B13.c On Wings of Lead

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Malphas never set himself an alarm clock – he didn’t even own one, there was no need. As the day began, he felt his people wake and go about their morning routines, the vibrations of their increased movements propagating through the material he’d filled with his power, reaching him, the contrast to the relative calm of the night enough to wake him from his restless slumber.

He turned onto his side with a groan, the ground he lay on molding itself flawlessly, instinctually, to his body, far more comfortable than any bed could possibly be; people often thought that his room spartan, with no luxuries other than his ever-growing collection of comic books and a single poster, but the truth was, furniture, even a bed, was superfluous – not when he could control the tenements at will, thanks to all the power he’d channeled into the material over the last two years, ever since he created their first incarnation. Even now, as he woke, the ground rose up, pushing him into an upright sitting position, then extended into a chair that was sitting on – once he wanted to rise, it’d be easier to do so from this position than from the ground.

Next, he reached out with his right arm, as a tendril of semi-liquid metal extended, handing him a cup of steaming hot coffee it’d brought from the communal kitchen, in his private metal cup-

The cup slipped through his non-existant fingers as a horrible, stinging pain shot through them, through his arms and into his shoulder.

He screamed, doubling over and off his chair, hitting the ground face-first as the pain – and the knowledge – of his missing limb took over his mind, not even noticing it as the ground melted to receive him, making it look like he’d dove into jelly, sinking in before he rose back up, curled up around the stump of his right arm.

For several minutes, he lay there in just a pair of ratty grey sweatpants, his slender, dark-skinned chest heaving, trying very hard not to hyperventilate – he’d done that a few times, the first few nights after Blauschwinge’s attack, passing out from the strain and the shock.

Fuck. Fucking fucking fucker, fuck you! he thought, as the memory of the arrogant, mad-eyed villain rose up. The contemptuous snarl on his face as he grabbed Volca using his power to simply chop through her body, from shoulder to hip, with one hand, ripping her in two. Lag’s anguished cry, as she ran to her dying cousin, touching her, taking her wounds onto herself.

Taking her death unto herself.

Then, as if that wasn’t horrible enough, he’d flown out, dodging several spikes Malphas had shot his way, those he didn’t simply allow to splash harmlessly off his body, and then smashed his tenements with a single blast, warping and twisting them so violently, even his power hadn’t been able to counteract its brutal deformation, hadn’t been able to evacuate everyone in time before they were crushed, killed.

Never, not once, since he’d gained his power had he failed so thoroughly. It hurt more than losing his arm, in its own way, to have failed the people he’d sworn to protect.

Another lance of pain shot through the space where his arm should be, into the useless stump sticking out from his shoulder, making him bite down on another scream, silently thanking his foresight in sealing up his room, save for a pipe leading outside for air, before he went to sleep, so no one would hear his initial screams.

It took him almost ten minutes to recover enough that he could gather his wits about himself and rise up on shaky feet, using his power to wrap several tendrils around his waist and left shoulder, to steady himself. Another tendril had caught his falling cup earlier and now passed it to him.

Strange, I didn’t think of that, he noticed, his mind still numb from all the pain, almost moaning as the hot black liquid – he hated sweets, never developed a taste for them, and always took his coffee black – ran down his throat and soothed him, while also helping him wake up.

Gulping it down in one go, using his power to make the cup so smooth every last drop would run out, he dropped it, letting it melt back into the rest of the tenements.

Only after taking a few more breaths did he finally look at the stump. It’d been tied off, bandaged expertly, first by Aap Oordra, then later by the staff of the hospital which he and Volca had forced him to go to.

Not that he’d protested much, once the adrenaline had started to fade and the full magnitude of the pain made itself known.

Speaking of which, it was coming back again, so he popped some painkillers from a small can that rose out of the floor, then retreated back into it.

They wouldn’t kick in for a while, but just knowing that they would was already helping, putting his mind a little more at ease.

Taking some deep breaths, he slowly counted down from ten, took a look at his poster – it always lifted his spirits, ever since he’d hit puberty – then simply walked through the wall leading to the hallway outside his bedroom, stepping out fully armoured with metal drawn from it, making his way to the shower room on the top level, where he resided.

Behind him, the floor of his room overturned itself, drawing in the sweat and tears in, channeling them out of the tenements and into the drain, leaving no trace behind.

***

One thorough shower later, the eleven-year-old was clean and relatively fit again, as the painkillers slowly kicked in and he’d removed the last traces of his troubled sleep.

Not that he had long to enjoy it, thanks to his stomach immediately deciding to rumble loudly, announcing its need for food.

I haven’t eaten since lunch yesterday, he realised, startled, even as he felt relieved that he had the top level for himself and no one was around to hear it.

Seeing no pressing business to take care of, he dove through the floor, using his ability to feel all throughout the structure to avoid hitting any of the tenants that moved through the intervening levels. All of them were already quite used to him diving through the tenements in such a fashion, and no one even flinched.

Malphas tried very hard not to dwell on how much emptier the tenements were, compared to before the attack. Not only had he been unable to save eleven of his people, but several more had chosen to move out, scared off by the brutal attack, even though the attacker had been brought down almost immediately afterwards (though Malphas wasn’t sure whether he’d survived or not – that mercenary working for Aap Oordra had taken his body with him, saying he’d take care of everything). He’d told them that they were welcome to return at any time, and he hoped that they’d remember that the tenements were still the safest place to be in in the Undercity, but for now, he felt the absence of twenty-three of his own.

There were few things Malphas hated as much as losing his own.

