoulder, waving his arms frantically. 'Whoa whoa whoa, hold up there, you trigger-happy tit-brains! Jak here ain't gonna hurt ya, least not if you all shut yer yaps right this second!'

The men immediately obliged, eyes still wide with now-silent panic.

'Good, that's better,' said Daxter. 'Now, why don't we all just calm down, take it nice an'--'

Another door opened with a bang, and a fourth man emerged, gun already in hand-- unlike the first three, who were scrawny and clearly not much of fighters, this man was roughly Sig's height and probably twice as heavy, with a jagged lumpy scar that tracked across his shaved scalp. There was a flicker of uncertainty and revulsion in his eyes as he looked down at Jak, but it didn't stop him from flicking the safety off his gun, and the other goons quickly scuttled out of his way.

'Whoaaa, o-okay, let's not get ahead of ourselves,' Daxter squeaked-- the huge gunman's eyes narrowed, and he didn't lower his weapon. 'If you could just--'

'I'm gonna give you three seconds to explain why I shouldn't blow yer brains out, talky rat-- you and this Thing.'

Ordinarily, Daxter would have taken issue with the man's choice of words, but he looked very serious about the whole shooting thing. 'Sig sent us!' he blurted instead. 'Y-you know Sig, right? Works for yer boss, wears metalhead skulls and has a robot eye? Well apparently Krew's real keen on meetin' Jak here an' Sig told us all about it, so... here we are!'

The man regarded them for a moment, then took his finger off the trigger. '...You here lookin' for work?'

Jak nodded, and Daxter squeaked, 'Yep, that's right! Me an' Jak love doin' crimes! Y'know my buddy here's done time, just busted himself outta the Baron's prison a couple days ago... you've probably heard of him, right? I'm sure it'll be great doin' business with yer bossman, just like old times, right Jak?'

The man grunted, looking over Jak again. '...So this is Praxis's pet monster? Bit smaller than I thought he'd be.'

'Yeah, well, he's the real deal. I'd suggest a demonstration, but those tend to be kinda deadly, if you get my meaning.'

The big thug definitely got it (as did the other three, who quickly scuttled back the way they'd come in case the gunman decided they were expendable enough to be used as targets) and after another moment he lowered his gun just a little. 'Well, guess you'd better come with me-- Boss is busy right now, so we'll wait for 'im downstairs, and he can decide what to do with you.' His expression turned nasty. 'For yer own sake, you'd better be tellin' the truth.'

Daxter gulped and forced a very fake-looking smile as Jak turned and followed the man back towards the stairs. At least they'd hopefully bought Tess enough time to get out...

They stopped to wait outside the door that led through to the bar's main room, the thug tapping something into his comm without ever quite taking his eyes off them. Once he finished, he returned it to his belt and watched Jak carefully, gun still at the ready just in case. Soon enough, Daxter's boredom won out over his fear of getting shot; he started making jabs at the thug, who looked increasingly like he wished he'd just shot them after all... but he didn't rise to the bait, apparently determined to ignore Daxter since squashing him wasn't a viable option now that he'd committed to delivering the pair to Krew.

In the midst of this (while the man was busy making a point of not looking at him) Daxter snuck a peek at their comm and the brief message from Tess-- in carefully chosen words that would mean nothing if the message was intercepted, she assured them that she had slipped out safely. Daxter sent a quick reply about their current status so she wouldn't worry, promising to catch up with her later, then put the comm away. He didn't know whether the thug would react badly to them using it, and didn't want to find out the hard way.

Finally, the thug's comm buzzed, and he straightened up from where he'd slouched against the wall, then jerked his head towards the door. 'After you,' he said, something inexplicably nasty crossing his face-- or maybe, Daxter mused, that was just what the guy was like. All nasty all the time, like so many people Daxter had the misfortune of running into. Genuine nasty-magnet, he thought ruefully as he jumped back to Jak's shoulder and rode through the door, that'd be just his luck...

