Disclaimer; See previous entries

(Auhtor's Notes: It's been…another two months. Don't ask, I know, I'm a terrible person. Here is another part of this extra long(currently up to 40 pages) chapter just to let you know I'm alive. He rest of it will be up hopefully by tonight, that kid I've been taking care of academically is now on Summer Break. He passed all his classes, after nearly failing four of them. That's what I've been doing instead of fanfiction. Helping this kid, who is also a fighter I have been training for most of his short career, get by in a rough situation. I also went through a funeral, a handful of problems at work including a seasonal job change, but all that is backseat to keeping a kid from dropping out of high school like I did at his age. Enjoy these…few extra pages onto the end of an existing chapter, more to come very soon with my now impossibly clean schedule, and most importantly, I have not stopped writing. It's been slow going, but I will never give this up out of pure selfishness, which it may have looked like this long while. Review if you're still around to read, and thank you.)

One Week Later

Once again, the limp hand flexed against its own fingers, holding onto life. And once again, it failed to make its message known. He would rather die than give in to defeat.

And man, was it getting old…

A shrill, but gravelly yell from right above the survivor's ear

"…Just TAP already!"

My aunt's dojo. The night is young, the shutters are sealed, and the ceiling lights are being used for the second time since we opened. This place always closes after dark, it just does. Despite having bluntly severed a few dozen ties to her Karate upbringing, Maria was still a bit old fashioned about how she ran the place. For instance, no scheduled classes or lessons. You show up when you show up, and it better be early. No clocks, no watches, and anything that tells time has to be turned off, put into sleep mode or set to stun before you exit the locker room. This wasn't her idea. We all just pinned it up in the men's bathroom after that one guy lost that tooth because he asked how much time he had left in a sparring session.

We have a no-face rule. She says it was an accident, but who the heck trips over a bad toenail and ends up stomping a guy's head into the floor close to eight times?

…Okay, so maybe once, but on more than one occasion?

This was back before I left with Walt. Kirby stayed around because she was actually close to getting a black in her first style, and also because dropping gymnastics left her with literally six more hours of free time every day including weekends. After figuring in her cat-like reflexes and equally cat-like sleeping habits, that left her with…an annoying gap between whatever after-school dance program was going on and voice lessons at night. While I was off getting my head bashed in around the country, she was bouncing around all day and setting promotion records in Western-adapted capoeira. The ancient African martial art that later developed into…gymnastic breakdancing. The girl manages to stay off one self-destructive lifestyle, and she just twirly-backflips right out of the pan into the inferno to a chorus of bongo drums.

Our aunt/teacher has enough connections that you could study most styles without having to leave that storefront gym of hers. When you're a former full-contact champ who hitchhiked through all of Japan and about one tenth of China, all it takes it a sturdy address book, a reliable ballpoint pen, and a few bored friends to run about twenty styles of somehow intact martial arts out of a single association. The trick? We don't write each style in soap all over the windows. So what if we're the cornerstone of martial arts in this region, who cares. No matter what you study, all the teachers and students alike answer to the tiny Hispanic chick who recently reasoned menopause is a valid excuse for homicide in the American court system.

And out of the blue, she called everyone she considered a competent student and told us to show up after dark on a Friday night. I actually just came to make fun of Kirby, but I checked my voicemail after I got in, turns out I was actually on the guest list.

…And I was supposed to wear my uniform.

So, before any of the instructors showed up, I just slipped into the back room and walked out wearing a brand-new, ultra-starched black gi. This was the new standard that had somehow replaced the one she'd given me a week before kicking me out again. We didn't change any names, didn't add any new styles, we just started wearing black instead of white.

An hour later, I was leaning against a bare white wall, adjusting the front flap of my stolen and still tag-adorned outfit as I watched two of my heavier-set peers…lie on the ground, one holding the other around the neck with a bent elbow as the obvious loser changed colors every few seconds because he refused to just tap the mat and end his misery.

Did I mention that they were both wearing camoflauge?

I'm not kidding.

Same style gi as mine, somewhat baggier, both decked out in digitally designed military camo. The one in the arm-lock, was sporting black and grey splotches while his new owner was sporting the classic tan, green and brown.

…It gets better…

Leaning against the wall-sized shutters that folded flat to look like wooden paneling, was another group of early arrivals who were watching the same pathetic grappling match with the same practiced half-smirk we'd all copied straight off the sensei. Nearly flat-line, this is a dojo after all, but with the right cheek slightly flexed to hint at something like a smile. Formal. Dignified. And it saves us the hassle of opening our mouths to tell Mr. Metro-Camo that he's a moron. I think she picked it up in Tokyo along with that glow-in-the-dark tattoo she only shows relatives, favorite students and…Me, apparently.

I was alone against the farthest wall from the windows, while a group of about fifteen had spread themselves between the front door and the split doorway to the lockers. Half of them were watching the impromptu sparring match while the other half was glancing at each door every few seconds for any sign of some one older than twenty one to show up. One in particular was planted right beside the painted door to the back room with her eyes fixed on the handle for any sign of movement. Her bleached eyebrows seemed to visibly bounce every time some one yelled something to each other or to the grapplers. She had a somehow less bleached ponytail strapped tightly against the top of her neck. No make up, no necklace chain peeking out behind her collar, not even a painted toenail. Everything inch of her (…Probably around five foot, every non-Kirby I meet is usually short) frame matched up with an anatomy chart down to the way she stood with her heels together and plain-trimmed toes out to the sides, head tilted to give a profile view of the human head.

And as if she couldn't get any plainer, she was wearing a perfectly-sized, perfectly fitted yet shape-concealing silk robe of sorts tied around her square frame, draping everything from her neck to her ankles in carefully cleaned white except for the thick black ribbon tied around her middle, which was bent into an immaculate half-pretzel in the front as she played sentry to an already looted storeroom that was probably picked over before she even showed up. At the exact moment the sun went down. Like the voicemail told her to.

Akido. Which is Japanese for 'LOOK AT ME! I'M A BORING WHITE PERSON WHO LIKES RAMEN!'. Hate those guys. That one in particular chewed me out not only for borrowing a uniform from the family business, but for tying my belt the wrong way.

A few steps behind the white-draped maiden, was a similar-built and similar-sized male who was postured in a perfect parody of her at-attention, paper towel roll between shoulder blades stance. Unlike the tanned and bleached Asian-wannabe, the spoof artist was an obvious Korean with a light-brown complexion and even darker hair. He had intense, somewhat rounded features that drew attention away from the fact he was stripped bare to the waist and clad only in a pair of dark yellow short-shorts and matching hand-wraps which were hanging off because he didn't bother clipping them.

Muay Thai kickboxing. Down to Earth, tell it like it is, and they'll do it with their fly unbuttoned and between jokes about a Rabbi and a blindfolded Priest on a surfboard. Excellent fighters, terrible gentlemen. This one in particular had made fun of the way I walked after Ms. Akido chewed out my belt-line.

Next up against the wall, I was casually glancing down it like a police line-up, was a younger man who was peering over the head of the shorter Thai fighter at the stiff watching the door. He was some random European, brown haired and eyed, and topping around six foot six. His broomstick-shaming arms were crossed over his ribbed chest as he flaunted a loose black robe hanging off each joint in two distinct shirt/pants pieces. Instead of a functioning belt, he simply had a dark red sash hanging off a shoulder around his chest as he slowly glanced from the Thai to the Otaku, trying to figure out which to make fun of first.

…Uh…Chinese? They have literally a thousand styles up there. Eight hundred of them are named Kung Fu. Go ask a sensei, I'm on my lunch break.

Unlike the other two, he'd just given me a cold shoulder. The more civilized of the styles.

My eyes kept drifting to the side, counting off each costumed student in turn until I'd swung my eyes around three corners and ended up back at the guarded door.

