Agents Nevada, Kentucky, New Jersey and Illinois watched with amusement as York, Maine and Wyoming got their collective butt kicked by the new girl, 'Agent Texas'. Normally they'd all be worried about how this would affect their own ratings on the board, but today there was an unspoken agreement to stop and smell the roses.
Agent 'Ada' Nevada winced inwardly as Maine punched away Texas's block, but the new recruit merely caught his follow-up and flipped him away, before turning her attention towards York.
"Ada," New Jersey said, "you recognise the fighting style?"
Ada frowned, considering. There was no specific fighting style as far as she could tell. But that kick there was eerily similar to Illinois's, that punch there scarily close to South's, and that jab uncannily like her own.
"No," Ada said finally. "Looks like a mix of different Freelancers' to me."
The others nodded, and went back to watching. Ada's brown hair fell into her face, and she brushed the wayward strands away. The Counsellor didn't seem too bothered about their hair keeping to regulation length, but even he had started to imply that she could use a haircut. Ada disagreed; it barely came halfway down to her shoulders, and it never fell into her bright green eyes in a fight.
From Observation Deck Two, the fight seemed to just get more and more one-sided. Ada heard Kentucky mutter something about hoping FILSS would let her get a copy of the security tapes, brown eyes laughing and blonde hair bobbing. After hearing about the three-on-one fight, they'd raced to the Deck, and had caught the tail end of the stave round.
Kenni hadn't even said anything; she'd just burst out laughing. Everyone knew there was some bad blood between her and Wyoming. Illinois had just shook his head, and made a show of being the oldest and therefore more 'mature' Freelancer in the room. Ada didn't know why he constantly did this; his salt and pepper hair was evidence enough. New Jersey, or Jerry, had just silently given Ada a high five.
"Reckon she'd take on a student?" Kenni asked. "I know she's new and all, but she looks like she could teach us all a thing or two."
"She's freaking Carolina out," Jerry nodded towards Observation Deck One, where Carolina, fully-armoured, could just be seen, pacing nervously. South seemed to be enjoying her discomfort.
A few more blows were dealt out by Texas before hand to hand was over and FILSS's voice announced the point awarded and the beginning of paintball. As the Freelancers on the training floor grabbed their M6G's and loaded them, the blocks used for cover rose from the floor.
"Hey, Ada," Illinois said, "How is this possible? The girl's good, yeah, but she's only got that to her advantage. She should be losing, right?"
Ada quietly sighed. Despite the fact that she was the youngest Freelancer, she was still the highest-rated in the room. Even Illinois, who lorded his age over his much younger friends, still turned to her on fight-related questions.
"It's not three-on-one," Ada replied. "It's one-on-one, then another one-on-one, then another one-on-one. They've only come anywhere close to teamwork once or twice."
"Defeating three groups of one is easier than beating one group of three," Jerry summarised, blue eyes looking abnormally wise.
Most of the good humour had left the room at the thought of what would happen when each of them faced off against the new agent, but no one could stop themselves from laughing when Wyoming and Maine were covered in pink right off the bat. Ada was of the opinion that the fact that all the paint was pink was the Director's way of adding insult to injury.
As York, Maine and Wyoming had their armour turned an unflattering shade of pink, Ada almost unconsciously looked for weaknesses in all of the people on the floor. They all rated above her, Maine only by one, and she could use this to turn that around. Like how Wyoming was particularly bad at dodging that attack, and Maine lost the target if she moved too fast. The Counsellor had noted this habit of hers and praised it, even if his praise was little more than a nod and a curt 'good routine to have'.
The team below seemed to make one attempt at teamwork; they jumped over and around the blocks at the same time. Ada couldn't tell if this was teamwork or just York agreeing to run in headfirst like the other two did.
"I'm impressed he didn't get stuck to the wall," Ada said, nodding towards where York had fallen away from a block, pink paint surrounding where he'd been standing. Instead of being stuck to the wall as expected, he merely fell flat on his face.
Each round just added another point to Texas, and the team just seemed to be getting angry. Well, Maine and Wyoming were. York looked frustrated, but that was about it.
It took another round before Ada noticed something wrong.
"What the…?" Jerry muttered.
