Growth: Forward

(9/23/2080)

“So,” I managed to eek out, “About what happened, are we…okay?”

Xana was sitting across from me back at Mel’s.  We’d agreed to meet there since it was public, familiar, and a neutral ground.  We hadn’t talked since the night that things went sour, and even our exchange of messages to set up this meeting could really only be described as ‘clinical’.

“Nick, I don’t know if we can ever be okay,” she whispered, solemn, her head hung.   

I felt my throat close, “I-I am so sorry.  I’ll do anything to fix this. Please, I won’t let it happen again, just give me another chance.”  At this point I was stammering, trying to think of anything that would get her to reconsider.

And then she lifted her face to reveal that smug fucking grin spread from ear to ear.

I had just been played, so damn hard.  

“No, you didn’t…”

“Oh yeah,” she laughed, “God, did I have you going!  And you took that little bit of bait hook line and sinker!  One little lament and bam!” She reached forward and I was half tempted to slap her hands, my emotions tossed all over the place.  “Seriously though, I get it. I was there, I saw that shit happen. What your dad did was awful.”

“Yeah.”

“But taking it out on me like that,” she added, “Not okay, Nicky.  And especially what you did after. That is a serious problem.”

Guilt welled up and rendered me mute, forcing me to nod in answer.  

“Nick, you’re a good guy, and I know you mean well, but you need to be more careful of things like that.  You had a bad night, and you’re going to have bad nights. Regular people have bad nights, but your new job is likely to push you and give you rougher nights than most will ever have.  But now, if you flip that switch, you get scary. I’m just glad you weren’t any more ‘prepared’ so Murphy could help you see reason before you did real damage. If he’d shown up a minute later…who knows?”

I knew she was trying to help but it still felt like I was having a ton of weight dropped on me.  “So what do I do?”

Xana scoffed playfully, “You gotta figure out your own shit.  I’m a little older than you, but I don’t have it all together!  I’m just a girl who likes her some human D.”

My cheeks immediately turned red as she snickered.  “Fucks sake, Xana,” I hissed, “You have got to stop doing this!”

She wasn’t about to give me such a concession.  

“I think you’re indebted to me for now and aren’t allowed to ask for such niceties,” she replied with a prim raise of her chin.  “I believe that circumstances being what they are…you’re kind of my bitch.”

“Are we really doing this?”

“You may kiss the ring, subject!” she announced as she pushed her hand into my face.

I glared but played along, kissing the back of her hand.  “Are we happy now, my liege?”

“It will suffice…for now,” she agreed with a laugh, dropping the absurd mannerisms.  “But, what are you gonna do about your dad?”

That question felt like a kick to the stomach.  “I’m not sure. I want to just avoid him, but I know I need to go home at some point, if for no other reason than to let my mom know I’m alive.  Question is if he’ll be mad at me running off or be happy when I stroll through the door.”

“Maybe you two will be able to bond over a drink and reach a manly understanding?”  

“It isn’t a bad idea, but I’m reluctant to drink near him.  The guy hits the sauce hard; if I was talked into drinking too much who knows what I might say.”   

She nodded thoughtfully, “Maybe you could meet him somewhere outside of the house?”

“Honestly, I need to man the fuck up and go home, deal with the problem head on.  My dad, as big a pain as he is, will appreciate me being forward. No one will like it, but he will respect me for it in the end.  I’m only hoping it doesn’t lead to another fight.”

“He is still your dad, he has to at least care a little bit about you.”

“Somedays I wonder,” I confessed.  I knew he cared for the most part, but it was hard to remember that when the last thing he’d done was hit you.  “Probably gonna ask you steer clear for this one, I just have to bite the bullet myself and cope.”

My girlfriend wrapped her fingers around my hand, “Hey, I get it.  You gotta do what you gotta do, right?”

I nodded, my face grim at the prospect of seeing him again.  “Unfortunately.”

“Excuse me,” she flagged down a waiter, “This guy needs a vanilla milkshake.”  

“Xana,” I started but she shushed me.  

“Biggest size you got.”  

The man hustled away to relay the order and I glared at her, “Come on, I am not as big a sugar fiend as you are.”

“Hey, milkshakes are a comfort food.  Are you going to honestly tell me that of all days, today is the day you wouldn’t take a complimentary milkshake?”  

I shrugged, “When you’re right, you’re right.”  

