“White Knight got out of the hospital a few days ago,” Liberty said over wings at Fridays.
I still wasn’t entirely sure why Liberty, the second in command of the US government’s elite supergroup, the Protectors, had any real interest in having lunch with me. I just called her on a lark, thinking she probably hadn’t really meant that offer to “hang out” together, but there she was, chit chatting with me about superhero stuff like we were colleagues.
That is, she was chit chatting with me in between the occasional autograph request. She graciously signed whatever young fanboys and fangirls offered her and said the same thing each time, “Just donate a few dollars to charity and you do your part to make this a better country for everyone. That makes you an American hero in my book.”
Chatting over lunch with Liberty made me feel a bit well… important, like I wasn’t just a kid hitting a ball around the local diamond. Liberty seemed to think I belonged in the big leagues.
“Knight says you saved his life,” Liberty looked up from her fried green beans long enough to see my reaction.
I shrugged and snorted. “Again. It’s becoming a bad habit. I can’t get rid of that guy.”
Liberty smiled. “I know you two don’t see eye to eye on some things, but we do appreciate having him back in full working order.”
“Mmm,” I grunted something and ate a wing. What do you say when someone thanks you for saving their friend’s life? Your welcome? And what if you considered letting the arrogant bigoted snot die? I paid a whole lot of attention to my food for a while.
“That ability, to bring someone from the edge of death to full unimpaired health in a few days, or even hours,” she shook her head in awe. “I wish I could trade places with you.”
“You’re pulling my leg, right?” Liberty could toss tanks around, and survive having one fired at her without mussing her long golden hair.
She put a hand on mine for a moment. “I would trade every power I have to be able to heal like that. It’s such an amazing gift. I’ve worked with Remedy before, and watching him always filled me with awe, and a fair amount of envy if I’m honest.” She fiddled with her napkin for a moment, then folded it neatly. “I just don’t understand why you hide it.”
“I’ve got really good reasons.” She looked attentive, waiting for me to continue. “I just can’t talk about them.”
Liberty chuckled. “Why does that not really surprise me?”
I grinned back at her. “Because I’ve been a stubborn, contrary, secretive pain in the backside since you met me?”
She waved that off. “Stubborn and secretive describes nearly every superhero I’ve ever known, Dee. It’s practically a job requirement.” She grinned at me. “Contrary and a pain in the backside just makes you a bit less boring and stuffy than most.”
I chuckled. “Funny, I was thinking the same thing about you.”
“I am only a contrary pain in the backside when I haven’t had my morning coffee.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. “N-Rage thought he was going to be funny one morning when we’d been fighting Lord Vile’s people until 3 AM and had to show up at an 8 AM debriefing. He got between me and the coffee pot and refused to let me by.” She leaned over the table and whispered. “Don’t tell anyone, but I shoved him through a wall.” She covered her mouth and blushed, mortified by her own pre-coffee temper.
I laughed as much at the look on her face as at the story.
“It was only an interior drywall wall,” she added. “But still.”
“Note to self: Only hassle Liberty after she’s had caffeine.”
“Thanks for the warning,” she said. “Good to know you’re planning on hassling me.”
“Hey, somebody’s got to.”
We were both laughing when we heard the most hideous screeching sound and all the windows shattered in the restaurant.
She and I jumped up in tandem and ran for the door to see what was happening and if we could help. On the way out, I saw that several folks had cuts from the glass, but I figured it was higher priority to keep more people from getting hurt than to tend the ones already injured just now.
I went out to see what sort of super-villain got his jollies shattering glass.
I saw, standing in the street, an adorably familiar sight. Anyone who watches television knows The Amazing Ashley, with, of course, her equally adorable black and brown Pomeranian, Peanut the WonderDog. Those two had been hawking hair products and acne cream on TV for the last 10 years, which meant, of course, that Ashley was no more the 14-year-old that she appeared to be than I was 20.
“Oh, hi Liberty!” Ashley squealed in delight and waved.
“Oh crud, it’s Nermal,” Liberty mumbled under her breath while waving back with a fake smile.
I’d never heard her curse before, not even as mild a curse as that. Nermal?
Amazing Ashley pointed up and over our shoulders at the building behind us. “Look out!”
It wasn’t enough warning, though. A heavy body hit us both in the back and I fell hard with something heavy on me. I twisted as I fell so I landed on my back, not my face. Liberty stayed standing, but staggered a bit since she was caught off guard.
Something huge and furry that could only loosely be called a man bounced onto my chest before I could get up and raked four-inch long claws across my body like he wanted to play tic tac toe. He caught one small unprotected section of my torso, just over my right hip, but the rest of the cuts just scraped across my scales and left big slashes in my outfit.
