Psychological Fallout

FREELANCER HQ

NAMI MEDA’S OFFICE

 

Dr. Meda’s door was, in fact, large enough for Wasteland and his shiny new armor. He wasn’t sure when she’d enlarged it, but it was before he started having his sessions with her. The room itself was spacious, and Wasteland knew that the couch was both large enough and durable enough to accommodate him.

 

The doctor herself was seated in her chair, swiveled away from her workstation. She offered a cool smile. “Hello, Wasteland. Have a seat and tell me about your week, won’t you?”

 

Wasteland nodded at Dr. Meda, and smiled behind his helmet. One thing the doctor always did, was make him feel human. As much as he had disliked therapists and therapy in general in his previous life, Dr. Meda’s sessions had really helped him. He’d never admit it outside her office, of course. He sat, the new armor easing into the extra durable couch, and he put the massive gauntlets on his knees. “Hi Nami, uh… well, my week. It’s been…. a strange week. Uhm.”

 

He gathered his thoughts. “Well, started off pretty okay. Finished assembling the armor that you see before you. Had some very kind help from some of the Legion tech folks. I can actually fly without crashing into things, for a sustained amount of time. Which is beyond great. Flying is just…. amazing.”

 

He pauses, thinking, “Well, then there was this pyrokinetic in Boulder, Colorado. He’d… well, he had a history of burning people alive, people how were…. I don’t know, rich or well to do, or had a lot of media attention. Rooster and I took him down, as well as Throwaway…. What kind of codename is that? I mean, really. I feel kinda bad for the girl. I mean, I chose mine for obvious reasons, but… eh. Off topic. I got carried away taking him down, Rooster nailed him pretty hard, too, but… This guy, Otto de Fur, or whatever, had taken this classy strip joint hostage. A lot of people scared. And I got carried away.” He repeats. “I nearly beat this guy to death in front of people, I just got… so angry. He had all this power, and he gets off on being the center of attention and murdering innocent folks who didn’t do anything wrong.” The helmet shakes a little, side to side, clearing his thoughts. “Luckily, Bart was there to stop me from doing him in right then and there. Could have been really bad.”

 

“It’s a very human response to be overwhelmed by emotion,” Nami replies, “but I’m glad you didn’t have to go through that. It sounds like this villain stung you deeper than you expected, though, like it was personal. Do you have any idea why?”

 

Wasteland thinks about that, then shrugs, the shoulders of the suit groaning a little as it tries to mimic the subtle gesture. “I’m not quite sure. Maybe because my own relation to fire and heat? Or what he was doing?” The helmet looks down at the floor. “The guy was a decent pyrokinetic. Good looking guy, could probably have chosen normal profession he wanted, if he wanted to. He could have been normal.” Wasteland looks back up at Dr. Meda. “He could have had whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was to be an asshole. To hurt other people for no reason other than his ego.” He pauses, thinking. “It seems so selfish. I was maybe a little jealous of him. And angry that he wasted it.”

 

“You feel as though he squandered an opportunity that you never had?” Nami suggests.

 

That. That, a lot.” He looks at one of his hands, the dark green metal, the articulated, thick, cold fingers. “I’m stuck in this thing, always will be, far as I can tell, unless I’m down in my bunker.” He sighs, the sound odd through the speakers of the helmet. “I mean, I get it. I’ve, we’ve worked through this, and I’m pretty okay now with the suit. And living in it. But it still hurts when I see that kind of stuff, you know?”  He looks back down at the floor, then back up at Dr. Meda.

 

“And there was another Black Operation. Scorched Earth tactics. It was… messy. But I got the job done.”

 

Nami nodded, writing notes in her little spiral-bound. “Understood. I think it’s normal for you to feel that frustration and bitterness, Wasteland. You’ve suffered a great deal and operate under some deep limitations. About the other mission, then we can come back to that: how did you feel about it? Scorched Earth is more than nearly any of us are asked to do. Are you all right?”

 

Wasteland’s voice is steadier when he talks about this kind of stuff, he’s more sure of himself. At least regarding this mission. “It… was what it was. And it needed to be done. It had to be done. The people I’m sent after in these kinds of missions, they’re real monsters. And they’re also people.” He takes a deep breath. “The Freelancers get a bad rap, that we’re mercenaries, for hire. But it’s also true, I think, we’re still better than some of those others out there. I don’t think the Legion would have had the… I’m not sure what the word would be. Fortitude? Balls? Amorality? to kill the people I killed.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know what these people were doing. Had done. Were planning to do. I think, I believe, that anything less than extreme prejudice would have resulted in a lot more blood. A lot more pain for innocent people.” He looks at Meda, conviction in his words.

 

“I’d like to make the observation,” Meda taps her lips with a pen, “that this is the first time in any of our sessions that I’ve heard you talk about the morality of mercenary work. In fact, you very rarely seem to want to express any opinions about your missions at all.”

 

Wasteland blinked behind his helmet, then let out a little laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. I’ve been…. I don’t know. I guess maybe being in the public light… Oh crap, Bart really got me thinking about politics and public eye.” He laughs, again, quietly. “You’re right. I guess I was just so… concerned, maybe. About what would happen to me if I didn’t get the cash to pay for the suit. For repairs. What would happen to people, I was willing to do anything, whatever it was. But, well, this mission, maybe? Or maybe just cycling back to other missions like this, thinking back, on the flight back?” He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess maybe I’m getting a conscience? Wouldn’t that be inconvenient.” He says sarcastically, chuckling. “What do you think, Nami? Should I be… thinking about this kind of stuff, knowing that I’m going to have to do it again later?”

 

“I’m never going to discourage you from personal reflection, Wasteland,” Nami offered a small smile. “It’s a lot easier to manage our feelings and hang-ups if we go looking for them and we’re proactive about how to address them. If you know and understand these things—your resentment, your conscience—then you will be better able to manage them when they cross a line.”

 

He nods, understanding. “Makes sense. Find your weak spots, deal with them, make a plan of attack. That’s good, I like that.” He pauses, then chuckles. “I guess, intellectually, I’m fine. I was a good soldier. The mission was completed. Nothing unnecessary. I don’t feel guilty, at least as far as I can tell. I might have a few nightmares, but that’s par for the course.” He nods, feeling even more confident in himself than before.

 

“Have you had any new nightmares? New themes?” Nami resumed writing in her notebook. “I promise I won’t get too Jungian, but it helps me understand what you’re thinking about right now.”

 

He shakes his head. “Nothing too new, that I can remember. Always fire, like I’ve said a billion times before.” He chuckles, though there’s a distinct lack of mirth this time. “Different faces, different people. Mostly people I’ve burned or irradiated, like always. I think there’s more people though, faces in a crowd, rather than just one or two. I guess my body count is getting high enough my subconscious thought it was time to modify?”

 

“That makes sense,” Nami replied, nodding, “and it may also be your subconscious evolving its focus. Do you ever worry that it’s going to become too much for you to bear?”

 

He takes a long time to think about that, then shakes his head. “Honestly? If you’d asked me that when I first started, or even a few years ago, I might have said yeah, I was worried. But, I know I have PTSD. I am working with you on treating it. I can handle it, and I can handle this. I might have some bad days. Some really bad days. But… I think I’m going to be okay. I’m not worried about it becoming too much, not right now. I know I’m doing everything in my power to keep myself stable and balanced.” He looks off to one corner, then back to Dr. Meda. “So, I don’t think I’m worried anymore. Other than that irrational worry that everyone has, I’m sure.” He chuckles lightly.

 

“Good. So!” Nami clicks her pen and looks up at Wasteland’s helmet. “You knew I was going to bother you about this eventually. So let’s talk about your social life.”

 

“Abuh? Social life?” The helmet tilts a little. “Uhhh…. Rooster has invited me to do some make a wish stuff, soup kitchen, and support of the… ah, gender and relations equality stuff? Honestly they keep adding letters and I’m never going to get all of them right anymore.” He sounds a LOT more uncertain now. Missions, fighting, kicking ass and taking names? He can do. Social interaction? RUN FOR THE HILLS.

 

“Been thinking about it. Would like to, you know? Also maybe sponsor some stuff myself, once I get a…. I can’t believe I’m saying this…. a decent public image. I don’t know. Lots of people like that, out in the open, it freaks me out a bit.”

 

“What do you imagine a decent public image would look like, for you?”

 

Wasteland kind of boggles, and puts a hand up to his helmet, as if to run a hand through his hair. Some gestures never really die. “I honestly don’t know. I never thought I’d -get- a public image. This is all brand new territory for me.” His hand clinks on the helmet, and he looks at the gauntlet, realizing what he was doing, then puts it back down. “Maybe if the news says that I’m not a health hazard while in the suit? I guess? That’d be nice?”

 

“That’s not so much a public image as a health advisory. What kind of a person do you want to be, out there in the world?”

 

“Uhm. I don’t know.” He sounds worried, now. “I don’t want people to find out who I was. What happened back… where I used to live. I guess, I could be a guy. In a suit. Who punches bad guys from time to time…which is what I am right now.” He sighs and his helmet clanks down into his hands. “I guess somebody who doesn’t do too bad a job helping out.”

 

“You want to be seen as helpful,” Nami prompts. “As an aid, rather than a threat. It’s all right to want these things, Wasteland. You deserve them, even if they are hard to achieve.”

 

“Yeah. I’d like to be helpful, I think. I mean, a threat, sure, I’d want to be known by the bad guys out there not to screw around with me.” He shakes his head. “But yeah, there’s that worry, that when someone sees me really cut loose, which, I’m in the public eye now, my whole helpful image…” He makes the sound of a bomb going off, his hands gesturing to an explosion. “No more nice public.”

 

“You were in public when you were fighting Otto da Fe,” oh, so that was his name. Evidently Dr. Meda had read the debrief already. “You felt out of control. But your team brought you back, and it may not even have been knowing what you were going through. You are developing the toolset that you need. These things aren’t inaccessible to you, and you are not doomed to be an uncontrollable force of nature.”

 

“That was… “ He paused, and thought. Well, she was his doctor, and she hasn’t led him wrong yet. “I knew his name was something like that!” His weak attempt at humor subsided, then he nodded. “Yeah. They did. You’ve got a point. There’s that. I guess some part of me was still in control, too. As he didn’t just go up in flames as I touched him, so…” He shrugged again. The poor armor just kind of twitches the shrug. “How should I react when someone asks me why I burned someone to death, in the heat of a fight? Is there any good answer?”

 

“Every sapient being struggles with the overwhelming impact that our body chemistry and environment has on us. You were saddled with a more dangerous set of bodily impulses than most people. It’s hardly unheard of for humans to be blinded with rage upon seeing atrocities, or their loved ones being hurt. You’ve needed time to learn how to keep yourself under the tighter standards of control than most people need. But it’s a human thing. You still have a human heart and mind. You are a person. You can be seen as a person.”

