This story originally appeared in the now out-of-print fanzine South of Oz, in 1991. If you haven't seen the Beauty and the Beast episode Promises of Someday, which introduces Father's long-lost son Devin, the story won't make much sense. Beauty and the Beast and its characters are owned by Witt-Thomas Productions and Republic Pictures. This story is presented merely for the enjoyment of fans.

 

Rumble

by BeeDrew


I'm on the water. Shrimp boat, Gulf of Mexico, off the drowsy coast of Alabama. And for once there's no scam, no role I'm supposed to be playing. All they want is muscles and good hands, all I want is cash.

So, for this life anyway, they call me Devin. I'm on deck and nearly alone. Beneath my feet the boat rolls gently at anchor, and other voices are only a mild intrusion on the creak of the rigging and the rush of an offshore breeze. There's the fish odor of the heaped nets, the taste of salt mixing with beer on my tongue. The moon's glamorous and yellow, stars glittering on the water like silver minnows, and something larger reflecting brilliantly off the black surface, twenty feet below me. I think it's Venus.

All this is mine tonight, and my only thought is to tell him about it. To give it to him, because he can never get it for himself. And behind that, spinning through my memory with all the force of a dream, I remember the first time I told him, You can't go with me. I'm leaving you here.

*****

"Uncle! Say uncle!"

It took every ounce of muscle to hold that skinny, furry, writhing body. My little brother is some kinda wrestler, no doubt about it. Not a kid down here--me included--fights like him. It's like he always knows where to grab, or what the other guy's gonna do next. He's only twelve. I tell you, it's spooky. But no way was Junior gonna wiggle out of this one. I had 'im in a headlock, and most of his body trapped besides.

At least, that's what I thought until Fuzz got one knee to the ground and shifted his weight. He snarled as he flipped me right over his shoulder. Everything tilted, and I saw Pascal's face go by, upside down. I bit my tongue, hard, as I landed on the lopsided mattress we'd dragged out of someone's trash.

Fuzz was on me in an instant, trying to pin me so I'd be the one squealing uncle. The Old Man woulda fainted if he'd heard what I said as I threw my weight--about my only advantage, fighting Fuzz--to one side and pulled out of the half-Nelson he was trying. Jeez, the kid was getting better.

The rules were, no claws and no hair-pulling. Other than that, the calls were up to the referee, but Pascal always forgets the whistle and cheers for whoever's down.

"Get 'im, Vincent! He's coming in from the left--"

Vincent could do without the help. I squeaked out of his choke-hold and tried to grab his arms, but he's quick, slipped right out from under me. Once he grows a little, I ain't got a prayer.

So, I'd better give him his lumps now. I gripped his arms, slammed him over on his stomach and rolled on him before he could squirm away. Then I scissored my legs around his and got his head and left shoulder in my own half-Nelson. I held his right arm just below the elbow and twisted it behind him. His chest was chugging like a train--so was mine--and he had to be half-suffocated behind all that hair.

"Say it, furball." I upped the pressure on his arm, just a little. His muscles were like straining ropes under his skin. He made that weird growling sound, and honest to God I thought he was gonna rip his arm out of the socket--

"Guys."

Someone at the door. The voice was weak, winded, and I turned to look. It was Mitch. He whines more than any twelve-year-old ought to, but for once, he had something to complain about. He'd been worked over pretty good.

"Jeez, Mitch--! What happened?" Vincent and I were up off the floor before Mitch got all the way inside. Pascal helped him over to the mattress, and he lay down on it, groaning.

"Creebs. The snot-eating creebs!" He was crying, and ashamed of it, and so flaming mad it was almost funny, except for the purple bulge on his jaw and his black eye. His nose was swollen and bloodied, and he talked like he had a bad cold. He was holding one arm across his ribs, and I didn't know if it was the arm or the ribs that were busted.

"Who did it, Mitch? What creeps?"

That was Vincent. He was tired, and his voice cracked a little. It's just starting to change. He came up with a handkerchief--trust the little Papa's boy to have one--and started to dab some of the blood off Mitch's face, but Mitch slapped him away.

"Ooooow. Led be alode," he said, fingering his nose. "Godda ged 'em...Sliby liddle jerks!"

"Mitch." I tried to be patient. "Tell us who beat you up. We'll help you find 'em."

Mitch groaned again, and stuck a finger in his mouth, exploring a loose tooth. "Three guys. Jubbed me by da playground, stole by sbokes. Dey scared Bolly," he mumbled.