Besides the idiots on the mat, no two people were dressed the same. Male, female, robes, gi, trunks, belts, sashes, sombreros, skirts, silk, satin, cotton, every variation of the theme was standing around waiting for some one to walk in and explain why we'd been asked to show up. I briefly glanced over as a satin-robed girl with a wooden sword stuck through her belt walked regally right up to the sprawled wrestlers and dramatically swung one sandaled foot into the loser's shoulder, slamming his hand down and ending the pointless struggle once and for all. As the grey-splotched fighter got to his feet, face going red as he started yelling at the straight-faced fencer about how she belonged in a kitchen, my patience finally gave out and I just let my gaze fall down to the floor.

The loose cuffs of my black pants stared up at me, reminding me of how insanely out of place I looked.

As you can see, once you make your mark on your respective style, the dress code goes from plain gi to whatever the hell you can get off the internet. Everyone in that rainbow of a room started out in a white (Recently changed black) outfit that they probably just stole out of the back room like I just had. Now that they were all masters according to their paperwork, the only piece of clothing that carried over from their training was the belt. Black. Tied around the waist or the torso, carefully knotted on the right side, never on the front like you'd wear a normal belt. No matter who you were or what you wore, the belt was tied at the side. Since this place never runs group classes, this kind of gathering was probably the first of its kind. All the black belts and sashes, finally united in a small mob that chattered like a school cafeteria during Spirit Week.

And way off in the corner, not a single soul within ten feet, was me. I had my arms crossed, straining the undersized sleeves of the shirt to their moral limit as the rest of me just slumped into the groove where the two walls met. I'd taken off my shoes when I came in, my vein-lined feet were idly slapping the floor every few seconds to keep from falling asleep. The back of my head was against the wall, propping my head up in a proud position while the rest of me just slumped up against the wall like a two hundred pound broom.

Glancing down without moving my head, I could see a splotch of color on the front of my black outfit that quickly caused my eyes to jump back to the floor and start scanning the fashion show again.

Tied around my waist, knot to the side, stained wherever the threads hadn't fallen off entirely, was a brown belt I'd been wearing like a scar ever since I decided to come back here.

Approximately twenty three black belts, in twenty two different styles and forms of learned combat, and that brown belt in the rookie suit off by himself in the corner while everyone tries not to look at him.

I was starting to wish I was the guy who wouldn't tap out.

Through the dull roar of the crowded room, I heard the locker room doors slam closed. I swung both blue eyes over with a half-sigh. For a second I just stared out the right side of my face, before letting my left eyebrow drift up to take the tension off.

New arrivals. And…they were actually dressed alike

The first thing I noticed was a small pack of central colors glaring out of the white doorway of the lockers. As my eyes adjusted, and they walked out into the main chamber, I could see it was a group of four people of varying heights, each wearing a colored gi identical to the one I'd just stolen. Except colored completely in one tone each. Blue, red, green, and brown respectively, each with the ever popular black stripe right around the beltline. I discreetly glanced at each face in turn, looking back down at the black floor padding a second later.

No one who's tried to kill me before. That's a plus.

Two of them, the taller ones in red and brown, were both dirty blonde guys with light brown eyes and an equal share of freckles thrown around their faces and necks. They were brothers, a year apart, and currently taking turns smacking the other in the arm over something I hadn't heard. The shortest guy was an olive-skinned Latino with the infamous dark eyes and his hair grown out and pulled into a two-inch braid against his neck. He was probably just about five eight, but built like a squared tank with his thick wrists hanging out of his navy blue sleeves and a vein pulsing on his neck from whatever the heck he for warm-ups.

And the shortest person of the foursome, in green, was a somewhat scrawny blonde girl with a shoulder-length braid hanging over one shoulder as she craned her neck back to watch her gigantic friends argue with their hands. The blue-gi Latino turned to her, almost at her height with how he slouched, and shared a knowing headshake with his fellow intellectual.

These guys were the sport-fighters. The personal prodigies of Sensei herself. Between the four of them, they had close to thirty eight full-contact tournament wins ranging from MMA to the more intense forms of Karate and kickboxing. And if their fashion sense didn't set them above everyone else, their fight records did.

I mean, they actually have fight records.

And if I hadn't quit when I had, I'd be walking right there with them with a black stripe and a fancy gi. I'd probably be between the two tall guys, smacking them both upside the head while arguing with the Latino over whose aunt makes the best salsa.

But trust me on this, they're pretty tough. They were the only volunteers Maria got when I walked in and asked for a few sparring partners to tag-team the living crap out of me.

The second they walked out of the lockers, the people on each side of the door shifted a bit to their side. Like they were violently ill and could pass it on.

Or like they'd make you wish you were violently ill.

By the time the slapping fight had ended and the two shorter fighters had shared a joke, the two wrestlers had cleared off the mat so they could walk over the area that had just been swept off with that one guy's hairline.

As the rainbow of fear settled itself against the wall about ten feet away from the corner I was wedged into, the rest of the room went back to chattering at full volume. Still peering around the room out of boredom, as my eyes swung in their direction I took a sharp glance at the hand of one of the tall blondes, which was fanned out on the wall while he slouched down to talk to the obviously uninterested girl.

I noted a small ring of colored cloth circling his ring finger before glancing back at the rest of the room, looking just as bored as that poor girl who has to listen to that guy's come-on about that scar he picked up in Thailand. The one that looks like a bike-chain cut. The kind you get from falling off a bike, not the street fight with pool cues like he's telling her about.

And while I had been checking to see if Blondie's knuckle had healed, something the size of a large truck must have torn through the middle of the dojo. I felt my eyebrow snap up into position as I saw a scattered pile of costumed characters clumped into the corner between the lockers and the wall I was leaning my right arm against.

I let the other brow join his brother, wondering what the heck happened while I was looking in the other direction as a faint rasp made itself known somewhere in the back of my head, rattling off the dialogue of an insightful memory.

The crowd can see things you can't. It's called perspective. The less you pay for the ticket, the higher perspective. And they don't know what they're perspecting at. When they start cheering for a hit, you weave. When they start booing, don't stop hitting the guy. And when they throw a glass at you on the way out, catch it, tip your hat to the guy and thank him for the souvenir. They hate that.

...Whatever you say, Sir…

'Phantom! My mother did NOT name me 'Sir'. She called me 'Wally'. Just meet me half- way here and stick to 'Walt', will 'ya? It's bad enough that my girls call me 'Daddy', I don't need you Sir-ing me into the retirement home.

Yessir.

Damn it, Alan...Remind me to buy you a sense of humor if you ever win a title. Pretty sure they have gift cards for that.

Yessir'.

Hey Blue-Eyes, you use a funnel to get into that camisa or did you paint it on with shoe polish?

Wait…Walt never called me 'Blue-Eyes' when he was making awkward comments about how my clothes rarely fit…He usually stuck to…

…Wait…he didn't speak Spanish, either…and he was more of a low tenor than a mezzo-soprano…

Oh, mierda!

GAAUGH, MY LEGS!

A sudden pressure cutting into the back of knees made my vision blur into a wipe of colors before the black flooring flew at me and I turned my head, instinctively fearing for the structure of my nose.

My ear bounced against the mat, the thud barely echoing through my skull before that voice in the back of my head spoke again. This time, it was more above my head instead of behind it.

"¿Tenga un viaje agradable?"

Something had cut right into my knees, folding me over before slamming me right onto my stomach. Then, it asked me if I had a nice trip.

And it really needs to cut its toenails.

As I struggled to focus my vision, which was basically a vertical line of covered legs and bare feet, my jaw clamped shut in mid-hiss.

"Offa' me, now!"

The ringing in my ears was quickly replaced by a giggle that put wind-chimes to shame. The pain in my back slowly went to an ache, which was quite a relief even though I could not breathe. I felt the backs of my hands touching the mat somewhere next to my waist. I must have fell like a tree.