 

He chuckled again, again without mirth. “I think so sometimes, other days, not so much. I want to be. I know some villains out there, some heroes, want to be seen as larger than life. God given, or blessed, or whatever. I’ll take being just a person, and not something monstrous.”

 

“We’ll get you there. One last question, and then you get your homework.” Nami clicks her pen and raises her eyebrows. “Is Rooster your friend?”

 

Uh… yeah. I think so. At least we get along. Been out for drinks, we work well together… Nicer to me than some of the IT guys I’ve met.” He bobbed his head in agreement. “Yeah, I’d say we’re friends. Not the best buddies, but, you know.”

 

“Whom else are you friends with?”

 

Wasteland thought about it, and shrugged. “I don’t have anyone else. A few of the operations guys during my missions, we’re friendly enough, but we wouldn’t go hang out. Maybe some random folks over the internet, but obviously they don’t know who I am in the real world.”

 

“All right, then, here’s your homework for the rest of the month,” Nami offered him a tight smile, the kind that she only made when she was about to say something that he wouldn’t want to hear. “Make a new friend. Reach out to someone who isn’t in the Freelancers. Online is all right, but you need to actually reach out and be a person. Got it?”

 

Even behind his helmet, Nami could probably tell that Wasteland was giving her a mild glare. He was quiet for a second, then sighed. “I’ll…. do my best. I’ll try.”

 

“Good. You’ve got your homework, and I’ll see you in two weeks! Have a lovely rest of the month, Wasteland.” ((tag and scene?))((Yep! Thanks so much, this was a blast!))

Wastey’s Day Off

Day Off

 

7 AM.

 

Wasteland awakens. Today is one of his very few days off. It isn’t much of an awakening, it is simply moving from a resting, non moving state to an active one. He’s not really sure if he sleeps anymore, but he does dream in those semi waking moments. Visions of fire, of people dying. The fire inside, screaming to be let out, to burn everything. It’s something he is used to by now. He closes his eyes, and starts concentrating on his breathing. In, out. Consistent, until the fear and paranoia go away.

 

Next is exercises. He’s never noticed really any change in muscle mass, but he keeps trying. Wasteland does a hundred pushups, a hundred situps, and fifty squats. He goes through the motions of the variations of Krav Maga that are able to be done in his suit. There’s no sweat in the fiery, scorched bunker that he has. Nothing can live in the bunker with him. He doesn’t shower, he doesn’t bathe. The heat and the radiation vaporize anything that isn’t the concrete, really.

 

Liquid nitrogen frozen waffles that are delivered via a tube in his ceiling, on a timer, at 7:30 AM every morning drop in. He takes one bite of each before they start burning, and fall to ashes in his hands. Mm, mm, breakfast.

 

8 AM.

 

Wasteland begins his suit maintenance. The heat resistant interior computers run a thirty minute diagnostic while he reviews his To-Do list, and the top ten Most Wanted list. Mental reviews of weaknesses and strong points of each one. He checks over the freelancer list, news reports, and paranormal news network. After the diagnostic and any replacements, Wasteland starts the boot up and warm up cycle for the suit. It doesn’t always need it, but his techs always said to do it when one can, to ease the damage to the circuits and processor. Then he steps inside, and the suit wraps around him like a cocoon.

 

9 AM.

 

No emergency calls. Nobody needs him at this time. Good. Flight practice with the Jetpack, for an hour. This is something that makes him really feel alive.

 

Noon.

 

Wasteland is starting to get bored. Bowman calls, has updated specs on taser modification to his gauntlets. Wasteland sets up an appointment next week to try them out. He then listens idly to Bowman rant about his genius after a lighthearted jab about how Valkyrie came up with a better jetpack than Bowman.

 

1 PM.

 

Begin flight to Archaven Teleporter Office. Flirt with the nice teleporter gal who always seems to be the one that teleports him anywhere, the usual ‘beam me up Scotty’ jokes. She actually laughs a little, even though she’s probably heard it a thousand times. She’s cute. He would have asked her out a long time ago. He kind of wishes she would ask him out. He’s reminded of his suit when he tries to scratch his head, and gets that metal grinding on metal. Awkward.  

 

3 PM.

 

Arrive at the Quirby Memorial in Texas. Wasteland is a normal sight around here for those who guard and sell flowers. He comes here at least once a month. The flower woman behind the counter refuses, for the hundredth time, to let him pay for the flowers.

 

He makes sure there is a big tip in her tip jar anyway, like always.

 

He wanders towards the Obsidian Black memorial wall, with all the names of those who died in the blast. Quietly, he says them all to himself, all five thousand, three hundred and twenty two. There aren’t many visitors anymore to the Memorial, a few tourists, and regulars, like him. He walks quietly by them, a nod, but nothing more.

 

6 PM

 

Wasteland stops at the last name, then moves back to the middle of the wall. He finds the names of his parents, Thomas Greene, Sr, and Barbara Greene. He looks around, and one of the security guards near the memorial makes sure he isn’t disturbed.

 

“Hi Mom, Dad. Just wanted to wish you Happy Birthday, Mom. You’d be sixty today.” He takes a deep breath. He sets the bundle of flowers down, leaning them against the wall. “Didn’t do much today. First real day off in a few months, nice, right?” He sighs. “They’re keeping me busy, the Freelancers. Nothing that you’d be ashamed of, not anymore, Dad. I know that you wished I’d gone into the Marines, like you, or started working with PHALANX… but this is good. I’m doing real good, now. They’re even keeping me in the public spotlight, heh, being a Real Hero. Even got a new partner, Rooster. You’d like her, Mom. Not quite someone either of you’d expect, but she’s got a good heart.”

 

Wasteland pauses, and looks down. “I miss you guys every day. I’m sorry for everything. I hope I’ve made you two proud. I love you, both, so much.” His voice seems to choke up a bit. “I wish you guys were here. I’d trade anything, all of this, to have you back.” Wasteland leans against the memorial wall for a moment, left gauntlet gently resting against the black glass. He takes a long moment, just breathing, before he starts talking again.

 

7 PM.

 

“…. And that’s how I beat Cancer.” He laughed, lightly, then looked over as a small bell chimed Seven PM. The memorial is closing. Wasteland turns to the security guard, who offers to let him stay a bit longer. Wasteland shakes his helmet, no, and starts heading out.

 

9 PM.

 

Wasteland retreats to the Archaven bunker, reviewing any news footage. Mental exercises and meditation, recommended by Dr. Meda. Tweets to folks, encouraging some heroes, laughing at the latest antics. He makes a note to check with Cheney about how Vera is doing. Detroit crime statistics. Unfortunate but obvious framing of the Mariah, poor girl. He hoped she was able to pull through this shit.

 

Back in the bunker, he began mental exercises, something he’d never reveal to anyone. How to kill other heroes. Anathema was back in the news. She could get into people’s minds. It paid to be prepared.

 

Oathkeeper: Keep the warhammer out of play. White Hot immediately. Flares of light to keep off balance. Gamma Radiation to head and stomach. Stay inside her reach, don’t let her get the most use out of the hammer. Eyes, throat, and knees, most obvious weak spots. Don’t let her get range.

 

Rooster: Again, White Hot. Alpha and beta radiation to keep healing factor down, grab and lift into upper atmosphere, air too thin for her to breathe. Choke out. Hit and run tactics if unable to grapple well enough.

 

Chad: Engage before chance to fully enrage. Throat, eyes, white hot. Go for choke out. Same strategy as Rooster, if necessary.

 

Pariah: Lightning speed. Mix up with fists, bludgeoning ability, force adaptation. Then switch up to extreme heat.

 

Collateral: Heat, strip away augmentations. Try not to get bludgeoned to death.

 

And he continued, for each hero and villain he knew. Replayed any video he’d seen of them in action in his head, their tactics, their favorite moves. It was a game, that could be all too real.

 

11 PM.

 

Wasteland sighed. Enough. Emails had arrived. Contacts in the black ops world, questions for advice, tactics, assistance. He did the best he could. He wanted out, but wouldn’t stop giving help to those Freelancers who needed it.

 

Midnight

 

Wasteland laid out on his slightly upraised concrete block. The suit was in the corner, idling, going through the mandatory virus and spam check that it did every night. And he dreamt of fire, once more.

 

Where There’s Smoke: Concerns

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

 

A new text message arrives on both Vera’s and Pariah’s phones. It simply reads: “Need to talk. Urgent. – Wasteland.” Followed by an address. Looking up the address, it leads to a small warehouse on the outskirts of the city.

 

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck -” Vera is the one who volunteered to drive to the warehouse, holding onto the wheel with white knuckles and her jaw set. “Fucking… fuck.” As if in sympathy, her midrange McGowan model vehicle groans and shudders.

 

“Sweetie, you gotta calm down,” Pariah whispers, “please. Wasteland is… he’s a decent guy. It’s gonna be okay.”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Vera retorts. “You’re not in a social rehabilitation program. You’re not one fuck up away from being collared and put in isolation. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

She parks outside the warehouse and sighs. “Might as well just… get it over with.”

“Vera. VERA.” Pariah can’t shout, but she whispers as hard as she can, grasping Vera’s shoulder with her increasingly claylike hand. “That will not. Happen. We will vanish off the face of the fucking earth before I let them collar you. I will kill before I let them collar you. All right? We’ll go in there, we’ll talk to Wasteland, and we’ll figure it out.

 

“Okay. Okay. Okay. …Okay.” Vera rests her head on the steering wheel for a moment, then lets out a long breath. “Okay. Let’s go.” She unbuckles, opens the door, and walks towards the warehouse in the same way someone might walk down death row.

 

The warehouse is actually one that’s for sale, right now. There’s a nice little cheery sign that says if you’re interested in buying it or leasing, contact this number! Of course the cheery sign has been graffitied with different Human Supremacy or Paranormal Supremacy signs, slogans, and the same with the warehouse itself. There are a few broken windows, but over all, it isn’t something that’s clearly a horror movie waiting to happen. The doors in the front of the warehouse are open, however. Inside, there’s a couple of chairs, clearly for Vera and Pariah if they wish to sit, and in the armored suit, waiting like a statue, is Wasteland. He’s got his arms at this sides, and just looks… patient. Nothing scary, or frightening, despite that he’s a seven foot behemoth in a thousand pounds of armor, and a menacing helmet that the eye’s glow a fierce yellow. “Evening, Pariah. Vera.”

 

Pariah leads. She looks significantly less… grainy than she had at the club. Evidently she’s adapting again, and her substance looks a lot more cohesive and flexible. “Wasteland.”

 

Vera has lost four inches of height, even though she’s still Vera. “…Eve…ning…”

Wasteland holds up his left hand, palm facing them. “First off, I want to say I’m off the books here. My own time, not Freelancer time. Second, no one is recording or listening. My armor’s computer is scanning for anyone who might be listening in via electronic surveillance. Can’t do much about satellite or psychics, however.” He lets his hand drop, and looks from Vera to Pariah.

