Squire

Kith And Kin 20-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus missed this note, the first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Damn it, why did my brother have to show up now? I already had enough to deal with. Why did it have to turn out that my family was protecting the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother? Seriously, this guy? They had to protect this guy? Fuck. Now this whole situation had suddenly become a lot more complicated. And it came just when we had the guy dead to rights. Because of course it had. We couldn’t just finish this thing just by chasing Luciano down and sending him to prison that easily. Something like this had to happen. 

That rush of annoyed and worried thoughts flooded through my head even as I pivoted that way. I saw my brother, of course. He was standing there in a pair of designer jeans, with a gleaming silver shirt, red leather jacket, and thin red leather gloves. Though I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be what the other two saw. He was almost certainly using one of those illusion devices, or whatever they were. The point was, I highly doubted he was actually standing here in the open looking just like himself. 

Murphy was already snapping her shotgun back and forth between the man who had killed her brother, and the new arrival. She was clearly right on the edge of losing it entirely. “Who the hell are you? Back off! Just get the fuck away, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.” 

With his hands raised, Simon gave a slow shake of his head. “Two things. One, I’m afraid this does concern me. See that guy there has paid an awful lot of money to make it concern me. Not saying I’m his biggest fan, but money is money, and we have a reputation to keep. And two, I really don’t like people pointing guns at me. Especially jumpy people with their finger way too close to the trigger.” 

Even as he said that, Simon made a grasping motion with his right hand. A sudden silvery glowing rope or cable (actually not too dissimilar from Silversmith’s power) extended from that leather glove, catching hold of the shotgun barrel. With a sudden yank, he tore the weapon from her hands as Murphy yelped, tossing it over to the side about twenty feet away, where it clattered to the ground.

She made a motion as though to go after it, but abruptly Simon’s other hand snapped out and a pistol suddenly appeared in it, jumping out of the sleeve of his jacket. “Uh uh,” he called out. “Just stay there. Trust me, I know why you’re so pissed, and I don’t blame you. I really don’t. He’s a piece of shit. But just stay there.” His eyes moved to me then, squinting as though trying to figure out why I had remained rooted to the ground. “If you’re planning something, kid, it’s a bad idea.” 

Planning something? No, not really. At that very moment I was still mostly reeling from having my brother this close. It cut through a lot of the confidence I’d built up over these past weeks. All I could think about at that moment was how nervous I was about keeping my identity from him. I’d managed it back when I was first starting out, of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of that was luck. And I hadn’t really stayed and talked to him. Actually standing here and interacting with him? Even with my changed voice, I was terrified that he would immediately figure out who I really was. This whole situation had become a lot more dangerous. 

And yet, what was I supposed to do? I could not and would not let the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother just walk away, no matter how worried I was about my brother and my secret identity. That wouldn’t happen. It was wrong, and she’d never forgive me, no matter how much I explained. I had to do something about it, but I still had no idea what. Could I actually fight my brother? I’d seen how easily he dismantled that guy back at the mall. Yes, I had powers, but could I actually deal with him when he had his skill, the pistol, and those clearly Touched-Tech gloves? A small voice in the back of my head was insisting that I had faced much worse threats. And yet, I couldn’t stop telling myself that he was my big brother and I didn’t stand a chance. 

“Paintball?” Murphy spoke up in a confused, worried, helpless tone. And it was hearing that, the obvious pain and loss in the voice of a girl I cared about, which snapped me out of my moment of being completely paralyzed by indecision and panic. 

“Sorry,” I found myself blurting without thinking about it, “I was just trying to figure out what makes you think you’re going to walk in here and stop this worthless fuck from going to prison where he belongs. He’s a murderer. You really wanna walk in here and defend a murderer?” I tried to keep my voice more casual than it wanted to be. I did not want Simon wondering why Paintball would be emotionally upset about that. I didn’t want him wondering anything about me at all, if I could help it. God, this whole thing was so dangerous. In more ways than one. 

