BETWEEN A ROCK AND THE ANVIL
THE ANVIL, ARCHAVEN
The bartender on duty was a tattoo covered woman who knew when to pay attention to her patrons and when to ignore them. She was ignoring the slim woman at the bar – Vera Newman, who kept shifting her face to look like various Freelancers in an attempt to screw with the bartender.
Corey limped in soon after. It wasn’t that his leg was injured, more that he was walking in that stiff manner that indicated his torso was injured. He was dressed as he always was, in skin tight activewear, a cap, and a jacket with the Freelancer patch on the shoulder. He didn’t pause to look around, but just headed to the woman with the changing face.
She was surprised to see him; for a moment, her face got stuck as Rooster’s before it snapped back. “Hey.”
“Vera.” He nodded, levering himself onto a stool next to her. He looked different out of the suit, much shorter than and a lot thinner than expected, though still very fit looking. There were metal braces on his hands, and exposed circuitry on what skin you can see.
“You holding up okay? Sorry I couldn’t do more out there.”
“I’m fine. Just healing ribs and a patched lung. I’ve honestly had worst.” He ordered a diet soda from the bartender. “And I am relieved you’re not hurt. There’s a reason I like armoured suits.” He gives a faint smile.
A healthy-looking, uninjured figure stepped into the bar with a shuffling, wobbly gait. Once again in her dual-hued trenchcoat and hat, with her character-shifting mask firmly affixed, she nonetheless failed to cut a terribly heroic figure as she looked like someone who’d just come out of a marathon fifty shades of grey fanfiction reading.
She practically stumbled to the bar.
“Christ,” Vera said, her face shifting into Michael Cheney’s. “You look fuckin’ rough.”
That flickering mask stared at Vera for a moment, then Ledger’s voice croaked: “I’m goin back to the infirmary.”
“Yes, but imagine going all the way back there.” Corey sipped his soda and made a face. “Why are these things always so sweet?”
Ledger slid onto the barstool next to Corey with agonized, slow movements. “I’ll have two fingers of blow. Or whiskey, I guess.”
“Blow only comes out after midnight, sweetheart. Whiskey it is.”
Vera sips her chocolate milk. “You would not want to see what happens to this -” She shifts her face into Corey’s for a second. “When I’m high. Bad news bears.”
“Is this how you’re always gonna greet me when I finish paying off a debt?” Ledger picked up the proffered whiskey glass, raised it to her face, and… drank it through the mask? Technology, man.
Corey remained silent though the talk of narcotics and getting high as he sipped his soda like a professional designated driver.
Wasteland entered the bar area, the machinery whining softly as he moved towards the group. He signalled to the bartender, and nodded as he stood, rather than sat, near the group. “Hey, folks. Glad to see you all out of the infirmary.”
“Still kind of tender,” Vera says bashfully. “But I’m healin’ -” Her eyes move to the door and her face pops back into being her own and twists into a mix of disgust and incredulousness. “You know what, yeah, I’ll take something strong bartender, thanks.”
Solomon Swift enters, holding a heavy book by Dr. Atlas.
“Wasteland, come join us. We could have used you in that fight.” Corey gave a small wry smile.
Solomon sits just close enough to the group and listens in while pretending to crack open his book.
“I think I did pretty okay for my first Big Girl mission. I mean, I didn’t die! I totally expected to die.”
“Your… first big girl mission? W-what does that even mean—” Ledger sounds kind of horrified.
“Eh, the Freelancers used to put me pretty much exclusively on…” Vera shifts again and it’s suddenly Chloe Karsgaard, famed actress and celebrity sitting at the bar. “Y’know, pretendin’ to infiltrate certain interviews and stuff? Spreading propaganda and just generally being in the right place and the right time?”
“Which is desperately unethical -”
Ledger swivels in her seat to stare at Swift. It’d be more impressive if she actually had visible eyes.
Wasteland ignores Swift. He does, however, join the group, nodding at everyone. “Wish I could have been there. Only got the call just as you guys were dropping. May have words with the dispatcher. Collateral… is a big gun. Rooster or I should have been there to back you up. But that you guys managed on your own? That’s major respect, even if you did take some hits.” He nods at the bartender, who gave him a beer, and he puts a straw from his gauntlet into it.
