Loaded – Grand Theft Auto

Ben heard a tiny click as Rob’s lock pick broke. Rob muttered, “Fuck.”

Ben bit his tongue to keep himself from shooting a witticism at him. Must… not… mock. Must… stay… quiet. Rob pulled another bit of wire out of his pocket and returned to the fence’s lock. He kept his other hand on the chain links surrounding the impound lot to prevent any shaking.

Ben faced the streets behind Rob, one hand on his phone. Olivia circled overhead in the night sky, ready to send him a pre-written text if anyone approached.

Another tiny click. “There it is,” said Rob.

He pulled the chain out from around the gate posts and pushed it open with no resistance. He’d broken the gate motor by forcing a knife into a vent a minute ago. Ben teleported through, and Rob closed it behind them to avoid suspicion. He threaded the chain back in a lazy loop around the gate before he followed Ben.

They made their way through the impound lot. While the normal impound was a vast expanse of towed vehicles, their own cars were in a higher security area next to the main building, cordoned off by a taller fence. Ben’s phone vibrated halfway through the lot.

“Down,” he whispered. He grabbed Rob’s shoulder and yanked him behind a large truck. His phone displayed the nonsense text Olivia had sent that they’d typed up before as he pulled it out of his pocket.

Ben laid down on the ground to observe the street they’d left behind. After a few seconds, a police cruiser drove by. Ben counted to thirty in his head. No second message from Olivia; the cop car hadn’t stopped.

He nodded to Rob. They climbed back to their feet and continued towards the main building. Inside waited one sleepy guard, according to Quarrel. They’d avoided cameras so far, but their cars weren’t exactly built for stealth. That guard would trip an alarm if he were to see anything. They skirted around the view of another camera.

My turn. Ben pulled on his ski mask as they drew close to an open window one story above them. He jumped, extending his arms, and teleported up. He caught the edge of the windowsill and pulled himself up. The break room appeared to be empty. Guy was just sitting at the front desk when we were scouting out the place a half hour ago. He let go of the windowsill with one hand and grabbed one of Rob’s knives at his belt.

His other hand almost immediately started to slip. Shit. He tightened his grip and pulled the knife out of his belt. A couple quick hacks at the screen and he was in. Good, would’ve never have heard the end of it from Rob if I’d had to teleported down again. He pulled himself into the break room and returned his knife to the sheath at his belt.

He crept through the lifeless hall. No one heard me cutting? Good. The glow of a red exit sign at the end of it caught his eye. There’s the stairs. He opened the door, keeping an ear out for any footsteps beyond his own.

Ben finally reached the ground floor. Security, where are you? He followed the sound of a distant grunt. Is he jacking off? He poked his head through a partially opened door. A guard sat, back to Ben, before a massive bank of security cameras that showed various points of the impound. A laptop displaying something pink had the guard’s attention. Oh my fucking god, he is. Must be really boring this time of night. Do I have to do this? Fuck it.

Ben teleported in, catching the guard unawares. He wrapped his arm around the guard’s neck. Hope you’re not into this. The guard shot up, nearly driving the top of his head into the underside of Ben’s chin before Ben could tighten his grip.

Ben used his knee to shove the chair back under the guard, keeping him off his feet. His free hand reinforced the arm around the guard’s neck. He pulled as tight as he could to push the bone of his forearm into the arteries in the side of the guard’s neck.

The guard twisted to the side, bringing them both down. His fingernails scratched at Ben’s arm, trying to get a grip and pull it away. No. Ben redoubled his effort, eliciting a gurgle from the guard. His struggles lessened, and eventually stopped altogether. Finally.

Ben rolled the pantless man off of himself. You got some explaining to do whenever you wake up. He grabbed a small key ring from the guard’s belt. Security down. Should be a cakewalk from here out.

Ben sauntered out of the security office and to the back door. He unlocked the door and strolled outside. Rob gave him a thumbs up from the car he’d been hidden behind. He joined Ben by the gate to the walled off section of the impound. Ben pulled out his phone and sent Olivia a text.

Maybe thirty seconds passed before Olivia landed inside of the fenced off section and tore the gate open. The cameras probably caught every second of it, but there was no point in disguises anymore. There may be security cameras still, but there’s only one Olivia.

“Thank you,” said Ben as they joined her inside. She gave him a small smile. They were far enough away from the roads that they wouldn’t need her on lookout duty.

“Happy birthday,” said Rob as they reached Ben’s car.

Ben pointed out Amanda’s car a few cars down. “Happy birthday to you too,” he responded.

“What are those yellow things?” asked Oliva, pointing to the tire of Ben’s car.

“Boots. Gotta get them off.”

“Could we just…” began Olivia as she reached down to grab one.

“Wait, gotta make sure we don’t wreck the tire like that,” said Rob. “Put your hands here, an’ pull straight out.”

Olivia wrenched the boots off the cars, keeping the tires intact. Ben pulled his keys from his pocket and started the engine. Still got gas. We’re good. He leaned over the central console to open the glove box. Papers, papers. Aha. He found the small silver device Quarrel had told him about, maybe the size of a fingernail. He tossed it out the door. Through the window, Ben saw Rob do the same.

“An’ we’re good to go. See ya back at the church,” he said to Olivia.

“OK. Good luck, guys.” She waved and took flight again. She’s gonna take someone out with a wing doing that one of these days.

They drove out of the impound and onto the darkened, abandoned streets. Rob led the way towards the construction site Roach had prepared for them. They passed few other cars, 3 AM not exactly being an active time of day for most people.

They pulled into the construction site on the outskirts of town. Behind a trailer were a set of massive brown tarps. They both stopped short of them and rolled down their windows.

“Tarps are there. I’m likin’ Roach,” said Rob. Damn right.

“Yep. Let’s get these covered an’ get back.”

Disguising the cars went smoothly. They hurried away from the construction site and hopped into a familiar car across the street.

“Oh, hey, fancy meeting you here,” said Quarrel as Rob and Ben sat in the back seat of her car.

“Yeah, figured you could use the company,” said Ben.

Quarrel smiled as she started her car. “Everything go alright?”

“Yep. Plan went off without a hitch,” said Rob. It’s like Christmas came early.

“Seriously?”

“Not completely, I had to tackle a fappin’ guy.”

“Seriously?” asked Quarrel and Rob.

“Yeah. Security guy was… yeah.”

Rob snickered. “You avoid a sticky situation?” Ben sighed. They mocked him all the way back to the church.

***

The next day brought no cops, or attacks, or any other life or death situation. I could get used to this. Ben had joined Rob in the kitchen, cleaning up their last meal in Phoenix.

“I made you a watch for our birthday,” mentioned Rob. “It’s in the lair in Westward.”

Ben passed him another bowl and asked, “Is it a cool watch?”

“Who the fuck do you think I am? It’s a fuckin’ amazin’ watch. Gotta barometer an’ shit in it. Even put in a little battery an’ light.”

“Look at you, branchin’ out to electrical shit. How’d ya do that?”

“Lot’s of tinkerin’ an’ trial an’ error.”

Olivia poked her head around the corner. “It’s really your guys’ birthday?” Shit. Forgot she can hear everything.

Rob and Ben glanced at each other. “Yeah…” said Ben.

“Oh. Happy birthday! But… wait. Sorry. I didn’t get you guys anything. I didn’t know, or… but…. why didn’t you guys say anything?”

Great, now everyone is going to hear. “Uh, yeah, yeah,” said Rob. “It’s alright. No need to worry or anythin’.”

Miya joined Olivia. “What was this I heard about a birthday?”

“It’s their birthday,” said Olivia helpfully. Damn it.

“Oh, cool. Happy birthday. Or is it birthdays?”

Ben glanced at Rob, who shrugged as he scrubbed another bowl. “I dunno. Birthday,” said Ben.

“Alright. You guys doing anything?”

“Ehhhh.” Not really.

“Nah,” said Rob.

“Why not?” asked Olivia.

“It’s a… a private thing. A family thing.” Don’t make a big deal out of this. We don’t. We were trying to avoid these questions, really.

Miya shrugged. “Alright. Well, happy birthday, you two.” She dragged Olivia away. Now that I think about it, when’s Olivia’s birthday? Guess she doesn’t have one. That kinda sucks. Rob passed him a bowl as he shut off the sink

“That the last one?” asked Ben as he dried the bowl.

“Yep,” answered Rob.

They joined the others in the main room. They had a few hours until dark, when they would slip out of the city and north to Westward.

“I like these couches. Could use one of these as a permanent bed,” said Chris, lounging on a couch, his bag packed at his feet.

“Just try not to think about how many farts it’s absorbed,” said Rob, crashing alongside Ben on another.

Chris sighed. “Damn it. Can’t just leave me to my comfort here?”

“Nope,” said Rob with a smile.

A loud thunk came from the closet across the basement. Roach wheeled out an old tube TV atop a cart.

“Church shows movies for youth program,” rasped Roach. “Has DVD player. And cable.” He set the TV in the center of the far wall and plugged it in.

“Cool. What do we wanna watch?”

“What DVD’s do we even have?” asked Chris.

Roach rubbed the back of his head. “Brought a couple,” he said, producing a small stack of DVD’s.

“Hell yeah. Thanks,” said Ben.

“What did you bring?” asked Quarrel.

“Gladiator. And… a couple of these are in Nahua, sorry. Matrix. Godfather.”

“I dunno. Maybe something a little lighter?” said Quarrel. Olivia nodded in approval.

“Forrest Gump?” Sure.

“I’ve never seen it,” said Miya. What?

“What? It’s a classic,” exclaimed Rob.

“Yeah, I think that settles it,” said Quarrel. “We need to cure her of her Forrest Gump ignorance.”

***

“Olivia, are you still crying?” asked Miya.

Ben glanced at Olivia. She had a tear running down her face. He suppressed a snicker. Are you serious?

“She… Jenny died,” croaked Olivia. “She can’t be dead.”

“Yeah, she’s dead,” said Ben.

“They were so cute together.”

“It’s OK, Olivia, it’s not real,” said Quarrel.

“I know. But… but…”

Miya, sitting next to her on the floor, wrapped an arm around her waist. Like a teddy bear hugging a grizzly bear.

“So, I think it’s about time we head out,” said Chris as he got up from his couch, breaking the moment.

Everyone followed suit. Quarrel and Roach said their goodbyes and shook hands.

“Here, have some guns for you. Unless the roads have turned into an apocalyptic wasteland when I wasn’t looking, you should be fine,” said Quarrel. She gave them a large box.

“Awesome. Thank you,” said Chris.

“Don’t mention it. We were keeping them here. We’ve decided to move out of here, not impose of Father John anymore.”

“Oh yeah, reminds me,” said Ben. “We need to give you shootin’ lessons when we get back, Olivia.”

She frowned. “Why?”

“We’ve been over this. Be better than havin’ to run up to somethin’ with a gun. If you have a gun, just shoot ‘em,” said Rob.

“Better to know it and not need it than need it and not know it,” added Ben.

“But…” began Olivia.

“Those bruises hurt? Cuz they look like they do,” said Ben, pointing to the various bruises on her arm she’d accumulated from getting shot the past couple days.

“A little. It’s not bad or anything. I can ignore it.” Come on, Olivia.

“Ok, given the choice between takin’ pain an’ not takin’ pain, which would ya choose?” asked Ben.

“Not?”

“Exactly. Don’ even have to shoot to kill. Just shootin’ at someone makes ‘em duck. Only thing that can really hurt ya is another bruiser or an iron weapon. If ya have a gun, they can’t use those to hurt ya.”

“Guys, guys, check the news,” interrupted Quarrel, staring at her phone.

“Gettin’ kinda tired of watchin’ the news all the time,” said Ben.

“Seriously, this is about Overlord. He’s invading Venezuela.” What? Why?

Ben spotted the remote and teleported over to it. “This have cable?”

“I think so. Let me plug it in,” said Roach.

Ben turned on the TV to a reality TV show once Roach was done. Who the hell was watching this last?

“Try channel five,” said Quarrel.

Ben pressed the five button on the remote. A commercial appeared on the screen.

“Damn. How about seven?”

Ben hit the seven. On the screen appeared a harried woman on the streets of a city. Buildings burned behind her, lighting up the night sky.

“-units have been unable to repel the attackers. We have multiple reports of Overlord drones being used in the assault, the same models used a decade ago to defend his holdings in Iraq. Citizens of Caracas are advised to seek shelter immediately.” Subtitles in Spanish scrolled along the bottom of the screen.

“Lemme get this straight. Overlord jus’ invaded Venezuela?” asked Ben. Shit, that’s bad. That’s very bad.

“Shush,” said Chris.

The reporter continued, “No one has heard from the president since the attack began. Local police have been losing ground-”

A bright flash overtook the screen and the feed cut out. A couple anchors appeared on screen after a moment.

“We’re sorry about that, viewers. The White House has just released a statement, stating that this incursion of Overlord’s will be met with appropriate force. We’ll try and reestablish contact with our reporter in the field during the break.”

Commercials began playing. When in doubt, go to commercials.

“What the hell is in Venezuela?” asked Rob, breaking the silence.

“Oil? Iraq has oil, too, and he took over there a while back,” said Quarrel.

“Those robots smelled like oil, I think,” Olivia chipped in.

“Awful convenient that Freedom Fighter jus’ up an’ left Venezuela to get killed here two months ago,” said Ben.

“One less competitor,” rasped Roach.

“He’s right. F.F. would’ve been a really bad ally,” said Chris. “Anarchy and all that.”

“I… don’t think that’s how the anarchist philosophy works.”

“You’re right,” said Miya. “Anarchism is more a philosophy of freedom of choice, and that how governments restrict the choices of people. Therefor governments are to be abolished. I’m probably butchering the details, but that’s not the point. The point is that anarchism was just a banner for F.F. to use. Kind of like how terror groups in the Middle East don’t actually represent Islam.”

“That still doesn’t explain why he just willingly got himself killed in Westward.”

“Maybe Overlord tricked him. Said he’d have his back, then left him high and dry.”

“Well, he wasn’t in bad shape, either. Police an’ military weren’t able to do much ‘bout him.”

“Yeah, until you killed him.”

“Point.”

“Wait, wait. You killed him?” asked Quarrel, pointing at Ben.

“That I did. Slit his throat an’ everythin’.” I should put that on my resume or something.

Quarrel stared at him for a second, trying to tell if he was serious. I don’t lie. Realization dawned on her face. “Oh right. I remember reading something about that. That was you guys?”

“Not I, I didn’t join up ‘til later,” said Rob.

“The rest of us, yes,” said Chris.

“Well, full disclosure, it was me an’ Amanda. You, Miya, an’ Olivia were too busy gettin’ arrested.”

Chris rolled his eyes and nodded. “OK, granted. But it was still a team effort.”

The news returned with a blaring theme song, replacing the commercials they’d been ignoring. The anchors burbled something behind their backs.

“What the fuck?” said Rob with a grin, pointing to the TV.

A group of people in colorful costumes sat at a round table across from the microphone wielding reporter. What the fuck? It looked like they were in some big important conference room. A couple tall potted plants graced the corners of the room, and the chairs everyone sat in looked rather comfortable.

“Thank you. We’re here now with Foy, the leader of the Chevaliers.” A small girl in a brown and green skintight leotard smiled and nodded. “Now, Foy, we understand that your team was formed in response to the recent riots in Los Angeles. Would you care to expand on what exactly your goals are now?”

“Overlord has already caused too much suffering around the world, and even attacked our city. The people of Venezuela need us to put a stop to this. We need to put an end to Overlord for good before he can do anything more.” You chucklefucks? Seriously? “To that end, we’ve formed the Chevaliers, dedicated to tracking down Overlord and bringing him to justice.”

The reporter nodded, a serious expression on her face. “And would you like to introduce the members of your team?”

“Of course. The man to my right is Coyote.” A large, blond man with Viking runes covering his costume inclined his head. But… what?

“The Jabberwock.” A brooding black man in a martial artist uniform sat back in his chair, fingers steepled beneath his chin.

“Rose.” A woman in a green costume with a rose motif waved.

“Tempest.” The thin man next in the circle had a penguin emblazoned on his chest.

“Soul.” A vaguely human shaped mass of grey mist occupied the last chair.