“Fuck you, cocksucker!” Luciano snapped. “You think you can judge me just cuz I capped a few assholes? You’re just a–” 

He was interrupted by Murphy making a noise of outrage in the back of her throat, starting to throw herself at him. Which made Simon snap his gun that way to warn her. But I moved first, before he could speak. Besides being frozen by indecision, I had spent the past few moments painting designs across the back of my costume. I activated green, orange, and purple spots while lunging that way. Speed, toughness, and strength boosts, all at once. 

It wasn’t enough. Even moving a little under twice as fast as I would have normally, Simon still had quicker reflexes. He pivoted aside smoothly, snatching the outstretched pistol away from my grasping fingers as his other hand snapped out to catch hold of my wrist. In an instant, his foot collided with my ankle while he gave my arm a yank. The next thing I knew, I was tumbling head over heels and landing on my back on the cement. It didn’t hurt, but the sudden rush of being knocked around like that was enough to leave me briefly disoriented. 

Simon was standing over me, starting it to point his gun down to tell me not to move. But before he could get more than a single word of it out, I managed to lash out and up with one foot. A foot that had a blue spot on the bottom of my shoe. Just as my foot made contact with his pistol, I activated the paint. Between the purple strength that was still running through me, and the added boost from the blue push, the gun was sent flying away from him. 

Instantly, I lashed out again in a kick toward his stomach. But Simon caught my ankle under his arm and twisted so that the force I was trying to use to kick him was instead spent in spinning myself sideways along the ground. 

In the process of that, I caught a glimpse of Murphy. She wasn’t having much more luck. She had jumped on Luciano’s back, but he yanked her off and was about to throw her bodily to the ground. My hand snapped out in the midst of being yanked around by my ankle, shooting orange paint, then a quick burst of purple that way. Both hit, a pair of orange and purple splotches across the side of her shirt, activating just before she was slammed to the cement. 

Hoping that that would be enough to help her get out of that, I slapped my own hand against the cement and painted the palm blue. The sudden force from that, as my hand rebounded away from the sidewalk, shoved my foot out of Simon’s grasp and up, kicking his stomach. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I was trying for, given the way he twisted aside at the last second, but it was still enough to make him stumble backward while reflexively releasing my leg. 

I was able to spring back to my feet by that point, before he could recover. A quick glance to the side showed that Murphy had taken advantage of the paint I gave her. She grabbed Luciano’s foot with both hands and yanked it out from under him, sending the man to the ground with a blurted curse. 

Meanwhile Simon was already lunging at me, giving a muttered curse of his own about me being a stupid asshole or something to that effect. Quickly, I activated another picture across my costume, this one of an orange demon face with a wide grinning face of purple teeth and green eyes. 

Again, purple strength, green speed, and orange toughness. Sure, it wasn’t a huge picture, I was still trying to conserve paint as much as I could. But still, it made me about as strong as an adult man, about half again as fast as I should have been, and tough enough to tank a bullet. 

And it still wasn’t enough. Not really. My brother was too fast, too skilled. He had been doing this for a long time, that much was patently obvious. Despite having no powers, and not even using those gloves of his, he evaded every single punch I threw at him over those few seconds. He wasn’t even actually trying to hit me back or anything, aside from a few light taps as though he was testing me. Or maybe taunting me. Whichever the case, what mattered was that I couldn’t actually hit him. I needed more speed. But that would mean using more paint. 

I had to. I could either conserve paint and keep being too slow to actually hit him until I ran out of everything anyway, or I could expend it and maybe manage something useful in the process. It was the only real shot I had with this. Especially with Murphy struggling against Luciano right behind me. I needed to change things up and take a risk. I needed to end this fight right now. But I also had to make it count. I needed to create an opening that I could take advantage of. 

With that in mind, I lunged backward away from Simon to create a little distance between us. Thankfully, the fact that Simon was busy showing off meant that he didn’t press me too much. He clearly thought that there was nothing I could do. And now I was (hopefully) going to make him choke on that assumption. That’s what I told myself, anyway. This whole thing reminded me of all the times I had wrestled with my brother. I hadn’t won any of those either. At least, not without cheating. 