At first the room appeared deserted, but then they caught the soft whrrr of a motor from overhead-- a hoverchair drifted down towards them, bearing the fattest man either of them had ever seen. Krew's flesh sagged into the chair and spilled over the edges, straining the seams of his clothes, while the spindly legs that dangled below were clearly too feeble to carry his weight. Neither Jak nor Daxter would have thought such a man could be so intimidating, but Krew exuded an air of power that left Daxter momentarily speechless and even made Jak back up a step.

'Hrrmmmmh... so it seems my man Sig came through after all, eyy?' Krew pulled into a slow loop around Jak, who warily kept an eye on him. 'Very impressive, yes...' He reached out a thick hand, its fingers encrusted with gaudy rings, and neither of them moved as he stroked Daxter's fur. 'Oooh, lovely... this colour would go well with my sack-suits, wouldn't you say, Gutz?'

The thug gave an unpleasant sneer from where he stood by the door, while Jak hissed and stepped back again and Daxter gave a full-body shudder-- Jak raised a hand protectively over his friend, and the thug's smirk quickly vanished at the threat in Jak's dark glare, his grip tightening around his gun again.

But Krew was unfazed, still drifting languidly through the space around them. 'So... Gutz tells me you want work, hmmm? Whatever it is you want-- money, weapons, drugs-- I'm sure we can come to some sort of arrangement in exchange for your... services.' He smiled greedily, rubbed his meaty hands together. 'Well?'

The duo exchanged a look-- Daxter's glance was filled with extreme trepidation, but Jak's eyes were hard, unyielding. Daxter let out a small sigh, and turned back to Krew. 'Jak's got some unfinished business with the Baron,' he replied. 'We're lookin' for anything that'll give us an edge-- a way to really hit him where it hurts. If you can manage that, Jak's in.'

'Ohh, splendid... yes, we can work with that.' Krew nudged his chair in a little too close, eyed them for a little too long, the foul body odour and the stink of his breath rolling off him in waves... then he pulled back and drifted upwards again. 'I've got a certain, ahhh, 'client' of mine who has been causing a bit of a stir lately. It seems he requires a reminder of who's Boss around here-- you'll accompany Gutz's team tonight and teach him a bit of a lesson, eyy?'

Daxter glanced at Jak, who hesitated only briefly, then nodded once.

Krew's smile widened into a pleased leer, bearing a mouthful of rotting teeth at them. 'We have a deal, then? Excellent.'

---

Keira had spent the last two days in a haze of frenetic energy, flitting between an assortment of backlogged low-priority jobs and minor personal projects, resisting the temptation to simply hover at the radio all day, trying to focus and not worry about the dangerous escaped convict or the fact that Erol was out there actively looking for the dark eco user-- looking for the monstruous creature who had torn off his arm and gouged out his eye--

...No, she was not thinking about that, she told herself with a soft growl, tightening screws on a zoomer's access panel with more force than was strictly necessary. She had to trust him, just like she'd always trusted Jak when he was off fighting bloodthirsty Lurkers, when he'd gone alone into the Acherons' precarious and trap-riddled Citadel. Jak had done it at age fifteen, still just a kid, and Erol had real combat training and the most sophisticated weapons in the world, not to mention the prosthetic arm she'd designed for him. Even if she wasn't there in person, wasn't a fighter herself, Keira could still help her friends. She would always stand by them through her inventions, just as her father had always encouraged her to do.

Someone rapped at the doorframe, and Keira's head whipped around at the sound, relief coursing through her before her brain caught up and she recognised that the sound was too dull and soft to have come from Erol's metal knuckles... no, of course it wasn't him, and her mood only soured further when she saw exactly who stood in his place.

Even though Keira hadn't made any close friends among the rival mechanics or racers (none except Erol anyway) she still made polite small talk when they ran into each other in the Stadium halls, and didn't mind the occasional mild chat or friendly banter. But this man wasn't a racer or a mechanic, and while she didn't recall his name, she had seen him enough times to know exactly why he'd come. 'Ugh... what is it now?'

He ignored the clear hint that he wasn't welcome, stepping into her garage. 'Boss sent me with your instructions for the next round of qualifiers,' he said, waving a small envelope. 'Krew's got big money riding on these ones, and he won't be happy if any of his picks lose.'