Them. I looked from Pascal to Vincent, saw that they were remembering the story. It had been an ugly thing, three boys chasing Molly in the park, threatening to pull her dress up. They'd called her names she hadn't understood. Too young for the street gangs, those three had put themselves in training for it. Luckily Winslow had been there, just coming back from his mechanic's job Above. Now the kids only went up in big groups--or they were supposed to, anyway.

"You were Uptop alone, weren't you?" I said, poking Mitch's arm. He flinched, from the touch or my voice, I didn't know. His eyes, sly and black, darted away.

"I was only godda be ub f 'r a secodd. Deeded sobe cigs. I 'dow dis guy--"

"Dammit, Mitch!" I ignored Vincent's raised eyebrows. "One more screw-up and Father'll ground all of us. We'll be trapped down here like rats--"

Aw, jeez. The words were out before I felt Pascal's hand close around my arm. A heavy breathing silence, and Vincent's eyes like magnets, dragging in mine and Pascal's. "I'm...sorry, Fuzz." I couldn't touch him, could hardly look at that muzzled little face, drawn now like an old man's.

"It's all right, Devin." His voice was careful--too careful. He gave his handkerchief to Mitch and stood up. "What will you do?"

I felt a lick of anger inside, like fire just starting to eat paper. "Fight," I told him. "We'll fight."

*****

Mitch's arm was either broken or badly sprained, and he was one big bruise under his clothes. Vincent and I chair-carried him all the way home. We'd been wrestling in a cave that was our clubhouse, kind of--we had the mattress and a few crates and candles and old copies of Mad magazine. Mostly it was just space, for us to call our own--too far above the home chambers for the adults to want it, and just inside the sentry boundaries, so we were allowed there without a babysitter. Perfect, unless you had to lug a hollering Mitch down the Spiral Stair and along two miles of tunnel.

Vincent didn't say a word, even when Mitch complained about the "hair like a gir-ul's" getting in his eyes. Mitch shut up quick enough after I told him I'd blacken his other eye for him if I heard one more squeal.

I don't know why, but whenever there's trouble, and I'm around, and the Old Man's around, I'm in for it. This time was no different. Pascal had gone ahead to warn Father--"You don't know how it happened, squirt. Got that?"--and we went straight to the hospital chamber. What with Mitch's bawling, I hadn't had time to think up a good story.

Father's back was to us as we went in. He turned around, took in the three us with one daunting look--Mitch bloody and sulking, me and Vincent sweaty and breathing hard. "Boys," he said, quietly. I felt myself get about two inches shorter. "Up on the table with him. Vincent, you may go."

Of course. Vincent, you may go. I rolled my eyes. Little brother helped me boost Mitch up on the exam table, and then was out like an eel, the fink.

Father glared at me with those ice-chip eyes. "Would you care to explain this, Devin?"

"Well--it's like this, we were, um, we were boxing--" I fumbled, and Father'd have nailed me already if he hadn't been busy swabbing Mitch's face.

"Id's okay, Debin--ow!--do hard feelings," Mitch said suddenly. He put on a choirboy face, and held out his good hand for me to shake. "I dow you did'd bean to hurd be. Pud 'er dere, buddy."

I stared at him. Father stared at me, eyes narrowed, waiting for me to answer. I wanted to puke. Mitch had me cold, this time. He knew I'd rather take the heat than have the Old Man strand all of us Below, in dull, deadly, boring safety. Father finally turned away to get a roll of bandage. I took Mitch's hand and squeezed it until I felt the tendons crack, and had the satisfaction of watching him pant to keep from yelling.

"Yeah, I'm sorry, Mitch," I managed. "It just got a little out of hand--"

Father turned back and pinned me with a look that felt like one of Vincent's wrestling holds. "Out of hand! Devin, you've sprained his wrist, and just look at his face! You're older than he is, and a good deal larger, and you ought to know better--"

Father was off and galloping through his favorite speech, the one on Our Responsibility to Those Younger Than We Are, and all I could do was stand there and take it, and watch Mitch smirk at me. By the time Father'd blown himself out, my ears were scorched, and I'd pulled three weeks of kitchen-monkey duty. Great, just great. Father finally sent me off in disgrace, and I wasted no time getting out of there.

"I am gonna get that little twerp for this," I was mumbling as I removed myself from the Old Man's presence. I nearly tripped over Vincent in the hall. "What do you want?" Nasty, but who cared. He was sitting just outside the door with his knees drawn up and his chin resting on them, listening, calm as you please.