There was a pause and she took my hand again, “I love you Nick,” she said in a hushed voice, “And if something happens to you, I don’t know what I’d do.”  

For a moment, I just stared with my mouth hanging open, not sure of what the hell to say.  

“That is the perfect time for you to reciprocate, you immense idiot,” she hissed.  

“I love you too,” I whispered back.  It felt…almost foreign as I said it. Not in a bad way, but like I could hardly believe I had reason to utter the words.  “Sorry, I’m just nervous to actually say it out loud.”

Xana gave me a little glare, “You’re such a dork.”  

“I know.  But I mean, I did take on kind of a risky job; it’s likely that something is gonna happen to me and now you’ll hurt too and that kind of pressure is just,” I trailed off, biting my lip nervously as the waiter came back with my milkshake.  

“Nicky, you’re fine.  There are plenty of people who date cops or soldiers; they have risky positions.  At least you get to wear a lot of armor when you go to work,” she observed with a wink.  “Your buddy Murphy is the one who concerns me.”

“He’s a lot tougher than you think.”  

She cocked an eyebrow.  “I’ve seen him work, that trick of his seems…limited.”  

“Quicker acting than you’d believe,” I assured her.  “If anything, he’s safer on the job than me,” I said between spoonfuls of milkshake.  “Plus, the guy is more clever than he lets on; dude is probably smarter than me but just doesn’t always apply himself like he should.”  

“God forbid he does.  He might actually get something done.”  

I gave her a smile and nodded, glad she had ordered me a milkshake.  Right now, things felt nice, simple, happy. Maybe my macabre strain of thought last night was plain wrong and life could be filled with these little joyful and wholesome episodes.  

As if on cue, my phone chimed.  A new group message from Alexis.  

Alexis: Discussing project stuff tonight, Murphy said his house was available.  

Murphy: We planning on getting any real work done tonight or just doing some planning?

We’d agreed to talk about our Adapted doings in code.  While we could get a second phone, if anyone noticed we’d come under scrutiny.  Ultimately, who was going to check the text messages of a few high school students with no criminal record?  

Alexis: Mostly discussion.  Wouldn’t hurt to be prepared though, we might have some inspiration.  

Me: I’ll show up after I see my dad.  Gotta get a change of clothes.

I put my phone in my pocket and chose to ignore it, focusing instead on Xana who was giving me a rather inquisitive look.  “Work?”

“For later,” I promised, “I don’t want to spoil this.”  

“Gotta admit, I like my men a little dangerous,” she purred.  “Plus, from what I hear, your job has a chance to land you some excellent press.”  

“I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Our camera woman can be a bit shaky.”

“But at least she got up close and personal with her recording.  Gotta admire the ladies grit.”

“Never mind that she could have made a drone to simply do it for her.  I mean, she made a thermal drone to scope the place out and highlight metal.  Why not just make another drone to record us kicking ass?”

She shrugged, “Maybe your lady is shy and doesn’t want to be seen on tape?”

“Her, seriously?  Have you seen her either in or out of suit?  I know girls who would literally kill to look like her,” I hissed, a whisper.

My girlfriend rolled her eyes, “You are such a single minded male.  Poor girl doesn’t realize how well put together she is because she hears that she looks good from the wrong places.  Besides, she fights with her mom enough that she is incapable of hearing anything other than, ‘you’re a mistake’.”

“How much time have you spent around Alexis without me?” I inquired, suddenly fascinated by their relationship.

“I didn’t realize I needed you explicit permission to see a friend.”    

“No that isn’t what I…meant.”  Disarmed, I consumed the rest of my milkshake to mask my embarrassment; all the while, my phone continued buzzing in my pocket.  

Damned people wanting my attention and valuing my input.  Being a part of a team was going to be more time consuming that I had thought initially, but maybe having an excuse to get out of the house and away from my dad would be good.  

Still, I needed to settle up with him before gallivanting off and maybe being gone another day.  If nothing else, I wanted my own clothes.

“Alright, they aren’t going to shut up, so I suppose that we need to get the painful bit done.”  

Her face fell, “Yeah, I suppose we need to rip the bandage off, don’t we?”

We settled the bill and left the diner, both of us dreading what was to come but for rather different reasons:

She was afraid of me flying off the handle again.

I was petrified at the thought of facing down my father again.  

My phone served as a decent distraction on the way home, something to help the dwelling abate for a little while.  

