Street of Dreams
by Lasha Lee

Rachael's POV

They say smoking will kill you.

I say so will a lot of things; smoking is just more honest about it. Every now and then someone starts bleating about trying to take away my cigarettes for my own good. Legally, the only place I'm allowed to light up is inside my own home but that's not good enough for them. They think they're on a mission from God or Buddha or hell, Rainbow Brite, whoever they worship, to make sure I live a long, happy, smokeless life. They'd managed to jack up the price to nearly twenty bucks a pack in the last year or so.

I lit each one in their honor. Sanctimonious assholes.

I came home that day for the first time in over three weeks, kicking my shoes off at the door and throwing my car keys on the table, dropping my coat and suitcase on the floor to worry about later.

I could have afforded a nicer apartment. Hell, I could have afforded a mansion. But considering how little I'd be home to enjoy it, it just seemed like a waste of money. What I was saving the money for wasn't ever clear to me, but I didn't like wasting it anyway. Too much my mother's daughter, I suppose.

All that remained in my refrigerator was my precious elixir of life, gleaming blue and green cans of Yuji Cola, wet and cold and welcoming me back from way too long in the rainforest writing about a youth restoration project. Oh, it was an interesting story, but three weeks without Yuji was inhuman. Not to mention they took my cigarettes away at the border. They were terrified I'd set the trees on fire. The things I'd do for a story.

I grabbed a can and flopped down on my couch, reaching blindly behind me for a lighter and an unopened pack of smokes, as well as a clay ashtray I'd picked up somewhere. The cola was so good I nearly wept, and the cigarette was better, and I purred like a kitten, flexing my toes into the upholstery of the sofa.

The telephone rang.

A tribe in the rainforest had taught me some great curses, which I now heaped upon the person disturbing my solitude before grabbing up the receiver. "Moshi Moshi."

"Hi, Rachael, welcome home."

"Okay, where's the damn camera. You KNEW I was relaxing, didn't you?"

He laughed. "Got your fax earlier. The story looks great."

"Of course it does. You kept me there long enough. I had time to write a whole book on that rainforest."

Bick was my editor and my friend, and had been both for nearly twenty years now, and if it had been anyone else on the line I would have hung up by now. "So what's going on?"

"I've got a story for you to cover."

"Send Jan."

"I don't want to send Jan, I want to send you. It's a big one..." his voice was teasing.

"Bick no, I just got back. I spent two hours on a plane full of college kids, fat drunk guys, and a woman who kept yelling that the wing was on fire."

"Was it?"

"No, but I considered SETTING it on fire just to shut her up."

"I'm sure all you had to do was look at her. That glare of yours is enough to scare anyone mute."

I took another drag from my cigarette, sighing in defeat. "Flattery, huh? You are desperate. What's the story?"

"There was a shooting on Seta yesterday, at a church. Two Wronith men, a Setan man, and a woman originally from L3 were killed. They got a note saying it was linked to a group calling themselves the Deran Pure. They've got a vendetta against anyone with Wronith blood and people who support them. They've threatened more violence.

"I want you to go to Seta and Dera and interview Wronith. Find out everything you can about the Deran Pure, if there's been a response from Wroni about this, everything. Non-objective, but I don't need to tell you that. We'll do a huge feature on modern racism, and what steps the governments of the planets are taking to stop it. I'm sending Jan to do interviews on Earth, but I thought you'd want the real meat for yourself."

"Yeah..." I stubbed out my cigarette. "Definitely. When do you want me to leave?"

"I'm sending a car now to take you to the shuttleport. What can I say, Rach? I know you."

And I knew Bick enough to know what he was really saying. This story was important to him on a personal level as well as a professional one, and there was no one else he trusted enough to do it right. As a child, Bick had lost an eye to the Earth equivalent of the Deran Pure, for the 'crime' of having a white father and a black mother. No one could tell by looking at me that I'm biracial myself, but I don't know how many times I'd heard rude comments and innuendo from people who thought I didn't speak English and couldn't understand them.

I got a few more details from Bick about the assignment, and readied myself to leave again, finishing the last of my cola and promising the other cans mentally that Mother would be home soon. I slipped the cigarettes deep into my suitcase, wrapping them in a pair of underwear gently. Maybe no one would notice.