So, cheating it was. With a blurted curse, I threw myself that way, letting loose with a completely wild punch that Simon easily evaded before pivoting back around to grab my arm so he could casually throw me to the ground. 

At least… that was what he attempted to do. But just as his hands closed on my arm, I painted it pink. The force of his grip made my arm completely collapse under his hands, squeezing out both sides of his tightened fists. It didn’t hurt, of course. But boy was it weird. Luckily, I had been ready for it. Simon, on the other hand, wasn’t. As my arm, bone and all, collapsed as though he had squeezed a large tube of toothpaste or frosting too hard, Simon made a noise of confusion. 

He had just enough time for his gaze to snap down to see what happened to my arm before I dismissed the paint early. Instantly, my arm snapped back to the way it should be, with enough force that Simon’s hands were snapped back away from me. And in that very instant, I painted almost my entire body green, save for purple on my fists. I thought about going with a bit of orange protection, but no, I needed every bit of speed I could get. I spent all the paint I had left in that moment to make myself as fast as possible. Then I lashed out with a punch. Even with that speed, Simon nearly avoided it. Not because he was anywhere near as fast as I was, not really. But because he was such a good fighter that he actually anticipated what was about to happen and was already moving almost before I did. His head twisted, but my fist was just a hair faster. Fast enough, in this case, to nail him right in the chin. It made his head snap back. My fist hurt after that, but I couldn’t think about it. I had to follow up. I only had seconds of speed. Eight now. Then I would be completely out, at least for a few seconds.

Simon still hadn’t recovered entirely from the force of his hands being thrust away from my arm. He was reeling backward thanks to a combination of that, and being punched in the chin. And I was already moving to follow up. With a grunt and lunge, I buried both fists into his stomach. The force staggered him, even as he dropped his hands to grab onto my shoulders. But again, I was still faster. Before he could finish grabbing me, I ducked and pivoted to get out from under his left arm. At the same time, I caught his extended wrist with my own left hand, and held it out to full extension while simultaneously lashing out with one foot to kick the back of his knee. As that buckled under the force of the blow thanks to my still slightly enhanced strength, I brought my right hand up to collide hard with the middle of his back. With his hand captured in my grip and his knee kicked out from under him, Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling face-first to the ground. 

The instant he was on the ground, before he could recover, I grabbed a set of handcuffs from my jumpsuit pocket, latching one side around the wrist I was still holding and the other around a nearby pipe that extended out from the building. They weren’t the special stay-down type, but at least they would hold him for a minute. 

A quick glance up showed that Murphy had managed to get Simon’s gun, the one I had kicked out of his hand, and was pointing it at Luciano while he lay on the ground. She was shaking a bit, staring intently down at him while keeping the pistol pointed that way. Immediately, I stumbled that way, the paint already wearing off. “Get him up, let’s go, let’s go!” I blurted. We had to hurry. I did not want to think about what would happen when Simon got out of that–

Something hit me in the back, colliding with enough force that I was sent sprawling to the ground. Nearby, I saw Murphy hit the pavement as well. And I also saw what had hit her. It was one of those silver cable things that Simon’s gloves could make. They were sort of like a mix between one of Silversmith’s constructs, and Whamline’s… lines. Either way, we had each been hit by one of them hard enough to knock us down. A second later, both lines grabbed onto the prone Luciano’s arms, yanking him up and away from us. 

With a blurted curse, I managed to jerk myself over onto my side and look that way. Sure enough, in those brief couple of seconds, Simon had already managed to free himself from the handcuffs. He was back on his feet and had used those cable things to knock both of us down and then yank Luciano over to him. He wrapped one cable tightly around the man and then extended his hand. Even as I shouted out for him to stop, my own voice lost in the furious scream from Murphy, Simon sent the other cable out toward the roof of a nearby building and let it yank him that way. Luciano was pulled after him. 

