|This story starts in the middle of things. I suggest you go read the beginning to find out how the characters met. They've known each other for quite a while by the time this takes place.|
The sound was remarkable, she was forced to admit, both in its volume and its quality. "Jace, you stop that!" She clapped her hands over her ears in a vain effort to shut out his voice, currently occupied with singing as loudly and off-key as possible. "Jace!"
He only sang louder, posing dramatically, ignoring her even when she smacked her fist aggravatedly into his arm. It was a showtune of some kind -- P.B. wasn't familiar with many of them, but he seemed to have an endless supply. She was increasingly sorry she'd asked him to prove it. It had probably been the drinking -- on both counts.
"All right, if you don't quit it --" She started shoving him toward the door, but he didn't seem affected by this either, continuing his performance.
He only started to push back when she got the door open, but even then his efforts weren't terribly motivated, and when she finally got the door shut, he leaned on it and sang even louder.
"Jace," she shouted, suddenly mortified, "You are gonna wake the neighbors!"
In fact, he probably already had. She hadn't heard any doors open, but it was almost a certainty she'd hear about this in the morning. She yanked the door open and grabbed his arm, hauling him bodily back inside and clapping her other hand over his mouth. It did very little to muffle the sound, but between that and the glare he did finally fall silent, nudging the door shut behind him with his foot.
"But you said you liked music," he said innocently, after she'd removed her hand.
"And that was not music in the least sense of the word," she answered, folding her arms. "Are you tryin' to get me kicked out?"
He sniffed. "Clearly you have no appreciation of fine singing."
"If that's fine singing, I don't think I'll ever acquire the taste."
He didn't seem terribly concerned about it, following her to her bedroom, where she ambled to her closet in search of her uniform, a one-piece affair that only contributed to the sweltering heat of the garage. She squinted for a moment, then ran a quick diagnostic to wipe the last effects of the drink from her systems.
"What, already?" he asked as she pulled it off its hanger, and she shrugged, kicking her shoes off.
"You know I go in early today, honey. Got a full schedule, and I want a little time to work on my baby." She stepped into the legs, glancing at him sideways. "Not too heartbroken, I hope."
"What? Never. I'll just stop by and pester you while you're at work." He smiled broadly, but she only rolled her eyes in response, tugging the rest of it over her arms and bending to zip it up.
"Well, you seem to take such pleasure in it," she said. "Who'm I to deny you?"
"You miss me when I'm gone," he said agreeably, and she laughed.
"Like I'd ever tell you if I did." She arched an eyebrow. "You got anything better to do than mess with me, honey?"
"Not today," he answered happily, then tilted his head. "You want a ride?"
"No," she said with a faint smile. "I thought I'd walk today. Miss Tilly said she'd been missin' my company."
"Oh, right," he said, drawing the word out thoughtfully. "Muffins."
"Always." She grinned. "I told her I wanted some to share with the crew, so hopefully she's got a batch ready."
Jace nodded sagely. "I've always appreciated the finer points of a good meal."
"Yeah?" She patted his arm, walking past him into the living area. "Well, so does my gentleman caller, so if you'd be so kind as to leave him a little food before you go, I'd appreciate it."
He tossed her an offhand salute. "As little as the big guy likes the competition, I'm sure he'll take food from me."
"Thanks, honey," she said, and disappeared out the front door. At this point she'd no reason to doubt he'd show up as promised.
And he did, apparently content to follow her around for the bulk of the afternoon, watching her stock the shop's shelves and carrying on sporadic conversation. For the most part, he seemed simply to want to be there, and he left her largely unmolested -- at least until Mitzi ducked into the back, presumably to take a short break.
"You smell good," he remarked suddenly, tugging her into a one-armed embrace and making a show of sniffing at her hair.
"I smell like grease and motor oil," she retorted, and pushed away from him to reach for the box of parts she'd acquired to restock the shelves.
"I like those smells," he defended his assertion, releasing her with a sigh of wounded good intentions.
"Whatever you say, hon." She shook her head, reaching into the box. The boss had been sending her out front more often lately, claiming they were getting more customers and Mitzi was busy, but her count still had them close to their average.
"Damn interfering old bastard," she growled, and another sniff sounded behind her.
"I'm not that old. In fact, unless I'm mistaken, you're plenty older than me."
"You got no idea," she said, glancing over her shoulder with a faint smile. "But I meant th'boss. He's been sendin' me up here like it's some kinda treat lately."
"You mean it's not?" He unleashed his cheeky grin, and she rolled her eyes at him, turning back to the shelves, which were rapidly filling as her hands continued to move. "I thought robots were supposed to be good for neverending, tedious work."
"Yeah, I've seen how well that worked out for you," she pointed out, and his grin grew momentarily broader.
"Well, maybe he's just doing me the favor."
"And just what would you have done to have him owe you any favors, Jace, honey?"
He lifted his hand to rub thoughtfully at his chin, then shrugged. "He gets to partake of my funds pretty regularly."
She laughed. "Now, I will grant you he likes a regular customer as much as anything, but I don't think that's liable to be his reasonin'." She scratched her cheek, a faint frown working at her lips as she knelt to continue stocking. "Could be I just ain't got as much work as I used to."
"I doubt that." He crouched next to her, picking up a bag of LEDs and placing it on the proper hook. "You always pick the worst option first, Miss P.B.?"
"That ain't the worst option," she said, turning and closing one eye in a slow wink. "But it is true -- 's left me enough time to work on my baby -- at least a little bit."
"Oh yeah? And how's she coming along?"
"Almost t'where she'll run." P.B. paused in the middle of placing another bag on its hook. "None of the bells 'n whistles yet, but I'm gonna take those slow, considerin' my paycheck."
"You'll hafta show me once she's all together."
"I will." A sigh huffed from her throat, lips twisting into an expression somewhere between wistful and embarrassed. "Though I gotta say, she'll have nothing on your ride."
"But she'll be your ride," he countered as she got to her feet, and he stood after her, grinning again. "And you won't have to worry about anybody clinging to you while you borrow their bike."
She tutted, returning the grin. "Well, ain't that the god's honest truth."
Scooping up the box, now empty, she started toward the counter, and Jace shadowed her, catching hold of her again when she started to turn the corner around the barrier. "You really do smell nice," he insisted, ignoring an unsurprising roll of her eyes.
"Jace," she said, irritation creeping into her voice. "I don't let the boys manhandle me, and you ain't getting preferential treatment, y'hear?"
He released her with a melodramatic sigh. "Yes'm."
"I'll be right back," she said, waving the empty box and continuing toward the back of the shop, shaking her head.
Pushing past the door, she lurched back slightly when Mitzi bounced out of a chair to greet her, looking over her shoulder with wrinkled brow. "Oh, hi, Phoebe."