The giggling subsided as I pried my eyes open, hoping to see either the Pearly Gates or a blunt object within reach.

Instead, I just saw a bunch of pant legs…like a polyester-cotton forest of color towering around my fallen form…A sharp, Latino voice.

"He ayight'?"

I'd just managed to swallow a small wisp of air into my pressed lungs. I wasted it on an impulsive comeback.

"…Yeah, yeah, my doctor says that being a doormat is great for hypertension. GET HER OFF ME!"

At the very front of the immense square foot of pressure on my upper back, there was a slight cotton rustle against my skin.

Dang it, you'd think she'd know I'm not ticklish by now!

Another voice from above. Much clearer, but half the pace.

"Um…are you guys, like…Sensai's kids?"

Still kissing the mat…I slowly rotated my wrists, getting my palms against the floor and bending my elbows slightly.

I glanced down my side at my left palm as it carefully pressed against the mat. Both eyes slid shut, concentrating on the texture of the flooring under my hands.

…Once chance at this…

This time in clear English, my assassin chimed.

"Actually, I'm her niece…and this is just some white guy we keep around to…"

The sound of synthetic wood cracking against its bearings. A musical yelp, ending with a hollow thud, followed in turn by an echoing slap of bare feet landing flat on padding.

…And then, applause.

What? Not happy with just the soundtrack? Fine, I'll skip to when I opened my eyes.

I was now standing, crouched at the knees a good meter forward of where I'd been laying. Both my arms were spread to my sides, my hands slowly twitching from the sudden strain as I tried to slow my breathing through visibly gritted teeth. I glanced around for a second before focusing dead straight ahead. My eyes were now locked on a purple-clad figure standing just a few feet in front of me in what looked like the finish of an Olympic-style floor routine. From behind, I could just make out the back of her tunic-like purple vest and pants, the two golden brown arms stretched out to the sparse crowd of costumed fans, and the jet-black braid bouncing lightly against her lower back, catching the light and shining with dull twinkles.

…At the end of the tight braid…holding the knot together...was a grey permanent marker with a clip attached to its light-blue cap.

After a few more seconds of milking the applause, she turned her head and shot me a one-eyed glance that twinkled with a green brilliance that put her brand of hair conditioner to shame.

Standing back behind the instant star, the pain in my back finally going away, I found myself pondering more philosophy.

…A green-eyed guy with a bad bleach job flies around the city fighting crime and supporting the local leather industry, nobody cares. No headlines, no paranormal investigators, no angry letters from cow lovers, not even a little blurb on the news about close to a dozen serials and one-time killers on the run suddenly turning up with a few broken bones and a sudden fear of the dark.

But when some random green-eyed CUBAN CHICK jumps a guy when he's not looking, and he flips forward so she can fly off and spring off the wall right over his head, everyone just starts clapping.

I FLEW here to save the bus fare from Aron's place, while invisible, while playing Frog-Quest. This girl just kicks off a wall and doesn't break her neck because her illegitimate ancestor was apparently feline. Ahe gets the key to the city dipped in milk chocolate.

…Maybe if I started showing just a bit more cleavage while splattering ecto-mutants, we'd be on the same playing field…

After giving me a wink I never asked for, she swung her head back to face the rest of the school and dipping into a low bow in one practiced move. The clapping started to die down as the a group in the corner found something else to look at, while Kirby flipped back up, sending her braid swinging over her right should like a scarf as she once again turned back to look at me and with a circular twirl of her fingers, told me to do the same.

By this time, I was plainly standing behind her, arms crossed, brow lowered, and my eyes glancing around the bare walls like I didn't know that clocks didn't exist in here.

As the last clapper got tired and went back to arguing with some one in a kempo sash, she spun out of her finish to face me with her bent wrists on her hips. For a second, she stared me down with her heart face bent into an imitation of my scowl.

Then, with a squeal that made my eardrums want to play Russian Roulette 2 out of 3 and a flash of purple and black, I was standing in the empty corner of the chattering dojo with a six foot Cuban wrapped around my shoulders and waist like an electric sweater-vest set to 'snuggle-kill'.

Seriously, I've got to stop listening to Wasp complain about her dad's inventions, it's affecting my wisecracks.

A few seconds of me still glancing around for a clock and trying to ignore the pointed chin digging into my neck and the candy-scented shampoo smell under my nostrils, she hopped off of me and asked as she once again stuck the landing with a grin.

"A reverse jackknife into a front flip…and you hit the mat like a staple gun, Clutz."

I hadn't moved. Finally giving up on finding that invisible clock, I gave her a tired glare and shrugged, hearing a faint click as my shoulders realigned. My voice came out a bit rougher than usual. I hadn't actually spoken to anyone the entire day. Before she landed on my back and used my lungs like an accordion, anyway.

"...I haven't done that stuff since I was eight. Gimme' a break, my parents don't let me back-flip to the bathroom like yours do."

Her grin shrunk into a toothy smirk as some one off to the side of our face-off cleared his throat.

"Uh…we're still here…"

I snapped my glare over to my right, quickly feeling my brow loosen as the primary colors nearly blinded me.

The full-contact team, all four colors, were standing in a line next to my cousin and I while the rest of the school had migrated off to the other corners where they belonged. One of the tall ones had his hand raised to indicate he'd just spoken. I waited a second, figuring Kirby would take over, but I finally broke and asked the blank-eyed foursome.

"…And?"

The short Latino, who seemed to be the clearest minded color, locked his nearly black eyes on me as he fought with his accent to ask.

"…Arn…you tat' own guy? Wit' de'…"

He kept his eyes on me, trying to find the English word to finish his question. Quickly, I cut him off, closing the language gap.

"¿... El ' Sello De la Marina '? Sí, ése era yo."

For a few seconds, he kept the stare going. And without a warning or even a warning tremor, his mouth cracked open into a crooked white grin as he let out a loud guffaw, quickly raising an arm and smacking the female on the shoulder to tell the Spanish illiterate that I was the 'Navy SEAL' from the locker room. Before he could stop laughing at the fact I spoke Spanish, the tall twin who hadn't spoken yet loudly called out, with both his eyes squinted at Kirby.

"…That your boyfriend's bike out front?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the way Kirb' froze at the ill-planned question. She was still smiling, of course. But one good look at her eyes gave it away. It's always the eyes with her.

A dull thud drew my gaze back over to the fighters.

…The curious tall guy was now bent over to clutch at his ribcage, turning red from lack of oxygen as his stoic twin simply adjusted his sleeve as if he hadn't just elbowed his brother into a light coma.

As much I tried not to…I smiled. For all of three seconds before two chewed fingernails clamped onto my ear and jerked me onto one foot, quickly sending me into a rolling stumble as the Cubanita simply walked ahead of me, pulling my ear along like she hailing a cab with two fingers. She went about ten feet and stopped next to the middle of the deserted wall, turning my head around by the one ear so I couldn't see the color-guard behind us trying to hold back their laughter.

As I swatted her hand off my burning ear with a piercing scowl, she let it drop onto my shoulder so she could pull her face to within an inch of mine as she hissed.

"Where have you been?"

I found myself scowling at an angelic, tanned face that was looking back at me with its upper teeth cutting its bottom lip and its eyes wide, showing a film of new tears along the corners.

The tormented face quickly sent mine into a wince, before I forced myself into a weak smile. I tried to break eye contact as I rattled off.

"Aron and Waspy let me crash on their couch. Haven't…actually slept on it, but still..?"

Before I could even step back from her, she'd gotten her other hand on my spare shoulder. No escape.

All I could see was her eyes. They were both wide enough to show the whites on every side. I suddenly noticed the way her pupils kept shimmering, little sparkles flashing even as she stared me down.

…She was trying not to cry.

If she hadn't been nose-to-nose with me, I wouldn't have heard her whisper under her breath. I'd forgotten why I was trying to run away. The eyes.

"You just said you were staying out for the night because of Jasmine…that was a week ago, Alan."