He got up, unfolding himself in that gangly way he'd had since he got tall. His head was even with my nose, and that wouldn't last long.

"Come on," he said, a scratchy half-whisper. "They're in our chamber."

He was halfway up the tunnel before I had put that together. He'd gotten the gang rounded up and waiting for me, like he already knew what I was planning. Jeez, the kid wasn't so bad after all. I caught up with him and thumped his back.

"Thanks, Fuzz."

He punched me on the arm--hard--and grinned up at me. "No sweat. But don't even think of asking me to take any turns in the kitchen for you, 'cause I won't."

"Now, Vincent--"

But we'd reached our chamber, where most of the kids old enough to tie their shoes and younger than seventeen waited. There were nine of us, but only seven present, with Mitch hurt and Rebecca off somewhere on her own. She was Mary's little shadow, and didn't run with us much. Winslow was the oldest--two years older than me--but he'd had his seventeenth Naming Day, and presto! he was grown up. We'd miss him when it came to fighting the punks who'd messed with Mitch. And there would be a fight--either that, or we'd all be forbidden to go Above. No way was I gonna sit still for that.

"Is Mitch okay?" Molly wanted to know. She sat on Vincent's toy chest, sucking on the end of one braid. She wore her only pair of jeans every day now--wouldn't touch a dress--since the boys had chased her.

"Yeah, he's okay. Banged up a little," I said. I made a big thing out of lighting more candles on the desk, because all of a sudden I didn't know what to do. This was different from picking sides in kick-the-can. Much different. I'd thought it would be so neat, with Winslow grown up, to be the leader....

But I'd always been fast on my feet, and by the time I was done fiddling with the candles, the plan was there. I turned to face my gang, and found myself looking at them in a different way. They weren't just themselves anymore. I was sizing them up as fighters.

Vincent sat Indian-style on his bed, looking at me steadily. His favorite place to sit used to be the windowsill. With the stained glass behind him and that stillness of his, he looked like a little gargoyle on a church wall. But he was too big for that now. He'd have been the best of us in a fight, but of course he couldn't go.

Pascal had settled down beside Molly, and even though he's Vincent's age, he and Molly both fit on the toy chest. He was as loyal as they come, but he was too small to be much use.

Paco'd be okay. He's thirteen, kind of friendly and slow, but he only needed to be told what to do and he'd do it, no questions asked. That was how he was raised, before Immigration sent the rest of his family back to Mexico. He only got away because he was in the Tunnels the day the agents came.

Then there was Ryan Donahoe. Who knew about him, really. He was fifteen, with red hair and a temper. He had a family somewhere, he'd told us that much, but one of the Helpers had found him outside the Port Authority, beat up and robbed. Welcome to New York, and all that. Still, he didn't want to go back to that family. I thought I could count on him--at least, on that red-haired temper.

Corky--Brian Corcoran--would do fine. He's thirteen, sort of overgrown for his age, a Helper's kid who hangs around down here a lot. I tell him all the time that he's too pretty to be a guy, with these sissy black curls and grey eyes like the Old Man's. His dad's a beat-walking neighborhood cop, so Corky's a scrapper, no problem.

That was the gang. I thought about them, and about me, in maybe two seconds, as they all waited for me to tell them what to do. To be the leader. I had this flash of nerves, like the sweaty heartthumping I get when the Old Man makes me stand up and recite all the presidents. I hate feeling unsure of myself.

The hell with it, I'd just jump in and hope it came out all right. "Okay guys, here it is. Those three punks who chased Molly last week were back again, and this time they beat up Mitch and took his cigarettes. We gotta stop 'em. If we don't, Father'll will get wind of it, and we'll all have to stay Below, all the time. Are you with me?"

"We could tell my dad," Corky offered, a little uncertainly.

His dad was just one notch below Captain America, in Corky's eyes, and I knew better than to blow off the suggestion, unless I wanted Corky right in my face. "I don't think so," I said, pretending to think about it. "If we did that, Mitch and Molly might have to talk to the police, and the social workers would get into it. Plus, once those scumbags got out of Juvie, they'd back."

That was just common sense, and they all nodded agreement.

"Let's try to handle it ourselves," I said. "If we can't, then we'll tell Father. Fair enough?"

They all said that sounded good, even Vincent. I shot him a smile. Things would probably be better for him if we all had to stay Below, but he was still behind me.