"What're you doin' hiding back here, Miss Mitzi?" she asked mildly, tossing the box into a nearby trashcan and making her way to the shelves that housed stock and parts. "Somethin' out there scare you? I told him to play nice."
"Oh, no -- that's really not it at all ..." The blonde girl followed her, wringing her hands. "It's just, I mean -- he's so weird."
P.B. laughed, glancing at her sideways and brushing a lock of ruddy hair out of her eyes. "Mitzi May, we get stranger in here every day, and you know it. Why's he bother you so much?"
"I don't know ... It's just ..."
She scanned the stock, arching an eyebrow as the girl continued to stammer. "Where'd the boss put those ugly seat covers? It's lookin' like they finally need a refill."
"Oh, probably um. Back in the corner." Mitzi trotted past her, toward a darker and dustier corner of the room, and emerged after some rustling with the requested item.
"Thank you, honey." She brushed at the thick layer of dust for a moment, wrinkling her nose when all she managed was to transfer it to her hand, and started toward the front.
"Hang on, Phoebe --"
She glanced back to find Mitzi's hand outstretched to catch her arm, but she drew it back, biting her lip. "It's just -- I mean -- I think he's got a crush on you, Phoebe!" she blurted finally, cheeks heating.
P.B. blinked once, for a moment uncertain how to respond, then a faint puff of laughter pushed past her lips, growing more pronounced as she considered the notion. "Mitzi, of all the --"
"But look at the way he hangs around, and it's always to see you --" she insisted, emphasizing the point with a wide gesture with her hands.
"Honey," P.B. interrupted her, looking down at the box and then sideways at Mitzi, "I don't think he has the attention span for that -- if he's here, I 'magine the folks he usually harasses ain't available."
"But Phoebe ..."
"Honestly, Mitzi, it ain't anything you need to be worryin' your head about anyway." She reached over to ruffle the girl's hair, smiling gently. "Now, I got stockin' to do." And she turned, making her way back into the store.
Mitzi followed her sulkily out to the register and leaned on the counter, watching her thread her way back through the aisles and making a face at Jace, who arched an eyebrow and stuck his tongue out at her in return.
"You know," he said in dramatically hushed tones, turning away from the counter to catch up with P.B., "I don't think your delectable Miss Mitzi likes me one little bit."
"That so?" P.B. asked, reaching into the box of seat covers to snatch a handful and stuff them into one of the emptier slots. "Whyever would you think that, now?"
"Just an educated guess." He glanced over his shoulder to catch the girl's eye, and she razzed him, resting her face in her hands.
"Well, I wouldn't take it personal," she said absently, prodding at the seat covers to make sure they'd remain in place. When they did, she turned on her heel and trotted toward the back again. "I reckon that'll do for cow print."
"Oh, I wouldn't ever," he said, looking at Mitzi again with a fanged grin. The girl sniffed and looked away. "Just means I'm doin' my job right."
"Well, if you two insist on antagonizin' each other, far be it from me to interfere." She made her way swiftly around the counter and returned to the back, leaving the pair alone in spite of Mitzi's stare of protest.
"Oh, now, I can't be that bad," Jace suggested, leaning his elbows on the counter and giving her a winning smile. "If I didn't know better, I'd say it was you who had a crush."
"I'm married," Mitzi sniffed.
"Which doesn't change my point in the least little bit."
Before she could respond with cutting words or a dismissive expression, the door jangled, and she turned immediately, face lighting up with the false cheer of customer service. "Welcome to Boss Hiram's Parts and Custom! How can I ... help you?"
She trailed off, forehead wrinkled, and Jace turned to have a look at the customer who was causing her so much confusion. He blinked. The man was trim and neatly dressed in a suit and tie, and he looked around the shop with an air of disorientation.
"Not your usual customer, I'd wager," Jace remarked in an undertone, and Mitzi glanced back at him with a helpless shrug.
"Not at all," she murmured.
The man seemed to recover in that moment and made his way to the counter with a clipped, easy step. Mitzi bolstered her smile, cocking her head as he approached. "Did you need a part, or did you come for repairs?"
"No, actually ..." He rubbed his cheek, looking around the shop again with a thoughtful expression. "I'm looking for someone -- I heard she worked here." He reached into his jacket, tugging loose a holographic album. "This woman," he said, and the device sprang to life, revealing a familiar, red-haired form in wavering 3D.
Mitzi stiffened, but her shoulders relaxed in time to give a quick, careless shrug. "Oh, her? Yes, but I'm not sure she's here today -- let me check out back."
Jace glanced at her, arching an eyebrow, but she didn't catch his gaze, instead hurrying through the door. When he looked back, the man was watching him, offering a very faint smile.
"You ... work here too?"
"Eh, no." Jace smiled disarmingly, lifting a hand in a dismissive wave. "They got something for me out back, I'm just waiting for it."
"I see --" His head swung back a sudden clatter from behind the door, and he cursed even as Mitzi burst through the door, unable to completely disguise her distress.
"I -- I'm afraid she's not here today -- wait!" She lunged for the man, but he was already halfway to the door, holographic album forgotten on the counter. "Jace -- Jace, go help her! She took the back door to the alley --"
He was following the man before she'd finished her request, but he tossed a wave over his shoulder as he shot out the door to his bike.
P.B. stumbled, the loss of control causing another spike of panic to jolt through her systems. She was more than certain she could outrun a human, but without her armor -- and with her internal boosters stripped out -- it felt as though was was running through molasses. She was shocked they'd come after so many years -- shocked, to her utter disgust.
She felt the gun in her hand, snatched at the boss' offering on an impulse, and shuddered at the weight of the metal. She'd lost track of the number of years since she'd held one.
"Wait!" shouted a voice from behind her -- terribly close -- and she spun, lifting the weapon without thinking. "Wait, please --" He broke off, leaning forward slightly and resting his hands on his knees, out of breath.
"How did you catch up?" she demanded, and he looked up blankly -- not what he'd expected to hear. Not what she'd expected to say.
"I'm a cyborg," he said. "My name is Andy Sutherland -- I'm a private detective --" He broke off when her grip on the gun tightend, lifting his hands placatingly. "Hear me out!"
Still holding one hand out, he reached into his pocket, but he was only halfway through the motion when a familiar roar sounded at the end of the alley. Seconds later, Jace was between them, reaching for her hand to pull her onto the back of the bike.
She twisted her head as they sped away to see his hand outstretched again, and something dangling from it that flashed silver in the spotty sunlight. A strange, strangled sound escaped from her throat, and her grip on Jace tightened as she buried her face against his back.
At a loss for where to flee, Jace took a meandering route that led him to the memorial park where P.B. did some of her drinking. He glanced over his shoulder once or twice to find his passenger hadn't budged, grip on him as tight as ever. She didn't relax even when he pulled into the parking lot, slowing to an easy stop in the nearest parking space.
