[It's way too long to be flash fiction... but what the hey.]
She guessed it was the most valuable thing she'd ever swiped. Medlar would be pleased.
Well, anyway, he'd better be.
She went on past the pier without stopping, slipped into a graffiti-laden public message booth, pretended to place a message on the grimy terminal, careful not to let the thing read her fingerprints. All the while she glanced at the dim reflections in the booth's upper windows, checking for the shopkeeper, the keis or any of the local gangs. Listening. Waiting. Trying to still her breath.
Medlar made it look so easy. In truth, every moment you fought the urge to run, but the keis noticed you if you ran, and Kenna couldn't afford to be arrested. As a foundling and a thief, she had neither birth record nor docs, and Medlar had told her repeatedly that if the city officers ever caught her, she'd be on her own.
"I didn't swipe no milk and blankets and shoes for my health, cher," he'd say. "You're my long-term investment. You and me, we gonna be the finest thieves in New Kobe. But if you get sloppy and the keis pick you up, don't look for me to come running. I'll cut my losses and move on."
But Medlar hadn't moved for some time, and he couldn't talk without coughing, nor breathe without wheezing. And though she'd swiped tea and oranges and sake for him, Kenna could see he wasn't getting better. He wouldn't go to the clinic, and for the last week he hadn't left the tank.
No one seemed to be following her. She left the booth and doubled back, heading toward the rickety pier. An official-looking metal sign blocked it off from public access. Medlar had told her it read, "City of New Kobe. No Trespassing. Structurally Unsound Pier." He'd made it himself. Kenna hunkered down near the sign, casually swinging a foot off the deck, feeling for a bolt that had been driven into the pier support. Her toes finally found it, and she climbed softly down the bolts of the support and under the pier, swinging along like a monkey above the churning seawater until she reached the little platform beside the tank. She knocked once, softly.
"Ojii-san," she called, and was answered by a fresh outbreak of coughing. Eventually Medlar cleared his throat enough to respond, "Come in," and she slipped through the hatch.
The tank had been there a long time, almost completely buried in the seawall that holds Ageba Street above the waves. Sometimes, just to pass the time, Kenna and Medlar would speculate about what it was originally meant for. Medlar found it three months after arriving at New Kobe, and erelong he'd converted it into his own little thieves' palace, with Oriental rugs and chests and futons on the floor, dried fish and smoked sausage hanging from the ceiling, and all manner of stolen bits and bobs in between. It was snug, secret, and surprisingly dry. Even at high tide, they were well above the water -- and when the sea-storms for which New Kobe was famous began to rage, they'd seal the hatch and Medlar would pull out the oxygen tanks until it passed.
Kenna kicked off her shoes in the genkan and scrambled up onto the main platform.
"I got something good for you, old man," she said.
Medlar stared at her blearily, as if unable to focus. He was a short, solid man whose muscles were going to fat, with the bright blue eyes and fleshy-nosed profile that marked him as a gaijin and an offworlder. In the stolen wisplight of the tank, his face appeared as green as his threadbare digital fatigues.
"Sake?" he croaked.
"Nope. Better." She slipped her bag off her shoulder, lowered it to the floor and unfolded it to reveal the glowing object inside. Once uncovered, it shone like the sun, illuminating everything in the tank. Medlar's eyes went wide and he began to cough again.
"A foxfire ball?" he finally got out. "Where'd you find that?"
"In the ginza. That one little shop across from the Daiso... Ton-- Tondai--"
"Tondemonai?" He began to laugh, until the coughing stopped him. "That tourist trinket shop?"
Kenna shrugged. It was Medlar who had taught her not to judge by appearances. "Shopkeeper went out to take a leak and left this on his desk," she said. "It's almost like he wanted it swiped."
The foxfire ball was perfectly round and smooth, like a pearl -- if pearls came in the size of Medlar's fist -- and it seemed to emit a soft, warm sound, like an electronic hum. Kenna picked it up, brought it to Medlar.
"Here," she said, her dark eyes brightening in the reflected light. "Take it. It'll make you well."
Medlar, shielding his eyes with one hand, regarded her with a combination of pride and pity. "Kenna, you're the finest little thief in New Kobe," he said, affection sweetening his ragged voice. "Maybe someday the best on all Shintenchi. But I don't think for a minute this thing here can heal me. Prob'ly just a toy."
"No!" Kenna cried. "It's not a toy! It can change things! I've heard the stories--"
"Aw, they's just stories, cher. Don't believe everything you hear."
Despite her best efforts to push fear away, Kenna's eyes began to water. She dropped to her knees beside Medlar. "Look," she said, "just -- just try it. Even if it's only a toy. Please, Medlar?"