"It'll be a rumble," Pascal said, grinning suddenly. I could see it in his eyes; he was thinking of West Side Story, the Jets and the Sharks.

I snorted. "It ain't a rumble. We just gotta show these guys they can't mess with Tunnelkids, and get away with it. Here's what we do."

*****

I sent them out in pairs, a bigger kid with a smaller kid. Ryan went by himself. They were supposed to hit specific streets and playgrounds and corners, all on the lookout for the three punks, all with one assignment: Find out where they live, what they do all day, where they hang out. School was out for the summer, and there were lots of neighborhood kids Above who could tell us what we needed to know. Vincent and I played marbles in the clubhouse while we waited for the others to report.

He was down on his stomach, flicking his aggy toward my cat's eye, when he finally asked me.

"Devin, do you have to fight them? Can't we all just stay Below for awhile?"

He hid behind his bangs, wouldn't look at me as he said it, and rolled a couple of marbles around and around between his fingers. His claws made little scratching sounds. The question hung there in the stone chamber like a pendulum, waiting to swing from him to me, and even though I'd known he'd ask, I couldn't come up with an answer. Because he hadn't asked in front of the others, and I could hear him saying, behind the words, If you don't fight, if you stay Below, I'm still one of you. I hated to hurt him, even though he's sometimes a pain in the butt.

"No can do, little brother." I tried to keep it casual. "Winslow warned 'em, and they didn't quit. We gotta show 'em we mean business."

He nodded like he'd figured that, and reached out to sweep all his marbles into a glassy pile in front of him. "Then, can I go with you?"

Jeez. That I wasn't expecting. "Come on, Fuzz. You know you can't. It'll be daylight."

He looked up. Those eyes of his, real blue, so normal in a face like his.... I've thought more than once that his eyes are kind of like mirrors. I see myself in them: the good parts--when I'm doing the big brother thing, and I'm his hero--and the bad parts, like when I've fought with Father or told some awful lie. Today I could see it, written right across his face and swimming in his eyes. I was hurting him.

"So what if it's daylight. There won't be any grown-ups there," he pressed, still staring at me. "I'm not afraid."

All of a sudden I was really hacked off, and without meaning to, I started yelling at him. "Why do you have to make me say it, huh? You can't go Above for the same reason you've never gone. Because they'll see you, stupid! And if they see you, they might tell someone. It doesn't matter that they're only kids, they still got eyes!"

"No one will believe them!" he yelled back. He was as mad as I was. "I'd be the best! I'd scare them. I almost beat you wrestling today, and if I used my claws--"

"Vincent!" Now it was him hurting me. Making me tell him no, making me cage him up Below, like I was so determined Father wouldn't do to me. I got up, and kicked the marbles from between his hands, so that they rattled off into the dark comers beyond our lantern light. "You can't go with me!" I told him. "I'm leaving you here. It's against the rules for you to go Uptop during the day."

He sat up, glaring at me, and his eyes went to slits. I've never seen him look more like a cat. "Oh, and sneaking Above isn't against the rules? Fighting isn't against the rules?"

"What, you gonna tell?" I reached down and grabbed the back of his shirt, hauled him to his feet.

He growled, put both hands to my chest and shoved me back, hard. "Maybe I will! Why should I have to follow the rules, and not you?"

"Because they're for the same thing!" I wanted to shake him, but I didn't quite dare. He might be right about the wrestling, and he was definitely right about the claws. "Father says you can't go Above during the day, to keep you safe. I'm going to beat up those punks to keep all us kids safe. It‚s the same thing."

That got him. I saw him shrink a little, duck his head. I kept talking. "It's our world down here, Fuzz. But it's our world up there, too. I'm not giving it up. Maybe Father wouldn't understand, and maybe you can't, because you have to stay down here, and that stinks. But I've gotta fight for Above, same as I would for Below."

There was a long, stretched sort of moment when I was sure he was still mad, and would go running to tell Father. But then he sighed, and his shoulders slumped. "I understand. And you're right, Father wouldn't. If he did, it'd mean they'd come down here. I guess I'd get to fight then."

"I guess you would, Fuzz." For a second I felt cold all down my spine, watching the lantern's light pick out the tips of his claws against his white shirt. If he ever really let go, ever really cut loose....

"So you won't tell?" I asked him. Was this what Father felt like, every time he told Vincent he couldn't go Above--sort of mean and sorry, and angry at the world? Fuzz was going to have to fight so much harder than all the rest of us, just to grow up.

