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January 2nd

5pm

Hammer's Firearms

 

 

 

Brow furled, tossing the shard of broken glass onto the floor with all the rest.  Nobody could leave anything the hell alone anymore. ‘course, this could even be vindictiveness for disappearing on a dime from the mob, but he doubted it.

 

Hands went to his hips as he surveyed his dusty shop, or what was left of it.  He’d pulled all his inventory and left the empty shop with just cabinets and shelves, but even that had been smashed to hell. Who would feel the need to smash an old General Store style display cabinet? Bastards.  Hiking boots crunched against glass and debris as his toe scuffed certain places, kneeling down and reaching through the grime, the pull rings still in place and undisturbed.  They suddenly snapped up from the floor, the garage door opener type signal he blinked through his brain opening the lock on one.  Pulling it upward, the floor storage with all his inventory was intact.  Dropping the door back down, he locked it back up and kicked debris back over it.

 

It would take him a couple days to clean, a couple days to stock, then reappear suddenly open like a phoenix.  Damn he hoped there was no bad blood.

 

Welcome “home”.

 

Laissez and all that...

 

Upstairs apartment was unscathed.  Dusty, but unscathed.  Hiker’s backpack tossed on the couch, he rubbed his scruff and started rummaging through the survival pack.  Been gone a while, Nola still a giant lake with his angels barely peeking out.  A few trinkets he was able to scavenge, but nothing in the grand scheme of things.  Made for a melancholy return.

 

Shower.  Shave. Food.

 

It’d occurred to him that the place was being watched.  It’s not like he could hide the banged up 4x4 that was parked behind the shop by the loading dock.  His real home was being house-sat by an adorable newlywed couple and he hadn’t been there yet so not likely a tip-off there.

 

But… he’d been back in town long enough to hear Order bullshit.  Same old, same old, with a bit more flair.

 

Water creaked on, and he let it run in the stand alone clawfoot tub.  Sputtering, somewhat iron orange for several moments, heating up eventually after he relit the water heater. Clothing was shed and he stepped in, yanking the curtain.

 

Time to return to the land of the living.

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Ear itched as the phone buzzed in his pocket, her attention still on the conversation, or rather argument, that Matty was having with Lucky. Seemed there had been some snooping on some lady pilot's place that then landed the family in some hot water.  Matty had found out that Lucky's boys were behind the initial excursion and after being put in an awkward position with the woman to explain the second rounds which were NOT them, he was still looking for someone to yell at. He had been on a tiraid since they returned from the docks to look over one of the first shipments to come in since New York came out of its deep freeze.

 

Npc:…hmmm

 

Gaspari didn’t "hmm" for no reason and immediately her attention was off the patio shenanigans and on the head of the family as he drummed a finger on the large arm of the leather chair.

 

Npc:…seems our bullet boy is back in town…. Joey noticed the 4x4 out back when he was scouting the district.

 

Josef?.....well what the hell do you know. She didn’t respond other than a faintly raised brow that gave the opening of "what do you want me to do about it?" question. She hoped the answer was "nothing". When she came back from her unexpected trip to Egypt, Josef and her had started meeting "by accident" regularly in the cemetery that reminded him of his "angels"… typically with a strong bottle of something in tow.  After the fucking cop made his weak-ass "I don’t remember you" claim and walked out of New York.. and her life.. she had stopped venturing out of her loft for anything but family business.  Then this dumb cajun, with an accent that tickled her senses, drew her out again. He didn’t know it, but she had started looking forward to their "accidental" meetings when he pulled the vanishing act. Fucking shop had been cleared out. This was no little "gone for the weekend" trip.

 

She had been pissed beyond words, and steamed even more at herself that she was pissed in the first place. Hadn't she learned her lesson already?

 

Business….. keep to business. The breath Gaspari took made her heart sink. He was going to go somewhere with this.

 

Npc:… why don’t you head over and say hello.

 

The inward grown rumbled almost loud enough to be heard.

 

Tonight?.....

 

She knew the answer before he said anything…. of course he meant tonight. He wanted to know why his supplier of prime ammo had vanished today…not next week.

 

Npc:…why not…..take Matty with……

 

She cut him off with a frown.

 

Don’t need a crowd… might spook 'im. I got it.

 

………………….

 

And that was what had led to her standing here….at the back door of the damn ammo shop. Sigh was soft as she shook her head and finally rapped on the door with the side of her closed fist. She hadn't bothered to change, faintly smelling of fresh fish, wind whipping back the loose long mahogany locks behind her shoulders. She stuffed her hands into the black bootcut jeans as she leaned her hips back on the railing and waited, gray sweatshirt mostly hidden under the black leather blazer jacket and gray wool scarf as the breath wisped out in white curls. The death freeze had ended but it was January in New York and still fucking cold.

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The near scalding water was welcome, worked the creaks out of his bones.  Water snapped off, the billowing steam had fogged the entire 20's style bathroom, tiny white tiles a slick trap that he was used to.  Towel from his hiker's pack was quickly wrapped around his hips, the length overlapping a bit more than usual.  He was leaner than normal, hip bones slightly protruding from the normally solid frame.  It happened.  Especially when he went on his excursions.  Muscle fat dropped, muscles became lithe.

 

He'd felt the wanderlust, the itch.  Add to that some homesick and the fact dickheads were sniffing at his place, it was the perfect storm to bail.

 

Halfway through the shave is when he heard the rap under his window.  Padding over, he peered down, towel swiping over the cleanshaven half of his face.

 

That didn't take long.

 

Unlocked window was pushed open slightly, wisps of steam curling out.

 

"Stairwell is open.  Welcome back."

 

Odd thing to say, like he never left.  He didn't really, the window clicking closed again.  She didn't know his habits, and they weren't really privy to any of them.  He also didn't need their fucking permission for anything.  Plus, they broke their deal.  He got shit sniffing around, he was out.

 

Back to getting rid of his beard, straight razor, the only proper way.

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When the window shifted in its frame the ebony shades glanced upward, the smell of heat and soap was instantly filling her sensitive senses. He was taking a shower, or had taken one, or about to take one. Well that was peachy… she was to suffer for Gaspari's impatience.

 

"Stairwell is open. Welcome back."

 

Brow quirked up over the dark rims.

 

Pretty sure that is my line.

 

Hips pushed from the rail as she grabbed the door and pushed into the back of the shop. She hadn't been inside since they had poked around after it was ransacked. It had happened shortly after he poofed on them and when they found out, the family investigated to see if someone was out there targeting their contacts. What they turned up was that it was truly just vandals that likely had hoped to get some of the goods that had once filled the space and were then pissed off when they came up empty handed.

 

Stepping inside she pulled the door shut against the bitter January winds but not before pushing her senses outward to confirm it was just the Cajun at home.  She had no patience for an ambush. White ants erupted in her thoughts and quickly began to outline the forms around her, tracing the walls as they ran upward after confirming the old shop was desolate. Just the one form. Head cocked slightly as she studied it a moment. He was smaller than the last time she had "seen" him. Just what the hell had he been up to?

 

Not that she cared………..

 

Brow frowned slightly as feet stomped gently to dissipate whatever snow might still be clinging to the soles before heading up the stairs. She should have let Gaspari send Matty instead. Grumble was silent in her chest before her foot hit the top step and paused.  Like hell she was walking into his bathroom. Shoulders pivoted to lean against the wall facing away from the door to his washroom as hands remained in her jean pockets.

 

Shaving cream…. the scent tickled her senses nearly drawing a sneeze before fingers slid from her pocket to rub the tip of her nose several times. So what….. he had gone Grizzly Adams for a while? Didn’t seem to fit the jazz loving Cajun.

 

Some kids had a party in ya place while you were vacationing it….

 

Referencing the damage downstairs as she leaned her head back against the wall and simply waited for him to finish.

 

Really should learn t' lock yer doors when you head out....

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There was something cathartic in the gentle scrape of razor edge against flesh; under the nose, around the lip, across the throat with wicked precision.  Careful, purposeful, dangerous.  Footsteps up the stairs were heard slightly over the scrape that reverberated quietly through his head, something else itching along with it.  Itching him about her.  He’d had a little over a year to ponder it, to sort it all out… their last encounter, the weirdness that crept up the back of his neck every time she peered over her glasses at him.

 

Some kids had a party in ya place while you were vacationing it….

 

“They always do.”

 

Stark evidence he’d done it before, and that this “holiday” was normal.  He didn’t bug out and never return.  He had anchors, and roots, albeit some far and wide.  Razor tapped against the antiquated porcelain and slid carefully in small strokes over flesh again before swishing in water.

 

Really should learn t' lock yer doors when you head out....

 

“Don’t have to fix the doors and locks now, do I… glass is cheap.”

 

Voice was slightly distant, the stretch of vocal chords that signaled a blade was on his throat.  He knew this game.  Kids were kids, locked doors wouldn’t keep them out.  Doors were expensive, locks were expensive. This upper apartment was simple enough people thought it was an empty apartment. A gun shop, very different.  It got tossed every time.  he'd learned to just leave the doors open, less expensive.

 

“Wasn’t kids, not the first wave anyway.”

 

Metal tapped again, pipes protesting slightly as he turned the wagon-wheel porcelain knobs and rinsed off the blade, setting it on the back of the toilet and draining the water from the sink.

 

“Deal was no baggage.  Shit comes sniffin’, I’m out.”

 

It was partial truth, everything just converged at the same time.

 

“Pay for protection,” his smirk was slight, peeling a dark gray Henley over his form, towel snapping off to finish getting dressed.  “That’s what they tried to sell me.”

 

He hung up the towel, returned the rest to his hiker’s pack, foot up on the side of the tub to tie his shoes.  Hand unconsciously jingled the gris-gris on his wrist as he dug through his bag… a bottle… and stepped past her on his way out the door.

 

“You’ve been at the docks,” he trotted down the stairs, rolling up his sleeves and flipping the bottle in his hand once.  “Hope you have your usual driver, he’s going to need to help you load.”

 

Course… when he left, he never really left.  A shipment had been ready before he’d split.  Small clicks across the foundation of the building signaled so many secrets she didn’t know about as he rolled the magnetic locks through his head and snapped them open.

 

“Brought you a souvenir.”

 

The scavenged bottle of bourbon was set on one of the glass covered counters for her to take, or leave, feet crunching quietly on debris as fingers found a loop on the floor and pulled up the trap door.  Dirt and broken wood slid off in a waterfall as it was propped up, metal ammo boxes lined up neatly in the floor storage.

 

“You thought I’d forget about you ya?”

 

He was quiet for a moment, too many ghosts to talk about as he looked across his mess.

 

“Sometimes the waters recede enough to get into the old quarter.  Get past the gators and you find things nobody is crazy enough to go after.  Sometimes just ghosts and shadows.”

 

Another bottle of bourbon, some trinkets, a few other things he found that he'd give up based on how this welcome home party went were still in his truck.

 

"A lot of ghosts and shadows this time," voice was quiet.

 

He reached in and pulled out the first box.

 

“You don’t want these cher they go on my shelves.”

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"They always do."

 

It drew a smirk. Nonchalant as always. It was that ease that had crept under her skin. It pissed her off and calmed her all at the same time.

 

“Don’t have to fix the doors and locks now, do I… glass is cheap.”

 

Be even cheaper if nothing was broke in the first place….

 

Bakkhos properties didn’t get broken into. Armored doors and bullet proof glass along with high tech scanner locks kept the general riffraff out. They should offer him some of their reserves. It would depend how much they trusted the arms dealer that had poofed on them. She would talk to Gaspari.

 

“Wasn’t kids, not the first wave anyway. Deal was no baggage.  Shit comes sniffin’, I’m out.  Pay for protection. That’s what they tried to sell me.”

 

The fuck….

 

The growl was half under her breath. They had not betrayed the place, she was sure of it as she had been the only one to come and she was always cautious of when and how she arrived, pushing out her senses to ensure there were no looky-loos within blocks during her visits.

 

Phone slid from her pocket even as he finished getting dressed. The 3 flicked on the speed dial. Impatiently she waited for the answer. When the cold "ya" came over the ear she spoke.

