Part 3: Public Speaking
By Kimberly T. (email: kimbertow at yahoo dot com)
Author's note: Those characters that aren't owned by The Almighty Mouse belong to Christine Morgan, not me. This vignette takes place in her fanfic universe and timeline, and two days after the story Resurgence Part 2: Gargoyle Hunting.
T.J. Lawton looked around his apartment and shook his head. His apartment had been pristinely clean for the last six weeks, but only because he hadn't been living in it; he'd been down in South America with his grandfather all that time, keeping Halcyon Renard company while the old man negotiated and oversaw various Cyberbiotics projects, and showed him the ropes of running a multinational corporation. He'd only come back Stateside for a few days in May, and then he'd gone straight to Maine for the funeral of his step-grandfather, Petros Xanatos. He'd come home yesterday morning to a nice clean apartment, ready for him to live in again; the caretaker Preston Vogel had hired had even restocked the refrigerator for him just before he'd gotten back. So how had he gotten the place so dirty again in only a day?
It was true that as soon as he'd gotten back, he'd just dumped the contents of his suitcases onto the couch, and left for the garage by the docks that he'd rented for making and keeping his Battlebots in. While he'd been down in South America he'd gotten a dozen new ideas for equipping his bots for combat, and he just couldn't wait to try them out.
He'd fully intended to put all his clothes and stuff away properly when he got home, but while he was in the garage he'd gotten a call on his cell phone from Vanessa Green, a friend of his. She said that the gargoyle clan needed a big favor from him… but that instead of him coming to the castle to discuss it, some folks would come to him. He'd agreed that they could all meet at his apartment, figuring that he'd have just enough time to get there and put his stuff away before they arrived. But he got delayed in traffic on his way back from Queens and ended up arriving to find Vanessa, her roommate Sapphire Johnson, and the psychic teen Brittany Williams all waiting at his door. They'd just waved aside his apologies about the mess, and offered him some of the pizza and hot wings Vanessa had brought from the pizza place she worked at.
Over the next few hours last night, while they'd been discussing the clan's latest troubles and what they could do to help, in addition to clothes and stuff pushed into heaps he'd somehow ended up with pizza crusts, chicken bones and empty soda cans scattered everywhere. The ladies had offered to help clean up, but they'd talked too long and ended up having to rush out to get Brittany home before the Maza family's curfew. And once they'd left, T.J. had just hit the sack to sleep off the jet lag, and hadn't gotten up until an hour ago.
Well, cleanup would just have to wait another day. He picked up the phone and dialed Halcyon Renard's personal line. "Hi, Grandpa, it's me. Listen, instead of getting together again for lunch, can I take a rain check? There's something I have to take care of."
"Actually, I was just about to call you to cancel," his grandfather replied. "Vogel just alerted me to a public event that's taking place at Central Park today. Those idiotic Quarrymen are holding another anti-gargoyle rally! One would think that after what happened three years ago they'd have learned their lesson, but evidently they haven't, and I'm going down there personally to explain to them just how wrong they are."
"Uh, Grandpa… Uh, maybe you could, um, do something else instead?"
"What?" The surprise and growing outrage in his grandfather's voice came in clearly. "T.J., you know what those misguided…" Halcyon's voice trailed off for a moment, then came back with a very knowing tone. "You're going down there yourself, aren't you?"
"…Wear a disguise of some sort. There may be some there who remember you from the way you disrupted their plans on the eve of the Millennium."
"Way ahead of you; I've already got a wig, and some fake glasses too." Sapphire had brought those with her last night; she and Vanessa had gone shopping for wigs and other disguising items for everyone in on the plan. With a black hairpiece and glasses, T.J. was going to end up looking like a skinny Clark Kent (which was pretty ironic, all things considered.)
"Good. All right, I'll stay away. I won't ask exactly what you're planning, either; so long as no one is killed or seriously injured, I say they deserve whatever you can do to their event."
"No deaths or serious injuries planned, sir," T.J. said. Which was true enough; that was what they'd planned, and what they were fervently hoping for. But if things went wrong…
"And just in case things go wrong," he grandfather said as if he'd just read T.J.'s mind, "I'm sending Romano and seven other members of his security team down there. They were going to come down with me anyway; now they'll simply be in plainclothes. Just make a point of introducing yourself to Romano, so he knows you in disguise, before whatever you have planned starts."
"Thanks, Grandpa," T.J. said with a grin, though the old man could hardly see it through the phone. He had to admit, having some extra muscle on their side would do wonders for his peace of mind. Because if things went wrong, if the shit hit the fan…
Diane Maza was no fool. She hadn't raised three children to adulthood and cared for a half-dozen more for the last three years without learning to read body language and how to tell when she was being snowed by a string of half-truths and outright lies.
She'd allowed Brittany to go out with Sapphire and Vanessa last night for some "girl time", because it was true that Brittany needed more female friends who knew her secret and were comfortable with it. Though when Brittany had returned at fifteen minutes before curfew, her new hairstyle was remarkably close to the style it had been before the complete makeover Sapphire had promised, and her makeup looked a little sloppy, as if it had been applied inside a moving vehicle.
But today, she shook her head before fixing Brittany with a gimlet eye and said, "Just how gullible do you think I am, young lady?"
"What? I'm telling the truth!" Brittany protested.
"But not all the truth. It's very nice of you to offer to take the girls out on a picnic while I'm at the spa, but you're planning to do more than that, aren't you? I don't think it's a coincidence that today is the day of that Quarrymen rally in Central Park, within sight of the main picnic area…"
Brittany slumped. "Okay, I had been thinking of maybe seeing if we could mess up the rally… But it wouldn't work anyway. If I took over the mind of the main speaker and made him say that they were all criminals and the gargoyles were good guys, as soon as I let him go he'd just go back to spouting all his lies and he'd say that Mr. Xanatos has mind-control devices."
"And you'd end up doing more harm than good," Diane finished for her, with a wry smile. "I'm glad you recognize that."
"Yeah. The only ones who could really do anything disruptive and get away with it are Gilberto and Blaze, and they're grounded… well, Gil is grounded anyway."
"Blaze is grounded too," Diane said firmly. "But exceptions to grounding can be made, and after what he had to do to save Sapphire Johnson's life… Peter felt he needed to spend some time with him." Being indirectly responsible for anyone's death, even a criminal's, was a heavy burden for an eleven-year-old boy to bear. Peter, who had been forced to kill in the line of duty more than once during his years on the police force, had decided to take the boy on an overnight trip upstate for some quiet solace and solitude until Blaze was at peace with himself again.
That left Diane alone and in charge of the other four children, and she almost reconsidered leaving for a full day of treatments at a nearby spa… But Peter had made the appointment for her as an anniversary gift, and presented her with the gift certificate the night before the latest crisis had begun. In truth, she could really use a day off from raising another generation of children, to just relax and be pampered. And Brittany had been left in charge of the other children before, though prior to this those times had been for only two hours at most, and proven herself capable.