"I won't tell," he said. "Promise."

"Cross your heart, hope to die, stick a needle in your eye?"

He looked up at me, cocked his head, and grinned a little. "Gimme a break, Devin. I'm too old for that."

"Oh, yeah? We'll see, small fry!"

I jumped on him, and we wrestled and yelled and called each other names, until the others got back. I was tempted to let him pin me.

But, naw. He'd be beating me soon enough.

*****

I squinted into the red afternoon sun, watching as Molly signaled. She crossed her arms over her head twice, and then ducked back into the doorway where she was hiding. She'd insisted on being lookout, and it was easier not to argue.

"They're coming!" I hissed over my shoulder. "Pascal, Paco--move. Back end of the alley."

The whole thing really couldn't have gone easier. The three we were after--they went by Razzman, Floater, and Jack on the street--spent most of their time at a movie theater near Times Square. They headed home after the afternoon matinee, and usually took a shortcut through a small alley we knew. Someone'd junked a Volkswagen at one end; we dragged it sideways to block the exit, with Pascal and Paco to cover it. We had ourselves a box canyon, and an ambush.

Me, Corky, and Ryan hung around the comer just up from the alley, leaning on a telephone pole and trying to look like we were just shooting the breeze. We watched the three of them come around the comer, scanning the street like they owned it, whistling at the chicks. Just like the cops, they had their "uniforms"--raggedy jeans, T-shirts, and oily matador boots.

The big one was Floater; he had to be at least fifteen. Razzman was short but solid, and Jack looked like a rake with a head. They passed us without a second look, too busy catcalling at a girl in a hot-pink miniskirt to notice us. We waited until they were inside the alley before we moved.

They saw our shadows before they saw us--three thin giants lying on the pavement. At the same time, Paco and Pascal stepped out from behind the Volkswagen and stood on either side of it, not moving.

Floater jerked around, kind of hunching down like a guard dog on a scent. "Hey. What is this?"

The other two were frozen, looking from one end of the alley to the other. Floater grinned, and relaxed a little.

"We-e-ll," he drawled. "Looks like that candy-ass sent his friends to get his cigs back. Ain't it a shame, we smoked every last one."

Out of nowhere, looking into the bleached blue of Floater's eyes, I suddenly felt a little sick. This was the plan, just like I'd wanted it, but I kept seeing this image of Floater, holding Corky‚s shirt in one hand and pounding his face in with the other. My gut was churning, but it didn't matter, not anymore. I'd gone too far.

I took a step, drew their attention to me. "Forget the cigarettes. We're after something else."

"Yeah?" one of them said. It was Razzman, white teeth flaring in his brown face. "C'mere, boy, and I'll give it to you."

"You won‚t." I kept my voice quiet, so it wouldn't shake. "You and your friends are gonna leave me and my friends alone, after this."

"We are?" Floater again. Already fingering his belt, which had a heavy-looking buckle. He was the one to watch. "You tell your friend he's got no business scoring cigarettes or anything else on our street. He gets out of our action, maybe we'll leave him alone."

"You'll leave him alone anyway," I said, moving closer, watching his eyes go narrow and pig-mean. Ryan and Corky flanked me on either side, and I knew I could trust them like I trusted my hands. But I still felt sick.

"We don't want your street, or your action," I told him. "You just let us come and go, leave us alone. Or we'll come after you. That's all."

Floater grinned, and shoved, stringy blonde hair off his forehead. "You ain't scared me yet, man."

"No?" I grinned right back at him. "I'd be scared, if I robbed Garcia's newsstand last week, and the cops didn't know about it. I'd be scared, if some guys that didn't like me knew my hideout was the back of Barney's, down on 56th, where my father works as a janitor. I'd be scared, if those same guys knew I was doing deliveries twice a week for a pusher who works the Square." All true, and all courtesy of our little fact-finding mission yesterday. I saw Floater's eyes shift quickly to his friends and then back to me. I'd shaken him.

Still he smiled, stuffed his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels. "So, let's just say I'm scared. Let's just say I'm listening. How'm I s'pose to know who's your guy, and who's not?"

"You'll know." I wasn't falling for that; these three were a part of the streets. They could mark us, even if they didn't know where we lived.

"Yeah, we'll know, 'cause you all dress outta my mama's ragbag!" Razzman tossed out. He spat right at my feet, and I felt Ryan starting to go for him. My hand shot out, slapped against Ryan's stomach. I locked my eyes on Floater's.

