Hey folks, sorry about the rather short chapter and slow pacing up to this point, but I promise, things are going to pick up next chapter, fast. I also have a short story here to help tie y’all over.
The news droned on in the background of Judd’s home, loud enough to be heard over the rain pounding on the roof.
“Hurricane Michael is ramping up by the minute, and we’re looking at heavy rainfall and winds within 48 hours. The current forecast predicts a Category 2 storm. We recommend all Blackburners stay indoors if at all possible for the time being.”
Judd was in the kitchen, glancing through the doorway at the television between shoving his soaked windows shut. He was going to have to go out and board everything up sooner than later, but he wanted Dawn and Alex home before that, if possible. The storm was bad enough without his kids being stuck outside.
With water no longer dripping on the floor, Judd grabbed his phone and jabbed Alex’s number. That boy had been all over the place lately, even more than usual. Sure, Fritz had dragged him into lots of crap over the years, but getting arrested was a step too far.
Judd paced as the phone rang, and he spoke as soon as it stopped.
“Alex? Where are you, son?”
“Dad?” Judd could hear Alex fall to the floor, as if he were hit by something large, but Alex just kept on talking. “Oh, uh, I’m still doing that. Thing.”
Judd raised his brow. “Yeah, your ‘thing.’ Listen, we got a storm comin’ hard and fast, you better get home now if you don’t got another place to wait it out.”
“Trust me, I wouldn’t worry about me if Blackburn were nuked by the Chinese.” He paused. “Where’s Dawn? She isn’t answering my texts.”
“Right,” Judd said, rolling his eyes. “She was out with friends, and I’m gonna call her in a moment. You sure you’re gonna be okay?”
“Yeah. I think. I mean, probably. Look, I’m more worried about you guys. Hey, Fritz, stop it, I tapped out, geez! Sorry. Just keep outta Vicio, okay? Place is ticking time bomb.”
Judd was tempted to ask more about where Alex was, but refrained for his own peace of mind.
“I ain’t going anywhere. I’ll call Dawn and keep you posted. See you soon, Alex.”
Judd tapped off the line and pressed Dawn’s number next. It rang once, then twice, then another time, all the while Judd paced back and forth. He came to a stop at the fifth ring, bracing one hand against the kitchen table and tapping his fingers. Where was she? He was used to her picking up quickly, and it sure wasn’t like her to ignore his calls.
“Dad?” came the muffled voice as the ringing finally stopped.
“Well, it’s about time,” Judd said, more relief than annoyance in his tone. “Where are you? We’ve got a storm comin’ in, you better get home.”
“Sorry, sorry, I was just at an exhibit with some friends from art class, right around Cove Park. I’ll see if I can’t get a ride or something.”
Cove Park? Wasn’t that halfway across town?
“Well, do it fast, I don’t want to have to lock you out.”
Dawn giggled, despite the depth of the situation. “Don’t worry, dad, I’ll be there soon. See you.”
With that, the line dropped and Judd was left standing with water in his kitchen. He sighed and placed down the phone. No use worrying. Right then, he needed to lock down the house as best he could. With that in mind, he headed for the front door.
Locked feet. Measured breath. Arms bent at just the right angle to ensure to both reach and protection. Alex and Fritz slowly circled around the outside of the ring, intently eyeing the other’s moves. Based on how quickly their muscles twitched in reaction when the other made the slightest move, Jessica could infer this was far from their first spar.
“Alex, you gotta try and tighten your steps,” Quinn called out, leaning lightly on the edge of the arena with one hand. Alex grunted lowly as he brought his knees closer together.
“Sorry. The bone, it’s never healed the right way. Not that I really-”
Fritz stole the moment to lunge in and elbow Alex right in his stomach before ducking away.
“Not that you were ever good at making excuses,” he teased, smirking at Alex.
Alex shot him a sour glance before he dematerialized. Just like that, Fritz hopped around and nailed Alex across the chin where he’d teleported.
“I’ve tried explaining subtlety to him, really, I have,” Fritz said, shrugging in Quinn’s general direction.
Alex shot out two tendrils, emerging from the floor, and wrapped them around Fritz’s wrists. “I don’t need subtlety, I can squish you like a bug.”
Fritz leaned forward on the weight of the tendrils before lifting his hips up to deliver a kick to Alex’s torso. Alex didn’t even blink, barreling into him full speed, sending them both tumbling awkwardly to the ground. Quickly he contorted his limbs, confining Fritz in a wrestling hold.
“Ow! Ow! Uncle! Uncle!” Fritz cried from underneath him.
“Hmph. Impressive strength, but sloppy technique,” Jessica remarked, fooling with the second gadget Quinn had been teaching her how to use. The grapple gun looked similar to a pistol, but with a bulkier grip connected to a spool. A metallic claw with a sharp center jutted out of the barrel, gleaming in the light. Its snazzy design didn’t do her any good when she tested it out and stuck in a tree.
“Ahem?” Quinn rapped her fingers against the rubber mats. “I’m giving the critiques here.” She turned her up to Alex. “Sloppy technique Alex.”
“Wow, I know right?” Jessica muttered, rolling her eyes.
“You know Fritz’s skillset, so taking him to the ground was advantageous to you, but I told you to use a little more finesse. For all you know, Fritz could have had a puncturing weapon or ability. And Fritz, really, taunts? At least keep your eyes on him.”
