A/N: One of this story’s wonderful readers has commissioned a picture of Cassidy by the artist Shameichi, which can be seen on the art page or directly right here
The shrill shriek of a store alarm filled the air two nights later, as a couple guys in dark masks came tearing through the door they’d already busted open not even two minutes earlier. From the perch atop the billboard that I’d just landed on, I saw both of them scramble away from the closed convenience store. Their arms were full, each carrying a couple bags worth of stuff as they raced past the dark gas pumps and headed for the mostly-empty street. Whoever these guys were, they’d chosen a target near an area of town that was pretty quiet at one in the morning. Which was probably why the gas station was closed to begin with, come to think of it.
Either way, I launched myself off the sign using a spot of blue paint under my feet. Rocketing ahead of the two guys, I hit them each with a quick spray of yellow to slow them down, before flipping myself over to land directly between them while activating the orange parachute and green rabbit shapes that were already on my back. With myself sped up and the two guys slowed down, it was child’s play to grab the bags out of their hands, tossing them behind myself before quickly blurting, “Holy crap, did you guys win one of those contests where you get to keep anything you can grab in like sixty seconds or something? Cuz…” Trailing off, I hit them both with red paint in the chest, jumping back while shooting a matching bit of red in front of them. A quick activation yanked the two facedown onto the pavement. “I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to wait for the news crews to be around before you cash in one of those.”
Personally, I thought it was kinda funny. Not the best, but hey, maybe worth a very slight chuckle. Okay, maybe not even that. But it definitely wasn’t worth crying over. Which… was the next sound I heard. Crying. Stopping short, I cocked my head to the side, staring down at the figure to the right. Crying. He was definitely crying. Um. Well shit, this was kinda awkward now.
“Sorry, I’m sorry,” came the babbled words. “I’m sorry, it was stupid, it was so stupid, we’re sorry.” The voice was so choked up by tears I could barely understand what was being said.
“Dude!” The other person snapped suddenly. It was a female voice, breaking my assumption that both of the thieves had been male. Which, given my entire situation, was probably a pretty bad assumption to have in the first place. “Shut the fuck up, don’t admit anything!”
“I don’t… think you necessarily have to admit anything?” I pointed out weakly, still confused by what was going on. “We’re like… a couple hundred feet from the store. You barely made it out of the parking lot. A few feet closer and you’d still be on their property. The property of the store you just… broke into. And the bags with all the stuff you stole are right…” I reached back, grabbing one of them. “… here?” It didn’t jingle or anything. Opening up the bag, I found a bunch of bags of chips, sandwiches from the cooler, beef jerky, some sweets, a few packaged fruits and cheeses, that kind of thing.
While I was busy staring down into the bag, the red paint must’ve run out. Because the female on the ground was suddenly on her feet, grabbing the crying boy and yanking him up. They started to run, until I hit them both with more red paint to yank them back to the ground. That time I used orange too, just to make sure it didn’t hurt.
The boy was still shaking and crying. The girl was shaking too, but also cursing up a storm. She threatened all sorts of anatomically impossible things, lying there on her back. And now that I stared at them, I noticed… they weren’t adults. Even with the ski masks on, that much was obvious. Fuck. Fuck, looking at them now, like this? They were barely my age, if that. They were teenagers.
Quickly, I dropped to my knees between them, setting the bag aside. “Stop it, hey. What the hell are you guys doing stealing this stuff?” Even as the words left my mouth, I knew they were pretty dumb. But I didn’t know what else to say. My mind was scrambling. I’d just heard the alarm while Paintballing around to clear my head a bit, already thinking about heading home. I heard the alarm and reacted. I’d expected to find hardened criminals stealing from a jewelry store or something, not… this.
Sure enough, the masked girl blurted, “We heard there’s a golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory in one random bit of gas station shit, and really want to swim in a chocolate fucking fountain, prick!”