Fortunately, just as his thoughts were about to turn to all the others he’d lost over the years, he reached the communal kitchen and mess hall that he’d built into this newest iteration of the tenements, while fixing the damage from Blauschwinge’s attack. It was bigger, now, extending all the way up to the roof of the plant above, and broader, the outer walls multi-layered, disconnected from each other while still being reinforced, hopefully making it more resistant against any similar attacks.

He’d taken the chance to add several upgrades that people had been asking for for a while now, including expanding the shared kitchenspace into a proper mess hall, with enough room to provide seats for as many people as could possibly fit into the tenements.

When he got there, he was instantly distracted from his gloomy thoughts as he saw an increasingly rare sight at the tenements, though this one was one he was unambigiously feeling good about.

Volca sat at a table near the actual kitchen, sipping coffee from a huge mug. She was wearing sweatpants and a blue sweater, and her hair was still wet and clinging to her head and neck.

The other tenants kept their distance, mostly moving around her table to get to the coffee machine behind the kitchen counter, and in general doing what they could not to offend her in any way. Ever since Lag’s death, she’d become increasingly irritable and violent, to the point where, during the first days, Malphas – himself still recovering from having lost his arm – had been forced to put her down a few times to prevent her from hurting others.

He’d just about started to consider locking her away for a while, or splitting a part of the tenements off to give her a space of her own, when Aap Oordra had shown up, out of the blue, and offered her and Malphas a job. It hadn’t taken much prodding for her to accept it, though Malphas himself had declined – he didn’t like the thought of being away from his tenements for too long.

She’d calmed down since then, with no more incidents that’d required his intervention, though that was at least partly because she spent less and less time down here, and partly because she was always so tired when she did.

Still, he worried, and he was also curious about things were going, so he decided to join her after getting his own meal.

When he walked to the counter, the cook, Marley, saw him and picked up the pot of coffee from the machine, letting it flow down onto the bare metal counter. A cup formed out of it, catching the glorious java, and a bowl as he simply dumped some stew onto it, already used to the routine.

“Thanks,” he said, his voice much deeper-sounding thanks to his helmet. The short, wiry man behind the counter just nodded (he was mute, as far as Malphas new), picking them up and walking over to Volca. “Mind if I join you?”

The young blonde looked up at him, taking a moment before she responded – not because she had to think it over much, he was sure, but simply because her brain was not quite as awake as the rest of her body, just yet – and nodded. “Sure thing. Your place anyway.”

He nodded back and sat down, his armour immediately fusing with the bench. He picked up the cup of coffee, the lower portion of his helmet folding open (he’d styled it to open kind of like that alien from that old Schwarzenegger movie) to let him drink.

Ah, coffee.

He noticed Volca staring rather intently at him, as he drank, and gave her a questioning look.

“Ah, sorry,” she said, averting her eyes and raising her mug to take a sip. “Just… I can still barely believe that you’re a freaking preteen. Never would’ve guessed.”

He felt his face heat up a bit. “Um, yeah. That’s why I always go around in full armour, you know? I need people to take me seriously, not see me as just a kid, so I can take care of everything.”

She snorted, almost laughing, putting her mug down and looking incredulously at him.

“What?” he asked, defensively. His helmet snapped shut again.

“Malphas, dude, you’re so far beyond being ‘just a kid’ it ain’t even funny anymore,” she replied, grinning at him over her steaming hot mug. “If there’s one thing you don’t need to worry about, it’s anyone ’round here not taking you seriously.” She looked him straight in the eyes, her gaze as intent as her words.

He looked down at his food, looking at his food rather than at her, feeling embarrased. “You think so?” he asked her, not really taking it all that seriously. He knew how adults were about that, treating children like they weren’t able to think properly or something. Like they couldn’t be trusted with anything.

It always annoyed him, seeing how the adults themselves couldn’t really be trusted with anything, ever. One look at the state of the world showed that.

Except for guys like Aap Oordra, he’d rarely met any adults who seemed all that better than kids at being smart. A lot were worse, in his experience, like Volca used to be.

“Yeah, I mean, dude, look around you,” she replied, seeming to wake up fully for the first time and leaning forward over the table even as she gestured at everything around them. “You built this. All of this. On your own. You’re taking care of dozens of people, all alone. You were, what, nine when you started it?”

“Ten,” he grumbled, annoyed. “I started this two years ago. Am almost twelve, now.”

“Yeah, I betya even Double-L and the Dark weren’t this badass at your age! And, and, I mean, dude, you lost an arm defending this place!” She almost shouted that last sentence, then suddenly became a lot calmer, sitting back again and averting her eyes. “The people here love you, Malphas. You don’t need to hide a thing from us, you know? No one who matters is gonna think less of you for being young.”

He had trouble believing that. Especially since it came from Volca, the same woman who thought it was a good idea to put chili powder into coffee and hot chocolate.

“I’ll, uh, I’ll think about that,” he replied. “So, uh, how’s work, anyway? I barely see you around here anymore.” She’d barely spent three nights in the tenements, since the night Lag died. Not that he couldn’t understand that, even disregarding her new job.

She groaned, slamming her head onto the table. “Don’t remind me. Aap’s a fucking slavedriver,” she said, muffled. “I don’t just have to work full-time, I also have to train. ‘Until you’re up to my minimum standards’ he says. ‘So I don’t have to worry you’ll get yourself killed by some random crook’ he says.”

“Uh, training? What kind of training?” he asked, surprised. He hadn’t heard about that.