Diane finally relented. "Yes, you may have your picnic… but you are going to stay well away from that Quarryman rally, right?"
"Yes, Mrs. Maza; we'll stay well away," Brittany said with a nod.
And just to be on the safe side, she went into the boys' room and extracted a promise from Gilberto that he would not set foot outside the house while she was gone. "I promise, I won't go outside even to get the mail," Gilberto promised from where he was lying on the bed, reading a comic book.
"Good. Now, the girls are going to go on a picnic, so you'll actually have the house to yourself for a little while. Try not to tear it apart, all right? You can fix yourself lunch or a snack of anything you like—except the ice cream; you know that's strictly for dessert—and the grounding is relented enough that you can watch TV or play video games while the girls are gone." She knew that once he had the house to himself, the temptation to break the restrictions would be too great to resist; she might as well give him permission to break one of them now, so he'd be more apt to abide by the other and more important one. "But once I get back home tonight, all grounding rules are in effect again. Understood?"
Gilberto said he understood, and Diane was finally satisfied that the children would be all right and left for her spa day.
It wasn't until over an hour later, while she was cocooned in a mud wrap, that she realized that "well away" was a highly subjective and flexible term.
Gilberto looked up from the comic he was reading, to see Brittany standing in the doorway to his room. He could glimpse Neesha and Mulan behind her, carrying a big picnic basket between them. "Yeah? You're leaving now?"
"Yeah. And… I'm saying I'm really sorry in advance, okay?"
And that was the last thing he remembered before a thick gray blanket swept over his mind.
Ten minutes later, Sapphire Johnson's handicap-equipped van pulled up in front of the brownstone that the Maza family lived in. From where she was sitting on the porch, Brittany complained, "We've been waiting forever!"
"Since when is forever only a few minutes long?" Vanessa retorted as she climbed out from the passenger side of the van. "We're almost exactly on schedule."
Brittany jerked her thumb over at where Gil was sitting on the porch with her, Neesha and Mulan. "Can you hold somebody down for ten minutes straight without slipping even a little, even if you're using your arms instead?"
"Ah… good point," Vanessa acknowledged as she helped the younger kids put the picnic basket in the back of the van, and scramble in after it. Then she reached out to steady Gilberto on his left side as he walked jerkily down the steps; Brittany supported him on his right side, as if afraid he might lose his balance and fall over, while muttering something under her breath about stairs being the worst part. Once Gilberto was seated in the van, Brittany climbed in after them and Vanessa shut the door, then scrambled back into the 'shotgun' seat.
Sapphire put the van into gear and drove off, and once they'd turned a corner and the brownstone was no longer in sight, she said, "Okay, Brittany; you can let go now."
Brittany heaved a huge sigh of relief… and at the same moment, Gilberto gave a huge gasp of surprise. He stared wildly in all directions, gaping at his surroundings, then turned on Brittany with a face full of murder. "You…!"
"Gilberto, simmer down now!" Sapphire snapped as she glanced at him in the rear view mirror before turning her attention back to the road. "If you want to be mad at someone, pick me, because I'm the one who told Brittany to take you over and get you out of the house."
"We really need your help, but we didn't want to get you in worse trouble than you already are," Vanessa told him sympathetically, "and this was the best solution we could come up with. Now you can say honestly that you were taken out of the house against your will, so it's not violating your grounding."
Gilberto's clenched fists slowly relaxed, though he was still scowling, and he muttered almost inaudibly in Brittany's direction, "I hate your power."
If Brittany heard and was stung by that, she refused to show it. Instead, she asked Sapphire, "Did you bring everything?"
Sapphire took one hand off the controls just long enough to dig into a pocket on her blouse and pull out a rumpled checklist. She passed it over to Vanessa, who read it aloud while rummaging through a trio of paper bags stuffed to the brim. "Food for picnic? Check. Blankets for sitting on? Check. Water bottles? Check. Frisbees? Check. Wire cutters? Check. Fake snakes? Check. Disguise for Mulan? Check," as she handed back a plastic bag containing a Yankees ballcap and kid-sized team jersey, and a pair of fake glasses.
Disguises were checked off and handed out for all the children; fake glasses, ballcaps, wigs and shirts in assorted colors and designs. Gil looked dubiously at the sunbleached-blond wig, ballcap and faded NY Giants T-shirt that were handed to him, and asked, "What's all this for?"
"Precautions just in case someone points a camera at any of us," Vanessa said as she pinned up her hair, then covered it with a wig of long copper-tinted cornrow braids, and donned a pair of fake spectacles as well. "Brittany, give Gil a hand with his wig, okay? As for where we're going and what we're doing…"
"Lemme guess… the Quarryman rally?" Gil asked, wincing as Brittany began forcing his hair under the wig.
"Yep," Sapphire said, glancing over her shoulder with a wicked grin.
Gilberto gave an even more wicked grin, rubbing his fist in anticipation. All right."
The Quarrymen had quietly applied for the right permits and paid all their fees long before announcing the public gathering's true nature, unfortunately, so the police couldn't shut them down before they even started, much as many of them would have enjoyed doing so. Even worse, they had the unenviable task of having to protect the Quarrymen's 'peaceable assembly' from the crowds of protesters that would no doubt be showing up to ring the area. Most of the expected protesters were likely to be members of the People for Interspecies Tolerance, though some of them might be folks who'd just had enough of hate groups of any sort and wanted this one to stay dead.
For the first time in several years, the 'blue flu' swept through the 23rd precinct on the day of the rally. Several members of the police force, including Detectives Elisa Maza and Matt Bluestone of the Gargoyles Task Force, had decided to call in sick the day of the rally, rather than be put in the position of protecting the Quarrymen. Internal Affairs, when they got wind of it uptown, called it gross negligence and a shameful day in the history of New York's Finest, and promised dire repercussions for the ringleaders of this misconduct.
Captain Maria Chavez promised the higher-ups that she would conduct a thorough investigation into her officers' mass absence… as soon as she returned to work herself. Unfortunately, she was home with a bad case of food poisoning that day, and she could hardly go in to work herself under such conditions, now could she? There must have been some spoiled mayonnaise in that platter of sandwiches that had been brought in the day before. And now that she thought of it, a lot of people had eaten sandwiches from that platter…
Some members of the precinct were still in attendance for crowd control at the rally that day; some, like Officer Morgan, had used up all their allowed sick days already. He grumbled quietly as he stood at the edge of the gathering crowd that if he didn't have his kid's new braces to pay for, he'd have… He mumbled the last few words unintelligibly under his breath as his partner looked over curiously. Morgan's new partner, Barnes, was a rookie straight out of the academy who'd moved to New York from Nebraska just last year, and had never even heard of the Quarrymen before last week. But he knew the law, and he'd do his duty properly in compliance with the laws of New York that he'd sworn to uphold. He was a good kid, and Morgan had high hopes for him.