“Murphy, stop it!” the boy blurted, still shuddering. He managed to twist his head to look at me. “W-we’re sorry, we’re sorry. We were just… we were hungry. And our friends, my little sister, her big brother, we–we just wanted–we didn’t think it was–we didn’t know there was an alarm and then it was so loud and we were just g-gonna be really quick and–”
“Roald, I swear to God if you don’t stop confessing to shit!” the girl, Murphy apparently, snapped. She was staring at me too. I could see the fear in her eyes despite her bluster. The mask didn’t cover them, leaving the wetness visible. She was just as scared as her companion about what was happening, even if she was better at hiding it verbally.
Well fuck. God damn it, I did all this to stop real bad guys, and now I was… what, knocking down teenagers who were trying to feed their friends with gas station shit? Despite myself, I demanded, “Where’s your parents? Why don’t they feed you? What–”
“Prison, fuckface!” came the retort from the girl. “Cuz they’re hardened fucking criminals for slinging a few happy pills to consenting adults. You got any other stupid questions?”
“Murph,” Roald all-but moaned, his terror mixed heavily with exasperation, “Please.” The boy was clearly terrified of what antagonizing me was going to do. Which somehow made me feel even worse about the whole situation. God damn it. This was just supposed to be a quick little nothing, stopping a couple thugs from ripping off a gas station. What the hell?
The brief sound of a siren interrupted my thoughts, making my gaze snap up. A few streets away, a cop car with its lights on had just used its siren for an instant to get through the intersection and was on its way. There were another couple intersections for it to go through, but the car would be here in just a few moments.
“We’re going to jail. We’re going to jail,” Roald lamented, already linking his hands behind his head with his mask-covered face against the ground. “Please. Just… just keep me, okay? Just keep me and let her go. Our families, they’ve gotta have her around. I swear, I’ll take the fall, I’ll confess, just let Murph go.”
“Shut the fuck up, Roald!” Murphy snapped at him. “I’m not leaving you, got it? It was my idea, I pushed you into it, so–”
She stopped talking then, because I was yanking her up by the arm. My other hand was pulling Roald as well, as I activated a purple bear figure on one of my shoulders. It was enough of a boost that I could haul them both to their feet, while putting blue on my own shoes to launch myself upward. The two squealed in surprise, as we flew up and over to land on the roof of a nearby fast food place. Releasing them instantly, I hit them with black paint, activating it before yanking the two down with me as I dropped to my stomach. “Be quiet,” I hissed sharply.
Below us, the cop car had just pulled into the lot of the gas station. I could sense the eyes of Roald and Murphy on me, both of them clearly confused as to what the fuck I was doing. Which was fair, considering I was pretty confused about what the fuck I was doing too.
A couple cops got out of the car. One moved to look at the shattered glass of the door where one of these two had broken it with a brick or something. The other noticed the bags on the ground off in the distance and walked that way. He approached cautiously, shining his flashlight around the bags before gingerly touching the nearest with his nightstick. Then he checked more thoroughly and called out something to his partner about idiots dropping their ‘loot.’
Just to be on the safe side as Murphy bristled beside me, I hit both of my delinquent companions with another shot of black paint to keep them quiet. I’d already painted my entire costume black as well, to blend in more. We watched from our prone positions as two more cop cars pulled in, lights flashing, and the ones who were already here went to confer with them. Another car, that one apparently not a cop (the owner of the gas station, maybe?) pulled in nearby as well. He and a few of the police went into the store while others spread out and started looking around. They didn’t exactly seem to be putting their all into any kind of real search, honestly. Mostly they were chatting in pairs while halfheartedly shining flashlights around. None of them even bothered to look up toward the roofs. Obviously, they were convinced that whoever broke in was long gone. And the bags full of stolen shit were right there.
Most of the cops left within about ten minutes. The last ones were the pair who showed up first, who seemed to be taking a statement from the owner. They went into the store itself again, and I exhaled before pushing myself to my feet. Turning, I walked away a few steps before putting my hands against the front of my helmet, pushing the front part up so I could feel my hands against the mask while letting out a low groan. A few muttered curses escaped me.
