Rex clenched his jaw while I touched up the last few lines of crimson along his eyebrow. I had to give him credit; a lot of self-proclaimed badasses pussed out of face tattoos, and almost none of them went with elaborate designs. Let alone a multi-stage project with dozens of colors, shading and layers of art.
“Aaand, we’re done.” I set the needle aside and made certain all my equipment was safe and separated for proper, hygienic, cleanup later. Years of practice become habit made my next few words more flirtatious than necessary. “I didn’t hurt you too bad, did I?”
He let the tension drain from his body, but as a veteran of the process he stayed still on the chair and kept his eyes closed. “Like a lover’s kiss.”
Of course it was, tough guy. “Good to hear.” I took a cloth to the remaining ink and vaseline on his face, making sure to stay gentle with the tiny but extensive wounds inflicted on his face at his request. The reds and oranges of his new work did an excellent job covering the swelling and skin irritation that I knew were there from experience. “I bet Jake’s gonna love it when he gets back from his mother’s.”
Rex smiled his little way. “You have no idea,” he said. “That bit of art I showed you came from a cartoon he watches.”
“Well, here’s hoping it’s good enough for his expert opinion.” We’d made so many adjustments to the original picture that I doubted anyone would draw the connection between an anime character with flames coming from his eyes, and the work I’d done for Rex. “You have to be worried. Last I heard, the area his mom lives in is… disputed territory.” Meanwhile, I eyed his cell phone drifting toward his coat pocket. Perfect.
“I ain’t too worried,” he said. “Keep this to yerself, but word on the street is Lightbringer’s gearing up to take the whole south half of the city in one fell swoop.”
Holy shit. “How long do you think we got?” Were it anyone else, I’d dismiss it as mere talk, but Rex had an uncanny ability to get intel nobody short of an Esper should have. After all, he knew how to find Erica’s murderer down to their building, even if he mistook the killer for an accomplice. I felt like an absolute cunt using him like this, but it was for the best cause. I took the cloth away from his face.
“I’d say two weeks, three at the latest.” Rex faced the body mirror as he talked. He went through several poses as he checked the angles of the new tat I’d given him. The design was based on a typical tribal design, but instead of a singular dark color it was a series of flames that were meant to look like they came from his right eye, and swept up and back along his skull. He made a few tentative facial expressions, but for now the skin was too raw to display the work in full. “Damn, babe, you get better every time I come in.”
“Practice, practice, practice. Years of it.” I did my best to keep my eyes on his face, but he was shirtless to ‘keep it from getting stained’, and his body was delicious. “You seem awful casual about this gang war.”
“I plan to have Jake and be out of the city when it happens. Maybe I’ll get lucky and won’t have to worry about alimony when I get back.” He looked at me through my reflection in the mirror. “Hey, thanks for the work. How about if I take you out as a payment? A buddy of mine has an in at this great club. Free drinks.”
God damn it, Zach’s right, every one of my exes is a fucking asshole. No exceptions. “Sorry, but I met a guy, and it’s gettin’ kinda serious.” More serious than we were, thank you. “Just give me a c-note to hand to Chad.” Chad wasn’t quite my boss, but he was the owner of the parlor and provider of the booth I rented. “And don’t tell anyone about the discount. Oh, and let your buddies know where you got the work done, you’re my walking billboard.”
“Lucky dude.” Rex’s smile faltered, but only for a moment. He didn’t need me to get laid, and he knew it, but he would never find another artist who’d do a grand worth of work and only charge him a hundred bucks. The man turned out to be every bit the asshole Zach said he was, but he was an asshole who knew his priorities. As proven by how he still hadn’t looked away from the mirror. “Don’t worry, I’ll be singing your praises to everyone who asks. You earned it.”
Yeah, earned it. “Lemme know when you’re ready for the next stage,” I said. For almost anyone else, I would have gone into a lecture on aftercare, but Rex probably could have taught me thing or two about tattoos healing. I wouldn’t have agreed to do that kind of work on anyone who wasn’t a veteran. “And to keep me updated on this war. I’d like to know not to be in the office if it’s gonna explode on me.” I felt bad about using him to ferret out information on this gang war, but he was an asshole so I did it anyway.
“You’ll be the first person I’ll call.” He pulled a bill out of his pocket and set it on the table, then went for his shirt. Now that he’d gotten what he’d wanted, or as much as he thought he could get, it seemed he had no desire to stick around, which suited me just fine. It wasn’t the least graceful exit a man had ever made in my presense.
My shirt tightened around me the moment he was out of my booth. “So…” Glen’s power made a poor imitation of a whisper, but it was quiet enough that nobody but I would have heard it.
“Yes, I know, all my exes are assholes.” I subvocalized the statement; weeks of practice had made me good at it.
“True, but not what I was about to say. Or it is, but not quite.” I let Glen ramble along while he did his best to emulate hands by warping my clothes. “It turns out, this particular asshole has been playing us.”