Murphy: Well, that sounds fun.  Maybe you could suit up in front of him, just for effect?

Alexis: Murphy, no.  

Murphy: It would add a nice flair of drama though!

Alexis: No.

Murphy: You suck the joy out of everything Alexis.  

Murphy: Let the guy have a little fun!  

Murphy: Besides, guy was a huge twat.  

Alexis: Nick, whenever you see these, disregard Murphy.  I need to hit him over the head later.

Murphy: Don’t listen to her.  She lies. She’s just jealous.

Alexis: Murph, stfu.

Murphy: Defin no

Murphy: You can’t silence the peeps!

Alexis: We’re supposed to be serious about this

Murphy: You make it too easy to not be

Alexis: Nick, whenever you’re done, let us know.  We’ll meet at Murphy’s place

“My friends are a bunch of idiots,” I lamented aloud as I finished reading their little exchange.  “And to think, I’m supposed to fight crime with these lugs.”

Xana smiled, “I have every confidence in you guys.  Even though Shock and Awe were dumb when they fought you, you guys still held your own.  Those two have had years to figure out their teamwork, and they are siblings who are scary coordinated.  I’m sure you guys will figure it out as you go and improve.”

“Still a dangerous proposition,” I pointed out, “A lot of Reckoners and criminals alike die while trying to figure things out.  And no one is just going to let us get into a groove; people don’t want competition.”

Her positive attitude refused to be dampened.  “I still have faith in you guys.”

“Well, it’s good someone does.  Someone besides just me and the others involved.”  

Sooner than I had hoped, the dreaded moment came to be: we’d arrived at my house.  “I’m gonna head home,” she said sweetly, “But call me if you need anything, okay?”

“Alright,” I replied.  “Hey, Xana,” I called after a second.  

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”  

She smiled sweetly and blew a kiss to me, “I love you too.  You’ll be fine!”

With a nod, I did my best to believe her and turned to the door, ready to face the music.  

As soon as I opened the door, I heard my name called in a hopeful cry.  “Hi mom,” I shouted back, switching to English as opposed to Common. “I’m back for some clean clothes, I can’t keep taking Murphy’s.”  

She rushed me at the door, wrapping her arms around me and giving a relieved sigh.  “Nicholas, I’m so sorry for what your father did, but thank goodness you’re home.”

“Mom,” I tried to interject.  

“Everything is okay now.  We can work through this as a family.”  

“MOM!”  She let go and took a step back, caught off guard.  “I’m only here for some clothes and to let you know I’m alive.  I’m going back out, gotta meet up with Alexis and Murphy.”

Her face fell, “I see.”  

My heart broke to see her sad, but I put on a smile, “Mom, I’m gonna be home tonight…probably.  We’re doing extra work to get our standing adjusted.”

Zari schools were very dependent on standing within the class ranks as it informed the administrators who they should enable for future success and who should be left behind.  Often times the best way to adjust standing was side projects or assisting a teacher directly with their own project to earn additional reputation and favor.

News of me taking on an extra-circular project seemed to almost shock her, and then give rise to suspicion.  “Your perpetually truant friend is looking to actually invest time in classwork?”

I rolled my eyes, “Mom, Murphy is way smarter than he lets on.  Trust me.”

“You’ve never been one to take on some extra work either,” she pressed, still not entirely convinced.  

For dramatic effect, I let out a sigh, “It gives me an excuse to get out of the house and away from Dad.  Murphy needs to get his shit together, it certainly wouldn’t hurt me any, and Alexis is a perpetual over-achiever who is far too eager to help.”  

“I see,” she whispered, her eyes betraying a melancholic understanding.  It made sense to her, but it still hurt knowing I needed it. “ Just, do me a favor,” she implored.  “Please let us know when you’re going to be home. I know this is partially an excuse to get away from us and be independent.  But kiddo, we are still your parents and want to spend time with you.”

“Of course,” I agreed, “Right now, I…don’t want to see dad.  But, I wanted to be straight with him, tell him like a man. He’ll respect that.”

She nodded, “He will.  It’ll mean a hell of a lot to him that his son has the balls to be honest with his old man.”

I wasn’t about to correct her logic.  While I didn’t think they would rat me out if they discovered what I was, I couldn’t imagine that their response would be particularly pleasant.  And I wasn’t sure if the fallout for my growing web of lies would be worse than the discovery of my secret.

