I picked at my food. As much as I’m sure the IHOPs around here were used to college kids lounging around, I liked to think I had a bit more class.
So I ordered coffee and a vegetable soup. And some cheese fries, because at this, I wanted something bad for me, diet be damned. On the plus side, Sunday night didn’t pack the house, so no one tried to harass me. I think the waitress was just glad to have someone here to look at.
On another night, I might even have seen how that panned out. My tats and short, dyed hairstyle did send a signal that translated to ‘obvious dyke’. I wasn’t, but waitresses didn’t know that, so they’d flirt with me just like they flirted with guys. On some nights, I flirted back just to watch them backpedal hard enough to give themselves whiplash. Or in front of a boyfriend, either actual or potential. It was generic male fantasy number three, after all.
Not tonight, however. Tonight my brother was out there trying to kill a man while I pretended I didn’t know what was going on. Dreading what it meant if he failed. Dreading what it meant if he succeeded. Zach was far more fragile than he liked to pretend to be, and my heart broke for him. Always playing the clown, never letting anyone see who he really was, how he hurt.
They say powers reflect the personalities of their owners, and Zach’s power was a perfect example of that. The boy whose greatest fear was being seen as weak, got a power that let him ignore stabbing himself with a sword. A power that meant we no longer had to be on constant alert for a rush to the emergency room that might be the last.
He almost managed to convince me that he no longer felt pain, but that was as much a lie as his claim he was going after Flux for me, or some sense of heroic duty. What he was pursuing tonight wasn’t about justice or honor, it was revenge, and love. Another lie he thought he got past me. He didn’t fool me for a second, didn’t fool anyone except Mom and Dad.
Erica’s opinion was ‘he’ll be cute in a few years, but he’s not my type’. Given Erica’s taste in men, and… other… issues, that might have been the nicest thing anyone ever said about my kid brother. Didn’t stop her from teasing him by wearing some of her sluttiest outfits when visiting. Only I understood why she was like that with him, and I swore to take those secrets to the grave.
Mom and Dad never noticed a damn thing. Not about Zach, or Erica, or me. Not then, and not now. Dad even bought Zach’s excuse that he had a hot date this weekend. Or, maybe he was just relieved for a weekend where he didn’t have to be disappointed that his son could never follow in his military footsteps.
I still remembered the day mom finally walked out on his ass. He’d bought one of those home DNA test kits and sent it out to a lab. Mom got the mail before he did. She thought he was having an affair, and wasn’t that a hypocritical thing for her of all people to get angry over? In a twist worthy of a shitty movie, it turns out he was checking to see if Zach was his.
If I were a different woman, I might have blamed Zach for that. But anyone with half a brain knew that the real cause of our parents’ divorce was that they got married. I was just glad that Zach never knew; he who would blame himself.
I guess keeping secrets ran in the family. Dad had his alcohol and affairs, mom had her gambling and affairs, and both imagined that nobody knew. Zach had his fear of never being good enough. And I, I saw everything. Yup, sorry little brother, your acting is nothing compared to your big sister’s.
My phone buzzed, and almost dropped it when scrambling to look at the text. @ RDV, Safe. Bring big garbage bags.
I sighed in relief, at least I knew he was okay. I wasn’t sure what the garbage bags were for, I just hoped it Zach didn’t decide to collect a fucking trophy somehow. Powers did fucked up things to people, and my little brother was a few skinned cats away from fitting the profile of a serial killer. I crushed that traitorous thought hard. Zach is my brother, and the only true family I have. I trust him.
Luckily enough, this particular restaraunt was fused with a gas station, so I didn’t have to go far for the bags. I was at the pickup spot in only a few minutes, for once thankful that the police never came into this area. I just hoped they didn’t have traffic cams.
Zach stepped out of the alley, shirtless and barefoot, carrying a ball of what I was pretty sure was his clothes. The visibility on these streets left a lot to be desired. “What happened?” I asked the moment he opened the door.
“Don’t worry, none of it’s mine.”