 

“Second, I want you two to know that whatever I have to say, is just advice. I don’t tell people what to do. I have some concerns, and I thought I should bring them to you. Whatever you do with it, that is up to you. You’re adults, and I’m going to treat you both like that. Okay?”

 

Vera looks left, looks right, and points at herself. “Wait, you know who I am? You’re actually giving me – like, friendly advice? You’re not…” She blinks, clearly unsure. “You’re not calling me Throwaway.”

 

Pariah shifts in place, dull blue eyes glancing between Vera and Wasteland.

Wasteland’s helmet nodded. Underneath the helmet, he grimaced. “Yeah. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone picked that name, it’s a shitty name to call someone. There’s reasons I call myself Wasteland, besides describing what I do to everything around me.” He pauses for breath, and his speakers manage to convey an even gentle tone, despite the mechanical boom.

“And yeah, I know who you are, Vera. I try to make sure I know who everyone is in the Freelancers, plus, you were on the take down team for that asshole, Otto De Fur or whatever the fuck his name was. ‘course I know who you are. And yeah, friendly advice. Free of charge. I ain’t Doc Meda, she’s the one who’s got better advice than me.”  He chuckles, the speakers in his helmet popping slightly.

 

“I guess we’d better hear it, then,” Pariah whispers. She still sounds pretty wary.

 

A tear rolls down Vera’s face, but her thin lips have quirked up into an uneven smile. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Advice. I’m listening.”

Wasteland nods again. “I know you two are roommates at the very least. Vera, I know you’re in the social rehab shithole, like I was a long time ago. Pariah, you’re independent. I know this is personal, but I have to ask. Are you two more than just roommates? Because of what I see on the Blue Bird’s feed, and such, I get worried. Partners in the Detroit Clean up? I’ve been following the police reports, the crime statistics, since you arrived here, Pariah.”

 

Pariah says nothing, managing to keep her already hard-to-read clay face fairly even. She turns slightly, looking over at Vera for a cue. She clearly intended to let the other woman take the lead on this.

 

“…Yeah, we’re uh, together. On a personal and a, uh, professional level.” Vera sniffs and rubs her eyes with her back of her hands. “I uh, guess you figured that out and I’m just confirming it, huh?”

“I think it was only a matter of time,” Pariah whispers. “We’ve become more integral to each other with each day.”

 

“I get that. I do.” The armored man crosses his arms before him, thinking. The metal grinds a little against his chest. “There are multiple reasons I’m worried, ladies. One, if I figured it out, and I’m no rocket surgeon, other people will too. Some jackasses who might turn you in, Vera.” And he looks at Pariah. “And I’m worried about the repercussions that might backlash on you, Pariah. I assume you know about the Social Rehab program, and how Vera can get in trouble. I’m not sure if you’ve thought about how it might hurt you, too. The Freelancers do not take to people using… and I’m using Cheney’s words, not mine, assets, kindly.”

 

“The second thing, is that there are others that use it. Not the public, though we have had some people hack in to find scream at Oathkeeper or yell at Rooster. But enemies might be watching it too. People who might hurt you, both. I’m not trying to say get out of the game, but I am hoping you’re aware of the risks. Like what Anathema did to Oathkeeper’s family. There are monsters out there. And you two have been bringing a war to the Human Supremacists, Pariah, Vera. Things might get nasty.”

 

Pariah nods slowly. “Yeah. We know. I… went into this kind of knowing that living the way I do was basically gambling with my life. I didn’t really expect to… have a partner. This is probably gonna kill us both at some point, and we do know that. But I appreciate you looking out.”

 

“Things might get nasty,” Vera agrees. “We’ll – look at risk mitigation. But… you served your time in the social rehab program. You got out. I’m never getting out. Ever. I can’t live like that. I need to – I have to do something -”

“If we get real, real lucky,” Pariah shakes her head, “maybe we can figure out a way for Vera to ghost. I can’t really imagine we’ll get that far, but I’d rather die in a futile attempt to get her free than watch her stay enslaved for the rest of our lives.”

 

Wasteland pauses for a long time, thinking. “It might look endless, but it isn’t. I know that. And hell, if they say it is permanent, I’ll say it isn’t. I’ll work with you, Vera, on seeing what we can do to get you out.” And his tone goes flat, and angry. Not with them, but in general. “Never say die, you two. Okay? The job we have is risky, violent. But don’t ever, ever expect to die. I’ve seen decent folks start to expect to die, then they turn towards seeking out the man with the scythe.” He takes a deep breath, relaxing. “I want you two to keep hope. And yeah, keep working with each other. Can’t do something smart, do something right.”

 

Pariah smiles slightly. “Well. Vera’s the only reason I haven’t done that already.”

 

Vera is now openly crying, even though she’s all smiles. “Yeah, yeah. I’m on board. Okay. We’ll – we’ll figure something out.”

“Cool. If things do get nasty, or if you need back up, let me know. I’ll be there ASAP.”

 

He pauses, then looks outside. “I’ve gotta get back, Bowman’s wondering if I go a little hotter. Y’ think the guy would learn after nearly putting a hole through his precious bunker…” He chuckles, and nods at Vera, and Pariah. “Stay safe, ladies. Keep up the good work.”

 

“I – I know you got the suit, but could I – I mean, can you hug, or can I hug -”

Wasteland pauses, as he was heading towards the door. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Just, careful. I’m somewhat pointy and such.” The suit is warm, but not uncomfortably so. Hotter than human temperature.

 

Pariah goes in for the hug too, wrapping around both Vera and Wasteland. She whispers, “see, love? Sometimes other folks actually give a shit.”

 

Then, after a moment, she whispers, “by the way, Wasteland? My name’s Mariah. And… thanks.”

 

Where There’s Smoke: A Friendly Favor

MICHAEL CHENEY’S OFFICE

ARCHAVEN

 

If there was one good thing about Michael Cheney, it was that he was predictable. The man followed the rules when it came to appointments and open door hours. And so, the great suit of armour containing Wasteland found itself sitting in a comically large chair in Cheney’s office.

 

“So,” Cheney said, flipping a fountain pen between his fingers. “You wanted to see me? You’re normally a self sufficient agent.”

“Yes, sir. I wanted to talk about one of our agents in the Social Rehabilitation program. Vera Newman, AKA Throwaway.” He shifts slightly, feeling like he is towering over Cheney even in the super sized chair. “I’d like to know more. She did some good work helping with Otto De Fe, standing up to the guy, knowing he could immolate her in a snap of his fingers.”

 

“We discovered Newman under some… unusual circumstances. She had been on our radar for a while, doing celebrity impersonations and racking up a good deal of cash. Nothing too terrible, and I can respect someone with that kind of business sense. She bought a few houses, I thought that’d be the end of it… And then she made that tape.”

“I understand. A large mistake. I understand that put her quite in debt in years towards the social rehabilitation program. However, from what I’ve seen from my interactions with her on and off the field, I believe she’s made progress. I was wondering if I would be able to help her with that rehabilitation.” The speakers boomed loudly in the little office, and Wasteland winced. He turned the volume down just a tad.

 

“Help her?” Cheney’s eyebrows rose. “Well. You have to understand, acts have values, yes? You paid off your rehabilitation quite quickly, as you’re… well, one of a kind. Newman, though, is of… limited use in the field. She could take a bullet to the heart, for instance, and our investment would be ruined. We’re keeping her in… low-risk scenarios.”

“ Of course, sir. Actions to consequences, and generating the maximum gain. In the field of combat, sir, perhaps.” He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.  “But I’m not sure the Freelancers are using her shapeshifting talent to the best investment, to use your vernacular. In my time in… other situations, sir, that I obviously cannot discuss, there would have been a good use for greater intelligence. Situations like Otto De Fe, while helpful, aren’t key. But intelligence assets are.”

 

“You think we can trust her enough to bump her up the ladder, give her a promotion, get her into work that’d allow her to pay off her debt to society?” Cheney asked, one eyebrow staying high and the other dropping.

 

Wasteland paused again, thinking. He was a soldier, not a politician. He had to use his field of advantage. “Sir, you didn’t see her when she stood up to that maniac. She was scared, sure. But she didn’t let it control her. She acted, and then when it came time to get down and let others handle it, she did so. No wild heroics. No cowardice. Professional and straight to the point. I have a hunch, sir, and they usually pay off. I think we should give her a chance, to really make a difference, and pay off that debt.”

 

“I see.” Cheney said, and there was a pregnant pause. “You would take responsibility for Throwaway, then? I assume if we found anything that… jeopardized her employment, you’d be able to take responsibility for that?”

“I would take responsibility, sir.” He didn’t hesitate. If it got thrown under the bus, so would he. He felt in his bones, burning and irradiated that they were, that Pariah and Vera were doing the right thing. While the smart thing would be to bail and leave them to their fate, it wasn’t in him. If anything, fighting the human supremacist movement, supporting independents, and in general keeping the peace should be seen as a good AND profitable thing. But he couldn’t say that to Cheney. He was certain that if it came to light, Cheney could spin it so that it was a Freelancer outreach program, designed for better policing and peacekeeping. But Vera would never be free.

 

He nodded to the man, accepting it. “Also, she’s going to need a better codename. We’re Freelancers. The best of the best. Not trash.”

 

“…” Cheney watched him for a moment, and then broke out into another big grin. “Loving this enthusiasm and initiative, Wasteland. This is exactly what I want to see from our agents. Go ahead and set up a new codename with Newman, get her ready for jobs. As I always say, the less agents we have in social rehabilitation, the better.”

You have never heard Cheney say that, ever.

 

Wasteland blinked behind his helmet. That wasn’t… what. That…. oh shit. Well, time to ramp up the paranoia. Check everything. Make sure that Cheney and anyone else didn’t have anything on him, at all. Clean the history from his suit. Delete the porn…. well maybe not the porn. He’s pretty sure Cheney doesn’t care about that…. delete it anyway, just in case.

 

“Really? Thank you, sir. I’ll let her know. I’m sure she’ll enjoy a new codename.” And make triple clear that none of the Freelancers have anything on Vera or Pariah, at all. Kill Solomon Swift. Wait, that’s just a daydream. “Thank you for your help, I’ll forward you any new details and ideas I have for jobs across your desk first, of course.” He rises from his chair, and offers a metal gauntlet to Cheney.

 

Instead of shaking, Cheney bumps his own knuckles against Wasteland’s metal ones. “Good talk, Wasteland. Can’t wait to see how this turns out.”

 

“Uh… yes sir. Got a good feeling.” He nods, and shuffles around the giant chair, and out the door. It’s kinda awkward, being this big in an office.

 

Between a Rock and the Anvil

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 -”

Vera scowls.

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?”

“Foam string?

 

“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…”

Tennessee Brawlin’

Tennessee Brawlin’

Memphis, Tennessee

 

It was his 48th hour of being awake, and Wasteland was… weary. Not really sleepy, he never really felt sleepy anymore, but just weary. People partying was all well and good, but for every ten there was one that just had to make everything worse.