“What kind of training? Easier to say what kind of training he’s not giving me!” she complained loudly, making several heads turn their way, though the other tenants still kept their distance, giving the two metahumans their room. “He’s having me study to get my GED, and to get a proper, legal license both for the job and as a cape. A cape, me! Plus combat training, and investigative training, and negotiation practice and it ain’t the normal stuff either, you know? I looked it up, the kinda stuff he makes me learn, even the cops’ special forces don’t do that much! I dunno who trained him, but it must’ve been a complete sadist! Today’s my day off from training – not work, just training – otherwise I’d be out jogging with a backpack full of rocks while getting quizzed on crime scene procedure. And his pop quizzes! Any time we’re not on the clock, he might attack me, out of the blue! To test whether I’ve been practicing all the reversals and tricks he’s teaching me! And he says we’re just getting started!”

Malphas couldn’t help but gulp, feeling glad that he’d dodged a bullet by refusing Aap’s job offer. Even though he’d been really, really eager to accept, if only to spend more time with him. Aap was freaking awesome. The coolest adult he’d ever met, ever.

Still, what Volca was telling him sounded like the proverbial training from hell.

“That… sounds a little extreme, yeah,” he agreed with her. “Does he, uh, what does he do, while you train?”

She shrugged, while remaining bent over, her head on the table. “Most of the time, he trains with me. Does all the stuff he makes me do. ‘cept when he takes on some extra work and is busy. Then he has Wa- I mean, Cartastrophy watch over it instead.”

“Well, at least je doesn’t make you do anything he ain’t willing to do himself, right?” he pressed.

She looked up, finally, looking annoyed, and waved it off. “Nah, he’s pretty cool ’bout that. He’s done it all when he was little, already, and he does it again with me. And he even pays me for the hours I spend training. Well, will pay me. Haven’t got my first paycheck yet, just a signing bonus.”

He tilted his head to the side. “A signing bonus? How much did he pay you?” he asked, curiously. If he’d understood it correctly, Aap had just returned from being some kind of prisoner of war – how much money could he already have, really?

“Ten k,” she said, grinning. “First time I made this much money the honest way and all at once. Or any way, really.”

His eyes nearly bugged out. “T-ten thou? Seriously? Where’s he get all that money!?” That may not have been all that much up top, but ten thousand dollar were one hell of a fortune down here.

She waved an arm. “Savings from before he went to war. Plus, he got money from the government. Basically, they paid him his salary as a non-com for every single day he spent as a PoW. And on top of that, bounty for turning the Ascendant in. Guy’s a freaking millionaire, not that he seems to care about it, ‘cept how it lets him set up his new business.”

Malphas jaw was hanging open in shock as he processed that. He knew Volca was gonna be making money now, real money, not the occasional take from some crime, but if that was just her signing bonus

“Ah, this reminds me,” she continued, laying her arm on the table and resting her chin on her hand, looking straight at him again. “You’re gettin’ some of that, too.”

“W-what?”

“The bounty, silly,” she grinned at him. “Aap’s insisting that everyone who helped with the fight at the water works gets a cut, ‘cept for that stoic mercenary he’d hired – he got paid already, or sumthin’.”

“Seriously? I, uh, I dunno what to say. How much am I gettin’?” he asked dumbly, not sure what else to say.

“Bounty was a few million. Got paid out to him and he’s giving us all an equal share, after taxes and all. That’s you, me, Cartastrophy and himself, so about, a little less than a mill each, once the money comes in.”

He felt the people move about in the tenements, going about their business, some leaving to get to whatever small jobs they had, or just to scavenge or do other stuff. Time passed.

Volca got up and went to get herself some beef barley soup, then came back, sitting down to eat. Time passed.

“You know, I’d say it’s funny seein’ ya look like a statue, but then I realised you always look like that, anyway,” she commented, when he’d still not said anything halfway into her meal.

“Uhhh…” He shook his head, trying to recover his wits again, then groaned when the jerky motion made pain shoot through his stump.

It wasn’t important, though, because, damn it, he’d never even seen that much money, nevermind had been told it would be his. And now Aap Oordra wanted to give him nearly a million dollars, when he’d basically taken down the Ascendant and his cronies all on his own?

“I, um, I really don’t know what to say,” he replied. “What, uh, what do I have to do to get the money?” he asked the only thing that came to mind, or at least the only one that wasn’t him just babbling incoherently.

“Just come with me to the office,” she replied between two spoonfuls of soup. “You can talk to Aap and get all the info.”

“Leave the tenements? But, I need to-” he began to protest, but she cut him off.

“Dude, it’s gonna be alright if you’re gone for just a morning or something,” she said, annoyed. “Besides, what do you think is gonna help this place more? You being here this mornin’, or you havin’ nine-hundred kay to throw around?”

He looked away, embarrassed. She was right, of course, but… leaving the tenements, his place of power behind… it wasn’t just that something might happen to people around here, it was, it wasn’t something he really felt comfortable doing. Ever. Even leaving them to go after the Ascendant, it had been one of the hardest things he’d ever done.

Volca finished her soup and got up. “So, you comin’? I got a schedule to keep, so I can’t hang around and wait, big guy.”

He looked at her, then he looked around at the other people in the mess hall. Most of them were focused on their food or their conversations, but a few noticed him looking at them and looked back, smiling and waving.

Everyone here was ragged, their clothes old, some of them handed down half a dozen or more times, within the tenements. Food was just a thin beef barley soup, water and coffee from a scavenged coffee machine they’d somehow fixed up, but which kept breaking, over and over again.