I opened my mouth to explain.

…Nothing but air.

She kept on. I felt her grip tighten against my shoulders, folding the black cotton between her fingers.

The shimmering became brighter. Her voice hadn't changed, making it only more painful to watch.

"...It made me remember my dad."

Oh God…

Her dad. My uncle. The cop, the detective, the carpenter.

…The one who took over a dozen bullets to the torso…The vest tore like paper.

Aunt Janet didn't find out that he'd been hurt until they called her asking if she wanted Last Rites.

By the time Janet and Kirby got to see him in the hospital…the priest was already finished. The doctors gave him about a day. The nurses said a few hours.

Actually…a nurse told Janet that they were too late. Kirby had to watch what happened when they told her.

A couple years later, after things somewhat settled down, we were sanding a table on the roof and he told me what happened. One minute, he was running through a doorway in the last secure stage of a bust. Then…the guns going off…everything went black. And he could hear his wife telling him not to be dead. Begging him not to be dead.

…He's not dead. He's a miracle of modern medicine. He's a forcibly retired detective who wakes up every day and reaches for the gun on the nightstand that he threw away the day he got home from the hospital. He's a bored, out of shape, poker-playing old man of fifty who will teach every little nephew he has everything that he knows about what he used to do.

I was watching tear after tear roll down her cheeks and leaving trails of cracking makeup. Just watching, it was all I could do.

Even through the tears…that same soothingly sadistic chirp. It held on for a moment longer before giving way to a light gasp.

"If you ever pull that again, just…run out on your own like that, I swear to God I'll…!"

The tears had sunk back into her eyes, which were now two green bullets loaded in the chamber. I could feel my sleeves stretching against my back under her nails, she could have torn them off if she had gotten a better grip earlier.

For close to eight seconds, I stood there. I couldn't breathe. All I could do was wait for it. Every second, I could just see more anger in the eyes she was forcing me to look into.

She finally bent her lip to finish the threat… thento sigh as her clawed hands leapt off my shoulders, swooping behind me to join behind my back. With yet another graceless stumble on my part, she pulled me into a rib-cracking hug. Over her shoulder, I scanned the room for the hundredth time that hour, seeing that no one was looking in our direction. She was just…hugging me, just like she hugs the mailman or that foreign girl who washes towels at the gym. But for some reason she'd turned herself toward the wall when she grabbed me. She'd turned her back on everyone but me.

I soon learned why.

A sudden noise nearly made me jump out of her grip, which had tightened a few seconds after she got her chin into shoulder.

The muffled sob sent a chill right through that shoulder, right through my spine into my heels.

"Just…don't do it again…"

…She'd gone from the perky gymnast, the performer…to…this?

Damn. That girl could act, too.

I couldn't move. She'd finally let go of me both physically and psychologically, and in her condition that was quite a feat. As she just leaned against me, trying not to let go, all I could do was stop looking to see if anyone saw us, and just close my eyes and wish that I couldn't screw this up any further.

Slowly, I felt her arms slip off me as she leaned back onto her heels. I slid open one eye cautiously, seeing she was now just lazily looking down at my attire with a carefully drawn eyebrow raised over the other in honest pity. She glanced up and saw me looking, which caused her to quickly fold her arms before I could even open the other eye. Before I could say anything to defend my stupidity, she killed the subject with a coy sigh.

"Still wearing the brown belt?"

Looking down at the thread-impaired strip of brown fabric knotted at the side around my waist, I just let my head fall into a nod.

Folding her arms tighter, she nodded down so that her scarve-like braid bounced against the black stripe that divided the midsection of her violet demonstration outfit. It was the only item she hadn't custom-sewn herself for function and flair. And…to get her daily dose of cosplaying in.

"You know…she kinda' gave you a black belt off her own gi. I think she wants you to wear it, Sherlock…and…where, exactly, did you get your stuff if you haven't been home all week?"

Not missing a beat or expressing any shame what so ever, I shot back.

"Aunt Maria left the back room unlocked. And Aron has a brown bathrobe. Haga la matemáticas. "

Her eyes instantly shot out of their half-open and tear-stained state, boggling first at the offending article, then back up at my face which was framed by my shrugged shoulders. Then back down to the belt. Her sharply rounded, frowning mouth twitched at the corner.

Seeing an opening, I added, not noticing my old smirk forming as I said it.

"That…and I don't think she was thinking clearly when she gave me the belt. I mean, the last time a menopausal woman gave me something out of generosity, she reported it stolen and used the insurance to redecorate a condo."

The lip-twitch froze. A sudden flash of green in the direction of the door, and the parking area behind it, before flashing back to where I waited with a smirk in progress. She asked in a voice lower than her last whisper.

"Valerie…?"

As the smirk finishing taking over the left side of my face, I simply nodded.

With a high-pitched howl, the former gymnast and trained acrobat dropped like a sack of mulch.

By the time she got back to her feet, dark streaks were running down from both her eyes as she panted from the sudden laugh attack. She wheezed.

"She…really did that?"

I'd settled myself against the wall during her fit of insanity, examining the back of my right fist as I rattled back.

"Yeah. Wasp told me the whole thing at cards last night. Explains a lot, really…"

Leaning my head down to squint at an old scar running between my third and last knuckle, I finished.

"Here I was thinking she liked me, or was somewhat sorry for putting a gun to my head while I was using the bathroom…and then she goes and told the insurance company that the thing was stolen by a client."

Grinning earring to earring, mascara tears and all, she tilted her head down and chirped.

"…A client?"

Swiveling my fist to examine a different set of scars, I corrected.

"A ghost. Her insurance plan covers that if there's documented proof of the spectre in question existing, I think she uses the same insurance company my folks use. She had the same magnet calendar thingy." White hair, green eyes, bad tan, she actually filed a theft report for it."

"She said it was you?"

I popped m shoulders into a shrug.

…Then, remembering the last two hours of that conversation, I quickly raised a hand to show I wasn't done yet.

"…Call me crazy, but hear me out he…Are…you allowed to do that?"

Kirby finished dabbing away her ruined make-up…with the black belt she'd just pulled off her outfit. As she wiped off the last black streak and went to tie it back on, she nodded for me to keep going. I managed to keep my jaw from cracking as I realized this woman had been given a second degree black belt to abuse in the first place.

"…N…ever mind. You get tickets for tonight?"

She was leaning her side, finishing the last loop of the belt knot before her ears pricked, popping her head up as her hand quickly raised to produce them…

Before I caught her wrist before it could get above her waist. She made a noise between a scoff and a snort, glaring up at me only to get a good view of my neck. I'd grabbed her hand while looking at the ceiling. I drew out a sight.

"Just…say you have them."

She jerked her wrist out of my grip as she made a low growl that could only come from eye rolling.

"Alan! This thing has a front pocket!"

I kept the sigh going, still looking up at the lighting panels.

"…You just assume it's down my shirt…real open-minded…"

…Down to the last bit of air, here…Vision going blurry…

"…Okay, so it's an inside pocket! So they…wouldn't fall out?"

I slowly crossed my arms. Actually, I was trying to push out a bit more air, this was one heck of a sigh.

"It's not like I took a money clip and…"

Her voice suddenly went down a pitch, losing the accent completely.

"My favorite students! One, standing around with her hand in her shirt and the other staring up at the ceiling like a turkey. Makes me proud to have beaten up your mothers. Really, it does."

The record-breaking sigh cutting off sharply, still craned back to look at the ceiling, my right arm shot off my left wrist in a loose, quick-draw of a punch off to my right.

At the exact same moment, there was a whistling rustle as Kirby threw some sort of kick. Probably while looking up at me still, most likely still looking for where she put the tickets. And she was aiming for the same swollen head I was.

And like always, she just…CRACK!

Right as my wrist arced for the follow-through, it was like some one snapped my entire arm like a whip. The calm, almost serene stare I had fixed on the ceiling was crushed into a grimace as the pain hit me before the bone even settled back in its socket.