“Paintball, stop them! Stop him!” Murphy screamed at me, already scrambling to her feet. 

I tried, lunging up and extending my hand. Red paint. Just a little bit of red paint. Just enough to yank that guy away from my brother. It wouldn’t take much, right? I just needed a bit. But nothing came. It hadn’t been long enough yet, and I was still out of paint. 

Cursing, I shook my head. “Fuck, fuck, I can’t, I don’t have paint! I’m out!” 

An inarticulate bellow of rage escaped the other girl as she grabbed the pistol she had dropped and pointed it that way. She was about to start blindly firing after them when I grabbed her arm. “Stop!” 

“Get off me!” Murphy shoved me away, making me almost stumble and fall. “He’s not getting away!” She turned back, gun raised. But they were gone. Simon and Luciano had disappeared off the opposite side of the roof. Murphy, in turn, screamed out and pivoted to drop the gun. Her fist punched the wall, then she hit it again, and again. She was cursing and crying all at once, punching the wall repeatedly as she ranted about hating everyone and everything. With a choked sob, she collapsed to her knees and clutched her stomach. One hand yanked the mask off and dropped it before she doubled over and threw up. 

I stood there, staring, as Murphy fell onto her side, curling up in the fetal position while her entire body shook. She was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe, while a jumble of words that didn’t make a lot of sense escaped her. I can only catch some of it. She was saying something about McDonald’s, a bus, and a rehab center. She kept saying rehab over and over again, and clothes. No, close. She kept repeating ‘close, so close,’ and that she just wanted him to eat. She brought him food, she wanted him to eat. She wanted him to sit down. Something about laying on the couch. If he’d been laying on the couch, he wouldn’t have been hit. And that she was sorry. She was so sorry. All of that mixed into cursing about everyone she hated. At that moment, I was pretty sure I was on that list. Not that I blamed her. 

Looking around briefly, I took a seat next to her and was silent for the moment. I had no idea what to do, but I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone right then, even if I wasn’t the person she wanted to be with her. Swallowing hard, I reached out to touch her shoulder very gently. Immediately, she jerked away with a blurted curse. But I kept my hand there, shifting a bit closer. She stopped, slumping a bit more against the ground. All the energy seemed to have left her body. She was exhausted, having been running on fumes for a long time. Her rage was a fire that lit the fuel of her grief. And now the rage had run out. There was no more target for her to attack, so the anger had fallen away for the moment. The fire of rage was gone, leaving only the fuel of the grief. And the fumes of that were choking her. 

Scooting closer, I put my back to the wall and slipped an arm around the other girl, pulling her into an embrace. She didn’t fight it. Instead, the girl just leaned against me, shaking uncontrollably. 

“Gone,” Murphy finally murmured in a broken voice, once we had sat there like that for a couple minutes. “He’s gone. He’s gone.” 

I knew she wasn’t talking about Luciano. It was Tyson. Her brother was gone. He had been murdered in cold blood, and the man responsible had just gotten away. 

For now. 

“We’ll find the piece of shit,” I quietly assured her. “I promise. I swear, Murphy. We’ll find him. He won’t get away. We’ll find him.” 

Her head shook a little, as she made a noise deep in her throat that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger. Finally, she pulled back, staring at me. Without the mask, I could see the tears that ran freely down her face. “Who the fuck was that?! Who–what the fuck did that–what did he mean about paying a lot of money to make it his concern? W-was that a Sell-Touched? What was he–I never–who–” Her words were all jumbled together into a nearly incoherent ramble. But I understood. I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know who Simon was, where he had come from, and what that whole situation with Luciano ‘paying for protection’ was about. 

“Murphy,” I spoke quietly, my voice just the right tone to make her look at me, staring through the tears that had half-blinded her as I continued. “I think… I think we need to talk. 

“I need to tell you the truth about what happens in this city.” 

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Interlude 7B – Molly and Ryder (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: Molly was Eits’ civilian name before he transitioned, as mentioned in 6-03.

