|Playing House -- continued!
||[Feb. 5th, 2010|02:21 pm]
CoX Fan Art and Fan Fiction
“No,” Arthur said.
He felt very cold and still inside. Mid-Knight had always warned about this, cautioned against this. That eventually, it was bound to happen. Someone would guess, or find out, or let something slip. Recognition. Realization. Discovery.
And it had happened before. That time, though …
He glanced at Amelia, who stood with Gwen, rubbing her cheek on the baby’s and interspersing quick little comforting kisses and murmurs. Her brown eyes, soft and sympathetic and understanding, held his for a moment that went through him like a tremor.
The irony occurred that if Mom hadn’t told Amelia that piece of history herself just twelve or so hours ago, right now she’d be rocked by that bombshell Glad Rags had just dropped.
His mother, a former villain. A notorious thief. A criminal. The kind of person that the two of them dedicated a good chunk of their lives toward tracking down, arresting, putting behind bars. The enemy. The reason the world needed heroes who’d put on costumes and masks.
But Amelia knew. And it hadn’t changed anything in the way she viewed his mother … his family … him.
“You’re nuts,” he said to Glad Rags. “Nobody would believe you. There’s no proof.”
Not even Arthur himself had all the details. Mid-Knight had been more guarded than normal about that. Those files were kept under the strictest secrecy. As Arthur or as Aspirant – as Squire during his stint serving as the then-presumed-dead Lance’s replacement – he’d never been given access to those most private records.
Maybe there were darker truths than any of the rest of them knew about, buried deep in Mid-Knight’s vaults.
Not murder, though. Never murder. That, he rejected outright. Accidents, okay. And suicides like the one Glad Rags had described, in the wake of a robbery or other incident, he supposed those could in a way be laid at Noirenard’s feet.
But not murder. She fought when she had to, only to escape, using non-lethal weapons. She wasn’t a killer. That much, he did know. He was sure.
“Proof?” Glad Rags did a slow-motion pantomiming marionette-coming-to-life move, rising from the floor as if being pulled by unseen strings that occasionally tangled to twitch and jerk her limbs. “Proof is for the police. For the courts. Phooey on proof.”
“Then what do you want out of this?” he asked. “Is it supposed to be some kind of blackmail or what?”
“Like I care about that,” she sneered. And then, despite the greasepaint smile, her face became one of the cruelest and most vicious masks of malice Arthur had ever seen. “I want her to have her whoooooole life come crashing down on her head. I want people to see how she really is. I want shame, and scandal, and outrage! I want one of the richest men in the world to know how he’s been duped and made a fool of!”
“It won’t change what happened,” Arthur said. His throat was tight. “It won’t bring your father back.”
“Duh! This isn’t time travel!” She kicked her other sneaker off, toe-flipped it at him, and he batted it aside without a second thought. “I just want her to have to stand up and admit to everybody what she is and what she’s done … confess it all to save her precious brats … and then pay the price!”
“That’s Smyles’ ransom demand?” Which didn’t bode well … if it was only about money, his parents would go along with it, until the chance came to either send in the rescue party or take care of it themselves. This, though …
Glad Rags eyerolled. “Nooo, don’t be dumb. You think I’d tell him what I knew, or Grinz, or any of those jokers? They have their plot, I have mine!”
Better. Not great, but better. Better than Smyle knowing. And Glad Rags only had half of the story; she didn’t have the rest … that was something, at least …
“I want her to feel how my daddy felt, when his kids couldn’t walk down the street or go to school without everyone whispering and pointing. I want you and your brother to hate her for it! I want Baby Gwenny-Poo over there to grow up not getting to be the darling princess in that lying murdering bitch’s fairy tale!”
Arthur could hardly breathe for a hot, cinching constriction in his chest. He’d heard the phrase ‘saw red’ a thousand times before, but now it actually did seem as if he was, a film descending over his vision. The fights, the battles, the now-it’s-personal clashes with this villain or that thug … he’d been yelled at, sworn at … he’d had people dislike him, try to kill him …
But this sheer spiteful animosity, which wasn’t even directed specifically at him, staggered him. That anyone could feel that way … about anyone … sustained for so long … was almost beyond comprehension.
To have it be about his mother …?
“You’re awful,” Amelia said, voice cracking. “And don’t you get it? Even if you did that, even if you got what you wanted, everything you wanted, all you’d be doing would be making Gwen want to grow up just like you.”
Glad Rags turned toward her, mouth dropping open in that exaggerated hurt moue. “Oh, now that just hurt my feelings.”
“Except she wouldn’t,” Amelia went on, rubbing Gwen’s back. “Because she can be better than that. You could have, too. If you’d tried.”
“I don’t think I like you very much, babysitter girl. You’re lippy. You think because you’re screwing around with the prince over here, that makes you special?”
“I’m not--!” She sputtered.
The office door opened yet again, and Be Happy poked his head back in. “Been ten,” he said, “and Glads, Grinz wants you downstairs, think we’re about to make the breaking news. Emergency press conference in Haven, sounds like.”
“Ooh!” Glad Rags skip-hopped in place, patting her hands together, then danced a little jig over to the door. Once there, she flipped her skirt at Arthur and blew him a kiss. “Seeya, seeya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!”
And out. The door closed. The lock clicked.
He lowered his head. Eyes shut. Hands at his sides, body rigid. Trying to control his breathing. Heard Amelia moving, the crinkle of newspaper as she returned Gwen to the recliner and told her to stay right there jellybean stay there be a good girl.
Then her steps approaching. Her light touch on his elbow. “Hey …”
“That crazy clown-doll is going to destroy my family,” he said without looking up.