 

'ey… got a spook in Glendale doing shakedowns…I want intel by the time I get back tonight.

 

With that the phone snapped shut and was slid back into her pocket. As he walked by she shook her head a bit.

 

We don’t operate like that… but I will find out who is.

 

This was Bakkhos territory. Not under its thumb as they had few businesses in the area but definitely under its protection. To piss here was to call down the big dog.

 

"You've been at the docks…"

 

..huh….oh… ya… first tankers came in since the damn ice age finally subsided. Not been home for a shower yet…

 

Nostrils flared as she lifted a sleeve, smirk cutting faintly at the corners of her lips as the arm fell again. She smelled like fresh fish.

 

“Hope you have your usual driver, he’s going to need to help you load.”

 

Walked actually….

 

Her reply came with a shrug as she trotted down the steps after him. His gait was lighter…significantly. He had lost more than just a couple pounds.

 

You forget to eat a few breakfasts while you were gallivanting?

 

Fortunately she didn’t need site to "see".

 

"Brought you a souvenir."

 

Brow quirked as her steps paused, the expression held suspicion but was also laced with curiosity, though not at the "souvenir". She was hearing soft reverberations of what sounded like locks moving. That was an interesting trick. She was about to "investigate" the building much more closely when the clink of a bottle on the counter turned her ear slightly pausing the push on her gifts.

 

“You thought I’d forget about you ya?”

 

Moving to the counter she let the ants slide over the structures just long enough to grab the bottle naturally, even through the seal she could detect the bourbon. Decent one too. Not a bad souvenir. Hip rested against the counter as he pulled the door in the floor.

 

The shrug was nonchalant as the smirk played at her lips.

 

Well…I was starting to wonder…

 

Bottleneck rolled gently in her fingers as he grew still…quiet. Something was thick in the air. Regret? Nostalgia?.....she couldn’t quite put her finger on it.

 

“Sometimes the waters recede enough to get into the old quarter.  Get past the gators and you find things nobody is crazy enough to go after.  Sometimes just ghosts and shadows.….. A lot of ghosts and shadows this time."

 

He had gone "home"... and from the distant sound in his voice, he didn’t find what he hoped there. She didn’t understand the pull. She had no such deep roots and ties to anywhere. Thumb rubbed the side of the bottle.

 

It is not always the place…..ghosts and shadows have a way of following us….

 

Finger lightly tapped the side of the bottle as she herself felt the shiver of her own. He had a bad habit of bringing the ghosts to bear in her own life. Odd cajun…

 

The shift of ammo in a box caught her attention. So that was where he stashed his stuff.

 

“You don’t want these cher they go on my shelves.”

 

Brow quirked over the dark shades, faint smile tickling her expression.

 

I rejected any of your good wares yet Boudreaux?

 

It had been a while since the name had rolled off her tongue.

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Be even cheaper if nothing was broke in the first place….

 

“Stuff gets broken.  It’s the way of things. The more you fight it, the more pissed off you get when it happens.”

 

The fuck….

 

Her response to the attempted shake-down was expected, but not really worried about.  He didn’t need protection, from puppish territorial wannabes or the big bad wolves.  They hadn’t scared him off, they’d just cut off their own foot to spite their faces.  Fingers nonchalantly rifled at the back of his hair needing a cut, that odd feeling again.  The normally blond, perfectly careless hair was a big darker than usual.  It always got that way when it got longer, a russet color with a slight curl.  He added haircut to his list of things to do.

 

'ey… got a spook in Glendale doing shakedowns…I want intel by the time I get back tonight.

 

“Don’t go and do that…” he said quietly, wiping his razor after he got dressed and put it away.

 

We don’t operate like that… but I will find out who is.

 

“I don’t care who is,” he said particularly to himself.  “People do what they want.  The only thing you can control is your own response.”

 

He really didn’t care, leading the way down the stairs.

 

..huh….oh… ya… first tankers came in since the damn ice age finally subsided. Not been home for a shower yet…

 

“Yah, shame on that freeze.  Woulda been back a bit sooner, waited it out in Atlanta.”

 

Walked actually….

 

“Well shit, looks like you carrying it all home,” it was a nonchalant tease.  Of course he’d shelve it in the back to wait for pick-up.

 

You forget to eat a few breakfasts while you were gallivanting?

 

“Distinct lack of Waffle Houses down south nowadays.”

 

Did she even know he could live outside civilization for as long as he wanted?  Didn’t think he’d ever mentioned it.  His own brow quirked at her expression. Had he ever really explained to her anything about himself other than cryptic nonchalant comments?  Come to think of it, he didn’t think so.

 

“My locks are electric, magnetic or frequency driven.  Human garage door opener,” he divulged quietly.  She didn’t miss a thing now, did she?

 

It was that weirdness again prickling at his neck.  She was doing something.

   

Well…I was starting to wonder…

 

Eyes watched her play with the bourbon a moment, trying to pick it out.  She wasn't altered, not that he could tell anyway.  It'd been bothering him for a year.

 

It is not always the place…..ghosts and shadows have a way of following us….

 

“Some people never shake’em.”

 

I rejected any of your good wares yet Boudreaux?

 

His laugh was genuine.

 

“That’s a loaded question,” strain in his voice was light.  "Making fun of me Mason.  Too skinny for you now is what you're sayin'"

 

Lost weight, but not strength- lifting multiples out at a time to make sure they were undisturbed only to put them back and drop the door, lifting another.  Firearms, still lined up on their racks, still perfect.  Door was dropped, grabbing the handle of a broom stick from debris to sweep off another portion of the floor and lift another ring.

 

“I wander every now and then.  Always come back.  Before shit went to hell, I got tired of the prince of Nola responsibility.  Ya never have friends even though you’re surrounded constantly with people.  Do they like you?  Or your car?  Your mansion?”

 

The next had water damage.  Odd.  It was his store of repair tools and oils, so not much issue.  Still.  Eyes scanned the room for where it could have come from. 

 

“So I left.  Mama was pissed.  Pere was pissed.  But I was happy.  I'm happy when I wander.”

 

It was like he’d never left. Easy, conversational as always.  No weirdness or elephants in the room, filling the silence as he checked his inventory.

 

“Hiked across the world.  Top of Everest, almost lost my toes on that one, Holi Festival in India was my favorite.  Just lived, went where the wind blew.  World ended.  Order found me, never saw my family again, became a beauty school dropout when I found out that those tchews were making human weapons out of us.”

 

Door dropped and he moved on to the next.  There were six total, spanning the floor of the front of the shop.  The water damage worried him a bit, pulling the next door up hoping his antiques and handguns were okay.

 

“Made it back to find everything was gone.  My city underwater.  Every once in a while I go back, to see if anyone tryin’ to find me.  See what’s left.  It’s a wanderlust that I can’t seem to shake.”

 

Hands went to his hips, then fingers scratched the back of his neck as he looked into the storage.

 

“Was self-sufficient before, after the Order… well ain’t gotta worry ‘bout me.  Ever.  Drop me in a z-infected forest I’ll get out in one piece.”

 

He knelt down and pulled out an ammo box to open, carefully checking the contents.

 

“No man should have my kind of destruction in their blood.  Not right.”

 

He didn’t specify what kind of destruction he could muster, eyes lifting toward the door, the pulse at his blink instinctual.  People, moving fast.  While chatting away he’d been sweeping the block every few moments.  What followed was synchronized percussion, clicks and pops across the entire building as if a switch had been flipped.  Screens that weren’t broken flickered to life, and every door in the building locked.

 

“I am the locks cher.”

 

Door dropped and he stood up, peering up at one of the screens, outside camera was out.  Another mind sweep.  He could see them, their heated shapes in mind’s eye about half a block away and closing.  Less than seconds.

 

“You expecting anyone?”

 

It was first just a harmless ping, ignition of the gunpowder seen as a split second thermal blip in his mind, bottle of bourbon in her hand exploding as he grabbed her arm and pulled her to the ground.  Colors shattered through the front of his skull, the world ringing in visual cacophony.  The amount of firepower felt like enough to cleave the building in two, peppering splintered wood in a waterfall down on their heads.  The sound was deafening.  More glass breaking, the spray of thunks into metal undoubtedly his shelves in the back and truck outside.  Hiss of a radiator.

 

Then silence.

 

Tiny sprinkles of wood plinked off his neck, dust hanging in the air.  The world was warped, vision skewed, ringing echo in his ears.

 

Heel smashed the kickplate at the bottom of the front counter, buckling it, swiping his hand underneath. Scrape of metal was distinct, as was the rack of a shotgun that was now aimed at the shattered front window as he lay on his side, trying to focus.  No movement from outside yet, map in his head frayed with interference every few seconds as he tried to piece together his mental map again.  Damn that shit hurt. 

 

Gut stung, like a stitch when you were running.  Shit.  It hadn't come out, feeling the bullet pressing into muscle somewhere on his left side.  Trying to save the bourbon.  Ha.

 

"They mad," he said under his breath, not intent on making light of the situation... only  making sure she was still breathing.  "I think they think this place is theirs."

 

He never took his eye off the sight, the first shadow peeking in the busted window met with a blast to the throat and an instant rack for another shot.  He didn't fuck around, listening to the semi-ruckus as they tried to figure out how to save a guy that wasn't dead instantly... a fairly gruesome way to go.

 

"Ya'll can keep coming, I'ma keep killing.  I don't miss," hand swiped again under the counter, a box of ammo coming out this time.  "Shooting at a gun dealer is pretty high up on the list of dumb shit to do couillon."

 

He glanced over at Mason.  Lot of blood on the floor.  Shit, it was his.

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“People do what they want.  The only thing you can control is your own response.”

 

That was true… to an extent. Sometimes however, you just had to control how long the leash was you put on idiots like that. She kept the thought to herself as the conversation turned to less annoying topics, like his lack of breakfast.

 

"Distinct lack of Waffle Houses down south nowadays."

 

Brow lifted as nose crinkled faintly, clearly contemplating the statement before finally asking.

 

That a thing?

 

She had never heard of a "waffle house". But the contemplation was short lived as the soft clicking caught her attention.

 

“My locks are electric, magnetic or frequency driven.  Human garage door opener.”

 

They hadn't talked much about his powers. She had seen it at work at the casino when he worked some mojo on the security system to help with escaping the disaster, but they had never really talked about it. To be fair, she didn’t talk about hers either so they were equally "in the dark".

 

There was that laugh…. that cajun tainted singsong that had caught her attention nearly a year ago.

 

“That’s a loaded question. Making fun of me Mason.  Too skinny for you now is what you're sayin' "

 

Nose wrinkled in an exaggerated mock disdain.

 

Who wants a scrawny guy that chases angels and drinks bad booze?

 

She poked fun at their first cemetery meeting where he was drinking what she considered pig swill. It really had been a grotesque smelling brew. She listened as he inspected his stash, a bit surprised he was so free with showing it to her. She tended to be more secretive of the things she locked away.

 

“I wander every now and then.  Always come back.  Before shit went to hell, I got tired of the prince of Nola responsibility.  Ya never have friends even though you’re surrounded constantly with people.  Do they like you?  Or your car?  Your mansion?”

 

……your money maker……

 

The soft add was to herself not to him. They had talked briefly on this topic. She knew this feeling all too well. She had been used for what her talent could bring people.

 

Nostrils wrinkled up at the musty scent of water as he opened the next compartment. Pipe froze maybe?

 

“So I left.  Mama was pissed.  Pere was pissed.  But I was happy.  I'm happy when I wander.”

 

Faint grin ghosted on her lips. Like she had been happy when she quit music to deny those who had screwed her with contracts the money they were pilfering off her. She had royally pissed a number of people off in her defiance as well.

 

“Hiked across the world.  Top of Everest, almost lost my toes on that one, Holi Festival in India was my favorite.  Just lived, went where the wind blew.  World ended.  Order found me, never saw my family again, became a beauty school dropout when I found out that those tchews were making human weapons out of us.”

 

Finger rubbed the glass bottle thoughtfully. She had never left the states before the trip last year to Egypt. It had been…. eye opening.