A rush of stale air later, I was hunched forward on one knee, gripping my right shoulder with my left hand with knuckles so white you could make out the veins. A few feet away, a crumpled mass of purple silk was trying to tie itself out of a pretzel knot, whimpering like a kicked kitten.

Standing between us, arms folded behind her back and lips stretched to each ear, stood a travel-sized woman of barely five foot one, clad in an outfit perfectly identical to mine save the size and the fact her front-knotted belt was black with a thin white or silver line running through its center.

Bending at the waist in a hybrid of a bow and a sympathetic lean, she looked our tight-jawed forms over with two black eyes before showing a strip of white teeth as she practically spat.

"Twelve feet, three hundred pounds between you two...And you get it handed to you by a hundred pound shortie like me. While you're putting yourselves back together, gimme' a quick thirty just because I love you guys so much."

Snapping her eyes closed and tilting her head, showing off a braid about half the length of Kirby's but the same true color, she flashed another grin before swiveling on her heels and formally marching off to address the rest of her students.

Finally deciding that everything was back in its place, I just hoped some one brought a tranq gun. And a few clips of darts, maybe for each pound she weighed.

Just a yard away from where I'd collapsed, Kirby had managed to unfold herself onto her back as she clutched her left leg against her chest. Her eyes were half-open, breathing through her teeth as she tried to ease the pain that probably rivaled what happened to my arm.

As I slowly pried my white fingers off my rapidly swelling shoulder, I looked over at my cousin with and whispered between breaths.

"The hell was that about! She usually just…dodges."

Trying to get a good grip on her ankle through the slim-cut parachute pants her outfit featured, she hissed back.

"...Estrogen…Makes us nuts for about the first year…"

Right as I began to push off my grounded arm, I froze, peering up with crooked eyes at her explanation.

"…Wha'?"

Closing her eyes and shaking her head a little as she slowly let go of her leg, she shot back.

"Menopause. Girl stuff. Just don't bother, Alonso. "

…We've been saying hi to our aunt like that since we were eight. It's our thing. She used to make a big show of it, but as we got taller and she got older, she just ducked under it.

And metaphase or whatever just made her snap us like twigs. I know enough about estrogen from health class to fear it. This only adds to my phobia.

Estrogen equals pain. Fact.

As I pushed up onto one leg, extending a hand to help Kirby up, another sharp yell from somewhere in the crowd.

"That was a fast thirty push-ups…!"

You'd think she'd pulled a gun, I hit the ground so fast.

Landing with the bad arm folded behind my back, I started doing push-ups balanced on the front of my left fist, my right leg bent out to keep my balance. About five pushes in, I glanced over to see Kirby doing the old fashioned two handed kind on her palms with the one leg tucked around her other ankle. As we both reached the bottom of the movement and pushed up, we shared another dull glance before swinging our eyes over to the still-standing and uninjured crowd she'd began to form into a half circle along the wall with the shutters.

And half of them were still standing around watching us push like we were candy wrappers drifting in the wind.

We're her favorite students. Hence the hazing.

Twenty Three Pushups Later

The casual, social gathering of part-time fighters had been uprooted and replanted in something similar to a military formation. Three straight rows of bodies, all parallel to a wall looking inward, eight to a side. The social classes were still around, all the Chinese stylists had claimed one side to themselves, and opposite them was the group that actually sparred, including the Full-Contact Four on the end.

Right in the middle of the forward-facing group, along with the rest of the leftovers, I stood with my hands folded behind my back when all I wanted was to fold them around my waist to hide the only colored belt in the building. Everyone as in everyone had their eyes locked on the tan, pointed face of our head teacher. Clad in black, same as me, in a similar if not loose posture despite being the shortest person in the whole dojo.

Right before we'd broke into formation, I'd noticed something a bit off about her outfit. Something white near her waist.

And as she slowly dragged her eyes across the three lines, not moving her face, I took the chance to glance at her belt and back up again before she could notice.

She had a new belt. Black, go figure, with what looked like a white stripe going through the ends of the center-knot on the front.

Right as I began to fight off memories about what happened to her old one, a shrill bark snapped our spines even straighter.

"Eyes straight! This ain't Prom, Kids. You can compare your dresses out in the limousines, just remember to keep those corsages wa…"

Her tight features, currently ratcheted into a military sneer, simply locked in place in mid growl. Her eyes continued picking us off in each line, as she cracked the corner of her mouth open and spoke behind her. Not loud enough for everyone to hear, just audible enough for a bored lip-reader to pick up.

"…Hey…Princess! You talk to Rocky?"

Standing a few feet behind the straight-spined drill instructor in black, watching the ranks from right over her master's head…stood, the chick in the purple getup with the green eyes. She'd been bouncing from heel to heel, trying to dig her nail file out of the folds of her oversized pants while we'd all been trying not to blink. With her hand looped around her own waist, head leaned back to frown at the hidden pockets on her outfit, she simply grunted with the same carelessness her aunt had.

"…Si…No…"

Abandoning the quest for the nail file, she stood back up to her full height, flaring her palms out to each side as she looked down at a stone-faced Maria with an instant apology. Even from across the room or even batting an eye, I could read the body language. With how tall she was, it was like reading a billboard.

The pointing towards where a clock would be…

"…I got here late!"

The other hand, waving toward the door…

"The bike is running weird."

And, with a silent pop, a golden thumb bobbing in my direction.

"Should I just…?"

Her teacher's eyes snapping in the same direction as the thumb.

A few seconds later, I let my eyes rise back up with everyone else's, admitting that I'd been watching the exchange. And our aunt simply stared me down from the center of the formation. Not giving anything away, but not shooting anything down. Just staring.

The stare ended with a twitch towards each shoulder. Picking up right where she'd left off, she continued speaking max-volume to her lesser, somewhat more attentive students.

"…I got you all down here, for something special."

Her hands appeared from behind her back, folding over her gi as she glanced down and examined one of the fists propped up on her arms as she went on.

"Everyone in here, is a master. We all have the certificates, we all got the bumper stickers."

She had stepped forward until she was in front of my line. Then, she had began pacing in front of us in a true army-wannabe fashion as her lecture wore on.

"Some of you...seem to think this means that you are better than say, a white belt. You know all the moves, you know the language. You may even teach it to others. You are better than any other belt color. White, yellow, blue, green, red…Black whips 'em all."

Reaching the end of the front line, she lazily spun on one heel and turned back, reaching up to prop her chin in one hand with her arms still folded. As she approached the center of the line, I managed to hold back a yawn.

…Belts…Real exciting. Even those big shiny ones I have under my bed back home. Now…GLOVES! Those are exciting!

"…You're all totally badass. There. I just summed up your entire psyche."

…Laces…Buckles…those weird elastic hybrid deals that never caught on…they're pretty comfortable, really. I think the lack of durability killed it. I went through that pair in about six bag sessions. Pathetic. Laces, those last longer than boxers. Loops, haven't used 'em since I taught Kirby how to lace.

She dropped her hand from her chin, letting them both drop to her sides as she began to bounce in her step slightly, swinging her arms as she approached whatever she'd been going for.

"And, because you're all so talented…Here's our guest of honor, a little brown belt ready to take everything you hit him with!"

Synthetic leather…That's gotta' be against something in the Bible. It would tear the skin on a sparring glove, no chance at anything but hitting bags, and the headgear makes you feel like…

…Odd…I can't seem to breathe through my neck, for some reason...That brings me back to synthetic leather in all its scratchy glory…

Wait…rewind…REWIND! Scene 16: The Brown Belt, like ten seconds in! No, don't pause it, just turn up the volume!

An entire evening of grooming, keeping my mouth shut, and stealing various articles of clothing to blend in…and I end up clutching my neck, trying to kick away a small Latino woman as she tried to drag me out of the line with three fingers clutching the front of my throat. She had her back turned, arm over shoulder, just waiting for me to slip so she could drag me off to the center.