“Turn it off, turn it off,” said Rob, grinning. Oh come on, this is quality entertainment right here.

“Can’t watch this anymore,” muttered Chris. Fine. Ben switched off the TV.

“Did I just see that?” asked Quarrel.

“Some fuckin’ idiots in L.A. tryin’ to go after Overlord? Had the colorful costumes an’ everythin’? Yeah, saw that too,” explained Rob.

“What’s wrong?” asked Olivia. “They’re just trying to help.”

“They’re helping in the least helpful way possible,” said Chris.

“Yeah,” added Ben. “They looked like they were more there for a photo shoot than actually gettin’ shit done.”

“Does it matter what they’re dressed like? I mean, as long as they can do stuff…” Olivia trailed off.

“Kinda. They’re goin’ for looks, not effectiveness,” said Rob.

“MHU training had us all dress in spandex and go through regular sparring drills. It was rather unpleasant,” said Chris.

“Ha! Sucks to suck.”

Chris nodded. “Yes, Miya. Thank you. Anyways, that sucked. A lot. It was insanely restricting, provided no protection, painted you as a massive target, and was just generally a pain in the ass. And yes, you can drop a ton of money for a custom-made costume that removes most of those downsides, or you could just go to an army surplus store and get a combat uniform. The same damn thing for a fraction of the cost.”

“Yeah, but ya don’ look as stylish,” said Ben, grinning.

“You wear a hoodie and cargo pants. I wouldn’t call that a spandex eyesore.”

“So why are they doing that?” asked Olivia. Wide eyed idealists. Idiots. Who knows?

“There have been a couple good teams like that, ones that are competent. There’s a good chance those guys won’t last long, especially if they’re going up against Overlord of all people. But successful teams like that aren’t without precedence.”

“That’s how the Watch was started, right?” asked Miya.

Quarrel paused for a second, then nodded. “I believe so, yes.”

“So you guys are just basing this on their costumes?” asked Olivia.

“PR is secondary to effectiveness. You don’t design a tank to be civilian friendly, you design it to shrug off tank shells, bruisers, and techie contraptions,” explained Chris.

“Tanks are made to fight supers?”

“Yeah there are some scary metahumans out there. Hardware is designed with that in mind. You’re insanely strong, so why do you think bullets still hurt you so much? Lots of bullets and guns are made to shred tank powers and techie armors and so on. And on the flip side, lots of decent body armor models out there can keep you alive if a bruiser punches you. Well, wouldn’t really help you, you’d be fine. The rest of us.”

Don’t we have some place to be? Rob coughed. “We might need to get movin’. Only so many hours in the night,” he mentioned.

Quarrel sighed. “Right. Well, goodbye again. Don’t forget to look us up if you ever come back.”

“Of course. Give us a call if you ever find yourselves in Westward,” said Chris.

They followed Roach out of the church basement and to his truck. Quarrel waved goodbye as Roach drove them to where their cars were hidden.

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Next Chapter ->

Loaded – Awake

Olivia woke up to the ever present sound of high pitched, source-less ringing in her ears. She burrowed her face further into her pillow. No, stop it. And why do my legs ache?

She rolled over and sat upright on the floor, massaging her thigh in hopes of getting the ache to stop. Anyone else awake? In the kitchen behind her, something metal tapped on the counter. The five people scattered around her on various couches were still sleeping, if the slowness of their breathing was any indication.

Who’s that in the kitchen? Olivia got up with care, keeping her wings from whacking Ben on the couch behind her. She walked over to the kitchen, the only part of the basement with lights on.

Roach had a couple bowls out, along with a box of pancake mix and a carton of milk. He rummaged through the fridge.  The stove behind him had a couple of lights on. His head popped up at the sound of her approaching footsteps.

I should say something, standing here being quiet and staring is weird. But… just… don’t say something dumb. Go. “Good morning,” she whispered. Hey! That wasn’t so bad! He gave her a small wave and returned to the fridge.

She leaned her hip against the counter and watched him produce a small carton of eggs from the fridge. He began measuring out flour. Should I just be standing here silently? This seems weird.

“Um, excuse me? Do you need any help?” she asked, keeping her voice down.

He paused for a moment. “Fill with water. To this line,” he said, handing her a large glass measuring cup and tapping the line with his index finger.

Olivia took it and placed it in the sink, twirling the faucet handle. “What are you making?”

“Pancakes. The church holds pancake breakfasts every month, have most of the stuff here.” He dumped the flour into a large bowl. Olivia shut off the water and handed him the glass cup. “Thanks. Rob made dinner. Figured I should make breakfast.”

Roach cracked a couple eggs and poured. Olivia tilted her head. What are the eggs for? I get the water makes the batter powder stuff into, you know, batter. What do eggs add?

He stirred for a minute. “Too thick, needs more water,” he murmured, holding up the wooden spoon and observing the batter.

“Oh, sorry.”

He raised an eyebrow at her. “They’re just pancakes. Just need to add more water.”

“So… what do you need the eggs for?”

“Make them rise. Fluffy,” he rasped as he poured a little more water in.

It’s just an egg. “How?”

Roach shrugged, the heavy scarring on his broad shoulders visible beneath his tank top. Sorry. I’ll stop bugging you with food questions. The pancake batter sizzled as he poured it on the heated pan on the stove. That’s so loud. How is no one else waking up from this? Olivia, again with nothing to do, leaned back on counter. It’s weird that I’m just standing here silently, though. Oh, idea.

“Um, excuse me?” she asked. Roach glanced at her. Um, OK. “Why are there only two of you in the Watch here? I mean, three, but… Sorry. Sorry.” Stupid, stupid, stupid. I brought up a guy who just died. Stupid.

“It’s alright,” said Roach, even as his face darkened. Sorry. Shouldn’t have brought Preacher up. Sorry. He flicked the pan up. The pancake flipped midair and landed square in the center of the pan. “What do you mean, only three?”

“Well, um, there were six people in the Watch back home.”

“Who?”

“Um, there was Cinder, Blackout, Whiteout, um… I think their leader’s name was Laura. There were two others, I think. I don’t think I ever heard their names, though.”

Roach shrugged. “Six is a lot. Not sure why. Colorado, yes?” Olivia nodded. I kind of miss the mountains. “Watch must have been lucky there. Or a bunch of libertarians.”

“Libertarians?”

“Watch does the government’s job, policing. Funded privately. Libertarians like that. Dunno about Westward though. Never been.” He judged the golden brown pancake to be done, sliding it off the pan and onto a plate.

Olivia waited until the sizzle of the next pancake died down to ask, “Why did you join?”

“Twenty years ago, was a street punk,” rasped Roach, putting the plate with the pancake in the oven. “Got arrested. Throat slit in jail. Triggered, healed up. Saved my life, but my voice never came back. Served my time, decided to do some good. Cops wouldn’t take a former convict.” His normally deep voice squeaked. He held a hand to his throat and coughed. “Sorry. Joined the Watch instead, got a job working construction on the side.”

“Your throat didn’t heal? Why not?” I saw you get shot in the head. How is your throat still all raspy?

He glanced at her. “See the scars? Very fast healing, not better healing. Broke this arm once,” he said, lifting his right arm. “Healed crooked. Had to re-break it twice. Get it back to normal. More important is faster and better. Brain important, heals perfect. Big blood veins,” he said, tapping the side of his neck. “Important. Healed well. Same with throat. Voice, not important.”

He moved on to the next pancake. That sounds awful. The voice thing, not the pancake thing. The pancakes smell kind of like donuts too. Olivia heard rustling from Quarrel’s couch behind her.

“Good morning,” said Quarrel, padding up to them. Olivia moved to the back of the kitchen to make room.

“Hi. Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up,” said Olivia.

“Nah, it’s alright. Been awake, just didn’t want to get up.”

“Didn’t want to help with breakfast,” said Roach, a sly smile on his face.

Quarrel stuck her tongue out at him. “Guilty.” Roach just laughed. “So, Olivia, sleep well?” she asked, leaning against the counter like Olivia.

“Um, yes?” Is… is there something more you’re asking?

Quarrel nodded as silence filled the space. Um… yeah. Eventually, she said, “OK.” She turned to Roach. “You scared her.”

“No. That was you.” Scared? I’m not scared.

“What?” asked Olivia.

“We’re just teasing you, don’t worry.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

Quarrel let the silence hang for a moment before asking, “So you really can’t remember anything?”

I know, I’m weird. “No. I can… remember stuff. Just not stuff from, you know, before. Um, I think it was three months ago now.”

“Not even your name?” asked Quarrel. Olivia shook her head. I have a name now. It’s Olivia. I just don’t know what it was before. “Where did Olivia come from, then?”

“I… I don’t know. I thought it sounded nice.” Olivia looked down at her feet. Is that dumb? That sounds kind of dumb.

“What’s it like, flying?” asked Quarrel. Olivia looked back up at the sudden change of topic. Quarrel looked serious, at least more serious than the playful smile she’d been sporting before. Even Roach was paying attention out of the corner of his eye.

“Um, I like it. It’s really fun, actually. I can do rolls and stuff, and go really fast if I dive. And I don’t have to worry about getting spotted, either. Everyone has really bad eyesight, especially in the dark. And I can see the whole city if I go high enough, even the skyscrapers look small. It looks really pretty at night, too.” Olivia realized she’d been babbling. “And… um… yeah.”

Ben teleported to the kitchen. Gah! When did you get up? “Pancakes!” he said in a loud voice just shy of shouting, causing Quarrel to jump. Not so loud. Don’t be mean.

“Wha?” said Quarrel, spinning around. Ben grinned.

“Yes, pancakes,” said Roach without a flinch.

“Damn teleporters,” muttered Quarrel. In the common room beyond, everyone started to move around. Olivia heard Miya curse something. See what you did, Ben? Or hear, whatever.

“About half done,” continued Roach. “Might need to make more batter.”

“Awesome, thanks!” He walked back into the common room and shouted, “Hey, pancakes everyone.” He flicked on the lights. OK, now you’re just being mean.

Olivia heard sighs and groans from everyone else.

“Ben, I’m gonna fucking kill you,” spat Miya.

“That’s not very nice,” he answered.

“Any bacon?” called out Rob. Oh, bacon sounds good. Do we have any bacon?

“Good question,” Ben called back. He twisted his head around. “Any bacon?”

“Sorry, no,” said Roach. Aw.

“Damn. No bacon,” announced Ben.

“Damn,” said Rob.

Olivia and Quarrel joined the others gathering around the table from last night, leaving Roach room to work. Everyone chatted for a while, until Roach finally walked in with two large plates stacked with pancakes.

“Done. Grab your plates and stuff in the kitchen.”

“Do we have any peanut butter?” asked Chris as he got up.

“Maybe? Check the pantry. Why?” asked Quarrel.

“For my pancakes,” replied Chris, walking over to the kitchen.

Everyone paused for a moment. “Peanut butter on pancakes?” asked Quarrel. Ben and Rob tilted their heads simultaneously. What’s wrong with that?

“Yeah. Have you people never had that before?” answered Chris from the kitchen.

“No, never heard of that,” said Ben.

“Well, it’s great,” said Chris, jar of peanut butter in hand. “You non-believers can get up and get you precious regular butter.” He sat down at the white plastic folding table and sighed. “And I forgot a plate.” He climbed out of his seat again.

“Good job,” said Rob with a grin, patting him on the shoulder as he passed.

They eventually got everything distributed and dug in. Olivia and Rob both tried out the peanut butter pancakes. Tastes good with syrup. But then again, so do the normal pancakes. So hooray for syrup.

“Thanks for the food,” said Rob, nodding to Roach.

“No problem.”

“I got the dishes,” said Ben, gathering plates. Quarrel got up after him.

Chris scratched at his two days’ worth of stubble once he passed his plate to Ben. “Hate this,” he muttered. He looks kind of cute like that.

“Sucks to suck,” called out Ben as he walked to the kitchen.

Chris sighed. “I hate you two.”

“Just us?” asked Rob, leaning back in his chair. He pointed to Olivia and Miya. “When they, too, lack magnificent beards?”

Miya nodded and stroked her smooth chin. “What are you talking about? Been growing this out my whole life, you know.” Olivia scratched at her own face as she glanced at Chris again. That… no. No thank you.

“Sorry about that, Chris,” said Quarrel, walking by with a cardboard box. “I think we might have some razors in here somewhere. None of us ever really needed them.”

“Not even you, Roach?” asked Rob.

“No. Aztec. No facial hair,” he rasped.

“So? Seen guys from Mexico with facial hair before,” said Rob.

“Probably from the north, then. I think I’m about one eighth Hispanic, after all the math and shit. But I’m a girl, so it’s kind of a moot point,” said Miya.

“Family is from Michoacán.”

Olivia blinked. What? Did you just make that word up?

“Where’s that?” asked Rob.

“West of the capitol, and that’s in the center of Mexico,” said Miya. “Right?” she asked Roach, who nodded.

Quarrel’s phone buzzed as she rejoined them at the table. She checked it as she sat down. “Boss got us a meeting with Sarge. We’ve got thirty minutes,” she said, standing right back up.

Roach’s eyes widened as he jumped out of his seat. “Sorry,” he rasped. “We need to go, now.”

“Understandable,” said Rob.

“No problem,” added Chris. “Good luck.”

Quarrel and Roach rushed off. Whoa, that was sudden.

“Who is Sarge?” asked Olivia. He’d better not hurt them.

“Probably the head of the MHU here,” said Chris. “If they don’t have a code name like Cyrus they go by the rank they had before their promotion.”

Rob looked around at the others. “Well shit. Hope everything works out for ‘em.”

***

They dawdled for most of the day without Roach and Quarrel. Olivia occupied herself with her phone, Miya having shown her how to download apps. No. Stupid snake thing. I pressed the right button. Olivia looked up from her phone and stretched her neck, vision sliding over the boring basement walls once again. I miss the sun. Can we go outside soon?

“Gettin’ tired of waitin’ on other people to let stuff happen to us. Wanna be in control of our destiny for once,” said Ben, breaking the silence.

“Such is life,” said Chris, not bothering to open his eyes as he relaxed on a couch, hands behind his head.

“Having fun polishing your rifle?” Miya asked Ben, who’d taken his sniper rifle apart on the table across from Olivia.

“You wanna help? You know how to work those bones, shouldn’t be much… harder.” Why did you put emphasis on harder like that?

Rob snickered, on a second couch on the far side of the basement. “Yeah,” he added. “Just long, hard bones, all day long. Work them real well.” I’m missing something here.

“An’ sometimes a bone ain’t a bone. Gotta be careful there,” said Ben. What? But… What’s a bone that isn’t a bone? That doesn’t make any sense.

“Um, guys. What?” said Olivia. Everyone burst into laughter, even Chris. Come on.

“Nothing, Olivia,” said Miya. No one is going to tell me? OK, fine, whatever. Don’t want to make a fuss. Olivia frowned and returned to her phone.

They settled back into silence, until a few minutes later the lock of the door to the basement rattled. Everyone looked up to see Quarrel enter the basement.

“How’d it go?” asked Rob.

“OK… yeah. Just OK,” said Quarrel, crashing on an unoccupied couch.

“Where’s Roach?” asked Olivia. I don’t smell him upstairs. Or hear him.

“Outside on the phone. He said he’d be down soon. But I do have good news for you guys. You had a grey 2003 Crown Vic, right?” Quarrel asked Ben.

“Yeah,” said Ben.

“Well, the cops found it and impounded it, along with your super car thing and my car. We couldn’t get them out for you, and any other actions against the police on our part will land us on their permanent shit list. What I can tell you is that the night watchmen at the impound are generally sleepy, especially around two in the morning. I can also tell you that Sarge likes to put tracers on high value evidence like your cars, usually in the back of the glove box or under the passenger seats.”

“Any news on my car?” asked Chris. “Red 2001 Civic?”

“No, I don’t think they got that. More than likely it’s in a chop shop now. I think a couple Tzontlis wanted to keep Ben’s car.”

“You’re not havin’ a fun day today, Chris,” said Ben.

Chris sighed. Does he need a hug? “So this impound-” he began.

“Ten miles north of here. Your cars are right by the main building. Me and Roach took a drive by before coming back.”

Footsteps pounded on the stairs. Roach entered, saying “Got a call from the hospital. Amanda is awake.”