It was 12:00, a full hour before the rally was due to start, but a sizeable crowd was already beginning to assemble, with enterprising vendors already moving among them and selling water bottles and cold drinks to fend off the summer heat. Several members of the assembling crowd sported T-shirts several years old, T-shirts with anti-gargoyle slogans that the Quarrymen had handed out at their rallies in years past. But several more people were wearing T-shirts from the People for Interspecies Tolerance, with their distinctive logo (silhouettes of a man and a beaked gargoyle shaking hands; Brooklyn had agreed to pose for the sketch back in the spring of 2000) and waving pro-gargoyle and anti-Quarrymen signs.
Several Quarrymen were busy setting up the stage and the sound equipment. In deference to the heat they weren't wearing their hoods, and had donned dark blue T-shirts with gold embroidered Q's instead of their usual full-sleeved light body armor. Twelve more Quarrymen had apparently been assigned to crowd control; standing in a row in front of the stage with arms crossed and their eyes hidden behind mirrored shades, they strove to give the impression that they were expecting and prepared for trouble.
Looking over the already restive audience and the way the pro-gargoyle and anti-gargoyle people were already glaring at each other, Morgan had a sinking feeling that trouble was exactly what they would get.
On the street at the closest point to the rally, Sapphire pulled the van over just long enough for Brittany and Mulan to get out. "You have your bus passes?" Sapphire asked anxiously out the window at Brittany. "I can't guarantee we'll be able to rendezvous after all this is over…"
"We got 'em," Brittany said as she briefly touched a pocket containing the passes, before shouldering the satchel of picnic supplies and turning towards the park. "C'mon, 'Mickey', let's find a good scouting point."
"Mickey" was the name Mulan had been assigned after her long hair had been stuffed up under the ballcap, and she put on the baseball jersey over blue jeans. She looked up at Brittany, who was wearing a long black wig and Goth eye makeup as well as a black T-shirt covered with silver pagan symbols, and complained, "How come you get to look all cool, and I have to look like a boy?"
"Because the whole point is to not look like yourself, and I can't pass for a boy anymore," Brittany said with a shrug, though she was secretly delighted to be looking like a Goth chick. It was something she'd always wanted to try, even if she thought most of the Goth people were so overdramatic and angsty they were almost silly. "Now, which side of the field do you want to set up on?"
The van pulled away and went off to circle the block, stopping briefly once out of sight of the park so Vanessa could jump out and throw a trio of giant magnetic, psychedelic peace symbols on the side and rear doors. It was probably overkill, disguising the van as well for the second pass so people wouldn't be apt to recognize it as the same vehicle that dropped off Brittany and Mulan, but nobody wanted to take more chances than they already had to.
When they finished circling, Sapphire pulled over at the park entrance again, to let Vanessa get out with Neesha and Gilberto and their basket of picnic supplies. Neesha had been dubbed "Nelson" and disguised as a boy as well, wearing a kid-size New York Knicks basketball jersey. Vanessa had donned a Knicks fan T-shirt, and deliberately took "Nelson's" hand as they walked, to give the impression that they had a big sister-little brother relationship. "Keep an eye open for T.J," she instructed as they walked into the park together. "He's got a black wig and glasses on, and he'll be carrying a copy of the latest Sports Illustrated."
They found T.J. soon enough, and he introduced them to "my cousin, Jim Romano; remember my talking about him on our last date?" Vanessa of course remembered no such thing, but she gladly played along; Jim Romano looked big and burly enough to play football, and if that tattoo on his arm meant he really had been in the Army's Special Forces once, he would probably be able to handle himself and help protect the kids if the rally turned really ugly.
After a quick whispered conversation and discreet pointing of fingers, Romano walked off to rejoin his friends, and have one of them go up and discreetly introduce himself to Brittany and Mulan with a "T.J. sent me" so the girls would know they had more allies in the park. "See you later, Jim; we'll save you a chicken leg!" T.J. said loudly with a jovial wave, before casually offering a hand to Vanessa. She took it with a smile, as they were pretending to be yet another "salt-n-pepper couple", and they followed their supposed "kid brothers" into the park.
Sapphire parked her van, then spent a few moments making sure her own disguise was in place. That morning she'd used a temporary hair rinse to dye her auburn hair black, and Vanessa had helped her fix it in a new style, that showed off the small bandage on her scalp (covering the stitches where the bullet had grazed her) to maximum visibility. The fake glasses she'd donned had been carefully wrapped with tape at the bridge, to imply that they had been broken fairly recently and she hadn't had time or money to replace them yet. In place of her habitual green plaid warming blanket, her legs were covered with a dull beige blanket that had a "property of Mercy General Hospital" stencil on it, picked up at the same thrift store they'd gotten most of the disguising shirts and ballcaps from. And instead of her customized wheelchair, she was sitting in a standard hospital-issue one that she normally kept in her closet as a backup; further implication that she hadn't been using a wheelchair at all until recently.
She double-checked the water bottle stowed in a sling hanging off the back of the chair, then the taser in her pocket, and finally the sheaf of papers in a manila folder that she tucked behind her back; papers that she'd managed to sweet-talk Elisa into getting for her from the 23rd Precinct, without actually explaining just what she intended them for. Then she took a deep breath and reminded herself, "This was your idea, kiddo. And you can't let them get away with what they did to Gabriel; can't let it happen again, to Angus or anybody else!" before exiting the van.
Brittany and Mulan had chosen a spot nearly forty feet from the stage to lay down their picnic blanket; that was "well away" as far as Brittany was concerned. "The one with the blond hair," Mulan whispered to Brittany as she accepted a sandwich from the sack. "And the bandage wrapped around his arm."
"It's probably covering a really nasty tattoo," Brittany muttered back. "So he's definitely the most violent?"
"The most violent, the most…eeyuggh," Mulan shuddered slightly. "You don't want to know what he was feeling when he looked this way!"
Brittany didn't have to ask; she'd seen the guy's mouth twitch in a smirk, and figured the eyes had been leering behind those mirrored shades. Having some idea of what he'd been imagining while looking at her, made her plans for the bastard all the more appealing. But to be on the safe side, she asked Mulan to pick out the second-most violent guy on the Quarrymen team. It'd be good to have a backup, if they never got an opportunity to use her idea on the first target.
"Catch, Nelson!" Gilberto shouted as he tossed a frisbee in Neesha's direction… then grabbed it with his power and made it arc wildly away, towards the stage the Quarrymen were setting up.
One of the Quarrymen standing in front of the stage looked up and saw the frisbee heading for them, and reached out to snag it. Running after it, Gilberto managed to slip it just past the guy's grasping fingers and slide it under the stage. "Aw, jeez, I'm sorry!" he said as contritely as possible as he skidded to a halt in front of them. "I didn't mean for it to go this way, there must've been a bad wind… can I get my frisbee back, please?"