'My zoomers will be in top shape, as always,' she replied waspishly, making no attempt to hide her disgust for the thug as she snatched the envelope from him. 'But zoomers can't fly themselves, you know-- if Krew wants to win, he'd better put some decent drivers on them.'

'You'd better be ready to put your work where your mouth is, wench,' Krew's enforcer growled, his voice dropping dangerously low as he leaned in over her. 'Krew's got no use for people who can't deliver, and you wouldn't want to have an... accident.'

Keira's heart pounded as he held the threatening position, their faces mere inches apart-- she glared right back, keeping up the tough persona she'd put on, but fear simmered just beneath the surface, the fear that one day her contract wouldn't be enough to protect her, that the enforcers would decide they'd had enough or Krew himself would decide to replace her...

But it wouldn't be today. After what felt like forever, he finally backed off, spitting foul names under his breath as he turned and stormed out-- all without touching her.

The fading adrenaline left her shaky and weak-kneed, and Keira knew she wouldn't be getting any more work done until she'd calmed down. She locked up for the day, headed to her small washroom and splashed water on her face, leaning on the sink while she forced herself to take deep meditative breaths as her father had taught her.

Every time, this was always how it went. She had earned a reputation for being feisty and difficult, but she had never failed to deliver quality work, and none of Krew's goons would dare chance their Boss's wrath if they harmed his star mechanic. So Keira could get away with a lot, and she knew exactly how lucky she was. That was something she could never entirely forget, the fate she'd so narrowly avoided; she lived every day with the ever-present awareness that her skill as a mechanic was the only thing keeping her afloat in a city full of people who wouldn't hesitate to take advantage of her as soon as they got the chance...

Keira had been working for Krew's racing team for over two years now, almost as long as she'd been in the city-- but while she loved the work itself, could sometimes lose herself in it to the point where it felt like being home again, she never got used to it. She loathed Krew and his associates and everything they stood for, a simmering hatred far deeper and more powerful than any she'd felt back home, and it only took a visit like this to bring all of her revulsion rushing back to the surface.

Knowing that she could have had it much worse didn't change the fact that she was trapped, and she longed for the day that she could find Jak and her father, and finally escape this horrible place.

---

Gutz and the two cronies he'd enlisted for the mission were every bit as unsavoury as their boss-- and more than once, keeping his voice down so only Jak could hear, Daxter went over all the nasty stories he'd heard about Krew, quoting Tess and Sig and the general rumours whispered in the streets, asking are you sure you want to do this? Jak brushed the question off, avoided the answer. If he was being honest, he really wasn't sure, but at the moment it seemed like the crime boss was his best chance at reaching the Baron, the only option open to him.

Long tedious hours inched by in one of the Hip Hog's back rooms while they waited for nightfall-- Tess would be back at the bar for her usual shift by now, but they didn't dare try to talk to her with Krew and his goons all over the place. Daxter moaned about it, being stuck among Gutz and his buddies instead of spending time with Tess, but he understood the need for discretion and made sure those complaints were for Jak's ears alone. Jak let him continue in that vein, not wanting the subject to turn back to himself or Krew or the upcoming job.

The group set out once dark had fallen-- Jak was relieved to be out in the open again, but he dreaded what might come. As much as he told himself that this was necessary to get to Praxis, he didn't know what he'd do if it turned out they expected him to hurt or kill some unarmed civillian. Jak had killed more people than he could count, faceless Krimzon Guard soldiers in their heavy red armour, rifles and shocksticks held at the ready as they cursed his very existence-- but he'd never killed someone who wasn't already trying to do the same to him, and never outside the heat of battle.

He thought of the Underground agent he'd attacked on instinct, how easy it had been to slip up once, how they'd all called him a monster for it... and he also thought of the Kid, the little boy he'd shielded from harm, who had smiled openly and sat beside him like he could be something other than the dark eco freak, like he still deserved to be human. And Jak knew then that he couldn't-- that he wouldn't knowingly attack an innocent, even if it would get him to Praxis. Daxter still believed in him, and so did the Kid, and his new acquaintances like Tess and Sig, and maybe even Torn. Despite the moments where they'd been wary of what he'd turned into, they had all come through, still thought he was worth giving a chance.