“Really?” asked Rob, sitting upright. Everyone got up, previous conversation forgotten.

“What? Can we see her?” asked Olivia as she jumped up from her seat and headed for the door. She paused. Why is no one else coming?

“She’s under police surveillance right now, remember?” said Ben.

“Doctors said her parents haven’t left her side, either,” said Roach. “They don’t speak highly of you all.”

“What? But…” said Olivia to herself. Amanda. She’s OK. We can’t just not see her.

“They’re moving her to Westward at her parent’s insistence.”

“Thought she was on trial?” said Chris. “Once she’s healed enough, at any rate.”

“Parents have got money. They pulled strings, not sure how.” Roach looked at everyone quizzically. “How did you not know this?”

“I dunno. Never said anythin’ ‘bout her parents,” said Rob.

“Don’ even know her last name, know that I think about it,” added Ben.

“Well, I don’t know either. But your best chance of meeting her is in Westward, Sarge is keeping a close eye on her until she’s gone.” But… but… No.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Loaded – Dinner

Hurt. Everything hurt. Many people, too many people, kept shooting Olivia from across the street. The two other times she’d tried to get closer had just ended with many bullets. She hissed and overturned a car between her and them. Several bullets hit the roof of the car. A man with a rifle rushed up to her.

She nearly grabbed his neck before she caught his scent. Oh, right. Rob. Another man, Ben, teleported to her side and grabbed her hand.

“Olivia, wait!” he shouted. “It’s us.”

She nodded. A couple more bullets hitting the side of the overturned car made her duck her head.

“We gotta pull back,” yelled Rob.

Ben took a moment to hold his rifle above the side of the car and fire a couple shots before responding, “Too many of ‘em. They’ll tear us to shreds the second they can.”

Something solid and metal hit the concrete to their right.

“Grenade!” screamed Ben, tackling Rob out of the way.

Olivia raised a hand to her face and backed away. The explosion still staggered her. She roared in pain as the insides of her ears burned in pain. Stop. She dug her hands into the overturned car, then hefted it above her head and lobbed it in the direction the grenade had come from.

The car slammed into the ground just shy of the gunmen but kept rolling, leaving a trail of twisted metal and shattered glass on the street. Something tugged on her wing in the brief, calm moment that followed.

What? She whirled around, her tail coming within inches of taking out Rob’s knees as Ben helped him up. Ben yelled something, pointing to an abandoned apartment building behind him with his free hand. But the gunmen are behind us.

Rob and Ben ran, Ben waving at her to follow. Fine. She hissed as a couple bullets hit her back, but she kept up. Flashing lights began to appear; massive armored MHU vans thundered down the street.

They passed a couple bodies on the way to the apartment building. A scattered pile of reddish ash caught Olivia’s attention. Every bone in her body screamed danger. She skirted around it as far as possible while still reaching the wrecked door.

Within, Chris in liquid form battled two robots. One looked heavily damaged, only one leg and one arm pulling it along the floor as it attempted to crawl away. The other seemed in far better shape, a thin bit of metal emerged from its wrist with a jet of flame spewing out. It held a long steel knife in the other hand to keep human Chris at bay. Olivia charged.

Ben teleported and slashed at the shoulder joint of the robot’s lighter hand. He turned and teleported out of the way before the robot could twist and bring its knife down on him. Rob followed Ben’s attack with his rifle, forcing the robot to duck and roll out of the way.

Chris was right behind the robot, lunging to shove it to Olivia. She swung a hand down on its shoulder, carving straight through its chest. The robot collapsed. Go away.

Rob said something else, Olivia couldn’t hear him over the high pitched ringing in her ears. She couldn’t hear Chris’s response either, once he shifted back to human. But they motioned to her to follow them to through the building, which was good enough for her. Ben teleported off after the second robot, who’d managed to vanish in the meantime. I smell Miya and Quarrel in here, where are they?

Rob stopped at the door to a maintenance room. Different gadgets and guns, all made of the same dark grey metal as the robots, covered the walls. On the floor lay the shredded remains of the damaged robot, Ben’s knife sticking out of its back. Ben grabbed his sniper rifle off the wall, then teleported to the robot to retrieve his knife, a wide smile on his face. The Overlord robots kept the Overlord gun? Well, I guess that makes sense.

Ben teleported out of the room, and soon they reached the back of the building. I still smell them. They’re close. Olivia skidded to a stop and looked up to see Miya and Quarrel climbing down a fire escape.

“Wait,” said Olivia to the others, not hearing herself over the tinnitus in her ears.

Ben and Rob kept their eyes on the surroundings as Quarrel and Miya sprinted to join them. Everyone is here. OK. Right as she readied herself to take flight, Chris grabbed her arm. He said something to her, his voice too muffled and distant for her to comprehend. What?

“I can’t hear you,” she said. Please heal, ears.

He pointed to the cloudless, sunny sky. Then he spun his finger around like a helicopter. Oh, they’ll see me. OK.

They began running down some side streets and alleys, following Quarrel’s lead. Olivia struggled to keep up, her heel claws not used to taking so much punishment. I hate running.

***

They’d spent an hour dodging police patrols. Quarrel called Roach several times, trying to figure out whether he’d managed to talk down the police. On the plus side, they almost never had to duck out of sight of any possible passers-by. The city still had a meta-human fight warning ongoing, advising people to stay indoors.

Olivia’s ears had healed to the point that she could at least understand spoken words again. Of course, most of what she heard was now just panting and the occasional directions from Quarrel, but it beat being deaf.

They rested behind a couple makeshift shacks. The residents of the shantytown had made and abandoned them for some unknown reason in the back parking lot of some closed strip mall. Quarrel stood a distance away, on her phone again. Olivia put her hand into her pocket, making sure the two bits of gold were still there.

Quarrel walked back to them, putting her phone away. “Roach couldn’t get anywhere with the police, they’re out for blood and looking for someone to blame for all of this. He managed to get out to help us before they could arrest him. He’s on the way here, about five, ten minutes out.”

“Will he have enough room for all of us?” asked Chris.

Quarrel glanced at Olivia. I know, I’m weird, sorry. “He should. He drives an enormous SUV thing he uses for his day job. He works in construction.”

“Alright, sounds good. Where are we going to go?” Great. A car. I can’t fly? Olivia looked to the clear blue skies again. I guess not. It’s only noon.

“We have a couple safe houses. The nearest one is the basement of a church. We helped the priest there with a mutant rat infestation, long story, and he’s been a good friend ever since. Roach called him and he’s willing to let us crash there for a couple days while we get this sorted out.”

“How are you going to explain all this to the police, anyways?” asked Miya, leaning against the green Tzontli tag on the wall.

“The Watch National has an… agreement with the police,” said Quarrel. “We’ll be talked to death and interrogated for the next week or two, but we’ll be able to smooth this over unless they’ve lost all reason. The thing is though, that’ll only cover us, just me and Roach now. You guys will probably want to skip town unless facing some jail time sounds appealing.”

Olivia frowned. No, not going back to that cell. Dr. Ruskov and Dr. Sullivan were nice, but I’m not being stuck in that cell again. I hope they’re OK, the news said stuff about people being hurt when I escaped.

“Any news on Amanda?” asked Rob, sitting on the curb of the parking lot alongside Ben, who cradled his rifle.

“I think her parents arrived last night. Roach… wasn’t a fan of them.”

Rob shrugged. “Never met ‘em. Never heard anythin’ ‘bout them, actually.”

Quarrel nodded. “Other than that, nothing. I guess no news is good news in this case.”

Rob just shrugged again, not saying anything else. Olivia joined him and Ben on the curb. She stretched her feet out, her long toes spread out. The tension in her back claw especially eased as she stretched. Ow. I really hate running now.

“Escaping that firefight was easy. Too easy,” said Chris after a moment. “The number one rule that they taught us for situations like that was to never ever let up or give a meta a chance to think or regroup.”

“Had their hands full?” ventured Ben. “There were ton of Tzontli fellas there, an’ I’m guessin’ they ain’t fans of the cops either.

“I guess,” said Chris, a doubting frown still on his face.

“They ain’t all powerful. Hell, the ones here probably ain’t good at their jobs. The Tzonli’s ruled half the city if ya listen to rumors,” said Ben.

Chris nodded and let the conversation drop. A few uneventful minutes later, a massive forest green car pulled into the parking lot.

“That’s Roach, come on,” said Quarrel, jogging to the shotgun seat.

“It’s like a smaller BAT,” commented Ben, following. Bat? Oh, right, Rob’s truck. What was it they called it, the Big Ass Truck? Yeah, that’s it. I can remember stuff.

“That it is,” said Rob, opening the back door. Olivia stared at the open door. I’m fine with flying. Really. I don’t think my wings will fit through that.

Roach rolled down his window. “Trunk” he rasped, jerking his head towards the back of the car. Olivia sighed.

***

They pulled into a nearly empty church parking lot fifteen minutes later. An elderly man stood in a doorway. Who is that?

Roach parked, putting the church between the road and the car, and got out. The others followed suit, Ben running to the back to let Olivia out.

“Thank you,” she said, stretching wings that had been twisted inward to fit in the car. I hate tight spaces. “Wait, is he… um… OK with me?” she asked Ben, motioning towards the man in the church.

Ben shrugged. “I dunno. We’ll see.”

Um, OK. No one is freaking out, so I guess this is OK. She looked around, seeing nothing but an empty field and an elementary school behind them. She jogged as best she could to keep up with the others.

“Come, come,” said the priest at the door, ushering them in. He didn’t spare Olivia a second glance, which she appreciated. The door shut behind her. “This way please,” he said, moving to the head of the group and leading them into the church.

“Sure this is alright?” asked Roach as they headed past rows of pews. Olivia looked around. There’s a lot of crosses and a sad looking guy everywhere. Even that woman with the baby over there looks sad.

“It’s one thirty. There is no mass right now. There is an evening mass tonight, but there aren’t any activities planned that require the basement, so I’ll give you a set of keys. That way you can lock the doors after me so no one can walk in on you,” he replied, stopping at a door and handing Roach a set of keys.

Roach accepted them and smiled. “Thank you, Father John.”

“Please, call me John.”

“No one else work here?” asked Ben.

“No, we’re a small parish. There is a deacon and a secretary, but one I sent home, and the other is on vacation.” Father John opened the door to a staircase and motioned for them to enter the basement.

They descended the stairs and found themselves in the windowless basement of the church. A couple couches formed a rough semicircle around a large blank whiteboard on the wall. Some second hand rugs added some color to the otherwise beige environment. The small kitchen lay tucked in the corner behind a wall, the fridge humming.

“Feel free to help yourself to anything here, it’s the least I can do. I only ask that you refrain from violence. The bathrooms are over there on the far side, though I’m afraid we don’t have any showers for you,” said John, coming in last down the stairs. Yeah, everyone is starting to smell kind of bad.

“That reminds me. Those boxes we carted in, are they still well hidden?” asked Quarrel.

“Yes,” said John, his voice curt. Why does he sound mad all of a sudden? What’s wrong with boxes?

“Don’t worry. We’ll take those with us when we leave.”

“Thank you. And… my condolences for your loss. Preacher was a good man, even if we didn’t always see eye to eye.”

Quarrel bit her lip as Roach bowed his head. “Thank you, Father,” said Roach.

The others had spread out, Miya and Ben both crashing on separate couches. Chris examined an emergency exit door with paper taped over the window, and Rob sat on the arm of another couch, observing the conversation.

“Will you all be alright? I am holding confession in a half hour, and I’ll need to get ready,” said Father John.

“Yes, we’re fine. Thank you again,” said Roach.

“Not a problem. Stay safe everyone,” said Father John, inclining his head. And with that, he left.

“Food?” asked Roach once the door closed. Food! Ben and Miya both popped their heads up from behind their couches.

“What do we want to eat?” asked Quarrel. “There are some good burger places near-”

“No!” exclaimed Rob, jumping to his feet. Everyone’s attention snapped to him. “I refuse! No more fast food. No more. I am gonna fuckin’ cook somethin’, an’ it’ll be fuckin’ delicious.” He stormed into the kitchen.

Quarrel followed him. “We’re not going to have much. We didn’t want to intrude on Father John’s goodwill.” Olivia and the others exchanged looks, then followed. Rob can cook?

“Well, what do you have?” he asked as he searched the cupboards.

“I don’t know. MREs in the boxes, ramen, pasta, frozen dinners. I think there’s some pork chops in the freezer, too. Oh, we have a bag of rice in the back.”

“Any spices?”

“Does salt and pepper count?”

“No.”

“Then no.”

Rob closed his eyes and rested his head on a cupboard. “Heathens,” he muttered under his breath.

“We don’t have to cook-” ventured Chris.

“Yes! I haven’t cooked anythin’ for months. It’s all been junk food and chemical crap.” He opened the fridge and the freezer on top. “Damn, this is a lot of pork. Why?”

“Wholesale stores are great. All of that cost almost nothing,” said Quarrel.

“Fuck it. Pork curry it is. Fuckin’ tired of cow. You,” he said, pointing to Ben. “Get a thing of curry powder, worcestershire sauce, garlic, and a bunch of onions.” He leaned over, checking the fridge again. “Let’s see, there’s butter and milk here, and some salad makin’s for whatever reason. Oh, and beef broth. Get that, I think that’ll work.”

“And how do you propose he gets that?” asked Quarrel. “Security surveillance, and a bunch of witnesses, caught sight of you guys at the hospital. People will be looking for you all.”

Rob just shrugged. “OK, you go get it. You’ve been wearin’ a mask this whole time. Besides, how else would we get those burgers you were ‘bout to suggest?”

Quarrel sighed. “Fine. Where’s a note pad?” After a moment, Rob came across a blank one. “Write down the list of what you need, I’ll run to a store and get it.”

Roach coughed. “I’ll be fine,” said Quarrel. She smiled slightly. “I can take care of myself, you know, even without a crossbow.” Roach nodded and tossed her the keys.

Rob passed her his list, and Quarrel jogged up the stairs.

“Now, where’s the biggest pot you have?” he asked Roach.

Roach shrugged. “Don’t know. Not my place. Bad cook.”

“Fuck it, I’ll figure it out myself. Out, all of you,” he said, shooing them out.

Everyone collapsed on the various couches again, Olivia electing to take a seat on the floor between Miya and Ben. Stupid backrests. Everyone except Roach and Olivia pulled out phones. Roach just glanced at everyone and raised an eyebrow before leaning back and closing his eyes.

Sleepy? Olivia closed her eyes and rested her head against the padded armrest of Miya’s couch, enjoying the fact that no one was shooting or hunting them at the moment. The ringing had finally subsided to manageable levels. That fridge is kind of loud, but I like it here. It’s quiet otherwise. It doesn’t even smell bad.

Sizzles filled the air as Rob slapped the pork onto a hot pan. Oh, that smells good.

“You alright there, Olivia?” asked Miya.

Olivia looked at Miya and tilted her head. What? Why wouldn’t I be? “I’m fine. Why?”

“Because you jumped up just now.”

“Oh, sorry.”

“Did you fall asleep?” she asked.

“No?” I was just resting my eyes.

“Is Quarrel here?”

“No,” Olivia began to say. I hear another person breathing. And… yeah, that’s Quarrel I smell. “Wait, yes. When did she get back?” She looked around for Quarrel, sitting next to Roach to Olivia’s right. Quarrel gave her a small wave.

“Like a minute ago. Don’t worry, you missed nothing,” said Miya.

“Yeah, it’s borin’, just lettin’ Rob cook,” said Ben. He grinned wide. “I’mma go fuck with him.” He scampered off to the kitchen.

Chris and Miya just rolled their eyes. What does Ben mean by that?

Soon, she heard Rob say, “No, don’t touch that.”

Miya sighed and rubbed her temples.

A moment later, “Don’t lick that. Give it back.”

Lick? Ew. That’s our food in there, Ben.

“I said don’t touch that.”

“I give him ten seconds,” said Chris, checking the time on his phone. Quarrel laughed.

“Twenty,” countered Miya.

“You’re on.” I… whatever. I don’t know, and I’ve come to accept that. I just can’t care enough anymore.

Another moment. “Out! OUT!” shouted Rob. Ben fled the kitchen.

“Suck it,” Miya said, sticking her tongue out at Chris.