 

“Made it back to find everything was gone.  My city underwater.  Every once in a while I go back, to see if anyone tryin’ to find me.  See what’s left.  It’s a wanderlust that I can’t seem to shake.  Was self-sufficient before, after the Order… well ain’t gotta worry ‘bout me.  Ever.  Drop me in a z-infected forest I’ll get out in one piece.  No man should have my kind of destruction in their blood.  Not right.”

 

Depends how you choose to use it.

 

He was being chatty. It wasn’t the first time they had casually swapped stories. There had been an ease to it from the very beginning. As percussive pops tickled her ears she also was suddenly aware of another movement. Her ability was only ghosting but the movement instantly caught her attention and had her focusing it more tightly. It might have been nothing, ignored, had it not been for the telltale sound of weaponry cocking. Now she was very still as she realized he too seemed to know something was up. Head was cocked even as he seemed to flick on every security piece in the building.

 

"I am the locks cher. You expecting anyone?"

 

Head tilted the other way even as he made the inquiry. Her words were quiet.

 

No….I am not…..

 

She was already setting down the bottle and reaching inside her leather blazer when the shot exploded the bottle in her hand, glass shaving across her thumb.

 

Growl was dark and instant as he yanked her to the ground, her map exploding in white projectiles. The sound "blinded" her at first as the deafening eruptions rung in her ears. White flashed then extinguished before she could breathe deeper and control the chaos created by the noise. Fortunately as a guard dog of Bakkhos this wasn’t her first gun fight, she had trained herself to focus through the chaos her ability could erupt in her mind. Composure was reached quickly as she pulled the glock from under her arm.

 

This is why you find out what dogs are pissing on your lawn….

 

The soft snarl was half under her breath as she lifted an arm against falling debris a moment before it hit her without ever having looked up to "see" it. Maps once more crystal clear.

 

"They mad."

 

Ya think….

 

"I think they think this place is theirs."

 

You're bleeding.

 

The metallic scent was corrupting her nostrils and while she knew she had been cut on the hand it was minor and definitely not oozing enough for the volume of scent she was detecting. Weight shifted to sit back on heels that were already perched off the ground, ready to move.

 

"Ya'll can keep coming, I'ma keep killing.  I don't miss. Shooting at a gun dealer is pretty high up on the list of dumb shit to do couillon."

 

The ammo rolled in the box as he pulled it from under the counter.  He might be keen to fight them all but that much blood was going to make him worthless soon if it wasn’t tended to. Fortunately for him, he had a naturalborn protective guard dog with him tonight. Map flushed out now in violent crispness, quickly focusing on the targets, their position. The walls of his shop were not barriers for her.

 

One injured…. four others trying to figure out what the hell to do next…..

 

Rock back on her heels brought her up in one swift and smooth motion as she moved around the counter, glock up and aimed. This was why she was Gaspari's personal guard dog. She had no fear and no real instinct for self preservation when she was protecting. It was why the family liked her at Gaspari's side…. it was why Gaspari didn’t. He knew that one day…. this behavior would end his guard dog.

 

She went at a complete angle to the window, the nearest one was not visible but was within shot when the shot was taken at an extreme angle requiring her to approach the side of the window. She did so without hesitation, a second later her shot rang out which was reciprocated with a hail of gunfire back on them.  Long legs had leapt the counter to join him again, shoulder of her leather jacket pierced by one of the bullets as the heel of her boot slipped on his blood landing her a bit harder on her hip than intended.

 

One dead, one injured, three others trying to get their heads out of their asses…..

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That a thing?

 

Waffle Houses.  So bad and so good.

 

“Guilty pleasure thing.”

 

Who wants a scrawny guy that chases angels and drinks bad booze?

 

“See now… it’s always been my toys people want.  I knew it.”

 

Again, the easy teasing turning into easy chatter to pass the time.  Her responses were always mostly in expressions and stance.  The things most people didn’t pay attention to, she said more than she thought when people took the time to pay attention.

 

Depends how you choose to use it.

 

It made him quiet a moment.  Not really the time or place to explain that one.  His was the ugly kind, the kind that couldn’t be seen, like cancer.  Eating away at your insides until the pain became so unbearable it was like breaking your back trying to spit your own guts out.

 

“There is no nice way to use it… except as a garage door opener or coat warmer for people too stubborn to wear layers outside in the New York winter cold.”

 

The smirk was a dig, but also an effort to change the subject, but apparently the subject would not be changed.  Expecting someone?

 

No….I am not…..

 

He didn’t want to hear that.

 

…or the following gunfire.

 

Cripes something was fucking with his mind sweeps, like two directions of waves fighting against each other in a pool.  Interference in a radio signal.  It was her, it had to be her.  He was going to have to drop back ten and punt, he didn’t want to.  This is where he didn’t want to go.

 

This is why you find out what dogs are pissing on your lawn….

 

“Nobody like a gloater Mason,” even the chide seemed a laid back tease.

 

You're bleeding.

 

“Seems so, yes.”

 

One injured…. four others trying to figure out what the hell to do next…..

 

“You want them dead or alive?”

 

Then she moved.

 

“Damn it Mason,” gun moved down as she crossed in front of him, moving it back up when she’d cleared his aim.  He couldn’t do this with her in front.  “You’re not letting me be the gentleman.”

 

More gunfire, unable to check where she was until her weight hit hard next to him just before his decision had to be made.

 

One dead, one injured, three others trying to get their heads out of their asses…..

 

“You want them dead or alive?” he asked again.  “Breathing, talking?  You’re going to have to specify because it makes a huge difference in what I do next..”

 

In whether or not he seared their skin off and whether or not he passed out doing it.  He was bleeding, a lot.  Left side, not a good sign.  He would have to focus to make sure nobody else was hurt in the process, but shit if he wasn’t going to die in his own gun shop from a bullet wound.

 

“Time’s up, doing it my way.”

 

Cheap last ditch shotgun clunked on the floor as he pulled himself up by what was left of the counter.

 

“Do not move.”

 

Their colored thermal blips were clearly in his brain.  They’d backed off some, a little complication but not much.  Holding his side, the other hand went up, and the room was silent.  Nothing seemed to be happening, he whispered quietly, words foreign and unique… still nothing from outside until the first sound like a firecracker popped.  A ping from one of his own ammo cases under the floor in front of him.  Then one outside.  More outside, swearing outside.  Smell of toasting wood of what was left of the wall.  They’d been reloading, waiting.  More pops.  He only had five seconds left.

 

 

Within seconds came the sound of full out firecrackers and swearing as their ammunition exploded, then clattered, then nothing.

 

He leaned on the counter to catch his breath.

 

“Better call the cavalry.  Dunno if there’s more on their heels.  Bodies lying in the street in your territory not good either.  They’re alive, just gonna puke their guts out when they come to before they die. Probably tell you everything, maybe not.”

 

He didn’t explain any more, moving slowly to the sink to snatch a dusty towel and press it to his side, other hand balanced on the edge as he leaned forward and stared at his feet in silence.  He was disoriented.  Too long, too much, too wide… criss-cross of abilities.  Bleeding as well.

 

“You fine?”

 

He asked quietly.

 

“Lemme know when your people get here and I’ll open the locks.  I might pass out.  In that case there's a box for you in my truck out back.  Was going to give you the rest of your souvenirs before we were so rudely interrupted.”

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This is why you find out what dogs are pissing on your lawn….

 

“Nobody like a gloater Mason.”

 

Smirk was tapered by a frown as the iron flooded her nostrils.

 

You're bleeding.

 

“Seems so, yes.”

 

Shit was hitting the fan quickly. This was far too much firepower and far too aggressive to just be some punk kids that had hit the store. She took the shot that she shouldn’t have been able to "see".

 

"Damn it Mason. You're not letting me be the gentleman."

 

Never really been the damsel in distress either….

 

"You want them dead or alive? Breathing, talking?"

 

Only need one to talk.

 

Foot got under her again to push up. They were reloading and she would be able to get them all popped off if she walked out there. Problem was, the cajun was already moving and instructing her not to move.

 

Huh?

 

She didn’t take orders well, boot planting as she stood behind the counter only to freeze. The small hairs on the back of her neck were standing up. Heat was flushing over her body, racing gooseflesh over every inch of exposed skin. The first flash stopped breath. What the fuck was he doing. Expression flinched as fireworks erupted outside, bursting white across her map in disorienting fury. It took a minute for her to regain the clarity of shapes only to find bodies lying in the street and the cajun leaning on the counter about to keel over on her.

 

What… the fuck…..

 

“Better call the cavalry.  Dunno if there’s more on their heels.  Bodies lying in the street in your territory not good either.  They’re alive, just gonna puke their guts out when they come to before they die. Probably tell you everything, maybe not.”

 

There was still hesitation as she cocked a head at him. What the hell had he just done. She thought his gig was electronic things.

 

“You fine? Lemme know when your people get here and I’ll open the locks.  I might pass out.  In that case there's a box for you in my truck out back.  Was going to give you the rest of your souvenirs before we were so rudely interrupted.”

 

Brow quirked upward at him like he had lost his mind.

 

Locks?…… Boudreaux… you aint got a window in place anymore…..

 

He was delusional. Too much blood loss. Grumbling under her breath she walked up to him, cold palm lifting to his forehead before she shoved him back fairly forcibly. The intention was to wobble him back against the wall so he could slide to the floor without killing himself.

 

Sit down before ya fall down.

 

Glock dangled at her side as she focused, gift spreading out in all directions. White ants highlighted buildings, parked cars and…… more guns coming. Definitely not basic punks.

 

Phone was slid from her pocket even as she went for the busted out window. This time the 2 was speed dialed as she lifted a leg though the broken frame and stepped out onto the pavement outside. The minute it was answered she started talking.

 

Ambush in progress in Glendale…. got bodies in the street needing cleaning out…. also need Frankie down here……huh…no… not for me…. our dealer is down…. am goin' after the incoming dumbasses before they get there.

 

Phone was snapped shut and slid away as she walked up to the first idiot on the street, bullet erupting from her weapon to "put him out of his misery" before the act was repeated twice more. The last one was afforded a moment of her time instead of her reload.  Crouching down she kicked his hip once, the groan advising her he was alive and somewhat conscious.

 

So….. ya gonna tell me what the hell you guys think you are doing out here?

 

NPC:… fuck you….

 

Gun pushed into his shoulder as she pulled the trigger, the scream erupting like a little girl. So much for the tough guy routine.

 

NPC:…bitch you don’t know who you are messing with… Bakkhos going to fuck you up….

 

Head tilted slowly at him. The way he said it… he believed it, her sensitive ears could detect lies better than most damn mechanical detectors.

 

Oh ya…. And whose ya boss that going to fuck me up?

 

The spit at her reeked of acid and iron. Her trigger finger snapped again, eliciting another ripe scream for her.

 

NPC: BITCH!

 

Ya ya…. been called worse…… bosses name?

 

NPC:… dun matter….Saditore gonna eat you alive bitch…..

 

Fist hit him hard enough to snap his head back on the concrete and knock him out cold even as she stood. The name sounded familiar but she couldn’t place it and didn’t have time to dwell as the approaching figures were barely a minute from their location.

 

The first shot was anticipated, long strides moving her closer rather than away from the assailants as her own weapon lifted.  The drop to a knee was so fast the bullets aimed at her whizzed by too high as her own gun leveled up and targeted the head of the white shape currently firing at her. She only needed one shot.

 

More were coming. Who the fuck was this Saditore…and where the hell was the family?

 

Push up from her knee found feet immediately pounding the pavement, cutting the distance between herself and the ambush, pausing only long enough to ensure none were circumventing her direction to get to the shop. Satisfied the bleeding cajun was safe for the moment she picked up speed. Foot hit the seat of a rusted bench to launch her into the air, her shot angling to hit the man as he turned the corner. This was what she did. She protected.

 

One problem. She was already tired from playing human sonar at the docks. Her map would fail her soon....real soon. When she had only her ears to rely on her accuracy significantly diminished.

 

The two that had been following her most recent kill had pulled up short when their companion hit the ground with a bullet in his head.  They were going to be more cautious and harder to pick off. Phone buzzed in her pocket, she hoped that was the family saying they were almost there.