 

Fifty seven arrests, three murders, one mass poisoning, eighteen overdoses, and now this. A gang had started lighting cop cars on fire, and at least one was shooting more fireballs at other cop cars. All in the name of celebrating.

 

When he got to the Main Street, the place looked a bit like a warzone. More cars were on fire, and a few people looked injured. Up ahead on the street, there were a number of guys and girls walking in the middle of the street, laughing and drinking, all wearing a similar backwards cap. Assholes.

 

Wasteland tapped his comm. “Corey, Rooster, got a gang walking up Main Street. Unknown paranormals, they’ve cleared out most of the street and are heading North. Going to engage soon, ETA?”

 

“ETA three minutes,” came Corey’s even voice.

 

“Five or so for me – can you hold down the fort?” Rooster asked.

 

“Yeah, I got this. Pretty sure.” Wasteland cracked his neck and headed towards the gang, and turned his speakers up to 11.

 

OKAY, You guys in the caps! Stop what you’re doing, got some questions for you!” Wasteland shouted as he came up the street. The gang turned, and kinda laughed. Most of them were apparently drunk, high, or both. A few were clearly paranormal, or into body modification.

 

Their leader, a big, muscular guy in the center who looked like he’d gotten too many piercings in his face for his skin to handle, yelled, “Yo, asshole, ain’t answerin’ no quesstionss! We’re havin’ FUN. Party o’ the century, man!” And then he raised his hand, and it.. Changed, to some kind of iron hammer, and slammed down onto the pavement, cracking it. “Don’ fuck with uss, man!”

 

“Yeah!’ “Fuck you!’ Came the chorus of replies. A few other paranormals, one kid’s hair lit on fire, a girl turned to ice, and another girl started flickering like she was unstable. Wasteland sighed. Goddammit.

 

“That’s destruction of proper-” The girl who flickered suddenly was by his side, and touched him. Blue red lightning coursed through his body and armor as a thunderbolt hit him. “FUCK YOU, COP.”

 

Wasteland went to one knee, armor sizzling and crackling from the overcharge. “Ow. Guys, gonna need some help, here.”

 

There a hum of jets. A rifle crack. And the girl went down with a scream, clutching her blown out knee

 

“I’m here.”

 

Corey was hovering in the air some few hundred meters away. There was a blaze as he shifted diagonally. The long muzzle of his rifle could be seen.

 

“Shit!” Shouted the big guy, and the rest of the gang went into action. Well, some of them. A few heard the rifle shot, and scattered, tossing their caps to the wind. The girl was down, crying and trying to put her knee back together.

 

Fire head guy unleashed a fireball at Corey, traveling at a decent speed for a fireball. The girl with the blue hair pointed, and spears of ice sprayed towards him. There was another, shorter girl who stood back, and watched, a smile on her face, as the big guy came lumbering after Wasteland, who was still restarting his systems. “Ah, damn, this is gonna hurt.”

 

From a side street came a blur topped with red and platinum blonde. Rooster barrelled into the big guy at right angles, checking him with her shoulder. “Fuck!” she shouted as they hit the ground.

 

There was a loud CLANG as Rooster checked him, and his fists, and hell, the rest of the guy, turned into what looked like solid steel. His hands were hammers, though. Kinda odd. He shook off the hit, blinking, and then took a few drunken swings after Rooster. “FUCK YOU, BITCH.”

 

Wasteland was back to his feet. “Dumb kids.” He sighed, and pointed a finger at the ice girl and fire guy, and a wave of heat, only a few hundred degrees, blasted towards them. The ice gal yelled in pain, but the fire guy looked dumbly at Wasteland, distracted. The girl far in the back, wiggled her fingers, and a few stones started flying at Rooster and Corey and Wasteland. Okay, chunks of concrete, but still.

 

Corey dodged the fireball by just cutting his jets and dropping a few feet. He’d raised his rifle back to his shoulder and was taking aim when a chunk of concrete barrelled into him just as he was about to restart his jets.

 

A startled “!!!!” sounded across the comms but Corey quickly recovered, kicking in the jets in his boots for a rough landing.

More concrete comes after Corey in flying waves, while Wastleland ambles up to the fire and ice duo. He does a soft (For him) roundhouse to the stomach, and flame head goes down, coughing and gasping for air. Ice girl withstood it, and glared, but even behind the drunkenness she put up her hands, and sank to her feet. “Givin’ up, this ain’ worth it.”

 

Rooster kept grappling the steel kid, grunting as his sloppy hammer fists hit her back. “Fuck you right back, kid. What is your fucking problem?” She tried to put him in a hold, while shouting, “Hey, Wastey, y’alright?”

 

“Yeah, I’m good, hadda reset after Lightning gal. How’re you doin’ with the Iron Dork over there?” Said Iron Dork was a terrible, terrible fighter, smelled of cheap whiskey, and was easily put in a hold. He squirmed and shouted and yelled much more mean things to Rooster. One or two vicious kicks to her, but nothing really with much force, considering the hold. Until a block of concrete comes careening after her head.

“Gah, shit! Corey, you okay?” Wasteland headed after the concrete chucker.

 

“I’m fine.” Corey shows no sign of stress as he deftly dodged the chunks of concrete. He gained height, and looked like he was going to head after the telekinetic when he noticed that Wasteland had the situation in hand.

 

A piece of concrete thudded against the back of Rooster’s skull. “Unh!” She tumbled forward, trapping her opponent under her momentarily as she regained her bearings. “The fuck …” She pushed herself upright, keeping the kid’s arm twisted behind his back. “You got a telekinetic on your shitty little team?” She glanced around for the source of the flying rocks – anyone touching two fingers to a temple, or gesturing around wildly?

 

That’s just it, the girl in the back is JUST chucking concrete, with her hands spread out, and she’s laughing wildly, drunkenly, and probably high as a kite. “I’m gonna be the next badass on the block! Takin’ out Freelancers! I’m the MOTHER FUCKIN’ CONCRETE CHU.. CHUCKER. YEAH.” She shouts, as Wasteland barrels up to her… except a large barrel of concrete underneath the street surges up, and she goes flying.

 

“I’m best fuckin’ concrete paranormal ever!” She shouts!

 

Wasteland blinks as the girl is suddenly airborne.

 

Rooster watches her soar and sighs. “Wastey, I don’t think this kid is a threat to anyone but himself right now. Time for a fastball special?”

 

There’s an echoing sigh from Corey and blaze of white armour as the Stormcore streaks out to grab the girl in midair.

 

He lands, shortly after, holding the girl up by the ankle. “So. Police?”

 

Wasteland chuckles. “Next time, Rooster. Our fastball just happened to be Stormcore.” There’s more cursing from the guy that Rooster is holding. “Police, I think.”

PR Dream

News Flash! A giant crab emerged from the Delaware River and is attacking downtown Philadelphia. So far, the great red crustacean has broken into three banks, one vape shop and two sandwich bars. Local police are unable to stop the beast and the army has been called in-

 

“A giant crab? Well.. that’s interesting.” He checked his To-Do list, and found his time free enough, as he was soaring over the East Coast anyway. He double checked his coordinates, and altered his flight to Philly, reviewing what the giant crab had already attacked. Three banks, a vape shop, and two… sandwich bars. Huh. Alien, maybe? Go figure.

 

The roar of his jet pack screamed a little louder as he fed more energy into it, and headed at maximum velocity to Philadelphia. He’d be there shortly, and started tuning into police reports about the strange creature.

 

“It’s going down South Street,” says one harried officer on the radio. “And it’s breaking into another vape store.”

 

“You kidding me?”

 

“Bob, I wish I were. It’s out, and heading towards the river now.”

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me….” Wasteland says to himself as he changes his flight again. Now burning hot over the City of Brotherly Love (hah!), he follows the reports and Google Flight Maps to the vape store near the Delaware river.

 

“This is Wasteland. Officers, please pull back just in case. I’ve got a visual, and coming in fast.” Wasteland lands with a thunderous crash onto the asphalt near the river and the vape store, looking around.

 

The Crab sidestepped out of the building, long eyestalks twisted and pointed at Wasteland. It was a large creature, in that bright orange red of a cooked crustacean. It was big enough to look Wasteland in the eyemask, and wide enough that it couldn’t actually enter a single wide door. But it’s pincers could. These were two big claws that you knew would be full of the sweetest crab meat…and were also armoured with thick plates. The thing chitttered softly then experimentally began to move cautiously away from Wasteland.

 

“All right, crabby. Just stop right there. No whoop whoop or fighting, or I’ll turn you into Red Lobster’s dish of the Month. Okay?” Wasteland started heading towards the giant crab thing, wondering how it could move. Oh well, death to the Square/Cube law. He really hoped this thing just gave up. Even so, he approached warily, watching those giant claws. Where the heck was it putting all the stuff it had stolen?

 

The Crab suddenly charged forward in a sideways skitter and a large spray of thick foam shot out from it’s mouth. It covered Wasteland in entirety before it made a quick skittering getaway. The foam soon thickened into a horrible stringy and gooey mess.

 

“Did you… you just String Shot me? You’re a fuckin’ POKEMON?!” The speakers were muffled slightly from beneath the goo. The gooey mess wasn’t really much of a problem, as his armor heated up to a nice cool one thousand degrees C. The goo might have just… burst into flames and ash. “Oh you’re so under arrest. And dinner. Possibly dinner.” The burning suit of armor charged after the crab thing, with a flaming right hook towards its center of mass. “I told you, No, Zoidberg!”

 

The Crab yelled out a startled oath and started jumping away, crushing cars as it escaped. It sounded really heavy. And hey, crabs can’t move like that.

 

Wasteland paused, tilted his head, sighed. “Seriously? Are you just a guy in a crab suit? That’s even worse. Why not zoidberg? This is why.” And Wasteland charged again, this time waiting until it was on a car, then in the air between the car, aiming a vicious stomp towards one of the crab’s leg joint. “Seriously, give up, you’re just racking up more charges for yourself, man.”

 

The leg went down! But he had seven more. Crab dude swung the crab around to flail at Wasteland. “Hey, dude, just let me go, ‘kay? Like, this crab is really expensive!”

 

Wasteland gets WHANGED by the crab arm. “Gah, sunuvabitch!” He shook it off, though, and stalked back towards the crab. “Are you in there, or just remote piloting it? I gotta know if I’m gonna boil you alive or not.” Wasteland tried to grab one of the claws, trying to get leverage on the goddamn thing. Rooster’s wrestling moves were actually coming in handy, for once.

 

“Don’t boil me alive! Don’t boil me alive! I’m just a dude, okay! I’ve not even paid off this machine!” More thick foamy stuff spat out at Wasteland, this time in his face. One claw in Wasteland’s grip, the other claw started banging at Wasteland’s hand.