A moment later Rob chucked a knife that embedded itself in the wall behind Ben, who just laughed. Olivia’s eyes widened. Something in the air made them tingle as they did.

“What the hell was that?” asked Chris, pointing to the knife.

“A family tradition. He wasn’t aimin’ for me,” said Ben, plopping down on the couch.

Quarrel got up and pulled the knife out of the drywall. After examining the hole, she said, “You’re going to fix this.” Roach frowned at Ben to back her up.

Ben shrugged. “Sure. I’ll get Rob in on it when he ain’t busy. Unless, of course, you wanna talk to him right now. There are still got a couple more knives in that kitchen.”

“Olivia, are you crying?” asked Miya.

She shook her head. “No. Something… in the air.” She blinked a couple times, trying to the the water out. Gah! What is that? Smells… gah.

“Rob’s choppin’ up a lotta onions in there. Maybe tha’s it,” said Ben.

Olivia nodded and spent the next ten minutes trying desperately to ignore the stinging and sneezing. She pulled out her own phone just to try to take her mind off it. Ignore it. Just ignore it. But the rest of that stuff smells good. Really good.

Finally, Rob came in and asked, “Alright, it’s in the pot now. Should be a half hour now. Who wants rice with it?” A half hour? It smells so good. But… but…

“There’s a rice cooker thing in there?” asked Quarrel.

“Nah, I jury rigged somethin’. An’… wait, why did you put a bag of rice in here if you didn’t have a way to make it?”

“I… don’t… know,” said Quarrel. Roach laughed as her face turned red. “Shut up. It must have been an oversight on our part.”

Rob just smiled. “Rice?” he repeated.

“Yes, thank you,” said Quarrel.

After everyone gave their orders, Rob returned to the kitchen. Olivia heard a chopping noise from there a few minutes later. What? You don’t chop rice, do you?

He called out, “Alright, salads while we wait. Gettin’ close now.”

Roach nudged Quarrel, and they got up off their couch and walked over to a closet of some kind. They pulled a folding table out. After everyone grabbed some chairs and set everything up, Rob walked out with a large bowl of salad and a stack of plates.

Olivia spun her chair so that the back faced the table and sat down. She had a clear view of the pot. Food.

“Salad, Olivia?” asked Rob, breaking her out of her reverie. He held tongs with a bunch of salad in them.

“No thank you. Vegetables are what food eats,” said Olivia.

Miya froze, forkful of salad halfway to her mouth. Ben, Quarrel, and Chris just laughed.

“You’re not gonna go carnivore master race on us, are you?” asked Rob.

Olivia’s eyes widened. Oh. “No! Sorry, it was a joke. Sorry.” I didn’t mean to be weird or anything. I’m so sorry.

Rob grinned. “So that’s a no on the salad?”

“No thank you,” repeated Olivia, hunching over in her seat. Why is my face so hot?

Miya nudged her. “Don’t worry.” Olivia just nodded.

At long last, Rob took the pot off the stove as Ben and Roach poured drinks into red plastic cups.

Right as Olivia grabbed her clear plastic fork and stabbed a piece of pork, Rob said, “I wanna say somethin’ real quick.”

Everyone stopped. But… Olivia glanced at the food, so tantalizingly close. She suppressed a sigh and put her fork down.

Rob continued, “We’re not fuckin’ dead, an’ we’re not in jail or some shit. Can’t thank you two enough for that.” He nodded to Quarrel and Roach. “So this meal should taste damn good. I’m done, dig in.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Ash – Mercy

Quarrel distributed granola bars and bottles of water. She’d taken off her mask and goggle combo now that she was in her own home and away from a potential fight. She flicked her head for the umpteenth time, trying to get a loose lock of light brown hair out of her eyes that she hadn’t pulled into her loose ponytail.

Miya caught the bar Quarrel passed to her and nodded in thanks. Don’t know her name, and it’d feel weird to call her anything else. Besides, she hasn’t volunteered it yet.

“Thank you,” said Olivia, next to receive food.

“No problem,” said Quarrel, moving on.

Miya leaned back on the stuffy brown couch and stretched her legs, munching on the granola bar. One step above dirt. Whatever, it’s free, quit bitching. Quarrel left to join Chris in the kitchen nearby, leaving Olivia, Ben, and Miya scattered around the living room.

“Not going to eat that?” Miya asked Olivia, who sat cross legged on the ground next to her.

“Um, no thanks,” murmured Olivia in response. “Doesn’t, um, doesn’t smell very good.”

“Could ask her for somethin’ else, ya know,” chipped in Ben, leaning on the wall on the opposite side of the living room beneath a small hanging cross.

“Yeah, but, um, she already gave us these. She has some stuff here, but she didn’t, you know, offer it and I don’t know is she’s busy and I don’t want to be greedy-” babbled Olivia.

“You hungry?” asked Ben, cutting her off.

“Starving,” said Olivia, the conviction in her voice catching Miya’s attention. She’s been shoveling down food lately.

“Then jus’ fuckin’ ask her,” said Ben, throwing up a hand in exasperation.

Olivia got up off the floor. She froze. “Wait. But… what should I say?”

“Just explain you need something meatier. She’s not going to shoot you down for asking for food. Don’t worry,” said Miya. Quit being so damn timid.

Olivia nodded and fled the room. Miya met Ben’s eyes. He simply grinned and returned to eating his dirt bar. She heard some stammering from the kitchen. No, too awkward. No.

“So where is Rob?” Miya asked Ben.

“Told ya already, he’s out for a walk, so far as I know,” said Ben. I don’t buy that. He’s been broody ever since he woke up, and now he’s gone?

“Really? Just a walk?”

His smile vanished. “I told ya. I don’ lie. So far as I know, he’s out for a walk.”

Miya shrugged and let the conversation drop. Fine. Whatever. He doesn’t have his armor here so he’s not much help. After a few minutes, a significantly happier Olivia came back with a toasted ham sandwich on a plate and a small smile on her face. She returned to her place on the floor, putting the plate on the coffee table before her.

“Everythin’ work out?” asked Ben.

“Yeah.” Olivia took a massive bite of the sandwich.

“They makin’ any progress in there?” he asked, jerking his head towards Chris and Quarrel in the kitchen.

Olivia thought for a moment, then shook her head. She finished her mouthful and said, “I don’t know. They were talking about different places we could go.”

Ben sighed. “Let’s see if they can talk faster,” he said, walking off to the kitchen.

“Oh, yeah, Miya. I had a question,” said Olivia.

Miya suppressed a sigh. Just ask. “Yes?”

“Is everyone OK without the masks and stuff?” asked Olivia.

Miya looked around. “Why would anyone besides Quarrel be wearing a mask right now?”

Olivia’s brow furrowed. “Well, everyone else always wears them whenever we’re doing stuff like this. But no one has cared since the Watch came to the warehouse.”

“Well yeah, they knew where we were and who we were. If they wanted to screw us, they didn’t even have to show their faces, they could have just called the cops, or plastered our faces and names all over the internet. And besides, we’re in Quarrel’s house now.”

The last part made Olivia tilt her head. “So?” Oh, OK, I see what this is now.

“No. Wearing a mask in someone else’s house is a real big no-no. A mask mean you’re there for a fight. And if they ask you to take it off and you don’t, that’s pretty close to using your power on someone without asking.”

“Oh,” said Olivia, looking down at her knees and pulling her wings in closer behind her.

“No, no. Not the wings or anything. That’s just you. Your power I would say is more hacky slashy crush crush.”

Olivia blinked. “Oh. So, is that why you don’t wear a mask then? To avoid that?”

You’re adorable. “I didn’t wear a mask because I didn’t want to hide. Because it was me that robbed that armored van or me that knocked over that gas station. Not some mask, it was me, and like hell anyone can deny it. As for the others, I don’t know. I’d be willing to bet Ben and Rob just wear those grinning masks for the fun of it. But Rob made them, so they could do something cool for all I know.”

Olivia digested that in silence. In the kitchen, Chris, Ben, and Quarrel argued over a map of the city on Quarrel’s computer. Everyone’s getting cautious. Each and every suggestion they make will be met with a ‘but what if they’re waiting for us?’ from the other.

“Are you ready?” asked Miya.

Olivia looked down. “I… I think so. They’re talking about an ambush in there right now. And… I guess we’ll be doing… stuff. I don’t know, but I don’t like it.”

“You don’t have to, you know,” said Miya. Mind you, you are usually super helpful in fights, but dragging someone off to fight against their will is fucked up.

“I mean…” said Olivia trailing off. Miya sat back, waiting. “Everyone is always shooting at each other, and I don’t care. I just don’t want you guys to get hurt. Before it was just minor cuts and stuff, but now Amanda’s really hurt and I don’t want that to happen to any of you guys.”

“Yeah. That sounds about right.”

“But… I should feel bad. I killed someone. Again. And… I don’t feel that bad. I just wanted Amanda to be safe and… and…”

Shit. I’m no shrink. What the hell do I say? “Hey, I appreciate it. You shouldn’t feel bad about those hitmen. You know there’s a good chance they were there to kill Amanda.”

“I… I guess. I don’t know.”

They sat in silence, until Miya’s phone rang, Rob’s number appearing on the screen. This’ll be good. She answered.

“Hello?”

Chris?” asked Rob.

“What? No, this is Miya.”

Shit, my finger slipped. Whatever, they’re after me. Need help.

Miya jumped off the couch, Olivia following suit. I guess she heard that. “Well, where are you?” And what the hell did you do? The two of them rushed into the kitchen

Near the house, I think. I’m just fuckin’ drivin’, really. Fuck!” Miya jerked her head away from the phone as the piercing sound of shattering glass came through the line. “So yeah, help.

Shit. “Hey, guys, Rob is about to be murdered,” she said to everyone else. They all froze. “He’s in a car somewhere nearby.”

Everyone jumped into action. Olivia immediately headed for the door. Chris asked, “What weapons do we have?”

“I got a knife off of one of the hitmen,” called out Ben, following Olivia.

“Give me a minute,” called out Quarrel. She bolted through the door leading to the basement.

“We might not have a minute,” Miya called out after her. Fuck it, she’s a techie, she needs something to fight with. So do I, actually. “OK, where are you?” she asked Rob.

Uh, fuck!” She heard more sharp sounds, distorted by the phone. “Uhhh, if I press this button… yeah! There’s the GPS.” He rattled off the street he was on and the direction he was going.

“OK, I know that area. That’s not too far. Stay alive, we’re coming to get you.”

He laughed. “‘Stay alive’ she says. Yeah, no shit. The Tzontlis already carved up a couple police cruisers that tried to get involved. Hurry.” The call disconnected.

Quarrel returned from the basement, goggles and mask in place and toting two crossbows. She offered the smaller one, Miya recognized the larger one she kept close to her chest.

“Which one of you wants it?” Quarrel asked Miya and Chris.

Chris nodded to her. “Take it, my power is better suited for combat.”

Miya blinked. “I don’t-” she began as Quarrel shoved the crossbow in her hands. No larger than most other two handed guns she’d used, the crossbow had a cylinder wrapped around the central column thing. I don’t know how to use this.

“It’s semiautomatic,” explained Quarrel, leading the way outside. Ben and Olivia waited by the door. “Pull that lever back like any rifle, that’ll load the bolt. Then just point and shoot. It’s super simple. Also, the bolts will light on fire. Don’t panic about that. If you need to reload…” Quarrel stopped. “Damn it.”

Chris stopped her from turning around. “No time.” Quarrel nodded and ran out the front door to her car. “Olivia, get airborne. Follow us, but if you spot Rob don’t hesitate to help him out.”

Olivia nodded. Dust swirled as she took flight. The rest of them piled into the car.

“Where are we headed?” asked Quarrel. Miya fed her the directions as she backed out of the driveway. In half a minute they were hurtling down the mid-morning Sunday streets.

“I thought you said he went for a walk, Ben,” said Chris from the back seat next to Miya. Hey, wait a minute. Chris is right.

“Yeah, what the hell?” added Miya.

“If I were him, I’d have gone for a walk. An’ that walk woulda led me to trouble.”

“You’re saying he just waltzed into Tzonti territory and picked a fight.”

Ben shrugged. “Vigilante justice can be cathartic.”

“What, did he just murder a bunch of people?” asked Quarrel.

“Probably.” You know, I’m kind of glad I never ran into any when I was active here. I’ll take petty robberies over murder any day.

“That’s not how-” Quarrel cut off as she swerved around a very slow van. “That’s not how vigilantes operate.”

“Yeah, if you’re talkin’ the Watch. Us independents don’ got that luxury.”

“You all are vigilantes?”

“No. Jus’ me. And Rob, I guess. A little.”

Rob called Miya again. You are so fucking lucky I didn’t have this thing on mute.

“I’m here,” she said the instant she got the phone to her ear.

Where you guys at?

Miya glanced out the window, then rattled off a couple street names as they passed them.

Cool! I’m comin’ in over the rooftops.

“Wait, what?” Miya asked. Chris shot her a questioning look. “He said something about rooftops.”

“Stop! Oh my fuckin’ god,” said Ben, pointing at the sky. Quarrel slammed on the brakes, earning her a honk from the person they’d passed. Everyone crowded over to Ben’s side of the car.

Amanda’s car drifted over the houses. No fucking way. The car rotated a few degrees during its flight so that the front didn’t exactly point in the direction the car was headed. It began its descent, barely clearing the roof of the house nearest to the street. That’s not how cars work.

“Shit, out of the way,” said Ben, smacking Quarrel’s shoulder. They’d been sitting around like slack jawed idiots at the flying car, failing to notice it would plow right into them in a moment or two. Quarrel sprang to life, gunning the engine and getting her car out of the way of Rob.

Amanda’s car hit the ground. Rob corrected for the rotation that had occurred in flight, the wheels squealing as the car fishtailed for a couple yards. He hit the brakes, jerking the car to a stop. The smell of burnt rubber and the thin grey smoke coming up through bullet holes in the trunk filled the air behind him.

Rob rolled down the window and poked his head out, a massive grin on his face. “It works!” he exclaimed with a wave. Everyone stared at him. Words cannot do justice to how unexpected that was.

Quarrel pulled up next to him, rolling down her windows. “Where the hell have you been?” asked Chris.

“Fixin’ this. Was on my own, so it took a bit longer.”

“It was at the scrapyard.”

“Yeah, I went in an’ killed the fire guy an’ the big guy. Shotty, yeah.”

“You killed Shotty and Xi on your own?” asked Quarrel.

“Yep. But some other people showed up when I was almost done fixin’ this thing. Been hell ever since. Also, I’ve done this a couple times now. They’re gonna be right behind me. Can’t fuckin’ shake em, don’t know why. I blame the robots.” Not those things again.

As if on cue, two cars barreled down the wide street, both large, battered SUVs. The couple of onlookers that had gathered out of earshot near behind them turned in curiosity at the sound of their roaring engines.

“Yep, that’s them,” said Rob.

Right at that moment, Olivia landed on the engine of the lead oncoming car and tore off the roof. The car swerved and collided with a store on the side of the road, throwing Olivia off.

The other car passed the wreckage, heading unerringly for Miya and the others. “That one’s got three robots in it,” called out Rob. Three? Fuck.

“Get us out of here,” said Chris.

Quarrel burst into action, gunning the engine and driving off, tires squealing on the pavement. Rob followed right behind.

“Wait, Olivia,” shouted Miya.

“They’re ignoring her, and she’ll be in better shape than anyone who was in that car,” replied Chris.

The stoplight ahead of them began to bend, the horizontal beam wobbling. In fact, a bunch of streetlights ahead of them were also bending. What the…

“Oh shit,” muttered Quarrel.

Space seemed to warp, then in front of them appeared four cars. Armed men began piling out of them. Fuck.

Quarrel twisted the wheel, hitting the curb and driving down the sidewalk. Everyone ducked as gunfire shattered the windows. They pulled away, Rob and the robot car right behind them.

“Everyone OK?” asked Chris.

“I’m fine,” said Miya.

“Good,” added Ben.

“Same,” said Quarrel.

“How much do we owe ya for gas?” Ben asked Quarrel.

“Not the time,” she shouted back.

The streetlights began bending again, all in the same direction. Five cars appeared this time. With no apparent opening, Quarrel slammed on the brakes. Before Miya could think of a way out, Quarrel simply spun the car around and bolted down a side street.