Forget nine hundred thousand, I could do so much for people around here with just nine hundred dollars, period.

That thought was what decided him, finally, and he stood up, nodding to her. “Alright, let’s go.”

***

“You know, I haven’t seen the sun in months?” he asked Volca, as they left the Undercity through an old, abandoned subway station, stepping out onto the open street and drawing no few looks. He’d left his armour behind, putting on some real clothes – well, more than just underpants and sweatpants – for the first time in a long time, and that alone was making him incredibly nervous, but even so, at his age, and with just one arm, he was drawing stares.

At least his sweater hid the bandages around the stump, so it wasn’t evident that it was a recent injury, and not just something he’d been born with or whatever.

He didn’t like it, feeling both pitied and exposed, two things he really did not want to feel.

“You should get out more,” she replied, walking ahead confidently, her hands in the pockets of her jeans. New jeans, not brand-name stuff, but still, new and well-fitting, and a stylish black sweater, her hair up in a messy ponytail, and just a touch of actual make-up on her face.

Maybe it wasn’t just him who was drawing stares. He’d never really thought about it, but walking with her now, out of costume and all, he couldn’t help but notice that she was really quite… attractive.

It was quite annoying really, ever since about two months ago, he’d been noticing girls more and more. The poster on the wall of his bedroom being Exhibit A of his newly awakened interest in the formerly icky half of the population.

At least most of the women living in the tenements – ‘cept for Lag and Volca, and now just Volca – weren’t all that pretty, so he hadn’t gotten tongue-tied or anything in front of people yet.

At least Volca was someone he’d known since before he’d started noticing girls, so he could talk to her normally.

“Maybe I should,” he told her, as they walked down the street. “The breeze feels nice.” It was a windy day in the Windy City, and it was really refreshing. It even made his stump throb less painfully.

All the noise around them wasn’t nearly so nice, though. The Undercity wasn’t exactly tranquil, but up here, it was a cacophony. Cars driving around, people walking, talking, shouting. Electronics, everywhere, beeping and screeching and more.

He focused on the way ahead, trying to shut the worst of it now, but it did distract him briefly, so he missed the first part of Volca’s next sentence.

“- sometime after the next months starts,” she said.

“Huh? Sorry, I got distracted, what’d you say?” he asked her, wishing he could look up at her face as they talked, but he didn’t have the tenements around him to feel where he was going, and know when he was about to walk into someone, so he was focusing on where he was going, moving much slower than usual and not just because his legs were shorter without his armour.

“I said I’ll probably be moving out once I get my cut of the bounty and my first paycheck,” Volca repeated.

He stopped dead, looking at her in shock. She moved on a few more steps, before she noticed that he’d stopped and turned around to look at him, looking confused, first, then sympathetic as she seemed to pick up on his mood.

“Y-you’re leaving?” he asked, dismayed. It wasn’t like he didn’t understand… the tenements were a place for people to hide out and rest, until they got their life back on track, and it was also the place where her cousin had died, and she was making money now, too, but…

But… he hated it when people left. No matter how good the reason.

She smiled sadly at him, moving closer and bending over as one of her hands slid to the back of his head, pulling him forward to touch her forehead to his.

“Hey, don’t be sad big guy,” she spoke softly. “I won’t disappear. I’ll still visit, and I’ll be helping out – you and the others down there, you did so much for me and Nina, there’s no way I could just abandon ya all. But I gotta find a place for myself, now that I can.”

He averted his eyes, even as he leaned against her, enjoying the gentle touch – a rarity, even when one discounted the fact that he was wrapped in several inches of steel most of the time. “I know. I’m sorry for being silly, it’s just…”

“You’re not being silly, big guy. Just… being you. And I freaking love you for that, you know?” She pulled back, then leaned in again, giving him a warm kiss on the forehead.

When she pulled back, the warmth stayed, spreading from his forehead through his head, and down towards his chest as he looked up at her. They were both a little teary-eyed.

“Thanks, Volca. And… congratulations, I guess. I should’ve said so sooner, but… I’m really glad you’ve found something like this.”

She laughed quietly. “Thank you, big guy, but really, that’s just thanks to Aap. I still dunno why he insisted on hirin’ me, it’s not like he can’t do everything I can do, just better, anyway. But I sure am grateful that he’s such a weirdo. Anyway, speaking of said weirdo, he’s gonna put me through hell if I’m late, so let’s get a move on!” She ran her hand through his close-cropped hair, then turned around and walked on.

He stared after her for a few moments, then he gave a start, and followed her.

***

They reached her new jobplace soon. It stood near the Downtown area of Chicago, though Malphas didn’t know enough about the upper city to identify the precise location. There were a lot of shops around, but also a few apartment buildings, plus a homely little park with a playground.

The building Aap’s business was in must have once been a bar or something. Only two storeys tall, it was made of red bricks, with a solid wooden double-door that a short flight of stairs led up to and stained-glass windows.

What stood out the most, though, was the sign above it. A circular carving of a monkey wearing one of those Sherlock-Holmes hats, holding a magnifying glass and a baton, and next to it, in bright golden letters, the words ‘Blue Monkey Investigative and Protective Services’.

He was just about to ask Volca what those weird hats were called, when the door opened and the absolutely prettiest girl he’d ever seen walked out.

She was tall, taller than Volca even though she was clearly at least a year or two younger, with chocolate-coloured, unblemished skin that didn’t match her more white-ish facial features, but strangely complemented them, and bright, gorgeous purple eyes, as well as rich brown-black hair currently up in a braided bun. Wearing black tights, calf-high boots, a skirt and a pink keyhole sweater, she drew the attention of every guy on the street with a line of sight towards her.