Just Over One Year Ago

“A one month shifting process, Miss Travers.” The heavyset man with the white bushy beard who looked like Santa Claus in a doctor’s outfit spoke definitively as he sat behind his large oak desk in the wood paneled office. There were no windows in the room. Behind him was an array of certificates and diplomas. To his right were a few animal trophy heads, and a gently crackling fireplace was to his left. The room itself was fairly small, intended to feel like a nice cozy place. 

Except for the animals, Molly Travers supposed. Those heads on the wall probably didn’t find it all that cozy or nice. It also honestly kind of seemed a little weird to have animal head trophies on the wall in a doctor’s office. Let alone an active fireplace. But then again, this wasn’t exactly a normal doctor’s office. 

“One month?” she echoed belatedly, suddenly realizing that she’d been staring at the deer head in silence for a few long seconds. Quickly returning her gaze to the man in question, she added, “Are you sure that’s the best timeframe, Doctor Dyers?” Yeah, her doctor’s name was Dyers. It could’ve been worse though. He could’ve been Doctor Losesallhispatients. 

Dr. Dyers was nodding. “Yes, one month. As I told you when we started, permanent transition like this is different for each individual. The process is easier than it has been in the past with the technology we have access to thanks to Tech-Touched individuals, but that same technology requires a very specialized selection of treatments. We have to account for a lot of things. The process typically varies between two weeks and two and a half months. For you, one month is on the low end. But you know what I mean when I say one month, what that entails?” 

“Taking a bunch of pills every twelve hours and visiting this place every other day without missing once,” Molly confirmed with a firm nod as she met the man’s gaze. “Don’t worry, I know. I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. Since before I knew what this was. I won’t blow it off.” 

“Our new techniques are far less invasive and easier,” Dyers carefully reminded her. “Instead of full surgeries, you’ll simply spend hours every other day inside the tank I showed you. You can sleep through most of it, or listen to an audio book or podcast if you’d like. We have a selection, or you can bring your own and one of my assistants will be glad to set it up for you. Throughout the treatment, assuming you come every day, your body will gradually shift into its… new and permanent form.” He offered a smile before sighing. “All of that knowledge and agreement on your part does bring us to the unfortunately more… mercenary part of the discussion.” 

“Money,” she finished for him. “You can’t start the treatment until you get paid in full.” 

“It’s for your benefit as well,” he assured her. “There can be very bad reactions to starting this process and not finishing it. It’s best that we have all those details in hand before day one.” 

“I’ve got the money,” Molly quickly informed him. She reached down to the duffle bag beside her chair, lifting it up with both hands to set on her lap. It was filled with cash. Cash she’d managed to get over the course of the past couple of months thanks to her new little friends. 

She didn’t know what to call them yet. Ever since she’d touched that orb and gained her powers in the wake of her parents… deciding they didn’t want her to live with them anymore, she’d worked her way through various ideas of what to call the tiny poltergeist-like creatures which allowed her to take over machinery and electronics. Gremlins, ghosts, geists, imps, none of that seemed right. 

All Molly knew for certain was that she made them with her power, and they were basically the only friends she had right now. With Grandpa Warner gone, the rest of her family had… well, they’d always made it clear how they felt about her declarations that she wasn’t… she. 

“Not here,” Dyers informed her. “We don’t keep that kind of cash on hand, Miss Travers. Here.” He took a card from his desk and slid it over to her. “Go to the address here and ask to meet with Ryder. Give him the cash, he’ll make sure it’s right and give you a receipt. Bring that here tomorrow and we’ll get started, okay?” 

Molly agreed, standing up before shaking the man’s hand with her own shaky, clammy one. Then she made her way out of the office and into the small hospital-like area beyond. She’d been here often enough that she knew the route to the exit without help, moving through a short maze of corridors, then heading down a narrow set of stairs and out an unlabeled metal door. 

Rather than a real hospital parking lot or anything, that put her in a narrow alley. Because this wasn’t a regular hospital. It was far less official, a place that didn’t mind taking her stolen money. Money she had stolen from ATM’s and things like that over the past few weeks in order to pay for this procedure. A procedure that would finally let her… him… her be him. 