"No one goes on or under the stage," one of the Quarrymen said with a glare. But another one volunteered to get the frisbee for him, and got down on his hands and knees to fetch it. Gilberto looked hard at the stage, and at the objects below it that he couldn't see but still had a mental grip on. And when the Quarrymen emerged a moment later with the Frisbee in hand, T.J. gave him a genuine smile, relieved that the guy hadn't seen the fake snake that had been riding just inside the rim of the frisbee, and was now tucked up under the stairs to the stage.
"I got it!" Neesha yelped ten minutes later as she leaped futilely into the air after another frisbee throw that had apparently gone wildly off target. This one ended up soaring clear to the stairs on the other side of the stage, and Neesha ran after it still shouting that she got it, she got it! Again, the frisbee missed a Quarryman's grasping hands by inches, and this one ended up going to ground just behind the stage.
The Quarrymen again refused to let the child go after the frisbee, but one of them went after it and got it themselves. Neesha waited respectfully right next to the stairs, while waiting for the frisbee to be retrieved. "Time to either stop playing frisbee or move to another field for playing in, kid," the Quarryman said as he handed the frisbee back. "We'll be starting in 15 minutes."
"Yessir," Neesha said as she accepted the Frisbee, then trotted off to tell Gilberto… who had drifted near the stairs at the other end of the stage, in order to ask one of the men standing there if he'd ever actually seen a gargoyle close up, and if it was true that their eyes burned with hellfire when they were angry. "Billy, they said we gotta stop playing frisbee, and besides I'm thirsty," Neesha said as she took his hand and started tugging him back to their picnic blanket… getting a very good look at the second set of stairs as she did so.
The last of the local news crews arrived and set up, training their cameras on the stage and the crowd, while the Quarrymen finished their preparations. And at 12:58 p.m., the Quarrymen did what every sensible team supporting a public speaker does; a final sound check before the rally was due to begin.
Unfortunately, the speaker set on the right side of the stage chose just that moment to die with a shrill squeal and a puff of smoke from its innards. No one connected the speaker's demise with the young dark-haired, glasses-sporting man sitting on a picnic blanket a short distance away from the stage… except the people with him, who noticed him smirking slightly. "Good one, T.J.," Vanessa murmured with a smile.
Less than two minutes later, while the technicians were still scurrying to replace the blown speaker with a backup, one of the Quarrymen standing crowd control duty gave a panicked yelp and jumped away from his station like he'd been lit on fire. "Snake!" he shouted when he could finally control himself, pointing frantically back where he'd been standing.
A few seconds' search by other Quarrymen produced a limp rubber snake, one of the cheap sort that are found in dollar stores. "But it was moving, I tell you! There must be another snake, a real one!" the first Quarryman insisted, as his fellows and some members of the audience snickered.
Neesha leaned over and whispered to a smirking Gilberto, "Just remember, you promised you wouldn't pull that on any of us again!"
Moments later, another Quarryman approached the stage with a sheaf of papers in hand; evidently their chosen speaker. When he was six feet away from the stage, Neesha whispered to Gilberto, "Now!"
Gilberto grinned, and the huge Quarryman banner that had been strung up as a backdrop on the stage suddenly dropped as the supporting cable for it snapped. The lettered banner sagged into a long heap of canvas lying across the back of the stage, its message no longer readable. The Quarryman spokesman looked up at other people's shouts of alarm (and satisfaction, from some pro-gargoyle members of the audience), and scowled at the sight. But then he shook his head, and stepped forward, evidently determined to persist.
He was very surprised when he stumbled at the foot of the stairs, having misjudged that first step. Or at least, he thought he'd misjudged it; in actuality, he'd stepped right through the illusion of the stairs that Neesha had quickly cast (and just as quickly dissipated), exactly ten inches in front of the actual stairs, while everyone had been distracted by the falling banner.
"Rats," Neesha muttered in disappointment when, instead of falling down and breaking something, the spokesman flailed a bit but regained his balance and proceeded up the stairs.
Vanessa heard that and leaned over to whisper, "It's okay; you still rattled him good. Now it's T.J.'s turn again."
The spokesman turned on the miniature microphone clipped to his shirt, and said "Good--"
And that's as far as he got before every single speaker suddenly screamed, blasting the crowd with feedback.
Some people in the audience howled in protest and covered their ears; those far enough away to escape the worse of the audio assault shook their heads or pointed and laughed. And some of the people on the fringes began turning away and picking up their belongings, as if convinced the rally was doomed to failure and they had better things to do with their day.
Some of the Quarrymen lined up in front of the stage noticed the people in the back preparing to leave; one of them pointed and whispered urgently to his buddy, who only shook his head. But Brittany had her eyes on another pair of Quarrymen; the blond one that Mulan had pointed out earlier, and the dark-haired man standing right next to him. She hissed excitedly to Mulan, "Now!" before she narrowed her eyes in concentration.
Sterns had been a Quarryman back in the good old days, back when Mr. Castaway had been running the show instead of stuck in prison, and he'd never seen a rally start out as badly as this one. The speakers going on the fritz, Jones freaking about a stupid rubber snake that some kid must have dropped, Carstairs stumbling like an idiot on his way up the steps… They were becoming a laughingstock! Some people were already leaving! Bastards, if he wasn't on duty he'd go out there and beat the shit out of some of those people walking away, daring to turn their backs on—
"Hey, relax, man; it'll be okay," he heard Morrison whisper as he sidled closer, till he was standing right next to him. Morrison sounded almost amused, like what had happened so far was nothing! "And when this is over… you want to go get a beer?"
What the hell? Morrison had never been so friendly before… JEEZUS CHRIST, who was squeezing his butt?
Sterns turned to look at Morrison in utter shock. And saw the suggestive smile Morrison was giving him… and his shock turned into pure outrage and fury, even as Morrison lost his smile and looked confused. "You fucking faggot!" as he smashed his fist right into Morrison's face.
Everyone was shocked at the fight that suddenly broke out in the Quarrymen's ranks… even the people who had been expecting it, because of the sheer ferocity of the man who'd started it. By the time the policemen and other Quarrymen pulled him off, the one he'd been beating on had features so smashed they were barely recognizable as human. Britney whispered anxiously to Mulan, "You said he was a bad guy too, right?"
"Just as bad, but in a really cold way," Mulan whispered back. "The kind of guy who'd hurt you or kill you just because he was told to, not because he was angry."
"So, he probably deserved that?" Brittany said hopefully.
"Damn, Sapphire was right about the homophobia," T.J. whispered to Vanessa as the Quarryman who'd attacked his fellow member was cuffed and hauled away by the police, and his victim loaded onto a stretcher… and every moment of it gleefully filmed by the news crews in attendance.
At their planning session, Sapphire had insisted that the most violent and intolerant Quarrymen would be virtually guaranteed to be homophobic, and that all it would take to provoke a fight amongst them would be to have Brittany use one to stage a clumsy come-on. T.J. hadn't really believed her, but the proof was right in front of them.