And Jak understood that defeating Praxis would mean nothing if he had to sink to the cruel tyrant's level to get there. He wouldn't become the monster they'd tried to create.

But for now, at least, Jak was spared the need to make that choice. The man they'd been sent to threaten only needed one glimpse of Jak before he broke down and forked over the 'protection' money he owed. Jak couldn't muster up any pity for the man either, not after he picked up on why the man had needed protection in the first place-- he was wanted for fraud and a handful of suspicious deaths that had been linked back to his bazaar stand, where he made his living by selling scammy 'miracle cures' to desperate people with nowhere else to turn. Scum, every bit as bad as the thugs who had come to threaten him.

Jak gave the cowering scam artist an extra snarl as they left, and for once the terror in the man's eyes was satisfying rather than upsetting.

They made a few more stops to collect other bribes and payments, and going by the remarks Gutz's cronies made, Jak gathered that the enforcers were used to dishing out a lot of threats in the course of these missions, and that Jak's presence was enough to ensure easy compliance. One even joked that it was boring since they hardly had to do anything, until Gutz growled at him to shut up and be grateful for a job done quickly.

It was nearly midnight when Gutz gruffly dismissed them, telling them that the Boss would be pleased with Jak's contribution and their reward would be delivered to one of the warehouses on the east side of the Port the following morning. The Boss would no doubt have more jobs for them soon, though he also warned them to stay away from the Hip Hog unless called. Krew couldn't have Jak scaring away his customers, after all.

The dismissal was clear, and Jak and Daxter were both more than happy to get away from Krew's thugs. They made their way back to the Port on foot, with Jak using his invisibility as needed to stay out of sight and Daxter offering lighthearted commentary that Jak only half listened to. After several minutes circling the area near the warehouse, they found a secluded corner on one of the nearby rooftops to settle down and pass the time until morning.

---

Tess didn't get off work at the Hip Hog until after midnight, but her eyes were still bright and alert as she grabbed a zoomer to head back to the slums-- her shift had dragged on at an excruciatingly slow pace, the new information tumbling around her mind, but as much as she'd wanted to head straight back to Torn as soon as possible she made herself wait it out. Her cover identity was still important, now more than ever, and she couldn't risk rousing Krew's suspicion.

She made a stop at the room she rented in the East Bazaar, taking a quick shower and gnawing on a ration bar while her old printer churned out a stack of enlarged photographs. As soon as the last sheet landed in the tray, she snatched up the stack and rolled them into a tube, then stuffed the lot into her shoulder-bag. Then she was off again, not bothering to grab another zoomer for the shorter trek across the slums.

Tess slowed down briefly as she passed one of the Baron's propaganda stations-- she was well accustomed to ignoring them and the stream of misdirection (and often-blatant lies) they spouted in a looping news feed, but the current segment had caught her attention-- the holo-screen displayed a grainy-but-unmistakeable image of Jak in a prison uniform, likely pulled from some sort of security footage.

'...recently escaped confinement. Citizens Beware: this Criminal is Contaminated with Dark Eco-- he is extremely dangerous and should not be approached. By order of Baron Praxis and the Krimzon Guard, anyone who harbours this fugitive will also be considered a criminal and a traitor, wanted dead or alive. Remember: report all sightings of Suspicious Activities or Persons at the nearest call-box, or file your report in person at your neighbourhood Krimzon Guard station. With your help, we can keep this City safe from...'

Tess snorted softly and shook her head, continuing on her way, but she made a mental note to warn Jak and Daxter the next time she saw them. They obviously knew to keep out of sight on principle, but they would have to be extra careful with Jak's photograph released to the public.

Only a few minutes later, Tess strode down the stair and into the main operations-room at the hideout. 'Well, you were right,' she announced as she approached Torn's desk, before he had a chance to ask why she was there so late. 'Krew did know about that safe-house that was compromised, and a few others-- so it's possible that one of his people sent the tipoff to that raid last night.' She passed him one of her printouts. 'Though it's also possible you just got really unlucky.'

Torn grunted. 'Even if it wasn't him, it's too risky to use a spot he's got eyes on-- for anything important, at least.' He glanced over the depressingly long list Tess had passed him. 'So we'll have to set up at least a couple new places... damn.'