What the hell was I doing? Why did I do that? What was I even thinking? Why didn’t I just turn these guys in? Why’d I take them with me and keep them quiet. Hid them. That’s what I did. I fucking hid them from the cops. Why? Just… just… they were hungry. They were teenagers, not out for any kind of thrill or to fuck with that guy, but because they were hungry. They, and the people they cared about, were hungry enough that they’d risked prison by smashing their way into a gas station to grab a couple bags worth of random crap food. Sandwiches, snacks, things they could’ve taken back to their families to fill their stomachs. They weren’t hardened criminals. They weren’t thugs. They were just scared, hungry kids doing something stupid out of desperation. And I almost sent them to prison for it. Breaking and entering, burglary, whatever else the authorities could throw at them. And that kind of thing would follow them forever. Just because they were hungry.
“Hey!” The initial, blurted word from the girl was sharp, a snapped demand that immediately shifted to a clearly awkward, confused, “What… what’re you doing?”
Yeah, these two obviously had no more idea what the fuck was going through my head than I did. No wonder they were just sort of standing there staring at me like my legs had just morphed into a plate of spaghetti or something. They probably still weren’t entirely sure I wasn’t just going to decide to grab them and turn them in after all. They were stuck here on this roof with me.
At first, I didn’t say anything. I just held up a hand for them to wait a minute while staring off into the distance. Fuck. What was I going to do? What was my next move after all this, exactly? I had to think. I had to figure… something out. Something besides throwing them to the cops. But what?
I could hear the two whispering behind me. Not enough to make out the actual words, but they were definitely murmuring about what was going on. Apparently this whole situation was confusing them. Which… yeah, fair enough. I’d probably be pretty confused too, in their shoes.
In the end, I finally came to the only real decision I could. It was the only thing that made sense to me. Pivoting on my heel, I faced the two, whose gazes snapped away from each other to stare at me as though totally convinced that I was about to take them to the cops after all.
“Okay, guys,” I started, doing my best to sound confident and firm instead of like I was just flying by the seat of my pants with this whole thing. It probably wasn’t enough to convince them after I’d just spent several minutes very clearly silently freaking out, but maybe it was the effort that counted. Either way, I pushed on. “First, I’m not turning you in to the cops. But–”
That was as far as I got, as the two high-fived and made an assorted bit of noise until I hit them with black paint again. “Wait a minute,” I hissed sharply. “You know, keep making a bunch of sound right now and I won’t have to turn you in, cuz those cops’ll come see what’s going on.”
That obviously hit home, and both of them sobered, shrinking inward a bit. Satisfied, I continued. “Like I said, I’m not turning you in to the authorities. Not this time. But you’re gonna have to do some things for me in exchange for not going to prison.”
Murphy immediately took a step in front of Roald, protecting her friend. “Do some things for you?” she echoed as the black paint wore off, suspicion heavy in her voice. “Like what? If you think we’re just gonna–”
Roald put a hand on her arm, leaning in to whisper something to her. I caught a bit about hearing me out, and that it had to be better than going to prison. The look she shot him made it clear she was thinking of all sorts of ways that wouldn’t necessarily be true.
“Okay, hold on,” I quickly put in, holding up my hands. “I’m not going to ask you to do anything bad. Just… work.” I was still planning this whole thing out in my head while I was talking. The thought I’d had was based entirely on my situation with the Seraphs. I was essentially stealing that wholesale. “I won’t turn you in, but you have to do work to make up for it.”
“What kind of work?” Murphy demanded, though her voice was softer. She clearly wasn’t the least bit eager to throw away this chance and go to prison, despite her obvious suspicion.
“I’m not exactly sure yet,” I admitted. “But I’ll find some kind of… helpful thing you can do for the community or something. I’ll find it, and you guys will do it.”