They ducked again as the gunfire resumed. The robot SUV came within a foot of T boning Rob as they tore down the one way street. Miya chanced a look over the back seat. The white SUV was gaining on Rob. Wait, is that… it is!

Olivia descended from the sky and collided with the roof of the SUV, yanking it to the side. The upper body of a robot burst out of a window and stabbed at Olivia’s hand with a knife. She grabbed the offending robot and pulled it out of the car. Then her head jerked back. Through the window Miya could see a second robot aiming a rifle at the roof.

Olivia fell off the top of the SUV, the robot in her hands tumbling alongside her. “Shit!” screamed Miya. “Olivia!”

“What?” asked Ben.

“She just got shot in the head trying to get rid of those robots. I didn’t… I can’t see her.”

“Fuck.”

“We have to keep moving. She’s taken bullets to the head before, she’ll be fine,” said Chris.

Again, the nearby streetlights began bending.

“I know where he is,” murmured Quarrel. “I know where he is,” she repeated, louder. She slammed the brakes again and shot down another road.

“What? Who? How?”

“Samedi, their leader. He’s never used his power like this on such a large scale. But the street lights are bending in the rough direction of where he is, I just realized. I have the layout of the city memorized, I know the corner of where he is.”

How do you… techie, whatever. “You sure?” asked Miya.

“Positive.”

“We need to escape,” said Chris.

“How? This is just going to continue until we get rid of their mobility like this.”

“With what? We have two crossbows and a knife between all of us.”

“We have to do something,” Quarrel shouted back. “I’m taking us there.”

They dodged around three more imperfect blockades of cars, drawing ever nearer to where Quarrel insisted Samedi was hiding. Good thing he can apparently only make one blockade at a time, otherwise we’d be dead in a crossfire a long time ago.

At this point a couple helicopters were circling overhead, though none drew close. Hell, everyone’s probably staying indoors now. And the MHU may arrive in force soon. By the looks of the area, they were in the shantytown. A couple of the more quick witted gunmen from the last two blockades had joined the pursuing robots behind them.

“Here, just ahead.” A couple dilapidated apartments stood ahead. Men stood outside. Armed men. Quarrel stopped the car about ten yards away. Two glowing Aztec carvings began forming on the walls of the apartment. Between them stood a short, thin man, in a hoodie despite the Arizona summer heat. Is that Cynic?

The gunmen near the apartment opened fire, forcing Miya to duck. The robot’s mangled SUV screeched to a stop nearby, and two robots emerged.

“Out of the car” shouted Chris.

Miya yanked on the door handle and rolled out, crossbow in hand. She found herself between a concrete barrier separating the road and the parking lot of the apartments and Quarrel’s car. Ben teleported over to her, knife drawn.

Quarrel tumbled out of the front seat, next to Ben. Liquid Chris flowed over to join them.

“Ben!” shouted Rob from behind his car. His car was between their pursuers and them. He held up a rifle and a long, curved knife.

“Take this,” said Ben, shoving his knife at Miya. He teleported over to Rob.

“Happy birthday,” said Rob, passing Ben the gun and another knife.

“Huzzah!” he said. Looking at Miya, he shouted, “Go on, we got this.” They heard a roar, and saw Olivia flying over the rooftops towards them. Ben grinned. “Yeah, we definitely got this. Go!”

Miya scrambled towards Chris and Quarrel.

“They got another fire mage, we can’t get through,” shouted Chris as Quarrel held her crossbow over the top of the barrier, firing a couple bolts.

“He’s staying behind cover, runes are messing with my bolts,” added Quarrel.

“Fiery rocks?” I thought I recognized Cynic.

Chris nodded. Miya drew Ben’s knife and hacked at a fallen man’s finger. “What the fuck are you doing?” asked Quarrel.

“Want to know why I always use cow bones for my golems?”

“What?” Oh yeah, you’ve never seen my golems.

“Because the bones of humans are super magically volatile.”

She finally wrenched the man’s finger free of the rest of his hand. Don’t fuck this up, me. She summoned a couple simple golem streams, like the strings of a puppet, and sent them through the exposed bone. My brain just twitched. At least, that’s what it feels like.

The finger bones twisted and bubbled. I should definitely not be holding this. She tossed the finger, now warped and ballooned to over three times its original size, in the general direction of the Tzontlis. Gift for you, Cynic.

A man screamed. I’d be willing to bet that finger has grown legs and teeth. Or tentacles, that’s a magical classic. A bright flash of light. Aw, he tried to fight the magical abomination with magic. Cute. The gunfire from the base of the apartment stopped.

“Wait,” said Miya, grabbing Quarrel and Chris. Still feel brain twitching. And… there it is. Abomination dissipated. “Go,” she said, releasing them.

Chris shifted to liquid and flowed over the concrete barrier. The final two robots fired at him, their guns near silent. Miya and Quarrel jumped the barrier a moment later. One of the robots immediately disengaged from Chris and aimed at them.

Chris slammed the robot into the ground and into a small pile of ash surrounded by mauled bodies.

“Come on. He might get away,” shouted Quarrel as they rushed past the robots and Chris.

“You know he’s inside?”

“Yes, come on,” insisted Quarrel. “It’s gotta be him. We have to finish this.” Someone’s intense.

They burst into the ground floor of the apartment building, Quarrel immediately leading them to the stairwell. They ran up a flight of stairs, then past a couple rooms.

Quarrel tapped her goggles. “Come on, work. Here, this room.” She stopped in front of an old, warped door. Still looks solid.

She shot three short, stubby bolts next to the hinges of the doorframe. She sidestepped, and the bolts exploded. Miya kicked the door. It collapsed with almost no resistance. Fuck yeah. She and Quarrel rushed into the apartment, crossbows held high.

“Hello.” Samedi threw back his shot glass. “You’re here to kill me?”

“Don’t move,” said Quarrel, moving to flank him.

“Pah.” Samedi spat at her and poured himself another shot.

The glasses and bottle sat on a rickety old kitchen table in the darkened room. Other than the peeling walls and pile of milk crates in the corner, the room was entirely devoid of any furniture or decoration. Only the morning light coming in through the dirty windows illuminated the room.

“I said don’t move,” said Quarrel, advancing another step, crossbow pointing at Samedi’s face.

He looked her directly in the eye and drank his shot. “You think I care? You’ve taken out half my men. I nearly gave myself an aneurysm throwing all of them at you. They kept giving me orders on where to send them.”

“They? Who are they?” asked Miya.

“Overlord. And, more specifically, those robots who were chasing you.”

Motherfucker. “Why are you working for him?”

“Working for him? No. Not by choice. You see, Overlord has a very extensive medical program. It was no accident those robots are here, working for us.”

“I’m familiar with it,” said Miya. Quarrel shot her a glance, her crossbow not leaving Samedi’s chest.

“Hm? I recognize you,” said Samedi, his brow furrowed in confusion. His hand rested on his bottle. “Though I’m not sure from where.” Of course you don’t.

“I’ve met you once or twice. I was Don’s student. He sold me out to Overlord, they were trying to control magic.”

He nodded, a knowing smile on his face. “Ah. You too?” His shoulders shook with a mirthless chuckle. “I should have figured. I’m surprised you’re not dead.” He poured himself another shot.

“It was close.” Wait, ‘you too’?

He inclined his head and drank his shot. “Congratulations. You’re in better shape than me.”

“You said ‘you too’. Does that mean…”

“That I have the same wires and devices under my skin too, I presume? Yes, I am acutely aware of them.”

“How? You’re the leader of a group of war mages. You teleported tons of people trying to kill us. How did Overlord snag you?”

“I could ask the same of you. When were you kidnapped?”

Miya bit her lip. Should I tell him? Fuck it, we’re here to kill him anyways, won’t hurt. “Beginning of December.”

“Ah, so a couple weeks before myself. One day, I’m eating Christmas dinner, the next, I’m strapped to a hospital bed with no access to my magic.” Samedi’s face soured. “I would love to find the man who put me there. But alas, it is too late for me.”

“We found Overlord’ gold in Don’s safe.”

“Don? That son of a bitch. I don’t know about the others in the Underground. Cynic? No, he’s not very powerful. Xi? He would go along with anything, so long he could light it on fire at the end. No need for control. But I believe your friend killed him, so I suppose it’s a moot point.”

“Why are you telling us this?” demanded Quarrel. “You’ve shown so much interest in killing us all, why are you giving up?”

“You all? Bah! No, this was because the idiot muscle heads. Don was their uncle. They wanted revenge. Why not give it to them?”

“You tried to kill us. You did kill one of us,” spat Quarrel, her voice hard.

“Yes. Why would I give a shit about you? The robots didn’t care. Hell, two volunteered to go along.”

“Volunteered?” asked Miya. Robots can do that?

“That’s what it looked like. I assume they had orders. From what I’ve seen they have no real autonomy, just extensive programming.”

“Just like you,” said Quarrel.

He laughed. “Just like me? I tried to shoot myself last week. The devices paralyzed me. One of the robots came in, took the gun, and broke a rib as punishment. I pass on the orders they give me, try not to rock the boat.” He poured another shot. “I drink too much, robots come and take it away.” He smiled eagerly and drank.

He continued, “I tried to fight, tried to keep on living.” He poured and drank another shot. “And you know? It wasn’t bad. Got to live well, lorded over half the city.” He smiled. “Not now. I’m a lost cause to them now.” He tossed the shot glass aside grabbing the half full bottle and sitting down on a milk crate.

“I see… three ways this can go,” he continued, his voice slurred slightly. “I drink the rest of this bottle and die in a pool of my own vomit. You shoot me. They blow me up. Three choices.”

“You’re a good little minion to them, why would they blow you up?”

“You’re too young. You don’t remember when he was called Slave Driver. A dictator, I don’t remember his name, he used him to control people. He’s always been about control. Robots, they’re really easy to control. The word robot comes from slave. He’s always been successful, but he’s always been a control freak. How else do you explain Control?”

He knows about that fucking thing? Miya bit her lip.

“Yes, you know what I’m talking about. So no, I’m not obedient. They probably have this whole conversation recorded. My eye is not my own,” he said, tapping his left temple.

“That doesn’t answer the question. Why would they blow you up?” repeated Quarrel.

His smile grew wider. “Because they failed. Because they did not break me and they did not control me fully. Because this is proof.” He took a long swig from the bottle. “Because I’m not begging them for life. Because I may not want to die, but because this life is worse. Because I want to die on my terms, not theirs.” He looked Miya dead in the eye. “So, what’s it going to be?”

Quarrel glanced at Miya. Shit. I kind of want to help this guy. There are very few people that deserve to go onto that operating table. And he didn’t have some people to swoop in and save his ass.

“You know why I’m not dead?” asked Miya. Without waiting for a response, she said, “Because someone cut some wires that needed cutting. You know where they are now? In a coma because of that attack you commanded.”

Samedi stared at her for a moment, then burst into laughter. You don’t regret it. So neither do I. Miya fired.

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Ash – Gearbox

A nurse rushed by Rob as he leaned against the wall of the corridor. He gripped his knife, keeping it out of sight behind his forearm. He kept an eye on her until she rounded a corner. No threat.

“Shit. Where are the others?” asked Miya. She paced in front of Amanda’s door.

Rob simply folded his arms, keeping the knife covered. I’ll try to not be a dipshit and cut myself by accident.

“I don’t know,” said Quarrel. “I think Roach is getting in contact with the hospital staff.”

Rob glanced at the locked door of Amanda’s room. Don’t know for sure if they’re here for her. Might be here for the rest of us, maybe just for recon, whatever. But I don’t care what they’re doing, they need killing.

An alarm sounded. He recognized the blaring sounds and red floodlights. Most public places had that kind of alarm: Attack is not contained, highly dangerous, seek safety. Man, they’ve got some serious hitmen. Or spies, whatever.

Feet pounded down the hall. Miya and Quarrel turned towards the sound. Rob continued leaning against the wall, looking in the other direction. No backstabs. Chris and Ben barreled down the hallway, skidding to a stop right before reaching Miya and Quarrel.

“What happened?” asked Miya.

“Olivia butchered two of the three hitmen. A couple security guards got to the last one before we could ask her anything. We have maybe three minutes until the cops get enough people here to lock down,” explained Chris in a rush. And we’re probably wanted for breaking Olivia out. Speaking of which, where is she?

“How did they find us here?” asked Quarrel.

“The docs an’ whoever else were all hush hush, but ya can’t cover up a frantic new patient like that. Janitors, service boys, maintenance people, hell, the nurses. They talk,” explained Ben in a rush. Rob cocked an eyebrow at Ben’s hand. Namely, that he had it stuffed in his pocket.

Everyone’s getting injured. But people aren’t simple like cars or perpetual motion machines. I like fixing things but I can’t do shit for a hand or stomach. What could I do?

Rob glanced at Ben’s hand again. Mechanical fingers, maybe? How would that work? He glanced at his own hand, flexing the two middle fingers Ben’s hand was missing. He’s got two small stumps there, the fingers aren’t completely gone. There’s some movement. Hell, my finger curling just looks like the little muscles are pulling the bones back. His head buzzed.

–Imitate the old fingers. Model it off of your own, or anyone else’s. Stump moves back in a curl, moves some trigger. That trigger, based on how far it’s moved, can curl the other two segments of the fake finger. Treat the joints as gears. The muscles or tendons can be treated as chains or ropes.–

Rob curled his fingers again.

–That solution is a bit too simplistic for full recovery. It won’t restore the full dexterity you’re observing right now. However, with what you’re trying to fix, there is no other method of providing energy and direction.–

“We need to get out of here,” ordered Chris. “Roach can only delay them for so long. Olivia is already gone, we told her to run before the cops came.”

Rob noticed the muscles of Chris’s face extend and contract as he talked. They pulled his jaw up and down, the gears below his ears on either side keeping it attached to the rest of his skull.

“Won’t they arrest Amanda once she’s fit for trial, though?” asked Miya.

“We can’t do anything about it,” said Chris. “Unless we can wheel her out of here right now and patch her up ourselves.” Rob tightened his grip on his knife. Nothing stopping this gang from just trying again, and I wouldn’t trust the same cops who have lost half the damn city to keep Amanda safe.

Ben nudged him. “Hey, come on. Can do more from the outside,” Ben said under his breath. Rob glanced at him. Really? Ben noticed. “Come on, murder time. Can’t do that in a cell.” Rob nodded with a grimace. Fair enough. I may not like it, but fair enough.

“Alright,” said Quarrel to the group at large. “My car is this way.”

She led the way, jogging to the stairwell on the far side of the hallway. Her knees acted as two larger gears. Her calf muscles contracted, pulling her leg back. Different muscles, pulling different gears.

Rob followed once Ben tugged on his arm.

***

“Gotta strike back somehow,” said Ben, wedged between Rob and the car door in the back seat. The engine of Quarrel’s car purred as she drove them through the dark, abandoned streets. She knows cars, I’ll give her that.

“We’ll have no way of knowing what we’ll be walking into,” said Chris from the shotgun seat.

“He’s right,” said Quarrel. “That’s just suicide otherwise.”

“Well, the fuck are we gonna do now, then?” asked Ben.

“Regroup, then strike at the head,” answered Chris.

“OK, how?”

“That’s what we need to find out.” Talk, talk, talk.

Quarrel pulled into the driveway of a small whitewashed house. “Alright,” she said. “I think I have enough room for you guys to stay. Roach might stop by, but he has his own apartment.” They’d judged going back to the hotel too big a risk, in case the police were looking for them.

They climbed out of her car. “The police won’t bother you or Roach?” asked Miya.

“No. We have an agreement with them. We can technically count as law enforcement, so that’s why they didn’t investigate you guys at the hospital earlier. So far as they were concerned, it was our investigation. But if your friend killed those hitmen, they’re going to get involved in that.” Ain’t no rest for the wicked.

The still air whooshed, and Olivia landed behind Rob. She can use her phone for something besides jaguar pictures now. As a group they hurried inside once Quarrel unlocked the front door. Thank god for her it’s about one in the morning. We’re suspicious as hell.