“We’re not going to let her do that,” Amelia said.
His fists clenched and his shoulders shook.
“Arthur … hey … c’mere.”
She took him in her arms, enfolded him in a gentle embrace. And, quaking with emotion, he went.
Ammy hugged him, rubbing his back the way she had rubbed Gwen’s, and stroking his hair as he rested his head on her shoulder.
That familiar sad and bittersweet ache filled her at how well her arms went around him. How naturally his body fit against hers. How easy it was, how good it felt.
Just to hold him like that.
To hold him, comfort him.
… offer/give\care …
The words she wished she could say rose to her lips. But she couldn’t. Knew she couldn’t. There was no way to say them without … without it seeming like …
Like some kind of strange burden or obligation. Something seeking a reply. Which wasn’t at all the way she meant it. And the last thing she would want to do, ever, would be to add to his troubles right now.
So she kept them unsaid. Thought them instead. Let herself think them over and over as she pressed her head to his, stroked his hair.
Arthur leaned into the embrace, his arms linked loosely at her waist. His breathing slowed. By increments, the tension melted from him. He sighed in her ear. Then, as her hand settled soft on the back of his neck, he inhaled sharply. For a moment, he pulled her close, held her to him, their bodies pressed tight.
And that, too, felt good and right and natural.
But sad. And bittersweet.
Like always. Like it had to be. Because she knew … had always known …
“I don’t know what to do next,” he said.
… her? Or …?
Though probably that too.
“We’ll figure it out,” she told him.
“Will we?” His voice muffled in the hollow of her shoulder.
“Sure. Don’t we always?”
“This isn’t even your prob--”
“Yes it is,” she said, cutting him off with a quick emphatic squeeze. “I said before I wasn’t going to ditch out on you and Gwen, and I’m still not. Not ever. ‘Kay?”
“Okay, but --”
“Okay.” He lifted his head and smiled at her.
Oh, and if that hadn’t been it for her already, that would have been it for her right then and there.
“Um, so …” Ammy said, and did what she could to gather herself.
Neither of them moved.
“We should …”
“Yeah,” he said. Looking at her.
Looking at her, oh, and it was like the way he’d looked at her when he’d had her hands in his … when he’d done that thing with his thumbs … her palms … and gosh if he’d had any idea how that … what it did to her … that slow circling push … how she’d reacted, unable to help it … she should have done something, stopped it somehow, reclaimed her hands, but …
But she hadn’t.
“Before they …” Was that strengthless whisper her voice?
“Yeah,” he said again. This time like he was trying to gather himself, too.
They let go of each other, stepped apart. Broke that gaze before it could turn into …
Too late. Too late for her. It had been too late for her a long time ago.
“We need a plan,” Arthur said. Sounding more together now. “And maybe something to eat, drink, if that stuff’s any good.”
Ammy picked up Gwen, who gabbled companionably and grabbed onto her ponytail. Then tried to chew on it, possibly agreeing with her brother’s suggestion of something to eat and drink. She carried the baby over to the desk and examined the case of bottled water. “Seems okay. Still sealed and everything.”
“How about the bag?” he asked, neatly catching the water bottle she tossed.
She snickered as she dug through the contents. “Lunchables, pudding cups, those fruit-roll things, and animal cookies. The kind in the circus train boxes, not the pink and white frosted kind with sprinkles.”
He blinked at her. “Seriously?”
“Sorry, but … yep.”
“Jeez. I’ll stick with water, then.” He twisted off the cap, sniffed, tested a drop by dipping his pinkie and touching it to the end of his tongue, and then decided it was safe enough. Tipped his head back and drank. “It’s not about the ransom anymore, Amelia.”
“I know. It’s about her. Glad Rags. The others, Grinz and them, they’re interested in the money. Her, though? She wants revenge, and … and omigosh Arthur, I don’t even want to know what she might do.”
“That stuff she said about my mother --”
“Doesn’t matter,” Ammy said firmly, peeling the foil lid off a chocolate pudding cup. “What matter is getting out of here.”
They went to the grimy office windows and tried their best to peer through, down into the main space of the building. It looked like the gang was clustered around Wits and his laptop. Watching something on the screen. With a lot of wild gesticulating and all talking at once.
“Doesn’t look like they’re celebrating. It must not be the news they were hoping for.” She shared some of the pudding with Gwen, who really liked it and immediately began grabbing at the plastic spoon and clamoring for more.
“Two guards on the walkway,” Arthur said, “but they’re paying more attention to what the others are doing.” He glanced around, saw the radio. The one Simp had said he’d put new batteries in. He turned it on and searched through the stations.
“… taken to ensure the safe recovery of both Pearce children,” an announcer said through a squelch of static. He sounded young and excited, self-conscious like he knew this was the break that would make his career.
Then something about demands, and something about Michael Pearce, and something about being on the way to Paragon City to coordinate efforts with law enforcement agencies.
“Details continue to be sketchy at this time, but we’ll be bringing you ongoing developments in this developing situation as they … uh … develop,” the announcer finished. His wince could almost be seen over the radio waves.
Ammy and Arthur both looked askance at the radio, then at each other. He smirked. “Poor guy. Major story, and he botched it. So, what do you think?”
“I think we need to go for it,” she said.
“Subtle, or full-on?”
“Subtle at first if we can, and full-on if we have to?”
“Don’t suppose you’re as good with locks as you are with having your wrists tied?” she asked.
The smirk became the adorable dimpled grin that never failed to turn her to mush. “I didn’t have the chance to grab my favorite lockpick, but if that door’s in the same shape as the rest of this building …”
It wasn’t an ideal lockpick, but then, this wasn’t an ideal lock, so those factors canceled out and it was a matter of minutes before the office door’s latch gave a click.