"Well?" I said. "This how it's gonna play?"

The skinny guy, Jack, was getting a little nervous. His eyes flicked from me and Ryan and Corky back to where Paco and Pascal stood on either side of the Volkswagen, watching. "Floater, there's five of 'em," he said.

"Yeah, so? Big man, coming after three guys with five," Floater sneered at me.

And suddenly I saw it; I saw how to blank out the image of Floater messing up Corky. I knew what to do. And that sick feeling was gone. "Y'know, you're right." I looked around, as though I'd only just counted heads. "Three against five, doesn't sound fair. So what do you say, Floater? How about just you and me?"

"Devin--!" Ryan, on my left, started to protest, but was drowned out by a hoot from Razzman.

"Dev-in!" he crowed. "Boys, his name is Dev-in." He put one hand on his hip and struck a pose. "Ain't that cute?"

I ignored him, stayed focused on Floater. He was sizing me up, and from the glint in his eye, he thought his chances were good. He was probably right.

"How about it, yellow-belly?" I said, knowing that was all it would take.

Yep. He lunged at me, big hands reaching, and I backpedaled, grabbing for one thick arm as he got close. I swung him so that his forward motion carried him right into the brick wall at my back.

"Cool! Get on him, Dev! Get on him!" Corky screamed.

Floater grunted and staggered for an instant, blood welling from scrapes on his face, before he recovered and came at me again. I dodged his first wild swing easily. Dimly I saw the others form a rough circle. Paco and Pascal--even Molly, darn her--ran up to join them. The voices became one loud baying.

"Stand still, you little pansy!" Floater bellowed as he charged. This time I wasn't as quick as I shoulda been. His fist crashed into the left side of my face; the other followed, jabbing under my ribs. I doubled over--felt like my eye had exploded--gush of warm salt in my mouth. Blood. He grabbed my shirt just as I kicked him square in the stomach, and we both went down.

Worst thing that could've happened. He outweighed me by twenty pounds and had a good five inches on me, even though he couldn't breathe at the moment. I grabbed for the wall and tried to pull us up, but he went for my throat, wheezing anger through clenched teeth. Just as his hands closed, I let myself fall, caught at a handful of his hair and wrenched his head to one side. With everything I had, I chopped at his corded neck. He gagged; I felt spit spray my face just before he landed on me, driving all the air out of my lungs. Then he gave me the pounding of my life.

Oh, God...Roll, Devin...twist...shoulder braced; shove him up and over...cross-punch, knee in the gut, try to get him down...arm across his neck, pin the legs, get leverage, go for the hold...Jee-e-z, this hurts...

Something weird happened. Everything blurred. The fiery sunlight dimmed to Tunnel gold and the blood-hot body struggling under me was smaller, somehow, than me, though Floater definitely wasn't. It was Vincent I wrestled, only not Vincent, and I was myself, only I was him, inhumanly fast, full of a wiry, renewing strength I'd never had before. Floater's reach was longer, he had more weight, more muscle--but he'd never wrestled Vincent. He'd never wrestled my little brother.

My hands were right where Floater was, gripping tight and never letting go, like animal jaws. He flailed, cursing, but I had him everywhere, I had him pinned. He was flat on his stomach, eating dirt, with my knee is his back. I was twisting one arm behind him and screaming, "Enough? Had enough?"

It might have ended there. It just might, if Razzman hadn't cheated. From the comer of my eye I saw the thing flash, heard it chink against the pavement and roll toward us, and for just an instant--one tiny instant--I was distracted, and loosened my grip on Floater's wrist. Sweat-slicked, his skin twisted under mine; I felt my nails gouging out flesh, but it was too late.

That's how it is in wrestling. You might have your man dead to the ground, caught six different ways--legs locked, head and neck firm, both arms powerless. But you lose one point of pressure, give up any part of the hold--and the whole thing falls apart. Floater got one hand flat to the ground, shoved backward and tossed me off him. Then he snatched up the knife Razzman had thrown, and it was a whole new fight.

I got up, joined the slow circling dance he'd begun. Breathing hurt. Everything looked funny, off-kilter, and I realized I was seeing with my right eye only; the left had swelled shut. Devin you are so stupid, of course they'd have knives, you brought them all Above and there's a knife in his hand, the Old Man's right, irresponsible, stupid, stupid....