Her pinching sent my voice three octaves higher.

"…Hold it! Stop!"

She swung one foot over, pulling my neck a foot forward as she growled back, ignoring the rows of wide eyed students to lock her black eyes on me.

"Just get up here, I'm trying to prove a point…"

That last tug had made my voice higher than Kirby's. I was now trying to pull her arm off by the wrist, squinting down at her as my feet began to slide.

"…You really don't want…!"

A high-pitched grunt, she was leaning forward like she was pulling a cart. Giving up any trace of a formal air, she snapped back.

"Oh, like you have anything…"

Still pulling…

"…To…"

Why was she pausing?

Letting the momentum move my head over her shoulder, I glanced over with a clenched jaw to see if she had her gum stuck or something.

She was…staring ahead…eyebrows tight, biting the bottom of her lip as she slowly let go of my neck.

For a few seconds, I stood there bent over her like a crane while she stayed in a crouched position, just biting her lip.

And just like that, her face fell apart into a loose frown as she let it slip off with a depressed air.

"…Do."

By now, the feeling had returned to my face so I just let my brow take the elevator up to my forehead.

…Like I had anything better to do…?

Why did she say it like…

And then, a flash of wailing electronics echoed through the window glass and she shutters behind us.

A siren.

By the time the first one had passed, I had disentangled myself from my aunt and was now standing full-height behind her, facing the wall that housed the hidden windows as my gaze tightened on the glass door.

Right as the wailing died off, another one picked up and the black behind the door flashed red and blue.

Not taking my eyes off the door, I hissed over my shoulder.

"…How did you…"

A tired, almost bored drawl from the former drill sergeant who was still standing behind me along with twenty of her probably dazed students.

"…Every time I say that…Something happens."

Meanwhile, I felt something happening along the side of my face.

My reply finished the smirk I couldn't hold back.

"…Welcome to my world, Short-Stuff."

Before she could rear back and clock me with the business end of her shin, and before Kirby could fall over clutching her sides, the door was swinging shut a storefront behind me as I struggled to run on an ancient sidewalk in bare feet, in the direction the cruisers had been heading.

…A block later, cursing and hopping on the foot that hadn't landed on a sharp piece of old gum, I took a sharp right and ducked into a tight alleyway between the corner office and a small warehouse.

Scraping my foot behind me to try and get the gum off, I briskly walked deeper into the nearly pitch black alcove I'd found, hissing a curse at how the stuff wouldn't come off.

By the time I reached the center of the alley, I could barely make out the cracking brick walls let along my hand in front of my face as I just gave up on the gum and began jogging farther into the alley. Away from the harsh white streetlights and neon, into the last place a human being in the 21st century is supposed to go. A dark, smelly alley in a Hispanic neighborhood.

The second I finally found complete darkness, I slid to a stop when my feet hit something wet. Glancing down and squinting, I was somewhat glad I couldn't see what I was standing in. I shook my head, shrugging my head high as I remarked to the shadows covering me, stroking two sore fingers tentatively against a calloused thumb.

"Times like these…I wish they still had phone booths…"

…A sharp snap. Showtime.

My eyes snapped shut, the foreign chill through my spine not mixing well with the total lack of light.

By the time I opened them, the black abysses of the inner alley had transformed into a grey-on-black mosaic of splotches and patterns that formed a faint mural which looked exactly like the inside of an alley. I glanced out the corner of each side coyly, noting several crooked squares on the brick walls and even a faint design that may have been old spray paint from back before they stopped making it.

Resisting the urge to look down and 'see' what my newly formed shoes were standing in, I looked down at the skeletal gray lines of my hand and its bent fingers before glancing up past the gray waves of my bangs at the gray stripe of sky between the walls of the alley.

One last raspy sigh.

"If this cuts into the marathon, Kirb's gonna' make me wish I'd stayed for the gang beating…"

Not being able to resist a grin as I sprung down into a bent-legged crouch, palms open at my sides, you'd think I'd found a shiny NV-gray penny or something.

"...Oh well, better not get pulled over!"

One quick whooping jump, and the alley was nothing but a dark stripe in the neon-flashing blanket flashing off behind me as I swooped up over the entire shopping district, glancing over my shoulder to see if I could see the red glint of the bike out in front of the studio before swinging my eyes forward and slamming my heels together to take it out of park. Rolling one shoulder down and gently swerving aside to avoid hitting a low high rise that I could have just phased right through, I used the side momentum to break into a few barrel spins before righting myself out and looking down under my for any signs of sirens down on the main avenue striping a hundred feet under me.

A few seconds later and nothing but white headlights. I squinted down, urging myself a few knots faster until the white dots along the road blurred.

Those cars were going about fifty. I'm heading about four hundred feet over the ground level. Figuring in the fact China is now shaped like a giant cartoon cat head and Japan has been converted into a giant trademark symbol, the Earth's gravity would put me about…two fifty an hour.

Sure, I could shoot for minimum wage at three or four bucks an hour…I'm trying to spot cop cars, not outrun those freakin' anti-ghost missiles that they apparently sell at flea markets.

There were three just this week…I've given up on joking about it. The last one had a dang armadillo head on the nosecone. The guy must be running out of ideas. I only know what that thing is because it was Walt's college mascot. Next I'll be outrunning Echidna-headed missiles, one of the only other mammals besides the platypus that lays eggs.

A flash of blue off to the side of the red and white ribbon made me nod before swinging my feet under me, floating onto my back and cutting into reverse to the sounds of flapping leather. A quick quarter-mile of slow backtracking, I slowed down even further as I spotted a red and blue heading off on a diagonal from the main street.

Standing upright in the air with my arms folded, I veered my eyes along the path of the emergency vehicle's lights until the dark side path gave way to another lighted clump of retail. A larger, stationary clump of red and blues marked where the party was starting. Raising a finger and tapping it toward a few landmarks, I counted off each district before landing on where the sirens were.

"…And, Hurst's Bank and Retail…Smells like hostages. Crap."

My foot tapped the stale air that you can only find a few hundred feet over the city like it was ceramic tile as I reached into my jacket and felt around for my phone, glaring at a flock of nocturnal pigeons as they narrowly missed my personal airspace, making that weird cooing noise all the way. As I found a smaller zipper-locked pocket, I called after the rapidly retreating flock of feathered rats.

"Like you have a big appointment to miss!"

Closing two fingers around the zipper pull as I glanced back down at the lone red and blue as it reached the others, I could have sworn I saw a speck of green thrown into the patriotic colors of the crisis zone.

My hand froze in mid-zip as my eyes locked on the very green, very real speck on the edge of the semicircle.

…That wasn't green. That was Cold-Cathode, Neon Veridian #6 with a six watt projection mount.

Kicking my feet back behind me and going into a full-speed dive with my fists at my sides, one equally heroic thought completed the pose.

…What were the Fentons doing at a bank robbery?

Seventy Three Minutes Later

Now I know why 'Family Teeth Bleaching' night exists…Photo ops.

It was like something you'd put in a Christmas card. From the future...

That's what they used to call the twenty first century before it became 'Now'. To think people used to sit around dreaming of flying cars and lasers. A century in the making, and they both sucked. You can't kill some one with a laser, and the average flying car did more killing than it did flying. That's not sarcasm. I did a history report on those things in fifth grade, that decade was the only time in human history where transportation fatalities beat out homicide, suidice and cancer put together.

I'm guessing 'cancer' was slang for illegal drugs, because the politicians always mention it along with crime when they go on about how amazing our society is. They should step out of those bulletproof boxes sometime. Drugs don't grow on plants anymore. You make them out of human genetic material, deals have P.H.Ds nowadays. There are junkies out there whose pain receptors stopped working from how torn apart their chemistry is. Gene hacks will tear you apart on a genetic level, the TV spots have a field day with that whole 'I just wanted to fit in…Now my eyes have hair' thing.