None of what? I looked more closely now, and could see the spatters of crimson all over his body and matted into his hair. I had some EMT training, for Zach, and because it looked good on a resume. It wasn’t a lot of blood, no more than a cupful in total. But I was aware of the concept of ‘spatter’, and for every drop on him there was ten times more which wasn’t.
“Did you?” Oh god, please tell me you didn’t kill him.
“Turns out, all my brilliant battle strategies were ruined by one small miscalculation.” Zach forced a smile. “They ran away.”
Oh thank god. No, wait. The anger and indignation on his face told me so much more about the story than his words. I’d seen that look before, the determination and grim certainty of a man who would rather die than fail. A look that every woman both loves and fears seeing in the eyes of someone they care for. He is going to try again. I won’t be able to talk him out of it.
“Still, there are worse ways for a fight to end than covered in the other guy’s blood. Plus I managed to get a girl’s number.” Seriously? “And it wasn’t even the prostitute. Anima showed up toward the end there, guess she liked what she saw and we’re going to talk later. After I’ve had a long, hot shower. And burned my clothes. Speaking of, need those garbage bags.”
I relaxed a little; Anima was one of the heavy hitters. Rumor had it they preauthorized mobilizing the army if she went villain. She was much of the reason the big name gangs and villains stayed out of the DC area, alongside all the superpowered bodyguards protecting government buildings and foreign diplomats.
Not that this helped the crime rate any, but at least fewer buildings were lost to gang wars than most cities. Better than the virtual anarchy that was New York. Someone like her could protect Zach, maybe even do what I couldn’t and slap some sense into him.
I passed over the bags, and brushed his hand to let him know I was still here for him. He jumped back, as if shocked by my touch. What happened to you out there, that you’re now afraid to touch me? “So, what happened to the sword?”
“Let’s just say after you put it inside someone a couple times, they take offense. And the weapon.” If I blinked, I’d have missed his smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll get it back during the rematch.”
Fuck, that thing wasn’t cheap and he knows it. And now it’s one more thing for Zach to obsess over.
I cracked the windows, to keep the stench of drying blood to a minimum. Some of the people I hung out with would recognize that smell.
Then I gunned it. We needed to get home as soon as possible, to get him cleaned up and in clean clothes. There was so much we didn’t know about his powers, and how they dealt with infection was one of them.
Blood borne pathogens were amongst the nastiest and most tenacious out there. Sure, he’d probably heal faster than they could hurt him, but that didn’t necessarily mean his body purged the infection. He might become a carrier for something incurable like herpes or HIV without even knowing. Or maybe his power wouldn’t protect him at all. Or maybe the disease would mutate and make super-AIDS or something. I was only qualified enough to know that no one was qualified enough.
I backed into my driveway and got out, going around the car to the door. With traffic in this town, I didn’t even like to drive, and there was no way I was willing to try backing out into the street. Zach waited inside the car as I entered the security code and opened the door. He hopped out, and rushed for the door. If it were any other day, for any other reason, I might have laughed at the plastic bags stuck to him. I hit the button on my keys and was satisfied at the chirp of my car locking itself.
Zach set aside two bags. One containing his clothes, and the other a cheap grocery bag from somewhere. I could see a few loose papers poking out of the top. “Shower first, everything else after.”
I nodded my agreement. “Yeah, good idea. I made a mental note to dump some stuff down the drain when he was done. Blood became glue once it started drying, and my little brother was going to lose some hair cleaning it out. He was right, though, this was better than what might have happened. He was also right about his clothes, they were garbage.
I went to my closet and pulled out a box of stuff. Zach had a couple shirts, for times he crashed here so mom could have a date. The pants and shoes, I could provide. The pants were a bit too big for him, but I had belts and Zach usually wore baggy stuff to begin with.
Charged with nervous energy, I paced back and for by the bathroom door until the water stopped running, then I knocked. “Got something for you to wear.”
I faced away, but heard the door crack open. Steam rolled around my feet, as Zach took the clothes. “Thanks.” The door shut, and I went to sit in the combo kitchen, dining and living room of my apartment.