And wasn’t that confusing enough? Even standing here, right on the cusp of paying for a process that would finally… finally allow her to look like the person she had always felt like, the years of her parents’ violent, vitriolic reactions to her attempts to change her own pronoun had done its damage. The idea of thinking of herself–himself as himself was… scary. It was what she wanted more than anything else in the world, but it was so scary. Even thinking ‘him’ in her own head was enough to make her flinch, expecting her father’s bellowing voice or raised hand. 

So, she’d made a deal with herself. She would stick with ‘her’ until her outside matched her inside. She would answer to her, she would… try to think of herself as her, even if… even if that was wrong. But as soon as her change was far enough along to be noticeable, she would… she would be he from then on. He would be the way he was supposed to be. Maybe she’d have a party for herself then. Heh. Maybe she’d have a party for himself was probably the better way to put that. 

That was stupid. She was stupid. Why was she stupid? Why didn’t she feel the way she was supposed to feel? Her parents were convinced that she was doing this for attention, like dyeing her hair or getting a piercing or a tattoo. They thought she was just acting out to act out, or to betray them, or something like that. 

But the thing her parents had never understood was that she wasn’t trying to be different. She was trying to be normal. That was it, that was the entire thing. They wanted her to be normal and she was trying to be. She was trying to look the way she felt. For her entire life, her body had felt wrong. Looking in the mirror had felt wrong. It had felt like she was puppeting her own body, like she was some foreign entity inside her own head. Her fingers didn’t feel right. Her hair didn’t feel right. Nothing fit the way it was supposed to. She was all just… not right. Wrong. 

Her father was wrong. She didn’t want to turn herself into a freak. She wanted to take the freak and make it normal. She wanted to be the person she was. That was it. She wanted to take the person she was on the inside and make that the person she was on the outside. She wanted… she wanted to feel as though she belonged in her own body. 

Why couldn’t she say that in a way her parents could understand? Why was she too stupid to find the right words? For years she had tried. For years she had failed. They had to exist. There had to be one perfect set of words in one perfect order said in just the right way that would make her parents finally understand. One set of words that would penetrate their fog of stubbornness and hatred. 

Then they’d understand.

Then they’d take her back. 

Then they’d love her. 

With a sigh, she started toward the end of the alley, throwing one of her helpers ahead to start the car that was already waiting there. Technically, she was only sixteen and had not passed her driver’s exam. But that was far from the first of the crimes she’d committed over the past few weeks. Particularly considering the car wasn’t actually hers. She’d return it later. She already knew that the owner never used it during the time he was at his office. By the time he came out, the car would be back in the same parking garage she’d taken it from an hour earlier. Her little friends had already disabled all the trackers on the car and any other security system it had. 

Checking the address on the card Dyers had provided, she used her power to direct the car that way while closing her eyes and leaning back a bit in the seat. It took about ten minutes to drive there. There, in this case, turned out to be an old apartment building. The front was boarded over, but there was a note on the card that said to go around back. So, she drove the car around that way, stopping in a spot close to the rear door and out of sight of the street. 

Unfortunately, she barely stepped out of the car before a truck came pulling up right in the same lot. Belatedly, she realized the truck had been back near the doctor’s office too. Was this some kind of escort that hadn’t been mentioned?

No. No, it was not. She realized that immediately, as soon as the three men in the truck hopped out. One held a shotgun pointed at her, while the other two had metal baseball bats. 

“Hey, bitch,” one of the guys with the bat snapped while taking a couple steps her way with the end of his weapon pointed at her. “We keep seeing you going in and talking to that fucking piece of shit doctor. That fucking butcher. You going to him to get your tits cut off, you fucking freak? Because I’ll tell you one thing. You want a cock where your cunt is? I can help you with that. For a few minutes anyway.”