She started, jolted all at once from whatever reverie held her, and released him, sliding quickly off the bike and swaying as she found her feet. "I'm sorry --"
"You don't need to be sorry, but --" He broke off to catch her arm. "Who was that guy?"
"I don't know," she said, shaking off his hand and stumbling forward another couple of steps to reach the sidewalk. "I gotta apologize to him."
Jace followed her, running one hand back through his windblown hair and sighing, frustration evident in his tone when he spoke again. "P.B. --"
"He knows where she is, Jace," she said, voice breaking, and sagged to the sidewalk as though her legs would no longer support her, hands covering her face. "My baby girl -- he knows where to find my baby girl!"
"Your ... baby girl?" he repeated, and she looked up, tears running in streams down her face. He rubbed the back of his neck, shaking a sudden disorientation from his systems. "P.B. --" He crouched in front of her, reaching out to catch her hands with his, preventing her from hiding behind them again. "P.B., what the hell is going on? You.. have a kid?"
She stared at him for a moment, then uttered a watery, spluttering laugh in spite of her tears. "Oh, Jace, honey, no ... she wasn't mine. I just loved her like she was."
Her head started to duck again, but he released one of her hands to catch her face and lifted it, gaze meeting hers with what could almost be called sternness. She didn't look away, but her eyes remained wearily, unbearably sad. "It's such a long story," she said.
"I've got nowhere to be."
She watched him for another moment as if silently debating, then raised her free hand to wipe her eyes, a wan smile forming on her lips. "You asked for it."
"I sure did." He finally released her, but he stayed where he was, prepared to catch her again if she started backsliding.
"I told you I was ex-military, right?" She didn't wait for a nod before continuing. "Well, that's sort of dancing around the issue." She pressed her fingers to her temples for a moment as if trying to sort through the entire business in her head. "I guess I better just start at the top ... it'll be might confusin' otherwise."
Jace managed to refrain from interrupting to tell her it was pretty darn confusing already.
"My unit was commissioned back at the height of the wars -- when things weren't lookin' so good for the good guys, if you know what I mean. We were easy to make and easy to replace -- cannon fodder, honey, is what I'm tryin' to say here."
She smiled, reaching back to tug the kerchief from her hair and toy with it silently. "Not to say any of us knew or cared at th'time -- we just did our thing. Fought, died, got replaced. We never got assigned proper names, you could say. Each of us was a Greek letter. If someone died, the person who replaced him was named the same. I was Rho." She cast him a sideways glance and grinned. "They skipped Sigma for obvious reasons."
The grin faded as quickly as it had come, however, and she moved on. "We served our time, and eventually they came up with a newer model." She paused, eyes closing, and her hands clasped in front of her. "When they went into production, it ended up more cost effective to recycle us, the older models, and use our parts for scrap and spares. We were company property, after all ... don't reckon it even occurred to them to let us go."
"Must've been before the Reploid rights movement," he remarked, and she nodded, shrugging slightly.
"Shortly before," she said.
"But you somehow avoided being melted down with the rest of 'em?"
"That's where the story gets a little stranger," she said, chuckling in spite of her otherwise morose expression. "One of our missions landed us in a little neighborhood the Mavericks decided to set on fire, and I found a little girl in the wreckage, cryin' her little eyes out. Didn't seem like she was hurt, and we couldn't find her parents right off, so she ended up staying with us for a couple days."
Here she paused, her cheeks reddening, and she lifted a hand to rub at one of them as if in an effort to banish the color. "She got a little attached t'me, I guess."
"I can't imagine why that would be." Jace grinned at her, customary toothpick dangling from his teeth, and she looked away, then turned her head to fix him with a firm stare. He was wholly unabashed.
"But we found her parents soon enough," she continued, "And they took her away -- I figured I'd never see her again. But the day before our final 'briefing,' one of my superiors called me in an' told me I'd be going with the little girl -- Jasmine -- and her family."
He arched an eyebrow, and her mouth twitched. "They bought me, honey. Finances bein' what they were at the outfit, I guess what they offered was worth more'n my bits an' pieces. Apparently, Jasmine kicked up such a fuss without me her parents came back."
Jace snorted. "Most little girls just ask for a pony."
"Well, I can't complain." P.B. let out a long sigh. "I saved her life, an' she turned around to save mine. I lived with them for three years -- her mama wasn't strictly happy about the situation, but I 'magine she figured her li'l Jessie would get bored with her new toy and she could get rid of me."
"Y'could say that." She closed her eyes again, rubbing at the bridge of her nose. "Last straw came when Jessie got hurt on the playground and asked for me an' not her." She hesitated. "An' even after her mama came, she kept on yellin' for me."
"Took drastic measures, did she?" He reached a hand out to tuck a lock of her red hair behind her ear, and she opened her eyes, starting. She didn't move away from his touch, however, and he used it as an excuse to linger, still watching her.
"Kicked me out that very same day. Lot of screamin' and cryin' involved, as I recall." Her lips took a bitter twist. "Screamin' from her, cryin' from Jessie. Her papa tried to stop things, but he never had the backbone to stand up to that woman." She shook her head, dislodging Jace in the process, but continued as if she hadn't noticed. "I said good-bye quick as I could, an' I left the only thing I could think of with her so she'd stop cryin'."
He let his arms rest on his knees, looking thoughtful. "What'd you leave her?"
"My dog tags." Embarrassment crept onto her face again. "They issued 'em to us mostly so they'd know which model to replace if one of us died, really. But I kept 'em all that time, an' I thought they'd make a decent enough memento." Her expression softened for a moment. "All she had to give me back was a picture she drew. But her mama was getting pretty impatient by then."
She unclasped her hands, looking down at them silently for a moment. "Pretty well shoved me out the door an' said she'd call the 'thorities an' have me melted down if she ever saw me 'gain. I ain't seen any of 'em since. I thought.. I figured.. she'd forget about me."
"Guess she didn't." He flicked his toothpick absently to the ground. "What are you gonna do, then?"
"I gotta go back," she answered immediately, forehead wrinkling. "I gotta apologize to that man. I nearly shot him, and all he did was try to help." Her voice broke on the last sentence, and she shook her head again, fighting to maintain her calm.
"All right, then --" Jace rose, setting his hands momentarily on his hips. "You ready?"
There was only a moment's hesitation before she nodded, expression still subdued and weary, and tried a smile. "If you don't mind lettin' me borrow your back seat again."
"Never do." He offered his hand and was surprised when she took it, but he only grinned in reaction and pulled her to her feet, not releasing her until they were nearer to his motorcycle. He was half about to speak again before changing his mind and mounting the bike, but she didn't notice, climbing on behind him and setting one hand loosely on his waist.