"Yeah, but I hope she's wrong about the rest, and this is enough to make them call the whole thing off," Vanessa whispered back. "I mean, this'd be enough to make any sane person say 'screw it' and try another day..."
Unfortunately, the Quarrymen were not renowned for acting particularly sane.
Sterns' violent idiocy—attacking a fellow Quarryman in public, and then trying to justify it by claiming Morrison had made a pass at him, when everyone knew Morrison was against gays himself!—that and the sound equipment problems they'd been having made Joseph Carstairs grit his teeth in frustration, but he forced himself to relax and focus on the mission. They'd paid too much money and waited too long to have this rally; he was not going to let these setbacks stop him now!
After the sound technicians indicated that they'd fixed the feedback problem, he returned to the stage… this time watching carefully where he stepped. Quarrymen and a few loyal citizens cheered as he took center stage again, and began giving the speech he'd prepared with Jon Castaway's help weeks before; speaking in practiced, smooth words that slid down easily, like a fine poison. "My friends, concerned citizens, thank you all for coming. We are gathered here today for a common cause…"
Sapphire took that as her cue, and began rolling towards the stage. She'd parked herself over a hundred feet away, not wanting the Quarrymen to get a close look at her earlier. While she was still moving, the speakers amplifying the spokesman's voice abruptly cut off; she presumed that was T.J.'s work again.
While the spokesman angrily gestured to his technicians and the crowd grew restless again, she kept going. The closer she got to the stage, the closer people were standing or seated together, and she found the going progressively harder. But she continually asked, as politely as she could and still be heard over the noise, for people to move aside and let her through. Many stepped aside amiably enough, but for the few who scowled at her, she would add, "I want to talk about what those monsters did to me!" Those listening would look at her in her wheelchair, draw the inevitable conclusion and hurriedly make way; a few of them even started clearing a path for her to the stage.
"Get that powder in place, honeychile," Vanessa murmured to Gilberto, without taking her eyes off of Sapphire's progress towards the stage.
"It's in the air now," Gilberto whispered back. "Got it in a loose ball about ten feet off the stage..."
The goddamned sound system was acting up again! If it wasn't reduced down to a barely-audible whisper, it was howling with feedback! Carstairs wanted to tear his hair out, and he could tell that most of his men were just as close to the edge, frustrated and agitated by everything that had gone wrong so far. There'd been rumors that one of the gargoyles actually practiced magic; had the Quarrymen somehow been cursed to have bad luck today?
After the third adjustment by his technicians produced no decent results, Carstairs gave it up as a loss and told one of his lieutenants to go get the bullhorn he'd brought as backup. But while the bullhorn was still being fetched, one of the men on crowd control duty pointed to the woman in the wheelchair who'd made her way to the front of the stage and said, "Sir, she's got a testimonial about what the gargoyles did to her!"
Finally, some luck was going their way today! She must have been a bystander in one of the gargoyles' battles… and any injury bad enough to land her in a wheelchair was going to be sympathy gold.
Carstairs told his people to lift her up on to the stage, wheelchair and all… then paused as he heard his orders relayed to the crowd via the speakers. Hadn't he turned the microphone off? He looked down at the clip-on mike and discovered it was in fact still on… and the sound system was functioning properly at last, so he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He told the crowd, "There is much more I can tell you about the menace the gargoyles pose to our city and our way or life, but for the moment, let's hear from an ordinary citizen who managed to survive an encounter with them." And with that he unclipped the microphone and handed it to the wheelchair-bound woman, telling her quietly, "Go ahead, introduce yourself, and tell your story."
Her heartbeat was absolutely thundering in her ears, going a thousand miles a minute; she didn't think she'd been this scared when she'd faced the Quarrymen trying to rape and kill her on the rooftop! She didn't know which was worse, the fact that she was now surrounded by even more Quarrymen, or the fact that she was about to give a speech in front of hundreds of total strangers… and television cameras, even!
For Gabriel, she reminded herself as she took a deep breath. You're doing this for Gabriel. She took another deep breath, and began.
Carstairs could see that the poor woman was clearly terrified; she'd probably never done public speaking before. But she was a trooper; she turned to face the crowd, took a few deep breaths, and began talking.
"Hi. Um, I ain't native to New York, and never even seen a gargoyle until I arrived here a few months ago. But since then I've sure seen 'em! And one night last month, I was on my way home from the shop where I work at, about twenty feet from where my van was parked, when… I heard this loud, terrifying roar, and this huge, gray-green gargoyle with orange hair came swooping in from out of the sky…"
The 'gray-green gargoyle' she was describing might well have been the one that his field team had ambushed and wounded on Wednesday night. If only they'd been able to confirm a kill! He'd lost six out of the eight men on that team, from the hunt they'd stubbornly pursued after the ambush had left their wounded prey on the run; four were confirmed to be in either jail or the hospital, and—
"…and beat the crap out of the mugger who'd been threatening me with a switchblade."
"It seems there are criminals out there who like to prey on crippled folks, because they think we're easy pickings," the woman said with a bitter edge in her voice. "But luckily for me, along came somebody who thinks it ain't right to pick on the handicapped… and that somebody has wings and a tail."
She was defending the gargoyles! On the Quarrymen's stage! Carstairs started to reach for her, to grab the microphone away, but she flicked her hand up and away, as if dismissing him … and a small cloud of black particles flew out of nowhere, right into his face.
Pepper! He stumbled back as he began sneezing uncontrollably, while the woman went on, "Yeah, gargoyles got wings and tails, and they turn to stone during the day and all that, but as far as I'm concerned, they're people. But you're here to hear about monsters, aren'tcha? So let's talk about some real monsters," as she reached behind herself in the wheelchair and pulled out a manila folder.
"Oh, crap," Brittany breathed in dismay as the Quarrymen figured out that their guest speaker wasn't on their side after all. Their leader on stage was still out of it, on his knees and sneezing up a storm thanks to the sneezing powder that Gilberto had flung in his face. But the men on crowd control duty in front of the stage turned around with ugly looks of anger on their faces, and began either hoisting themselves up onto the stage from where they were standing or heading for the stairs at the ends.
She began taking over Quarrymen at random, possessing each one for just a split-second; just long enough to make the man lose his grip on the stage and fall, stumble over his own feet, or swing his arms out wide and get in the way of the Quarryman right next to him. She'd rehearsed this maneuver on Sapphire and Vanessa in their apartment the day before, and both had said that if the possession last less than a second, they just felt disoriented afterwards, not like they'd been taken over. The idea was to sow confusion in the Quarrymen's ranks, and to keep them from getting on stage before Sapphire had her say.
Possess—lose grip—possess—fall over against buddy—possess—lose grip—possess—smack buddy with left arm—possess—grab buddy's shoulder and pull back as if trying to scramble past him—possess—stumble, trip up other guy—possess—crud, she missed her grip on that one! Her head was aching so bad, but she tried again on another target… but she couldn't get a grip on his mind, and realized to her dismay that she'd used her powers too much already that day, and even she had her limits. And the Quarrymen were still going after Sapphire!