 

“Well, you’re clearly resisting arrest. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the leeway us Freelancers get when folks resist arrest. I mean, you saw that Otto De Fe video, right? That was me, man.” Ow. Ow. Ow. The crab suit was damned strong, and now a face full of the string shot. He kinda hoped no one was filming this, as the suit helmet heated up again to extreme temperatures, the goo sizzling and burning as it touched the helmet. Wasteland made a grab for the other claw, trying to put as much muscle as he could into it, to render the crab claws and the pincers useless. Oh, look, another leg. He waited a moment, and attempted to take a cheap shot at the crab suit joint. “Okay, either I keep calling you Zoidberg, which is gonna be another charge on you, or do you have a name or something?” This guy was really, really bad at fighting, but his crappy handling made it even more random for Wasteland to try and get enough leverage to tear the crab claws off.

 

There was one last sad sprut of foam. It dribbled down the crab suit’s mouth. There was a little struggle but the guy inside seemed to be sobbing. “Ah ah I thought I could call myself Cancer. Like move up the big leagues. Ah ah….” And Cancer just folded downwards.

“Ah… huh.” It didn’t register in his brain for a second, until after a moment. “I just wrestled, and punched out, Cancer. Oh god. That’s…. I don’t even…” Wasteland started laughing, quietly, then realized that the guy had given up. He stopped attempting to rip apart the suit. “Okay, hee.. Hee… heh. Okay, Cancer. Dude. Uh, come out of the suit, and give up, all right? This really wasn’t worth it, right?” Wasteland seemed to be having a hard time breathing. “Hokay. Giving up? Don’t make this worse for you, dude.”

 

“Hokay, hokay…I’m getting out.” The top shell of the crab popped open and Cancer, a skinny dude that looked wayyyy too much like Shaggy from Scooby Doo crawled out. “Hokay, I give up.” He wiped his nose, squinted up at Wasteland, then turned and started legging it.

 

Wasteland sighed. In his suit, he could get up to sixty miles an hour without trying. This kid was probably barely making fifteen miles an hour. The suit started thundering after Cancer. “Y’know, I did warn you….” As he came up behind Cancer fairly quickly, and swung a left handed love tap of a punch. Pulled it enough to hurt, but not nearly as much force as he could throw at the kid.

 

“Owwww!” Cancer wailed. “Okay okay I gives up for reals!” He clutched his arm. “I just wanted some sandwiches, you know.”

 

“And some money from the banks, and stuff from the vape stores….” He isn’t distracted by laughing now, as he brings the skinny kid down with a standard police take down, wrapping the kid’s arms behind him and putting him face first into the asphalt/concrete. “You’re under arrest, you have the right to…” Wasteland continues reading the kid his rights, as he holds the kids wrists with one hand, and pulls out a set of zip tie cuffs with the other, binding the kid down. He activates the police band radio. “Suspect in custody. Codenamed: Cancer, real name unknown. The crab suit is about fifty yards back from my position.” He shuts off the police radio, then starts laughing again as he hauls the kid back up. “Shit, I gotta tweet about this. I just beat Cancer. Me. Good god, this is making my brain hurt.”

 

Cancer is securely handed into custody then you get a call. It’s Cheney. You answer it and he’s laughing too much to form words.

 

:”Uh, sir? You there?” There’s a few chuckles from Wasteland as well. This day has been surreal.

 

“Okay, I’m here.” Cheney heaves a couple of times. “You did good there, Wasteland. This is a PR Dream. Wasteland Beats Cancer. Oh god, that kid. Anyway, good job.”

 

“Thanks sir. Going back to patrol. Glad I could assist.” He lets out one last chortle, before blasting off into the sky. ((Scene)) ((scene!))

The Cult of Midnight: Crowd Control

TWIN FALLS, IDAHO

THE OUTSKIRTS OF THE CITY

“I’m not going to lie to either of you. This isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Anathema’s mind control is complete, total, and they will attack to protect her.” General DeGeurr looked up from map of the city. “Our job is to keep them off of the Legion. And annoyingly, we can’t resort to lethal means. Not after some of the… public relations incidents we’ve incurred lately.”

Wasteland nodded to DeGeurr. “Understandable, sir. Uhm. Sorry.” Wasteland seemed embarrassed, as he checked and rechecked his suit. “Been working with some of the scientists, have some non lethal equipment additions.”

 

Rooster scanned the map. “Do we know what kind of opposition we’re facing? Any serious paras? Are they armed? Or is she just sending waves of cannon fodder?”

 

“Anathema had two Paranormal agents that we know about. Both of them are in protective custody. This is purely civilian forces, being used to delay until she can wipe out the Legion. But they’ll likely be armed with whatever’s at hand.”

“Who’re the Legionnaires we’ll be coordinating with?”

 

“Civvy guns, not too bad.” Wasteland said, then looked to Rooster, nodding. Good question.

 

“Oathkeeper, the AI unit they call Scanner, and their black ops unit. Oathkeeper’s just the muscle. She’ll be on the scene, but our main point of contact will be Emi Surikabe.”

CODEX UNLOCKED: Emi Surikabe. A shadow warrior hailing from Japan, Emi served with the Legion for over a decade before retiring with a knee injury. Those in the know suspect she never retired at all, merely repositioned to the Legion’s black ops unit. Only a few people are aware that she is still an active assassin and spy, working around the world to carry out whatever must be done for the Legion.


“She’s good. Good to know.” Wasteland said, quietly, looking at the map. “Anything snags or surprises from our intel? And numbers, if we know?”

 

“We’re dealing with tens of thousands of people. As for the nature of this mission… The city, and it’s population, move like an organic being. They are not individuals, not until Anathema is down. They are part of her will, and act accordingly.”

“Christ.” Says wasteland, softly. “That’s a lot of people.”

 

Rooster sucks her teeth. “So. We keep the whole city off the Legion’s back … until what? Do we know their mission success parameters?”

 

“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened. Anathema had the city under her control back in the early 2000’s. Once she’s down and out, her subjects are released. We’re playing the stalling game. And then once the Legion acquire her, we’ll be escorting her into a Freelancer prison, as per the terms of our agreement.”

“Roger that. There could be a couple of good choke points, here, here… and one fall back one here, I think. Help prevent most of the numbers from getting to her, and overwhelming us.” Wasteland points on the map, thinking.

 

HALF AN HOUR LATER –

 

They had battled their way through Twin Falls to reach Wasteland’s chokepoint of choice. Each building had been perfectly arranged to look normal at a glance, but there were no signs of use. It was like moving through a perfectly arranged dollhouse.

At first, no one had noticed the massive suit of armour and Rooster moving through the city. That had been unusual at once. People had just kept their head down to sweep, or mindlessly opened and closed the cash register.

 

And then, all at once, there had been a shriek, a scrambling for weapons…

 

Now, one civilian had leapt on Rooster’s back, winding an arm around her neck in an attempt to choke her. Each side of the alley was filled with innocent people, eyes glowing a bright amethyst.

 

Rooster grunted and slammed her back into a wall to knock her assailant off. “Damn, I was hoping she wouldn’t notice us the whole time.” More people surged towards her and she flung them away from her.

 

Wasteland moved to cover her, his gauntlets snap cracking with electricity. Not full power, but enough to stun a normal human for a good amount of time…. At least, he hoped. It was Bowman’s stuff, and he was really good, but you never knew with people sometimes. The mind control might make them tougher.

 

So as another one attempted to jump on Rooster, he reached out, poking him. There was a loud ZAP and the mind controlled man fell back against the wall. Zap, zap, zap. But they just kept coming. “Would have been nice, right? You’re just too famous, Rooster.”

“Hey, I’m happy to give autographs,” she laughed, dealing someone a gut punch. As she did, a crowbar swung for her skull, but she blocked it with a thick forearm. “Wish they wouldn’t bring their own pens, though!”

 

BUZZAP! Go the gauntlets, and a baseball bat cracks off Wasteland’s armor. He probably didn’t even notice, but the gauntlet goes BUZZAP again on that guy, as well. “Well, you know, they are Anathema’s minions. Classy ain’t a thing. Handgun to your right.” Wasteland zaps another guy coming in, as a pile of them try to grab onto his arms and legs, attempting to restrict his movement.

 

The mind controlled man looks up at Wasteland, eyes gleaming violet once his body stops convulsing from the shake.


“You’re a monster in a suit,” hisses a woman’s voice. “You think you’re a hero?”

Spotting the gun, Rooster vaults forward to grapple the woman holding it. “Be careful with that thing,” she says, grabbing the woman’s gun hand and trying to disarm her.

 

“Nope,” says Wasteland, casually. “Just a mercenary, doin’ a job. Shit.” That last part was as a guy tried to wrap his arms around Wasteland’s helmet, before getting tagged by the taser Gauntlets. “You good, Rooster?”

 

She pulls the handgun away. “Yeah, no worries! Let me just …” She starts emptying its clip one-handed, doing her best to shove people off of her with the other. “Don’t want this thing going off in this crowd …”

 

“Totally. Oh, hey, look, I’m getting a group Anathema hug. Gonna need to wash the suit after this, bleh.” He manages to shock a few more people on him, tossing them away. A knife clinks off his armor, then a crowbar…. And a mop? “… I just got mopped. Double U Tee Eff.”

 

From above, there’s the hiss of heated oil and the stench of what smells like gasoline. A few drops hit the concrete at your feet, and there’s the sound of struggle from up on the roof.

 

“… that can’t be good.” Rooster discards the unloaded gun, pockets the bullets, and cranes her neck up.

 

A group of mind controlled civilians are attempting to scorch both of you – and their fellow civilians – with boiling oil from above.

 

If nothing else, Anathema is creative.

 

“Damn. Wastey, can I get a boost? I gotta get on that roof.”

 

“Sure thing. On three, alley oop!” Wasteland counted quickly, as more mind controlled Civilians rushed them. He got his arms free, and Rooster ran up towards him, as he pivoted so that his back was towards the oil group, holding his hands down to boost. Rooster jumped up, a little hop, landed one foot in his hands, and Wasteland heaved Rooster up as she jumped. She should have more than enough air to hop onto the building with the Hot Oil Civvies. “Rooster Hop is a go.” He laughed, from down below, as he dealt with another wave. BUZZAP!

 

Her landing shook the roof. She winced, seeing the hot oil splash onto the people maneuvering it. “Fuck mind control.”

 

The civilians move from the oil – which is clearly something that requires time and concerted effort – and move to Rooster. There are about thirty of them, all moving as one cohesive unit. Some of them throw themselves at her legs, others try to circle around to jump on her back.

 

“Your mother was right.” one of them hisses at her side.

 

She becomes a blur of limbs, hitting people in the guts and groin as they near her. “What the fuck do you care, Anathema?”

 

“Oooh, a polearm! That’s original!” Comes a shout from below, along with more Buzz Zaps from the gauntlets. “Well, you duct taped a knife to a broom handle. Somewhat original.”