A faint, almost disappointed smile quirked his lips, but he sped out of the parking lot without another word, taking the direct route back to Hiram's shop and making very little effort to obey the speed limit.
"Phoebe!" Mitzi yelped as they walked in the door. "Are you okay?" She met them halfway across the sales floor, reaching out to clasp one of the Reploid's hands.
"Mitzi, honey, of course I'm fine -- the man didn't try to shoot me."
"Well, Uncle Hiram nearly shot him --" she said in an undertone, but the Reploid heard her anyway, and he pounded a meaty fist on the hammer.
"He comes, he scares my employee," he growled. "And I'm supposed to say 'nice to see you, come back again'?"
"Well, I think killing him is a little bit of a strong response," the girl argued, one of the few who would, and he waved her away, rolling his eyes.
"P.B., you all right?"
"Like I told Mitzi, he didn't mean no harm."
"Right, he explained that after you took off." He towering mechanic scratched his bushy beard and sighed. "He said he was sorry for the trouble."
"So am I," P.B. muttered. "I shouldn't rightly have gone off like that."
He made a dismissive sound. "Blame Mitzi, she's the one who freaked out."
"Oh, whatever!" Mitzi folded her arms, scowling, but he ignored her.
"But seriously, P.B., why the hell didn't you say something?" He scowled at her, hands once again planted on his hips. "If you thought you were in so much trouble, you should have come to us! We all got our reasons we're here. We'd never turn you in."
P.B. stared at him, shoulders sagging as she lifted a shaky hand to her forehead. "I'm sorry, boss. I ... thank you." She hesitated, dropping her hand. "Is he still here?"
"No, he took off. But he left something," he added quickly, face going hot. The grief that had flooded P.B.'s expression quickly faded. "Mitzi --"
"It's right here," she said, picking up an envelope on the counter and waving it absently. She extended it when P.B. stepped over to receive it, watching silently as the woman opened it to look inside.
"Oh," P.B. said softly. She lifted out a silvery chain, holding it up to look at the letters engraved in the metal tags that dangled from it. She lowered it then, tugging out a thin slip of cardboard. "A business card?"
"Yeah, he said to contact him at his office if you wanted to talk." Mitzi tilted her head. "You gonna go?"
P.B. stared silently at the card, looking up only when Hiram cleared his throat.
"You go home today, P.B."
"Oh -- I can still --"
"No, I said you go home. You've had a rough day. Take a couple days off." Hiram grinned, reaching over to clap a hand on her shoulder. "Don't worry, you'll have plenty to do when you get back."
"Well, if y'absolutely insist," she said, offering a wavering smile as she slipped the card and tags back into the envelope and pocketed it. "I guess I'll be seein' ya in a few days."
"Sure." He waved a hand, glancing at Jace, who blinked at the sudden attention. "You keep an eye on her, boy."
"Boss!" P.B. protested, but the Reploid only laughed, waving her away and turning to return to the back of the shop.
"Well, you heard the man," Jace said cheerfully, slinging an arm around her shoulders and steering her toward the door. He cocked his head over his shoulder and winked outrageously at Mitzi, who couldn't decide whether to laugh or bristle, then stepped into the parking lot.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked P.B., who so far had not only failed to attempt an escape from his grip but shown no sign she even noticed.
She offered him the same, faint smile she'd been using for the past hour. "I'm all right."
He released her as they approached the bike, frowning slightly, then shrugged his concerns away, mounting up and waiting for her to take her seat. She did so mechanically, bracing herself against him and, more strangely leaning her forehead against his back. She rested there only a moment, long enough for him to turn his head to see if there was a problem.
When there was not, he shook his head and started out of the parking lot, making the ride to her apartment complex in silence.
"Want me to come up?"
P.B. slid off the back of the bike, waiting until she'd walked up next to him to answer. "Oh, no, honey. I'll be all right. I just need a little time to think."
He watched her, cracking a grin that managed not to be entirely false. "That's just thinking, now, and not drinking, right?"
She arched an eyebrow, hands taking up position on her hips, then shook her head and laughed softly. "Just thinkin', Jace. Just thinkin'."
"Well, as long as I've got your solemn word not to drink without me," he said, and started to pull away. "I'll drop by tomorrow."
"Sure." She was half turned away already, lifting a hand in farewell, and he watched her vanish behind the apartment door before wheeling himself into the street.
P.B. slogged silently up the stairs, not even considering the elevator until she was halfway up to her floor, and by then it hardly mattered. She shrugged her way into her room, glancing up at the cat's familiar yowl.
"You got food, ya big baby." She did amble over to scratch his ears, and he made a murmuring sound somewhere between appreciation and indignation. "Sorry for the lack of socializing," she said, "but I'm just gonna go lie down, if it's all the same."
He turned to his food dish, indicating to her that it rather was. She grinned at him, then slipped into her bedroom, stripping out of her work clothes and leaving them in a heap on the floor. She sank onto the bed in her underwear, briefly considering the merits of a shower before dismissing the notion, and scooted back until she could rest against the wall, pulling her knees up to her chest.
She stared vacantly at the far wall, trying to pin down the whirlwind of the day's events, tightening her grip on them when they threatened to escape her. She remembered the stab of panic when the detective caught her in the alley, the relief when that familiar bike roared in the distance, the look of hurt on her boss' face when he realized she never trusted him completely.
But most of all she remembered the feel of Jace's body as she clung behind him on the bike and the warm weight of his arm where it had rested around her shoulders.
"Do you have an appointment?" the secretary asked, placing a delicate pause in just the right place to make the whole conversation sound like a terrible inconvenience.
P.B. tossed her hair, fixing the woman with a chilly and altogether dismissive stare. "Do you got any idea just how aggravatin' that question is? 'Course I ain't got a damn appointment, or you wouldn't be askin' me."
The secretary stiffened slightly, then turned her face away, cheeks faintly pink. "Then I guess you see the problem. If you don't have an appointment, you'll have to wait --"
"That was the plan. I ain't got anywhere to be today." She folded her arms and sank into the nearest chair, folding one leg over the other.
"Or you could make an appointment."
"Anythin' to get me out of the office?" P.B. chuckled. They were the only clothes she had outside of work, and they were hardly businesswear, but she looked better off than a street tramp. She made a face, wondering what pay range the man's regular clients fell into. "Man goes out of his way to stop off at my place of work, least he could do is find five minutes for me in his busy schedule."
The woman stared at her for a moment, about to retort, when her hostility melted away all at once, and she half rose out of her chair. "Wait -- are you Rho?"
P.B.'s shoulders jerked, and she arched an eyebrow. "Used to be," she grunted. "Way too many people knowin' that name these days."