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 Locks?…… Boudreaux… you aint got a window in place anymore…..

 

No, no… that’s not what he meant. Before his mouth could open, he was being facepalmed.

 

Sit down before ya fall down.

 

He half slid down the wall, catching himself on the antique utility sink, face in an uncharacteristic scowl as she went for the window.

 

“Mason!”

 

Damn. IT!

 

He’d seen her Glock… custom, but doable, set aside in his brain at the moment, waiting for the second she was out of range. 

 

The air in the room seemed to whine, physically vibrate as he pulled the towel away, dropping it to lift his gray Henley and slap his own palm over the bullet wound on the left side of his torso.  It was almost a roar, pain. So much pain, silenced between two clenched teeth so she didn’t come back to check on him.  The sink was shaking at the the strength of his grip. Riding the pain.  Cauterizing a wound was one thing. Cauterizing his own wound was something else completely, the red blistered handprint on his flesh when he pulled his palm away no longer leaking blood.

 

She was not going out there by herself.

 

Bloody hand wiped over his torso to get the slick off, one lock clicked and he pulled open the last door he hadn’t checked, a series of snaps mechanical and instinctual- stuffing his back pockets with mags and another pistol in the back of his waistband.  He could hear the interrogation, eyes blinking toward the barely intact wall.  He could see everything, through brick, stone, mortar.  Trained as a soldier and a magus to deal with pain and carry on.  His eyes no longer saw the world as it was, but as nothing else he knew could see it.  Everything was in his head, heat, movement, color.  The first shot rang out, attention ahead but sight behind, sweeping.  Oddly enough… the pressure against his brain seemed to be releasing.  Pain maybe?  It had been a while since he’d used his hoodoo, but…  weird, like he was no longer trying to run in water, now slicing through air.  Interference of some kind gone? 

 

Leg swung over the broken window with a grunt.  This was going to fucking hurt tomorrow, teeth seething as feet hit the sidewalk outside just in time to see her launch into the air to take out another.

 

Well fancy that, feeling the phone ring in her pocket before it physically went off.  Aim nonchalantly rose to the two that pulled up short as he approached in no great rush, the duo suddenly snapping back and crumpling after he put two well placed shots in them.  Expression wasn't pleased, pulling two mags from his back pocket.

 

“Not so good at letting people have fun without me.  You didn’t let me finish..  Unlock the doors of my personal stash,” he slid them in her pockets for later.  “I save these firecrackers for special occasions.  Iffin' you like, I might make you some.  Might let your friends play in my toybox."

 

Aim seemed eerily precognitive, arms raising again sharply.

 

“Two turning the corner,” he said, firing just as they erupted, the force of whatever he was firing from his mags almost spinning them completely around before they crumpled.  “Car stopped half block to your two o’clock behind the old post office.  Three out of the car here in thirty seconds.  Another four a block over from the loading dock.  We're boxed in.  I hope they're yours, if not we got ourselves a party.”

 

He hurt like hell, but he was good at hiding it… and he really liked parties.

 

“Wouldn't be gentleman-like to let ladies dance by themselves."

 

He knelt to check the clip on his back-up with a snap, voice incredibly quiet, not a chide... or a demand, just a request.

 

"Don't run off half cocked on me again Mason, I ain't drinkin' alone after this."

 

 

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She had heard him call her name but ignored it. She had work to do and he had to wait for Frankie to come voodoo him back together. Gun was exploding in her hand when the roar itched her ears. Scan quickly confirmed he was still alone. Fuck…. Now what? Go back? If she did the entire punk army would be on them. No… she had to keep going. Map amplified, extending further, like an expanding sphere in all directions to tell her all that was coming. So far, none of the shapes were recognized as family. Heat prickled the back of her neck as hostility bristled with the second shot. They were fucking with a time bomb. Debris was swirling on the street despite the lack of wind when her next shot was followed by a quick snap around to point the gun at him even as he popped off the next two. It took only a split second to recognize him. Brow furrowed in a scowl of disapproval.

 

“Not so good at letting people have fun without me.  You didn’t let me finish..  Unlock the doors of my personal stash. I save these firecrackers for special occasions.  Iffin' you like, I might make you some.  Might let your friends play in my toybox."

 

There was a chiding growl in her chest when he popped the next two.

 

“Car stopped half block to your two o’clock behind the old post office.  Three out of the car here in thirty seconds.  Another four a block over from the loading dock.  We're boxed in.  I hope they're yours, if not we got ourselves a party.  Wouldn't be gentleman-like to let ladies dance by themselves."

 

Nostrils huffed, the burnt flesh offending her senses almost to the point of distraction. Powerful odors when she was this hopped up on her gifts could be dangerous, distracting.

 

"Don't run off half cocked on me again Mason, I ain't drinkin' alone after this."

 

Lips parted only to snap shut. The scowl still dark on her expression.

 

I could say the same.

 

He didn’t know what he had done. By being here…. she had to protect… to keep an eye on him, especially as he was injured. It would make her even more reckless, more disregard for her own self preservation.

 

Fuck Boudreaux…. yer supposed to be in the shop waiting for the damn doc to fix you up… not out here making me worry about ya.

 

The snarl was more frustrated concern than aggression. She was worried for him…. about him. She half growled at him as a hand snatched his shoulder and pulled towards herself, sidestepping so he ended up behind and her glock pushed up into the air to ring off two shots, never having looked up .  A gun came falling from the rooftop across the street as two forms slumped on the wall above. Her brain did not read linear but pushed out in all directions, it was something she had learned as a child when she discovered she could echo locate in all directions. Her gift only magnified it, letting her "look" in all directions at once, including up and down.

 

If you gonna count 'em off you need to look up as well as out….

 

The chide was in her tone as she squeezed the shoulder as if to make her point, though there was a gentleness in the hold as well. Realizing she still held him the fingers released and she pivoted away and cleared her throat, striding towards the street where the three were coming from the car, closing the distance. She had questions… like how did he know those things… but now wasn’t the time.

 

Four more are hopping rooftops….

 

The add was not exactly comforting. Her pace quickened and just as she reached the corner of the building her form dropped, sliding on a knee as the glock aimed and popped twice before she went tumbling to the other side of the street, avoiding the fireball that had been unleashed by the third.

 

Altered….

 

It was half under her breath as she planted a hand on the pavement to spring herself up onto her feet just as the second eruption of flames came hurling towards her. Leap to the building let her plant a foot on the brick wall to launch herself higher before dropping once more into a feral crouch, flaming ball having slid under her airborne form to singe the edge of her jacket and fry some of the mahogany ends as they whipped around her.

 

Like dust devils, debris began to cyclone and jump several feet into the air, an old bicycle vibrating and lifting from the ground before hurling across the street.

 

Pissing her off…. was dangerous.. there were still things she couldn’t control.

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The debris, there was something about the debris, about her… a rolodex flipping in circles as the information kept churning over itself through the pain, through every encounter, every glance… everything.  Honestly, they were both fucked unless friends arrived, or they fell back and got to play with his toys.  That would never happen because she wouldn’t do it.

 

"Don't run off half cocked on me again Mason, I ain't drinkin' alone after this."

 

His scowl met her scowl.

 

Now they were both stubborn ass-mules scowling at each other in the middle of the street, popping people off absently only when guns were raised to fire on them.

 

I could say the same.

 

The melodic sound of his laugh.

 

“Would ya now?

 

Fuck Boudreaux…. yer supposed to be in the shop waiting for the damn doc to fix you up… not out here making me worry about ya.

 

“I'm supposed to be enjoying a glass of that bourbon right now.  Been saving it for months.  I told you, ya never have to worry about me.”

 

Scowl pursed into annoyance as she picked one off the roof, watching the gun hit the ground.  That was a nice gun.  Was.

 

If you gonna count 'em off you need to look up as well as out…. Four more are hopping rooftops….

 

“You weren’t supposed to know about them.  They were mine.”

 

Dark eyes scowled back at her as she squeezed his shoulder.  The rolodex was still flipping.  Fingers crusted in dried blood touched the top of hers once briefly before she retreated and bolted off like a deer.  He could feel more.  Mana.  It was moving, and she was moving right into it.

 

“What’s the plan here Mason.  If it’s kill them all there’s a lotta flaws in that plan.”

 

…and then she rolled across the street.

 

Lovely.

 

"Damn it Mason…" was quickly becoming his tag phrase of late as it muttered from his lips again.  Eyes picked up the fire.  Fire.  Bullets, fire.  This was becoming too much to handle.

 

Fire.  The last close call bringing the scent of singed leather to his nose, a flick of unexpected anger to his gut… which still fucking hurt.

 

Altered….

 

“So am I.”

 

Words were calmer than they should have been, darkness peeking out from the timbre of his words, guns back in their holsters on his ribs- one with a wince.  He didn’t want her to know his skeletons, it would change their easiness.  Maybe even make so much weird between them he’d lose his drinking buddy.  Things were going five sideways directions to shit at the moment and he wasn’t going to rely on the world to save them.

 

A small shake of his wrist and all the trinkets from his life tinkled quietly with the one movement, small chimes to wake the dead, warn them he was breaking cadence into an unnatural world.  At that moment, the spin of information in the grand puzzle stopped, eyes flicking to her as a bike bounced across the sidewalk.  There was heat coming at him full force, but he wasn’t paying attention to that.  He was watching her.

 

She was a raw force.  Altered.  Magus.  No idea which or how or what.

 

“Mais la…” was said under his breath.  He didn’t know if she had anything controllable. He didn’t know if it would work. 

 

Let the good times roll.

 

One cord was wriggled off his wrist and was tossed to her, the metal enough weight to allow it to cross the distance.  It was beat up, brass, chipped black enamel, a junk looking thing on a frayed cord.  Not a gun.  Or bullets.  A simple guitar tuning key he’d found during one of his trips on a jazz club stage on an obliterated guitar.  Couldn't quite remember which trip, wound with a black cord and worn around his wrist.  It wasn’t magic, it wasn’t anything.  It was an object she could relate to.  It was an object she could focus on.  A foci.  An athame.

 

No idea if it would work.  No clue in the slightest…

 

It was amazing how quickly the brain could process when the world was moving like lightning.  A revelation, a solution, a plan, and a fuckin’ Yoda moment all rolled into seconds.

 

“Focus on the key, focus on what you want the key to do.  Take that music in your gut and crush that key with it.  It's a part of you.  You control it.  See that key in everything you want to move… and don’t let them shoot my ass.”

 

He stepped out into the street the moment before a fire orb burst against the corner he was using as cover; raising his palm to it- the "spray" deftly rushing backward like a gust of wind had whipped sand from pavement.  Now it was easy.  Heat was energy, and now he didn’t have to produce it, he just had to control it. They kept throwing, he'd have more to play with.  Panicking, more were launched at him, his wall pushing back was larger, hotter.

 

Another was sent.

 

Caught, crushing them together in a focused push of heat, firelight dissipating, left with the intensifying quiver of distorted air that signaled scalding danger.  This was a cool trick, it was like pushing against a river, and he was the dam.  A hot, holy shit this is going to hurt tomorrow river, but a river nonetheless.  He’d never squared off against a fire magus, they were always a wild card.  Some could take their own heat, some couldn't.  This was gonna be a good time, or would end in disaster… either way… All he needed to do was get close enough where the heat he was gathering was too much for any of them.  Close enough to scald the non-altered to fall back, they seemed to already be freaking.  Reloading. 

 

Mason would be helpful about now.

 

The fire girl… he’d figure that out when he got closer.  The roof?  Palm turned slightly to the right toward it, heat moving in that direction, blanching the brick as it traveled upward... stumbling one of their roof hoppers backward with singed eyebrows… okay, that was useful…

 

"Got another bottle of bourbon in my truck for us cher, gettin' thirsty right about now."

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“I'm supposed to be enjoying a glass of that bourbon right now.  Been saving it for months.  I told you, ya never have to worry about me.”

 

Scowl persisted at him.

 

Burnin' it aint healing it… it just buyin' you time.