 

“I’m just trying to help,” the female voice coos. “I know that you’re lonely. I know you miss having a family. Let me help you. Let me in.”

Rooster makes a retching noise as she grabs a man off her back and tosses him aside. She makes her way to the oil. “Wastey, what the fuck do you think we can do with a literal vat of boiling oil? Got any huge grease traps?”

 

“Been meaning to try this new recipe I read about online a few weeks ago!” He calls up to her. “But other than that, not sure. Did DeGuerr say we weren’t allowed to destroy property? Can’t remember.” ZAP!

 

“Maybe dump it on the building and hop back down? It’ll make it tough for anyone to get on top there for a while. Wait, we’re in Idaho, maybe find some potatoes. Fries for everyone after the mind control- ZAP ZAP- wears off.” The zaps are coming a bit quicker.

 

Rooster wraps her arms around the pot of oil. “Here goes nothing …” She takes a running leap for the edge of the roof, jumping to a roof hopefully not occupied by mind-controlled mooks. Some oil undoubtedly spills out on her way, hitting the people on the roof or in the alley, but she’s able to pour most of it out onto the empty roof once she arrives.

 

The oil bubbles and hisses on the empty rooftop. The cultists on the other roof amble to the edge, and it looks for a moment as if they might jump

 

Then they hesitate.


DeGeurr sounds off in your ears. “Callister Rayne is on the scene. I… don’t know how this variable will affect the civilians. Mission parameters have not changed.”

“Christ. Roger that. Is he helping us or her?” ZAP. “Goddammit, they’re just not stopping, down here.” ZAP.

 

“We… don’t know, yet.” DeGeurr says.

 

Another voice pipes in. A woman. Wasteland recognized her – Scanner. “I think she’s starting to waver. Try to talk to them. Maybe you can… stop the fighting. Please. Try talking to them.”

“Roger. Will attempt… uh… negotiating.” I really should have learned how to negotiate. He thought.

 

“Oh, hey… folks… calm down… uh… we’re just here to keep you from hurting yourselves. We don’t want any trouble, okay? Just…. Easy, all right? You’ve all suffered enough.”

 

One of the civilians in the front staggers to a stop, the left side of his face badly bruised. “Suffers?” He asks, questioningly.

 

Rooster makes her way to the edge of the building and starts climbing down the side.

 

“Uh, yeah. You’ve all been… working under Anathema for a while… but you don’t have to. You don’t have to listen to her, anymore, you know? We’re here to help you, if we can.” He keeps talking, and just… doesn’t fight the remaining civilians. It isn’t like they can really hurt him… but he doesn’t want to let any of them past to help Anathema…. Crap.

 

Rooster reaches the ground and joins back in with pushing the crowd back. “You’re not part of her and you don’t belong to her. You’re human beings and you don’t have to do this.”

 

More of the civilians begin to blink. The purple light in their eyes start to dim, and then fade.


“Where am I?”

“This isn’t anywhere near my work…”

“I remember… a church service?”

Rooster meets Wasteland’s “eyes”. Quietly, she says, “Do you think this is for real, or is it Anathema pulling back to trick us?”

 

“No idea,” he says quietly back. “But, they’re not all trying to get past us again.” Louder, he says. “Yeah, folks. Rest easy, all right? I’m Wasteland, this is Rooster. We’re here to help you. You were under mind control, okay?”

 

He raises his hands. “If you all could put the weapons down, and just… relax for a bit, we will get you all as much help as we can.”

 

Over the radio, he says. “Talking seems to be working. The influence seems to be fading.”

 

Most of them hardly seemed to realize they were holding weapons. Pipes and knives and a few guns clatter to the ground, and the civilians slowly sit.

“Rooster?” One woman asked, a teenager with a bloody lip. “Aren’t you… famous?”

Rooster smiles and gives a little wave. “Hi, yep. I’m the Rooster. The Freelancers and the Legion are working together to take Anathema down and save you.” She opens a pocket and pulls out a small first-aid kit. “Wastey probably has more supplies, more storage space in his suit, but – anyone need first aid?”

 

“You’re just jealous of my massive amount of pockets, Rooster,” Wasteland snarks at her. He does, actually, have a very large first aid kit that pops out of a thigh hatch. He raises his voice. “Also, folks, if we could do a quick check, make sure that no one has purple glowing eyes, all right? Everyone please stay calm, and we will get this sorted out.”

 

He goes to help those who need the most help, and begins relaying the situation over the radio. “Sir, ma’am, I can also take to the air and see if this is more widespread, or just our section, but it seems like everything has calmed down. No obvious Anathema influence anymore….”

 

She starts passing out band-aids and NSAIDs and generally checking in on people.

After tending to the civilians the best you can with the equipment you have on hand, DeGeurr’s voice pops up again.

 

“Anathema has been… neutralized. She is alive, on the roof of Baker’s Pharmacy, a few streets down. The Legion will help you bring her in from there.”

“Roger that.  Shall we, Rooster? Biggest super villain in pretty much history, right there.” Wasteland chuckles, as he finishes bandaging one nasty gash on a older lady. He stands, and checks the map in his suit. Oh, good, not too hard to get there.

 

Rooster stretches and cracks her knuckles. “Let’s go.”

 

Wasteland nods, and together, the two biggest badasses of the Freelancers head to Baker’s Pharmacy.

 

There’s a horrific sight on the roof. Oathkeeper is standing vigil over Emi Surikabe, whose knees have been nearly destroyed in the fight. Anathema is curled up at the paladin’s feet, sobbing racking, hideous sobs.

 

“Christ.” He looks to Oathkeeper. “We good here? Evac needed?” He’s used most of his first aid stuff, but looks at the very strange sight….

 

“First vessel took Nat and Callister away.” Alice says. “We’re waiting for a secure transport for… for… Hyacinth.”

All business, Rooster responds, “What about you and Ms. Surikabe? Do you have transport to the Legionnaire hospital ready?”

 

“Right.” Wasteland cautiously moves towards Alice and Hyacinth and Emi, taking out a pair of flex cuffs. “We can get ‘lancer medivac here quick if you guys are stretched thin.”

 

Alice looks at the Freelancers and pauses for a moment. “I’m staying with Emi.” she finally said. “Can I trust the two of you to get Anath- Hyacinth to the Freelancers?”

“Sure thing.” Rooster hits the comm button and relays the situation.

 

Wasteland pauses, and something very dark rears its head inside him. The worst goddamn person in the world, helpless. He shakes his head, slightly, dispelling the dark thoughts, before putting Hyacinth in the flex cuffs. “We got this. Get your people to help, ASAP.” Wasteland says, as he drags Anathema up with one hand.

 

Alice nods, slowly scooping Emi up in her arms. She takes a few steps, and there’s the soft hum of the Legion craft arriving.

 

Once the Legion is gone, Anathema looks up at Wasteland, face streaked with tears. Her eyes are… gray. Just gray.

 

Her lips quirk up into a smile for just a second.


“You could do it.” She whispers. “You can be the hero you want to be. The ends justify the means, don’t they?”

Rooster puts a hand on Wasteland’s shoulder. “Is she talking to you, man?”

 

Wasteland stares hard at Anathema. He can’t feel that hand on his shoulder, but he knows it’s there. Wrong and right. Good and Evil.

 

She was so evil. She had done so much to hurt so many people. She would do a lot more, a lot worse, if she ever got out again. She’d kill so many. She’d hurt so many already. And the Fire says to him, consume. Consume. Consume her life. Do it.

 

But Rooster’s voice cuts through the darkness. His voice is a little rough, at first, but it clears up quickly. “Just…. Stupid things.”

 

He looks up to the sky, awaiting the Freelancer transport. “Her eyes are grey. Does that mean she doesn’t have her powers anymore? Didn’t think that could happen to folks.” He says to Rooster.

 

“Maybe she’s burnt out? I know this may be news to you, Mr. Never-Ending Nuke, but getting beat half to death takes it out of some people.”

 

“Says the girl who makes Abram’s tanks look like slackers in taking a hit and dishing it out.” Wasteland laughs. “Well, here’s hoping it stays grey. Makes life easier on the rest of us. Oh, and you have the right to remain silent..” Says Wastey to Anathema, just in case. Reading the woman her rights.

 

“You still don’t know, do you?” Anathema’s voice has confidence now. “You don’t know what powers me. What powers her. You don’t know.” She throws her head back and laughs over her rights. “If you don’t stop me, I will keep going.”

“God, villain gloating. Why d’ya think they do it, Wastey? Like, do they really think that shit works on us?”

 

Wasteland shrugs. “Ego. Everyone’s got one, they just gotta keep feeding it. Like a never ending monster. And no, you won’t, silly. Besides, guess what. Everyone knows you’re a has been, now.” Great job, Wastey, taunt the mind controlling monster lady.

Anathema just smiled. “You need me. They’ll keep me alive until that’s not true anymore. And I’ll get out again. Unless…”

Her eyes searched Rooster’s face, and Wasteland’s posture, hoping for some sign of progress.

 

Rooster frowned. “Sorry, lady, we’re not buying what you’re selling.”

 

“You might not,” she admits. “But… what’s his name, again? Mister Cheney? He will.”

She scoffs. “You’re going into custody, and then you’re going to trial. You’re not getting a private meeting with the big brass.”

 

A last ditch effort: “We’ll see.”

The Freelancer transport nears, lifting up into sight from behind a building.

 

Wasteland stays quiet for the whole time. He waits. But when Anathema mentions Cheney, wasteland does look at Rooster. Wheels are turning in the suited man’s head.

 

“Let’s get going.”

 

Outreach: The Slip Up

ARCHAVEN

BLACK OPS STAFF LOCKERS

 

There were over twelve thousand possible combinations to open the combination lock Vera Newman kept on her locker in the corner of the black ops staff and prep room. She had taken the smallest locker, in the corner, since she wasn’t expected to bring gear – all she needed was her face. Well, her collection of faces.


Twelve thousand possible combinations might have been a problem to someone else, but Solomon Swift’s fingers span adroitly around the dial. Three thousand and four… Four thousand ten…

 

Click.

 

He eased the locker door open. Quietly, quietly.

 

Wasteland was already in a mood. His Black Ops mentor and friend, Trick, was in the medical center. Doctors said it could go either way. His bad luck powers had overcompensated against a bad guy, and the guy’s whole string of grenades had gone off, catching Trick in the blast as well. Mission accomplished, sure, but an operative was down, possibly done.

 

The rest of the guys had met for a quiet drink, to tell a few stories. The usual stuff. His armor was in quiet mode, for now. Every Black Operative knew that Wasteland could move very, very quietly when he wanted to. It was a misdirection, part of a big plan to make him seem like a big ol’ tank that couldn’t drive straight if his life depended on it.

 

He put a hand on the locker room door, and paused. Goddammit, Trick. He knew better than to use his powers around explosives.