“Oh, Hennessy,” Volca greeted her with a chargrined smirk. “Looking good as ever, but shouldn’t you be in school?”

The gorgeous girl rolled her eyes at Volca, but didn’t reply, instead looking at Malphas and giving him a gentle smile that made his knees weak.

Holy shit… How the fuck could girls be so distracting without even talking?

Then another person stepped out of the door, turning around with the same motion as she seemed to be talking to someone inside.

“-dare forget it, or I’ll make your life hell!” she shouted, sounding angry in a cheery kind of way, before she turned around.

She was a freaking goddess. Even prettier than the purple-eyed girl, and that was saying a lot, her skin was as pale as her friend’s – at least, they seemed to be friends, as she stepped forward and took the other girl’s hand with hers – was dark, her hair a rich golden colour and her eyes a mesmerising green-blue, like liquid jewels. She was wearing jeans so tight they seemed painted on, high-heeled boots that made her as tall as the other girl and a complementary blue sweater with a keyhole cut out and she was even more stacked than her friend.

Some part of Malphas mind was realising that he was staring at her with his mouth hanging open, but most of it was just endlessly repeating blue screen.

“Oh, hello Evelyn,” the blonde goddess – or was angel more appropriate? – greeted Volca, before she focused on him. “Oh, and who’s this cutie?” She grinned, walking down the steps, her friend following after her as she came to a halt in front of him and bending over to put herself at eye-level with him. “What’s your name, sweetie?”

He tried very, very, very hard not to stare at her breasts, which weren’t really hidden all that much from view in this position. He really, really tried.

“Uhh… ahhh…” he replied dumbly, really wishing he had his armour – then at least he could seal his helmet and not seem like a complete idiot. “Um, my name, uh, it’s, uh…” What was his name again?

“God, Camille, lay it off with the charm,” Volca complained.

The angel rolled her eyes, laughing before she focused on him again. “I’m not doing anything to him, silly. Just being friendly.”

He finally tore his eyes off her, her cleavage, and looked up at her face, gathering his wits for his reply. “Um, I, my name, my name’s Adrian, m-m-miss.” He gulped, trying to somehow wet his dry throat.

“Hello Adrian. My name’s Camille,” she replied, her voice as melodic as her body was gorgeous, and stood up – mercifully – offering him her left hand to shake.

He took it, shaking it. “A, a, a pleasure to meet you, miss,” he said.

“Likewise. And this is Hennessy,” she introduced her gorgeous friend. They shook hands, too, as he felt a wave of calmness come over him, helping him relax and gather his wits again.

“Nice to meet you too, miss,” he said, though she didn’t reply. Not that he cared, he was still mostly focused on the other girl.

Suddenly, Volca spoke up. “Hey, do you two have some time free?”

The girls looked at her, then at each other, then at her again. “Sure we do, why?” Camille asked curiously.

“Well, I got work to get to, and I thought, maybe you’d like to show Adrian around the place a bit, and stuff?” Volca suggested.

He whirled his head, staring at her in surprise, but she ignored him entirely, focusing on the two younger girls instead.

Camille grinned, looking at him again, and he felt his face flush with heat. Even more when her eyes briefly dipped to the stump of his arm, then up to his face again, with just a hint of pity in them – though it didn’t bother him at all right now. “Sure! We can hang out a bit, maybe grab a bite to eat?”

“Sounds great,” Volca said. “Ok, Adrian, you have a fun time and we can take care of business later, you ok with that?”

“Uh, ah, um, ahhhh.”

She nodded sagely. “I knew you’d agree. Have fun you three!” She waved at him, and walked past the girls into the building.

He stared after her, for a moment, feeling both bewildered and a little bit betrayed, before he turned his eyes back to the an- Camille.

She grinned at him, like… he didn’t know what to compare it to, it was too dazzling.

Instead of pressing the point, she held out her free hand for him. “C’mon, sweetie, let’s go have some fun!”

He took her hand, unable to form words, and let her pull him along, he on one side and Hennessy on another.

He didn’t even notice that his arm wasn’t hurting at all anymore.

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B011.13 Monkey Family

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I curved around the little show Blauschwinge seemed intent on putting on and reached the actual tenements. The warped structure seemed to have been hit by a giant’s fist or something, though I was hoping that Blauschwinge wasn’t actually capable of this kind of destruction with but a single blow – that’d put him right up there with Lady Light in terms of raw offensive power, and I’d learned my lesson about challenging someone like that a long time ago (or perhaps not, seeing how I’d actually tried to fight my even more destructive half-sister).

Getting into the tenements was the next problem I found myself faced with. The structure had been warped so badly – both by whatever attack had first deformed, and then by what I assumed to be Malphas’ power used to retaliate – that even the formerly open walls were mostly gone, and where they remained, they had been turned into small slits or holes, many leading nowhere. I had to rely on my sense of smell more than anything to navigate, and raw strength to actually open up a path, most of the time.

While Warren made a mess outside – I could smell whatever napalm-like compound he was using burn – I followed the scent of blood, and the two young people it originated from.

Lots of blood, and even the monkey had gone deathly quiet now.

I forced open a twisted mess of pipes and metal wall and stepped into an uneven cave of a room. Lag and Malphas were there, lying in total darkness. It was only thanks to my monkey’s sight that I saw anything at all.