There was an awkward silence that fell between us; my mom and I got along but never had much to talk about.  It was further complicated by the fact that the most interesting development in my life was something I couldn’t tell her.

Apparently some of my nervous energy was noticed.  “Sweetie, what’s wrong?”

“Dad.  I’m not exactly thrilled and so I’m dwelling a bit,” I confessed.  Another half-truth, but one that was very easy to believe. “Has he always been so angry at everything?”

A sorrowful smile crossed her lips, “No, no there was a time when we were much happier.”

“You guys never talk about it,” I observed.  “Why?”

“It hurts to think about,” she admitted.  “Your dad and I used to be a well-off couple.  I was a successful writer, he was helping develop new medications…and then one day everything had to change.  There was no warning before an alarm sounded across the city; nothing we could do but watch in horror as the sky changed color and feel the air heat up and energize around us.”  She shuddered as she recollected that fateful day. “It feels like a lifetime ago, but still so fresh, so vivid. Your father has trouble letting go of what we used to have, and he feels like the universe cheated us out of our old life.  He’s upset, in part, that he didn’t get to give you the life he feels you deserved.”

“He has a funny way of showing it.”

My mom frowned, “He changed after that day and his temper became a short fuse.  Having to do simple labor for him is humbling, almost insulting. Adam used to be so gifted and feel so useful but now…he feels common and disposable.  It’s enough to make anyone nasty.”

“But you stay with him,” I pointed out.  

“I do.  I said ‘for better or worse’ and I meant it. Up until I die, I’m going to be a lady of my word,” she vowed to me.  “What he did, hitting you, was a tremendous slip. ”

“A bit more than a slip if you ask me.”

“Fine.  It was a catastrophe and your father was an idiot.  I understand if you need time away from him, from this house to feel more safe and grounded, and that’s fine.  You run with good friends but I had better not hear from a teacher you’re failing a class.”

“And you never will.”

“But promise me something, Nicky,” she begged, “Work to make things right with your dad.  It won’t happen overnight, I understand. But don’t quit on him. He was a damn good man when I married him, and I believe that part of him can come back.  Sometimes the people who need the most help are the ones who push away the hardest.”

I digested that thought and began to nod.  “I promise. I won’t just quit on you losers.”  

She grinned but still reached up and flicked my ear, “No need to be lousy.”

“I never said I was going to be decent about it, only that I would follow through on my end of the bargain.”  I weaved my head away from another flick at my ear with a smile.

Our good humor was immediately quashed when the door opened.  My dad walked through and looked up, shocked to see me in the living room with mom.  “Look who decided to come home.”

I felt all that rage and anger immediately start billowing up, building, remembering the last time I talked to the man.  

But I had promised mom that I would be patient.  Besides, I didn’t want Murphy holding it against me that he’d had to stop me from killing someone…or the fact that I had attacked him like a madman; if I was being given a chance, my dad deserved the same opportunity to redeem himself.  

“I came to get some clothes and let you two know I was alright.  Gonna go back to Murphy’s with Alexis, do some project work to boost our class rank.”  

“This your way of saying you don’t want to be around your old man anymore?”

Of course he wouldn’t make this easy.  

“I’m saying I’m gonna be gone tonight, and every now and then I’m going to see them to work some more.”

He glared, suspicious.  “You’ve never worked on boosting class rank before.  Why the sudden want to do it now? And why can’t you do it here?  We’re not good enough?”

“Adam,” my mom cautioned.  

“No, I wanna hear it.”

I steadied my breathing, fighting away the alien intentions that told me to simply tap into my Adaptation to make this a one sided fight.  When I was calmed down enough, I met my father’s gaze defiantly. “You’re an angry jackass who hit me, in front of my girlfriend. I don’t want to bring anyone around you, let alone my friends.”

Fear gripped me as I let those words tumble out: was this going to be a repeat of our last encounter?

The uncomfortable stillness lasted what felt like hours even though it was probably ten seconds at most.  “Alright,” he finally conceded, “Fair enough.”

“Wait…what?” I replied, flabbergasted.  “You’re okay with this?”

He shrugged, “You’re seventeen and Zari have longer years than Earth did; at this point you’d be considered a man.  You want this, fine. As long as you keep your shit together, you’re allowed to make your own choices. If you wanna run along with your friends, fine; you get in trouble or fuck up at school, everything changes.  Understood?”