 

Solomon heard the door open and took a breath, slowly easing Vera’s locker door shut with the present inside. He managed to get just enough distance between the locker and him that he could look somewhat casual, a little less suspicious. Who was interrupting him? Hopefully it wouldn’t be –

 

Wasteland looked up, saw someone inside already. And then his eyes narrowed behind the helmet. “Solomon. This is really not the time to be around here. Half the guys here already ha…. Wait. Why the hell are you in the Black Ops room?”

 

Swift put on his best smile. “Hey, Thomas, I was just –”

Screams. They were always screaming, his name, asking why. It was his mom screaming, again, this time, why this time, in his ears. The fire raged around him. His breath hitched, and all he could see was fire and redness for a long moment. He took a breath. Another.

 

Wasteland’s armor steamed the very humid air around him as he went into that past mental state. The locker room went up several degrees as well, drying the air in a small thermal.

 

Wasteland’s voice went low, flat, and guttural with suppressed rage. “Solomon. Swift. I have… asked you… not to call me that. And this place… this is not for you. Last chance.”

 

“Alright, alright, I’m sorry, Wasteland. I was… meeting a friend here, that’s done, I’ll clear out.” He raised his hands in a pacifying gesture and moved towards the door.

 

Wasteland is lightning quick, and makes a grab for Solomon as he tries to pass. “You don’t have friends in here, Solomon. I know. These guys are my family.”  That low, guttural growl is still there, and there’s something that Solomon hasn’t seen before in Wasteland’s body language. This isn’t Wasteland, nice guy and hero. This is Wasteland, soldier. Killer.

 

Solomon Swift is fast, but he expected Wasteland to let him pass – and so his shirt is grabbed in that gauntlet. There’s the hiss of heat against the plastic of his buttons. “Th- Wasteland, come on, you’re making a mountain out of a molehill -”

“Yeah?” Wasteland lifts Solomon up, one handed. This new suit, it is glorious. Not even a strain to his systems, lifting Solomon up. “On a day like today? Who’re you fucking with in here, Swiftie? Decided that maybe since Trick is out of commission, you should inherit his stuff? To the best go the spoils? Or maybe since Roberts and you had it out in the cafeteria because you two disagreed on… oh right, saving kids, you thought it’d be funny to mess up the pictures of his family? Well?”

 

The shirt starts with tiny licks of flame around Wasteland’s gauntlet, and that faint scent of plastic burning wafts through the locker room.

 

“No, no, no, dude, no, you – it’s not like that, it’s – I’m not a monster, man, it’s just -” He looks down at the flames burning the collar of his expensive shirt and cringes away. “It’s Newman, and it’s not a big deal, okay? You don’t have to do this.”

Wasteland digested this for a moment. “Huh.” And he walked, with Solomon, still in his upraised right hand, towards Newman’s locker. He opens it, assuming that the lock hadn’t clicked shut. He’s quiet, his suit is quiet, save for the quiet hissing of melting, bubbling plastic and tiny licks of flame from the shirt.

 

Inside her locker, admit the clothes and bags and boots, is a small bag of –


Solomon snatches it, swinging off Wasteland’s gauntlet. The shirt is gone, ripped and burning in Wastelands hand. Shirtless and holding whatever it was, Solomon begins to sprint out the back door.

 

Wasteland’s world went red and orange. The fire screamed to be let out, to burn and ash Solomon, to utterly destroy. And he couldn’t… hold it back….much… he tapped his comm, broadcasted to the black ops folks.

 

“Someone. Anyone. Please. Get…. Dr. Meda. O-or…. Rooster. Or s-someone…. I’m about to kill Swift.”

 

And then there was nothing but incoherent rage as he chased after Solomon, the suit thundering after Swift, demolishing the steel bench between them into shattered, molten steel.

 

If Solomon Swift was anything but a speedster, he would have been dead already. He tore out the door and down the hallway, sprinting at top speed. For him, the lockers and doors just moved in a blur. “Fuck, fuck, oh fuck, someone get Meda, someone get Rooster, someone get me the hell out of here -”

There wasn’t anything smooth or pretty about how Wasteland moved as he barreled through the Hallway, his armor nearing fireball status. The walls burned, the footsteps torched the very pretty tile, and the steel warped with his passing. And then there was the speakers, broadcasting his wordless roar of rage that sounded, probably to Solomon, like the incoming roar of a backdraft.

 

And he ran, gaining speed. Somewhere, behind the rage, he noted that on his HUD, that people were getting out of the way, clearing quickly. Thank God. But that little voice was a very little voice, and couldn’t be heard over the roar of the Fire.

 

Loud and clear through the comms cut a calm, steady voice suddenly spoke, inserting itself between Wasteland’s red-hazed vision and his mind. Meda.

 

“This isn’t you, Wasteland,” she enunciated, “you are not this. Come back with me. Come to the beach. Standing on the shore, watching the whitecaps. It’s all right.”

 

Wasteland stumbles, but keeps going, the suit taking over, mostly, as the Fire suddenly gives way to a flash of a calm beach. Cool breeze. Waves crashing. But then the fire is back, raging, burning hot, and he keeps going. The little voice manages to get a little control, and he responds.

 

“It’s too hot… too hot… he’s… he wanted to hurt a friend. I can’t…. I can’t….” Wasteland gasps out, as he continues on. He catches sight of Swift as he turns a corner, then Wasteland crashes into the wall shortly after, hot on Swift’s heels. “NO ONE HURTS MY FRIENDS.”

 

“You’re justice now, Wasteland,” Meda reminded him, “and this isn’t justice. The fire isn’t justice. A painful death for Swift won’t make this right. Walk with me on the beach, Wastey.”

 

The waves on the beach crash against the fire, the soothing sound of the ocean. The hypnotic suggestions were a very, very good idea. The Fire gutters and snarls with incoherent rage as it dies a slow death, clawing for every inch of control before it’s gone, stuffed back in the iron willed control of Wasteland.

 

“I’m justice. I’m… I’m… I’m the one…” Wasteland saw Swift, again, and… halted…. Just…. Breathing. Trying to get control. Gauntlets on his knees. Everything hurt. It hurt so bad.

 

Why did everything hurt?

 

“You did it,” Meda assured him. “You are justice. You are strength. Calm waves and whitecaps. Placid sand and sunlight. You are Wasteland. You are in control. You are going to be all right.”

 

At this point, Swift was smart enough to stay out of sight, a couple of hallways over, panting and glistening with sweat.

 

Wasteland took another deep breath. His lifesigns were stabilizing, but the amount of radiation that he’d put out inside the suit…. He’d burned through two weeks of radiation absorbers in less than a minute. Oh dear.

 

He took another deep breath. The Fire was still screaming to get out, to just burn things. “Swift. Swift put… put something in Vera’s locker. C-caught him. He stole it before I could…. Could grab it. Put it in her locker. Ca-can’t let him get away with that.” At some point he’d fallen to his knees. When’d he do that? That… that isn’t right.

 

He stood, slowly. And started moving towards Swift, where he thought Swift was.

 

There’s one clue: the broom closet has a waft of burnt skin coming from inside.

 

“Wasteland, he works here.”

 

“Yes.” Wasteland’s voice is rough, and he opens the door quickly, nearly wrenching it open, but not tearing it off the hinges. “Yes, yes he does. And… I will report his transgressions, and make sure he…. Comes with me, and doesn’t hide what he’s done. And… I will make amends for the damage I caused.” His voice sounds steadier, quieter, and more like the Wasteland Dr. Meda has worked with and known for years.

 

Solomon Swift stares up at Wasteland in terror from the floor of the broom closet.

 

“Solomon.” Wasteland looks down at the man, and his gauntlets flex once. “Solomon, we’re going to go to the HR office. We are going to make a report. You are going to confess what you tried to do. I…. apologize…. For trying to kill you. I am going to pay you back for your shirt, and your medical treatment. Let’s go.”

 

“Okay.” Solomon says, standing. He looks at the floor as Wasteland walks him to the HR office, staying otherwise silent.

 

The HR office is empty of the usual administrative staff, which means they’ve been warned and told to clear out. Instead, Michael Cheney and Dr. Meda are waiting.

 

“Mr. Cheney. Dr. Meda.” Wasteland says stiffly. He stands at mostly attention. Still soldier Wasteland, in his mind set, the rigid, iron, self control.

 

“This is an issue with someone’s locker?” Cheney asks, giving the conversation enough respect to not have his feet up on the desk.

 

“…I tried to plant illegal drugs on Vera Newman’s locker so she would be removed from the black ops unit.

“And I caught him in the midst of doing so. I lost my temper, sir, ma’am. It has… been a rough day for me, already. I apologize for not immediately taking this to a higher authority.”

 

“Well, Solomon, you’re paying for all the damages. And this is going in your record.”

“Yes, sir.”

Cheney clapped his hands. “I think we’re good with that, yes?”

Doctor Meda just… frowned. Silent.

 

“Yes, sir.” Solomon said again.

 

Wasteland blinks behind his helmet. Well, that was more than…. Okay, that was a major hit against Solomon. But the guy did try to get Vera screwed over. And arguing with superiors would probably be a Very Bad Idea. “Yes, sir.” He’d pay for a new shirt for the guy.

 

“Nami?” Cheney looked at the woman at his side.

 

Nami fixed her heterochromatic eyes on Swift for a moment, then said: “I recommend that Mr. Swift undergo a treatment program to address his inappropriate coping mechanisms.”

 

My inappropriate -” Swift takes a breath. “Like, one of those seminars you can do at home? Sure. Okay.”

“No,” Dr. Meda’s voice was no louder, but firm as steel. “A supervised clinical treatment program. In my office, once a week, for a minimum of six weeks.”

 

Solomon glances at Wasteland, then looks at his feet again. “Okay.”

Wasteland doesn’t move from his stiff, statue impersonation. He expected a lot worse. Might be worse after Solomon leaves. He swallows a little. But doesn’t look at Solomon. Don’t want to feed any fuel to the fire.

 

“Dismissed, Ellis.”

 

Solomon blanches and turns, slouching out of the office, and Cheney turns to Wasteland.


“Did he deserve it?”

Wasteland pauses, thinking. “Sir… he didn’t deserve the beating I wanted to give him. Nobody deserves that kinda thing. With how angry I was, I might have killed him.” He takes another breath. “That said, you both know the things I’ve done, that the Black Ops teams do. We look out for each other, no matter what. If someone screwed with Apex, you know I’d have his back. Same with everyone, even Rodriguez…. Who is as much of an ass as Swift. And I’d know they’d do the same for me.”

 

Another breath. “Vera’s new to that part of the life. She’s going to get into the shit, real shit, soon. She needs to be able to know that she comes home to a safe place, with people who will watch out for her.”

 

“So no, he might not have deserved the beating that I was going to give. But he damned well deserved the terror that any operative should give him for even thinking of messing with us in our safe place. Sir. Ma’am.”

 

Cheney nodded. “Stay away from him. He’ll be working shit jobs for a long time. And he’s banned from the Anvil until this cools down between the two of you. Understand?”