"Oh, I'm sorry -- he told me to let you in right away if you came." She lifted her shoulders helplessly. "We're not a very well-known office," she explained. "Most people who come in without an appointment are panhandlers or drunks or --"
The Reploid chuckled and lifted a hand, waving her apology away. "I ain't gonna ask which of those you thought I was," she said with a grin, and the woman's cheeks went even redder.
"I'm sorry," she mumbled again, then cleared her throat. "Mr. Sutherland's just out getting some coffee -- he should be back in a couple minutes."
P.B. arched an eyebrow. "He don't send you?"
"I've got too much paperwork to do," she said, managing to summon a grin to match P.B.'s.
"Huh," P.B. said and leaned back, tucking her hands behind her head. "Well, I guess I'll let you get to that, then."
The secretary's grin turned wry, but she nodded and lowered her gaze to the datapads and papers on her desk, and P.B. lowered her gaze to stare at her lap. Her fingers tapped quietly against her leg, a frown pushing at her lips. She hadn't accounted for the possibility of a wait.
She closed her eyes, arranging the facts one at a time in her mind. Two simple questions were all she wanted to ask, and then, maybe --
Her eyes opened as the door's latch clicked. "Sorry that took so long, Victoria ..." He stepped into the room, looking much the same as he had the day before, a steaming cup in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other. "There was a line."
"There's always a line, Mr. Sutherland," the secretary -- Victoria -- pointed out. "I told you it might be better to wait until after the lunch rush."
"Well, you know," he said, starting toward her desk, then stopping when he realized there was someone else in the room. He turned and nearly dropped his coffee. "You came! I didn't think -- I mean, I told her -- ah ..." He fumbled over to the desk and set his items down, ignoring the eyeroll from his office assistant.
P.B. got to her feet, lifting one hand to stave off his enthusiasm and using the other to partially cover the embarrassment on her face. "Sorry I ain't got an appointment," she said. "I just got a couple of questions --"
"No, it's fine -- here -- my office." He nearly stumbled again going in the door.
She looked at Victoria, arching an eyebrow, and the woman lifted her shoulders with a tolerant smile. Shaking her head, P.B. strode into the room, closing the door behind her.
"Have a seat," Sutherland offered, but she shook her head.
"I ain't gonna be here long." She arched an eyebrow -- again -- at the look of disappointment that flooded his features. "I just wanted to ask you --"
She frowned, watching the cyborg sink into his chair with a pale, worn smile.
"You have time, right?" he said. "I'm not busy, either ... I don't know what Victoria told you, but I haven't got any appointments today. I just want to tell you a little bit about ... this case."
Her frown deepened for a moment. "All right," she said finally, making her way to one off the chairs before his desk and settling stiffly into it. "I want to know where Jessie is," she said. "And how you found me."
"I can answer both of those ... just hear me out." He offered a shaky smile, probably picturing her frantic figure in the alley, gun aimed at his face. She nodded, and he sucked in a long breath, sinking backward in his chair.
"I guess it was ... well, nearly a year ago when I met Jasmine Waites for the first time." He rubbed his cheek, smiling very faintly. "She marched into my office -- without an appointment, yes -- and told me that she was eighteen, and I'd better not contact her parents."
"Sounds familiar, huh?" He rubbed the back of his neck. "After I told her I agreed to the terms, she told me she wanted to find someone for her. That she'd been looking for this person ever since she left when she was --"
"Seven," P.B. whispered. "She was seven."
"Yeah." He looked at her carefully for a moment before continuing. "I thought she was exaggerating, but she produced documents, and ... well, I was completely taken in. She gave me all the information she had and set me loose, basically, but ..." He grinned and shook his head. "You're a hard woman to find."
"I was tryin' not to be found."
"So I gathered." He smiled again, perhaps in recognition of his own accomplishment. "The only reason I found you is a paper trail ... a tiny one, at that." He lifted a hand when her expression became alarmed. "That shop you work at -- all that happened is they sold one of the components you.. ah.. donated."
"Oh." She chuckled weakly, resting her head against her fist. "Well, I should have expected some of that."
"Yeah.. it was a pretty unique item. Information about your line wasn't hard to find, and when a part from your line turned up on the market, I thought it might be my break." He paused, then shrugged. "I kept Miss Waites updated, but we were both pretty close to giving up at the time."
"Well, maybe I ought to apologize," she said, tone dry, and he laughed.
"Well, no, but -- she did cry a little bit."
P.B. scowled. "If you've got a point, kindly make it."
"No, that's not --" He looked, for a moment, heartily embarrassed. "Rho --"
"It's not Rho anymore," she pointed out, heartily tired of hearing the name, herself. "If you gotta call me somethin', just call me P.B."
"Er.. all right. P.B., then." He rubbed his cheek again, smiling srangely. "Well -- to get to the point, she wants to see you -- P.B."
She straightened in her seat, hands suddenly gripping her jeans. "I guess that stands to reason," she said after a moment, voice soft, and stared at her lap again, head beginning to spin.
"You do want to see her, right?" He cocked his head, still watching her. "From the way she talked, you two were really close."
"Of course I want to see her," she whispered, pressing the the palm of her hand to her eye. "I've wanted to see her for twelve years now."
He relaxed, smile becoming, quite suddenly, more genuine than she remembered. "Then I think I can accomodate you."
It was another hour before she stumbled back to her apartment, feeling more mentally exhausted than she could remember feeling in many, many years. She glanced up as she opened he door, surprised at a wave of relief that swept over her when she found her feline companion absent. Shaking her head, she made her way to the single chair she owned and slumped onto it, drifting halfway into standby before she'd realized it.
She was woken some hours later by a familiar rap and a cheerful call of her name.
"Oh," she said, recovering from her momentary disorientation. "Right."
"You told me to stop by," he said when she opened the door, and she nodded, peering for a moment at the device he held in his arms. Noting her stare, he lifted it with a grin. "It's a guitar," he said.
"Well, I can see that, honey," she said, folding her arms as she led him into the room. "What I'm wonderin' is what you're plannin' to do with it."
"I am here, Miss P.B.," he said with authority, "to prove you wrong."
"Oh, hell," she said, flinging her arms up. "You know how many calls I got th'last time --"
"I deserve a second chance!" he protested, already unslinging the instrument from around his shoulders. "You were hardly seeing me at my full potential that time --"
"You gonna try to tell me it was just 'cause you were drunk?"
"Well --" He paused. "Of course not. Why would you think such a thing?"
She folded her arms, then lifted one hand to press against her temple. "Jace, it's been such a very long day --"
He lifted a hand, taking a step toward her with an unusually serious expression. "I know that P.B., really ... just give me a chance, all right? It might cheer you up."
She rolled her eyes heavenward and flung her hands up again. "All right, honey, you win." She gestured toward the solitary chair, noting the grin had returned to his face. Forcing the weariness from her expression, she took her place against the wall across from him, sinking to the floor and crossing her legs in front of her.