Seta, and then Dera. Milliardo and his boy (by the way, I'd never seen that one coming, that he was Milliardo's child and not Relena's) had moved to Dera years ago, and news about them had been sporadic. I had heard about Gage Pledging earlier in the year, and had sent them a gift. I saved their thank-you note, all three pages of it. Forget dishes and silverwear; I'd given them what I figured every 18-year-old boy really wants: dirty movies. They had no idea who I was, but they were extremely grateful.

I checked online now for more news on the family, and I noticed something interesting on a gossip site. Not long ago Milliardo's ex-wife had flown to Dera for unknown reasons. Shortly afterward the Drummonds abruptly cancelled a meeting and headed there themselves, along with Milliardo's daughters. No one was sure what was gone on; the family wasn't talking. There was rampant speculation, of course, and some of the rumors made me laugh out loud. The one I hoped was true was that Milliardo and his ex-wife had patched up their differences and that everyone was there for a surprise wedding.

I reminded myself sternly that I was going to cover the attacks by the Deran Pure. Whatever was going on with the Peacecrafts and Drummonds was none of my business. Still, the reporter in me was intrigued. What could it hurt to snoop around a bit? It wasn't like I was going to write a story on whatever it was. So what if I needed to see for myself that they were okay...

I shook away the thoughts angrily. Of course they were okay. They had each other, after all. They didn't need me hovering over them. They'd never needed me.

I grabbed my jacket, my suitcase, and my shoes, and went out to wait for my ride.

"What do you want?" Luke didn't turn around. "I'm busy."

Jazz sat down on the edge of the bed. "I want to apologize for the things I said yesterday."

"Fine, accepted. Get out." Luke typed faster.

"Luke, come on. Turn off the computer. Talk to me. Please."

"Right now I don't have anything to say to you." The younger man whispered. "And I stand by everything I said yesterday. If Rylan stays here he's a danger to everyone. I'm not going to change my opinion just because you don't like it."

"Luke, you can think whatever the hell you like! But when you go attacking Rylan with it, I have to draw the line. We're family, and we're supposed to have each other's backs when something like this happens."

"Yeah, well I thought I was family too."

"What's going on with you?" Jazz demanded. "I don't even know you any more. You almost never leave this room, and when you do it's to pick a fight with someone. You need help, Luke. If you won't talk to me about what's eating you alive, then let me find someone else for you to talk to."

"So I'm crazy now?" Luke stopped typing, and laughed. "Well, sorry Jazz. Your fat, ugly, crazy brother doesn't want your help."

"Huh? I never said..."

"You don't have to. I see the way people look at us when they find out we're brothers! I see the way they look at me. Congratulations. You got all the great Maxwell DNA, good for you. Almighty Jazz NEVER makes a mistake. He's never wrong about anything!" Luke's voice rose. "Do you know what it's like to try as hard as you can every day and know that you'll never be good enough? I'll never be as good as you at anything I do! Does that make you feel good, Jazz? Does that make you proud? Now I'm crazy! You've got one more thing to look down on me about!"

"Little brother, I am about as far from perfect as a person can get. Ask my wife!"

"You want to see something?" Luke asked. "Here, let me show you. You'll love it." He brought up the browser and began typing in information rapidly. "Here, take a look."

The man staring at the camera curled Jazz's stomach into knots. His face was florid, his nose obviously broken more than once. His hair fell in greasy red curls over his forhead, and the white around his brown eyes was bloodshot. The worst thing of all was that he was smiling through yellowed, broken teeth. He was one of the ugliest people Jazz thought he'd ever seen.

"Something, isn't he? Oh, read the bio. It'll tell you all about him. Go on. Jazz, meet Dad."

His other brother stared at him in shock, and Luke laughed again. "Did you know he broke both of her legs, and both of her arms? He stabbed her six times. Severed her spinal cord. Damaged her vocal cords too. That's on the next page; she was his last victim. He left her for dead in the middle of the road, and he left her something to remember him by. Wasn't that nice of him?"

"That is not your father!" Jazz yelled. "He's not!"

"Well, that's not what the DNA test said. I had one done years ago, did you know that? No, of course not. I only told Meishel. Can't you see the resemblance?" He posed next to the computer screen. "Like father, like son. You got the best of Duo Maxwell, and I got the worst of Norgrant Raymont. I think he's a little taller though."

"Stop it!" Jazz was shaking. "Just stop!"