Arthur nodded with satisfaction. Still got it. The multi-tool had done the job.
Now he just had to hope that the hinges didn’t screech and alert the guards on the catwalk. He didn’t need the element of surprise to take them down … but it would help him take them down quick and quiet.
He looked around at Amelia. And forced himself to forget about how it had felt to have her hold him like that. Comfort him. Just so giving, and so there. Having her stroke his hair that way … and when she’d settled her hand on the back of his neck …
Put it out of his mind. Focusing on the task at hand. Escape.
“Ready,” she mouthed, slinging the diaper bag on her shoulder. She had buckled Gwen into the joey-pack again, given her a pacifier to suck on and the stuffed bear to hug.
Gwen’s eyes were big and excited, as if she knew they were about to make a break for it. Their daring escape.
The hinges whined in rusty protest but didn’t screech. The sound barely carried. And the guards were leaning on the rail, trying to see and hear whatever was going on below where the others gathered around Wits and his laptop.
Arthur eased the door wider, then motioned for Amelia to stay back. She angled a warning eyebrow as if to tell him not to be a daredevil or a showoff.
He rolled his eyes in an expression of you-never-let-me-have-any-fun. She crinkled her nose at him in that cute way of hers. He grinned. She blushed.
Okay. Go time.
The most expedient way would have been to punt them straight over. Two kicks, and two guards out of commission. Except that out of commission in this case would have meant a fifty-foot headfirst plunge toward concrete floor, so that nixed that option.
First guard. Grab the shoulder and mask. Spin him. Yank mask around on his head, moving the eyeholes, blindfolding him. Knee into the gut. A coughing whoof of the guy’s wind being knocked out. Elbow to the back of the skull as he bent double. And a mailsack thud as he slumped, unconscious.
Second guard started to turn, caught Arthur’s heel with his left temple, and that was all it took. Mailsack thud number two. Without so much as knowing what hit him. Or who.
He peered down. Couldn’t see the screen from this distance, but he could identify Grinz and the rest of the gang. Could hear them arguing. Someone complaining that the whole plan sucked, he’d known this was going to happen, they’d never get their money. Someone else telling him to shut up. One of the women – Merry Sue – saying that the thing to do now was kill the kids, cut their losses and make tracks. Grinz reminding them all what Smyle did to people who bungled his plots.
Glad Rags was not among them, and that gave him a nasty qualm in the stomach.
His plan had been to tell Amelia to get Gwen out of here by whatever means necessary. If he had to buy them time, be a distraction or decoy, to leave him behind. Just take the baby and go. To not come back for him To make absolutely sure that Gwen was safe.
She’d object, he knew … but he also knew she’d understand. She had to. If she cared about him at all, she’d have to do this for him, no matter what.
The idea of splitting up when that psycho woman was unaccounted for, though … of risking them running into her without him there to help …
Arthur signaled, and Amelia hurried to join him. They made their way along the catwalk, avoiding the flight of steps they’d come up in favor of one further along the building as well as partially blocked from view of the gang by an immense winch and pulley arrangement.
They went down the steps, seeking cover in shadows and behind machinery. The first exterior door they came to was padlocked with a sturdy Yale that Arthur knew would have given Noirenard a run for her money, so he guided them away before the pacing sentry could spot them.
A window, both barred and boarded over. No good.
Another door, but disused, half-hidden by a stack of oil drums. Moving them would take too long, make too much noise, even if they were empty.
They were way toward one end now, the harbor end, nearing the massive double doors. Shipping containers and other crates surrounded them, forming a kind of maze.
His nerves were on edge, and he knew better than to dismiss it as paranoia or normal caution. That watched feeling, that followed feeling.
“We have to go up,” Arthur whispered. “And out that way.” He pointed to the openings in the wall high overhead, where the metal tracks went out through gaps curtained by those heavy strips of black rubber.
And Glad Rags dropped from above to land behind them. Silent on stripey toe-sock feet.
“What a bad, bad boy and girl!” she said in that syrupy little-girl voice. “Trying to leave the party early? How rude!”
Arthur put himself in front of Amelia and Gwen with a fluid speed that surprised even him. “Amelia, go!”
“Don’t be such a spoilsport!” Glad Rags did a fast step-kick!, her foot snapping at his knee. He sprang aside, but it was close. “She should stay and watch the fun!”
Amelia, not without one agonizing look back that showed him vivid in her eyes everything that she did feel, turned and fled with his sister into the maze of crates.
“You little stinker, come back here!” Glad Rags started to race after her, but didn’t get two paces before Arthur seized a double fistful of wild pink hair.
“No!” He swiveled and threw her into the side of a shipping container. “This is just us!”
She hit with bone-jarring impact, rebounded, rolled in a backwards somersault, came up twisting like a cobra and drove her fists into his ribs.
“Just us?” she echoed. “Is that what you think, bratty-boy? That this is between you and me? Leave your girlfriend and the baby-brat out of it?”
“That’s right,” he said through clenched teeth, trying to ignore the throbbing pain.
“That’s wrong,” she told him cheerily, dancing out of the way of his next barrage of kicks. She jumped straight up, caught a pipe, and swung both feet at him so that he had to dive flat to avoid taking them in the jaw.
Then Glad Rags flung back her head and shrieked at the top of her lungs, “Grinz, you idiot! They’re getting away!”
Leaving him was one of the hardest and most wrenching things she’d ever done.
But she did it.
Somehow. Somehow, she did.