“Y-yeah!” I was overjoyed that this was going off without another incident, and that neither was pressing too hard into my cover story.  I turned to go to my room but a hand on my shoulder stopped me.

“Be careful, Nick,” he said slowly.  “And don’t forget that your mom and I care a lot about you.”  

“I know.”

“And…well I’m proud of you son.  It took guts to stare me in the face and say that; I’m proud my kid has the nerve to be his own man.”  

My original anger seemed to conflict with how I felt now; my mom wasn’t just lying or trying to cover for an oppressive spouse.  There was still an echo of a good man within my dad, just beaten down hard enough it took a lot to bring it to the surface.

For a moment, I wanted to just be upfront with him, tell him what his son was; memory of our last discussion had me hold my tongue.  Still, my indecision and silence was telling enough for him to know I was trying to say something.

“Sorry, not totally sure how to react here.  Kind of overwhelmed. I don’t think you’ve ever told me that you’re proud of me.”  

He shrugged, “I probably should say stuff like that more and not be such a piece of shit.”

“Will I be pushing my luck if I agree?”

For the first time in weeks, I witnessed an actual smile creep across his face, “Definitely.  Nicky, you’re going to be too clever for your own good one of these days.”

“My teachers tell me the same thing.”

“Well, at least listen to them if you won’t listen to me.  They are supposed to be the experts.”

I gave a soft chuckle, “Can do, dad.”  I left things where they were and slid into my bedroom, changing clothes, glad to be in my own clothes as opposed to something Muphy lent me.  Grabbing a change of hoodie and a notepad—per demand of Alexis—I headed back out and nearly jumped when my dad was loitering directly in front of my room.  

“Holy shit!  Don’t do that!”

“Tomorrow night we’re having dinner as a family.  I am gonna insist you be home for that. Deal?”

I nodded, “Deal.  I’ll probably be home tonight.”

He frowned, looking outside, “It’s nearly dark now as is.  Unless you’re getting a ride from Alexis, don’t come back. I wouldn’t want you walking late; don’t want you getting caught up in it.”    

It struck me as an a hilarious sentiment on his part; I’d soon be contributing to the trouble of the night.  

“And if you stay out, I better not hear about you missing class!  I know your friend Murphy has a lousy attendance record; why his parents let him get away with it I’ll never be sure.  Damned kid is wasting his potential.”

I rolled my eyes, “I have Hosjon’s class tomorrow morning, and I’m not going to miss his class.  Don’t worry, I’m not Murphy; I’m not going to start just skipping classes all the damned time.”

My dad gave me a glare, “You’d better not.  Now hurry up, don’t want to keep people waiting.”  

That was all the invitation I needed to head out into the cool evening.

Nightlife in residential areas of Ciel differed dramatically from the industrial zones where the Rogue Sentries had been days earlier.  While people around the slums hid inside, people around a more middle class part of town milled in the streets or could be seen heading out for a night on the town.  One thing humanity had brought with it from Earth was their massive affinity for alcohol and methods of production.

Before us, Tso’got didn’t have much in the way of controlled substances and instead sought more entertainment with violence and carnal indulgence; twenty-six years of human influence had adjusted that culture dramatically.  

Nightclubs popped up everywhere, and if people couldn’t get in, they simply drank outside.  Generally you would find cliques of Zari on someone’s doorstep indulging themselves whereas others would go all the way out to the curb, just to be irate assholes who wouldn’t leave you alone.

Thanks to liquor and drugs keeping people subdued, the industrial tycoons who really ran the government didn’t see any need to limit them or put any kind of stipulations on consumption.  Instead they let things be as is; drunkards never were ones for thoughtful political discourse after all.

Unfortunately, being human meant you were generally the subject of scrutiny and often ridiculed; a lot of people blamed us for the economic hardships of the city and every drunk and jaded Zari would let you know.  I would have loved to wear headphones and ignore them, but that meant you risked being snuck up on and plenty had been beaten to death in the street because a group of rowdy Zari felt slighted by someone ignoring them.  

Walking also served a secondary purpose: I needed fresh meat.  My storage had spoiled and I was banking on someone having hit some poor animal with their car.  I wasn’t sure if Alexis was going to send us somewhere tonight, but with no meat at my disposal I was a worthless tag-a-long.  Keeping my head down, I navigated the streets and managed to avoid any real heckling from the intoxicated Zari I wandered past.  

But my luck didn’t last.  

