Also, a less happy note: my client caseload has essentially doubled as of this week. That's going to cut into my writing time, which means that as hard as I'll try to get this story written Monday night and posted Tuesday, it might not always be possible. If I have to postpone putting a chapter up I'll let you know, and get it done as soon as possible. Damn client load. On the other hand, I may be paying on a mortgage in the near future, so, y'know, reliable income is a good thing.
When Kyle got back into the Pit, he was expecting to have to fight almost immediately. He tensed as the door opened, but to his surprise there was no one waiting for him other than Isidore, his expression hard and flat. As soon as they made eye contact Isidore started to walk away without a word, and Kyle lengthened his stride to catch up to him. People whispered on either side of them but no one reached out to touch. The only person who bothered to say anything at all was Pence, and that was only once they were a little ways down the hall that would lead to their bunks.
“Have you gone and made a deal with the devil, dear heart?” he asked, a cryptic smile on his face.
“I’m not sure who you’re referring to, you or Rory,” Isidore said, pushing past him without breaking stride.
Pence didn’t seem to mind the brusque treatment, following on nimble feet. “Then you haven’t been looking closely enough. I’m a minor imp at best.”
“What are you getting at, Pence?”
“I just want to know how many of our good fellows have their hooks into you now, and whether I need to up the ante,” he glanced between the two of them pensively, “or perhaps to fold.”
To Kyle’s surprise, Isidore actually smiled. “You don’t have much of a stomach for gambling if you’re ready to fold at the beginning of the game.”
Pence seemed a little surprised to get bantered back at. “Well, darling, look at it from my perspective. It doesn’t take a genius to see that given your particular enhancements, and how very many of them you seem to have, it’s rather likely this game has been going on for longer than I’ve been aware of. For all I know you have five more deadly aces up your sleeve. You certainly have enough leverage to keep Rory from simply crushing your head into pulp, and that’s saying something.”
Kyle looked at Isidore questioningly, but Isidore ignored him. “The only people who came into this place naked and defenseless are people who are already dead, or somebody else’s body warmer. I doubt that you’re as helpless as you look, so don’t judge. I haven’t forgotten our deal.”
“Why, sweetness.” Pence rubbed his fingers along the ends of his moustache, twirling it slightly as he grinned. “That may be the kindest thing you’ve ever said about me. He’s a keeper,” he whispered—loudly—to Kyle, then took off in the other direction.
Kyle didn’t say anything else until they were deep in Redstone again, surrounded by wires and artifacts and the disconcerting sound of blood rushing through their veins. It just seemed more noticeable, this close to the iron core. Kyle rubbed a hand against his chest, then tried to put it out of his mind. “Has Pence always flirted with you like that?”
As soon as he said it he almost winced, because that was not the question he’d intended to ask. The blank coldness was gone from Isidore’s face now, though, and he chuckled as he settled back against the wall.
“Pence is a con man. He flirts with whatever breaths. With me he opts for pet names, with other people he gives more physical cues, like moving out of the way when they walk by. He’s not really interested in me, only in what he can get out of me.”
“Ah hah.” Sure. Kyle changed the subject. “Two of the guards tried to get me alone.”
Isidore frowned. “Robbie didn’t let them, did he?”
“No, but they threatened him and his husband. I don’t know how much help he’s going to be able to provide, if he’s got to worry about taking care of…” What was the man’s name… “Wyl too.”
Surprisingly, Isidore’s smile came back. “Oh, Wyl can take care of himself. Robbie worries, of course, but that’s just how he is. I’d be more worried about him, actually; they’re going to make sure he gets the worst details, including the ones that send him into the Pit. Robbie’s an excellent fighter and Wyl won’t let him go anywhere without a few tricks, but he can’t hold off the entire prisoner population of this place if they decide to maul him. It’s happened before, once, to a guard none of the others liked. They got him into the Pit, deactivated his card and let it be known that there’s be no repercussions if he didn’t come out again. And he didn’t.” Isidore shrugged. “He wasn’t a nice guy. Klia’s girls had fun with him before they finished him off.”
That sounded terrifying to Kyle, but then again, what did he know? If Robbie and Wyl could handle it, then he and Isidore had other concerns. “What did Rory say to you?”