“Um.” That was Roald, raising a hand. “How’re you gonna make us do that? I mean, how’re you gonna find us after this? You don’t even–” He stopped then, apparently reconsidering pointing out that I didn’t know what their faces looked like under those masks.
“I’m not going to make you take your masks off,” I assured them both. “I mean, the hypocrisy of that might crack the planet in half. But I know your names. And you’re not exactly hardened criminals, so I dare bet you live not too far away from this place. Exactly how hard do you think it’d be for me to track you down if I just started going around asking for two teenagers named Murphy and Roald? Particularly a girl named Murphy.”
From the look the two gave each other, my point struck home. They knew I was right, it wouldn’t be hard to find them with their names if I really tried.
“Um, okay, fine.” Murphy sounded a bit shaken. Obviously she’d figured out that they shouldn’t have used each other’s real names. “We get it. So what’re we supposed to do?”
“Be back here, behind this building on Friday night.” I replied quickly. Two days, that would give me time to actually figure out what the hell I was going to have them do to make up for this. “I’ll take care of the broken door and all that… this time. In exchange, I’ll find something for you guys to do. But you be here in two days at midnight. Got it? Two days, midnight, here. If I don’t make it within half an hour, feel free to take off and I’ll meet you back here the night after that. You know, just in case something happens.”
The two agreed to show up then, and I took a breath before turning away from them. Reaching into the pocket of my suit, I carefully counted out some cash, considering before adding a little bit more. Then I turned back to them and held it out.
“Here. This is two hundred dollars. Take it and get your families the food they need for a little while. But I want receipts, guys. Make the two hundred stretch as much as you can. Get real food, not gas station crap. Go to the grocery store, buy good things. Rice, beans, meat, canned stuff. Get decent food, as much as you can, and show me the receipts when we meet again, got it?”
The two stared at me. Murphy found her voice first. “Y-you’re… just… giving us two hundred dollars for food? Why? What’s in it for you?”
“Like I said,” I pointed out, “you’ll be working it off. This too. You’ll work off this money and the fact that you broke into that shop down there. I just know people need a break sometimes, okay? So I’m giving you a break. Don’t make me regret it.”
They both hesitantly agreed, and I helped them down to the ground. With one more warning that they had better be here on Friday night, I watched them run off, flipping on my night vision so I could see them for longer, until they were out of sight.
Then I flipped the vision in my helmet back to normal, and took a quick walk around the corner. The owner of the gas station was alone by that point, sitting in his car as he talked on the phone. The car itself had been pulled up to park right by the broken door, and it sounded like he was arguing about getting someone out there to fix it and how much it would cost.
Right. How was I going to do this part? Frowning uncertainly, I thought for a moment while watching the man in the car. In the end, I went for the simple option. Which was to use a bit of paper and pen from my pocket (no way did I want this associated with my paint), and scrawl out a quick, blocky all caps note reading, ‘SORRY FOR THE DOOR.’ Then I took an extra five hundred dollars, red painted that and the note to a rock I found, and hurled the rock that way. It bounced off the ground loud enough to attract the man’s attention, just as the red paint wore off.
Watching as the store owner picked up the note and the cash before looking around in confusion, I quickly ducked back. Breathing out, I turned to leave. That would have to be good enough for now. I’d figure out what work I could have those two do. But at the moment, I really had to get home and get some sleep.
At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, no sooner had I turned to start to leave, than I found myself face-to-face (so to speak) with the slightly familiar sight of a tall-ish woman in a dark red bodysuit with black random swirly lines, black boots and gloves, and a pair of red goggles and a gas mask over her face.
Cavalcade. It was the Sell-Touched Cavalcade, the mercenary I’d met when I was abducted by Deicide’s men, by Janus.
“Fancy meeting you here, kid,” came the woman’s almost-purred words. “Hope you’re not too busy right now.
“Cuz my new employer would really like to talk to you.”