“I underestimated her.” Corey shrugged. “I should have been faster, kept my distance. “ He looked like he was about to say more, but only sipped his drink.
“I did great,” Vera bragged. “Perfect distraction, only got a couple of bruised ribs, didn’t die despite actively pissing someone who calls themselves Collateral off.”
Solomon leans past Vera and reaches a hand out to Ledger. “Hi, Solomon Swift.”
After pausing briefly, Ledger took his hand in her gloved one and gripped it, giving a single, decisive shake. “Ledger.”
“What’s your actual name?”
“Oh here we go…”.
Ledger released his hand. “Ledgelie L. Rutledge.” Even without the benefit of facial expressions, the acid tone in her voice betrayed that Solomon had not impressed her. “Ha!”
Solomon rolled his eyes. “See, if you ask me -”
“No one did.”
“There wasn’t even a question. Here, let me: if I buy you a drink, will you leave me alone about my personal details? There. Now you’ve been asked.”
Wasteland is trying, not very hard, to hide his amusement. He fails miserably. The armor shakes a few times in suppressed chuckles.
“I’ll take an appletini.” Solomon finally says, voice dripping with – disdain? Really?
“I say, barkeep,” Ledger leaned against the bar, “your finest appletini for my lovely new friend. And I’ll have two more fingers a’ blow.”
Corey looked amused and decided that it was socially appropriate to change the subject.
“Wasteland, tell us about the time you defeated Cancer.”
“Wasn’t really much. Just a guy…. In a crab suit. I mean, the suit was pretty well made, but…. It was a crab suit. I don’t even understand why.”
“Just someone in a crab suit. Heh. I need to find some footage on this.”
“Wait a crab suit? Like, what, foam? One of those inflatable deals?” Ledger sounded skeptical. He had to be pulling her leg.
Corey hadn’t moved from his seat, nor was he holding a phone in his hand. He was staring at some midway point, then burst in a soft laugh. “No, mechanical. What was that foam string stuff he shot at you?”
“Yeah, some kind of foam. It was…. Really, really dumb. But Cheney called me himself, saying that it was probably the best PR opportunity he’d ever seen.” Wasteland snickered.
Solomon scoffed. “You see, it’s people like that that are sullying the image a layperson has about Paranormals. Honestly, the code names and costumes are just degrading.”
“Shut up, kid.” Said the scowling black lady who came in, unloading her heavy bag onto the bar.
Without hesitating or even looking up, Ledger launched her empty whiskey glass across the surface of the bartop. Swift managed to lift his Appletini well before the glass collided with it, but the message was clear.
“What in the fuck,” said a woman who had just spent the last two days in near-constant pain, “do you know. About laypeople, mister Swift?“
“I’m the only person in this bar using their real name,” Solomon said, unflustered and disdainful. “I’m the only person who doesn’t wear some stupid mask or spandex.”
“Sure you are.” Said Doc Brown. Who was wearing a sensible oxford and docs.
“Do you know what the name Corey Adams is associated with?” Corey turned a bland face towards the boy. “Do you know that by the time I was your age, I’d been a soldier for eleven years in a war I was forced to fight in? Do you know that I had caused the deaths of thousands of innocents by the time I was twelve? Do you really think that I want to be associated with that? Please do think about the experiences that others around you may have had that you have been fortunate enough not to have experienced yourself.” He took a calm sip of his soda.
“Like this kid’s name is actually Solomon Fucking Swift anyway,” Ledger growled, evidently trying not to get involved further but still visibly pissed.
Now that the topic was on his favourite topic (himself), Solomon became visibly animated. “Right, but that’s what I mean – I’m privileged, I recognize that, but I don’t try to remove myself from humanity. If you ask me, this whole Paranormal thing, this whole Freelancer and civilian thing – if you ask me, we should all be civilians.”
“The door is that way. Feel free to lead the way.”
Ledger glanced over at Vera’s face, then at Solomon. “You really think that’s an option for all of us?”
Wasteland LOOMS over Solomon. His beer is finished. He stares, and the yellow eyes seem a little brighter, staring at the little SHIT that said those things.
Sawbones perked up a bit. She liked that Wasteland kid. She caught his eye and gave an encouraging smile.