Quarrel sighed. “OK, crash wherever,” she said, motioning to the living room. “Just stay out of my room and my workshop downstairs. You’ll probably get shot with a crossbow if you go into the workshop, just as a warning. I’m going to grab some blankets and pillows for you.” I like her philosophy on that.

“We’re just gonna crash now?” asked Ben.

“We’ll plan that out tomorrow. Thank you for the place to stay,” said Chris.

“No problem. Me and Roach have a score to settle too, don’t worry.” Quarrel walked off, presumably to find the blankets.

Rob sat back as everyone else drifted off, the conversation ended.

Ben nudged him with his elbow. “Sleep?”

Rob shook his head. Been sleeping for too long already.

“Don’ do anythin’ dumb, OK?” Rob shrugged.

I got work to do. He jumped off the chair once everyone had left and went out to the backyard. Like most homes in Arizona, the backyard had lots of rocks and not much else. After a moment, he grabbed one.

***

Rob scraped the single edge of his knife along the stone. The long, curved blade more resembled a miniature machete than a knife. The blade was about ten inches long, not including the well-worn, leather wrapped handle. He didn’t bother with the tip, this knife was meant for wide slashes, not small, important holes. His fingers ran over the intricate Celtic knots he’d worked into the flat of the blade with another scrape of his impromptu whetstone. Got to make this sharp as possible.

–Sharpest things you’ve ever seen are Aztec obsidian knives. You can make steel that sharp too, with enough carbon, folding it correctly, and so on. You’ve done that already with this knife, if the color of the steel and resistance to the whetstone are any indication. But that makes the metal too brittle. It’ll shatter the instant you use it wrong. But if you work that kind of steel into only the very edge, and leave the rest of the knife pliable, the knife will be sharp and usable.–

–If you had enough time and a good source of heat, you could induce small purposeful fractures in the edge that won’t affect its utility, rather than let random ones form from wear and tear. But you don’t, so that’s a project for later.–

He threw the flat rock back to the ground. Now for the test. I’d rather not accidentally cut my thumb off, so hair it is.

Rob plucked a hair from his head. He held it about an inch above the knife edge and released it. The hair floated down and split in half the instant it touched the knife’s edge. Good enough. He returned the knife to its sheath, and placed it next to the two others he’d given the same treatment. Never leave home without some.

He stood, stretching kinks from crouching for an hour and a half of his neck. He glanced back at the house.

They’re going to stand around and talk forever tomorrow. Well, maybe not Ben, but he’s taken enough shit here. He strapped the smallest knife to his boot, covered up by his cargo pants. He placed the curved knife at the small of his back, and the last knife in the large pocket on his thigh.

Alright, good to go. He hopped the fence to avoid going through the house and possibly waking the others. Wait. He paused at the street and checked his wallet. He rifled through the few bills within. Think that’s enough for a bus fare. We’ll see.

***

Rob walked down the streets of the industrial district, hands in his pockets and head down. He checked a nearby street sign. Maybe a block left until the scrapyard. Damn well better be gangbangers still there, otherwise this is going to be infinitely more annoying.

He skirted a large pile of trash on the curb, noticing how close that put him to the dark alley to his left too late. A metallic click accompanied the tap of a gun barrel on the back of his head. He froze.

“Wallet,” demanded a rough voice from behind him. Not entirely unexpected.

Rob drew his hands out of his pockets with exaggerated care, holding his nearly empty wallet in one. He extended his hands to either side, taking care to let them tremble convincingly. He released his grip on his wallet before the mugger could grab it. The guy cursed as the wallet hit the ground. He heard the mugger move to grab the wallet. Someone isn’t very good at this, could have told me to pick it up myself.

Right as he heard the man bend down to grab the wallet, Rob made his move. He twisted to the side as his hand shot down to the knife at his hip. The man, maybe the same age as Rob, still partially crouched over Rob’s wallet reflexively fired. The shot went nowhere near Rob. Yep, dipshit.

Rob pulled his knife out, handle towards his thumb, and stabbed. The man finally burst into action.

–Cords of his left shoulder and arm tensing. He’ll put his arm up, it’ll probably hit your wrist. Right arm is shifting to point the gun at you.–

Rob corrected his swing, bringing it in by an inch. The knife hacked through the man’s forearm and cut everything, bone included.

The man screamed and dropped his gun as he fell to his knees. Enough of that screaming. Rob’s next stab caught the man in the eye. The mugger stopped screaming. Rob crouched and grabbed his fallen wallet. Shoving that back into his pocket and returning his knife to its sheath, he checked the neck of the dead man. There it is. He tapped the dark blue skull tattoo on the man. Guess they’ve expanded to this area.

Rob hurried away, leaving the body and the gun. Got no ammo and no way to carry it discreetly. He only resumed walking pace once close to the scrapyard. A couple unfamiliar cars were parked out front. Home sweet home.

Rather than barging in through the front door, Rob skirted around the yard itself. The barbed wire topping the fence and the lack of hole in the chain links gave him pause for thought.

–There, that slight discoloration in the wire. That means that a small tug, not much force, could break the wire. You see two other points like that.–

Easy day. Rob scaled the fence and loosened the barbed wire, enough for him to jump to the other side without tearing a hole in his skin. He headed not towards the building, but his ad hoc forge he’d set up to the side. Wonder if they touched anything. Not much to sell on the black market, it was all prototypes that needed testing. Maybe the wirepatch killed a couple if they were dumb enough to fuck with it.

He passed a couple scrap heaps before finding what he was looking for. Motherfuckers. Half of his makeshift wall had been knocked down. The heating apparatus was in shambles, different pieces strewn all around in the ground and propane tanks completely missing. The gears of the clock he hadn’t had time to pack were buried under dirt. Rob took a moment to control his breathing. There’s a special circle in hell for these people.

Something on the ground a few feet from the detritus caught his attention. They didn’t find the wirepatch. He picked up the dark grey canister, maybe one and a half times the size of a normal grenade, from under an old car door. Pin’s still in place and everything.

With nothing left at the remains of his forge, Rob continued to the main warehouse. Right before the warehouse sat the car. The car he and Amanda had turned into a futuristic hovercraft. Fuck yeah, still here? Oh yeah, I never put in a couple parts. He examined the car exterior. A scorch mark in the shape of a hand marred the driver’s door. Rob smiled. Amanda’s security still works fine. Guess I gotta finish the job.

He peered in through a hole in the crude welding job they’d put up on the ruined wall. He counted about four sleeping figures from his limited view. What are they still here for? Trap? Why? They think they’ve got us on the run. The blinking light of a familiar laptop caught his eye.

Oh, Amanda’s stuff is still all here. Techie gear could be incredibly valuable, but unless the techie wanted someone to have it, doing anything with it had an enormous chance of backfiring. They want to sell her shit, but don’t want to move it in case that fucks with it. His knuckles around the wirepatch whitened.

Fuck them, let’s do this. This door lock doesn’t work, Olivia accidentally broke it. He pulled the pin.

–Now, if you didn’t make an error in the design or creation, that pin sparked a small fuse. That fuse should hit the core. That core, composed of powdered aluminum you treated to increase combustibility, should explode, breaking the canister open. Now with the canister open, the spools of wire wrapped around the horizontal axis should extend fully.–

–If you correctly directed the energy of the core’s explosion, the wirepatch will act as a sort of bouncing betty. The axis will spin rapidly, swinging the wire and traveling in an unpredictable pattern. Now, the real question is whether all that wire held the tiny serrations you worked in a couple days ago. Ideally the wire, at the speed it should be moving, will tear apart any exposed flesh or clothing. You’d need to do some tests to see how different armors hold up to it.–

The pin came free of the cap. Rob tossed it in the warehouse. A small pop, then the screaming started.  Something, or more likely someone, collided with the wall on the other side of Rob, hiding near the door.

A man came stumbling out, bleeding profusely from his face, arms, and legs. He shot a couple fireballs into the air at imaginary enemies. Rob tackled him and drove his knife into the man’s lower ribcage. He hacked upwards, towards more important organs like the heart and lungs. The two of them hit the ground, the fire man unmoving and Rob very much alive.

Rob pulled the knife out of the fire man and stood, just in time to see a massive man tear a couple thin wires out of his face as he marched out of the doorway. His clothing looked torn to shreds, but Rob couldn’t see a drop of blood. Shotty.

Shotty took in the sight of Rob standing over the corpse with his knife. He laughed. The gears and pistons under his skin shifted as he began his lunge. I’d rather not get hit.

–He’s putting a lot of weight his left foot. Tension forming in the arm cords. Forearm tensing as well, making the hand form a fist. Punch, very fast, will aimed for the center of your chest, an inch below your throat. It’ll won’t be perfectly straight, the path will be more of a swing to your right.–

Rob turned to the side and let the punch glide past him. He glanced at the arm, the thick collection of more gears and pistons and cords. How do I make that stop?

–That cord towards the center looks important. Connected to several gears in the middle of the arm. Cut that and the arm won’t be nearly as strong.–

Rob stabbed the knife into Shotty’s tricep. The man’s arm put up far more resistance than the mugger’s arm had. Rather than simply slicing through everything, the knife got stuck deep in the large muscle. Shotty recoiled, ripping the knife out of Rob’s grasp.

–Arm and chest muscles tensing. Wrong kind of tension in his forearm for a punch. Looks like he’s going to swing his elbow at your head, you don’t think a punch at this range would make sense.–

Rob ducked and reached for the slashing knife on his back.

–Another punch. Injured arm this time. Aim for your center of mass again. —

Rob noted the trajectory of the punch and twisted, dodging it by inches. Too close, can’t slash. He backpedaled another step.

–Punch, you recognize it as a haymaker. Right side of your head.–

Rob ducked.

–Punch, uppercut, left side of your jaw.–

Rob leaned back.

–Punch, haymaker, right side of your throat.–

Rob backed up another step, slashing his knife at the top of Shotty’s forearm. The man roared in pain, his hand limp at his side. Rob smiled.

–Leg muscles tensing. Looks like a charge. Arm muscles tensing as well. Looks like a bear hug. You’ll have about three feet under that arm. He’s expecting you to go to his bad arm.–

Rob tucked and rolled, coming up behind Shotty.

–That muscle on his shoulder lets him pull his arm back. From what you’ve seen, your knife can cut through fairly well. Tensile strength of this man is much higher than that of others, however. You’ll need more tests for a number.–

Rob slashed as Shotty turned, leaving another deep cut on the man’s shoulder.

–Leg muscles again. Kick, towards your hips.–

Rob jumped to the side.

–Upper body tensing. He’s going to swing his arm at you. The muscles aren’t completely cut, they can still put force behind the swing.–

Shotty managed to swing his arm with a growl. Rob rolled out of the way again.

–Back of that gear, middle of the leg. Lots of tension there. Cut.–

Rob lunged and delivered a slash to the back of Shotty’s knee. The giant tumbled. There it is.

Rob circled a few steps around the fallen man as he struggled to get up.

–Neck cords tensed at the sound of your footsteps. Tracking you.–

Rob kicked loose dirt into the man’s eyes. Shotty recoiled, long enough for Rob to crouch down, grab the last knife in his boot, and stab it down into the base of Shotty’s skull.

Rob spoke, something he’d been meaning to say for a long time, “Now I’m angry.”

<- Previous Chapter

Next Chapter ->

Ash – In the Eye

“… has signed the bill allowing for armed drones to patrol over US airspace after a year of debate,” droned the TV. “While unarmed surveillance drones have been in use for the last decade in the United States, this bill marks a new era in law enforcement, as missile armed drones will allow authorities to react in a timely manner to any threat to public safety.”

“Coming up, unrest in California and new developments in the Middle East. More on those stories after this short break.” The pleasant jingle of a car dealership commercial began playing.

Olivia snuggled up closer to Ben, who’d taken Miya’s place when he’d called her out of the room close to an hour ago. Chris had joined them soon after. Are those the tiny flying things that I always see really high up in the air? I remember spotting one when I flew into the city. They’d turned on the TV in Olivia’s room for lack of anything better to do.

“About time,” said Chris.

“Wha’?” said Ben.

“I said about time,” repeated Chris.

“Yeah, heard ya. Why do ya say that?”

“I was only in the police force for maybe four months, and there were a good half dozen times where we weren’t able to stop a getaway car or a super because we didn’t have the manpower to be everywhere at all times. Think of what we could have done when F.F. attacked. Triangulate and bomb.”

“I dunno ‘bout that. Collateral damage’d be pretty bad,” pointed out Ben.

“Have you seen some of those smart missiles they have?” asked Chris, eyebrow raised. “You can program one to take out one room and one room only. It’s not like they’d coat half the city in napalm or Agent Orange like it was Vietnam.” Who?

“Tha’s assumin’ they bother to program it all special like that. They could jus’ say ‘hey, fuck those guys over there’ an’ bam, explosions. An’ I guarantee they’ll fuck up at some point.” Olivia frowned. Bombing people? The police aren’t supposed to do that, right?

“But there’s so much oversight already. I had to fill out twenty forms for a couple of grenades and a few magazine’s worth of rifle ammo for just a couple patrols.”

“Yeah, but you were random new grunt number 158. If the higher ups want somethin’ to happen, it’ll happen. Ya didn’t see what happened up top when you were there.” Olivia pulled her wings in closer. Why are you guys arguing?

Chris shrugged as the news returned. The two news anchors sat behind the desk with the news station’s logo plastered on the front. An image of a screaming masked man holding a handmade sign appeared on the upper right of the screen.

The Asian man on the left began the report, “Welcome back. Protesters seized the city hall of Los Angeles last night, as well as two police stations and other municipal buildings. A similar attempt at seizing the MHU headquarters in the city was repulsed by officers there. After weeks of mostly peaceful protests against unemployment and the increase in the national security budget over healthcare and education, this move marks a radical change in their strategy. We go now to our reporter in the field, Jonathan Marshall. John?”

The TV cut to a man crouched on the floor. One hand held his mic, the other fidgeted with the shoulder of his black bulletproof vest. He looked up at the camera; Olivia noted a couple beads of sweat stuck to his forehead.

“We’re here at the site of the protest,” the reporter said, his voice loud enough to be heard over the background noise. Something exploded, drowning out whatever the reporter said next. “However, calling this a protest is an understatement. A few minutes ago, the police began their attempt to storm the building.”

Olivia’s eyes widened as she recognized the rattling of gunfire in the background. That sounds really weird through a TV. But why are they fighting? Over unemployment? Why would you try to kill someone over that?

The reporter continued, “The protesters have returned fire, and have begun preparing what appears to be a techie device.” The camera zoomed out and moved to the left a bit. Through a doorway, two people hunched over a sleek, gunmetal grey cylinder. One woman fiddled with something the camera couldn’t make out on the top; the other man rubbed his hands together.

“What the…” Chris murmured under his breath. “That’s not a homemade techie thing.”

The woman finished whatever she was doing and snapped a lid on the top of the device. The man grabbed the device and hefted it upwards. He moved out of the view of the camera. What’s he doing?

The camera shook violently, then stabilized, looking out the window in time to catch sight of the device rocket out the window and collide with the ground. It blinked out of existence, Olivia couldn’t see a trace of it. Then three massive armored vans and dozens of officers on the street floated into the air, the gentleness at odds with the ongoing gunfire all around. People around the camera and reporter cheered.

“What the hell?” said Ben, a serious look on his face. “Didn’t Roach an’ Quarrel say somethin’-”

“Shush, hang on,” interrupted Chris, his eyes glued to the TV.

The gravitational distortion grew, catching a couple more officers and a car and sending them drifting helplessly upwards. Whoa. How is that possible? The screen cut back to the newsroom.

The anchors reappeared, still smiling. What the… why are they smiling? “The National Guard has promised to restore order in the area,” said the woman on the right. Wait, what? What about the reporter? What about the fighting? What about all those people?

“Are they fuckin’… no, don’ fuckin’ move on. Fuck,” swore Ben at the TV.

“Government doesn’t like news showing civil unrest,” said Chris with a sigh. “Only when it’s in another country.”

“Really?” asked Ben.

“Yeah, sergeants told us in training to not worry about cameras, someone somewhere would take care of them.” Olivia frowned. That doesn’t seem right.

“Wait, what’s this?” said Ben, motioning to the TV.