“Hey, kid!  Yeah, you!”

I could feel a number of eyes staring at me; I was dumb and stopped to acknowledge.  If I had been smart enough to just keep going I probably could have pretended not to hear.  Hell, even just ‘answering’ my phone would have been enough to buy me some excuse to ignore them.  But no.

“Come here.”

Four Zari guys, all drunk from the looks of it and leaning against the wall of an alley.  Each one was probably half again my size, and all had the same look in their eye like they were up to no good.  

With no meat to consume, I was just a normal human.  If they wanted to beat me to death, I wouldn’t be able to stop them.

“What’s up?” I asked boldly as I walked over, trying to put on a good face as the four men formed a semi-circle in front of me.  

“Where are you going little man?”

“Just going to go see a friend.”

The four men glanced at each other, “Yeah, I’m sure.  How about you stay a while and kick one back with us, yeah?”

I frowned, “No thanks.  My buddy is expecting me.”  

“We insist,” one growled, giving away much more of their intention than the apparent leader of the clique.

Taking a step backwards, “Appreciate the offer but I’m gonna–”

A hand shot out and grabbed my wrist, “Your buddy can wait a few minutes, can’t he?”

I struggled, but without my alien strength there was no way to overpower one of them, let alone four.  Still, Murphy’s instruction kicked in and I shot my free hand forward into the Zari’s nose, catching him off guard.  

Soft cartilage crumpled against bone  and he let go; I wasn’t fast enough to get away from another set of hands grabbing me.  

“Little fucker,” the ringleader growled as blood trickled from his nose.  “You’re gonna regret–”

He stopped and I saw all of the Zari looking past me.  Reluctant to look away, I turned my head and my jaw almost dropped.  

The long, brown trench coat and shaved head, that air of authority with the way he strutted forward…it was him.  Almost unrivaled king of the underworld, the head of the Surface Dwellers.

Beleth.  The only Adapted who didn’t wear a mask.  

I knew he wasn’t an emotional manipulator in any capacity, but the confidence and aura he seemed to exude was almost overwhelming; he expected the world to shift around him and it just kind of…did.  

The Zari let me go as he walked closer, regarding the situation with a kind of casual interest.  “Four on one? Seems hardly fair.”

My heart hammered in my chest; I’d attacked his lieutenants days ago, I’d probably cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages.  No one fucked with Beleth and lived to talk about it, outside of a few exceptions. Shockwave and Clemency had encountered him and survived, but neither had done any real damage, they just hadn’t lost horribly.    

People speculated that Titan might be able to take him, but Titan was…enigmatic with his appearances.  

If he knew what I had done, all he’d have to do is think and I would be a stain on the sidewalk.  No one would be able to save me, no one would be able to stop him. The anxiety was overwhelming as he stood only a meter away from me.  

Praise God he was focused on the Zari instead of me.  “He was being disrespectful! Didn’t listen to us when we called him.”

Beleth smiled and it was eerie.  “Were you looking for a little human to pick on?  Feel like a big man?” He stepped forward, putting himself inches from the Zari; even though Beleth wasn’t a big guy–not much larger than me honestly–the Zari still backed up, petrified.  “Don’t lie to me, you must know I can tell.”

All of them were shaking, but one had the good sense to finally answer.  “Y-yes,” he confessed.

“Well then, how about we give you a better fight!  Goliath, come here would you?”

I hadn’t spotted him earlier, but there was an escort who was lingering behind Beleth.  A guy the size of Murphy in a simple red mask…but he rapidly changed.

It was similar in a way to how I enlarged myself, but this was all internal.  Muscle rapidly grew and the shirt fell to the side as did the mask. While the man wasn’t more than 5’6” initially, he was easily 7’ tall by the end of his transformation and he was oversaturated with muscle.  His eyes were just black orbs, no white or iris to speak of and his skin seemed to be almost red, like he’d spent too much time in the sun. Goliath had a very square face with a smile that seemed glued on, much like Murphy’s characteristic grin.  

This was different though: Murphy’s grin was playful and Goliath’s smile seemed bloodthirsty.    

“Shame, I don’t have my hammer,” he lamented as he stepped forward.  Goliath’s voice was exactly what you’d assume: a low and deep rumble that sounded like he’d been gargling with gravel.  

“Now, do you still want a four on one brawl?”