A gap had opened in the circle of watchers where Razzman had been. Ryan had decked him. He lay moaning and rolling from side to side. Blood trickled between the fingers he pressed to his nose. I had to step over him, stumbling a little because I couldn't spare a glance at my feet. Winslow had told me: "Never forget--in a knife fight, watch the face, not the knife. When the eyes move, you move."

Which was fine, except that Winslow had never fought Floater, whose fighting style was brute strength, never mind finesse. He bared his teeth, shifted the knife to his left hand and came in with a roundhouse right. I ducked, but that side of my face felt balloon-sized already; even the kiss of a blow he landed sent me half crazy with pain. When I could see again, when the roaring in my ears subsided so I could hear my own sobs for breath, he had me back against a wall, ready to open my throat. He laughed like a girl, and pulled the knife hand back.

Here it comes, I thought. I'll never know if he really meant to kill me, or just scare me. The knife was silver and black, rushing at me like a subway out of a tunnel. Behind it there was the red kindling of Ryan's hair and the wide black smear of Paco's mouth, open in a scream. And when the howl began, I thought it was him.

Long, full-throated, crawling along the nerves until sweat broke out, the cry bounced off the brick walls and the pavement and our ears. Something like a child shrieking; more like a leashed animal's growl; it had teeth and claws, and it was all around us. Vincent.

"Je-e-sus!" Floater‚s head whipped around, instinctively looking for the threat. His muscles let go, just a little, enough that I could jerk out of his grip and dodge to one side. His knife glanced off my arm, slicing a line of heat there, but I was already turning. I grabbed Floater's knife-hand in both of mine, and drove it against the brick. His fingers broke with a wet crunch, and he dropped at my feet like a stone, and now the scream was his.

For a few dazed seconds I just stood there, holding up the wall, watching my enemy flop like a beached fish on the blacktop. My eyes went to Jack, the only one of them still standing.

"Enough?" My voice was raspy, barely there, and a black ring pressed around my vision. Dammit, don't pass out. Don't lose it now....

Jack's eyes were flicking madly from left to right, as he watched Ryan and Corky closing on him. "Yeah, man. Yeah. Enough!" He threw up his hands to ward them off. "We're going." He took a step toward Floater, then hesitated, looking at me.

"'So go, already." I swore to myself I wouldn't puke until they were out of sight. Jack hauled Floater up by his uninjured arm--don't know how he managed it, since Floater was no help at all--and kicked at Razzman until he got to his feet. The three of them moved off, a truly sorry-looking bunch, and we let them go.

Only when they rounded the comer did I sag to my knees, and spew out everything I'd eaten that day, and then some.

"Oh, yuck," Molly said. Ryan pulled at me; I started to jerk away before I saw that he was tying a bandana around my cut. The tiny muscles of my throat still worked at retching, and my knees shook. I didn't think I could get up if I tried. Ryan knelt beside me, and gently pulled one of my arms across his shoulders.

Except that the shoulders were too bony to be Ryan's, and the body that lifted me was inches too short. Bleary eyed, I peered down into a hooded, familiar face.

"Aw jeez! Vincent, of all the stupid--guys! Hide him!"

And they did, closing in like an honor guard. The entrance wasn't that far, and no one could have seen anything, what with all the bodies and Vincent wearing his cloak. Still, I methodically called him every name I could think of as he half-dragged, half-carried me along the tunnel that led north, toward home. "Idiot, bonehead, dog breath, lamebrain mouth-breather--"

"Devin," he said, squeezing me around the chest so I had to shut up, to breathe. "You never said I couldn't watch from the fire escape. You weigh a ton, and you smell awful. I love you."

There wasn't a whole lot I could say to that.

*****

I probably could have lied my way clear if Floater hadn't cut me. The bruises, even my face--I could say I fell, took a header on the Spiral Stair, was carrying something heavy from Above. But the cut nixed it, and I was just too tired to think of anything to tell Father.

Of course, right at first I didn't have to say a thing. The others trailed after us as far as the inner chambers, but slipped away one by one, the closer we got to Father's study. We paused in the doorway. Vincent was too short of breath to talk, and I, for once, had nothing to say.

Father turned. He'd been scratching on his maps like always, with a candle in one hand for extra light. He dropped it right into his tea cup, and never noticed, when he saw us. "Devin! My God. Vincent, over here, quickly!" Father was across the room in two strides--he even forgot his cane--and bent over us as Vincent eased me into a chair. Was that...was that fear I saw on the Old Man's face? For me?

"Get my bag, Vincent. Then run for Mary."