The guy growled in frustration and went for liberty instead. He got her by the slender white throat. I leapt up and grabbed him by the scruff of his furry neck just behind is giant pointy ears and yanked him off my friend.
Probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done. His huge claws raked both sides of her throat as I pulled him away from her.
I was horrified. Her throat should have been torn open to the spine, but it looked as unmarked and perfect as ever. It’s easy to forget, since she seems so pretty and slender that Liberty can bounce mortar shells off her chest.
The hideous shrieking sound that had shattered the restaurant windows blasted the street again. This time, instead of being off to one side of it, and insulated by walls, I was at ground zero. My enhanced dragon hearing made that screech into a fiery knife blade searing right through my skull.
Amazing Ashley had her mouth open and her hands cupped around it to amplify sound, making me perfectly aware of where that Hellish screech came from.
The big furry guy leapt screaming in agony out of my slack arms and onto the restaurant roof with blood running from his pointy ears. He bounded away in huge leaps.
Something inside my head popped, hot liquid ran down my neck on both sides, and the sunshine disappeared
I woke up to the odd sensation of being licked in the face by a tiny tongue. I considered just ignoring it and going back to sleep. My head had a giant church bell ringing in it incessantly and little guys with sledgehammers keeping it going.
Then the tiny tongue went right up my nose and slurped the inside of my nostril. “Bleah!” I said and shoved the little dog away gently.
Peanut the WonderDog gave me an adorable doggy grin, waved his little pom pom tail happily, and I couldn’t resist the urge to pet the little pest. He licked my nose again as I scritched his little ears.
I was in the restaurant on the floor. The place was a wreck. Somewhere beyond the din of constantly ringing bells, I could hear faint voices.
“I was transporting Bobcat to the Protectors’ secure facility and he got loose. He kept scratching the titanium cuffs with those claws and it was driving me crazy. I thought he couldn’t get out of the cage anyway, so it wouldn’t matter if I took them off.”
“I see.” I could practically hear the tight-lipped disapproval even over the din in my head. “And what excuse do you have for using a powerful sonic attack, with another hero and a dozen bystanders in the blast path?”
“I didn’t know your friend had superhearing?” Ashley said uncertainly.
“You could have killed her, a fellow hero! Worse, you could have killed an innocent!”
“I was just trying to help.” I moved my pounding head enough to see the Amazing Ashley pout a lip out adorably and look up through her lashes at a seriously pissed off Liberty.
We were back in the restaurant and I could vaguely hear fire truck sirens. If Jack and I were on duty, you’d hear the ambulance sirens first, I thought vaguely, because I wasn’t the only one who looked in need of an ambulance. The bleeding from the cut in my side had soaked my jeans, but my natural healing had slowed it to a stop. Several folks around me had pretty bad cuts from the shattered window glass and it looked like a part of the restaurant roof had fallen in on some of them, probably when the big cat guy got away.
“Well,” Liberty said, and this time I could see her lips tighten into a thin line. “Thanks to your help, a vicious killer is loose in my city, several innocents are injured, and the only hero with healing power in a thousand mile radius may be permanently deaf.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.” Ashley started crying, not bawling and snotty and red faced like me when I cry, oh no. The Amazing Ashley even cried cutely, with little tears rolling down her perfect cheeks, and tiny heartbreaking sniffles.
I wanted to cuddle her and tell her it would be okay. “Not deaf. Healing power works on me, too. It’ll be a few hours probably before the guys with the sledgehammers stop pounding on the inside of my head, but I’ll be okay eventually.”
Liberty wasn’t mollified. “Only Dee’s special ability saved her. If she was a normal, or any hero with enhanced hearing and no healing power, your carelessness would have permanently put her out of action.”
Ashley mumbled, “I said I was sorry already.”
“Lay off her, Liberty. The kid did her best.” How could she keep berating someone so sweet.
The Amazing Ashley rewarded me with a watery smile that made me want to go, “Awwwwe.”
Liberty rolled her eyes at me and mumbled under her breath. “Nermal gets another one.” Like explaining to a brain damaged child, she looked at me and spoke slowly. “She’s 28 years old. She has Protector’s training, and more than ten years of field experience. This was a rookie mistake.” She waved a hand to indicate the destruction all around us.
“I trained you better than that, Ash,” she said, rebuking the girl again like a big mean bully.
I was about ready to ignore the pain in my head and side, get up, get between Liberty and the kid, and tell Liberty to back off.