"Just extra ammo," Illinois waved it off, but he sounded unsure. His Indian accent came back heavily when he was nervous. "Sharing is caring, and all that."
"I think that's –" Ada began, but was cut off. Not with the soft putt putt of the paint being fired, but with the sharp crack of live rounds, "–live ammo."
"Son of a bitch," Kenni shrieked. "Should we help her?"
Texas was not firing back; she was only dodging the bullets that could kill her. She looked pissed.
"I don't think she wants help," Ada said. "Let her do her own thing. In any case, I don't want to get caught in the crossfire."
"She'll be fine," Jerry agreed. "There's no way those idiots would actually kill her."
While Ada disagreed with Jerry on that point, she let it slide.
York tried to get Maine and Wyoming to back off, but they ignored him. York changed tactics, and went straight to Texas, who pointed her gun at his head. He raised his hands in the 'I'm harmless' position and said something to her. She seemed to snap something back, and kicked him away before turning her attention to the other two.
Texas kicked Wyoming away and stuck Maine's fist to the wall with a shot of paint when he tried to attack. Wyoming recovered, and fired at Texas, only managing to hit her once, in the forearm. This just seemed to piss her off, and she threw herself into a wild attack, shooting Wyoming repeatedly with her paint-ammo, barely stopping to beat away York and his protests.
Wyoming's armour entered lockdown, and as he started to fall forward she grabbed him by the throat and smashed him halfway through a block.
"Wish I could do that," Kenni murmured, to several replies of 'ditto'.
Texas turned her attention to finishing off York, who was staggering to his feet, and she pulling out the second paint-gun she'd taken from him.
She swung around when Maine freed his fist from the block and hit the block Wyoming was embedded in, sending his teammate flying and the top half of the block towards Texas and York. Texas rolled under the projectile, but York was hit hard and sent straight back to the ground.
Texas came up and shot Maine several times with paint and kicked him into another block. Before his armour went into lockdown and the onlookers could breathe sighs of relief, Ada noticed something in Maine's hand.
"Son of a bitch," she cursed, causing her friends to jump.
Maine tossed the grenade, which Texas just leaned away from to dodge. However, it landed right next to York, who was nowhere close to recovering from the block he'd taken in the head. Everyone held their breaths and leaned closer to the glass.
Ada was so focused on York and the grenade, she was confused by the pink forming all over him before she realised Texas was shooting him.
"What the heck?" Kenni snapped. "He could be killed! Why is she shooting him?"
The grenade went off, and Ada sent off a quick prayer to whoever was listening.
York flew and hit the ground hard. While his armour was covered in soot, and he was clearly in a lot of pain, she could see no breach in his armour… except for his visor. A medical team, trailed by South, Wash, North and Carolina entered the training room.
When Carolina immediately crouched at York's side while the others kept their distance, Illinois had to mutter, "Knew it."
"Time and place, idiot," Kenni snapped.
"What the… Why did she shoot him?" Jerry asked, concentrating on the black-clad recruit who was being led away by equally black-clad medics.
"Lockdown hardens the armour," Ada reminded him.
"That extra protection probably saved his life," Illinois agreed.
"Should we go down?" Kenni asked.
"No," Ada decided. "We'd just get in the way."
Ada left the deck, followed by Kenni, Jerry and Illinois. They went their separate ways, and Ada made a beeline to her room. She changed her jeans to trackies; the tank top could stay. She swapped her boots for sneakers and left for a jog.
Inwardly, she seethed. Ada couldn't believe the fight had been allowed to go on for so long. York's injuries were completely preventable. The Director or the Counsellor should have done something.
Her only consolation was that Maine and Wyoming had to be getting chewed out right now.
She rounded a corner and nearly ran straight into Washington.
"Sh –sorry," Ada gasped, skidding to a halt. Wash was still in his armour, but he had taken his helmet off, revealing his brown hair and grey eyes.
"That's fine," he shrugged it off, looking distracted.
"How is he?" Ada asked hesitantly. She knew York had survived, but there was a difference between 'alive' and 'alright'.
"His left eye… those maniacs screwed it up," Wash snapped, but it was not directed at her, not really.