Gilberto had been warned not to use his power on the Quarrymen directly; that they couldn't let the Quarrymen claim that they'd been plagued by people with psi-powers, or by anything more than bad luck. But jeez, Sapphire was about to be jumped on, and she'd barely had time to say anything yet!
So he picked one of the guys running up the steps at the edge of the stage, focused on the guy's foot and snatched it out from under him, then gave him a little extra shove so when he fell forward he smacked right into the guy who'd already gotten onto the stage and knocked him down too. Then he did the same for the lead guy racing up onto the stage from the other side, only snagging his foot forward, like he'd slipped on a banana peel, and making him fall backwards into the guy behind him. That should buy Sapphire at least a few more seconds of time…
The Quarrymen were coming for her, so she talked faster, waving the arrest record she'd had Elisa print out for her on William Harris. "Here's the record for a guy currently in the hospital after a failed rape attempt, in which the victim fought back and crushed his nuts. He'd been arrested four times before, for rape, two counts of child molestation, and violating a restraining order… and at the time of the latest attempted rape, guess what he was wearing? A Quarryman uniform!"
The whole crowd was roaring now; all the P.I.T. members and other pro-gargoyle folks were cheering her, while the anti-gargoyle folks were booing and demanding that she be thrown off the stage, and a few of them had even gotten to their feet as if intending to do so themselves.
The Quarrymen's spokesman was finally able to stop sneezing, long enough to point a finger at her and croak, "You! You're the cripple that's friends with the gargoyles!"
She gave him a tight grin as she retorted, knowing each word could be heard clearly by the audience thanks to the speakers, "Never said I wasn't. And after almost being raped by one of your men, and shot at by another one," as she touched the bandage visible in her hair, "I'm sure no friend of yours!"
The crowd erupted with even more noise at her accusations… and the Quarryman threw himself straight at her, his hands reaching for her throat.
"He's gonna--!" Gilberto raised his hand to point it at the stage.
"No, Gil!" as Vanessa grabbed his hand and forced it down, though her voice was shaky with stress and she'd bitten her lip hard enough to draw blood. "You promised you wouldn't!"
"He's…" Mulan couldn't finish the sentence, but hid her face in her hands, as if that gesture would shield her knowing from the Quarryman's intent. Brittany reached over and gave her a hug, desperately wishing she could do more. But even if she hadn't exhausted her powers, she'd promised…
As the Quarryman grabbed for her, Sapphire reached for the taser she'd stashed in her pocket… but she wasn't quite fast enough. Even as she grabbed it and pulled it out, his hands were on her throat, gripping, cutting off her air…
She frantically jabbed it at him and pressed the trigger, and the taser shot out its darts at him, flooding him with a short bust of 15,000 volts of electricity… but since he had his hands on Sapphire at the time, she got the charge as well. Raw white pain flooded her world for a long, agonizing moment before everything went dark.
The lead Quarryman jerked spasmodically for a few moments, with his hands still on Sapphire's throat, and she jerked with him as if they were being controlled by the same unskilled puppeteer. Then the other Quarrymen reached center stage, and one of them had obviously dealt with electrical devices before; rather than grabbing for them with his bare hands, he used his rubber-soled boot to kick Sapphire square in the chest. The impact shoved her away from the Quarryman's leader, breaking the contact between them, and caused her to drop the taser.
Sapphire went limp in her chair, barely twitching, while the Quarryman fell to the ground. The force of the kick had propelled her in her chair back several feet, until the back wheels ran into the heap of canvas on the stage from the fallen banner. And while she sagged unconscious in her chair, yet another Quarryman—one who'd been tripped up and interfered with twice by his fellow members during his rush to the stage, and had a lot of frustration to take out on someone—grabbed the handles on the back of her chair and shouted, "Get off our stage, bitch!" And with that, he shoved her right over the front edge of the stage, to fall to the ground below, wheelchair and all.
"—need backup, now!" Morgan barked into his radio, before running after Barnes, who had his riot baton at the ready as he ran for the stage along with all the other policemen on the scene. Morgan knew he shouldn't have that savage grin on his face, but he'd just seen no less than three different Quarrymen commit three separate acts of assault and battery on one handicapped woman, in full view of the news cameras. These bastards were going down!
"Sapphire!" Brittany screamed as she saw their friend falling six feet to the grass… to stop just before actually hitting the grass, and be gently lowered the last few inches; undoubtedly Gilberto's doing. But that last sight was barely visible through the crowd of people who had surged towards the stage, drawn by the action, though who could tell whether they wanted to help beat Sapphire up or defend her from attack. Either way, Brittany knew as she lost all sight of Sapphire in the crowd, if the crush of people at the front got any worse, Sapphire was going to be trampled!
Four big men all wearing bright yellow collared shirts charged past the picnic blanket, and Brittany recognized at their lead the man who'd introduced himself earlier as "Mr. Romano; T.J. sent me." "Save her!" Brittany shrieked as she pointed to where Sapphire had fallen.
"They will, miss," a fifth man said as he and his buddy stopped at their blanket. "But let's get you out of here, too! This is going to turn into a full riot in the next few seconds," as he reached down for Mulan. Mulan reached trustingly up to him, which meant he was definitely a good guy, and he swept Mulan up into his arms and started running while the sixth man grabbed Brittany's hand and said, "Forget the picnic stuff, just come with us!"
T.J. made a mental note to recommend Romano and his team for a nice big raise, as the men hustled him, Vanessa and all the kids off the field post-haste. They all rendezvoused at a point nearly fifty yards away from the stage, with Romano and three of his people coming last with Sapphire in their hands. Three of them were carrying Sapphire still lying in her wheelchair, with Romano leading the way and breaking up the crowd for them like a major league linebacker protecting the quarterback.
Sapphire looked to be in a bad way; still unconscious, with the Quarryman's bootprint visible on her blouse and bruises forming almost as they watched. More red marks indicating future bruises were on her hands and arms, and there was grass, dirt and debris in her hair. Romano informed them grimly that they'd pulled a few people off her, but not before at least one man wearing an anti-gargoyle T-shirt had gotten some kicks in… including one to her head. "Sir, she needs medical care, as soon as possible."
All 'peaceable assemblies' in the Park had an ambulance in attendance, in accordance with New York City regulations, but that ambulance had departed with the Quarryman who'd been attacked earlier, and none had taken its place. T.J. ordered, "Take her to Manhattan Medical ASAP, and if some cop tries to ticket you for speeding I'll take care of it."
"I'm going with her," Vanessa declared firmly. All the kids chorused that they were coming too, but T.J. and Vanessa together nixed that idea. "We need to get you kids home, before certain people find out you were here at all!" Vanessa told them. "T.J., can you drive Sapphire's van?"