Any help I might have rendered came too late for Lag. Something had cut through the woman, from her left shoulder down to her right hip, the wound ragged, rough, unlike anything I could compare it to off the top of my head (and I’d seen a lot). I was glad that her mask covered her face entirely, so I didn’t have to see her facial expression. Poor Volca…

I stepped over her torso – the rest of her had been caught up and crushed by the twisting metal, with blood still dripping down from the ceiling – and waded through inches of blood to Malphas’ side.

His right arm was missing from just below the shoulder, cut in the same manner as Lag’s body. Whatever power Blauschwinge – and I had no doubt that he was the one responsible – used, it had gone through his metal armor the same way as it had through his flesh and bone. The boy was breathing heavily, but he barely bled – his power was at work, metal moving, stopping the bleeding by forming a tourniquet on his short stump. It was temporary, at best, and he needed some help, stat.

I knelt down next to the boy. “Malphas, can you hear me?” I said, opening the monkey’s jaws wide, pulled back to reveal my head. “Can you talk?”

“Y-yes,” he said with a thin, shaky voice. The bravado from our last meeting was gone, and he sounded like he would be crying, if only he had the breath to spare. He sounded like a child. “F-f-fucker… killed… Lag…”

“I know.” I made a quick check, but there really wasn’t much I could tell about his state with his fullbody-armor still in the way. “Malphas, I need to get you out of here,” If only so you can breathe properly, “and I need to check you over. Can you open up your armor?”

It took him a moment to mull that over, his head turned so his eyes were fixated on me, or perhaps it just took a while for him to properly process it. Then he nodded, and his armor opened up in a single fluid, but slow, motion that looked weirdly organic. “Talk to me, Malphas,” I said as I waited for him to open it up. “You have to stay awake.”

“Uhu. What should… I say?” he asked, his voice too weak, especially without his helmet’s distortion at work, now that it had opened, finally giving me a good look at the person beneath.

I had speculated that he was a young teen before, then considered that he might even be barely a teen. Both had been wrong.

“Anything. Where do you come from?”

If the boy I saw lying there in a shirt and short pants, with a mass of steel around the stump of his arm, was a day over thirteen, I’d be very, very surprised. In fact, I would’ve bet him to be closer to twelve than thirteen.

“South Africa. I was… born in some place… South Africa. Don’t remember the name. But… don’t remember it. Left when I was a baby. We fled from… warlord… Aheri… ethnic cleansing…”

Fuck, he’s younger than I was when I set out on my own, I thought as I urged him to keep talking. If he was talking, then he was awake, and I’d know instantly if he slipped into unconsciousnes.

“Came on… ship… me and dad and mom and my big brother, but… ship sank… miles before coast. Dad swam all the way… to land… carried me and bro… mom drowned.”

Using my ridiculously oversized left hand, I carefully craddled the boy to my chest and took him quickly outside the structure, into more open air. “Keep talking, son. Tell me more.” Not that I hadn’t known people with the background I saw unfold before. It was all too common for people from that region, unfortunately enough.

I’d never heard of Aheri, though. Then again, most of those warlords usually cycled through every two or three months, anyway.

“Lived on… streets… Undercities… Dad and Bro worked, but… Bro angry, ’cause Dad didn’t save Mom, too.” He sobbed, and I wasn’t sure whether it was due to physical discomfort, or the memories.

I could barely hear the fight as I put him down – wincing along with him when the movement caused him even more pain – and carefully tore his shirt open to check his torso.

“One day… Bro went to work… didn’t come back… Never found out why. Dad just… he stopped. On the inside. He kept going on the outside, working to take care of me, but… a year later, he stopped on the outside, too. I was… six?”

It was a mess of blue and green bruises, and I felt at least two broken ribs when I checked over his ribcage with one hand (causing him to gasp for air). I had to work hard, and for that, I dismissed the monkey’s skin, taking off my expensive jacket to turn it into practical bandages. “How’d you get your powers?” I asked, just to keep him talking.

“Undercity… cave-in. I was stuck… under rubble…”

I nodded. Classic, straightforward trigger for such a power. “Why’d you become a hero?” I removed the metal from the stump of his arm, using a rag of my jacket to clean it off – despite his cries – and then made a proper tourniquet with several of my impromptu bandages, so it’d hold even if he passed out and his power stopped working.

“After dad… stopped… was in… Vegas. Savage Six came. Mindfuck, he came after me, other kids. We ran, tried to flee, but how do you flee from someone coming after you inside your head?” He cried out again as I began to wrap his ribcage, to provide some stiff support for his ribs. “Then I saw… him. Boy, just a bit older than me… killed him. He killed him, just like that.”

I sighed, knowing where this story went. I’d never run into the Six myself, before, but I knew their MO, especially Mindfuck’s. Everyone did, really. “You watched the boy die, and decided to protect people?”

“N-no. The boy… he killed Mindfuck. Saw it through… Mindfuck’s eyes. Boy killed him. Did worse to him, before he killed him.”

Wait, what? I stopped my work on the bandages to focus on his face. He had a mystified expression on it, but he seemed to have his wits about him. A kid killed Mindfuck?

“I thought… he was just… nine? Something like that. If someone that age can… kill a monster like that… then surely I can… I can do some good, too? So when I… when I got my powers, I decided to… to make a place. For all the lost ones, like me and dad and bro and that boy. So I made my tenements…” He turned his head to look at the smashed structure, and now I saw tears come out of his eyes. “I’ll have to… start over again.”

And over, and over. Such things don’t last in this world, I thought, but didn’t say. “I’m sure you will,” I said instead. Then I covered myself in my monkey skin again, listening to the battle – I could still hear Warren’s armor move and shoot, so I knew he was still alive. Judging by the amount of rage-fueled screaming, Volca was still alive, as well. “I need to go fight.”