She would have stayed with him, died for him if she had to, without hesitation. Without second thought. Gosh, without first thought even.
This … leaving him … letting him keep that crazy clown-doll busy so that she could get Gwen to safety …
This was worse.
She had to, but oh, it hurt. It tore her apart like a whirlwind of razor blades and broken glass unleashed inside her.
Why did the rightest things always have to be the ones that hurt so much?
A shrill, piercing shriek slashed through the building. “Grinz, you idiot! They’re getting away!”
Hateful voice. Hateful, hateful.
She looked wildly upward but with so many pipes and beams and chains, all that scaffolding, flying would be too dangerous. Too slow as she had to navigate those obstacles, too attention-getting encapsulated as she’d be in incandescent aura.
They’d see her. They’d realize that she was no ordinary babysitter. And that was when they’d start shooting. Before that, if they were still under the impression that she was some typical teenager, they’d be confident of outnumbering or overpowering her. But once they saw she was something else …
Her Kheldian shield, she might trust to protect herself, but then she also had Farshine’s incredible regenerative and recuperative abilities on her side; she wouldn’t risk Gwen with only that thin translucent bubble of energy against bullets unless she absolutely had to.
Ammy ran through the crates and containers, the diaper bag bouncing at her hip. Her arms wrapped snug around Gwen in the joey-pack.
The baby seemed to understand that this wasn’t a game after all. The binkie had popped from her rosebud mouth, lost somewhere in the maze a few turns back. Still, she didn’t howl and scream and cry. She had every reason to, being jostled so rudely, being taken away from her brother. But she didn’t.
Oh, and if anything happened to him … Ammy could hardly bear to let herself think it.
Her throat tightened, but tears of her own were a luxury she couldn’t afford now.
If anything happened to him and they’d all want to know what, how, why, how could she have just left him like that how could she run/flee\escape and leave him and they wouldn’t understand would anybody understand how she had to, she had to, it was what he wanted her to do, what he needed her to do and she could no more refuse that than she could stop the world from spinning on its axis because this was Gwen, tiny sweet innocent Gwen, Arthur’s little sister and he loved Gwen more than life itself so how could she ever, ever say no?
It was too important. He’d chosen this. Chosen to risk himself, even sacrifice himself. No way, no way would she let that be for nothing.
From elsewhere in the building came the ruckus of commotion and pursuit. The same flashlight beams that had caught them on the way to the panic room now stabbed helter-skelter through the gloom. Weird machine shadows leaped every which way like cavorting monsters.
“Got two men down,” yelled Merry Sue from up on the catwalk by the office. “Kids’re gone!”
“Young Master Pearce!” Grinz shouted. “I’m very disappointed in you! It was all going so well, and then you just had to go and piss me off? I am sorry to say you’ll have to regret that!”
No reply from Arthur.
Ammy’s heart scrunched painfully in her chest. But she kept moving. Weaving her way, following what she hoped was an accurate memory-map of the location of the nearest stairs.
“Glads? You okay?” That was Simper Fi, calling out all worried and oafish. “You okay, huh? Huh, Glads?”
It might have been an ‘aww’ moment if it hadn’t been such an ‘eew’ one … and if Ammy hadn’t hated Glad Rags more right then than she’d ever hated anyone in her whole entire life.
No reply from her, either.
“Find them, get them, all three!” Grinz again, giving orders to his troops. “Try not to do anything too permanent! We can still salvage this!”
Then, flashlight, dust motes in the beam, a fierce bright oblong on stained concrete. One of the weightlifters came around the corner of a crate and saw her. Clearly not expecting it, but, hey, there she was.
He stopped short, less than a yard from Ammy. He’d pushed his yellow happyface mask up to bunch in folds and wrinkles on his forehead to facilitate his search, and she saw that underneath it he was ordinary-looking enough.
And she eyebeamed him point-blank in the face. Brilliant white-purple.
He bellowed in surprise and pain. Reeled back. Dropped the flashlight to clap both hands over his eyes. It hit the floor and broke, the casing splintering black plastic, the bulb smashing.
“Be?” The other weightlifter, nearby. Too nearby. “Yo, Be, what was that?”
“Can't see!” he wailed. “Oh God my eyes my eyyyyes!”
If a regular old laser pointer was bad for the retinas …
Ammy, not wanting to unwrap her arms from the baby, kicked out at him. It was a stupid clumsy kick, the kind of thing that would have made Arthur fall down laughing had he been there to see it, but even a stupid clumsy kick could be effective if it connected with …
Well, with what it connected with.
The blinded weightlifter hit a note almost as high as the one Glad Rags routinely hit, then gagged, bent to throw up, clonked his head on the edge of a crate, and collapsed in a heap.
“Gosh,” Ammy said to Gwen.
“Agga bagga ag.”
Then, she was scrambling over him and bolting toward the nearest flight of metal steps.
And hearing a gunshot. A small pop like a firecracker. From the way they’d come … from where Arthur and Glad Rags had been.
“Arthur!” The cry burst from her.
“Go, Amelia! Get out of here!” From somewhere. But alive.
“When I get my hands on you two oh are you ever gonna get it!” raged Grinz. “But give up now, let’s talk this over, and maybe we can still all come out of this more or less in one piece!”
“Hey!” The other weightlifter. “Hey, the babysitter, there she goes!”
Glad Rags shrieked her warning, boosted herself up onto the pipe like it was a high bar in gymnastic competition, and smiled nastily down at Arthur where he still lay flat, having dived to avoid her free-swinging kicks.
“That,” she said, with a venomous giggle, “should take care of your sweetie-snoogie-whatever-I-called-her.”
