Sparring with my teammates is sometimes unfair. Flashfire has his military background and Remise has her super senses and reaction time, which makes fighting me without using my power trivial. I try to incorporate bursts of kinetic energy but restraining it so tightly gases me out in twenty minutes.
Still, I’ve been training with them for a long time, and even when my power runs out, I put up my own. Against Flashfire, I can go toe to toe, but against Remise, she puts me on my ass within two minutes.
“Okay, okay.” Remise cackles after our last bout and helps me to my feet. She gestures over to the back porch where Epione, Drone, and Maisa sit, Epione holding a tray of lemonades like an old-school southern belle. “Now it’s time for Maisa.”
Maisa sprints over and jumps up to Remise, her hands up in an amateur guard. I smile as Remise shows Maisa where to put her fists, where to have her elbows, and where to hit hard so you win fast and dirty. Maisa drinks this in, a true acolyte pugilist in the making.
I haven’t heard from Kitsune in over a week, and the Underground has kept our heads low to the ground. I haven’t even walked the streets in three nights. Lately, though, I’ve suffered this deep disquiet like a hole opening up in my chest every time I think about the kids that Pandahead might still have. We’ve no idea how many children there are in his grasp and I can’t stomach the thought that we’re sitting on our hands while we could be saving them.
I grab a lemonade and sit down next to Flashfire. “I’ve been thinking.”
“Better cut it out.” Flashfire takes a sip of his own lemonade, the humor in his eyes evident over the cold glass rim. He swallows, exhales, and shakes his head. “Tell me.”
“I think we need to see what the 2nd Amendment was gonna do there,” I say.
Flashfire’s amusement dies with the second syllable of their name. “No.”
“You don’t have to go,” I say.
“You can’t go do something alone.” Flashfire sets the glass down and glares at me. “You can’t run off-”
“I know how you feel about her,” I say. “About Saw Off. But she was going to be at the auction, and we need to talk to her. I’m telling you that I’ll handle it for you so you don’t need to deal with her.”
Flashfire chews his lip and sits back in his chair, and watches the bout between Maisa and Remise for a moment. Epione, who’s been silent this whole time, reaches over and places a comforting hand on his sweaty arm.
“We have to talk to them,” I say.
Drone chimes in. “As much as I hate Saw Off, I agree.”
“Oh, of course, you take his side.” Flashfire crosses his arm. “Ep?”
“I’d much rather Gabe talked to her than you, considering,” Epione says. “And I’d really rather not have her come to our house.”
“Fine.” Flash relents but shoots me one more mean look. “This face is for her.”
That night, after a few tense phone calls between Flashfire and someone else I don’t know, I’m bounding through the city again to meet up with 2nd Amendment. I know precious little about them other than most people think they’re terrorists, they’re gun-happy, and Flashfire used to be a member of their gang for a bit, back when he was Flashbang.
“Drone?” I ask as I arrive in 2nd Amendment’s part of town, feeling like I’m walking into a den of lions. Masks can be very territorial sometimes, especially the more criminal gangs.
“I’m here. How’s it going, Home Run?” Drone asks.
“Fantastic, my dearest. Closing in on the gun range now.” I smile and leap across the rooftops. Lately, I have felt more at home in my own skin. I haven’t had a time where I feel distance between myself and the world, or like there’s a filter over my ears and eyes. I haven’t felt like a ghost in weeks. “What are you up to?”
“Just watching the president stick his foot up his own ass. You know, the usual.” Drone snickers. “You ever wonder how these guys can be such hard asses and pussies at the same time? Like, all sphincter, no spine.”
“I’ve never cared.” I can’t vote, so what’s the point of worrying about it?
“I don’t, either. It’s just entertaining. I voted for him, anyhow.”
“Why?” I ask. “If you think he’s a wimp, why?”
“Because it was funny,” she says. “Not like anything he does matters, anyway. Maybe if he lobbied with the UWC to get Director Miller from OPI, maybe, but they haven’t touched her in four admins, and they probably won’t for four more, so what’s it matter who I vote for when the same lady is still in charge?”
“Careful, that sounds dangerously like a real opinion, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard you voice one of those that wasn’t about a game.” I close in on the map indicator for the 2nd Amendment’s hideout. A nondescript one-story building with a single door, black tinted windows, and a logo of an assault rifle over those windows. The sign says, “Barrel of Fish Ammunition and Gun Range.”
“That’s the place,” Drone says. “Have you met Saw Off?”
“No,” I say. “I haven’t met any of the 2nd Amendment. I only know what Flashfire’s told me about them.”
“Man, it was nice being married to you.” Drone chuckles and the comms go quiet, while I drop down to the street and hurry in through the door, mask on.