I stood in my place, silent as Goliath slapped a Zari and literally tossed him back three meters to start the  bout. The ‘fight’ lasted seconds and all the Zari were unable to walk away where Goliath seemed almost disappointed.  

Beleth turned back to me, “Should I kill them?  They probably would have done the same to you.”

I shook my head, slowly, nervous.  “They were just idiots, they don’t deserve to die.”  

The mob boss seemed to ponder it and shrugged, “Fair enough.”

“Why did you help me?”  It wasn’t easy to muster the courage to ask in the first place, and I wanted to curl into a ball as he glanced at me, curious.  

“Just because I’m a criminal doesn’t mean I can’t take pity on people.  I’m still human, I can’t let some kid get beaten to death because a few Zari are punks.  Gotta look out for my people, right?”

Goliath nodded, “Fuckers were cowards.  We don’t reward cowardice.”

“Elegantly put, Goliath, as always.”  He turned back to me, “Besides, you’re a fighter!  Gotta reward strength where I see it. But, I do suggest you fuck off now.”

I nodded reverently and scurried away as fast as possible.

As quick as I could, I hurried to Murphy’s place, noting the social decline despite there only being three kilometers between our dwellings.  His neighborhood was substantially more dirty and grimy, and had less people outside; everyone was afraid since violent crime was so much more commonplace here.  

Before I knocked on the door, Murphy opened it and let me in, his face falling as he noted my panicked expression.  

“Look like you’ve seen a ghost,” he pointed out as I sat down and caught my breath.  

“Seriously,” Alexis seconded, “What happened to you?”

I explained my run in with Beleth and they both widened their eyes in shock.

“Thank fuck they didn’t have a cognate with them!  I mean if they knew you were the one who beat the shit out of Awe,” Alexis trailed off.

“Yeah, I’m plenty aware!  I was almost pissing myself the whole time!”

Murphy was the only one who seemed to get over his apprehension, “But you didn’t get pummeled to death by Goliath!  So, that’s a win!”

He wasn’t wrong.  

“Plus, you unwittingly got valuable information!”

I was confused, but Alexis tracked his logic.  “Considering what we are going to do, that’s actually very valuable to know they are making appearances around here.”  

“Someone wanna fill me in?”

Murphy waved to Alexis, “You’re the boss, and it was your idea.  You tell him.”

“Seriously, please do,” I begged, tired of being out of the loop.

Alexis gave a nervous grin.  “We know that Surface Dwellers are looking to expand their turf out of the North part of the city, trying to encroach on central Ciel.  Where they have been shipping dart has made that clear.”

“With you so far.”  

“Right now, the other big power player in Ciel is Imperium, and they have a lot of investment in the central part of the city.”  

“Yeah, they have been fighting over control, this isn’t new to anyone.”  

“So far, it’s been a bit of a stalemate,” Murphy supplied, “Beleth knows he’s the kingpin and regarded as king of the underworld.  He’s hesitant to go all in and try to depose Imperium because that might leave them weakened and ready for someone else to capitalize.”  

Alexis picked up for him, “Our job is going to be to make an opportunity he can’t pass up.  If we weaken Imperium and provide him a chance to move in for the kill, we let them kick each other silly and help clean up the rest.”

I frowned, “You’re suggesting we set up a gang war with a lot of heavy hitters.  We’re gonna be way in over our head.”

“Such a big event is going to attract a lot of Reckoners to help contain the damage.  Clemency will make an appearance for sure as well as some other small teams like us.”

“It’s gonna be a nightmare,” I exclaimed.  

Alexis and Murphy smiled to each other.  “You’re the one who suggested the idea in Hosjon’s class,” she replied.  “We talked it over and realized it could work. If we can eliminate two of the big power players, that removes a ton of the criminal presence in Ciel.  Reckoners could actually get established and better network without the fear of a cartel coming down on their head.”

I remembered what I said…I just didn’t think I’d be a part of it.  Staring down the idea, it seemed daunting, terrifying even.

“Perk up big man!  We’re gonna start small and build our way up; we aren’t going to kick in Shockwave’s door first thing.  All we have to do is put blood in the water and entice Surface Dwellers.”

“Okay,” I said, still apprehensive.  I glanced to Alexis, “You’re sure about this?”

There was a fire behind her eyes that I almost never got a chance to see.  This was something she wanted, something she would be taking come hell or high water.  “You’re damn right I am. Rogue Sentries have a war to start.”

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