A statement that came as no surprise to anyone; he knew who Zach was, and had to suspect I would feed information back to my brother. “Good.” My conscience would rest easier tonight knowing the backstabbing was mutual. “You’d think he’d be smart enough to hide his tracks better.”
“Our other silent partner says tried, complete with a data scrubber,” Glen said. “Paranoia mode, but not good enough to beat a Gadgeteer, at least not completely.”
“Lightbringer?” It was the obvious answer, since Rex had the wrong skin color for any of the fractured remnants of Los Fieles. Still, he didn’t strike me as the sort who’d go with a group that couldn’t decide if it was White Supremacist or Satanic.
“Doesn’t look like it,” Glen said to my great relief. “He’s in deep with one of the no-name groups.” No name was literal, gangs these days rarely named themselves. “We’re talking enforcer and contraband runner, maybe worse. Sorry, he’s too deep to get out clean.”
Dammit, Rex. How could you do this to Jake? “He made his own bed.” I began the slow ritual of sorting and cleaning all of my tools, starting by sterilizing the used needles.
Several minutes passed in silence before Glen spoke. “This is getting more dangerous by the day. I don’t like putting you in this much danger.”
“What would you rather I do? Nothing? Run away?” His protective streak was sweet, but I could take care of myself. “Whether you like it or not, I’m a target by association. Right now, I’m shielded by you, Anima, Zach, and from what I’ve gathered the precog to end all precogs, I’m as defended as I can get. Going on the offense is the best way to keep us all safe in the future.” And if I have to sit back and watch my brother throw himself into another war without me, I will snap and go on a murder spree.
“You’re right, I’m sorry.”
“Trust me, I’m not happy with it, either.” I kept cleaning, in part because it had to be done, and in part because it helped keep my mind off things. “Dammit, I’m not gonna have time to get home and clean up before the play.”
“You look fine the way you are.”
Aww. “Says the blind guy.”
“No, what I mean is the whole play is counter-cultural,” he said. “If anything, you’ll need more piercings to fit in with the crowd.”
“In other words, I’m gonna be stuck in a room with a bunch of teenagers who think nose rings are cool, and middle-aged losers who also think nose rings are cool. Is it too late to tell Zach I’m busy?” I knew there wasn’t, and I wanted to be there anyway to see how this drama with Beth was playing out. I may have promised not to get involved directly, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t meddle in subtle ways.
As it turned out, the audience wasn’t half as bad as I’d expected. There were more than a few who would have needed six hours to get through a metal detector, but most of them were normal looking folks, and everything between. The other surprise was that the house was packed to the proverbial gills. “So much for theater being dead.”
“Oh, it is,” Daryl said. “Once upon a time, it was at least a decent place to pick up guys, but that was back in the nineties. Nowadays it’s just hipsters. Most of these people are here to watch Zach show off.”
“Sounds like Zach.” I led the way through the crowd, pushing through where I had to while Daryl followed behind. I’d been to places more packed, but those were concerts, not plays. “I don’t understand why anyone else would care, though.”
“Oh, you’ll have to see that for yourself,” he said.
Thanks to the strings Zach pulled, we had great seats to watch the play on the second level. Before, I would have been miffed at him for getting Beth to give us the special treatment, but if Daryl was right that my brother was the reason these people were here, he didn’t need Anima’s help. “Those are the dumbest words ever spoken by man, just so you know.”
“Really?” Glen’s whisper-grumble spoke in my ear, and no doubt Daryl’s as well. The control necessary to do that and not alert any of the others in the crowd was impressive to say the least. “Stupider than ‘come on, just a little’ and ‘you don’t need to call a professional, I know what I’m doing’?”
“I stand corrected.” The laugh we shared carried us over until we got in our seats.
Daryl set a tripod in front of his seat, then began to fiddle with his camera. According to Glen, it was Beth’s idea to film the whole affair, and I knew almost nothing about film so I watched and let Daryl take care of it.
We chatted about nothing until the play began, when the guy on stage began to act like the stage curtain was broken. Most of the people in the crowd, however, watched with anticipation rather than annoyance while the narrator played up the problem, then asked the ‘witch’ to get rid of the curtain. At which point, the entire theater exploded into a shower of blues and greens the likes of which I’d never seen before.
The curtain vanished, exposing the play and all the actors on it, while most of the audience rubbed their eyes after the blinding display. Holy shit, Zach did that!? It had to be, nobody else I knew had such a power. Anima might have been able to create a curtain with her summons, but her colors were different and I didn’t think she could make anything that big. I wondered about that for a while, then got into the play, which was obviously going for ‘so bad it’s good’ territory, and did a good job of it. As stressful as life had been the last few months, being able to sit down and laugh for a while felt wonderful.
We stayed in our seats for a while after the play was over, while Daryl did more toying with his camera. “And perfect!” He lifted the camera off the stand. “Or it will be after I run it through a couple filters and-” He stopped, then looked at me. “Uh, technobabble you don’t care about. Figure it’ll take a day or two. Want a copy, too?”