“The entire city of Mosul has vanished,” proclaimed the Asian anchor, the creepy smile never wavering. The image above his shoulder showed a map of Iraq, with a dot labeled Mosul. “The city has been under siege from Lionhead for the last month. Lionhead has taken over Baghdad in recent weeks and seeks to expand their influence north.”

Ben grunted. I think he said his other triplet was in Iraq. Olivia leaned into him, wrapping a wing over his shoulders. He leaned away, even as a small smile flickered on the corner of his mouth. Sorry.

The news person continued, “US trained forces and Kurdish fighters had held some parts of Mosul in the last week. Now, however, US officials say that there is no trace of the city from plane or satellite imagery, and no contact can be made with people within.”

That’s awful. How are you smiling? I’ve never seen a news person not smile, no matter what they’re reporting on. And even the people in different cities. The ones in Colorado and Houston did the same. Olivia glanced to either side, at Chris and Ben. They don’t seem to notice. What? Should I ask?

“Um, Ben?” said Olivia.

“Yeah?”

“Why are the news people always smiling?”

Ben gave a small frown and turned back to the TV. “Huh, never noticed that. They’ve always done that, I guess,” he said with a shrug.

Olivia nodded, her frown deepening. I guess if it’s normal… It’s still is super weird, but whatever.

Chris glanced at her and grabbed the remote. “Alright, I can only take so much depressing news,” he said as he hit the power button. “Food?”

Food! “Yeah!” said Olivia, sitting upright. “Wait. Well, what about Miya and Rob?” she asked. “Shouldn’t we wait for them?”

“Rob’s still asleep,” said Ben. “I’d give him some time.”

“He can’t sleep forever,” said Chris.

Ben nodded. “I’ll text him. If he don’ get back to me, he’s still out.” He leaned back to pull his phone out of his pocket.

“How long do you think Miya is going to be?” asked Chris.

Ben shrugged. “Does magic take long?” he asked.

Olivia glanced at Chris, who didn’t look like he had any idea either. “I don’t know,” said Chris.

“Miya didn’t say anything about it,” added Olivia.

“Let’s give her a half hour.” OK, that sounds good. Ben nodded in agreement. “Pass me the box of donuts?” Chris asked.

Olivia passed him the box sitting on the nightstand beside her.

“Olivia?” asked Chris, shaking the few remaining donuts in the box. “How many donuts did you eat?”

“Um, four, I think? No, five.”

“Someone hungry?” asked Ben with a grin.

“A little.” I’m starving, actually. Donuts are great and all, but meat is better.

She scratched her back at the base of one of the spikes. Why are they so itchy lately? She scratched a little more, trying to get a feel for its length. That’s longer than I remember. Almost a centimeter now? Darn it. Stop.

“You OK?” asked Ben.

“What? Oh, I’m fine,” said Olivia. They’ll just think I’m weirder if they knew.

“Healin’ up OK? Looked like Shotty’d given you a beatin’ when ya flew in last night.”

Olivia paused. I feel OK, I guess. The bruises are still there, but they don’t hurt. “I’m fine. My tooth still hurts, though.” She tapped her lip under the tooth in question. It’s got a chunk missing. Hurts whenever I poke at the exposed part.

“Ask Miya ‘bout that. She regrew one of my teeth once, I bet she can patch that chipped tooth up,” said Ben.

“OK. Thank you.”

Olivia looked out through the partially opened shades of the hospital room’s window. It’s bright and warm here. I kind of like it. Miya’s been so angry looking since we got here, though. And Amanda… Olivia bit her lip. She’ll be OK. She has to be OK. They said she’d be OK.

Olivia caught Miya’s scent, breaking her train of thought. Miya knocked on the door, and Ben jumped off the bed and stood by the door frame.

“Hello?” he said.

What? “It’s Miya,” said Olivia.

At the same time Miya said, “It’s me, open up.”

Ben opened the door and stepped back to let Miya in. She immediately staggered in and collapsed on the bed behind Olivia. Olivia curled her tail out of the way as Miya sunk into the thick blanket. She’s not saying anything; what’s wrong? She smells like sweat, too.

After a silent moment, Ben asked, “So, how’d it go?”

“Dunno,” answered Miya, her voice muffled by the blanket. “We’ll see.”

“Is, um, is Amanda OK?” asked Olivia. Please say she’s OK.

“Dunno. We’ll see.” Miya sighed. “She wasn’t in pain at least.”

That doesn’t sound good. “Are you alright?” asked Olivia.

“Tired. Altering magic is hard.”

“Really?” asked Ben. “That’s kind of an underwhelmin’ thing to be so difficult.”

“That’s what I thought. Fucking hard. Wouldn’t fucking do what I told it to. What have you three been up to?”

“Watchin’ the news. Mosul vanished.”

“Wait, what? A whole city vanished?”

“That’s what the oriental gentleman said.” Silence greeted Ben’s statement.

“Is that racist?” asked Chris. What?

Ben blinked. “What? I called him a gentleman.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” said Miya. She got up and plopped down on the other side of Olivia, her legs dangling off the side. She’s so tiny. Olivia moved her tail out of the way again.

“How would that be racist?”

“I don’t know. The oriental part?” said Miya. “That’s like saying it’s rare for an Asian person to be a gentleman. Or woman, whatever. And where the hell did you even get the term ‘oriental gentleman’?”

Ben thought for a moment. “My dad, I think. Yeah, him. But anyways, it’s jus’ a rough physical description. Don’ see how that matters.”

“So says the white, heterosexual male,” said Miya with a smirk.

Ben tilted his head to the side. “The hell does that have to do with anythin’?”

“That means you are part of the least discriminated against group of people in the country, if not the world.”

“I’mma go ahead an’ repeat myself. The hell does that have to do with anythin’?”

“Means that you don’t see it nearly as much as anyone else,” said Miya, her voice raised.

“Hey, guys, keep it down,” said Chris.

“Kay,” said Ben.

“Fine, but this isn’t over,” said Miya. Thank you, Chris.

They settled down in silence for a moment before Miya asked, “How are you doing, Olivia?”

“I’m fine.”

“Ears aren’t giving you any trouble? No tinnitus?”

“No, that’s gotten a bit better. It’s really quiet here. There’s no music or anything.”

“Wouldn’t you hear basically any music in the area?” asked Chris.

“Yes. Um, I think so.”

“No thanks,” said Ben. “Most music is terrible.” It’s not the worst thing in the world.

“So says you,” said Miya.

“Most music isn’t bad,” said Olivia. Except the loud, violent songs. Those aren’t fun to listen to.

“What kinda music do ya like? Amanda had me an’ Chris rig that MP3 thingy they gave ya. Had a pretty good selection if I recall.”

“Well, um, there were a couple songs that sounded kind of similar that I liked. Um, they had… drums? And singing. Yeah.”

Ben and Miya burst into laughter. What? What’d I do?

“Drums and singing,” Chris repeated with a straight face. Olivia nodded, unsure of what else to say. “Would you care to elaborate?” asked Chris.

“Um, it sounded happy. It wasn’t too loud.”

“OK, what genre?”

“What?”

“What genre?” repeated Chris.

I heard you, I don’t know what you’re talking about. “Um… happy?”

“You fuckin’ with us, Little Bird?” asked Ben.

“What are you guys talking about?” asked Olivia. What music genres are there? Genre means type, right?

“OK, there’s different types of music. Rock is a pretty broad one, but there’s also country, rap, pop, and so on. Do you know what I’m talking about?”

“I think so.”

“So what genre of music did you like?”

I don’t know what it’s called! “I don’t know. It was mostly drums, it wasn’t loud, there was singing, but I didn’t really pay attention to the words.”

“Drums… drums. Hang on,” said Chris as he pulled out his phone.

“I… I don’t know what that could be. Do you?” Miya asked Ben.

“I’m thinkin’,” he said. Why is everyone so curious about this?

“Alright, I have something. This?” asked Chris as he held up his phone. He hit the play button. The music began playing over the phone’s speakers, not quite as well as they had with the headphones Olivia had been given in her cell.

“Oh, this!” Olivia smiled. She tapped the claw of her toe against the ground with the beat.

“Reggae? Really?” asked Ben.

“Yeah!” She stopped tapping when she realized everyone was staring at her. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. Just wasn’t expecting that. At all. Very mellow of you,” said Miya with a laugh. So why is everyone still looking at me? Olivia shrank back a bit.

“So that’s it, just reggae?” asked Ben, a wide grin on his face.

“No. There were some others that, um, that sounded different.”

“How about this song? It’s on the radio all the time lately,” said Miya, tapping a button on her phone.

Olivia recognized it immediately. “Oh my gosh! This song!”

“Oh yeah, this,” said Ben. “It’s by what’s her face. King or somethin’?”

“Lorde,” said Miya, reading from her phone. “You know you can listen to songs on your phone if you have a listener thingy, right? Can listen to anything you want, really.”

Oh, that sounds so cool! “You can?”

“Yeah, do you have your phone with you?”

***

Olivia glided over the rooftops through the night air, keeping out of view of the ground. Quarrel had pointed them towards a good and cheap hotel near the hospital. They’d managed to get a room near the roof for Olivia. I could have just landed on one of those patio things. They didn’t have to go through the trouble. At least, I think that would have been trouble. I don’t know.

The emergency wing of the hospital loomed before her, a white, six story building. She angled herself upwards and flapped her wings to gain altitude. It’ll take the others a little while for Quarrel to drive them here. I can fly around a little. Yay!

She kept going up, well past the roof of the hospital. I wonder how fast I can stop without hurting myself. I don’t want to re-chip that tooth or something if I mess up. Miya would be mad. It took the others about ten more minutes before they waved up at the sky to signal her. She landed about ten feet away to avoid accidentally smacking someone with a wing.

Rob and Miya sat on a dormant air conditioning unit. The others, including Roach and Quarrel, stood in a semicircle, backs to the door. Quarrel didn’t bother with a mask, but Olivia and the others didn’t recognize her anyways. Olivia stood behind Ben, keeping an eye on Rob. He hasn’t said a word since we woke him up.

“Alright, we need to figure out what to do,” began Chris. “We,” he motioned to Olivia and the rest, “have nothing but the clothes on our backs right now.”

“Your cars will be long gone. They probably took everything from that warehouse and moved on. They didn’t really have an interest in that area before,” explained Quarrel.

“So what are we doin’? What are you doin’? There’s two of ya now in the Watch here,” said Ben.

“Regroup?” rasped Roach. “Strike back?”

“Honestly, we were right about to leave when you people came calling,” said Chris.

“How can you leave now? I don’t think your friend can be moved for a while,” said Quarrel.

“Not our fight. One of ours is already hurt,” said Chris. Olivia frowned.

“Tzontlis made it our fight,” said Ben. “They’re gunnin’ for us, remember?”

“Yeah, you killed a member of the Underground, and the uncle of the gang leaders,” said Quarrel.

“Are those the same groups of people, or separate?” asked Chris.

“Both. Work together,” said Roach.

“The Underground’s leader, Samedi, is kind of a jackass,” said Miya.

“Yes,” agreed Quarrel “But a neutral jackass. He was never this aggressive. Then, in about January, they suddenly swooped down on a bunch of different street gangs. Forced them in line, or slaughtered them,” explained Quarrel. “Tzontlis are just dumb muscle, for the most part.”

“I thought they were jus’ a magic club,” said Ben.

“You’re not all that familiar with Aztecs and magic, are you?” said Miya. “It’s all based on war and killing. The Underground here is less of a club and more of a militia. If you have magic, you use it to fight. These mages aren’t with the usual universities and covens. Hell, some cults south of the border purposely infect their members with really bad strains of wildfyre.” Roach nodded in agreement with Miya.

Olivia blinked. I’ve heard that word. I think Dr. Ruskov said something about that being a disease I could get. “Wait,” she said. “What…” she trailed off. Is this a dumb question? Now Quarrel and Roach are looking at me. I think it is. Um… say something.

“You don’t know what wildfyre is? That’s like saying you don’t know what the black plague is,” said Quarrel.

“The… the what?” I mean, I can guess that a plague is bad, and black also means bad, but I don’t really know what it is.

“Wildfyre is a disease native to the Americas,” said Miya. “I think it wiped out about… ninety percent of the mage population in the rest of the world. Europe, Asia, Africa, everywhere. It’s a bit like the flu, if the flu overloaded your metabolism and burned you out.”

“Crippled the European mage guilds, right?” said Chris. “That’s why the tribes and reservations have some of the best mage universities in the country. Their mages weren’t all killed off at once, since they were able to fight the common European diseases better than the Europeans could fight wildfyre.” I thought Miya was the one who knew all about magic.

“Yeah. And you need a teacher for magic, a lot can’t just be learned out of a book. And… how did you know all that?” said Miya.

“Learn something every day,” murmured Quarrel under her breath.

Chris’s brow furrowed. “I thought I said this. I took a couple history of metahumans classes as MHU electives.”

“Ew, history,” said Ben with a fake grimace masking a grin.

Chris shrugged. “Each to their own. I like history. There’s actually some theories about wildfyre and the Haboob.”

“The who?” asked Olivia. Did he just say boob?

“Heh, he said boob,” said Ben with a snicker. Miya smacked him upside the head.

Chris rolled his eyes at Ben. “To answer your question, Olivia, a haboob is the Arabic word for a really bad sandstorm. The Haboob is a man who occasionally shows up throughout history and destroys everything. He was last seen sometime around 1920 and leveled a quarter of Istanbul singlehandedly. And-”

“OK, OK, OK, enough, back on track,” said Miya, cutting Chris off. “As for why a cult would purposely infect themselves; if you survive wildfyre, it usually leaves you either a lot stronger or a lot weaker. Usually that last one. Anyways, back to the topic of what we’re supposed to do.”

“I think we were talkin’ ‘bout the gang fellas,” said Ben.

“Yes, right,” said Quarrel. “They attacked MHU headquarters and killed five officers a month ago, and since then the cops have been very cautious with them. We were thinking, if we cut out the mages, they rest will be easy pickings for the police.”

“Cops ain’t done that?” asked Ben. Something on the wind caught Olivia’s attention. What was that? She looked out over the roof, not seeing anything out of the ordinary. Hrm.

“Nope. Well, yes. When they tried that, it went south, fast. We think someone important is being paid off.”

“Dumb,” added Roach.

“Yes, they went in with a convoy, guns blazing. They didn’t meet any resistance, just snipers and bombs on the side of the road.”

“Note to self, don’ do that,” said Ben. Why are you trying to make a joke about that?

“We have no idea where the Underground could be. The only known location we’ve staked out for a month. They stopped using it a while ago. We also have no idea why they started all this in the first place. ‘Because they could’ isn’t a good reason.”

“Which place are you talking about?” asked Miya.

“The gas station on the corner of 7th and Osborn,” replied Quarrel.

“Not the big-ass abandoned movie theater in downtown? Or the backlot between the old grocery store and the closed furniture shop? That’s where they usually met when I was with them.”

Quarrel stared at her. “What?”

“You didn’t know that?” asked Miya. Roach’s phone rang. He mouthed sorry and withdrew, pulling out his phone in the process. Olivia studiously avoided listening in on his conversation. Eavesdropping is rude; don’t be rude.

“No. No we didn’t. How did you know that?”

“I was Don’s student for a while.”

“I thought you killed Don.”

“I did.”

Roach tapped Quarrel on the shoulder. “Preacher’s body,” rasped Roach, his face impassive.

“Oh,” said Quarrel, starting towards the door. She paused and looked over her shoulder at the others.

“It’s fine. We’ll go get food in the meantime,” said Chris.

Quarrel and Roach nodded gratefully and Olivia sniffed. Oil. Well, it smells bitter, but also kind of like that oil Rob uses sometimes. Very faint. She followed Roach and Quarrel into the hospital.

“Olivia, what are you-” said Ben.

“Oil,” Olivia murmured in response. Robot oil.

“Oh shit,” said Miya. “Robots,” she told the others.

“No,” said Olivia, stopping at the top of the stairs. Roach and Quarrel had paused a flight below. “Not that strong.” What are they here for?

“OK, someone who’s spent time around the robots. What are they here for?”

“Your friend,” rasped Roach. Amanda! He vaulted a railing and fell a flight of stairs. Quarrel followed.

“Miya and Rob, head for Amanda’s room. Ben, you and me try and find these guys. Olivia, stay here.” Olivia marched down the stairs.  I smell them, but the air vents are messing it all up. Where are they? Ben teleported past her.