A low rumble sounded at the window, and she glanced over to see the cat had returned, looking on the scene with more than his usual skepticism.
"Oh, take a seat," she said. "We're about to be serenaded."
Jace sniffed, and the cat grunted, hunkering down in the window.
"Ye of little faith," the Reploid said, and he settled his guitar into place, strumming a few chords as if to check the instrument's tuning, however unnecessary. Then he began to play.
From the first notes it was clear he'd been telling the truth, a simple folk song taking shape from the guitar's strings. The second test remained, but P.B. was already quite prepared to face being proven completely and utterly mistaken. And she was in the next moment, when a soft and pleasant -- if untrained -- voice started singing the lyrics. It wasn't a song she knew, but he nevertheless managed to make it sound familiar.
She was silent -- frozen in place, perhaps -- until the song finished, at which point she relaxed against the wall, at least until his inquisitive gaze sought her out.
"Well, am I redeemed?" he asked, grinning impishly at her.
P.B. sniffed, reddening slightly at his sudden scrutiny, but she managed to wave a hand dismissively, meeting his gaze after a moment. "All right, honey, you win this round." She looked away again, attempting to figure out a way to ask for an encore without feeling like an idiot.
It was somewhat to her relief that he spoke before she did.
"So, does that mean I can play some more?" he said, and she pretended to think about it before smiling a quiet, almost shy smile.
"Go right ahead, honey."
He just grinned at her for a moment, clearly resisting the urge to call her on her desire to hear more. Instead, he ducked his head, strummed a few chords, and chose another song. This one she knew, though she wasn't completely certain where she'd heard it. Perhaps it had been playing on the radio at work -- or perhaps it came from an earlier time, in a smoky bar somewhere in another part of the country.
She smiled, pulling one knee up to her chest and resting her chin there. She lost track of how long she spent in that position, silently listening to Jace's voice, but she found she didn't care awfully, and he seemed perfectly willing to keep going until given a signal to halt.
Once or twice she caught him watching her, gaze surprisingly intense for a man who displayed as little intensity as possible most of the time. Even more surprisingly, she found herself unable to meet it, looking away and feeling more than a little heat rise into her face.
It was jarring when, eventually, the last note faded, and she heard his voice again -- speaking this time.
"Did you go see that detective guy?"
She lifted her head, blinking as though she'd been jolted from a dream, then nodded slowly. "He told me where she is," she said, divulging first the most important part of the conversation.
"So you're gonna go see her, right?" He set his guitar aside, leaning forward to watch her in a way that made her feel as though she was being weighed and measured. It made her nearly as uncomfortable as the other stare.
"'Course I am," she said. "I'd be crazy not to."
He nodded, clearly in agreement on that point, and she met his gaze, her usual resigned confidence crumbling at the prospect.
"I was hopin'," she started, pausing almost long enough for him to prompt her. "I was hopin' you'd take me out there, if you got the time." She hurried on before he could respond. "It's kind of a hike, and I don't want to be late --"
"'Course I will," he interrupted, waving her blurted explanations away. "I'm free as a bird most days of the week."
Her mouth quirked. "Well, I'll take your word on that, honey." Then she sucked in a deep breath and rocked to her feet, pausing for a long stretch before dropping her arms to her sides. "You stayin' the night, then?"
"If you'll have me," he grinned, glancing sideways at the cat, who was curled up on the console, tail twitching as he pretended to sleep. "And if your friend can stand the competition."
"I think he's used to you, after all this time." She tugged her shirtsleeve, straightening it slightly, then arched an eyebrow. "There's still a bit of food in the fridge, so y'don't have to go accostin' my neighbors in the morning."
He sighed elaborately. "I suppose I can restrain myself this once."
"Damn right you can," she said, scowling. "Not like they'd feed you anyway, I 'magine."
"What a thing to suggest -- I'm sure I could win them over with my ample charms." Here he paused to bat his eyelashes, and she laughed.
"Whatever charms you got, they're gonna have to be pretty spectacular." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear and folded her arms, rocking back on her heels for a moment. "I gotta catch a shower, though, if you think you can live without my company."
He tossed her an offhand salute. "I think I can keep myself occupied," he suggested, casting the cat a sideways glance and grinning in a way that was not at all reassuring.
"Don't you boys go tearing up my furniture," she warned him, turning toward the bedroom and bathroom therein. "Ain't got much as it is."
"Yes, ma'am," Jace called after her, watching until she vanished behind the door.
Once out of his presence, her shoulders fell slightly, as if some weight had settled on them, lifted only as a temporary reprieve. She put a hand to her forehead, then started to tug her shirt over her head, stopping when she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror.
She scowled at it.
"Now you see here, Miss P.B.," she said to the reflection, a quiver in her voice betraying her agitation, and clamped her hands on either side of the sink. "He wasn't singin' to you, so there ain't no cause for that kind of foolishness." Her reflection stared back at her, just as fierce, and she pushed herself away. "Glad we got that straightened out."
Shaking her head, she finished stripping her clothes away and stepped into the shower, shaking her head as if to discard the last flutters of her artificial pulse.
"Idiot," she hissed at herself a final time.
She lingered in the shower, letting the water run over her body -- hotter than she usually ran it -- as if to wash the confusion from her system. It had been nearly an hour by the time she felt secure enough to face Jace, or any company at all really, and she stared in the mirror for a long moment before tugging on a t-shirt and some grubby jeans and returning to play the host.
"You must be mighty clean after all that," Jace suggested when she reappeared, and she twitched a faint smile, shrugging and ambling over to sit next to him. He had since set the guitar aside, but he was still sitting in the chair -- albeit backward now.
The cat was crouched over his food dish, back to them both and regally ignoring them.
"I guess I was dirtier than I thought," she said belatedly, running her fingers absently through her still-damp hair.
"Well, we certainly couldn't have a dirty P.B.," he said agreeably, standing just enough to push the chair out of his way and settling on the floor next to her. "I hereby authorize all necessary use of time when you find yourself extra grubby."
"Well, that's right kind of you, isn't it?" she said, chuckling.
"I think it's awfully generous of me," he said. "Since showers do cut in on my valuable P.B. time."
She rolled her eyes. "Now that I find a little hard to believe."
He leaned over enough to nudge her shoulder, frowning sternly. "I am saddened by your lack of faith in me. You know I place the greatest value on the time we spend together."
"I expect you place about as much value on me as he does," she said, pointing to the cat. "A free meal and a warm place to sleep."
"Aw," he said. "I like bugging you, too."
"Of course you do, honey," she said, somehow feeling weary and amused at the same time. "How could I forget."
He looked at her quietly for a moment, then smiled, reaching over to brush her hair away from her cheek. "So when are you going to meet your girl?"