'But that's not the worst of it,' said Tess, spreading more printouts across the table. 'I found further evidence of Praxis's contact with the Metalheads, and it seems Krew's been in touch with them, too. There were also several references to some sort of arms deal between Praxis and Krew-- definitely something big, since Krew's apparently been granted access to Praxis's biggest weapons factory, but the terms of the contract were too vague to get much more from it unless you know what the project codes mean.'

Torn glanced over the relevant printout. 'No-- whatever this is, it wasn't in development when I was there.' He spent a moment to take in the information, then sighed. 'Just keeps going deeper, doesn't it...?'

Tess nodded, the excitement giving way to a tired sort of sadness. 'Well... I'm sure we'll figure something out.'

---

As the sky lightened over Haven City, Jak and Daxter woke to the cries of sea-birds-- a sound that was achingly familiar to two boys who had grown up chasing gulls down the beach, and one they probably should have anticipated in a settlement so close to the sea, but somehow it caught them both by surprise and left them in a rather melancholy mood, especially when they caught a glimpse of how filthy and sick the birds looked, how they fought over scraps of garbage.

They had grown up surrounded by nature, the crash of the waves and the calls of dozens of different birds on the air, the rich greens of the jungle and the bright flashes of multicoloured fish in the water, but Haven was a city cut off from it, all hard straight lines and dull greys. The starved gulls were the only sign of their close proximity to the sea; the sound of the surf couldn't penetrate the high walls and the city's noise, even though the coastline was practically right outside. Daxter had always thought old Samos was full of shit when he droned on about the whole one-with-nature thing, but even Daxter could feel a little of the loss.

But Daxter had a job to do, couldn't let them both mope around up here all day. He shook himself awake and roused Jak with the promise of food and the reminder that they still had to claim Krew's reward, and Daxter suggested that after that was done they could check in with Tess again to see if she had any other jobs in mind-- Jak gave Daxter a skeptical look, like he didn't believe that Daxter cared about the jobs so much as just seeing Tess. Daxter stuck out his tongue, then went to dig some food out of their pack-- they'd finished off the rest of Tess's sandwiches the night before, which left the prepackaged ration bars Torn had given them.

Once he wrestled the packaging open, however, Daxter amended his earlier phrasing. He wasn't sure that a toughened rectangle of some unidentifiable brownish substance counted as 'food'... but the label insisted it was edible and they had nothing else, so they took turns tearing chunks off with their teeth. It managed to be perfectly tasteless and chewing it made Daxter's jaw ache, though at least it was more filling than it looked, and at least Jak didn't seem to care-- it occurred to Daxter that maybe it was still better than what they'd fed Jak in prison, but Daxter quickly banished that thought and covered it up with a long-winded rant about dubious food items.

With breakfast out of the way, Daxter took up his usual shoulder-perch and Jak climbed down from the roof. They had to wait a while for a gap in the traffic before they could make it to the warehouse door undetected; Daxter swiftly punched in the access code they'd been given, and they slipped inside and shut the door behind them before any passerby could spot them.

The room was smaller than they expected from the exterior, with bland concrete walls and a couple of locked doors leading to other parts of the building. Crates marked with the KG logo had been stacked along one wall, and a couple of battered target-dummies stood at the opposite end, but their casual search turned up nothing that seemed like the 'payment' they'd been promised (they opened one of the crates out of curiosity, but it just contained odd disks and canisters that Daxter identified as KG ammo cartridges, which were of no use or interest to either of them). Daxter sighed and concluded that they had beat Krew's reward-delivery-person here... which meant more sitting around and waiting.

Daxter was just about to launch into another rant (complaining was as good a way to pass the time as any) when the warehouse door opened again-- Jak jumped and dropped to a crouch, instantly on the alert, but he took a deep breath and let himself relax a little once he recognised the distinctive spiky silhouette.

'Sig!' Daxter exclaimed, walking towards the wastelander with his arms spread wide. 'Great to see--'

'I take my eyes off you boys for one minute,' Sig growled, 'and you manage to get yourselves all tangled up with Krew.'

Daxter grimaced. 'Yeaaahhhh, well... we kinda ran outta options. But hey, look on the bright side! This way you can keep an eye on us yourself, make extra double sure we don't get into too much trouble.'