He looked at me, his eyes glazed over with pain, but nodded. “Can you… put me closer to it? I can still… control the metal… for protection… if I touch it.”

Carefully, I picked him up and carried him to the warped structure. As soon as I leaned him against it, the metal flowed under him, forming a solid metal chair he could sit on. Some more movement deposited Lag’s remains nearby, as well as bits and pieces of other people.

I averted my eyes and turned to go, but a tendril of cool metal reached out, grabbing my elbow. I looked over my shoulder at the boy, feeling the monkey’s face distort in annoyance at the delay.

“W-wait!” he said. “Got to… tell you… his power.”

Ah. Yeah, that would be useful. “I’m listening.”

“Flies… not very strong… not very tough… but more than usual. Blast attack… but not very strong, either.” I looked up at the damage the guy had done to the structure, then back at him. The monkey’s face wasn’t that good at conveying skepsis, but I did my best. “Real power… in his eyes. Looks at things… weakens them. Gradually, but quickly. Attacks loose… force… defenses become… weak… bodies…” He glanced at Lag’s remains and at his stump. “T-t-tested… before he… hit me. Power only works… on what he sees. Effect fades once… once he’s not focusing his sight… on target. Raised metal wall… he made it weak, I could feel it… through my power.” He stopped, taking a few quick breaths. “Drew in… affected material, replaced it. Effect faded… within seconds.”

“So he’s not very tough, nor very strong, but he can weaken attacks and defenses enough that he’s functionally far more powerful,” I summarised it. I glanced at Lag. “And it apparently circumvents certain defences entirely.”

He nodded, but didn’t respond. I nodded back and left.

***

Thank God for supervillains in love with their own voice. As annoying as they can be, the advantage it poses to those of a more pragmatic disposition is simply invaluable.

When I came around the warped tenements, I found Blauschwinge in the air, unharmed, his long cape waving dramatically (how do they do that? I’d never been able to do a cape, and I’d tried) as he ranted something in heavily accented English. I didn’t bother to listen, and just looked for my allies.

Volca was standing behind a torn and partly melted mass of rusty pipes, just barely out of sight from Blauschwinge and just barely in my sight, her chest heaving as she tried to catch her breath. Her costume had taken some damage, as had her body undearneath – so much so that I suspected she was only a short while away from passing out due to blood loss.

Warren was nearby, the bulk of his power suit barely hidden from Blauschwinge’s sight by a piece of the ground that had risen up due to an earlier impact. The right arm was wrecked, mostly gone beneath the elbow and the rest that remained twisted and useless, but he seemed to have sustained no further damage.

Nor had he caused any to Blauschwinge, however.

Well, that’s what I’m best at. Causing lots and lots of damage.

And if Malphas’ analysis of his power was correct, then that meant I could probably take him down with one hit.

<Aap, you hear me?> Warren’s voice suddenly rang in my ear, startling me. I’d completely forgotten that I was wearing an earpiece of his – how embarrassing.

“Loud and clear, my friend. How’re things going?” I said as I hid behind the corner of the tenements. “Need me to speed blitz this ass?”

<I don’t think that’s going to be so easy. I’m not sure how he does it, but he’s been slowing down my shots, making them stupidly easy to dodge, if they didn’t just fall to the ground halfway to him.>

Well, that was interesting. Disconcerting, but interesting. “Malphas briefed me on his power, but he didn’t tell me it also sapped speed.”

<Yeah, this ass is a lucky one. Seems to cover all the bases. He’s countered everything angry girl and me threw at him, just by looking at it. And he’s royally messed with my armor!>

Somehow, I was sure he’d have preferred it if he’d lost an arm, not that armor of his. “I have a plan. Can you distract him?”

<His sight even works on motherfucking acid, dude. I’m not sure I have anything that could affect him.>

Wow, that’s one hell of a power. “You didn’t answer my question. Can you distract him?”

<I can try. Just tell me when, and I’ll give it my best shot.>

I didn’t hesitate. “Go!”

He rose up from behind his cover, aiming his gun at Blauschwinge. The villain immediately turned to face him, which gave me a clear shot at his side, just barely out of his peripheral vision.

I ran, without even bothering to wait and see what Warren would fire at him. There was no way I could use my top speed – there wasn’t enough room, and I was more likely to simply run into a wall than manage to hit shit at top speed, anyway – but going from zero to a hundred and forty in three seconds flat was still pretty good.

The sewage plant had taken heavy damage, the ground was cracked… really, the entire foundation had probably taken too much damage by now. No way this was safe anymore. But it did provide me with a lot of small ramps to pick and choose from, and I ran straight for one halfway between me and Blauschwinge, and just leapt up and towards him like a monkey-shaped missile, aiming for his neck (I’d only promised to bring in the Ascendant alive, if possible).

He whirled around as soon as I kicked off the ground, even though there’d been no way he could’ve seen or heard me coming. As soon as his gaze fell on me, I was hit with the full force of his power.

God. Fucking. Dammit! I could feel myself slowing down even before I visibly did so, I could feel the monkey skin weakening, and I could very much see his fist moving to intercept my flight.

I didn’t know whether he was strong enough to kill me with one punch, without my monkey skin’s protection, I didn’t know whether it maybe reached beneath the skin and into my actual body – so I decided not to risk a direct hit, and I aborted my attack, crossing my arms in front of me to take his punch; even if I were to lose them, as long as I survived, I was sure my father’s people could put me back together.