Father's hands weren't especially gentle, and he found all the places that hurt. The cut was more for show than anything else...my eyes were all right...I might have a bit of a concussion even though my head was made of granite...my ribs were only bruised.... All this I got from his muttering as he looked me over. He finally straightened up, and I saw the first hint of displeasure on his face.

"You appear to be intact, though somewhat the worse for wear," he said, frowning as he began to tend my cut. "How did all this happen?"

I said a quick prayer for inspiration. "Well, I was Above--"

I'll say one thing for Fuzz, you can't fault his timing. He arrived with Mary in tow just as I was heading for deep water. She started to fuss, and Father started calming her down, and Vincent got sent to fetch me a new shirt. By the time Father realized he'd never had an answer, Mary was standing behind my chair, pressing two cold cloths to the bruises on either side of my face, and I couldn't say a word.

Vincent arrived, out of breath, holding the shirt. Father rounded on him. "Vincent. Suppose you tell me how this happened to your brother, hmm?"

My eyes locked on Vincent's in horrified desperation. Fuzz would never lie to Father, I knew that for a fact--he'd gotten me in trouble more than once. But after all I'd been through, if Father found out and grounded us all Below....

Vincent opened his mouth, and I cringed. This was it. Facing the Old Man this time would be worse--well, almost as bad--as slugging it out with Floater. I'd never see the light of day again. I'd be twenty-one before Father'd let me out of my chamber, much less Above. I groaned, and Mary made little sympathy sounds, thinking it was my face that hurt.

Then Vincent spoke.

"Father, it happened so fast! Devin was in the alley--the boy had a knife. It was one of the ones who chased Molly. I couldn't help 'cause it was daylight! The boy punched Devin and they had a fight. He was bigger than Devin and he hit and hit. Devin got him down with his knee in his back and then--"

"Vincent," Father interrupted. "Where were you when all this took place?"

Fuzz's eyes dropped to the floor, and he scuffed at nothing with one toe. "I was--I was as on the fire escape by the entrance. I just wanted to see where Devin was going. I had my hood. No one saw me."

Father positively inflated with rage. "Son, do you mean to tell me that you went outside the tunnels during the day?"

"But Father, I didn't go far--"

I closed my eyes. Without Mary's hands on my face, I would have grinned like a fool. Beautiful, just beautiful! Fuzz had danced his way out of that one like a pro, and brought it all down on his own head. I couldn't believe it. Maybe I had taught the kid a thing or two.

Somehow in the next couple of minutes, as Mary helped me into the clean shirt and told me to keep the cloths on my face to make the swelling go down, all my kitchen chores found their way to Vincent. I was pretty sure I'd get my share later, because Father was bound to remember that I wasn't supposed to be Above "alone." But for now, I just had to play the wounded invalid.

No problem.

"Vincent, I'm very disappointed in you," Father said. He'd been working over me all along, and he'd finished his doctoring along with his lecture. "I had thought you understood the rules. We'll talk some more, but for now I want you to take care of your brother. Help him back to your chamber so he can rest."

"Yes, Father." Vincent came and pulled me out of the chair by my good arm, glaring at me, with his back to Father. I tried to look really pathetic, but I don't think he bought it. We limped out of the study the same way we came in. Vincent didn't say a word, even after we were out of parental earshot. I cleared my throat.

"Uh, Fuzz, I'm sorry about the kitchen duty. I'll make it up to you--"

He sighed. "Never mind. Knowing you, I'd have ended up doing some of it anyway."

We stumped on down the tunnel, looking like the losers in a three-legged race. I was really beginning to feel bad. "Look, if you want, I'll tell Father what really happened. Maybe he'll understand, maybe--" I floundered. "I just can't believe you lied to him!"

Vincent sucked in an outraged breath. "I did not! I wouldn't lie to Father. I just...I just started the story in the middle."

I stopped dead. Vincent didn't have a choice, with me hanging off his shoulder; he stopped too, and looked at me. There was something deep down in his eyes, some devilish little light.... And all of a sudden I was laughing, and it hurt like the hell, but it felt good too.

"Thanks, Fuzz. You're the best."

*****

He was, too. Still is. I miss him. Only went back once in twenty years, but I do miss him. Sometimes I tell myself, I'm doing all this for both of us, but inside I know that's a crock. It's just me on the deck of this boat.

It's late now. The wind off the water's grown cold, and my beer warm. He's my brother. I love him, but a few months ago, I left him behind again.

I probably always will.

End