"At least there getting punished, right?" Ada offered. "Restricted to quarters, at least."
"They both got off the hook," Wash told her.
"What?" Ada was sure she'd heard wrong.
"They were praised for their ingenuity and… just look at the board," he sighed, and wandered off. "Later," he mumbled.
"Later," she replied, and continued her jog, now absolutely infuriated. It wasn't even because York had been hurt; she barely even knew him. It was a matter of principle. Wyoming and Maine had used potentially lethal force against a new recruit, and ended up injuring their teammate. And they'd gotten away with it.
She slowed down, deciding to head for the gym. Maybe she'd feel better if she got some kicks at the top of the punching bag; Carolina could do it, and Ada had a similar fighting style.
When she entered the gym she checked the giant wall-mounted screen with the top six Freelancers on it. Maine was now third, Wyoming second, and York had been bumped all the way down to sixth.
The gym was empty, the other Freelancers in their dorms, on missions, on the training floor, or in the infirmary. Ada made her way to the punching bags. They all hung at different heights from the ground, taking into account the varied heights of the Freelancers. She made her way to one she could actually reach the top of without pulling a muscle or jumping.
She started with a few basic punches, moved on to slightly stronger ones, and added a few 'knife-hands' in there. She was dimly aware of a few other Freelancers entering the gym, but she ignored them. She kicked; left to the groin, right to the gut, three lefts to the head. She grunted in satisfaction as her foot connected solidly with the top of the punching bag.
She backed off, realising she could really use some water and cursing herself for being so impulsive she forgot something so simple. She could use a towel, too. She breathed deeply for a moment, and then turned to leave for her room. She felt a tap on the shoulder and turned to see Jerry offering a water bottle to her. She smiled her thanks and took it gladly.
"What did the punching bag ever do to you?" he asked.
"It's a punching bag," Ada replied, before actually looking at the object in question. It was half-collapsed in on itself. "It's a cheap punching bag."
Jerry shook his head and left her with the water, leaving for the bench press. The Freelancer's gym had everything, most of it in the one room. A pool was in the adjacent chamber.
Jerry was only one of the Freelancers who had walked in; North and South were sparring, way too evenly matched for her to see who was winning; CT at a treadmill; Oklahoma who, like her, had an appreciation for actual martial arts, was doing his katas in an open space towards the edge of the gym.
And Maine, at a punching bag strung up way higher than the one she had vacated.
She dropped the water bottle next to Jerry's bag, ignoring his warning look as she stormed towards Maine. He had changed out of his armour, which was lucky for her. If it ended in a fight, and let's be honest, when it ended in a fight, there's no way she could beat him in his armour without hers.
The match with Texas showed as he turned towards her. He had bruises all over and one reddy-brown eye was looking a little swollen. He grabbed a towel, mussed up his mop of black hair even more, and glared at the much smaller Freelancer.
"What do you want?" he growled. That's was all Maine ever really did: growl.
"What the H-E-double tooth picks was that in training?" she snapped.
North and South were watching, as was Jerry. Oklahoma didn't spare them a glance. CT didn't stop running, but that was probably more due to not wanting to fly off the treadmill than lack of interest.
"It's pronounced hell," he growled. "And I was trying to beat an opponent."
"With live ammo?"
"Improvisation," he grumbled.
"You could have killed your teammate!" Ada snapped. Oklahoma had finally turned his head towards them, and CT had turned off the treadmill to get a steadier view on what was going on.
"He was in the way," Maine growled back. He was easily a foot and a half taller than Ada, probably more. He was using all of that extra height to try and intimidate her, but Ada was used to being shorter than her opponents; he'd have to do worse.
"Common sense, Maine; when your teammate is anywhere near the person you're chucking a grenade at, don't chuck the goddam grenade," Ada snarled. "It will never end well."
North looked ready to try and break up the potential fight, but South held him back. Jerry was unsure of what to do, but evidently decided to stay away until Ada wanted his help. CT and Oklahoma just stared.
Apparently Maine couldn't think of a decent comeback for that, so he swung a fist at her instead.
It was a pretty bad punch; Texas had messed him up. Ada caught his wrist and pulled him past her, and then kicked his back, using his momentum to help him into the wall.