Then she went into a hip circle and extended it into an eagle giant, her lean form held straight as she spun around the pipe in a blur of patchwork and stripes. On dismount, she did a double-salto and was about to stick another perfect landing when Arthur flipped his body up from the floor.
He pivoted, kicked, and slammed his heel squarely into her chest. Solid hit. Felt the oh-so-satisfying crunch of bone, the crackling give of cartilage, as her sternum and ribcage took the shot.
She pitched backward. Almost fell. Arms pinwheeling wildly for balance. Bumped butt-first into a crate and leaned there, stooped over wheezing with her elbows braced on her knees and pink corkscrews of hair hanging in her face.
“Come on, then,” he said. Poised light and ready on the balls of his feet. “Come on. You want to fight? Let’s do this.”
“Bratty-boy,” she panted. She raised her head, that demented greasepaint visage leering at him. “You’re the same as her, aren’t you? Same as your mumsy-wumsy. You knew. You knew allllll about it.”
“You leave my mother alone.”
“Does daddykins know, too, I wonder? What will he say?”
“You leave my family alone.”
“Make me.” In a flash the appearance of exhaustion was gone and she came at him, a flurry of fists and kicks.
Arthur dodged every single one.
Glad Rags didn’t like it. Not a bit.
He made her have to think more defensively than he could tell she was used to, and she didn’t like that either.
Grinz was yelling something, disappointed in you, shouldn’t have pissed me off; Arthur barely paid attention. Simp called for Glads, and she ignored it too.
“You are just like her!” she spat. “Are you a lying thieving murderer, too?”
“Should I be more like your father instead?” he asked. “A drunk, a wreck, a failure and a loser?”
“Why you little son of a bitch!” In her shock that he’d go there, she reverted to the nearly-normal-person voice again.
“My mother,” he said as he ducked and weaved, “made up for anything she might have done in the past. She’s led a decent life, been a good wife and a great mom. What can you say about your parents? The mother who bailed on you, ran out on her husband and kids? The dad who took the coward’s way out?”
She hissed-snarled at him and attacked with renewed intensity, with a tangible sense of wanting to beat him into a mound of bruises and pulped flesh.
He dodged … most of them.
Managed to minimize the damage of some, like a kick that would have landed where no guy ever wanted to be kicked. Took it to the thigh instead, and the muscle there felt as if he’d been whacked with a baseball bat.
As long as Grinz was ranting, as long as the gang sounded like they were shouting back and forth searching, it meant they hadn’t found Amelia. That she and Gwen were okay.
Glad Rags punched, he dodged, he kicked, she ducked, she kicked, he parried, he jabbed for the throat and split her lip instead, she tried to return the favor and almost shattered his collarbone, he kicked, she sidestepped, she feinted, he corrected, he swung, she dodged, and then –
And then her kick drove his left arm sideways into the wall of the shipping container with a snap as his wrist broke. He felt it go like a pine knot exploding in a fireplace.
“Ha!” she crowed.
Fighting down the pain, holding his wrist to his chest, he kicked. Glad Rags grabbed instead of evaded. She caught his ankle, tried to throw him.
But he jumped with the motion, twisting in midair. Scissoring his other leg. She jerked her head away a nanosecond too slow to avoid it. He scored a glancing shot to the side of her skull, just above the ear. It was enough to loosen her grip on his ankle, dropping him toward the floor.
Arthur slapped the palm of his uninjured arm to the concrete and tucked into a forward roll, started to pop upright, changed his mind and threw himself to his back as her stripey-tights leg passed in a hard sweep right through where his torso would have been if he had followed through on the roll to a standing position.
Momentum carried her around further than she’d intended, and as she let it take her in a full circle, he leaped up and drove a kick at the knee of her supporting leg. With a hideous wet creak, it bent in a direction the human knee wasn’t meant to go.
Glad Rags landed in a sprawling mess. Mewling and blubbering, hitching herself along like a possum run over by a car.
“Ha,” he said.
She quit the act at once, turned over, and in her hand was a sparkly pink thing that he realized was a gun.
A derringer. Single-shot. Enameled cotton-candy-pink, with a mother of pearl handle, and covered with rhinestones. The firearm equivalent of some little old lady’s eyeglasses, the kind she’d wear on a beaded chain around her neck.
“Ha?” inquired Glad Rags. Mockingly. Blood running freely from her split lip.
Moving like lightning, he kicked the gun from her grasp. It sailed in a high arc and he caught it on the way down.
“Ha.” Leveled it at Glad Rags.
“Oh sure, shoot me with my own gun why don’t you? Go ahead, bratty-boy, do it! Do it! Prove that you’re a lying cheating thieving murderer just like her!”
“My mother is not a murderer,” he said. “And neither am I.”
He tossed the gun down, skitter-spinning it across the floor to her.
Glad Rags picked it up, looked at it, looked at him. Her expression was unsure, one of the few genuine expressions he’d seen from her.
“It’s done,” Arthur told her. “You're a loser and a failure like your father. You've wasted your entire life. I'm surprised you're not taking the easy way out like he did.”
It shocked him even as he spoke to hear the words come out of his mouth … and realize that he meant them. Almost as chilling was how much the words and tone made him sound like Mid-Knight.
She looked at the gun again. Tears overspilled her lashes and ran down her painted face. Her chin quivered. Arthur, with a slow dismissive headshake, began to turn away.
The gun went off.
But he was already dodging, and the bullet meant for him lodged harmlessly in the wall.
The other weightlifter powered up the steps after Ammy like a locomotive, using his huge bulging arms to seize the railings and heave himself along by upper body strength alone.