"Oh ... she's got classes all morning, so we were gonna meet up for lunch." she turned to look at him, offering a wan smile. "You don't mind the wait, do you?"
"No, ma'am," he said, then looked at her curiously. "You planning to stay up? I can always serenade you some more." He wagged his eyebrows, and she laughed, shaking her head.
"I'm think it'd be best if I just went to bed for now, honey. I'm a little tired." She paused long enough to lift her arms in a weary stretch. "You're free to go take the bed any ol' time you feel like it," she added.
"Then I will," he said comfortably. "When I feel like it. I'm just fine here for now."
"Well, all right, then," she said, sleepiness creeping into her voice. "I hope you don't mind if I borrow your shoulder 'til then."
"Not at all." If there was anything strange in his tone, she missed it, leaning cautiously against him, then making herself comfortable when he showed no sign of exploding -- or anything equally disastrous. She was half aware of him shifting to settle in a more secure position before she let herself drift into standby. As she slept, she thought she heard a gentle voice singing soothingly -- maybe, she reasoned, she was dreaming.
Sunlight was streaming in the window when she finally woke, rubbing one eye blearily to discover that Jace was still next to her, slumped in exaggerated repose. She gave a faint snort, rubbing her cheek free of a sudden excess of heat, and reached over to touch his shoulder.
"Honey, I said you could use the bed."
"Muh," he said groggily, looking at her blankly for a moment before cracking an innocent -- if somewhat sheepish -- grin. "Guess I fell asleep before I made it there."
"Is that the case?" she said, shaking her head. "Well, I guess you got some sleep anyway."
"Sure did." He indulged in a long, drowsy stretch, then dropped his hands to pat absently at his belly. "But now I think I'll partake of some of that food you said you had on hand."
"Knock yourself out," P.B. said, pushing herself to her feet and making her way to the cat dish, which she found was running low. The cat, it seemed, was no longer present. She ambled past Jace into the kitchen to retrieve the bag of cat chow and paused to watch him yawn, smiling for a moment, then leaving him to his food.
They continued their morning routine in a familiar quiet, and when noon rolled around, they slipped just as quietly out the door. P.B.'s silence was owed largely to a sudden onset of nerves, and Jace's to a curious desire to leave her be. Apart from a few, brief directions, the ride was silent as well, though P.B. found it oddly difficult -- to her annoyance -- to avoid leaning against him as they traveled.
Her thoughts rattled uneasily in her skull, memories of the little girl she'd known competing with uncertainty about the young woman she'd become. And concerns about whether the meeting would end in disaster.
"This the place?" Jace asked, shaking her from her reverie.
She looked up and found they had arrived at an almost park-like area in the middle of a series of brick buildings, some sporting stately letters that politely indicated their purpose. The university commons. She wondered briefly how Jace had managed to get so far onto the campus without some university cop stopping him and ordering him to park his motorcycle.
"Yeah, honey, I think so."
Oddly enough, her fingers only tightened on him, and she turned her head to scan the area in an attempt to ignore them. Several students were scattered around in varying states of activity, some lounging in the sun, some under trees -- some reading, some sleeping. Her shoulders gave a jolt when her gaze fell on a slim girl standing in the shade of one of the trees, a backpack dangling loosely from her hand and a book fallen unnoticed at her feet.
"Jessie," P.B. whispered, and Jace turned his head to look where she was staring.
The girl took a hesitant step forward, then broke into a run, and P.B. vaulted off the bike, leaving Jace forgotten to catch the girl in a rough embrace as she closed the gap between them.
"You came," she said, jumping an octave to end in a sniffly squeak, and P.B. squeezed her arms around her.
"Of course I came, honey," she whispered. "Of course I came."
It was several moments before she could bring herself to release the girl, pushing her gently to arm's length and looking at her through embarrassingly watery eyes. She had kept her mother's figure, slender and petite, in spite of her childhood ambition to be tall and play basketball. Her hair was shorter now, cut in a bob, and perhaps a little darker than P.B. remembered, but her eyes were the same, clear blue.
"Oh, honey, you got so big," she said weakly, and the girl gave a spluttering giggle.
"Of course I got bigger," she said, lifting her hands to swipe at her eyes. "It's been ten years." She paused, lower lip pushing out in a faint pout. "I missed you so much. And you were so hard to find."
"I'm sorry," P.B. said softly, reaching out to touch the girl's hair, brushing it back from from her face and smiling wanly. "I really am, Jessie, you got no idea. But I was so afraid ..."
Jessie gave a soft sigh, slumping forward to bury her face against the Reploid. "I know. I'm sorry." She wrapped her arms around P.B. again, squeezing her middle, and sighed when the embrace was returned. "How long can you stay?"
P.B.'s mouth quirked in a faint smile. "Long as you want me to."
"Good," she mumbled. "Then I want you to stay forever."
P.B. laughed, giving the girl a quick squeeze. "I'll see what I can do, honey."
Jessie sniffed, finally releasing her, and smiled, looking past P.B. to where Jace still sat on his motorcycle, an unreadable expression on his face. "Who's your friend?" she asked, glancing up at P.B.
"His name's Jace." Her mouth quirked. "He lets me borrow his bike sometimes, but only if he gets to drive."
"Ohh." She tilted her head, looking at him again. "Is he your boyfriend?"
P.B. snorted, the sound somehow coming out halfway startled and halfway terrified, and she shook her head sharply. "No, honey, not at all."
"Really?" she said doubtfully. "I bet he wants to be."
"I doubt that," P.B. said firmly, then arched a skeptical eyebrow. "I don't see why he'd want to."
"Why wouldn't he want to?" Jessie asked, and P.B. shook her head again.
"Never mind, honey." She looked over her shoulder, and Jace cocked his head questioningly. "Well, let's go over and introduce you, then."
"Okay." The girl didn't seem inclined to leave her shadow, looping one arm around the Reploid's waist as they made their way to where Jace sat waiting. She looked at him almost shyly, then up at P.B., who smiled faintly.
"Jace, this is Jasmine Waites."
"Call me Jessie," the girl said firmly, then paused a moment before extending her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Miss Jessie," he said with his usual, easy grin, then stuck his hand out to clasp hers in a quick handshake. "Glad to see you're done causing P.B. so much grief."
Jessie blinked, withdrawing her hand to peer up at her companion. "P.B.?"
P.B.'s face instantly went blank, and Jace glanced at her as well. "Yeah, she's never told me what exactly it stands for, but that's what she likes to be called."
The girl stared a moment longer, then gave a startled burst of laughter, clapping a hand over her mouth and trying unsuccessfully to quash the sound. "B-but -- I was four when I -- you kept that name?"
By now, P.B. had gone quite pink, glaring at her, then at Jace, who was looking between them both in utter mystification. "Honey, I didn't have nothin' else to go by -- I most certainly didn't want to use my squad name --"
"Jessie, you shush," she said, looking almost alarmed.