The Barrel of Fish is a tiny shop covered wall to wall in guns and ammunition. A large, burly man with a segmented metal right arm stands at the counter underneath an antique flamethrower mounted on the wall. He wears a mask of a demon’s mouth that only covers the bottom half of his face. Vibrant green eyes stare at me over this maw and underneath a mop of sandy-brown hair.
“Pleasure to meet you, Home Run. The name’s Lugs.” Lugs hops over the counter and walks up to me. I’m a tall guy, pushing 6’2, but Lugs is even taller and stockier than I am, and his metal arm is intimidating as hell. A pump action shotgun hangs from his chest by a strap around his back. He squares his shoulders and pushes his chest out at me, which makes the shotgun bounce off of his torso. “Nice mask.”
“You as well,” I reply, not flinching back from his challenge.
“Lugs, leave him alone! He’s here for Saw Off.” A woman with a bandanna over her face and a camouflage cap on her head appears at a door on the other end of the shop. She pulls Lugs back and gets between us. From her eyes, she’s smiling apologetically. “Sorry. He’s been excited to meet you all day.”
Lugs growls. “Mil! Come on!” He looks away in embarrassment, rubbing the back of his head. “I.. Er!” He marches to the back of the shop and disappears behind the door to the gun range.
“Sorry about that. The name’s Mil-dot. I’ve known Flashfire since we toured together.” Mil-dot extends her hand for me to shake.
“He doesn’t talk much about that time,” I say.
Mil-dot shakes her head and guides me to the back door of the gun range. “He’s proud of his choice to serve. The actual details of that service, not so much. War is war is war, you get?”
“I get.” I stuff my hands in my jacket pocket. “Sorry, he’s not really talked about you. He just hates Saw Off.”
Mil-dot laughs. “No, I know. They dated.”
A light-bulb explodes in my head. “Dated?” His anger, his hate for her. I thought it was ideological stuff, not… not a bad break up! “Are you kidding me?”
“Nope. They dated while he was Flashbang. I can see why he wouldn’t want to talk about us very much.” She grins underneath her bandanna, making her eyes smile. “Anyway, Saw Off is waiting for you. I’m sure I know why you’re here, though, since you hit up those Dresden guys.”
Mil-dot takes me through the back door, down a dimly lit hall to another door barricaded with steel and soundproofing materials. Mil-dot opens this door to a cacophony of gunfire.
There are five cubbies separated by panels so the occupants can stare down five humanoid shaped targets in isolation, though only two of the cubbies are occupied currently. Lugs stands by the door, wearing a pair of earmuffs, and he looks away when I enter.
There’s a young girl in a large camo jacket and khaki shorts, with straw-like brown hair she’s barely managed to wrangle into a ponytail. She whips around like a gunslinger, hand to her side, but she’s not carrying a gun that I can see, nor is there one in front of her in the cubby. She’s not wearing a mask but there is a bandanna around her neck with a shark mouth design.
The other cubbie is occupied by a man in a cowboy get up, down to the spurs on his boots, the leather chaps on his legs, the two revolvers at his side, and the cowboy hat on his head. He runs a gloved finger along the brim of that hat and nods to me. “Howdy. I’m Vaquero.”
My response is weak, a tiny flourish of my hand meant more as a gesture of goodwill than a greeting. “H-Hey.” I feel surrounded. I am bulletproof, but the aches in my gut and shoulder remind me that sometimes I’m not.
The girl — Saw Off, presumably — steps out of the cubbie and grins at me, clearly not worried that I’ve seen her face. “The great Home Run. You’re taller than I thought.” She leers at me, a glutton catching sight of her next meal.
“So you do know me.” It’s a bit unnerving.
“You’re becoming something of a rock star out there.” Saw Off walks over to me and runs a finger along my jacket. She leers up at me and I notice the gunpowder stains under her nostrils. But besides that, I can see why Flashfire dated her. She’s got a fierce kind of pretty about her, a manic-pixie-dream-girl that’s only on her first week of cocaine. “Nothing’s hotter than a rock star.”
I retreat from her, rubbing the back of the neck. “Look, Flashfire sent me because-”
“I know Jason sent you,” she snaps, cutting me off. “I also know you ain’t Home Run, you’re Gabe. I don’t give a shit about any of that. Names or whatnot. I care about what you do.”
“W-what do I do?” I ask, aware that both Vaquero and Lugs are side-eying me hard.
“Burnt out Dresden, smashed through Alabaster John’s skull, and got your mug on the FIS radar.” Saw Off grins. “Everything I like in a man.”