And, about that whole zero-crime thing…This wonderful little monologue was inspired by the fact my family was posing on the police perimeter of a stalled bank heist with injured hostages and shots fired at police officers.

Wait…why was a happily married couple in matching blue jumpers and SWAT-helmets and their green and red suited twin daughters be posing for pictures outside such an unfriendly photo opportunity?

Because when the police returned fire, the bullets went right through the…fedora-clad, pinstriped-suited suspects who were a notable shade of green both before and after the live ammunition failed to knock said hats off their rather shapeless heads.

Behind the nice little posing-pyramid the Fentons are doing for all the flashing diodes from six different news feeds, is the headquarters on wheels for the police department that's tearing its hair out and tying a noose with the clippings over all this. Probably digging around for something to pickle his liver in that cute little mini-fridge they have under the radio console, would be the now black-haired police chief who had to give an interview on why they called the Fentons.

He said that they were the best team for the job.

You know what he must have been thinking? I'll tell you, because I happened to be floating over his shoulder when he slammed the door and told every off-duty trooper who would listened exactly what he was thinking.

A) That paranormal specialist that the city usually hires suddenly retired, leaving them with these…well, I'll spare you the language.

(And…that retired specialist is currently upstate with her husband and daughter while their future step-son sits around ranting about that wedding that's never going to come to the guy sleeping on his couch.)

B) The back-up plan, a local specialist who would be willing to lend the force some technology, suddenly lost his entire lab and estate when one of his test-missiles…came back to swap stories, while he was in the bathroom.

(I…uh…you can't prove that was me.)

C) These ghosts were making them look like idiots. Their leader looks like a deranged midget with a cap-gun, and one of the hostages may have broken his arm because the freaks machine-gunned the ceiling to get everyone's attention. The hostages keep disappearing, either they're sneaking out somehow or the unthinkable is going on.

(They're not dead, trust me. They're alive enough to make off-hand fashion comments and demand the withdrawal receipt they originally walked in for.)

The lowdown.

There are currently fourteen taxi-sized, nameless grunts in there with the usual square-heads and tails. They're decked out like gangsters, and using what look like old-fashioned automatics that they either ecto-formed or stole from a museum. Either way, they ran out of ammo.

Their leader…Don't even ask.

And if he curls his lip and says 'Sey?' one more time I'm going to stomp out that cigar while he's still chewing on it.

And Kerri, please read my thoughts. That's not gum. Spit it out.

With a synchronized leap, the pyramid broke off into the usual line formation as my Jim Fenton pressed something on the arm of his navy jumpsuit and spoke into a concealed microphone in the collar.

"Please, hold your cameras…Now for another Q & A Session, this time for the local channels!"

That ultra-glossy, bleached grin…

"You big networks got your contracts down. Now let these rookies have at us."

From three sides, I heard people belting out canned guffaws over each other's heads before they started stepping through the mass of reporters to get back to their labeled vans and RVs. I swung my head to the side to avoid having a shoulder-mounted camera clock me in the temple before swinging it back like a pendulum, locking my eyes up on that trademarked American grin he was flashing the clump of bodies closest to the platform on the back of the RV that had become the media hub of the hour.

I can't believe people used to say I looked like that guy…

Not having to shove past the better-paid reporters, the 'rookies' began waving their hands to get a question while a few just tuned their wrist-mounted recorders to catch everyone else's.

Just trying to blend in, I started pumping my left hand up over the heads of the other media vultures, having a few questions of my own.

A woman nearly as tall as I was across the press-pit received a beckoning finger from the beaming Fenton-In-Charge. She sidled her way to the front and stood before everyone else, holding up her wrist-recorder like she was showing off her watch before calling up to the platform.

"Dr. Fenton!"

...Nah, too easy.

"How does it feel to be called upon by the city to use your talents for the better good?"

This'll be good.

A sharp wink. A camera went off trying to catch it.

"Just a day in the life, Folks. We live for this."

A few spaced applauses, more camera flashes as the twins jumped behind him and gracefully assumed a symmetric pose on each side of their beaming father. Down in the gallery, I actually tasted vomit on the back of my tongue.

Right as the clapping died down and the twins bounced back off to the sidelines, he raised a gloved hand and bounced his index finger for a few seconds before randomly jabbing it down at the press-pit. With that same practiced grin, he called down through the sound system.

"You! With the green hat and the wonderful tan!"

A few seconds of frantic side-glances later, I was standing in front of the others with my green baseball cap pulled down to my nose and my matching green spiral notebook and pen opened to a fresh page. Clearing my throat loudly and clicking my bright green pen a few times, I mumbled up toward the RV-backdoor turned podium.

"Uh…how long you guys been here?"

My hat was pulled low enough that I could barely see the top of my completely blank notebook page. I could hear the awkward whispers snaking around behind me from the actual reporters, and after a short hesitation I heard my father slowly respond.

"Well…we got here at eight, and it's nine forty three in ten seconds."

Hey, he must have liked that watch we got him for Christmas.

Still keeping my hat down, I scratched out a series of crooked lines on my notebook before curling the side of my mouth up and asking in a clearer, yet scratchier tone.

"Annnd…have you actually done anything?"

I kept scratching out nonsense to look busy.

Soon, the only sound I could hear was the obviously defective ecto-pen scratching lines onto the ecto-paper by simply engraving the lines on with a dull point.

If I'd had a working pen, I would have made a reminder to go home and study some blueprints for a working pen so I could make one for awkward moments like these.

A sharp hiss from right behind my ear.

"Get behind the line!"

With a bored sigh, I replied at full volume in that same scratchy voice.

"I'm just getting a story here. If they've done anything but pose for pictures and keep those hostages in danger…I'd like to write about it. I've been here for an hour, when are they actually going to…"

Tilting the hat brim to the side by leaning my neck, I uncovered one side of my vision and peered up at the RV platform.

"What'd ya' call it…'Save the day'? The top floor ceiling caved in while you all were signing magazine covers. Nice job."

Standing up on the lip of the platform, from right to left, stood both my sisters and parents in full color-coded combat gear. The twins were sporting newly redesigned, slightly smaller but sleeker helmets with sweeping black visors where their eyes would be and color-anodized metal wrapped around their entire skull structures. With a trained eye I spotted a round metal seam around the mouth area where the com-system had been installed the day before. The seams weren't supposed to be there, but the helmets been put into use before they could be buffed out and refinished. Both the green and red swathed sister were standing with their completely covered heads hanging off to one side, their tiny shoulder slack as both visors stared down off the platform at where I was standing, trying to peer around my tilted hat bill that only left my left eye uncovered.

If they were only blonde…the jokes I could make…

Standing a good…inch taller than her daughters but with considerably more shoulder and lean bulk, Helen(a) Fenton stood with her back straight and both hands folded behind it in a self-taught military fashion. The armor plating that literally encased the twins' suits was much less dominant on this higher-end navy blue model. The joints, which in the twin's case were slightly thicker with rotor-plating and shock absorbing polymers (…Bubble wrap), my mother had left her limbs somewhat lightly protected in favor of a molded torso-piece that had been unofficially tested to hold up to a handgun shell at point blank with only some damage to the paintjob.

I also understood that the technical term is 'Breastplate'. I ignored this accordingly.

For a long second, I just took a close look at my mother's face. Or really, what covered it. While she'd designed the twin helmets for maximum protection and as technology showcases…she always had more of a wild side when it came to her own gear.

That damn helmet.

A custom-anodized shade of royal blue, three layers of clear shine protector that she never tells anyone she puts on. Instead of going for the ultra-modern, ultra-protective models like the girls, her own helmet was modeled on something from the first World Wars. A rounded top dome, ending with the sides raised out and around the ears with the face cut away. Then, she'd made it so the sharp-angled visor drops down over her nose and leaves only her chin and tight lips visible under the machine-like gaze of the facemask.