"Aw, let me tell him --"
"But Jessie, honey ..."
"Aw, let her tell me," Jace put in, grinning widely at the entire exchange, and P.B. sighed, putting a hand to her forehead.
"Oh, fine ..."
"Well ..." Jessie bounced forward a little, grinning almost as widely as Jace. "We didn't have a name for her when she came with us, and she said she didn't want to go by what they called her in the military ... so Mom said I had to name her, and I couldn't think of anything."
"But, you know -- and I swear, I was four, okay --" She paused, looking at P.B. sideways. "Well, um, my favorite food was ... er ... peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
Jace cocked his head for a moment, then blinked, glancing at her, then glancing at P.B., who had now gone completely red in the cheeks. "What, seriously?" He was grinning uncontrollably.
"Uh-huh." Jessie was giggling again.
Then he was laughing too, gaze seeking out a highly embarrassed P.B., who folded her arms and looked at him with some indignation. "C'mon, P.B., that's hilarious --" But she only glared harder. "Awww ..." He kept snickering for a few moments before straightening out his expression, however.
P.B. sighed, rubbing her cheek. "Well, I guess your knowin' don't hurt anything, but if you tell the boys at work, I will --" She broke off, apparently unable to think of a threat dire enough that wouldn't burn her former ward's sensitive ears.
"All right, all right! I promise I won't tell a soul! Cross my heart." He grinned, then glanced between the two. "I'm guessin' you ladies will want some time to catch up, though." His gaze met P.B.'s. "I can pick you up tomorrow morning, if you'd like more time."
Jessie looked at her quickly. "Yes! You can stay the night -- they don't pay too much attention to who's staying at the dorms anyway."
"I -- well, okay, honey, if that's what you want." She was beginning to sound dazed.
"Good," Jessie chirped, and Jace tipped his nonexistent hat, smiling at them both.
"Then I'll be on my way for now. Don't do anything I wouldn't do," he said.
P.B. rolled her eyes, managing a quick smile and glancing at the girl, who still had an arm firmly around her, much as if she thought the Reploid would vanish like smoke if she were released.
"I'll see you later, Jace," she said, and he nodded.
"Catch you in the morning -- Peanut Butter." Then he whipped away, barely quick enough to avoid a swipe of her hand.
"Jace!" she shouted after him, and he lifted a hand in a farewell wave.
"That's my name," he called over his shoulder, and his bike roared away.
Utterly flustered, P.B. watched him go, and Jessie cocked her head thoughtfully before nudging her with an elbow. "I think he likes you," she said, receiving an aggravated look in return.
"Honestly, between you and Mitzi --"
She started laughing and caught P.B.'s hand. "Come on -- let's go back to my room. I'm trying to eat cheap lately."
"Home, sweet home," Jessie said as they entered her room, a surprisingly large apartment at the edge of the campus. She spread her arms, turning dramatically, and P.B. gave a long, appreciative whistle. "This is the part where I'd introduce you to my roommate, but I don't have one -- Mom said as long as we had the resources, there was no reason for me to have to live with a total stranger."
She rolled her eyes, and P.B. smiled, arching an eyebrow. "Trust your mama to think the worst right away."
"Yeah, I wanted to just stay in a normal dorm, closer to my classes, but whatever."
"I guess livin' alone has its advantages, too," P.B. said absently, looking around the room with an air of curiosity.
It was relatively well furnished with a bed P.B. didn't recognize and several shelves that she did, as well as a drafting table that the girl probably acquired long after they'd parted ways. The Reploid quirked a smile at the sight of a fairly gaudy lamp Jessie had acquired at a garage sale when she was six -- somehow it had remained intact all this time -- and several other figurines, mementos and stuffed animals that had been with her since she was a child.
Jessie herself had made her way over to her bed and flopped backward on it, giving a long stretch and letting her arms and legs drop limply beside her. Then she sat up abruptly. "So, where did you go after Mom kicked you out? I want to know everything."
P.B. blinked. "Oh, honey -- that's a lot of years to cover." She hesitated, seeing a pout push at Jessie's lower lip. "But I guess we have some time," she amended.
Jessie's expression brightened instantly, and she scooted back on her bed until her back met the wall, patting the blankets next to her. P.B. joined her hesitantly, settling on the edge and turning to face the girl.
"Honestly, Jessie, most of what I did was hide." She rubbed her cheek, frowning slightly as she considered how much of the story to tell. "I was a couple months just movin' from place to place b'fore I found a shop that'd hire me, and I got a place to stay a little after that."
"What kind of shop is it? Can I visit?" Jessie leaned forward, clearly intent on her interrogation.
"It's an auto shop, honey, I don't know you'd find anything interesting there," P.B. grinned at her, and the girl wrinkled her nose.
"I'm payin' them back for some work they did on me," P.B. said, extending her hand to catch Jessie's and give it a squeeze. "I had most of my hardware taken out and my tags wiped -- that's part of why your detective had so much trouble findin' me."
"But why would you do that?"
P.B. looked up blankly at the shock in her voice. "Well, honey, if you recall from what Detective Sutherland found out, your parents acquired me illegally, so your mama's threat to report me to the authorities hit a little close to home."
"Oh." Jessie scowled, smacking her fist against the blanket. "I hate her!" she exploded, and P.B. lurched back.
"Now, just a minute, here, Jessie --" P.B.'s voice was suddenly stern and somewhat alarmed. "I didn't come here to drive a wedge between you and your mama --"
"She did it herself!" was the angry retort, and P.B. arched an eyebrow. Jessie fell silent for a moment, looking as though she was trying to calm herself down. "Sorry," she mumbled finally. "I just -- you weren't there."
"What happened?" P.B. asked softly, and the girl lifted a hand, rubbing at her face.
"Mom and Dad split up about three years after you left," she said. "It was Dad who filed the suit, but lost the custody fight -- Mom turned it around, accused him of cheating." She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. "I got to see him every weekend, pretty much, but Mom just got worse and worse. Accused him of turning me against her, stuff like that."
"Oh, honey ..."
Jessie shrugged, the faintest rise and fall of her shoulders. "I guess I'm still mad. But -- I didn't really want to talk about that." She smiled wanly, then her expression brightened again. "Hey, I know! I'll take you around campus! Well, after I eat. You still don't eat, do you?"
P.B. shook her head. "Still ain't got the capacity."
"Well, then you'll get to watch me eat some ramen," the girl said with a grin, and she trotted to a minimal kitchen area and set to work, chattering as she did so.
Much of the day passed in a blur for P.B. In spite of a robot's perfect memory, she found herself having to actively search her memories for the events she knew had happened as she and a very weary Jasmine shuffled back to her dorm room.