I look away from her, flustered by her flirtation. “You’re barking up the wrong tree. I’m only here to find out why you were going to be at Pandahead’s auction.”
Saw Off crosses her arms and trades her grin for a pout. “That’s a lot to ask, Gabe Babe. Why would I just offer that up? What are you gonna give me in return?” The pout vanishes and her playful smile returns. “Seven minutes in heaven? Or how about you take off that mask and show me if the face matches the muscles?”
Great, I came here for nothing. No wonder Flashfire hates her. It’s been two minutes and I can’t stand her already. “Neither of those are happening.”
“And if I said that if you wanted to know you had to show me your face?” she asks.
“Then I’d leave.”
“And if I said that you couldn’t leave?” Saw Off says, her flirty gaze flicking into something far more dangerous.
Saw Off snaps her fingers at Vaquero. Vaquero takes out a single bullet from a pouch in his pocket, a bullet that seems to absorb the light around it rather than reflecting it, and places it in his revolver. He cocks the hammer back and aims the gun at me, and says, “Just need the right bullet.”
“An Archimedes Bullet,” Saw Off says. “You know what that is, right?”
My heart is no longer beating, it feels, and if they wanted to gun me down they absolutely could. That bullet would sheer through my energy absorption as easy at Alabaster John’s death touch would have. It would sheer through Krater’s resistant skin. Hell, it would have killed Megajoule.
“Flashfire wouldn’t…” My voice fails. Lugs, Mil-dot, Vaquero. They watch me with steely gazes and twitch hands, all at the firearms on their sides, save for Vaquero, who still aims his revolver dead at me. They wouldn’t waste an Archimedes Bullet on a fellow mask. “The masks won’t like it if you shot me.”
“I don’t give a damn about Flashfire or the other masks.” Saw Off pokes her finger into my chest. “I give a damn about you. You’ve seen my face, you’ve seen what we’ve got, and you know we were gonna be there at the auction. That’s more than enough reasons to plug you if you decide to walk out of here and sing.”
“You showed me your face.”
“Maybe I’m just looking for an excuse to shoot Home Run.” She grins. “Now, tell me. What are you gonna give me for safe passage and information?”
I don’t actually have a lot in my favor right now. The only thing I can really give them is my time. “What if I offer you my muscle?”
“For my bed or for a mission?” Saw Off asks.
“For a mission.”
Saw Off grins. Her team relaxes behind her, their deadly stares fall from me. Vaquero lowers the gun. “That’s acceptable. It would be nice having someone else that’s bulletproof.” She pats my chest and nods. “Very well. This will do. We were at the auction to do exactly what you’d think we’d do. We were gonna shoot everyone down, free the slaves, and ride off into the sunset. You know, be big damn heroes.”
“How’d you find out about the auction?” I ask.
“We’ve been working with this group called Cabellero Santo,” Saw Off says. “Well. Not really working with them. They’re drug and human traffickers, too, and once Pandahead is gone, I’m gonna pulp their heads myself. They reached out to us because Pandahead’s destroying their cells, hideouts, and business, and FIS has them by the balls, so they’re between a rock and a hard place. We look the part of mercenaries, don’t we?”
I have to admit, looking at Lugs with his metal arm, Vaquero in his cowboy outfit, Mil-dot in her utilitarian camouflage, and Saw Off in her grungy attire, they don’t really look like masks, either noble vigilantes or bloodthirsty thugs. They look like she says, mercenaries. “Smart,” I tell her, and I mean it.
“Do I look otherwise?” Saw Off grins and salutes to me. She beckons for me to give her something, and says, “Phone.”
Not wishing to jeopardize this deal, I hand her my phone. She gleefully types in her number and hands it back, and says, “Text me so I have yours, and I’ll give you a call when I have a tree we can bark up together.” Saw Off winks and puts her earmuffs back on.
Mil-dot grabs my shoulder and says, “You might want to get outta here before-”
Saw Off rocks her head back and forth, and on the arc downward, her nose lights up, there’s a loud gun blast, and shrapnel rockets out of her nostrils, shredding through the paper target downrange from her cubbie.
Once I’m outside, Mil-dot stops me at the door to the shop. “Sorry.”
“Where did you get an Archimedes Bullet?” I ask, feeling that, metaphorically and literally, I dodged it. “Why threaten me with it? I’m just another mask.”
“Saw Off was never gonna shoot you with an AB,” Mil-dot says. “As to where we got it, ask Flashfire.”
She shows me the door and leaves me out on the street with a world of questions. I check my phone and find that the girl who would have killed me has made her contact name “BABY <3,” and that I have a text from Kitsune asking me how I’m doing, and I answer as honestly as I can.