 

She was one to talk. How often did she plow forward injured. It drove Gaspari nuts. There was a flinch when his fingers laid over her own but she didn’t pull away, the scowl softening to a frown before she pivoted away.

 

“What’s the plan here Mason.  If it’s kill them all there’s a lotta flaws in that plan.”

 

Cockroach remember…. I always end up…..

 

Words never finished as she popped two and avoided the hurled ball of flame. He swore at her again but this time it drew a faint grin on her lips. This was what she did.  Though the second hurled flame was a closer call and wiped the grin away as hostility began to flare through her limbs, telekinetic force unconsciously rippling outward as they were being bared down upon now from several directions.

 

“Focus on the key, focus on what you want the key to do.  Take that music in your gut and crush that key.  See that key in everything you want to move… and don’t let them shoot my ass.”

 

The fuck was he talking about! How the hell did he expect her to pick out a key in all this…….

 

The thought drew up short, distraction quieting the telekinetic churn. Unlike the family, he didn’t know, the dark shades on her face still holding her secrets for her. She couldn’t explain that she couldn’t pick out something that small in all this chaos without explaining… and there was no time for explaining.

 

The cajun seemed to have the firestarter in hand. That left her with the rest.

 

The building heat undulated strange distortions in her "vision", forcing her to push harder on the gift that was already stretched. Moisture blossomed from her left nostril but was ignored.

 

Fire escape.

 

Glock slid back into its holster as she sprinted for the wall near the flame thrower, trusting that the Cajun wouldn’t let her get fried.  Her unnatural height allowed her to grab the lowest rung of the broken off metal and pull herself upward. Lean muscles were clearly powerful as she lifted her weight without the benefit of her legs for the first six rungs. Click of magazines warned that the reloads were finishing. The minute she hit the first landing she hopped up on the rail and grabbed the outside rail of the landing above to launch herself upward without bothering to slow down and take the stairs. The leapfrog was repeated twice more before the metal started flying again. Flipping over onto the fourth floor landing her glock was once again brandished, the man firing at Boudreaux picked off easily as he was ignorant of her position. Problem was the minute she picked him off the rest of the pack knew where she was and unloaded.

 

Fuck…

 

Her turn to bleed as the snarled swear escaped her lips, piece of her thigh shaved off as she glued to the side of the building. Aim was taken on the sniper sitting on the roof across the street but before she could take the shot she snapped tighter to the wall, bullet whizzing down from above. She would have to step out to get that one which would expose her to the rest. About to be stupid, she had only a split second to dodge left and press into the broken window casing as heat blasted up the side of the building sending the shooter above stumbling back.

 

No time to thank the cajun as she holstered and snatched the upper landing and swung out and up to launch to the top floor and add insult to injury by placing a boot upside Mr Singed Brows head. Though the scrapper was quick to recover as she was clocked in the jaw with enough force to unseat her shades. The instant they came off she could feel his hesitation. The eyes that haunted others glared sightlessly at him.  He lost his gun as she spun and dropped like a stone, foot taking him out at the ankles. 

 

"Got another bottle of bourbon in my truck cher, gettin' thirsty right about now."

 

Ya ya ya…. Working on it….

 

Voice came down from the rooftop with a grunt as the battle resumed only for stupid to find himself hitched up on her shoulder when she dodged his next punch, her height exploding upward to effectively fling him off the side of the roof. Glock was now dangerous as she spun and began to fire at the last three on rooftops. Her equal vantage point made them easy targets…. it also made her one.

 

There were ten…. no twelve… pounding the pavement coming in their direction. Who the FUCK was this Saditore. The two of them would be overrun in moments. At least two were charging up altered abilities. That was when the massive Terradyne Gurkha spun around a corner several blocks away. The weighty armored vehicle was one of Toni's toys, painted a shiny black to add a flare of sophistication. It held eight behind its armoured walls and had some nice little added accessories as demonstrated when a side machine gun began to rattle off rounds and the twelve was cut down to seven. Pace of the attack slowed as some clearly were starting to second guess if this was a good idea.

 

Her shot rang out, nailing the closest sniper before ducking behind the chimney wall, flinching against shards of brick that exploded around her as the other two took their shots. 

 

Calvary here….

 

The call down was very matter of fact. Their ammo dealer firing on Toni wouldn’t do well for his family relations so she wanted him to at least get a heads up.

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Burnin' it aint healing it… it just buyin' you time.

 

“Not a healer.  Furthest from it.”

 

Wasn’t that the truth, scowl quirking lopsided to an annoyed expression, the impish brow coming down slightly.

 

Then the world spun into fast forward, but the key...  It plinked to the ground and slid just before she took off like a banshee.  That little dropped key changed everything.  It changed absolutely everything, and she was gone.  Hearing her but unable to see with his own eyes was bringing him to a panic.  He could see everything, yet not what he wanted, couldn’t get eyes on her as the heat built in front of him.  Everything distorted, except gunfire, the sounds echoing in a brain that was so inherently focused it could only zero in on one thing.  Her gun was unique, oiled, almost melodic in its percussive echo.  As long as hers kept firing, he kept the others at bay.  They were multiplying, she was on the rooftop, and that severely narrowed his window of control.  He had not done this in so long...

 

Cavalry, her voice penetrated his concentration.  Behind him possibly, automatic fire fraying his senses, the light in front of him was so bright he couldn’t focus on anything else.  But… he wasn’t on the roof with Mason, and they didn't know him, which meant… 

 

Head snapped to one side at the split second thought, a bullet zinging past his ear to take out one of the multiplying threats in front of him, almost losing grip on the wall of heat he was pushing forward.  THEY WERE BEHIND HIM!  They had no idea what he was holding back.  He tried to find his voice to tell them to move.  Nothing came.  Had Mason come down??? 

 

More mana, more altered… he had to focus it and push them off.  The pressure point was almost needling to his forehead, a raging river pushing through the dam, the spike starting to press just between his eyes.  Anyone in the street in front of him was in his firing line.  It would be brutal, his experiment merciless and if he lost it, it was unlikely they would walk away from this.  Firestarter, several more that had turned the corner gearing up their own gifts.  He.  Was.  Just.  Trying.  To.  Keep.  Them.  Back... until he could find the voice to tell the cavalry to get out from behind him.  Feet slipped backward slightly, it was like he was trying to push a freight train and it was pushing him back.

 

The cavalry behind him, gun shots distorted, the rest in front of him, starting to fire.

 

He was dead bang in the middle, holding back the molten flood.

 

Teeth gritted, the growl of exertion echoing as he finally got his tunnel vision focus and pushed it forward like a rocket, body motion like the throwing of a shot put.  What came next was his worst nightmare.  Everything in front of him, simply melted away.  The nightmarish scenes from every apocalyptic movie, blast bone-shattering, vocal chords screaming before melting, disintegrating everything and everyone in its way; people, the sides of brick building in his focused street path, ending in an explosion at the end of the block that shattered the old empty building before dissipating like a crested wave.  Vaporized debris floated to the empty street in front of him like dust and burning ash.

 

World was numb, breath ragged.  He hadn't been breathing for some time.

 

He could feel sights on the back of his head from the cavalry truck behind him as his mind maps flailed into chaos, fraying.

 

Another ragged breath was drawn, not recognizing the fact he was losing the ability to breath, disoriented, resisting the urge to reach to his side or to his neck where the cavalry had almost turned him into an arterial fountain moment before… Fingers rose into the air as best he could.  He was going to get shot.  It was… less than what he deserved for what was in front of him.  That was a horrendous way for them to die, aggressors of not.  He’d not done it for Bakkhos, or to get the bad guys. 

 

He’d done it to keep Mason safe.  Da'fuq was wrong with him...

 

This horrible power was now on clear display for the world to know how terrible his soul was, and any mana muncher in the city would have felt that.

 

He was ashamed of it, eyesight finally returning to somewhat normal, the small key Mason had missed catching his eye on the sidewalk.  Ragged breath drew again with a swallow.  Fuck the cavalry.  Limped walk moved in its direction, the cock of weaponry the least of his worries.  Grunt was pronounced as he picked it up and wriggled it back over his wrist with his other trinkets, hand moving finally to his side as he looked up at Mason’s perch.

 

The world was spinning, head splitting, ears ringing, but the voices.  The voices were the worst.  Cursing him.  He knew in his right mind they weren’t real, but nevertheless they were there. 

 

“I’ma go get a drink,” he ignored their muzzles and started back toward his building at a limped pace, stumbling slightly.  A faint effort waved them to follow him.  “I get ya’ll one too.”

 

He couldn't breathe, the cough bringing a trickle from his lip.  Somewhere between that thought and the need for him to get to his bourbon, the last thing he remembered was his cheek smacking the pavement.

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Well shit had gone sideways quickly for a mere "go check on the dealer" excursion. She was glad Gaspari had insisted on tonight. The outcome for the Cajun could have been a lot worse if she had not been there… well… if Bakkhos hadn't been there.

 

Heat magnified as she felt brick graze the side of her hand as she held the glock near her shoulder waiting for the opening. She was fighting to clear the distortion it was wreaking over her map. But the harder she pushed, the hotter the waves became. Moisture again spilling from under her nostril as she snarled and stood the moment the map clearly showed her the second rooftop target. Her aim was almost computerized as the glock popped off a moment before the sniper's head snapped back.

 

Knee half buckled as the map was now desperately clung to.  She should warn Toni about the rippling heat. At least he knew who Boudreaux was. It was unlikely the Cajun would be mistaken for the punks unless he fired first.

 

The Cajun's growl broke through her concentration. He was struggling. She needed to get down there!

 

Hand planted on the half-wall, jumping over to drop onto the fire escape landing only to freeze when concentrated waves of heat began to explode. She was suddenly acutely aware that she was only a hair from being in the line of fire of something very deadly.  Jump was panicked as she gripped the wall above and hiked up her legs just in time to avoid her flesh and blood boiling though she didn’t avoid a fairly decent sunburn.

 

The fuck!!

 

Clinging to the building she could spot the complete chaos below and above. People were scrambling away even as Bakkhos came closer to the dealer. What the hell had he just done?!

 

Breathing…. she couldn’t hear him breathing…..

 

Hands released their grip to drop onto the landing once more, sliding over to catch the next rail, hands scalding on the hot metal before she dropped herself again, soles of her boots softening on the heated steel before she finally hit the pavement below. Just as she did, a ragged breath was drawn into his chest and she herself let out the one she was unconsciously holding.

 

Several of their men moved guns when the Cajun moved but Toni raised his hand and shook his head. The Calvary instantly backing off. He looked up, he didn’t realize she was standing just a few meters from him already.

 

“I’ma go get a drink, I get ya’ll one too.”

 

She couldn’t help the faint chuckle as Toni walked over to her and the Cajun went down. He was still breathing and Frankie's light chuckle filled the air as he walked over. He was in good hands.

 

Grunt was a bit heavy as she flexed scalded palms.

 

NPC: 'ey Gray…. Shut 'er down….

 

Frown snapped at Toni, sightless eyes glaring with unnerving accuracy but the werebull didn’t back down as he looked at the less than healthy Bakkhos guard dog.

 

NPC: Shut 'er down or I'ma gonna knock yer ass out to turn it off….

 

The hiss was half under his breath. Not all the family knew what she could do but Toni was also security and had fought beside her too often. He knew what the nose bleed signified. She was at the end of her reserves and pushing further.

 

Sighing she let the scowl go and with it her map evaporated, leaving her in the dark of her own thoughts, disoriented with a nasty migraine and all the pain that the adrenalin had been staving off coming flooding in.

 

An hour later the cajun was in bed having been worked well over by Frankie and the young healer was being driven home to recover.  There were Bakkhos positioned in a four block radius keeping an eye on things while Toni headed to talk to Gaspari about this Saditore.

 

She had growled at the kid when he moved to put his hands on her but there was no real point in bleeding all over the cajun's place either. She let Frankie close up her thigh and heal most of her burned palms before pushing him off and chiding him for overusing his powers to which he busted out a belly laugh.

 

NPC:.. pot meet kettle…..