Medlar was proud of his emotional control. The Marines had taught him to be stoic, and the sight of Kenna crying would never tear at his insides. Never. Not even a little.
"Oh, all right," he relented, taking the object from her. It dimmed to a soft glow in his hands. "No need to bawl about it. Besides, ain't nothing good online tonight. We might as well play with this to pass the time, ne?" Another coughing fit followed, which he managed to tamp down with some effort. "Well, then, what d'you reckon I should wish for?"
"You had better wish to survive this night," said a soft, silky voice.
Kenna and Medlar started, looking up simultaneously. Standing in their genkan -- how had he gotten in without either of them hearing? -- was a tall, straight-backed old man with a pencil-thin mustache, close-set eyes and an expression of righteous anger. Kenna recognized the shopkeeper from Tondemonai. His eyes flicked back and forth, scanning information on his iris monitor.
"Mercredi Jacques Brumaire," he murmured. "AKA Gavin Medlar. Born New Orleans... former USMC... chased off Earth, Mars, Europa... nearly spaced in the lunar colonies for thievery... wanted in New Kobe for fencing stolen goods. Well. I should haul you down to the keisatsu right now. I'm sure the bounty on your head would be one worth collecting."
He was focusing so much on the internal monitor that he didn't notice Kenna closing in on him, and when he finally glanced her way it was too late -- she threw herself at him. The next thirty seconds were bedlam as Kenna tore into the intruder, kicking and biting and raking at his face with her fingernails. But the old man was surprisingly strong, and he soon had her in a hold she couldn't wriggle out of, as much as she tried.
"Your little protégée here has plenty of spirit," the shopkeeper said. He wasn't even breathing hard. "Shall we look over her criminal record?"
"Let her alone," said Medlar. He was working to control the cough, fighting not to show weakness to the intruder. "It's me you want, anyway."
"NO!" Kenna cried, struggling. "Medlar, wish yourself away from here! Do it now!"
"That would be extremely unwise," said the shopkeeper. "You haven't the first clue how to use the tech. That ball could put you into the middle of the sea, or five miles underground, or fling you out into space. You'd be safer returning it to me."
Medlar might be sick, but he was still plenty canny. "So you're sayin' this is yours?" he asked, hefting the ball and staring at it curiously. It hummed softly in response to his movement. "And that it's real? Reckon that'd make you a native, then."
Kenna felt the shopkeeper stiffen, but his voice remained as silky as ever. "I never said anything of the kind," he replied. "But your thiefling here stole it from me and I want it back."
For some time, Medlar said nothing. He simply spun the glowing ball around, passing it from hand to hand as if he were performing a magic trick. Kenna could feel the shopkeeper grow ever more tense behind her.
"Y'know, when I first immigrated to Shintenchi," he said, "I thought about goin' legit. Studied on all the records for citizenship. Most of 'em was deadly boring. But one thing I read stuck with me... something 'bout how the first Japanese settlers sent word back to Earth that there was sentient creatures on the planet. Shapeshifters, they said... with strange techno-whatsits..." he spun the ball again... "that let 'em change the nature of local reality. Weird stories. Well, nobody on Earth believed it, but some bigwig sent the Marines just to be sure. Pretty soon the official story was that Shintenchi was a Class 3 uninhabited world. No shapeshifters. No dangerous tech. All nice and neat and ready for moving in." He stopped spinning the ball. "Most of my kin was Cajun, but some of 'em was Cherokee," he muttered. "I know what happens when settlers find a ripe, juicy new world and they's people who have the gall to be livin' on it already."
He let the silence brew for a while, his thoughts unfolding slowly like a chrysanthemum blooming in a tea bowl. Then despite his best efforts, another coughing fit took him, and the shopkeeper nudged closer, looking for a chance to grab the ball away. But Medlar was quicker.
"I hear tell you native-folk don't like bein' separated from these things too long," he growled, raising the ball above his head. "What happens if I break it?"
In response, the shopkeeper tightened his hold on Kenna, who began to whimper.
"Looks like an impasse," Medlar shrugged, slowly lowering the ball. "You wanna take your ball and go home, I want my investment back. Unless you wanna trade straight across and call it--"
But Kenna interrupted Medlar's haggling by sinking her teeth into the shopkeeper's arm, who yelped and loosened his hold enough that she broke free. Medlar might be stupid enough to trade away his one chance at getting better, but she wasn't about to let him do it. She scrambled up to Medlar, grabbing the ball away from him, and it blazed up brightly again in her hands.