“Understood, sir.” Wasteland nods.

 

“Dismissed, Wasteland.” Cheney span in his chair and then looked at Nami. “Talk to Vera, and make sure Solomon does his sessions.” He grins. “Sorry.”

“I’ll live.”

 

Outreach: Surprise Visit

SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH

 

Callister hadn’t contacted Benny in almost a day, and the boy had given him room too, evidently realizing that his boyfriend still needed some time.

 

Then, a text from Benny.

Hey. What are you up to?

 

A reply came back about five minutes later.

Kicking faces in Salt Lake City.

 

cool

 

That was it, for about fifteen minutes. Then:

Are you kicking faces, like, now-now?

 

About two minutes later.

Texting you inbetween bouts.

 

Pretty soon after that:

Okay. Wanna take a break for dinner?

 

It seemed that his bouts were about five minutes long.

Yeah could eat. Wait. you’re here?

 

Kinda, yeah

 

Actually definitely yeah

 

Um where should I meet you

 

The reply came with a map tag.

A diner nearby. Got good burgers.

 

See you soon. <3

 

Callister was already there when Benny arrived. There were already a couple of burgers and fries in front of Callister, but he was eating slowly due to what appeared to be a swollen jaw and cracked and bruised knuckles. He waved his burger at Benny when he spotted his boyfriend through bruised black eyes.

 

“Hey! Got you a burger, but I was gonna eat it if you didn’t come sooner.” He sounded…almost chill, if not cheerful.

 

“You can still eat it, if you want,” Benny’s voice was more than a little relieved at Callister’s tone, but also reflected a cringing sympathy at his injuries. “I can, like. Buy my own. God, it’s good to see you.”

Callister shrugged. That looked like it hurt too as he lifted his shoulder experimentally then winced again.  “Is’okay. Got pie coming. And more fries. You look good.”

 

“Really?” Benny’s smile was a little wan. “I haven’t been sleeping much. And you look like hell, but I’m sure you know that. Sorry I dropped in unannounced, I was just getting– um. You know what I’m like.” He drew the burger toward him and picked it up, then took a bite once he was done talking. This elicited an appreciative noise, and he nodded to Callister: oh hey, yeah, the burger is good.

 

Callister smiled widely (as widely as he could) at shared appreciation of good burg. “Yeah, it’s okay. Surprised me is all.” There were a couple milkshakes on the table, and Callister pushed one towards Benny before taking a pull out of his. “Feeling better than I did earlier, yeah.”

 

“I’m glad. Nat filled me in. That must have been…” Benny trailed off, unsure how or whether to finish the sentence. He took a bite of burger instead.

 

Callister shrugged again. “Yeah.” He took glum bite out of his burger.  There was silence for a moment. “Nat brought you here?”

 

Benny smirked. “What, you don’t think I can afford a sudden plane ticket halfway across the country?” He took a sip of milkshake. “Yeah, ey brought me here.”

 

The redhead snorted, a smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Yeah, you’re a secret millionaire is what you are. Slumming in your one room to fool us all.” Callister grinned. It was pretty disgusting with painful looking gums and bits of burger in his teeth, but it lightened his face up.

 

“It’s how I hide my superhero identity,” Benny said through a mouthful of burger, “it’s true, Callister. I’ve been lying to you. I am… The Icon.”

 

“It hot how you turn into a mysterious fighting lady, but I’m sad you never fight me.” That pout, Callister. Stop.

 

“Well, I can’t risk winning,” Benny said, playing right into it. “It’s so much more fun to lose fights to you.”

 

“Now I can’t boast that my boyfriend’s the Icon.” A big, heavy sigh. “This is sad and bad. You know how many more fights I could get if I say that?” He snickered.

 

“Your mouth is telling stories about how hard it is for you to find a fight,” Benny said, “but the rest of your face is telling a real different story, babe.”

 

“Yeah…but beating up the Icon’s boyfriend. You know how many people would want to do that? Plus, pretty sure they’d buy me drinks after.” Callister nodded.

 

“What is it with you and wanting to get beat up?” The joking look on Benny’s face fell away. “How much do you need to punish yourself for this, Cal?”

 

Callister shrugged again. “I like pain. Sometimes. Giving, taking. Needed to give and take this time. Just needed to make the pain numb today.”

 

“Oh, babe,” Benny’s voice was pained, but he nodded. “Okay. Just makes a guy worry, you know?”

 

“Yeah. Sorry. I..Yeah. I got real angry at myself. I’m kinda not so much anymore.”

 

There’s a quiet, but distinct sound of repetitive ‘thoom’ outside the diner. Salt Lake City wasn’t really known for a lot of super heroes, but there was one walking this way in the fading evening light. He entered carefully, the door giving a little jingle, and the dark green helmet with glowing eyes looked around until it settled on Callister and Benny. And he started walking their way.

 

“Babe,” Benny murmured in a surprisingly calm voice betrayed only by the width of his baby blues, “were you expecting The Wasteland to join us for dinner? If so, could you like. Give me a heads-up next time?”

 

“Babe, if I were, I wouldn’t have gotten my knuckles all busted.” Callister frowned as he got out from the booth. He didn’t look like he was readying himself for a fight, but more like meeting an opponent on equal ground. “Wasteland. To what do I owe this honor.” There was wariness in his tone.

 

“Tough man to track down, Callister. Or do you prefer the Red Knight?” Wasteland asked, looking around. A few people were gaping similarly to Benny. Oof. Hokay, lets just… oy.

 

Wasteland paused, and looked at Callister. “If you’re willing, I’ve got a proposition for you.”

 

“I wasn’t planned on being found for a few days.” Callister shifted his weight and crossed his arms. Standing up, it was pretty obvious that he was hiding a limp and holding his torso stiffly. “What sort of proposition?”

Wasteland remembered his manners, a little late, but still. “Sorry for interrupting your dinner.” He said to Benny, and looked back at Callister. “It’s, uh– okay–“ “You can sit down, man, I’m not here to do anything serious. Just wanted to make you an offer. People higher up are impressed. And you’ve got no criminal record, and you’re a free agent.”

 

“I’m here to make you an offer. Competitive salary. Insurance. Support. Hazard pay. Training for your powers and your skills, and a safe haven, if you want it. We’d like you on the Freelancers,” Wasteland said quietly.

 

Callister did not sit down. Instead he frowned, squinting through bruised black eyes. “Why? I’m Hyacinth Mills’ son. Last thing you people need is to trust me. Get your badge on me, get your training, and maybe I might go rescue dear old mother from the nasty Legion.” He wasn’t exuding hostility, only caution and distrust.

 

Benny’s eyes darted back and forth as the crowd started to stare more in earnest, murmuring to each other.

 

“Benny, is everything–” The redhead who’d just poked eir head into the restaurant blinked in surprise. “–Wastey?”

 

“Hey, Nat.” He waved, and nodded at em. “You’re friends with Nat too. Of course. Of course.” He looked back at Callister. “If the Freelancers, believed that, if I believed that you’d try to rescue your mother, I don’t think I’d be here, offering you the job. You don’t have to say yes, Callister. It’s an offer. That’s all. I think you’d fit well with us.” He shrugged. “This isn’t something you need to answer right away.”

 

“And just because you’re someone’s son, shouldn’t define who you are. At least, that’s what I think.”

 

“Damn straight. Is all this as weird as I think it is? It feels weird.” Nat chimed in.

 

“Yeah…I’ll think about it.” Callister looked like he was satisfied with the answer even if he wasn’t ready to say yay or nay just yet.

 

Wasteland nods. “We’ll be in touch, then… oh, christ. Did I really just say that? I did. I sound like Cheney. Gonna go drown myself in at least two bottles of scotch…” Wasteland shakes his head, chuckling to himself. He waves as he heads out. “Glad you made it out okay, Nat.” He says as he passes em on his way out.

 

“Thanks, buddy!” Nat grinned, then stage-whispered, “that’s my brother, by the way! That’s Benny! Oh hey can I come with? I wanna stick around but I don’t want to interrupt their date. More.

 

“Yeah, sure, no problem.” He chuckles. He gives em a thumbs up about the brother….. Trying to be discreet. He fails.

 

Callister watched Nat and Wasteland see themselves out before he slipped back in the booth. He ignored the whispering crowd and picked at the remains of his burger. His eyes looked up and caught Benny’s. “You wanna we get boxes for the pies and go to the park or something?”

 

“That sounds good,” Benny nodded, looking a little nervous about the attention from the crowd.

 

“Para faggots!” Someone in the restaurant shouted. It wasn’t clear who.

 

Callister stood. He was smiling, his split lip opened up and bleeding again as he slowly looked around at the crowd. Try me said his teeth. See how you like it said his eyes. I want to see you at my feet said his stance. I. Will. Destroy. You.

 

No one met his gaze.

 

And then there was the gentle touch of a callused hand on his arm. Benny’s voice, low but audible, behind him.

 

“Love. Let’s just… go. Please?”

 

Callister was slow to respond, milking the fear in the crowd. His teeth were bared in a ready grin.

 

Then, making sure that everyone knew that their peaceful lives remained peaceful due to the soft words of a young blond man, Callister bent slightly and kissed Benny’s hair. “Sure thing, babe. Lemme grab my coat.” Callister then took Benny by the arm, his heavy steps ringing out a definite message to the diner. I could burn you all. Laugh at your ashes. But not today.

 

The bell tinkled. And they were gone.

 

“Shame,” Callister said once they were outside. “I liked that place.” He shrugged and the Red Knight was gone.

 

“You can, still,” Benny replied, looking up at Callister’s eyes. “Everything has a rough side.”

 

“Nah. Next time I go in, I’ll smell their old fear. Not good y’know.” He smiled at Benny, hugging him close. “When’s your next shift?” He didn’t elaborate why it wouldn’t be good.

 

“The day after tomorrow. I told the manager that I had a family emergency, so if I need to be longer I have an excuse.”

 

“Good.” Callister smiled. “What say you and me roadtrip back to Rock City?”

 

Benny smiled broadly. “I like that idea a lot,” he said, “but can we, um. Take a minute before we leave?”

 

“Yeaah? Sure.” Callister was already leading them to his car.

 

“Well, um. We haven’t really. Had time to ourselves in a while…”

 

“Wanna fuck me, Benny?”

 

There was that signature Benny blush. “Um,” he said quietly. “Yeah.”

 

“Good.” Callister’s voice had gotten husky. “Cuz I need to scream and I know you can do that for me, Benny.” He nuzzled his blond lover’s temple.

 

“Ohgodyes,” Benny gasped, pushing back against the nuzzle. “Do you have a hotel or…”

 

“I was thinking we find somewhere private and you could fuck me in the car.”

 

“Oh fuck. Yes that’s– yes. Um. I’m… really glad I dropped by, Cal.”

 

“And I’m glad I dropped my pants for you.”

 

They reached the car, consulted a map, and drove off.