“Sure. That’s nice of you to offer,” I said.
“Yeah, well, it’s the least I can do. I know Zach had his own reasons, it wasn’t me he was helping, but I still owe him.” After a moment, he smiled at me. “You, too. I asked around, I know that without you I’d be dead right now.”
I looked at the man who was maybe a year or two younger than me, but looked like he was still in high school. In a lot of ways, he was the most important member of this ‘team’ I’d somehow found myself in charge of. Yes, Zach was the one who took point, Glen had any number of roles, Beth was Anima, and our unnamed precog was downright incredible, but Daryl handled tech and, for lack of a better term, was our black ops team. He did things that only a villain could get away with. For someone who wasn’t an official member, he contributed as much as any of us.
“Is that why you’re in the group?” I asked. “Because you owe us?”
“Part of it.” His smile dropped, and he looked out toward the stage. “I also have reasons of my own.”
I wasn’t sure I liked his answer, but there wasn’t much to do about it, and as long as we were careful not to share too much information, it was fine. Beth never unmasked in front of him, and even I didn’t know who our precog benefactor was, so there couldn’t be too much he could learn that might hurt us. Or I hoped there wasn’t. Dammit, now I’m getting paranoid. Guess it comes with the territory.
“I think we all have reasons.” I turned my own eyes to the stage, then stood. “Mine is family.”
If Daryl was half as smart as he claimed, he’d understand the warning behind my words. Now that the crowd had cleared, I went down the stairs. A soft shift in my clothes was enough to let me know Glen stayed behind, with Daryl.
I found Zach and Anima sitting in the back. Zach was smiling and laughing with a couple of the actors, while Beth was in full costume so I couldn’t see her face. She spotted me first, then poked Zach’s arm. Zach looked over at me and so I became the focus of everyone’s gaze.
“Vell, ze zibling iz ‘ere.” Zach hopped up, then turned to face the group. “It’s been fun, but you guys gotta get back to work. Lemme know next time you’re doing this play, I’m totally in!”
The bigger guy, who’d played the dumb hero during the play, made a lazy gesture my way. “I’ll tell Ed the good news. Tomorrow. Most of us aren’t so lucky that we don’t need sleep.”
I doubt anyone would have noticed it except me, but Zach cringed for just a second. “There are worse powers, that’s for sure.” A certain amount of energy which was in his voice had vanished, but not so much that anyone else would realize it. “So, Laura, what’d you think of the play?”
“It was hilarious,” I said. “Thanks for inviting me,”
“Uh, it was Anima’s idea.” He looked back at Beth, who had followed just behind him.
Beth shifted beneath her armor. “I thought it’d be the best way to get us all in one place, since you’re grounded and all.” She sounded a little nervous, but then that was normal where Beth was concerned. “We can share notes?”
Right, I haven’t talked with Beth for a while. “Sure, Daryl and Glen are waiting upstairs.”
I led the way, while sparing moments to glance back at Zach and Beth who were behind me in that order. Are they walking closer to each other than normal, or is that just my imagination? It would be easier if I could just come out and ask what’s going on. Maybe I can find an excuse for a girl’s day out and talk to Beth without anyone else around, that would be the best plan. “So, Anima, what do you have planned for tomorrow?”
Perfect. “Wanna hang out, just the two of us? We can go shopping, relax instead of worrying about work and garbage. Seems like all I do these days is work, random crisis, and bullshit drama. Tomorrow is my chance to have a day of normal for once, and I’m jumping on it like-” I almost said ‘a whore on crack’, but Beth wouldn’t have appreciated my more colorful idioms. “- icecream in the desert.” Smooth, Laura. Smooth like a gravel enema.
“That… sounds nice.”
“So, where do you want to meet up?” I worried about Beth; living in costume the way she seemed to couldn’t possibly be healthy. “We could hit up the mall for a while, browse around, what do you like to waste your money on?”
“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been by a book store. Like you said, things have been a mess lately.”
A book store? That was the last thing I expected out of anyone my brother was interested in dating. Video games would have been my top three guesses, but if Beth wanted to browse for books, I would go along with it. “Sure, that sounds-”
“Sorry to interrupt, but we’ve got incoming.” Glen didn’t bother with ‘whispering’, which was how I knew he was upset. “Approaching the front of the building. It might be Kitten.”
“Know the thrill of battle!” White mist seemed to pour through the walls, chasing after the retreating form of Anima. “I demand the fresh heart of my enemy! Wild Hunt!”
Black electricity danced through the fog, like a photo-negative of a storm at night. From within the fog, short humanoid creatures with angular features emerged. They carried swords, spears, and bows and charged around me. For a moment, one looked up at me, and opened its mouth to reveal three rows of inward curving teeth. I thought it might attack me, but it ducked back into the fog to chase after the rest of its group.
Ever since meeting Beth, I’d wondered why everyone believed such a shy, gentle girl was so dangerous. In that moment, I understood.