Jack and I have spent most of the last few weeks job hunting together at the various hospitals and emergency services in the Austin area. If we can manage it, we want to be a team again. Job hunting has got to be the most humiliating and soul crushing thing you can do. Place after place, you put in applications, trying to sell yourself, and nobody’s buying. Jack could have gotten a job half a dozen places, but folks didn’t really want to hire me. I’ve got a history of absenteeism that’s all over my previous work record. I’m still working part time with the Protectors, so anyone with half a brain knows that’s not going to change. Plus, I’m just not that good at selling myself. I’m better at sarcasm than charm.
On top of that, some folks just don’t care to work with supes. With the glove on my hand and constant need for dark glasses, I couldn’t pretend I was a normal human anymore. I never have blended all that well, but at least everyone used to think I was human; socially awkward, scatter-brained and irritating, maybe, but human.
At the end of another day of job hunting failure, with not just one, but two, that’s right, two spectacularly blown job interviews, I dropped Jack off at home and went to train at Protectors headquarters.
After getting my butt well and truly kicked by Bobcat, Liberty had very tactfully suggested that I get some hand-to-hand training. She showed me a few basics herself, but said she was not the best teacher for it. Apparently, when you can toss tanks, you don’t get many opponents who want to slug it out with you toe-to-toe.
So, Liberty told me she was bringing in a real martial arts master. This was someone she said whose skills really impressed her. I was half expecting to meet Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid. I wore my spiffy new super-suit. I could have just showed up to Protectors headquarters in sweats, but the suit made me feel more like a superhero and less like a broke, out-of-work paramedic.
Jupiter Joe arrived about the same time I did and held the door for me like gentlemen used to when I was younger. “Your new outfit suits you, Miss Dee.” His eyes raked over the curves the uniform accented. He gave me an appreciative smile and wink.
Nothing boosts a girl’s ego after a tough day like a friendly, non-creepy ogling. I added a little extra swing to my walk in gratitude. “What brings you to Protectors territory? Isn’t that a bit like crossing the iron curtain?”
Joe chuckled as he took off his black leather hat just inside the door. “I’ve always been a bit of a double agent in that particular cold war, maam. I was a Protector before the Alliance recruited me.”
“What made you decide to cross over to the dark side?” I teased him. “Did N-Rage toss you off a building?”
“Nothing like that. No hard feelings against my old teammates.” Joe got a wistful half smile. “It was the usual enticement. Money.”
Somehow, the southern gentleman in the steampunk sunglasses didn’t strike me as being the type to do his heroing for greed and glory. “I hear the Protectors pay a good salary and generous health and retirement benefits.”
“The government provides a good living, Miss Dee, for one person or a small family. But I’ve got four kids and my youngest is autistic.” Joe shrugged broad shoulders under the long black duster. “My wife has to stay home with my son, so she can’t work. Special tutors and such, they don’t come cheap. There’s no way I was going to send my son off to some special school and only see him on holidays. So I had to make it work.”
“I suppose doing the occasional car parts or luggage commercial is a pretty cheap price to pay to get to keep your son.”
“There is no price too high.” His voice was low and soft. The gentle smile on his face wasn’t there for me.
“He’s a lucky kid.”
He shrugged and winked. “I’m a lucky daddy.”
Liberty came out of one of the offices as we passed. “Joe!” I hadn’t heard her squeal like that before. She flung herself into Jupiter Joe’s arms and squeezed hard enough that ordinary ribs would have snapped like dry twigs.
Joe grinned, lifted the strongest woman in the world off her feet, and swung her around in a circle, his sudden shift in density making his footfalls vibrate the concrete floor like the T-rex in Jurrasic park. “It’s good to see you, Katie.”
Katie? Jupiter Joe calls Liberty Katie?
“I’m glad you took me up on my offer. I wanted the chance to see you under better circumstances.” The light faded from Liberty’s face.
Joe set her back on her feet. “Bad business that highway bomber. You and your boys have got yourself a very nasty opponent, I’d say, Katie girl.”
Liberty (who makes me call her Catherine) nodded. “It looks like a new player from what my techs can deduce. None of our known adversaries were responsible, despite the Free Earth symbols painted everywhere.”
“While I’m in town, I’m at your service.” Joe made a move with his hand like tipping the hat he was no longer wearing, since it’s bad hat etiquette to wear one indoors. Most folks don’t even seem to remember that rule, much less follow it. “Just give me a holler if you need me.”
“Thanks, Joe. We never have enough qualified people, it seems, but with White Knight off on a soul searching sabbatical, we’re even more short-handed than usual.” She smiled at me. “Dee’s unique abilities have been a huge help.”
I looked at my toes, embarrassed. I bit my tongue before I actually said something goofy like, Aw shucks.
“And that’s why I’m here,” Joe said. “When Ashley came back and told the Alliance higher ups that you had a new hero with both healing and combat abilities. They sent me here to steal her away from you.”