"I'll never be as good as you." Luke spat. "Now you know why. Get out."

"Rylan's father was a Seeder! He forced himself on Rylan's mother! I've never held that against him. What makes you think I'd think less of you for this?" His eyes filled with tears he didn't even try and fight. "Why didn't you tell me, Little Brother? Why didn't you tell me about him, about what you found out? I could have helped you deal with it. We could have dealt with it, you and me."

Luke closed the window, and his biological father's face vanished. "Have you ever considered that maybe I didn't want to give you another reason not to like me?"

"Luke, I've always loved..."

"That's not the same thing!" Luke snapped. "If I hadn't grown up as your brother you wouldn't give me the time of day!" He stood up and faced the wall.

"Can you honestly tell me that you like the person I am? I don't mean love, I mean like."

"Luke, how can I like you? I don't even know you. You won't let me get to know you! You don't want anything to do with me, or Meishel, or the rest of the family. All we can do is love you on the other side of that door, but how can we like a stranger? That's what you've become to us. Do you want to end up like Meishel's friend? Too afraid to ever go outside of this room at all?"

"What friend?" Luke asked, turning around.

"Joey. Meishel's new friend. She's only been talking about him non-stop."

"I must have missed it." He didn't look pleased.

"He owns that club she and Shan like, but he's only about your age. Meishel says he's agoraphobic; he hasn't left his apartment in forever. Must be something about the reclusive type she's drawn to. Is that what you want for yourself? Because I keep thinking about him, and thinking about you, and I see you headed in that same direction."

"I'm not afraid to leave my room, you idiot! I'm working!"

"Are you? Or is that an excuse?" Jazz wanted to know. "I think a part of you decided that because of some monster you weren't good enough for us, and so you lock yourself away. No, I don't like you very much, I guess. I don't like how you treat our parents, and Meishel, and me. You know why? Not because of him, but because we deserve better! You decided that his genes mattered more than all the love our parents have given you since the day they brought you home! You might as well have slapped them across the face!"

"I can be good enough!" Luke argued. "I can be good enough for all of you. I just have to get this stupid program up and running, and then you'll see. That's why you have to leave me alone to do it! It's my only chance! I can be better than him. And I can be as good as you at something for the first time in my life!"

"I don't want some software bigshot, you stupid kid! I want my brother back! We want LUKE back. We miss you. Luke, I am so sorry if I ever made you feel like you had to live up to any standards I set. And I'm sorry if anyone else ever told you that you had to live up to them. We love you unconditionally."

"Yeah, that's what they tell the failures. That's what Dad always told me when I bombed out at something. 'We love you no matter what.' He might as well have said 'We love you even if you do stink at everything'."

"Luke, you graduated early with the highest marks of anyone in 40 years, including me."

"I worked hard for every one of them."

"I know you did. I used to watch you fall asleep on your books, and I think 'just a little bit longer and he won't have to push himself so hard.' I worried about you, that you were going to burn yourself out. Which is what you're doing now. We can't afford to lose you, Little Brother.

"Seeing a shrink doesn't mean you're crazy, but right now I don't think I can help you and someone needs to. I'm going to make an appointment..."

"I won't go." Luke said firmly.

"Well, if you refuse I'll go talk to Pops and Ojisan and I'm going to ask them to have you admitted to a hospital for evaluation. They can do that, you know. Completely against your will. I'm not letting you destroy yourself, Luke. I love you too much to stand back and watch that happen."

"I'll never forgive you if you do something like that!"

"I can live with that. If it means getting you well again, then I'll accept the consequences."

"Okay, I'll go see your damn shrink. But you can't tell anyone! Not Meishel or our parents, especially not Gage! Not even Linra. It has to be just between us."

"Deal." Jazz shook his hand. "No one has to know."

Luke paused for a minute, and then slowly put his arms around Jazz's waist, leaning his head against his brother's chest. "I'm scared, Jazz. What if I am crazy? What if I am like... him?"

"Shh, you're not. You're not crazy. Not the bad kind, anyway. Just trust me, I'll find someone to help you. Have I ever let you down yet?"

No, Luke thought wearily. I'm the one who keeps letting you down, you and everyone else. But there is something I can do on my own, Jazz. Something without your help. I can do the right thing at least once. Then... then I'll go talk to this doctor of yours. But first I have to talk to Meishel.

On to part twenty-four. Back to part twenty-two.