"Not a problem," T.J. assured her. He didn't even need Sapphire's keys for the van, not with his power. They split up into two groups, T.J. leading the kids away with a last "C'mon, kids, let's go find where Sapphire parked the van…"
Meanwhile, up in the castle:
She hadn't wanted to watch. The thought of listening to the Quarrymen spew their lies about the clan made Elisa literally sick to her stomach. But they had to know what the Quarrymen were up to, what lies they were telling the people of New York… and what they were going to say about the ambush they'd pulled on Gabriel last Wednesday night, and the rooftop battles Thursday morning. So she'd set the alarm for 12:30 p.m., got up and made herself a pot of coffee, hot and black as her mood, before sullenly sitting down on the couch and picking up the TV remote. Owen had found out that WVRN intended to report live from the rally. The media vultures did have their uses sometimes…
She smirked at the troubles the troubles the Quarrymen had in kicking off the rally; with any luck, a clip of that Quarryman banner falling and their spokesman stumbling his way up the steps would end up on America's Funniest Home Videos. Then she raised an eyebrow at the image on the screen, the camera zooming in to get a closer look at the Quarryman beating the crap out of his buddy. Not that she was sorry to see it, or even surprised—the only thing uniting the Quarrymen was their hatred of gargoyles, and there were bound to be other conflicts that violent men would want to settle by violence—but it was awfully convenient for this fight to erupt while they were out in public and on camera.
The attacker and his victim were both hauled off, but the rest of the Quarrymen indicated the rally would continue, to Elisa's disgust. But at least their sound system was still on the fritz; she thought that should lose them some audience members pretty soon. New Yorkers had no patience for ill-practiced amateurs when it came to public speaking.
Then she unconsciously leaned closer to the screen as the camera zoomed in on the wheelchair-bound woman being hoisted onto the stage by the Quarrymen. The hair was the wrong color and she was wearing glasses, but that bandage on her head was covering the same spot as Sapphire's bandage… "Oh, no…"
Two minutes later, she was throwing her clothes on and slapping the intercom button to wake up the castle's doctor.
Still being carried at an angle in her wheelchair, Sapphire stirred briefly and moaned as Romano and his team quick-marched her over to their Cyberbiotics company van. "Uhhhh…"
"You made one helluvan impression, honeychile," Vanessa said as she tried hard to give a reassuring smile down at her roommate while trotting alongside the chair-carriers.
Sapphire opened her eyes and looked upwards. "…did the… news people…"
Romano, who was trotting behind the main chair-bearers and supporting Sapphire's head and neck, looked down and reassured her dryly, "Yes, ma'am; every last moment of your martyrdom was captured on film."
"…good. G'night…" and her head lolled back again.
Moments later Vanessa's cell phone started vibrating, and she pulled it out of her pocket. She groaned when she saw the number of the incoming caller; that was the phone in the castle's living room. But she still answered, "Hello?"
"Vanessa, it's Elisa; are you with Sapphire?" Elisa asked urgently. And when Vanessa confirmed she was and said they were headed for Manhattan Medical, the clan leader's mate ordered, "Bring her to the castle instead; we're closer, and we already have her medical records! The castle doc will have the emergency room ready for her by the time you get here."
Vanessa relayed the information to Romano, who nodded and tersely agreed. Two minutes later, they were carefully loading Sapphire into the back of an SUV, doing their best to keep her head and neck straight in case of spinal injuries. Vanessa called T.J. on his cell to let him know where they were headed, as Romano pulled out into traffic and headed for the Aerie Building.
With his innate talent, it hadn't taken T.J. long to figure out the odd, hands-only controls for driving Sapphire's van. But since the accelerator and brakes were hand-operated along with the steering wheel and turn signals, he had to keep his hands on the controls all the time. When his cell phone rang, he told Gilberto, who was sitting shotgun and had already taken off his wig and the baggy Giants T-shirt, to telekinetically fish it out of his pocket and answer it. In the back of the van, the other children were shedding their disguises like autumn leaves and stuffing them back into the sacks, while Brittany worked out what lie they would tell the Mazas to account for how they lost the picnic supplies.
Gilberto floated the phone over to his seat, answered it and told T.J., "It's Vanessa; she says that Elisa knows, and told them to take Sapphire to the castle."
"Aw, crap. Did she say just how much Elisa knows?" T.J. asked, glancing worriedly at Gilberto. He really liked and respected the Mazas, and if they found out he'd been a part of the scheme to use the psychic kids' help to bust up the Quarrymen…
Gilberto relayed the question, then Vanessa's answer: Elisa had hung up before saying anything about the kids. So maybe they'd dodged the bullet after all! At least T.J. sure hoped… "Okay, kids, we're still headed straight for your home. And after I drop you off, I haven't seen you since the Easter picnic, all right?"
"Ohmigod, I think that's Mrs. Maza's car!" Brittany gasped as she pointed out the window at the green station wagon cruising ahead of them in the far right lane, less than forty feet away.
Just their luck… "Everybody down!" T.J. barked, while he shoved more gas into the engine. The kids all ducked while the van sped up, passing both the station wagon and the speed limit and leaving them far behind.
T.J. sweated with the effort as he reached out into the surrounding traffic, slowing down and speeding up other vehicles in order to make holes in traffic for him to slip the van through. If he could keep this up, they should get to the Maza family's brownstone at least five minutes ahead of the other car. And as soon as the kids bailed out and got inside the house, it would be "Rally? What rally?"
Scenes from an old movie that Birdie had made him watch back when they'd been roommates flickered through his head: Adventures in Babysitting…
Elisa, Owen and Dr. Fielding met Vanessa and the Cyberbiotics men at the entrance to the express elevatorwith a rolling gurney. Even eternally stoic Owen's eyes widened at the sight of Sapphire's battered form as they pulled her out of the vehicle and carefully loaded her onto the gurney, and Vanessa could have sworn she saw a flicker of Fey green fire in those eyes before he composed himself again and began efficiently rolling the gurney back towards the elevators, while Dr. Fielding took vital stats on the fly.
"If there's no further need for us, we'll be going back to Cyberbiotics," Jim Romano told Vanessa gravely. Vanessa sincerely thanked him and his team members for all their help, before following the gurney towards the elevators.
Half an hour later, T.J. arrived at the castle; since the Cyberbiotics guys had brought Sapphire there, he'd figured there was no point trying to deny his own presence at the rally. When Elisa and Fox, who had joined them in waiting for news of Sapphire, asked him about the rally, he readily admitted to being the cause of the speakers acting up.
"But did you have anything to do with that one Quarryman attacking the man standing next to him?" Elisa asked, giving him a piecing look.
T.J. began to sweat, so Vanessa jumped in, with a desperate smile. "You remember my telling you guys on Thursday about how we found Gabriel; about how I got one of the Voodoo loa to possess me long enough to tell us where to stop the van at? Well, I was praying all through the rally for Papa Legba and Ti Malice to do something to disrupt the rally… and I think they did! Papa Legba and Ti Malice are both trickster loa, and either one of them would think it'd be fun to trick the Quarrymen into fighting each other."