His fist connected with my crossed forearms and punched through the monkey’s skin like the Fist of God.

It was far less godly when it connected with my forearms. Though it hurt – pound for pound, he was probably stronger than me, not counting monkey skin and weakening gaze – it only threw me away from him without causing further damage.

“Ha, I knew you’d try an underhanded trick like thaaaaaa-!” His boast was cut off as my tail wrapped around his throat from behind. I pulled, swinging myself behind him and out of the area of effect of his gaze.

As soon as I left it, I felt the effect start to fade, though if it’d penetrated to my actual body, I would not have trusted myself to survive, say, a hug from Princess Charity without major damage. But my tail had remained unaffected, as I’d first hidden it behind my body, then reached around beneath and behind him – Malphas had been right, he needed to actually have the specific object he wanted to weaken in his sight, and my tail hadn’t been.

The villain sputtered, choking as I landed on all fours behind him and pulled him down with my tail.

He made a most satisfying crack when I slammed him into the ground, but it didn’t put him down for more than a few seconds – I felt him grip my tail a little away from his neck and simply tear it apart as soon as his gaze got a hold of it. Moments before I would’ve crushed his throat, too.

Annoying power. I didn’t waste time turning around, and just jumped backwards, to slam into him before he could use his power on me directly, turning only once I was airborne – but he was fast, faster than I would’ve expected, rising up from the ground in a practiced pirouette that made his cape flare dramatically, and also served to throw off dust.

His gaze hit me moments before the green-blue energy blast from his clenched fist did, his face twisted in anger. It didn’t have time to really weaken me enough to cause serious damage, but once more, he arrested my movement, interrupting my assault on him. And this time, he also blasted my tail away with a shot from his other fist.

“You! Will! DIE!” he shouted and flew towards me – only to pull off an impressive evasion, twisting like a corkscrew, to dodge Warren’s own tackle. He simultaneously looked at my friend’s power armor’s shoulder, and kicked it, tearing off his remaining arm.

Prescient, maybe. Smart, definitely not. He’d turned his back to me, never a good idea when dealing with a Speedster.

I capitalised by slamming my hands into the ground and throwing two chunks of concrete the size of an adult at him, following closely with the projectiles doubling as cover.

Again, he reacted faster than any human could on his own, blasting my projectiles to bits – and turning them into nicely concealing clouds of concrete dust.

I soared through the dust, using my scent to keep track of him, but again he acted too quickly even for me, flipping up over my attack before I’d even started emerging from the cloud.

His blast knocked me into the ground, tearing through the back of the monkey. Fuck me, this almost hurt.

He was laughing again, a demented, all-too-familiar laugh. “See? See!? You can’t stand against me, I’m-“

Warren interrupted his tirade by throwing his disconnected arm at Blauschwinge, but the villain only caught it, rather casually, with one hand, holding it by its upper portion, the elbow bent and the gun swinging wildly left and right as he shook it in contempt.

“Was that supposed to hurt me, little Tüftler? Throwing pieces of your little toy at me? What’re you going to do next, throw yourself at me?” He grinned wildly at my friend, and I almost took the chance to leap at him, but then Warren surprised both of us.

“No,” he said out loud, but calmly. “I’m going to use the remote control.

Blauschwinge’s eyes widened, his face turning towards the canon even as he threw it away from himself – but it was too late. It lit up, firing a glob of blue-hot liquid fire at his face.

I could see his power working on it, immediately, much faster than it had worked on my monkey skin, the heat diminishing visibly, reduced to a red glow, but he could not evade it anymore, and it took him in the face, more napalm splattering onto his shoulders and chest.

Blauschwinge screamed louder than I’d heard anyone scream in a long time, his arms clawing at his face, trying to scoop the napalm away – but that only served to burn his hands too, and it let some of it flow into his mouth, turning his screams into gargled sounds of pain. I heard his flesh sizzle before I even smelled it.

But Warren was not done. As the arm fell to the ground, he fired a second shot, and without Blauschwinge’s power to lessen it, it took off the man’s right leg at the knee.

Blauschwinge collapsed, even though he was still floating above the ground, screaming and trashing around, face, neck, chest, arms and leg stump burning as he thrashed around to no avail.

Both Warren and I approached him slowly, ready to strike again, but it seemed he was done.

“Time to pay the piper, asshole,” Warren said as a smaller, human-sized (but clearly robotic) arm folded out of the chest of his armor, holding a simple handgun. “No one touches my family and gets away with it!” He pulled the trigger.

My hand shot forward, the bullet hitting the monkey’s open palm to no effect. “No,” I said firmly.

His ‘head’ turned to look at me, and I could guess what kind of facial expression he had there. “Why’re you stopping me?”

“You’re no murderer, Warren. If you want him dead, I’ll do it. But not you,” I said calmly, far more gentle than I was used to while covered in the monkey’s skin. “It would haunt you forever.”

“Aap, I…” He turned to look at the struggling man, as did I – just in time to see Volca get behind him and punch him with her volcanic arm.

Blauschwinge’s head rocked back as her fist punched cleanly through his chest, back to front, the heat so great it burned the wound shut before any blood could flow.

He collapsed entirely, going limp, and slid to the ground as she lowered her arm, her other hand still normal flesh, applying pressure to a wound on her side.

We all looked down at the figure, his face and hands burned down to an unrecognisable mess, his eyes gone entirely. He looked almost pathetically small now, wasted.

“No one fucks with my family and gets away with it, either,” Volca snarled.

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