 

Frown at him was annoyed but only mildly so. Frankie was a good kid.

 

Before he left, Toni had slid his own shades into her palm, they were a bit big on her but would do for now. Hips slid down the side of the bed until she sat on the floor, back against the frame at his right side. Boots scraped as knees pulled up for her arms to rest on. While Frankie could heal her wound, he couldn’t help her recover from the abuse of her gifts. Back of her hand rubbed the crimson once more from her upper lip as breathing was slow and measured, trying to survive the migraine long enough for the pain killer she had popped to take effect.

 

This turned into an interesting night.

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Knuckles ran across underneath his nose, sniffle at the clotted blood.  His pere was going to kill him.  The charming barely teenager had committed so many transgressions in the last few hours.  His debutante escort tuxedo was now trashed.  White shirt coated in dark droplets of blood from his nose, dinner jacket torn at the lapel.  Shined shoes were now a muddy mess, pants muddy up to his knees. His bowtie had ended up somewhere, just not on his wing tipped shirt with exactly quarter inch pleats because mama thought the three eighths were too busy.

 

Legs folded, balancing precariously on the crumbling wall of #3, he’d used the crypt ledge stacked four high as a ladder to climb up and sulk in silence.

 

Father was going to kill him.

 

Had it been worth it?

 

Shit yes.

 

Eyes flicked toward a rustling shadow with a small flashlight. 

 

“I know yer here Josef-Carroll.”

 

It was his mama.

 

“You shouldn’t be out here by yourself,” he said quietly from his shadowed perch under his favorite oak. 

 

“Alma told me where you’d gone.  You shouldn’t be out here by yourself.  C’mon down, you’re not five.”

 

He hopped down, the strength of a man but still gangly coordination of a teenager.  Her distaste was immediate. 

 

“That tuxedo was for tomorrow!”

 

His expression was glower.

 

“No more.  You do not go to that club again, you hear me?  We don’t do these things.”

 

“But you come out by yourself in the middle of the night to find me?”  The swipe was juvenile, but he was a juvenile… hopped up on underage drinking, a kiss from a girl, a helluva bar fight, and the best damn jazz he’d ever heard.

 

Her face snapped to a sharp frown, “go, now.  The car is at the gate.”

 

Sullen.  His world was always so sullen.  Shiny shoes, perfect hair, silver spoons, chauffeurs.  To sneak out in the middle of the night, over fences, through cemeteries to a backwater club was… heaven.

 

“You’ve been drinking!”

 

Frown set on his features as he flopped in the back of the sleek black car, arms crossing and silent in the ride home, the last song before the brawl broke out stuck in his head like glue.

 

Eyes opened… it was in his head, the odd memory tangled in his brain.  It was the song, he’d been humming it in the shower before the entire fiasco downstairs.  He could see her out of the corner of his eye.  Hazel stared at the ceiling for a while, the patina on the embossed tin ceiling a soft greened copper.  He could see colors, that was a start.  Nothing felt broken, he was breathing.  It had either been a really long time… face still felt fresh… or they had a healer.  Healer.

 

“So there’s that thing I do,” voice was incredibly quiet.

 

He let the calm silence linger, the heaviness of what he’d done preventing much more.  He didn’t want to talk about what he’d done; he wanted to talk about what she’d done.

 

“I miss it… each night and day, the longer I stay away… miss the moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines… where mocking birds used to sing…”  throat was dry, but the quiet Cajun could hold a tune, conversational like lazy jazz.  He took a slow breath and sighed, finally turning his head to look at her and the ridiculous sunglasses she had on most likely because her others were broken or vaporized.  “Take them off.”

 

He had already figured out there was nobody in the room but her.

 

“Take ‘em off,” uncharacteristic frown creased his forehead, the first attempt to move slow as he sat up, turning to put his feet onto the floor.  He was not going to be bedridden.  Feet touched down right at her toes, elbows on his knees as he intertwined his fingers and looked over his shoulder at her, then to his hands.  A tight insubordinate expression as he shook his head.  Fingers played with the cord at his wrist, pulling the guitar tuning key off again and intertwining it in his fingers as he stared at it.

 

He had every right to ask her to, he knew he was kicking a hornet’s nest of tips of icebergs and all that shit.  The biggest of which, was he thought… at least…

 

Fingers reached up and rifled the back of his hair.  He needed a haircut.

 

“Nevermind,” he found his feet, padding over to his bag on a chair which had been obviously rifled through to find the tee shirt and the boxers he was wearing at the moment.  All this time, all this time and she hadn’t felt comfortable enough to… but sure was damn well comfortable going all hell bent on a suicide mission.  No help wanted.  She was in fucking suicide overdrive, and it wasn’t fair.  He’d found a piece of home and it wasn’t fucking fair.

 

He stopped rifling.

 

“Why did you even bother hanging out with me?”  He couldn’t sound aggressive if he tried, the faster he talked, the more the Cajun pulled into his accent… the more charming it sounded, halfway through it fell into full blown French Cajun, then snapped back suddenly.  “I’m not gonna bury you because you got something to prove.  I can’t bury you… just…”

 

Both hands intertwined their fingers on the back of his neck and squeezed a moment, exasperated.

 

“Mais la Mason!” hands went to his hips and he closed his eyes a moment.  “Where does it all go, if you’re no longer here?”

 

The question was so baring, glaring at her.

 

“I go home to a gator filled swamp!  It’s all gone!  Except you!  Don’t give me that, then be so shit-pissed blasé about taking it away.”

 

It was acknowledging she belonged there, she may not have ever been there, but her soul had a deep piece of it.  He was being selfish, damn straight he was being selfish… so many other implications fraying in every direction... grabbing the clothes he’d rummaged and padding to the bathroom.

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Head rested on her arms in the silence, partially healed burnt palms dangling off her drawn up knees. She focused on his breathing, not to be sure he was doing it, but to help center on something other than the migraine that was eating her brain out of her skull. Not letting Frankie fully heal her wounds and then fighting off the overuse effects on abilities had her exhausted, in pain and snarling under her breath at the world in general.

 

Time slipped by and she managed to drift in and out of fitful sleep. The moisture above her lip usually waking her up to be wiped on the leather sleeve, crimson stain now streaking across her right cheek. She should be on the floor of her shower with near scalding water racing over every inch while she tried to sleep off the migraine. Should be…. but she wasn’t leaving.

 

Eyes didn’t bother to open any more even when she was awake, exhaustion was just too prevalent, but the long unpainted lashes fluttered when his breathing shifted to something less shallow. Waking up.

 

"So there's that thing I do."

 

Ya……and?

 

The quiet response held absolutely no judgment. Whatever disgust he might have been expecting wasn’t there. A kill was a kill to her. Whether it was done with a gun, a knife, or boiling their innards… it was still just a kill and as long as it was to protect she held no judgment.

 

He talked from time to time of his home. Each time she found herself listening more to the lilt of his words than the words themselves. They calmed what others couldn’t.

 

"Take them off."

 

Faint frown ghosted over her brow as she tried to figure out what he was talking about.

 

"Take 'em off."

 

Now the scowl hardened, figuring out what he was referring to as he sat up from the bed finally. She didn’t do that for anyone, not without her contacts in and she didn’t have those on at the moment which had been why Toni had given his shades in the first place.

 

In the dark her fingers flexed as if pondering the demand.  She had known him nearly a year…. though she had been gone for five weeks to Egypt and he had been gone about two months… so maybe it was more like half a year. Was it ok that he "knew"….?

 

As she battled the inner demon to comply or not comply, his dismissive "Nevermind" came. The scowl darkened as the fingers clenched over the healing palm as he got up to rifle for clothes.

 

 “Why did you even bother hanging out with me? I’m not gonna bury you because you got something to prove.  I can’t bury you… just…Mais la Mason!  Where does it all go, if you’re no longer here?  I go home to a gator filled swamp!  It’s all gone!  Except you!  Don’t give me that, then be so shit-pissed blasé about taking it away.”

 

Had she been healthy…..been calm…. been rested…. had she not been screwed over by a cop, the first male she had truly trusted with exposing her heart in more than fifteen years…. had any of these been truths… she might have been flattered… might have been charmed by the increasing Cajun lilt that titillated her ears…. might have caught the hidden affection the words covered. Instead, he poked a sleeping bear.

 

Pushing up from the floor even as he padded to the bathroom, her hip bumped the side of the bedroom doorframe hard eliciting a growled "fuck" before making it across the hall and slapping a hand on the door he was closing, flinging it open a bit violently.

 

Where d' you get off Boudreaux?!  Take 'em off?! What makes you so special that what no one else gets you do?!  I don’t need you lookin' at me different… treating me different… I don’t need your or anyone elses fuckin' pity or protection!

 

It was the death knell to her…. everyone always changed… treated her different once they knew. Thirty years of feeling that oppressive pity the moment she wasn’t seen as "normal".  It was the most loathsome feeling and she never had the same relationship with the person again as they always felt the need to treat her like some china doll after. It killed her a little each time… the slowest painful death.

 

Something had completely snapped. Everything had been bottled for all her life. The only release she ever had was when she played and that only vented frustration into the air, it didn’t really allow the emotions to get free. Now, the dam had broken and the floodwaters were raging unchecked.

 

This is what I do Boudreaux… I been fightin' since I was three….THREE! 

 

Secrets......why tell him what she never told others…. why spill it now…..it was a thought she didn’t stop to ponder.

 

Burnt and bloody leather blazer was ripped off her shoulders and thrown violently to the ground, the buckle on the custom leather harness that nestled her glock almost invisibly under her arm was yanked by still healing hands to free the pin and shimmy it off, entire weight dropped with a thud to the ground before she yanked the bloodstained sweater off her left shoulder. Things no one got to see…. Ever. The four nasty claw mark scars that tore from the back of the shoulder to the front and disappeared again in an angle down towards her chest were clearly from a transformed lycan. But she showed more than that now, the haunting ebony, rough textured tattoos that enveloped the entire shoulder and vanished down her arm also on display. Evidence of the parasite that still lingered in her system, evidence that she fiercely hid from everyone but seemed to forget to do now as arm snapped violently above her lip to swipe away the moisture that refused to subside.

 

I fight and I survive! YOU!..... You the one stupidly burnin' your own wounds to go out and play white knight when ya clearly not in any shape to do so! If anyone was gonna be left mournin' over a grave tonight… it was me! Not you!...ME!

 

There was an absolute painful rawness in her words as a faint tremor invaded the last few notes. It was only now she really grasped that he could have been dead right now and the realization dropped her stomach right out from under her.

 

Oh god…. what was she doing. Frown smoothed into almost surprise at the outburst, breath heaving a bit too loudly in her own ears. Burnt boot scraped backwards as she retreated from her own onslaught.

 

What was she doing….

 

Hand reached out to lay on the wall, sliding down to the height of the hand rail as she pivoted away from him to head down the stairs, hoping to catch the rail so she would know when to take the first step before she fell down them.

 

…….what……… was she doing………

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T-shirt was halfway over his head When the bathroom door smacked open and the tirade began.  Head popped out from under the hem of the shirt in a rifled mess of hair, arms still in the sleeves as he pulled it back on.

 

"I ain't looking at you different.  I ain't looking at you at all.  I feel like I don't even know you cuz all this time you hindin'" ...but it seemed lost in her next tirade.  

 

Leather was flying, weapons were slinging, skin was bared.  So he just sat down, sat on the side of the monstrous claw foot tub, elbows on his knees, fingers intertwined and his head lowered to let the dust devil pass.  He was used to this, used to people blaming him for a variety of things because they lived split lives... secrets.  He didn't care about the secrets.

 

She looked mortified, and he knew it was best to let tempers like hers to flare like a match, then go out.  He would help dissipate the smoke left behind.

 

He got up, turning on the spigot and flipping the lever for the shower, following her as she retreated.  Just as her hand reached for the railing, he snatched it, not to pull her back or catch... to keep her from leaving.

 

"You leave still lit ya gonna burn your world down."

 

He wasn't fazed.  He was sad.  Sad that people that seemed to care about her so much let her burn this bright only to scorch herself.