The door into the apartment building was close. But not close enough to escape that shotgun. And she had no idea what was on the other side. Maybe nothing for all she knew. That Ryder guy might not even be there. The door could be locked. 

“Well?” The spokesman for the trio demanded while stepping even closer. He put the bat up under her chin. “You’re pretty cute. What do you say we show you what you’re supposed to do with,” he used the bat to gesture all over her, “all of this before you go getting all hasty and shit? Who knows, you might change your mind. What do you think, boys? You up for a little education? Maybe we won’t break this one.”

Powers. She had powers. But she’d never used them offensively before. Not like this. And what good could they be right now? The guy was pointing a gun at her and would shoot her before she sent any of her friends out. And the one that was still in the car behind her wasn’t going to be any help. It wouldn’t be able to get anywhere before she was shot or beaten down. She wasn’t a fighter. But she had to do something. She could scream. There could be people around. Screaming could help. Except for that gun. He’d shoot her. She could already see it in his eyes. He was disgusted by her. He wanted to shoot her. He was just waiting for the word. 

If only they’d waited one more month, her obituary could have listed her as the correct gender. 

Somehow, she found her voice. The words came as she looked into the eyes of the man with the bat close to her chin. “I should warn you. You’re right, I’ve been looking for a good penis. But they’re pretty hard to get. So if you put that thing anywhere near me, don’t expect to get it back.”

Rage and hate twisted the man’s face as he reared back with the bat. She jerked backward but tripped, falling on her backside with a yelp. Her wide eyes jerked upward in time to see the bat descending toward her. 

A hand caught the end of the descending bat. Eyes snapping that way, Molly saw a new guy standing there. He was a few years older than her, a fairly tall black guy that stood a bit over six feet, with movie star good looks. 

“Yo, asshole,” the guy with the gun snapped while pointing it toward the new arrival. “This ain’t got nothing to do with you. Fuck off.”

“Yeah, fuckknob,” the man whose bat had been caught snapped while trying to jerk the weapon away, “take a fucking hike, we’re busy.”

If the guy who had caught the bat was bothered by the other man desperately trying to yank his weapon back, he didn’t show it. The muscles in his arm tensed a little bit, but he held firm. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. This has got a lot to do with me. Cuz you know all those people who just stand there and bite their tongue while you spout off all that stupid bullshit you were just saying to this person right here? You know all those people who pretend they didn’t hear anything, all the people who embolden you worthless fucking cocksuckers by going conveniently blind and deaf while you get away with all the shit you’ve gotten away with your entire life?

“I’m not one of those people.”

With that simple declaration, the new guy snatched the bat fully away from its owner before instantly snapping it forward so that the handle hit the man in the throat. As he doubled over with a panicked wheeze, the guy pivoted, hurling the bat into the face of the man with the gun just as it went off. But the new guy had already kicked the doubled-over man backward into the path of the shot, and he took the brunt of it. 

Molly realized belatedly that she was screaming. Everything else happened in a blur that was too fast to follow. The guy who had been threatening her was down, bleeding out all over the pavement. The one with the gun had only gotten off that one shot before this stranger was right there, disarming him and putting him down just as quickly and efficiently. 

The man was… was dead. Or dying. The man who had been threatening to… to… Yeah, somehow, she couldn’t muster a whole lot of sympathy. These guys wanted to rape and kill her. And from the way they’d talked, it wouldn’t have been their first time. Yeah, not much sympathy. Yet, despite that, she also couldn’t bear to look at him. 

But there had been three guys, right? Realizing that, Molly heard running footsteps. Her eyes snapped that way in time to see the third guy leaping into the truck. And he had something in his hands. Her bag. The bag with all her money that she’d dropped when the men first arrived. 

“No!” Molly shouted, scrambling to her feet. She held her hand out, reflexively summoning one of her little ghost friends to fly after the truck as it peeled out. But it wasn’t fast enough. The truck roared out into the street and pulled away with a squeal of tires. 

With another almost animal scream, she started to throw herself after the departing truck. But the stranger caught her arm. “Hey, hey. Bad idea. You’ll never catch up.”