She climbed as fast as she dared, not so much worried about tripping as she was worried about tripping and landing on Gwen, riding there against her stomach.
Others of the gang had been rushing in their direction in response to her pursuer’s shout, when suddenly from another part of the building there was a colossal metallic booming and crashing.
The oil drums, she remembered, the ones piled by a door. Toppling over, bouncing, rolling.
“Over there!” Wits cried above the din. “The boy! He’s trying to get out!”
“Somebody go ahead and shoot that bastard already!” barked Grinz. Ammy couldn’t see him, couldn’t tell where he was, but she could hear his impatient irritation and knew he meant it. “Try not to kill him but don’t feel like you have to try too hard. We can still cash in with just the little one.”
Flashlight beams and clomping footsteps headed that way. Away from Ammy. She knew Arthur had done that on purpose, still buying her time, still providing the distraction, still risking himself to give her and ‘the little one’ a chance to escape.
She climbed faster than she dared, sheltering Gwen with both arms. The weightlifter continued chasing, a bull’s charge; she could almost feel him snorting steam at her legs. Jolly Jill was coming up behind him, her nasal voice raising to be heard.
“Don’t be stupid, you’ve got nowhere to go!” she called up to Ammy. “Not like it’s your kid anyway; you’re just the hired help, remember? So what’s it to you? Give her here, and we won’t hurt you.”
One flight, two, switchbacking. The two of them were directly below her and the whole works shuddered and squeaked from the weight and motion.
To a walkway, and –
The ugly black riot baton clanged on the rail beside Ammy. More noise, loud, close. Reverberating like a gong hit with a mallet. Gwen began to howl.
“Hand over the baby or I’ll bust you one,” the big woman said through her smiling yellow mask.
“No.” Backing away. Letting the energy well within her –
The baton chopped again. Not aimed at the rail this time.
Ammy twisted, hunching forward to shelter Gwen. The baton hammered her shoulder and a hot numbing paralysis deadened her all down the left side. She couldn’t even cry out, the painburst too stunning, swallowing her whole.
“Damn it, Merry Sue!” The weightlifter, almost to the walkway. “You’ll hit the money!”
Another flight of steps. Four feet from her. Ammy forced herself to move despite the deadening sensation. To the steps. Scrabbling up them.
“I said --!” Merry Sue, reaching for her, meaning to snag her by the shirt and yank her down.
At the top, Ammy whirled and the diaper bag, heavy with juice and formula, swung at the end of its strap in a short, hard arc. It walloped Merry Sue in the face. Staggering, she took an involuntary backward pace that forgot she was on a staircase, and fell. She plowed into the weightlifter, bowling him over, sending them both head-over-heels all the way to the landing, in a groaning tangle of meaty limbs.
Jolly Jill managed to get out of the way in time. She, too, had pushed up her mask to better see where she was going – probably why she’d been able to get out of the way – and she had the sort of pinched, sneery features that perfectly matched her unpleasant voice. She stared up at Ammy in disbelief.
Only fair; Ammy was staring down in disbelief of her own, that she’d hit someone with a diaper bag and knocked two big lummoxes down a flight of steps. David and Goliath, babysitter-style, how weird could you get?
“Okay, enough of this shit,” Jolly Jill said, and drew her stun-gun.
Ammy threw the diaper bag. It missed by a mile. But the top came open and the contents – diapers, wipes, tubes, bottles, powder, toys – spewed out in a wide arc. Jolly Jill bleated in surprise and recoiled from the bombardment of baby supplies –
And Arthur, leaping out of nowhere, felled her with one solid kick to the head.
As he backflipped to land neatly on both feet, his right hand shot out and snagged Gwen’s plastic keys from midair. He twirled the keyring on his index finger, dimpled a grin, and winked.
“Hey,” he said.
A sound that was half-laugh, half-sob came from Ammy. She had a thousand questions, mostly about Glad Rags, and the gunshot, but shoved them away for later. Gwen’s crying stopped in a snuffling gulp, and a gurgle of joy.
He bounded up the steps to meet them. Ammy saw the way he held his left wrist cradled to his chest at the same time he saw how she was still hunched from the baton hammerblow to the shoulder. An unspoken two-way exchange of Are you okay? / I’ll be fine, let’s go! passed between them almost like telepathy.
They ran together up the last few flights of stairs and out onto the long narrow walkway over the huge tracks used for winching ships in and out of drydock. Ahead were the thick black rubber strips, the kind Ammy associated with baggage claim carousels and conveyer belts at the airport.
The pencil-thin gaps between the strips showed daylight, though of a damp and dark-grey sort. Sea-smelling air wafted in, but not brisk clean sea-smelling air. This was a low-tide smell, a dead-fish smell, a slimy sludge caking the pilings smell, a murky greenish water floating with garbage and scummy with polluted brown foam smell.
It was, though, their escape route. It was freedom.
Ammy pushed through the hanging rubber strips. They were clammy, cold, drippy. On the exterior of the building, she saw, the walkway was enclosed by sides and a roof of sturdy wire mesh.
“Keep going,” Arthur said, following close.
The walkway’s floor of metal grid meant they could look down through it. Street level rose well above sea level, the warehouses and factories rearing on enormous cement slabs, so a walkway that had been fifty feet up inside was eighty or more now, jutting out over the water.
It might have been an impressive view on a clear day. Right now, though, it was socked in by dense fog. Everything below them was lost in a greyish soup, everything to the sides of them was visible for only a few yards, and everything above them was a misty whiteness that reminded her eerily of some place she knew she had never seen.
“Well, well, well,” said Grinz from behind them, as he and Simper Fi pushed their own way through the rubber strips. “You two are becoming quite the pain in my backside, aren’t you?”