“Oh, come on, I can’t have a little fun?” Fritz asked, none-too-concerned.
“Yeah, sorry hon, your charm isn’t gonna work on gangbangers armed to the teeth. Run it again, then I’ll give you your costumes.”
“If only I could believe Alex was a gangbanger,” Frits sighed. “Costumes? What?”
Quinn nodded. “They came in last night. Scott’s people deliver. And if you want me to, one of you needs to give me a clean takedown.”
“Well, gee, I wonder who that’s gonna-”
Jessica hurled the grapple gun at Fritz’s forehead, connecting a hit with a dull thunk. Fritz’s eyes swam for a moment, and Jessica sprinted for the edge of the arena. One quick step sent her up. She kicked herself off, using her legs to grip Fritz’s head and hurl him onto the concrete floor as she backflipped.
“You’re welcome boys,” she announced, snapping to her feet and retrieving her grapple gun from beside Fritz’s head.
“O-ow,” Fritz whined from the ground.
“That’s smart, using your stronger lower body strength, but don’t expect to get away with that move on a man Alex’s size.” Quinn pushed herself off. “Alex, Fritz, your costumes are in the boxes by the men’s restroom.”
“Oh man, this is gonna be great!” Alex said with a hint of whimsy. He hopped off the arena, dragging Fritz along by his own shadow. “Thanks Jay!”
A soft smile touched Quinn’s lips as they left. She sighed. “Good work today, Jessica,” she said, turning her attention to her.
“Right. Those boys are lucky they have strong powers, their combat training is average.” Idly she test fired the grappling hook at the ropes, watching the hook slip through the ropes, extend out, reel back and lodge itself firmly in place. “Hnh. Not bad…”
“We’ll train them up. I don’t tolerate slackers,” she replied. Then, she added, “I know it’s hard to be here, what with everything your mother did, who she is – what I’m trying to say is, thanks for staying.”
Jessica stopped toying with the grapple gun and flinched reflexively at the comments. She should’ve known they were coming at some point, but everything still felt unreal, like a sleep paralysis hallucination she couldn’t shake off. But Quinn was very much real and she really was stuck between her mother and an army of gangsters, not knowing why it was her of all people that had to be here.
“It hurts, okay?” she blurted out, setting the gun aside. “That’s what you want me to say, right?”
“You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to. I just wanted to thank you. You’re going to do good work here, even if it does hurt. It hurts me, too. It comes with the territory.”
From far off, they could hear Alex exclaim something like holy crap. Quinn gave a small laugh. “It gets easier. You just have to make it through the hard part.”
She pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed. “Yeah, I get it, it’s just – she’s still my mom, you know? Even after all the horrible things she’s done, even if she deserves to be in a padded cell for the rest of her life, I can’t bring myself to hate her. It’d make things so much easier, but I can’t. I dunno. Just stupid human emotions, I guess.”
“Yeah, they’re funny like that,” said Quinn. “I hate your mother. She betrayed me and killed nearly everyone I cared about – but I hope she’s doing well. What’s that about, right? You’ll only waste your time trying to figure out why you’re feeling the way you feel. Doesn’t hurt to talk about it, though.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Jessica grumbled. But, Quinn had a point. If only to sate her curiosity, she had to ask.
“Why do you trust me, Quinn?”
Quinn frowned. “I’m not sure. But if I had to guess, I’d say it’s because your mother is the last person you want to be. Am I right?”
“Yes, but what I want and what I am are two different things. It’s hard not to be her when you’re grown in a test tube and raised from birth to hurt people.”
“No one gets to choose what they are. You can’t help where you came from or where you’ve been. Who you are? That’s a choice that your mother can’t make for you. Didn’t stop her from trying, but she lost that fight. You’re already halfway there.”
Quinn’s words didn’t make anything easier to deal with, but it did make her feel… better? It was hard to tell. It had been a long time since anyone had to tried to make feel better. But it was nice.
“Thanks,” she said brusquely. She let the moment pass, waiting until Alex burst into the room. She only knew it was Alex by his size, because the man inside the costume was completely obscured by an all-black coverall and gas mask. The outfit was more heavily armored than hers, with military body armor and a thick knee brace on his right leg. However, it was still a lot slimmer than British special forces uniform she figured it was based on. But no way was he going out without it being night in that thing – or heavily raining.
“Yo, I look like the boogeyman!” he exclaimed, voice muffled and distorting him into something unrecognizable from the gentle giant she saw just a few minutes before. “Terrifying, right?”
She shrugged and gave a thumbs up.
“As terrifying as you’ll ever be, Alex!” Fritz called from back in the men’s room.
Fritz trotted out himself after a moment or two, still pulling at the costume in places. Even in a mostly white, form-fitting outfit and a domino mask, Fritz still looked like Fritz. If anything, it only emphasized his small stature, gold highlights seeming to outline his form.
“I think I’d rather be light on my feet,” he said, turning in place to look at himself.
Jessica snorted loudly. “Wo-ow. Very subtle, Fritz. I hope you’re not seriously trying to protect your identity.”
Fritz just shrugged. “Hey, no skin off my nose if someone at the club happens to think I look like that one street hero.”
“So, bo- Quinn,” Alex began as he flexed and bent his arm, “About that hurricane. It’s got my dad in a tizzy. What are we gonna do when it hits?”
“We’re gonna do all that we can,” Quinn announced. “Keep an eye out for looters and anyone else hoping to take advantage of the situation.”