Corey idly held his glass in his hand, his expression blandly amused.
Ledger stood, and put a gloved hand on Wasteland’s metal-shod arm (a faint hiss came from the glove, and she took a moment to be thankful that she was wearing gloves at all). She shouldered past him slowly.
“Solomon. I get that it’s real easy to think that everything works the way it’s supposed to work. Yeah? But the fact of the matter is that we are the way we are because life is flawed and complicated. It’d be real great if I should show my face or tell you my name and not worry about whether my life would be hell later. It’d be nice if Wasteland could take his armor off, ever.” Thank goodness she’d read a few dossiers. “It’d be real cool if Stormcore had an upbringing that’d let him… eat solid food. But none of those things are true. Get me?
“You’re coming at us like we’re aloof, acting above humanity. But it ain’t so. You’re just acting above us.”
“I’m just trying to start a conversation.” Swift shot back. “Have you ever thought about how -”
Vera punched him.
And he went down.
She stood, horrified, holding her hands over her mouth.
“I – shouldn’t have done that.”
“And you didn’t. I did.” Corey sipped his soda, still calmly perched on his stool. “And that’s what everyone else here will say. And if Cheney asks why, I’ll say it was to save his life or Wasteland would have done it.”
“Shit, I was all but about to go into Debt again to shut his dumb ass up.”
Brown gave a snort. “That’s what I saw.” She nodded.
“I’ve wanted to do that for years.” His tone is positively, demonically gleeful. “Thank you.”
“And Cheney ain’t gonna ask. Cheney ain’t doin’ shit.” The Doc seems rather sure of that.
Swift bolted to his feet faster than humanly possible and stared at Vera with something very close to hate. Then he stormed out of the Anvil, slamming the heavy front door behind him.
For the first time many of them could remember, The Doc actually looked not-grumpy! She raised her beer to salute the others almost cheerfully.
“You know,” Ledger returned to her seat and swiveled to face the bar. She lifted her whiskey glass and sipped it through her mask. “I was sorta worried that I’d have trouble getting used to this work environment. Don’t think I’m too worried any more.”
Vera relaxed. “Oh my God. Oh my God. I just punched Solomon in his stupid face. This is the second best day of my life.”
“I hope the first best wasn’t the one I was there for,” Ledger quipped.
“Did I get that on video?” Wasteland pauses for a moment. “Oh my god my helmet cam caught most of it. THIS IS GRAND.” He’s ecstatic. “Buying a round for everyone. And the next one. LIFE IS PERFECT.” And he does. He’s got the cash. Why the hell NOT.
For the first time, Vera finds herself being the hero of her peers. She turns pink, hunches down around her drink, and grins widely.
“Well. He’s already reporting this on social media.”
Sawbones drew herself up, and announced with the utter conviction that only old women who’d been through hell could summon: “Fuck that guy.” Ledger toasted to that. As did Wasteland
“It’s fine. I just sent in a report of the evening’s events taking full responsibility.”
“Good man. And this made my week. Aaaaah… Thank you, guys.” He chuckles again. Clearly he’s watching it inside his suit.
“Okay I gotta hit the little heroes’ room,” Ledger swiveled in her stool, then vaulted off of it. She looked a lot steadier than she had a half hour ago. “Back in a bit.”
As she walked away, she took her phone out of her trenchcoat pocket and started poking at it. Those who caught a glimpse of it would see a popular cat-trading game on the screen.
Corey considered another soda the same way teetotalers consider another drink. In the end, he cut himself off and got a glass of water.
The door swung open, and Vera turned to sneer: “Come back for another round, Swift?”
Instead of Solomon Swift, it was six armed people, wearing animal masks. Their leader held up a rifle and aimed it directly at Vera’s chest. Before the shapeshifter could react, a tranq bolt sank into her neck and she swayed and hid the ground with a thunk.
Sawbones was moving before she really even realised what had happened. Soon as she could get her old bones off that stool, she’d moved to hook her arms under Vera’s armpits and start dragging her behind the bar.
Ever seen a guy who was casually sipping a glass of water on moment and had dived for cover in the next heartbeat? Corey shook off the air of casualness like a veil and turned into a trained professional. He ducked under a table, flipped it over and ducked up with a handgun in hand. “Attention. You do realise that this is a Freelancer bar, correct?”