Now came the hard part. Talking about what happened. Or, pushing Zach into talking about it without him locking down and using snark to avoid the topic forever. The door opened again. “Sis, please tell me these pants don’t belong to Rex.”
“No, do you remember Jacob?”
“Oh, that asshole.” The tone made it clear that he thought basically everyone I dated was an asshole. In Jacob’s case, he wasn’t wrong.
I wanted to explain to him that Rex was better than that. Sure, he was rough around the edges, but anyone who saw him with his son could see he was a good father. So much better than our own parents. But now was not the time to have that argument, and Zach was just trying to bait me into it so he could avoid the real elephant in the room.
“Yeah, that asshole,” I agreed. “The shoes are his, too. I’ll grab you a new pair of shoes while you’re at school tomorrow. Still in fourteens?”
“Yeah.” Zach opened the bag with the papers, pulled them out and set them in front of the chair he’d claimed. A moment later a couple handfuls of wadded up bills were placed in front of me.
“Zach, what’s this?” Did he really rob the bad guys? Seriously?
“After they ran off I searched their hideout a bit. Trying to find some clue to where they’d run off to. It’s less than it looks, about six hundred bucks. It’s yours, call it a payment for all the help. I’ll need to use some of it to buy some new shoes and maybe a couple extra spare sets of clothes for the future, beyond that it’s all yours.”
I wanted to object, but the simple fact was I could use the money. About half of the people looking to get inked in this city were gang members, and they got their work done from other members whenever possible. Murders happened over lesser insults.
So that left us indies, as well as the reputable artists who had gang ties, all fighting over the other half of the client base. I couldn’t afford to turn it down Zach’s offer. Instead I gestured at the other papers, in front of him. “Is that what that is? The clues?”
He shrugged. “A bit of homework, I guess. Information on Kitten.”
“Who?” Not a name I recognized, could have been a new super. Or given how some of the gangs operate it may have been a normal person.
“Rex’s intel was off.”
Fuck. I was hoping that maybe Zach could learn to give the guy a chance if this worked out, perhaps the two of them could even get along. They didn’t even have to like each other, that would be too much to ask for, but basic respect would have made my life so much less stressful.
“You mean you went after the wrong gang? Well, that’s not too big a deal, you still busted up a street gang and walked away with some spare cash. I’ll have to be careful about how to ask him to go looking again, we don’t want to risk your identity.”
“No, he got the right gang, just the wrong villain,” Zach corrected. “Turns out, Flux picked up a girlfriend from down south. She’s responsible for everything.”
“Kitten? She’s the one that…” raped and tortured. “Killed Erica? Is that who you were fighting?”
“Got it in one,” Zach was staring at the top of the papers as he spoke. His hands trembled as he turned pages too fast to possibly be reading them unless he had a power he didn’t tell me about. “Kitten is one of the biggest of the big time. Psycho serial killer big time, and she’s strong that the police are afraid to go after her. So are the so-called fucking heroes. She needs to be stopped, and I’m the only one willing and able to do it.”
Oh, Zach. My little brother was smart, smarter than me if I wanted to be honest. If he had gone at school with half the focus on his face right now, he could have been a doctor or scientist or anything else he wanted. Except, as dad pointed out whenever possible, an athlete.
I stood and walked over to him, putting a hand on his shoulder. He flipped the papers on top of each other, preventing me from reading what he held. What little glance I got looked like someone put something into a scanner, copied it, scanned it again, sent that scan through a fax machine, and then another guy scanned that copy and made another new copy before crumpling it into a ball and throwing it into the trash for Zach to get hold of.
He sat there for a moment, quiet. “You should get a nap. You’ll have to take me to school in a few hours. And then you have work tonight.”
The message was clear. He didn’t want me seeing what he had. It hurt, seeing my little brother trying to protect me where there was nothing I could do to protect him. “Yeah, you’re right.”
I turned and started to walk away.
“Hey, that’s what family’s for.”