 

His was a voice that never went above conversational level, usually slightly under, unless someone was in danger.  It was now incredibly quiet.  Had learned young that energy comes back to you, and he blamed himself for the backlash he was getting now... he'd been frustrated and it was coming back times three.  

 

"I didn't ask you to protect what's mine.  That's on you.  The moment you stepped out that window you became my responsibility."

 

He let go and took a step back to give her space.

 

"I'm ex-Order.  Rogue 'cause I don't like their flavor.  I played my cards and you chose to stay."

 

The key charm he'd been playing with in his fingers pressed into her palm.

 

"We all gonna die Mason.  My people celebrate life, and we celebrate death.  If you gonna choose to give up the ghost, make sure it's for the right reasons.  Keepin you safe is the right reasons, and I'm at peace with that.  Where do I get off?  I thought you were my friend... but I ain't looking at you different.  I ain't looking at you at all.  I feel like I don't even know you cuz all this time you hindin'  Good and evil, light and dark, strength and weakness... they no such thing.  They a whole.  People that live half their lives because they think they gotta hide, never really live."

 

Soft sigh brought fingers to tame the still mussed t-shirt hair.

 

"Git," chin gestured toward the bathroom.  "Go clean up, shower's running.  I'll find you some towels, and we're gonna talk about that guitar key."

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"I ain't looking at you different.  I ain't looking at you at all.  I feel like I don't even know you cuz all this time you hindin'"

 

You would… everyone does!

 

The percussive snap in the middle of the tirade was raw and pained yet confirmed she wasn’t oblivious of him nor his statements but she still plowed on until her unplanned confession drew her up to an abrupt and mortified halt.

 

Out… she needed to be out… to breathe… she couldn’t breathe… suffocated by the tension she had let build to a frenetic strain. She didn’t express emotions… not like this. She bared them on a stage where most people didn’t know how to "read" them.  No… with people she was calm… cool…collected….lethal. Humor had cracked into that arrangement with him, humor and an ease she had with so few. But nothing like this.

 

Hand was grabbed and the affect was instant. The freeze was rigid, deer in headlights. People didn’t touch her, she didn’t touch people, except to take their head off. Grabbed she had no idea what to do. Hitting him wasn’t the correct response but that was the first instinct… it always was as evidenced by the unconscious clench of fist and tightening of every muscle.

 

"You leave still lit ya gonna burn your world down."

 

She honestly didn’t know what to respond. Breath wasn’t moving in her chest as she remained frozen in place.

 

"I didn't ask you to protect what's mine.  That's on you.  The moment you stepped out that window you became my responsibility."

 

It happened so fast, no thought first as he let go and she instantly spun around on him. The snarl could be mistaken for extreme hostility if one didn’t actually listen to what was said. It wasn’t about his "stuff".

 

They came after YOU….. that made it MY responsibility!

 

It was an outright confession blurted out on frayed instincts and again she found herself recoiling from her own actions. What was she DOING? Rapid step back only took her several inches as she pinned her shoulders against the wall. She needed her gym… her guitar… something. She needed an outlet so that her mouth would quit being that outlet. Lips pressed into a tight thin line as she tried to silence anything else that might bleed from them.

 

Order…. based on what he could do that made sense that they had worked to recruit him. Of course she stayed… idiot… who cared what he could do… it mattered what he used it for. Body stiffened again as the key was pressed into her palm

 

"We all gonna die Mason.  My people celebrate life, and we celebrate death.  If you gonna choose to give up the ghost, make sure it's for the right reasons.  Keepin you safe is the right reasons, and I'm at peace with that.  Where do I get off?  I thought you were my friend... but I ain't looking at you different.  I ain't looking at you at all.  I feel like I don't even know you cuz all this time you hindin'  Good and evil, light and dark, strength and weakness... they no such thing.  They a whole.  People that live half their lives because they think they gotta hide, never really live."

 

Brow half scowled at him over the oversized shades. Heart sunk into her stomach as he repeated the words. He didn’t understand. Everyone….her whole life…. looked at her different. She lived with it. Even when they said it made no difference, there were always their actions that said differently.  But she lived with it.  The problem was, there was something agonizing about HIM looking at her different.  She wasn’t sure she could live with that.

 

"Git. Go clean up, shower's running.  I'll find you some towels, and we're gonna talk about that guitar key."

 

She stood rooted to her spot despite the continued drip of crimson beneath her nostrils. Even if she would consider it, he was in the way… not really… but somehow in her mind he was in the way so she stood still.

 

Then the buzz came.

 

Frown tightened as she pushed herself to focus the highly sensitive ears. She pushed past him finally, highly sensitive skin and ears had targeted his position nearly perfectly before she crouched at the leather blazer and  pulled the phone out, not bothering to say hi as she put it to her ear sitting back perched on her raised heels.

 

Of course I am fine.

 

The calm tone had returned even if her stomach didn’t feel it as she listened. A traitor to Bakkhos…. fuck… that was a little too close to home. Also meant the group was a lot more dangerous than some gang working this side of town.  They were going to maintain a perimeter for the night and what about her?....

 

Gonna hang here for now. Make sure he's ok and y'all don’t miss anyone comin' back around for another hit.

 

Faint smile licked her lips at Toni's feigned indignation on the phone.

 

'course… I don’t trust yer screwups to keep a rabid dog at bay let alone a crew.

 

She was quiet a moment more before she gave a "ya" and clicked the phone closed. She stayed crouched on the floor over her things. What now? She wasn’t really sure. Glock and harness were plucked from the floor as was the blazer. Standing she kept her back to him as she drug her lower lip through teeth.  She should say something… shouldn’t she.  Lips parted but closed again. A last hesitation before she vanished through the door and shut it.

 

The fuck just went down??

 

Oversized glasses were tossed into the sink before she pulled the sweater from her torso to fall on the floor with her glock and leather. Lean muscles were pronounced as she had a bad habit of drinking more than she ate lately. Scars littered her form, evidence of all she had said… she fought…. and she survived. Scars she kept buried from the world. The lycan clawmarks were the least of what the form exposed. The grotesque scar that penetrated her lower back and erupted through her abdomen had a strange poetry as the ebony "tattoos" seemed to follow the starburst scars where she had been skewered and yet lived.  Gunshots… knife wounds… her flesh was hardly that of some feminine ingénue.

 

Bloody jeans slid off her hips and hung up at her calves on the scalded boots, toes pressing to heel to pop them off before the long leg slid out to feel for the shower only to find a large tub under the rain.  Careful not to fall, she climbed into the tub and let her ass slap into the porcelain. Long limbs didn't fit stretched so she pulled her knees up close to her chest, face up into the stream to let the heated water wash the crimson from her features before head fell to her knees, fingers rubbing on the key still in her palm. Movement stopped as she simply sat under the shower onslaught. It had been a long time since she had a real hot shower. Her loft too often was spewing only cold… she was used to it, but hot was.... nice.

 

Soft sigh oozed her lips.  What was she doing………..

 

Closed lashes fluttered thick and wet as heat finally began to seep beyond the skin's surface. Joke was on him…. she was never coming out from under the hot water.

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You would… everyone does!

 

Her body was rigid, like a rock.  So opposite to everything he knew.  The only place in the world where he even had a lick of reaction like that had been in training with the Order.  It tried to fundamentally change who he was.  Asking him to leave everything that was in his soul and become this other being, a being that could live a double life and ignore what made him whole.

 

They came after YOU….. that made it MY responsibility!

 

Lips pressed together.  Balance.  The world was about balance, the more aggressive she became, the softer and warmer his response was.

 

“I am my own responsibility, you gonna show up and save my ass from gators on my next trip home too?”

 

He could have stopped that fucking phone, fried the damn thing to a crisp even before it rang.  The whole area was chattering through the airwaves, obviously the block party that Bakkhos had mostly likely circled the place with.  Hands came up slightly to give her a wide berth when she pushed past him.

 

Of course I am fine.

 

Arms crossed as he leaned his back on the wall. Of course he was eavesdropping both sides of the conversation.  He didn’t do it often, but since they actually were shooting bullets at him he thought it was probably his business too…

 

Gonna hang here for now. Make sure he's ok and y'all don’t miss anyone comin' back around for another hit.

 

He watched a moment as she seemed to decide the fate of the world, then disappearing into the bathroom.

 

Alrighty.

 

He was hungry.

 

He had nothing to cook, going out for take-out was definitely not possible, didn’t really know how long she’d be in there.  Shower, check.  Shave, check.  Gunfight, check. Food and a drink were left.

 

Soft footsteps went back to his crash pad bedroom and found his keys and cell, number dialed and balanced between his shoulder and his ear as he found a pair of decent Levis in his bag and pulled them on.  Lower slung than normal, the lean hips needed some good comfort food and booze... exactly what he was ordering.  The same soft padding went down the stairs, brow furrowing as he picked through the splintered shop and into his back room to the loading dock.

 

Hazel eyes peeked out the back door, brow furrowed… well, the keys were useless.  The windshield and passenger side windows of his beat up Jeep were shattered, but the box was still in there.

 

“Please don’t be broken… please don’t be broken,” he reached in and pulled the old apple crate off the floor filled with a collection of unusual things.  It was all intact.  Thank the lord…. a bottle of Bourbon he was gonna keep for himself, a few fun things to play with that he’d found, and in a few moments unless the cavalry intercepted his delivery… the dinner a friend had promised him when he got back.  Probably would call Mason to get it cleared, it would take them a few minutes though unless they were having a slow day.

 

Booze.

 

Padding back in, he set the crate on the counter, really not able to wait. Bottle was cracked open, a long draw followed by air seething inward through his teeth.

 

"Beautiful."

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“I am my own responsibility,…"  ….and I am mine!

 

The percussive words defeated his argument right back at him. He had started this by making her "his responsibility."

 

"…. you gonna show up and save my ass from gators on my next trip home too?”  …yes.

 

The snapped word came abruptly but with a completely naked honesty before the phone buzzed and she pushed past him and eventually into the bathroom.

 

The hot water slowly began to cool and soon she was leaning back in the tub, long limbs tangled up at the drain to stay inside the porcelain. Head back, the migraine finally began to back down.  Nosebleed was finished and the colder the water got the more relaxed she became. People didn’t understand just how sensitive her skin was. As the water began to turn frigid, her lips faintly blue, she relaxed completely into the tub, nerve endings dulling as they numbed in the cold.

 

Ears listened as he moved about, the call was a bit muffled as she was listening more to the water than the call but when he went downstairs and a door opened she half sat up to listen harder. Outside to his vehicle… then back in. Slouching back into the chilly porcelain she sighed quietly to herself.

 

She wasn’t coming out.

 

Breathing slowed and soon there was the faintest drift in and out of consciousness until something itched her mind, closed eyes frowning as she tried to shake it off.

 

Groan was soft and annoyed as her recognized the buzz of her phone. Likely one of the perimeter crew. She could ignore it….she could…..

 

Sigh was soft as she sat up in the frigid rain and pushed a hand on the side of the tub to climb out without falling through numb and relaxed limbs. Crouching she rummaged in the pile of clothes she had discarded on the floor looking for the phone. The buzz had stopped only to start again.

 

They really wanted her….. shit…now what…..

 

Phone was flicked open as she stood, hand resting on the edge of the sink as eyes didn’t bother to open.

 

Ya…………huh?

 

Frown etched her brow as she reached for the door and pulled it open. Dripping naked form stepped into the hallway without hesitation. Visual modesty was just something she didn’t comprehend. People were forms to her. She knew it bothered others but she had never really internalized the need to "cover". She dressed in long sleeves and pants to hide secrets… not her body. The two were different in her mind.

 

Mahogany silk was draping over half over her chest on the left, down to her bare ass in the back as a hand perched on a hip, phone barely pulled from her lips.

 

'ey! Boudreaux!..... ya call for a delivery?

 

The affirmation from below was passed on to the caller, nostrils wrinkling in annoyance as she listened to the response.

 

Whatcha order?