The six animal masks look up: Zebra, a Tabby, a Bulldog, an Elephant, a Goat, and an Anteater.
They don’t say anything. Hesitation or determination?
Sawbones went instantly into Doctor Mode. She pulled out the tranq dart, looking up at her bag, sitting up on the bar. Dammit. “My bag, kid!” She ordered in a voice that didn’t brook arguement.
Wasteland CHARGED at the group, hands blazing already. “This was a VERY BAD IDEA.” He swung at the nearest guy, probably Bulldog. He seems like a good choice.
Someone tossed the bag at Sawbones. Solomon Swift stares her down, as if expecting her to object. He must have snuck back in with that super speed of his.
She gave him a cursory nod, and dug into it, giving a series of rapid-fire orders. Yep, Swift was being bossed like a kid. Deal with it!
The Bulldog crumples under Wasteland’s assault, and the other five turn on him, automatic rifles firing all at once.
Corey aimed, his optic lens flashing, then fired one accurate shot. It hit the Zebra in the knee. He took aim again, finding a new target.
Zebra stumbled forward, colliding into Wasteland’s armour. The other four scattered, Anteater sliding under a pool table.
The automatic weapons didn’t really do anything but ricochet against said armor, firing lethal little pellets every which way. But at least it was concentrated on him. He put Zebra down with another fist, and looked at the scattering crooks. “You guys really might want to give up now.”
“Yes, do consider your life choices about now.” Corey tracked the Tabby and found a nicely exposed shoulder. He aimed and fired. Tabby cat cried out and no doubt learned a lesson in keeping cover.
“What in the hell—” Ledger emerged from the bathroom, a stun pistol in hand. She glanced about, then noticed an animal-masked figure hiding under a nearby pool table. “Glad you yahoos are in uniform,” she muttered, taking aim and firing immediately.
Anteater took a shot and fired back at Ledger, sending a burst of automatic fire her way!
Ledger reeled, throwing up her free arm to catch the gunfire, which mercifully glanced off of her armored coat with enough force that would leave bruises but not send her back to the infirmary.
“You fuckin asshole! Do not make me go back in the red!” She dove for the cover of another pool table, returning a volley of stun bolts.
Corey, too, ducked low when there was a burst of gunfire in his way. He stretched on the floor, idly checking his magazine. There was a lull, then he poked his head around the side and shot high, aiming for the light fixtures above one crook. He ducked back behind.
Wasteland launched himself at the Elephant, fists ready. “C’mon then!” He went after Elephant, relying on Ledger to take care of the asshole Anteater.
That left Goat.
Corey continued shooting out the lights above him in an obvious intimidation tactic.
Goat threw up his hands. “I surrender! I surrender!”
“Throw down your weapons, take off your mask, and lie face down with your hands on your head.” Corey wasn’t going to step out until Anteater had also been subdued.
Ledger kept blindfiring around the corner of her cover for a few moments, then muttered “screw this” and scuttled across the floor from her pool table to the goon’s. She peeked around the corner, then as her assailant thrust a gun in her face, she grabbed it and yanked hard, eliciting a yelp from Anteater. He grabbed her arm, only to scream even louder as she shifted her weight and neatly broke his.
A moment later, she stood up, dusted her coat off, and picked up the submachine gun from the ground.
“I go to take one leak.”
Corey reached into a pocket and handed a ziptie to Ledger. “And read him his rights.” He went to collar Goat and herd Tabby and Zebra to the center of the bar.
“No hold up! I haven’t memorized the speech yet! Also I’m still tipsy!”
“You have a speech?” Solomon asked in disbelief.
“The you have a right to remain silent, that kind of thing, Solomon.”
“It’s totally different here than it is in the states, and I wasn’t even a cop over there. I don’t carry the fuckin handbook everywhere.“
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” Sawbones spat, and looked up at Swift. “She’s stable. Good.” she said, with the barest hint of approval. She didn’t say thank you, but it was Doc Brown so really, subtly acknowledging his help was enough. Right?
Corey sighed, poking at Tabby’s shoulder gunshot wound (and eliciting a scream of pain). “I’m calling in Emergency. I hope they have insurance.”
“Anyway, you all have the right to remain silent…”