Liberty slugged him in the arm, a friendly gesture that would have broken my humerus bone. “Don’t you dare. We need a healer as much as the Triple A does. Especially now.”
“Remedy’s gone independent. He partnered up with Iron Angel and tendered his resignation.”
“Ouch,” Joe said. “That leaves a big hole in your lineup.”
“Yeah. So, you can’t have Dee.”
I was beginning to feel like a bone between two dogs.
Joe held up a hand in mock surrender. “We’ll just have to leave it up to Dee to decide which team she wants to pitch for, won’t we?”
It’s weird having folks talk about you like you’re not there. “I’ve never been much of a team player, honestly. I just want a regular job to pay my bills. Helping people for a living, especially getting rich from it, just doesn’t feel right.”
Liberty and Joe both laughed at me.
“You’re an EMT, I hear,” Joe pointed out. “You don’t call that helping people for a living?”
Er… I guess he had me there. I looked at my wrist, even though I didn’t have a watch. “I think I’m supposed to be somewhere about now. I’ll just go ahead and learn a little kung phooey from the Jedi master Liberty’s been raving about, and catch up with you guys later.”
Joe said, “I’m headed the same way you are. The Triple-A doesn’t really understand how essential good training is. With my power constantly shifting my mass, hand-to-hand fighting is a tricky art to master. Katie said it would be all right for me to use the Protectors’ training facilities while I’m in town, and recommended I spend some time with her new trainer.”
We stepped into the massive Protectors’ gym with thick padded floors and all manner of arcane exercise equipment. I’ve never seen a set of barbells that went up to 5000 pounds. I guess if you needed something heavier, you could bench press pickup trucks.
The only other person in there when we arrived was a familiar short stocky Hispanic woman with an electric blue streak in her short dark hair. Tamara was my favorite firefighter. Just don’t tell Novak. “Hey Tam, did Liberty invite you to come learn from her new fighting guru, too?”
She chuckled. “Not exactly, no.”
“I wonder what he’ll look like. My mind keeps conjuring up images of Mr. Miyagi or Quai Chang Kane, or Yoda. I doubt he’ll be 900 years old and three feet tall, though.”
Tamara laughed again. “Nope. He’s me, actually.”
“My mom’s Israeli. I’ve been studying Krav Maga since I was old enough to walk. I’m pretty good at it.”
Pretty good wasn’t anywhere close to what Liberty said and Liberty wasn’t easily impressed. There was a lot I didn’t know about Tamara. She talked to Jack more than she did me, if I thought about it.
She shook hands with Joe. “I’m Tamara Perez.”
Yes, I have the manners of a slug. I was too blown away by her being there to remember to introduce Tamara to Jupiter Joe. Ma would have been mortified.
“They call me Jupiter Joe, Miss Perez. Pleasure to meet you, maam.”
“Tamara is fine, Joe. I understand you have some issues with balance?”
“Well, if you mean that I fall on my keister a lot while trying to fight and shift my density at the same time, then, yes, maam. I have some issues.”
“Show me. Come at me as if I were a supervillain and you were trying to restrain me.”
I got really nervous. I’d seen Joe move a freeway. One normal 5’5” woman wasn’t even going to slow him down. “Um, Tamara, you do know that Joe’s a supe, right?”
Tamara grinned. “The goggles and the duster were a clue.”
Tamara ignored me and gestured Joe forward, crooking her hands at him like Neo in the Matrix.
Joe charged, feet sinking to the concrete under the floor pads with every step, so I knew he had the density cranked up.
Tamara stepped in and under Joe’s arm which currently had the mass of a telephone pole, brought her own slender ordinary human arm upward, a slight pressure on Joe’s shoulder that shouldn’t have had any effect. Sure enough, Joe’s keister met the floor with a thud that rattled the mirrors hanging on one wall.
Tamara nodded. “I see your problem. I think we can work on some ways to help you adapt to your constantly shifting center of balance.”
“That would be greatly appreciated, maam. When that sort of thing happens in a real battle, I could end up with a lot worse than a bruised … ego.” He grinned and rubbed the sore spot.
“All right, let’s see where you are, Dee. I’m a bad guy. Take me down.”
“Uh…” I couldn’t hit Tamara. I liked Tamara. One thing I really liked about Tamara was having all of her body parts still attached to her body. My punches could go through two layers of sheet steel on a car. What the same punch could do to a normal human body would be … messy.
“It’s all right, Dee. Just take a non-lethal swing or two. Think of me as one of the bank robbers you subdued.”
“Okay. Um. I’m really sorry about this.” Then I threw a punch at my friend, a gentle, carefully calculated punch, which swished through air, and somehow resulted in me lying on my face with my right arm bent at a painful angle, completely unable to move.
Tamara, the tiny normal human, let me, the badass dragon superhero, up off the floor after a few seconds. I wasn’t sure my ego could survive many more blows like that in one day. “Throw something with a little more authority this time,” Tamara said. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be all right.”