Classical. Intimidating. Functional. Not exactly feminine, but this woman who gave me life also took it away from several thousand lesser animals before she put the gun down and picked up a Fenton-brand Ectorifle.

For a second that seemed more like five or six, I stared up at the distorted reflection of my disguise in the silver void where my mother's eyes should have been.

She probably thought I'd just blinked before looking off at her husband. That's the beauty of only showing one eye. You can wink at all the uptight girls you want.

And lastly, of course not least…James Daniel Fenton.

A brief glance at his outfit. Stock blue jumpsuit, decorative armor plates around the neck and arms, a blinking light on the collar to show the mike was still on…And a ruggedly handsome if not sickly pale European mug looking down at me with his mouth hanging open enough to show how his teeth were close to cracking against each other.

Both his sky-blue eyes bore down, rather reluctantly, at my single green iris. Like two lap dogs looking at a single Doberman.

Another single-eyed blink, and I swung my tucked eyes back under my cap as I spun around to shake off who ever was grabbing at my sleeve to get me away from the stage. By the time I turned my head they'd backed off and disappeared into the crowd. Tightening my eyes at the front row of the crowd, faking annoyance, I then tucked my notebook into the open flap of my jacket before calling off to my side, where my shell-shocked family would hear it.

"Thanks for the interview, Jimmy."

I gave up on that reporter voice. I told them in my natural, affluent rasp.

After that last quote for the byline, I took off walking out the side of the gallery, off down the closed street while flipping out my phone to check the time.

As I glared down at the fact my phone doesn't have an external screen for the time, a lung-burning screech nearly sent my flat on my face.

"IT'S THE GHOST WHO MADE THAT SNAKE ATTACK ME!"

Frozen in mid-shuffle, the improvised street act canceled by the on who never realized it was pretend… all I could do was hiss to myself.

"…SMOOTH, Kerri!"

My eyebrows jumped as my light hiss came out as an echoing chorus of that same phrase. Glancing down at my mouth and back, I simply stood up straighter and turned back to see three visibly annoyed Fentons staring down the red-suited twin with their arms at their sides and their head/helmets twitching in silent rage.

This time singing solo, I hissed.

"Crap…I am related to them!"

One quick reporter popped his head over the side of the line, glancing wildly between my lone figure in the middle of the street and the emotional family moment up on the RV. Sounding rather confused, he yelled up to them.

"Are…Aren't you supposed to…?"

Quickly throwing one arm into the air and the other behind my head, I tried faking that voice again.

"Whoa…Hold it!"

Darting my hand in and out of my jacket, I held up a solid green ID card in a green mock-leather wallet.

"I'm…Eric Phantoon! With the General Timely News!"

I saw a blur blue as Helen grabbed a holster with a practiced snap…

…Time for Plan B.

Stabbing a finger towards to the nearest rooftop and screaming.

"There he is!"

…It gets sadder.

They fell for it.

Every head snapped over to the roof of a closed hair salon, actually thinking that the identified culprit would be there. Every eye, camera, and helmet-scanner actually turned to look where I was pointing.

On the top of some random neon sign advertising low prices on insurance rates at 'Watchful Eye Insurance'. Trademark symbol.

…On top of the giant black rectangle, legs dangling below me as multi-colored text scrolled by, the heated LED grid scalded my ankles even through my dress pants. I simply stroked my chin and looked down at the stunned crowd with a low brow and a twitching left ear. I think I got a bug stuck in it on the phase over there.

Before they could click a shutter, I yelled down with my hand still on my chin as the other flew to my tortured eardrum.

"You actually LOOKED? Get some real jobs, you bleary-eyed turkeys!"

Wincing as something flew out of my ear, I kept the raised hand where it was and snapped the extended finger against my thumb.

The soft crack was echoed with an orchestra of camera clicks. The next day, every editor in town would be frowning at a 'million dollar shot' of…some neon sign.

And more importantly, as I hung in the air letting the wind pass through me like a compliment, I never took my eyes off my family as they jumped off the platform and took off toward the entrance of the bank that had been cleared by the police half an hour before.

…Three of them, anyway…I was probably the only one who saw Jim Fenton duck into the RV while his wife and daughters went off in the T-3 charging formation.

He had no plans to join them.

With a gentle nod I eyed the three armored vixens as they awkwardly jogged through the barricade with shouldered weapons a tad too heavy for them.

A bit too flashy for my tastes…but it got their attention.

Swinging my feet behind me and glancing up at a second story window on the side of the bank, my last thought before zipping off like a cheetah in an F-64…

I can't believe Kerri remembered that snake…Sherri usually has to remind her when their birthday is. And I always have to remind Sherri.

Eight Minutes Later

Even through of an inch of steel-injected polymer, I could hear them whispering behind the door. I was making myself rather comfortable at the receptions desk a good eight feet in front of the bank's main doors, just a lone glass desk placed in the front and center of a darkened lobby the size of the actual building. The massive amount of glossy furniture strewn about in from the initial raid occasionally glistened whenever a siren flash went through the tinted glass walls on either side of the door.

Lazily propping my crossed legs across the invisible piece of glass trying to be a desk, I was leaning onto the back three wheels of the chair simply because the deep groves they'd left in the thick carpet had made it possible. My arms were crossed behind my head, my laced fingers tapping my neck like a keyboard to fend off boredom. I wanted to check my phone again, but I'd counted the seconds since the last time.

Exactly eight minutes, since the girls and my mom had gotten to the scene.

They've been standing outside the door, whispering so loud I could hear them through the door at my borrowed desk. I felt a yawn coming on as my mother laid out the plan for the third time.

"And after I say 'Three'…kick the door."

I bent one arm around my head to cover my yawn as a tweeting voice inquired.

"…With which foot?"

My mother hissed out a curse, so fast that it sounded like a vent coming on. I suddenly jolted up in my chair a bit, staring in partial night vision at the door as if it'd sprouted wings.

Did…she just curse in Spanish?

An identical, but somewhat clearer voice asked with a confused lilt.

"Mom, what'd you just…?"

The scream would have gotten me out of my chair if I hadn't already stood up.

"ONE-TWO-THREE!"

True to their…carefully planned word, the impact cracked the door off its hinges and fell forward with a muffled thud revealing two shadowed female figures crouched behind it.

…Before a third jumped up between them, kicked the area the door used to be, and ended up face-vaulting onto it with a strikingly similar sound effect.

A quick whimper form the crimson crusader assured the other two she was fine so they could step right over her and scan the darkened lobby. A soft whirring from their helmets confirmed that they were literally scanning. Flicking her side-arm off her belt without looking, the tallest nymph of the bunch whispered sharply through her exposed teeth.

"Now that the hardest part of entering the building is over with…let's just splat the freak and go home."

As her daughter helped peel her sister off the door, she scanned the room again, this time slower and more predatory than the procedure step they'd done in tune. Her mirrored visor settled on the empty desk greeting them, and the odd angle the chair was tipped behind it. Simply tightening her lips, she turned on both heels and silently treaded off toward the illuminated beacon of the fire-stairwell sign. When Sherri had tested Kerri's vision by holding up random amounts of fingers, and she had ball parked them all as even numbers, they spotted their commander waiting for them by the sign, tapping a high heeled boot and inspecting her rounded pistol in the dim glow of the sign. As they jogged up to her, she pushed the door open and right before slipping through it to lead the way…she assured her daughters.

"This is what we do, Girls. Easy as cake."

The door clicked closed after a few seconds of echoing footsteps on the stairwell. Back in my desk, my chair in the same odd angle she had seen it in while I'd watched them, I leaned back even farther and commented to the ceiling with a shrug.

"Times like these…I'm not that ashamed to be the freak of the family."

-

Author's Notes: More to come before midnight. It'll be fun, I can say that much.