Maine turned back, and struck out again. She ducked under it, but his next blow to her chest sent her staggering. She recovered before he could follow through, and kicked him in the knee. Not hard enough to seriously injure, just hard enough to cause him to stumble.
While his head was a little lower, she punched him in the bridge of his nose and his forehead. He dropped, but came back up with a hit to her stomach as she tried to jump kick him.
Ada was sent sprawling, landing a few metres away. She rolled to a fighting stance and waited for him to charge.
He did, and she jumped, kicking him in the jaw and managing to get a second kick on his nose before gravity took over. She managed to flip far enough away from him to avoid being hit when she landed.
A few more Freelancers had showed up, none having gotten much farther than the door before they stopped to watch.
Maine ran at her, sending hits that she just barely managed to block or dodge. She preferred dodging; even blocking his attacks stung. Eventually he got through her defences and struck her in the chin, and the next thing she knew her back struck the ground.
That might have been it –Ada was dazed, and she could taste blood. But Maine made the mistake of wanting the fight definitively over. If he were smart, or knew more about her fighting style, he would have stayed back and waited until she was up.
As it was, he slowly walked over to Ada while she was still on the ground.
When he was in range, she sprung up, kicking as she twirled to her feet. Her foot hit him squarely in the solar plexus, and while she might've been dizzy from it, he faired a lot worse. Cursing, he backed off, and she closed the gap.
She kicked repeatedly. He may have been stronger, but she had speed and agility on her side. Every time he tried to catch her leg to counter, she pulled it away. Each individual kick wasn't doing a lot of damage on its own, but five in a row, and Maine was starting to show some pain.
Ada spun, her arm flying out like a knife and hitting his collarbone, and then kicking out the very next spin. She had put as much force as she dared into that kick, as well as the momentum from her twirls and previous attacks. If that didn't drop him, he deserved to win.
But it did drop him.
Maine hit the floor groaning, still conscious, but not getting up anytime soon.
The gym was silent for a moment, before South started snickering and Wyoming jogged over to his friend, helping him up. Wash took Maine's other arm, and seemed unsure of whether to glare at Ada or congratulate her, so settled on a half-hearted smile in her direction. Wyoming just glared at her, before the three left the gym.
"Nice one, kid," Illinois smiled, running over to Ada, who was spitting out blood onto the floor. Someone else could clean it up.
"You kicked his ass!" Kenni agreed. "You okay?"
"Bit my cheek," Ada shrugged.
Jerry, and many other Freelancers, joined in with the congratulations, but several kept their distance. CT looked amused that Maine had been beat (twice), but didn't seem too bothered about who'd administered the beating. While her brother offered Ada and smile and a nod, South seemed annoyed. It took Ada a while to figure out why; South had been kicked off the board altogether, and was now ranked just above Ada. Ada was now her direct competition.
After the Freelancers dispersed, either around the gym or back to their dorms, Jerry gave Ada the rest of his water.
"You deserve it," he grinned. She finished his water off, and because he was still working out went to refill the bottle for him.
There were some taps a little way off from the gym, so Ada headed for those. When she arrived, a certain black-clad Freelancer was already there. She had changed out of her armour too, and her spiky red hair and pale skin were clearly visible. There was something off about her appearance, though. Like the Uncanny Valley.
Ada was usually almost terminally shy around strangers, but she knew how hard it was to be the new girl. She walked up and greeted Texas.
"Hey," she smiled as warmly as she could.
Texas glanced in her direction. "You're the girl who beat up that idiot, right?"
"Who, Maine?" Ada asked. "Yeah, that was me."
"Not bad," Texas said.
"I'm Nevada, by the way," Ada told her. "Friends call me Ada."
"Well, Nevada," Texas said. "That first move was a little sloppy. You helped him into the wall, yes, but you didn't follow up. Work on that."
Ada nodded dubiously as Texas walked away, not even giving Ada a chance to thank her for the advice. Shrugging the strange encounter off, she filled up Jerry's water bottle and headed back to the gym.
When she entered, some Freelancers ignored her, but most stopped and stared. The board on the wall showed her why.
3. North Dakota
She nearly dropped Jerry's water bottle.