Elisa gave her a skeptical glance, but couldn't really say anything against her; not after the loa had helped Vanessa find Gabriel. And Vanessa silently vowed on the spot that she really would build a proper voodoo shrine in a corner of her bedroom, just like Great-Grandmother Marcella had always urged her to do, and she'd buy some chocolate and wine and good cigars to put on it as offerings. And just to be on the safe side, she'd pray to Papa Legba for forgiveness for blaming the fighting incident on him… even if, from what her great-grandmother had told her, he probably wouldn't mind at all taking the credit for something like that.
A few minutes later, Dr. Fielding came out of the medical suite and gave them the news about Sapphire's condition. "She definitely has a concussion this time; just how bad it is, remains to be seen. But the X-rays show no skull fracture or swelling of the brain…yet. She'll need to be monitored constantly for the next few days."
"She'll have round-the-clock care," Elisa assured the doctor. "What else?"
"No apparent neural damage from the electrical shock, but she has a bruised larynx from being choked, a bruised sternum and contusions from being kicked in the chest, a greenstick fracture in her left radius from when someone apparently stepped on her arm, and plenty of bruising to her neck and torso, including one contusion bad enough that I'd be worried about the status of her left kidney… if she still had one on that side," the doctor finished dryly. "But frankly, considering what you've told me of how she got the injuries, I'm surprised they're not far worse. Did an earlier doctor forget to document that this woman has a death wish?"
"Not a death wish, so much as a desperate wish to do anything that would help the gargoyles," Elisa sighed. Vanessa looked sideways at her and gave a tiny, wry smile, figuring that Elisa would know that mindset as well as anyone would, considering she'd practically pioneered it. "And this time, she must have thought that they'd be helped by her martyrdom on the Quarrymen's stage."
"And it has indeed proven a help," Owen said as he walked back into the room with his cell phone in hand. "I've just confirmed that no less than seven Quarrymen, including their current leader, are in police custody at this moment for assault and battery, resisting arrest, and so forth. Mr. Xanatos is doing what he can at the moment to deny them bail. Detective, if you can persuade a judge to grant a warrant to search the residence of their current leader, a man named Joseph Carstairs…"
"A list of all the current Quarrymen would come in handy," Elisa agreed as she picked up the phone to call her precinct. "Considering the arrest record of the one Sapphire put in the hospital, there might be a few more Quarrymen with outstanding warrants against them. The more of them we can put in jail, the better!"
Sunset came, and when the gargoyles awoke they were told of all that had transpired so far that day. Elisa had warned Coldstone beforehand to get a good grip on his son before telling them the news, and it was a good thing he had listened to her for once, because that steel grip was all that kept Gabriel from setting out on a vengeance hunt.
"I'm telling you, we tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't listen, and if we hadn't gone along with her she'd have gone up there anyway, and be in who knows which hospital by now!" Vanessa insisted, her voice shaking as she stood well away from where a growling Gabriel, with eyes blazing with rage, was trying to shake off his sire's grip. "Honest, Gabriel, she went up there to provoke them; she wanted them to attack her, and get caught on film!"
"The ones who actually assaulted her are all in jail now. And if you go out there to wreak bloody vengeance on the rest, the Quarrymen will claim that proves you guys are monsters!" Elisa said, standing fearlessly right in front of Gabriel, with Goliath backing her up.
T.J. spoke up, from where he was standing behind Brooklyn and Lexington (though he was not trying to hide from Gabriel, he later insisted.) "Dude, if you mess up after everything that Sapphire went through today, she is not gonna be happy with you. She'll probably be pretty pissed off…"
"He's right, rookery brother!" Elektra pleaded as she grabbed at Gabriel's arm. "Let the media slash them to ribbons now; 'twill be nearly as sure a death for them as any we could deal out!"
Gabriel finally stopped struggling to get free, and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the white fire of rage was gone, leaving pain and worry in its place. When Coldstone let go of him, he turned and went with everyone into the castle's living room, instead of out into the night.
Resting on the coffee table in the living room there was a copy of the evening edition of the newspaper, that Owen had obtained for them. The picture just above the fold was a still shot of Sapphire, unconscious in her chair, taken just as the Quarrymen shoved her off the stage and into the crowd below. And the paper's headline read in bold letters, "Q-MEN SHOW UGLY SIDE."
Brooklyn looked at the headline with grim satisfaction. "With any luck, this'll get those Q-Balls off our backs for at least another few years."
She hurt all over… but pain was nothing new to her. She heard quiet sounds, including a beeping that she recognized as a heart monitor. What was she in the hospital for this time?
Then memory came flooding back, and she tried to open her eyes, but the light was so bright… and then something blocked the light, and she opened her eyes all the way. A moment later her vision came into focus and she saw Gabriel, who was holding his hand up to block the light of the overhead lamp from her eyes.
His face was utterly expressionless, so she gave him a sheepish smile as she croaked, "…hi..."
He did not return the smile. Instead, he asked, "What, precisely, were you thinking when you walked into the lion's den today?"
Her throat hurt like she'd been coughing for a solid week, but not so bad that she couldn't retort, "I didn't walk; I rolled."
"You could have been killed!" Gabriel's voice was harsh with anger, and the worry and fear that had caused the anger. "You could have been killed by those psychopaths, and how do you think that would have made us feel? What would we have told your family in Nevada? 'We're so sorry, but your daughter—yes, the one we swore to protect with our lives—she got herself killed today, so where do you want the remains sent?'!"
Sapphire shrank back against the pillows and muttered, "I'm sorry…"
"Don't be sorry, be safe!" he thundered, his eyes briefly flickering white.
"Eh?" as he stopped his tirade and stared at her.
She propped herself up on one elbow to glare at him as she croaked, "You could get killed every time you go out on patrol! You could have been killed by those Quarrymen a few nights ago, because you didn't call the castle for backup before going down to break up that fake fight! You go charging right into battle with all kinds of armed-and-dangerous thugs without even a fucking bulletproof vest on you, so don't you talk to me about playing it safe!" But the effort left her exhausted and dizzy, and breathing hard as she lay back down, the room spinning around her.
"Sapphire!" Her eyes were closed again but she felt him take her hand, apologizing profusely. "I'm sorry, I swore I wouldn't cause you any distress when you awoke, but I was so worried, I… Let me get the doctor for you, he'll have something for the pain. Just rest, Sapphire; just rest…"
Elisa and Goliath had been on their way to the infirmary to check on Sapphire again; Gabriel had been the only one to insist on staying with her every moment until she awoke. Standing right outside the door, they'd overheard the conversation, and Elisa glanced wryly at Goliath as she murmured, "Does that remind you of a conversation or two that we had a few years back?"
"It does," Goliath rumbled, looking nostalgic. "It does indeed…"