Turning to stare at the black guy who had saved her, Molly opened and shut her mouth a few times. Her voice was a tiny whimper. “He took my money. He took everything. I needed that. They won’t help me. They won’t help me without that.”

The guy studied her for a moment. “You’re Molly, right? Yeah, I’m Ryder. And that guy just took all the money you were supposed to give me. I’d say we’re both kind of screwed, but I’m pretty sure you’re in worse shape than me.” 

Obviously seeing the look in her eyes as she all-but collapsed inward on herself, the guy exhaled long and low. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I was trying to lighten the mood, and… sorry. Look, maybe we can still work this out.”

She stared at him, shaking her head. “I can try to get more money, but it’s gonna take a lot longer. They’ve already started extra security procedures from me getting what I had before. I can try other things, but I… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t… I’m not…”

Holding up a hand to stop her, Ryder interrupted. “You’re Touched. You did that thing with your little ghost gremlin thing. That’s how you got all that money before, right? Yeah. Yeah, we can help each other. See, I happen to know about a certain group that’s hiring people like you, with a finders fee. I think you’ll do pretty well there, and they’ll… they’ll take care of you.”

“Who?” Molly asked hesitantly. 

Turning, Ryder beckoned for her to go around to the passenger side of the car she had arrived in while he stepped down into the driver seat. “Let’s go. There’s gonna be cops on the way with that shotgun going off. I’ll take you over to meet Blackjack and give you an introduction.”

Molly had just gotten in when he said that name, her eyes snapping wide open. “B-Blackjack? La Casa?”

Ryder nodded. “Don’t worry. Like I said, they’ll take care of you. He’s a good guy to have in your corner. Let me do the talking when we get there. I’ll make sure your signing bonus includes that procedure you want.”

For a couple minutes as the guy drove, Molly just stared at him. Her voice, when she found it, quivered a little. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me, and for all of this. Thank you. I just… I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I just wanted to be myself. I just wanted to feel… right. So… so… thank you, Ryder. And that’s… that’s a pretty good name, by the way,” she added a bit awkwardly. “I like it, Ryder. I mean, don’t worry, I’m not gonna take your name or anything just because–I mean. Um.” 

Another sigh came from the man. “Look, don’t thank me, okay? I just know how to get both of us a bit of what we want, and those guys back there…” He paused before muttering something under his breath that she didn’t catch. “And do whatever you want with the name. It’s not my real one. Just like this…” His hand waved in front of himself. “This isn’t my real face. It’s an illusion. So don’t get any ideas about tracking me down later or whatever. That’s not how this works. Just–” He stopped, eyes rolling up toward the ceiling of the car while they pulled into a lot. “We’re here, I–” There was a buzzing sound, and he took a phone from his pocket. “Fuck. Yeah, I’ve gotta handle this. You’ll be good here, I promise. Get out, go inside, tell the guy at the front in there that the Squire sent you to talk to Jack B. Got it? Jack B. When you get to Blackjack, tell him your story, what you can do, all that. And tell him I get credit for picking you up.” 

Molly was silent for a moment. “I… um. Thanks. I know, I know, you just did it for the finders fee and all that and… just… thanks, Squire. Or whatever your name is.” She started to get out. 

“Simon,” the guy quietly informed her. “It’s Simon. Here.” His hand flicked a card toward her. It was blank except for a phone number hand written on it. “You get in trouble again, or this doesn’t work out… call me. But only if you really have to, you got it? I don’t want you whining at me because you don’t like your hair cut or whatever.” 

“I got it,” she agreed while holding the card tightly. She stepped back after telling him where the car belonged, then shut the door and watched as it sped off with a squeal of tires. 

Looking up at the building in front of her, she swallowed hard. Blackjack? La Casa? Was this… could she really…? 

Slowly, she walked to the door, starting inside. Honestly, she had no idea if Molly could actually do this, be a part of La Casa and actually use her powers for more than very petty crime. 

But maybe Ryder could.

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