 

Her call down the stairs was met with "food". Not exactly what she meant but she frankly was more annoyed at the caller than the Cajun at the moment so she didn’t get Josef to clarify as she turned to face the wall, long lean muscled leg and hip bared towards the open stairwell as she ran a hand up into wet hair to pull it away from her back exposing for the briefest moment the intricate guitar tattoo that only a couple people even knew she had before it fell down once more dripping over his floors.

 

Food…..…… d'fuck I care Jojo? Just let 'im through…………... ya… and if he is then I will castrate him before I dump 'im outside for you to play with 'k?............... you do….. and I will castrate you first………..

 

Phone snapped shut. She didn’t need Joey coming over to chaperone. One dumbass coming in, even with a weapon, would be easy enough for her to handle if it was a trap. Grumbling about men and their need to show off their balls she turned to head back into the bathroom, not bothering to close the door as she stood there listening to the water. Sigh was soft…defeated. She probably shouldn’t climb back in for the rest of the night. If someone was coming she needed to be prepared in case it really was a trap. 

 

Resigned she stepped to the tub, hand sliding along the rim looking for the faucet to turn off the head above. Flipping it off she sat on the edge of the tub and rested elbows on her knees, fingers rubbing over eyes hard, pushing into the sockets to help chase away the last of the headache that lingered behind them, also helped them to water as they were dry from remaining open too long. She had a habit of not blinking enough when she was playing "sighted".

 

Hand folded behind her shoulder to pull the long mahogany to the side, wrapping it several times around her hand before balling a fist that erupted a thick stream of cold water back into the tub before she unwound her hand and let the damp cascade fall where it wanted behind her shoulders.

 

Dressed.

 

Pushing from the tub she snatched the jeans off the floor and went to run the sink, catching the fabric draped there. His things….tossing them over the back of the toilet she ran the sink having forgotten about the shades lying in the bottom of the bowl. Hands slid to the right pant leg where she had been shot and the scent of her blood still lingered. Wound had been healed but that hadn't done much for the damage to her jeans. Feeling for the hole she felt along the damp blood to judge the perimeter of the stain before shoving it under the running water and scrubbing it in the freezing stream. Wouldn’t get it really out but at least it wouldn’t be seeping on her clean skin and offending her nostrils as badly. The large wet patch of jean was rung out tightly before they snapped and were pulled up over wet legs, hole at the thigh gaping open to show a peekaboo of skin as the rest clung to her. Buttons were pulled together over the cut abdomen.

 

Hand scratched the back of her head pondering the sweatshirt. It was covered in his blood from when he had been shot. Lips puckered as a hand slid over the fabric now on the back of the toilet, pants… didn’t need those… a tee. Pulling the shirt off the commode, she shook it out and ran fingers along the neck for the tag. It was surprisingly soft. Her tees were rare worn out cotton or combed cotton, buttery soft so as not to scratch on her skin, but she found most people never even seemed to be aware tees had different textures and men absolutely had the roughest ones. His though…. fairly gentle on her skin. Back found she stretched it over her head and slid arms through before pulling it down her naked torso. It wasn’t tight but clung to the wet skin like it was,  her cascades dripping and saturating her shoulders and back rapidly.

 

Leather jacket was bloody and cold water was not really a solution for that so instead she just pulled her custom harness from the floor and slid it over her arm and under her chest to buckle closed again, succeeding in making the tee look like a second skin as not much was left to the imagination anymore. Phone was slid into a slightly damp jean pocket as she refused to put the melted and stained boots back on either.

 

Left arm flexed unconsciously as she leaned on the sink bowl again, the textured ebony tattoos that covered the entire limb numbed for the time being.

 

Now what?

 

She was too relaxed to fight with him anymore…. was she fighting with him? The thought tickled up a reminder of how she had felt at the thought that he might have been killed….

 

SHIT…

 

He was under her skin……. Now what?

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What’d he order???

 

Food.  What’d she think got delivered from a take-out place?  Jojo?  Where the fuck did Jojo come from?  That’d better not have been a reference for him…  Brow quirked as he took another drink, he was going to need the entire bottle; the whole damn thing at the sound of the conversation that was still taking place over her phone.  It seemed she was not leaving, even after the verbal tussle.  Face barely peeked around the corner like a cat to purse a frown up the stairs.

 

 “Damn it Mason!”

 

Jesus.  A swift turn from the stairwell to put his back on the wall away from it left a facepalm in the center of his forehead and a string of French curses in his wake. 

 

“Bon dieu…”

 

Thumb and forefinger kneaded between his eyes for a long moment before he oozed a long sigh.  This was just getting worse.  She didn’t want to be here… now she was here, and apparently overly comfortable, on the phone with someone that could walk in at any moment and they were gonna think…   Another drink tipped up a bit longer than it probably should have and the bottle was set on the counter, hands on his hips to survey the vastness of the damage and casting a suspicious side-eye toward the now off limits stairwell. 

 

That was… unexpected, lower lip rolling through his teeth.

 

Focus.  On.  The .  Shop.

 

Things seemed to be waist high or above.

 

Things.  The shop's DAMAGE was waist high or above.

 

Jesus Josef.

 

The COUNTERS were relatively unscathed.  Glass was everywhere.  The front façade of the building was completely open to the cold and the old steam radiator system that made the shop a charming relic of the bygone turn of the century era was running on overdrive.  Boarding up was first priority.

 

Nope.

 

Avoiding naked Mason was first priority.

 

Unlocking the door to the basement, he trotted down and pulled the chain on the lone lightbulb.  He didn’t use the area much.  It was an old dirt floor and generally a cruddy northeast basement, but he had some basic tools and the pull cranks for the old steel shutters he never used.  Here’s to hoping they would actually move, they would shut off the front of the shop from the elements.  Snagging the cranks and the two old locks, he made his way back upstairs, peering out before stepping out into the shop.  Sliding out the window, grunt was soft as he reached up and attached it to the winch.  Side was still sore, almost like his brain still remembered there was an injury but his body was telling him to fuck off.  After a few moments of putting his full weight on it, the shutter to the right of the door was down and locked.  The left side was much easier, and he found himself walking around the long way to let himself in the back door, cranking up the heat to at least get the lower level to an ambient 60’s.

 

At that moment, ol’ Joe’s courier was pulling up, handing him a brown paper bag.

 

“Thanks,” he smiled after them, patting the top of the car twice before they drove off.  Loading door closed behind, he flipped down one of the chairs to his old worktable and dusted it off, grabbing the bottle of bourbon and starting to pull little cartons of things out one at a time.  It was gonna take good food and a lot of elbow grease to erase this, hazel eyes traveling over the broken wood and glass everywhere… and a lot of bourbon to settle his mind about Mason.

 

Should he call her down?

 

Lord help him not yet.  Jaw chewed on a sweet potato fry a moment before he quietly got up to retrieve the apple crate and set it on the floor next to his chair.  Another fry.  First thing was pulled out upside down by the faded wood base, somehow having managed to not only survive... but stay clear all this time.  Hand whirled it gently, holding the snow globe up at eye level to watch the glitter float around the tiny little porcelain St. Louis Basilica inside, other hand helping himself again to another tip of Bourbon.

 

The bottle was half gone.

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Damn it Mason!

 

Form had pivoted back to the stairwell, eyes not bothering to open as the growl came back at him.

 

Wha?!....  Joey pop 'im between the eyes if can't confirm is your guy!

 

She hadn't registered the real reason for the exclamation as she continued with Joey and then vanished back into the bathroom.

 

Hand slid to turn the water on once more, hands pushing under to toss some more frigid waters over her features as the realization the Cajun had wormed his way under her skin flushed her skin. The second time the hands went down they scraped the glasses. She had forgotten about Toni's shades. Fingers plucked them from the sink, shaking them off she noticed one arm was bent, probably from when she had her jeans crammed under the sink to wash out the blood.

 

Fuck….

 

What a peachy day this had turned out to be.

 

Head tilted to the side as she listened to him head down into the basement. She should get herself outside. She could guard just as easily from outside.  Frown snapped as a sound echoed in the bathroom with grotesque demand. Hand pressed to her tight abs to quell the growl. Damnitt… when HAD she last eaten??

 

Fingers played with the warped glasses as the cranking of metal shutters itched at her sensitive ears.  Frown marred the features as she finally gave up straightening the oversized shades, tossing them onto her leather blazer the growl this time came from her chest.

 

What did it matter anymore if he knew. He basically knew….. he did or he wouldn’t have even pulled the "take them off" card. It would all be different now…completely and utterly different….. whether she hid them or not. It was a little death…. It always was.

 

Fuck….. she didn’t need food….. she needed a bottle and her gym.

 

Body shivered and it had nothing to do with the fact that she was still sporting a frigid chill on her skin and was soaked.  Fingers roughly pulled the strap of the harness a notch tighter around her ribcage, letting the bite of its edges remind her she was here to guard and protect… not pine for something that wasn’t hers to have in the first place.

 

Head tilted as the exchange happened below. It was just the delivery guy. Good thing Joey had kept his bullets to himself. Fingers combed through the mahogany slicking it over the top of her head, length continuing to drip down her back and hips.

 

Pussy… go down and face it.

 

Still wet bare feet slapped the floor as she paused at the top step, long unpainted lashes broke open over the haunting colorless eyes. Hesitation lingered before the huff came from her nostrils and she trotted down the steps, fingers lightly skimming the wall. Her gifts were shut down and yet she still maneuvered the world like she "saw" it. Each slap of damp skin on the ground echoed sounds in all directions and the mind that learned to echo-locate at a very early age began to sense the floors, walls, even the larger debris as she turned the corner at the bottom of the steps.

 

Get your food…..?

 

She damn well knew he had but it was all she could think to say as she leaned against the wall near the stairwell, tattoo littered arm folding over the other across her chest as the barely open lashes cast thick shadows beneath, not yet betraying her in the dim light.

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Get your food?

 

"Mhm...."

 

The response was soft, nonchalant as jaw chewed, another fry perched in fingers ready to be chomped.  Eyes were on the glittering snowglobe.  

 

It felt oddly familiar.  Him focused at his work table, her watching nonchalantly from across the room.  He was acutely aware of every detail, down to the t-shirt she'd swiped from him.  Well, maybe acutely with a little fuzz around the edges, and a snowglobe instead of a shotgun.

 

Table littered with small cartons of all amazing smelling things were still unopened as he munched his fries.  The snowglobe was set on the table, another drink of bourbon, another fry, and another reach into the crate.

 

It was tarnished, but obviously some sort of silver cuff bracelet.  The rotting and swamped storefront had been empty of all things, lost to the scavengers, the hurricanes, the floods, buried in the mud.  He'd almost missed them.  Jaw chewed slowly as he looked at it, setting it down on the table with a quiet clink as he fished out another.

 

Leaning back in the chair, he stared at them a moment, reaching forward to rearrange them a few times.

 

Another drink, he finished the carton of fries and reached for the next one.

 

"You gonna eat or not?  Didn't know what you liked so I ordered everything."

 

Jambalaya... fingers poking at the other cartons to find the rice, fishing back into the bag for the silverware.  Plastic, but it wasn't a silver spoon event.  There was a chair still flipped up on the table across from him.

 

Up to her.

 

"Got ya a souvenir."  He picked up one of the cuffs and set it aside from the others.  "Thought they were just scratched up fancy jewelry.  Cleaned one up a bit and realized they're carved maps of the city.  Touristy things... ya know.  Not seen anything like em before."

 

He folded the rice carton out carefully, making a bowl, then finished putting the rest on top of it.

 

"I'll buff 'em up after I get things cleaned up in the shop."

 

It was clear he wasn't moving the shop.  The normally always surly Cajun was a bit quiet as he ate, reaching over to run his thumb along the carved French Quarter.  There was nothing left of it.   A few wrought iron pieces and other debris sticking up out of the muddy water, rebar and chunks of taller structures at the higher points, but that was it.

 

Charms on his wrist twinkled slightly against the bottle as he tipped it up again, and fell into silence.  Too much churning through fuzzy thoughts.  Everything was weird, everything was different... not 'cause of her eyesight- he'd suspected that for a while.  He didn't know what he was feeling... too much to say about the current elephant in the room, so he just dined with his silent ghosts.

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