“He said he didn’t trust that I couldn’t blow up half the people in the Pit with some gadget I might have tucked away inside of me, and so he’s going to leave us alone for the time being. It’s a wobbly truce at best, but given that he’s right, it’s a smart one.”
All of a sudden Kyle felt exhausted, and so, so small. “You do? Really?”
“In three of my teeth,” Isidore confirmed. “But it takes a special action to set them off. I won’t do it accidentally.”
“I wasn’t worried about that.”
Isidore scooted a little closer. “What’s worrying you, then?”
Apart from everything? “Why are you here?” Kyle demanded, sounding young and strung out and he knew it wasn’t good, it wasn’t the impression he wanted to give Isidore, who was so calm and strong and prepared, but he couldn’t stop himself. Regardless of how casually Isidore seemed to consider it, the thing with the guards had rattled him. Kyle was supposed to be able to take care of himself; he didn’t want people putting their lives on the line for him. That was what he was supposed to do for them. That was what he’d tried to do at the Academy, with mixed results. “You’re really here just because Garrett asked you to come? Risking your life because one man asked you to help me? I don’t…why?”
“Kyle.” Isidore’s warm hand settled on his chest, right over his laboring heart, beating too hard and too fast and why was it doing that? He didn’t understand. “Take a deep breath. Come on, breath with me. One.” Kyle struggled to copy him, dimly aware now that he was maybe, possibly having a panic attack. “Good. Two. In…now exhale. Good. Three. In…out.” They breathed together until Kyle’s face stopped feeling numb and his heart calmed down. He didn’t check his hands to see if they were shaking, just knotted his fingers tighter together.
“Fuck,” Kyle sighed once he could speak again. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine.” Isidore dropped his hand from Kyle’s chest to his knee, a comforting weight. “You’ve had a hell of a time lately. You’re handling yourself much better than I did when I first went to prison.”
That sounded like a good distraction. “When was that?”
“Twelve years ago. My cover story, about blowing up a base full of people? The bomber was my cousin, but that actually happened. I was arrested and charged with conspiracy, and I almost starved myself out of sheer guilty stupidity before Garrett got me into a new situation. And I was alone, not surrounded by a bunch of the Federation’s worst criminals.” He shrugged. “It’s not just that I owe a debt to Garrett. It’s that I want to help make things better. I’ve seen what happens when order breaks down, and if the Fringe is cut off, then the wars that overtake the region will be…intense. Civil wars, not just interplanetary, but those will happen too. The Fringe needs the Federation, and they need it on their side. If you can help make that happen, then I’m happy to be here.”
Kyle shook his head. “That’s…kind of fucked up, but I’m glad you’re here.”
“Why are you helping?”
Surprised, Kyle opened his eyes and stared at Isidore. “What?”
“Why are you doing this? You’ve got enough status, even with your brother being a manipulative dick, that you could do anything you wanted with yourself. You don’t even have to stay in the Federation, if you don’t want to; you could go Beyond, or back to the old system. You could have stayed at the Academy and moved up in the military. You had options. Why this path? Why sacrifice yourself?”
Kyle thought about it for a long moment, wrapping his head around the easiest way to explain. “I went into boarding schools early,” he began at last. “I had almost no family influence in my life beyond paying my room and board, not after my brother washed his hands of me. There were a lot of kids like me in the elementary Academy system, kids whose rich parents didn’t have time for them. A lot of them were just counting down until they got trust funds and could go off and do…whatever they wanted. I could have done that too, but then I met Sigurd Liang when I was ten.”
“The admiral in charge of the Academy?”
“Yeah.” Kyle smiled a little, remembering how impressed he’d been by the man’s uniform. “He reminded me a little of my father, at first; the same flashy look, you know? Lots of ribbons and badges and awards. But he actually paid attention to me, and he encouraged me to do things that interested me, clubs and the like. When I failed at something, he didn’t tell me I was bad; he got me help.” It had been the most personal attention Kyle had had since Berengaria had given him up. “Maybe he was setting me up to volunteer for something like this, by being kind to me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think he’s right. I wanted to be a part of the effort to get rid of Ray, and the fact that I’ve got to be here to do it…” Kyle shut his eyes again. “I’ll get through it. I’ll do my best.”
“I’ll be here to help you every step of the way.”
“Yeah.” Kyle put one of his hands over Isidore’s on his knee. “I know.”