“Whudya do ta Glads?” Simp asked. “Where’s she at? Dat’s all I wanna know, so you’s gonna tell me.”
“That’s as good a place to start as any, speaking of pains in the backside,” Grinz said. “Yes, Young Master Pearce, do tell us where Glad Rags is.”
“She’s back there, in the building,” Arthur said.
“Naw she ain’t,” said Simp. “I looked. She’s gone.”
Grinz nodded. “I heard that little popgun of hers go off. Did you shoot the bitch, hide the body?”
“No! She shot at me. She …” His mind raced as he and Amelia kept retreating, backing along the walkway. “She broke my wrist … and she was … taunting me, jumping around, showing off … then she did something to her knee.”
True enough, so far. Or close enough to true. What she’d actually ‘done’ to her knee was leave it exposed at the wrong moment, so he could kick it sideways.
“Then she pulled the gun,” he said. “She missed. I ran. That’s all.”
“So where’s she at?” Simp demanded.
“I don’t know.” And he wasn’t sure what to make of this turn of events … Glad Rags, missing … slunk off somewhere to nurse her wounds and her grudge, bide her time, plan her next piece of revenge? Or had she just decided to bail on her companions and save her own skin now that the plan had taken a U-turn?
“Well, she’ll turn up, pains in the backside always do.” Grinz had his own gun out, the ugly snub-nosed pistol that looked much meaner than the rhinestones-and-pink derringer. It also held more than a single bullet, and he was obviously much more accustomed to firearms than Glad Rags. “The question now is what we’re going to do about this. And I thought we were getting along so well. What a shame. What a shame.”
There was precious little evasive room in this walkway … and even if Arthur could have dodged, that would have meant leaving Amelia and Gwen in the line of fire.
“I’m fairly tempted to shoot you, throw you to the octopus, call it quits and cut our losses,” Grinz continued. “If, that was, we didn’t happen to be working for a man who doesn’t deal well with failure. We go home empty-handed …”
They had reached the end of the walkway, where the parallel tracks were joined by a crossbar. Atop the crossbar was a flat steel platform, and a large control booth packed with cranks, levers, machinery. And, except for a waist-high railing all the way around, the exterior was open to the elements.
Arthur could hear Amelia’s light, quick breaths. Knew she was ready, and to heck with secret identities. But …
“Hold on, just hold on,” he said. Facing Grinz, but talking to her, and hoping that she’d follow his lead. “Let’s see if we can find another way to work this out.”
“You’re up to something, I can tell,” Grinz said. “Though I don’t know where it is you think you’re going to go, Young Master Pearce. All the way around, into the building again, collect two hundred dollars for passing Go? No, no, no, no.”
Motioning with the pistol, he herded them toward the corner of the platform, so that he and Simp stood between them and the control booth. The metal was wet and slick underfoot.
Amelia pressed against the rail. Arthur stood in front of her. “Look, all right, you got us,” he said. “Can’t blame us for trying, can you?”
“As a matter of fact … I can.”
“Yeah, he can,” Simp said.
“You need to be taught a lesson about how good little kidnappees should behave. But, to show you what a nice guy I am, I’ll let you decide who gets to be sent to the principal’s office.”
“Me.” Arthur stepped forward. “It was my idea. If you have to punish someone --”
He glanced back, signaling as best he could with his gaze. Saw understanding filter through her concern. Saw her shift her weight, angle herself slightly to the left, folding that arm around Gwen and holding the other down at her side. Her damp hair hung plastered limp across her face, which was pale and anxious … but she gave him the barest hint of a nod.
“I think we do have to punish someone,” Grinz said. “But I am glad to see you’re being reasonable. Maybe I don’t even need to shoot you.”
“That’d be great,” Arthur said. Truthfully.
“Break his face.”
“No!” Amelia gasped.
Simper Fi lumbered toward Arthur. There was absolutely no finesse in his movements. No training in his technique. Size, strength, mass, bulk and muscle. He didn’t so much telegraph his intentions as he announced them over a physical loudspeaker.
And his intention in this case was a roundhouse punch with a fist like a canned ham.
“Dis is for Glad Rags!”
It went against every reflex to move into that punch, but Arthur did. On his terms. He anticipated it, went with it, turned his head to deflect some of the force so that it looked just as brutal and impressive, but did not dislocate his jaw or smash his teeth.
A cry of pain and alarm burst from his throat. The blow half-spun him and drove him back in a clumsy, reeling stumble. One arm flailed desperately. His feet knocked together, slipped on the wet steel.
He collided full-tilt with Amelia. And she, as if they had choreographed it, pushed off so that they flip-tumbled over the rail.
She might have been one of the world’s worst liars, but there was nothing feigned about her shriek as they plunged. If he’d heard that and not known better, it would have scared the living hell out of him.
From above them on the platform came a horrified outburst of disbelieving shouts and swearing. Gwen, snug in the joey-pack, waved her arms and wailed.
And they fell.
Cold, wet air whistled past. Amelia’s damp ponytail smacked Arthur. He threw his good arm around her waist and clung tight. She grabbed hold of him as well, fist clenching at the back of his shirt.
Into the thick, concealing fogbank. Where Amelia drew in a sudden deep breath, and opened eyes that shone white-purple. Arthur felt her energy tingle all through him. Felt it bright and clear and wonderful as they no longer fell, but flew.
The fog-shrouded sea they skimmed over was a color somewhere between slate-blue and new denim. Buoys tolled their doleful notes, the flashers atop them bobbing back and forth with the endless swells. Unseen gulls called, and unseen ships blew their horns.