Before I could do that, one of the normals caught in the destruction of the restaurant that Ashley caused, with blood running down the side of his face, did it for me. Some random business guy in his filthy, ruined button down shirt, got in the face of one of the most powerful superheroes on the planet, and told her to stop picking on Ashley.
Something about that seemed pretty strange.
Peanut the Wonderdog shoved a cloth restaurant napkin into my hand. Automatically, I ruffled his ears and started tugging on it. He wagged his poofy tail and growled at me in mock battle, a tiny rattling sound that was no doubt supposed to be intimidating, but just made me want to snuggle the little fluffball.
I had the oddest feeling something wasn’t right. I looked around the room. While Liberty and Ashley argued, and random civilians leapt to Ashley’s defense there were people around me bleeding.
Shouldn’t I be helping them? I mean, that’s what I do.
But the little dog wagged and tugged and I tugged back for a while. He was just so adorable, I wanted to do anything to make him happy.
The lady next to me had a cut on her hand that had nicked a small artery. I could see the blood pulsing out while she sat and watched it with dull eyes.
And that’s when it hit me.
Ashley and Peanut were famous for their sonic scream and sonic bark powers, identical abilities. It had something to do with their origin, but I didn’t know the full story. What I did suddenly know without a doubt, was that they both had another superpower, one that was far more subtle. They had, for lack of a better term, the Cute power.
I looked around at the bleeding people, the destroyed business, and became aware again of my own pounding, ringing head and slashed side. That silly little twit was responsible for all of this. Why the heck did I defend her?
And why was I playing with a dog when people were bleeding?!
I yanked the napkin from the little dog’s teeth, causing a small yelp of surprise, which earned me a bunch of dirty looks.
I ignored the dog and the dirty looks and used the napkin and a table cloth to bandage the arterial cut on the lady beside me. She was already white around the lips. “Ashley. Stop pouting and get these people something sweet to drink, sweet tea or juice, starting with this lady.”
Ashley’s eyes widened so much she looked like an anime character. “What do I look like, a waitress?”
“Sweettalk someone else into doing it then. I don’t care. Just move it. These people are hurt because of you. You can do what it takes to help them.”
She gave a long suffering sigh. “Fine.”
I looked around for more cloth to use for bandages and Liberty handed me another tablecloth.
“Why didn’t you already do this?” I asked her.
“I never learned more than the most basic first aid. I’m afraid to bandage people for fear I’ll misjudge my strength and put it on too tight.”
I guess having enough strength to lift tanks could have a serious downside when dealing with fragile human flesh.
I watched the waitstaff, many of them injured themselves scramble to do as Ashley asked, pausing to pet the Wonderdog periodically. Her power was so obvious now. I couldn’t believe I’d fallen for it.
Liberty followed the direction of my gaze, and noted the sour look on my face. “You’re not under Nermal’s spell anymore.”
“She and the dog have the same powers?”
Liberty nodded. “They’re linked in some way. I’m surprised you broke free. People only get loose if one of them forces the person to do something completely counter to their most fundamental principles.” Her cover girl face added a wrinkle between her brows. “How did you get free?”
I thought about it. “The dog kept me from helping people who were bleeding.”
As much disapproval as Liberty had heaped on Ms Cuteness, her smile and gentle squeeze on my shoulder heaped the exact opposite on me. “That’s why I want you on my team,” she said.
She looked back at the Amazing Ashley as she fluttered her eyelashes at some waiter and he handed a drink to her, instead of to an injured kid.
Liberty’s lips tightened again. “And that’s why I vetoed her becoming a Protector, over the loud objections of all the other senior members. Thank goodness it’s written into our original writ of purpose, every senior Protector has the right to veto anyone they don’t feel is Protectors material, without explanation or excuse.”
That explained how Ashley ended up as an All American Alliance hero, despite being trained by Liberty herself.
Ambulances and fire trucks started arriving and EMTs started doing their jobs with sterile bandages and proper equipment, letting me and my collection of tablecloths and napkins off the hook.
“Look, Liberty, I appreciate the vote of confidence, but there wouldn’t be much point in me trying out for the Protectors in any case. White Knight is a senior Protector, isn’t he?”
“Yes. He’s older than he looks. He was one of the founders, along with the Devastator, Black Avenger and the original Liberty, one of my predecessors.”
“If I tried out, he’d just veto me, then.”
Liberty looked at me for a long moment. “Dee, no one becomes a Protector unless an existing Protector vouches for their character and ability. White Knight is the one who sponsored you.”
Well, isn’t that a kick in the pants.