"Medlar, be well! Be healthy!" she cried, putting out a hand to touch Medlar. And a power like heat lightning, weird and weirdly familiar, flowed from the ball through her hand and into the old thief. Structures flickered in her head like lines of code, rebooting Medlar's bones and blood, refreshing his vitals, writing him whole. And then it passed, and both Medlar and the shopkeeper were staring at her as though she'd sprouted a tail.
"Kenna..." said Medlar softly. His voice was the clearest Kenna had ever heard it.
The shopkeeper nodded slowly. "Just as I suspected," he said. "She's one of ours." He gave Medlar the eye. "Where did you find her?"
"Pff! What do you mean, 'one of ours'?" Kenna scoffed. "I don't belong to anyone 'cept Medlar. He found me in a basket, on the pier..." She looked to Medlar for confirmation of the story she'd heard a hundred times over, but he wouldn't meet her eyes. A well of dismay suddenly yawned open in her stomach.
"Medlar?" she asked.
"Don't you think it's high time you told her the truth?" the shopkeeper said, not unkindly, but Medlar wouldn't look at him either. His eyes darted back and forth across the floor, as though looking for an exit. Finally he spoke.
"It was goin' on night, and I was on the road back to New Kobe, near the city wall," he said. "There was a dozen of 'em out in the field, easy. They musta thought they was alone. I reckon they was playin' -- turnin' theyselves into people, birds, animals, all sortsa things just for fun. It was... beautiful." He sighed. "I just wanted to watch, is all. But I got clumsy and they heard me and bolted." He looked up at the shopkeeper. "They left her behind," he said, almost accusingly. "She looked like a human baby. What was I s'posed to do, just leave her there?"
The shopkeeper looked at Kenna. He stepped up, gently took hold of her shoulder with one hand and retrieved his stolen ball with the other. Kenna didn't even notice; she was still gaping at Medlar.
"What--" she finally got out. "Medlar? What are you saying? I -- no. No. I--it's a lie."
Medlar still wouldn't look at her, and suddenly the well in Kenna's stomach bubbled with rage. She shook free of the stranger and flew at Medlar, pushing at him, screaming, slapping, beating, hating. And he simply stood and took the abuse, which only made it worse. Medlar never brooked that kind of disobedience from her.
"Stop it!" she screamed, and the tears started to come through. "Stop lying, old man! Tell him the truth! Tell him I'm human! I'm human, I'm just like you!"
With that, Medlar finally looked up at her, his eyes suspiciously red. "Oh, half right, cher," he said brokenly. "You are just like me. Finest little thief in New Kobe. But you ain't human." His eyes dropped again. "And... and you ain't rightly mine."
Medlar wasn't too clear on what happened next. The shopkeeper, foxfire ball in hand, began to murmur something under his breath in unknown syllables. The ball grew brighter and brighter until the light turned physically painful, but through the blinding brightness it seemed as though Kenna and the shopkeeper began to quiver and change -- and suddenly Medlar was alone in the gloom of the wisplit tank.
He started and gasped -- one with no cough to interrupt it. His lungs were whole and strong, and something told him he'd never be sick again a day in his life. So he had more than enough energy to go frantically through the tank, taking inventory. Every trace of Kenna's existence had been neatly erased, from her futon on the floor to her shoes in the genkan to all the little trinkets she'd swiped and brought to him over the years, as though thievery were a game she played and won.
His long-term investment -- his little foundling -- had simply evaporated. Only his memories of her were intact, and Medlar honestly wasn't sure whether that was meant as a kindness or a cruelty.
He sat down hard on the futon and -- well, he never cried -- began scrubbing roughly at his traitorous eyes. From the day he'd stolen back to New Kobe with her, Medlar had reckoned that some day someone from her people would catch up to him -- there must be so very few of them left now; they had to be looking for her -- so he was always scaring her with don't ever be seen, don't linger too long, don't go anywhere with a stranger, never touch anything, if the keis catch you I'll cut my losses and move on. And now he didn't know how to move on without Kenna. She might not be his, and she might not be human, but they were too much like each other to function separately.
But... Kenna thought of herself as human. And as his. She'd said so. If he needed her, he reckoned maybe she needed him, too. And the native -- a stranger to her, after all -- had never gotten Kenna's permission to take her away. Hope had always been a hard thing to kill in Medlar, and now it stirred in him and began spinning a harebrained idea.
He took a pack down from the wall and began to fill it with necessaries. It felt like the day he'd first run away from home. Slipping into his shoes in the genkan, he swung out of the tank, locked it down, climbed up the pier supports and out into the dark streets of New Kobe.
"Don't look for me to come running," I told her, Medlar thought, and it almost raised a smile. But hell, the kid's my long-term investment. I put too much work into her to just let someone take her without puttin' up a fight.
Reckon she's the most valuable thing I ever swiped.