“Olivia!” repeated Chris. Rob and Miya managed to rush past her on their way to the fourth floor.

Olivia sniffed the air again. They’re still lower. She leapt down to the bottom floor five steps at a time. Stay away from Amanda. Chris and Ben used their powers to keep up.

She ripped the door leading to the rest of the hospital off its hinges. There. Three people who’d been hurrying towards the stairs stopped at Olivia’s entrance.

A buzzing noise filled the air. The man in the center threw a knife as the man and woman on either side drew their guns. The steel knife hit Olivia in the shoulder. It bounced off, drawing a little blood.

The two flanking people fired at her as they backed up. She snarled and charged. The man threw another knife. Olivia ducked her head so that it bounced off her forehead instead of hitting her eye. The man on the right turned and ran.

The center man drew a machete from beneath his coat and ducked under Olivia’s swipe as she came within range. He delivered a shallow cut to her ribs and rolled out of the way of her follow up swipe.

She swung her tail to the side, catching the man in the hip. The blow slammed him into the wall of the corridor. Before he could recover, her uppercut tore through his ribcage. Done for now. Other two?

Chris, in liquid form, slammed the woman’s head into the ground. Not a threat. Ben had teleported past them, and wrestled with the last man for a gun. You. She shouldered her way past Chris and stomped the last couple steps to Ben and the other.

Olivia grabbed the man by the neck with one hand and hauled him off his feet. Chris grabbed Olivia’s arm. He said something as he raised a placating hand. Ben walked up to the man and said something else. Why are you talking? He was here to hurt Amanda. The man in her hand nodded vigorously.

Chris released his grip on Olivia’s arm. She crushed the man’s neck and slammed his body into the floor. Stay away from Amanda. Chris and Ben both backed up a couple steps, both yelling something. Olivia hissed, watching the unmoving body. Stay down. Things keep moving when they should be dead. The man’s body continued to be dead; she couldn’t hear any breath or heartbeat. Finally.

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Ash – Toxic

No. No syringes. Bad. Not…

Someone shook Miya’s shoulder. She flinched. Bad. Go away. Distant talking drifted through her conscience. Orange goggles.

Someone poked her in the cheek. “Come on, Pokey. Get up.” Another poke to the cheek. “Pokey.” Another poke. “Pokey.”

Miya shot upright, fully awake. One of the triplets jumped back, out of the way of her reflexive punch. They locked eyes for a moment. No orange eyes. Then he stepped forward and poked her in the cheek again. “Pokey!”

She slapped his hand away. Which one are you? He kept his left hand shoved in his pocket. Fuck it. “Ben or Rob. I will kill you,” she said.

“Doctor from Amanda’s surgery is ready to talk,” Ben or Rob responded, a small half smile hovering on his face.

Oh. Miya got up to follow him as he left, stretching her neck to either side to work out the kinks from sleeping in a chair all night. “Is she…” began Miya, trailing off.

“Still alive? Yeah. Doc wasn’t smilin’, though.”

Miya nodded and took another look at the waiting room. The other triplet slept in another chair, his head leaning all the way back. His left hand had all of its fingers.

“Not going to wake up Rob?” she asked Ben, motioning to Rob.

“Tried. Couldn’t. He wasn’t jokin’ when he said he only slept two hours since we got here.”

What? “We’ve been here for almost a week. You can’t sleep two hours a week.”

Ben shrugged. “Apparently ya can. Come on, doc’s waitin’. Chris and the others are already on the way.” Others? Oh, right, the Watch.

He led her a short distance through a bland hospital hallway. Miya glanced around at the quiet, sterile surroundings. Her hand tapped on her leg. I don’t like this place. She looked over her shoulder. What am I even looking for? There’s no one else here.

“Here it is,” said Ben, bringing her attention forward. He pulled the door to the doctor’s office open.

Miya stopped short of the doorway. Chris and Roach leaned against a counter in the office. Quarrel sat on a chair, spinning a small gear on the side of her crossbow.

Even though the weak morning light came in through the shades of the third story window, the bright white lights in the ceiling washed over everything. Miya’s nose tingled from the scent of antiseptic. Her eyes darted back and forth. No scalpels or anything, right? Why is this room so small?

“Thank you for joining us,” said the doctor, behind a small desk. He glanced at Miya, still outside the doorway. A small frown formed beneath his thin goatee. “You can come in.” As if on cue, everyone seemed to look at Miya. Right, move.

She jerked a nod and found a second office chair between Quarrel and Roach. It creaked as Miya twisted it a couple inches to either side. Roach grabbed the backrest, cutting off the next twist and subsequent creak

The doctor placed his clipboard to the side and turned to the assembled group. “Your friend’s condition has stabilized,” he said, his voice matter of fact. “We stopped the worst of the bleeding, and removed two of the four bullets from her abdomen. It would have been too risky to remove the final two. As well, we have put her in an artificial coma for now, she will require at least a couple more surgeries. I have been using magic to help the healing process, and the worst is past, but she is by no means in the clear right now.”

The room remained silent for a moment. Miya closed her eyes. She’s not going to die. She’s made it this far, she can’t die now.

Chris spoke up, bringing Miya back to the office. “Do you think she will recover?”

“Do not quote me on this, but I am tentatively optimistic. However, it is too soon to tell,” responded the doctor. “Our staff has contacted her parents. They should be here in a day or so.”

“Parents? They know what we’re doin’?” Ben asked the others.

Chris shrugged. That’s a good question. She’s never talked about her parents before. The doctor looked quizzically between them, but didn’t question further.

“If you are going to be waiting for her, I suggest you find accommodations. At the very least, it will be weeks before we will be able to release Amanda.”

Chris took a deep breath. Great. A gang of psychos want’s us dead, one of us is already almost there, and I have no damn clue where we’re supposed to go. Roach and Quarrel exchanged glances; they’d kept quiet the whole time.

“Doctor,” began Roach, his voice as raspy as ever. Oh, now his brain is all healed and stuff. Miya tuned out the rest of the conversation. Spent the whole ambulance ride over here speaking Nahua to me. Amanda on the fucking gurney, and he just kept trying to say something. Fucking beeping machine, fucking tiny room…

Miya glanced around, looking for a black ball camera on the ceiling. Why am I looking for Control? She shook her head, as if to rid herself of the memories. I hate hospitals.

Chris nudged her. “Are you alright?” he asked under his breath.

“I’m fine,” she whispered back.

“… sorry, but that’s the best I can do. You are lucky we had an unoccupied room, though I am not quite sure why none of you are using it,” finished the doctor with a small frown.

“A friend of ours is in there. Because of their power they’re rather shy. But they still want to be nearby,” said Chris.

The doctor nodded. Not the weirdest power based explanation in the world by a long shot. “Very well. But please let one of the secretaries at the front desk know when they leave. Do you have any other questions for me?”

“Nope,” said Ben. Chris shook his head. Ask what? Fucking nothing I can do, is there? Roach and Quarrel stayed quiet.

The doctor nodded again. “Very well. If anything happens, we will let you know immediately.” Quarrel got up from her chair, signaling the end of the meeting. “Oh, and Roach, please speak with my secretary later,” added the doctor. Roach nodded as he followed Quarrel.

“Excuse me, Miya?” said the doctor as Miya got up from her chair.

“Um,” began Miya, looking around. “Me?” How do you know my name?

The doctor nodded. “May I speak with you in private for a moment?”

“Sure.”

Chris, who’d stopped in the doorway, said, “I’ll be out here.” She nodded. He closed the door behind him as he left.

Miya turned back to the doctor and took her seat again. He leafed through some pages on his clipboard. After finding the page he was looking for, he said “Roach informed me that you are the mage who performed first aid on Amanda.” After a pause, he raised his eyes from the page. “Correct?” he prompted.

“Oh, yeah.” What the hell do you mean ‘correct’? You know damn well it was me if Roach told you.

“Good. There are some things we will need you to undo,” he said.

Miya blinked. “What? What’d I do?” What’d I fuck up now?

“There are still powerful streams maintaining her heightened blood clotting. The others have dissipated, but those still remain. They will kill her if left unchecked.”

“K… kill?”

The doctor’s brow furrowed. “Yes. Altering a specific part of someone’s biology like that is never good. If left unchecked, clots will form in her arteries and heart and there will be no amount of medicine in the world that can stop it.” He looked askance at her.

I’m an idiot. If I fuck up again I’m just going to kill her. “You don’t know how?”

“I can, but there is an excellent chance something will go wrong. The original mage has far more influence over their magical streams than anyone else. You didn’t know that?” She shook her head. “Where did you receive your education?” he asked.

From a druggie, back alleys, a couple random books I stole from the library, and an Overlord experimental facility like this fucking place. “I’m self-taught,” she answered.

The doctor’s bloodshot and dark circled eyes stared at her for a moment, then he drew a pen from his pocket and scribbled something on his clipboard without a word. Silence filled the room.

“What?” asked Miya after a moment. “I can’t try to heal her now, is that it?”

“No. I will not risk more damage to her.”

“You just said that anyone else trying to undo that would fuck it up.”

“Yes. Yes I did.”

“And you said that I could fix it. What happened to that?”

“I don’t think you know how to. A living human is more complex than a golem. Healing is far more complex than destruction.” Oh, OK, jackass.

“What the fuck are you trying to say?” Miya snapped, ready to jump out of her chair.

“I have met lots of mages like you. Magic is not just some club for you to bludgeon everything in sight with,” the doctor shot back, his voice raised.

“Don’t just stand there and condescend to me. My friend is about to die. I’m not just going to stand there and take bullshit from you if I can help it. Teach me or get the fuck out of my way.”

He leaned back in his chair. In a gentler tone, he said, “It was a very brute force method. There will be complications no matter what.”

“Like what?”

“It is too soon to tell. At a guess, heart problems. Strokes, maybe seizures from clotting in the brain. Again, too soon to tell.”

Miya slumped and hung her head. “Hey,” snapped the doctor. “There is not a doubt in my mind you saved her life. She was right about to die when you and Roach brought her in and I doubt she would have made it had you done nothing. What I am saying is you can’t take the same approach to reverse it. Dr. Noyola will be here in an hour. If you are serious about this, he can advise you. His specialty is more similar to yours than mine.”

Miya nodded. She drew in a shaky breath. “OK.” Don’t fuck up again. I can’t fuck up again.

“Just so you are aware, altering old streams is not like slapping a new one down over it. The sheer strength of the stream you placed in your friend is actually quite substantial, but that means extra care is required.

“You’re not going to scare me away from this.”

“I apologize. I didn’t mean to criticize, but it is vital that you know what you’re going to have to do. You’ll hear an announcement over the PA for you when Dr. Noyola arrives.”

Miya nodded. “OK. Thank you.” The doctor returned his attention to his clipboard as Miya left.

“… but why were you laughing?” asked Chris as Miya opened the door.

“Wasn’t anythin’ I could do ‘bout it. Can’t go back in time an’ stop her from getting’ shot,” answered Ben. “Oh, hey, Pokey.” No Roach or Quarrel?

“What did he want?” asked Chris. The three of them walked back to the waiting room.

“Did I tell you I jacked up Amanda’s blood clotting… thing, whatever?”

“Thing?” asked Ben.

“No… ability, that’s it,” answered Miya.

“Oh yeah. And no, ya didn’t.”

“OK. Well, I did. But now they need me to undo that, because it didn’t disappear like most magic does.”

“What makes this different?” asked Chris. They reached the waiting room with Rob still passed out on a chair. A tiny stream of drool escaped his lips.

“I don’t fucking know. That doctor said something about it being strong or something, I don’t know.”

Ben nodded. “Ya want breakfast? Got up early, picked up a dozen,” he said as he offered a box to Miya.

She sighed. “Sure, I’ll take one.” He passed her the box, and she collapsed into the seat opposite him.

She sorted through the assorted donuts. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to a log of a donut with a light brown glaze on top.

Ben leaned forward for a good look at it. “Maple bar. Think it’s got fillin’ of some kind.”

Fuck it, why not. Miya chowed down on the donut. She blinked. That’s a lot of sugar.

“Don’t they have a cafeteria or something where you’re supposed to eat?” asked Chris.

“You wanna get up an’ find it?” asked Ben with a smile.

Chris shrugged. They all settled into silence. Miya finished off the donut after a minute and looked around the waiting room. Quiet. Too quiet. Lights are too bright. Smells wrong. Miya tapped on the armrest of her seat. I hate this place. We’re going to leave soon. We have to. Thank god. She rubbed her hands on her pants, trying to get the sweat off.

“What time is it?” Miya asked the others in a rush.

“Eleven. Why?” asked Chris, looking up from his phone.

“I don’t know. We haven’t told Olivia anything yet. Think she’ll want donuts?” Ben nodded and passed the box to her.

“Will she even be awake? She sleeps twelve hours a day and didn’t sleep at all last night. No, the night before, sorry,” said Chris.

“I’m sure she’s fine. It’s been about twelve hours since you all got here.” I need to do something besides sit here. Anything besides that.

Miya strode off to the room they’d put Olivia in. Miya had dragged Ben back to the roof once Roach had wrangled a spare room from the hospital staff. Can’t believe he just left her up there. Ah, here it is.

Miya knocked on the door. After a silent minute of no sound from the inside, she hit the door again, putting a bit more force behind it. Come on, Olivia. Wake up. I don’t want to shout in a quiet hospital hallway.

“Um, hello?” Miya strained to hear Olivia’s response through the door.

Miya checked both ways down the hallway. “It’s me, open up. There’s no one else nearby.”

The door cracked open, just enough for Miya to slip in with the box of donuts. She blinked once she got in.

“Hi, Miya,” said Olivia from behind her.

“Hey. I wake you up?”

“A little.”

“Would some donuts make it better?” Miya offered the box.

“Oh! Can I have the cinnamon one?” she asked, looking up at Miya as she scratched at her back.

“Of course. Don’t need my permission.” Olivia took the box. “Wait, how did you know there’s a cinnamon one in there?”

Olivia froze, the cinnamon bun halfway to her mouth. “I, um, I smelled it.” Oh, probably should have guessed that.

Miya glanced around at the hospital room. The curtains were drawn over the windows, with a small couch built into the wall below. The fact that the lights weren’t on yet only compounded how dark it was in the room. The ruffled sheets of the plain white hospital bed looked far cushier than what Miya would have expected. I kind of like it dark in here.

Olivia plopped down on the bed, the frame creaking in protest. “Not going to fall asleep on us again, are you?” asked Miya, taking a seat on the couch under the window.

“No. Sorry about that. No, I’m better now,” she stammered. Someone likes her sleep. “Is, um, Amanda’s OK, right?” asked Olivia, changing the subject. “She’s OK, right?”

“That’s actually why I’m here. The doctor from Amanda’s surgery talked with us about ten minutes ago.”

“Oh,” said Olivia. She put down her half-finished donut, concern written all over her face.

“Yeah. They said she’s stable for now, and they think she’s going to make it.”

“Think?”

“Yes. They don’t know for sure.” Olivia wilted. “Hey, the doctor we talked to said he was optimistic.” I wasn’t supposed to quote him was I? Whatever.

Olivia nodded, her lower lip trembling a little.

“Olivia!” snapped Miya, grabbing her attention. “She’ll make it.”

“But… but…” Please don’t cry.

“She’ll make it,” repeated Miya. What else am I supposed to say?

“It’s like that cell all over again. I thought I’d never see you guys again. And now it’s happening again.” Miya got up and sat next to Olivia, on the opposite side of where she’d curled her tail.

“The rest of us are still here, Olivia. And she’ll make it. The doctor is a MD in magical healing, if anyone can heal her, it’s him.” I think. Whatever, that’s a white lie if I’m wrong. “You can’t sit there thinking she’s going to die. You’ll drive yourself crazy that way.”

Olivia took a deep breath and nodded. “Sorry,” she said with a sniffle.

“Don’t say sorry. Just… think positive. It can’t hurt.” Miya wrapped an arm around Olivia’s waist. Hugging her is a bit like hugging a pile of rocks. Olivia leaned on her. She seems happier with physical contact.

Someone hammered on the door. “Miya, the PA thingy asked for ya,” said Ben.

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