Ammy and Arthur changed course to avoid where the water sloshed and churned from the undulations of giant tentacles. No octopus battles today, plskthx.
Then, a long wooden pier materialized out of the dense greyness. The tarred planks and barnacle-crusted pilings looked ancient, corroded. Beneath it was a deep undercut scoop of beach – foam and broken shells and stringy kelp at the waterline, wet sand and a driftline of debris above that, drier sand and rocks above that.
The beach was unoccupied by the various Tsoo, Council, Family or other factions that vied for territory in the wharfside districts of Independence Port. They flew into the shadow of the pier and hovered a moment before, eyeglow fading, she settled them to the ground.
After everything else they’d just been through, the return of gravity was just too much to deal with, and they collapsed. Arthur sank smoothly to his knees and his right arm, head hanging, left wrist still curled against his chest. Ammy, far less coordinated about it, let her legs buckle and plunked down on her rump in the sand. She felt the moisture immediately begin to soak through her jeans and didn’t really care.
“Plthah!” Gwen struggled in the joey-pack. Strained against it. Kicked and squirmed. Not pleased.
Arthur hitch-crawled over to them on knees and knuckles, gimping like a dog on three legs, but somehow managed to make even that look graceful. “Is she okay?” He sat on his heels and gently cupped Gwen’s face with his good hand. She blatted outraged protests at him, thrashing her little limbs.
“Mad as heck, I think,” Ammy said, stifling a giggle that was more hysterical relieved exhaustion than humor. “Her turn to be jealous. We were flying, and she was all strapped in. But she’s okay. Here, let’s get her out of this thing.”
Once freed from the joey-pack and snuggled on Ammy’s lap, Gwen eased up on the righteous squalling, but continued to let them know that she was feeling rather indignant and cheated.
“Maybe this’ll help.” He dug the plastic keys from his pocket and clattered them in front of Gwen. She squealed, grabbed them, stuck the ring in her mouth. Mollified at once. “And you, Amelia? Are you okay?”
“Nevermind me, your poor arm, and your face, he hit you so hard!” She reached toward him, a surge of healing energies welling up.
He caught her hand, stopped it. “Don’t … it’s got to look authentic.”
Ammy bit her lip, but nodded. He was right, though, she knew. He was right. “Believe me, gosh, it does.”
“It’s not really that bad --”
“Are you being all such a guy again?”
“Will you at least let me use what I learned in First Aid to do a sling for your wrist?”
“Fine, fine, if you insist.”
“I insist already, gosh.”
He sat crosslegged in the sand and one-armedly hoisted Gwen into his lap so that Ammy could work. The baby slouched there in a comfortable right-at-home pose, stuck most of one hand in her mouth, rattled the keys with the other, and drummed her heels on Arthur’s leg.
The joey-pack, with its canvas pouch and quilted straps, made a serviceable enough sling. Ammy used it to bind his left arm to his chest. “There we go,” she said.
“Great, thanks.” He smiled at her. Not his best smile, not when he was beat up like this, his jaw already discolored and swelling from Simp’s punch. But still a smile.
With no warning, her eyes brimmed and then she was crying in big heaving sobs that shook her whole body. She fell against his right shoulder, burying her face in his shirt.
“When I saw what you were gonna do, what the plan was, I … I … oh what if I’d … what if I’d muh-huh-essed it up and --”
“You didn’t,” he said, his voice soft. He put his uninjured arm around her so that they were in a lopsided kind of triangle-shaped hug with Gwen in the middle. “You wouldn’t.”
“Mbah?” went Gwen, a concerned interrogative noise. She patted-pawed at Ammy with small slobbery fingers.
“Buh-huh-but I might have --”
“I knew you’d take care of us.”
Trembling with reaction, she held onto them like a lifeline. “You did?”
“Of course.” He rested his chin on her hair. “I … trust you, you know. We both do. Isn’t that right, Gwen? We trust our Ammy, sure we do.”
“Gluh! Ulgluh gluh!”
“See? She agrees with me.”
They stayed like that for another minute or so, while Ammy got her tears under control. At last she let go, sat up, wiped her eyes with her sleeve. “Sorry.”
He gave her a wry now-don’t-start-in-with-the-apologizing-you-goof look. Which always made her want to apologize for that …
She tried for a smile instead, but it felt too shaky and unstable, so she just closed her eyes and exhaled a long slow sigh.
“Are you really okay?” Arthur asked.
Ammy probed at her shoulder. The pain was a waxing-waning, expanding-contracting dull throb, which flared whenever she moved, but it wasn’t popped out of the socket or anything. A wowser of a bruise for sure, a hairline fracture of the shoulderblade at most, Thanks to Farshine, though, she’d be healed up soon.
“Merry Sue whacked me with that riot baton, but I’ve had worse.”
“And then you took out three of them with a diaper bag.”
“Just two. You got the third one.”
“You distracted her.” He paused a moment, tickled Gwen’s foot, booped Gwen’s nose, made her gabble and grin and kick. Then, in a more serious tone, he said, “Thank you. For … for doing this, for being there … for everything.”
She gave him a wry now-don’t-start-in-with-the-thanking-you-goof look. But he returned her gaze, still serious and sincere.
“I was only …” she began, quietly.
“I know.” His right hand closed over hers. Turned it. Held it.
Oh and she really should put a stop to that before …
His fingertips sliding across her knuckles.
But it felt so …
His thumb circling in her palm.
They really shouldn’t … couldn’t …
“You’re welcome,” she said.
Arthur smiled, but it was a strange and sad sort of smile. Looking not at her, but down at their linked hands. “Amelia … what are we going to do?”