Sig rolled his eye. 'Lucky me.'

Daxter crossed his arms. 'Well, if you really wanna know, those guys we went to meet didn't exactly take a liking to Jak, and then--' Jak gave him a rough nudge and a scowl, and Daxter turned back to his friend. 'Whaaaat? No way Sig's gonna squeal on us!'

Sig snorted. 'You got that right-- but it's a fair point, chilipepper. You'd do better to keep your yap shut about all of this, unless you wanna get yourself skinned.'

'Eesh, gang up on me, why doncha...'

'Hey, I'm serious. Guys like Krew, they don't give a kangarat's ass about loyalty to anyone workin' beneath 'em. Soon as you're not useful, he'll leave you out for the vultures and never feel a shred of guilt.'

Jak just gave an odd gesture somewhere halfway between a shrug and a nod, as though to say he hadn't expected anything more and was prepared to deal with it, but Daxter still didn't look satisfied. 'Bit hypocritical to say that, seeing as you're working for him too.'

'He's got somethin' I need,' Sig replied simply, nodding at Jak. 'Your buddy here gets it.' Daxter blinked and twisted around to look up at Jak, while Sig propped his peacemaker against the wall and set his pack on the ground by his feet. 'Look-- I ain't passin' judgement on you cherries, just sayin' you better watch your six... and never forget what sorta man you're dealing with.'

'Yeah, yeah, we all know ol' five-chins ain't winning any awards for outstanding community involvement; we're just here to get the job done and move on.' Daxter's gaze fell to the pack. 'Uh, speaking of which, they said somethin' about payment?'

Sig pulled out a second weapon, unfolding it from its collapsed state into a mid-sized gun. 'We call this baby a morph-gun, cause the function changes based on whichever mod you've got locked in. Nothin' too flashy, but it's a good sturdy weapon, and easy to keep outta sight when it's collapsed.'

Daxter glanced at Sig's gun, which stood easily as tall as Jak and was decorated with metalhead skullplates to match the wastelander's armour. 'Don't guess that's something you worry about much...'

'Yeah, well... Krew doesn't pay me to be inconspicuous, and the bribe money keeps the KG lookin' the other way-- but from what I hear, you're right at the top of the Baron's shitlist, and not even Krew's pockets run deep enough to buy you outta that one.'

Jak and Daxter exchanged a look, then Jak gestured towards the weapon in Sig's hands. 'So how's this morph-gun work?' Daxter translated.

Sig returned the gun to its collapsed state, then slowly set it up again, making sure they could see what he was doing. 'Your mod slots in here, and this catch locks it in place. The ammo pack clips in up top-- you've got a gauge on the side here; that'll show you how many shots you've got left, so keep an eye on that to make sure you don't get caught up short.' Sig tapped a finger against the red circle painted on the side of the mod. 'All the mods are colour-coded based on ammo type-- morph-guns take the same ammo as standard KG gear, so the packs're pretty easy to get hold of.'

'Huh.' Daxter leaned in for a closer look. 'And there's other colours for different mods?'

'You got it, chilipepper-- but right now you've only gotta worry about the red packs, since you've just got the scatter-mod so far.' Sig turned away from them, firing off a blast to demonstrate. 'Pretty short range, but the blasts have got such a wide angle you don't gotta worry about aim.' He turned back towards them, completing his demonstration by unclipping the mod and collapsing the weapon. 'You cherries got all that?'

Daxter nodded. 'Looks easy enough, right Jak?' After a brief pause, Jak nodded as well.

Sig passed the gun to Jak. 'Here, you give it a try.'

Jak took the weapon, his expression halfway between excited and apprehensive-- back in Sandover, weapons of any sort had been largely unnecessary, especially for a channeler, though the novelty only accounted for a small fraction of his interest; it was more the way Sig so casually handed it over, with no hesitation over Jak's youth or the idea of arming a dangerous dark eco user. Seeing that sort of implicit trust counted for a lot, and he immediately set about trying to replicate Sig's simple motions.

Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent that Jak's long claws were not compatible with the little catches, and Daxter nudged his way in to help before Jak could get too frustrated-- not that Daxter didn't think him capable, of course, but claws on metal did not make for a pleasant sound, as Daxter was more than happy to point out. Working together, they got the gun into its extended form, and Jak carefully inserted his finger behind the trigger guard. Even gripping it exactly as Sig had, he was a little dismayed at how awkward and unnatural the weapon felt.

If Sig noticed Jak's increasing uncertainty, he chose to ignore it, and simply gestured towards a nearby dummy. 'Go on, chilipepper-- give it a couple shots.'

The scatter gun's kickback startled Jak on the first shot; he covered his surprise and fired off a couple more after adjusting his stance. He had to stand within a few metres of the target for the shots to have any effect, but as Sig had said it was pretty much impossible for the broad blasts to miss once he was within the gun's limited range. Not too difficult to manage once he'd got the feel of it, though it couldn't match the natural ease of channeling...

'Not bad, cherry.' Sig jerked his thumb at the door behind him. 'There's a gun course through there-- why don't you run through real quick before we head out? Good to get a bit more practise in before you wind up toe-to-toe with a metalhead.'

Daxter's eyes went wide as his gaze snapped back to Sig. 'Wait-- metalheads?'

'You got it-- the boss wants some new trophies to put butts in seats at the Hip Hog, and most of his guys ain't tough enough to go up against the real impressive nasties.'

Daxter wrinkled his nose. 'Well, it sure ain't the food or the company that'd make anyone wanna spend time there...'

'True enough,' Sig replied with a faintly amused look. 'Boss hates waitin', though, so you cherries better get moving.'

Daxter sighed dramatically, but Jak just nodded and proceeded through the door Sig had indicated.

They found themselves in a bland grey corridor-- Daxter collected some spare ammo packs from the stack of crates in the corner, shoving them into their pack as Jak stepped up to the starting line. Lights blinked on, giving them a three-second countdown before the course's timer began-- as soon as the starting buzzer went off, Jak started down the corridor.

Life-sized metal cutouts rattled along rails, retracting back into the walls and floor if they weren't hit quickly enough; these had clearly seen quite a lot of use, going by the quantity of scratches and dents on their surfaces, though they still had enough paint on them for the duo to make out the caricatures of KGs and metalheads rendered in cartoonishly menacing poses. Daxter thought that the artist must not have a high opinion of the KG, but he refrained from pointing this out; some of the 'enemies' were rigged to fire low-powered lasers, and even if they were too weak to cause more than an unpleasant sting, not getting shot at all was still preferrable.

Daxter could tell that Jak was gaining confidence with the gun as they proceeded through the course-- his heightened reflexes made it easy for him to track the targets' movements even as they sped up. Daxter helped by counting shots and made sure he was ready to switch out empty cartridges as needed-- by the time they neared the end of the course, reloading took just a couple seconds, and he was confident that he'd continue to get faster with practise... or at least, he certainly hoped so. He couldn't be sure he'd keep a cool head when they were squaring up against real KGs and metalheads, but for Jak's sake, he had to do his best. He offered congratulatory praise and fistbumps as they left the course, keeping any misgivings to himself.

Sig nodded his approval, offering them a broad grin. 'You boys make a great team-- highest score we got for the basic course, and that was only your first run!'

Jak gave a hesitant smile in return as Sig grabbed up his peacemaker and started towards the exit-- Daxter finished putting the gun away and straightened up, arms crossed over his chest. 'Well, no surprises there! Didn't I tell you Jak ain't the sort of guy who'd disappoint?'

'Guess you did-- but I've seen too many guys talk big and fall short when it really counts.' Sig opened the door, surveying the activity outside, then glanced back at them. 'If you can keep this up out in the field, I'll show you some real wastelander moves-- I think you got what it takes to battle with the best of us, and that ain't somethin' I can say for most city-folk.'

Daxter opened his mouth to reply, but he saw the look in Jak's eyes as his friend allowed himself a glimmer of pride. Daxter looked back at Sig as they followed him outside and headed for the parked zoomer just outside the door. 'Jak says thanks,' he said simply.

Sig gave them another smile, warm and entirely genuine. 'Yeah... I know.'