I tried to hit her with a solid, go through steel kind of punch, but open-handed to dissipate the power of it, just in case it actually landed. At this point, I didn’t really expect it to.
Tamara’s small wrist impacted the inner surface of my wrist obliquely, dissipating all the power of my strike, and getting her in under my guard. She punched me in the gut while she was in tight and close. I whoofed out air and stared in amazement. Armored abs or not, I felt that tiny woman’s punch more than I’d felt a shotgun blast or big, musclebound Scythe kicking me in the belly with his combat boot. “Wow. Remind me not to piss you off.”
Tamara grinned but it looked pained. “Your problem is you have lots of strength, but no clue how to focus it. I shouldn’t be able to block you. Your punches don’t have half the power they will have once you improve your technique.”
I rubbed my sore belly, confused. “Do you have super-strength?”
Tamara shook her head. “Nope. I’m just really good at making the most of what I have. ” She cradled her hand. Her knuckles were bleeding and her hand was swelling noticeably. She probably fractured something with swelling that rapid. “My reflexes sometimes get me in trouble, though. I forgot how well you were armored.”
I cringed. “I’m sorry, Tam.”
“My own fault. I should have put on gloves before I took a swing at you. I’ll have to go get this looked at, though. The rest of the lesson will have to wait. I’ve gained a good understanding of what you both need help with the most, at least.”
She’d be in a cast for weeks, and it was my fault, no matter what she said about it. “Come talk to me in the bathroom for a sec, Tam.”
I knew Protectors headquarters was covered with security cameras. I hoped that at least the bathroom stalls weren’t being watched. That would be kind of nasty.
I pulled Tam into one of the bathroom stalls with me and shut the door.
She had a bemused look on her face. “You going to kiss it and make it better, Dee?” she teased.
“Something like that, yeah.” I leaned down to her injured wrist, popped out fangs, and bit.
She hissed a breath in through her teeth in surprised pain, then sighed it out. “Oh. That’s … nice.”
She licked her lips, eyes half closed. “Much.” She looked down at her hand. The bloody knuckles were healed smooth. The swelling went down quickly. Tamara wiggled her fingers experimentally.
“You probably broke something,” I told her. “Even with the venom, it will be a week or so before the bones fully heal.”
“Right, so no hitting armored dragons without gloves for a while?”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I don’t recommend it.”
She stood there looking at me funny. I felt really awkward, squished into a bathroom stall with someone else. This was usually not a place for company. “We’d better get back. Jupiter Joe might think we fell in.”
“Or that we’re making out,” she said with a wink as she opened the stall door and made her escape.
I stood there for a second, confused. Why would he think that?
We went ahead with the lesson. Tamara favored her left hand a little, but it didn’t stop her from using my own momentum against me a few times, resulting in my face and the wall getting very closely acquainted. Then she showed me how to do the same thing to an opponent stronger than me, using Jupiter Joe as the demo dummy. His turn to kiss concrete.
By the end of the class, I was regretting healing her hand so she could continue the lesson. I’ve felt less beat up after fights with supervillains.
Joe groaned right next to me. “I may be getting too old for this sort of thing.”
After all three of us made use of the showers, I asked Tam if she’d like to go grab a bite. My stomach was rumbling loud enough to vibrate the building like Jupiter Joe’s footsteps.
She looked uncomfortable. “I’d love to, Dee, but I have plans.”
“You got a hot date?” I asked. Tamara was such a cool person. It would be great to see her find someone nice.
She looked uncomfortable. I think she actually blushed a little. Yup, hot date. “I promised to take Jack to that vegetarian Indian buffet place, Madras. He’s been listening to me rave about it long enough, I wanted to ... you know.” Wait a second, she had a date with Jack? I wanted Tamara to find someone, but not MY someone. “You’re welcome to come with, of course.” It sounded like what it was, a lame attempt to not make me feel left out.
Dragons are pure carnivores. Sure, I could go … as a third wheel on a date I hadn’t been invited to, to a restaurant with an entire buffet full of wide varieties of colorful, wonderful smelling food that I couldn’t eat without getting sick, and couldn’t afford to pay for. Or not. “That’s okay. Um.” He’s mine, I wanted to say, but it made me feel like a caveman just thinking it. “Give Jack a hug for me,” was the politest way I could think of to remind her Jack was mine.
“Will do.” She waved cheerfully as she left.
Jupiter Joe offered me his arm. “May I offer to buy you dinner, maam. Living in Chicago has made me miss decent barbecue something fierce. Do you like the Iron Works?”
I almost drooled on his jacket. Iron Works Barbecue had arguably the best beef ribs in town. In this town, that could be a very heated argument, but it was hands down my favorite. I hadn’t been able to afford to eat there in ages.
“I’m buying, of course,” Joe said as I hesitated. “I can charge it back to the Alliance as a business expense, wining and dining a prospective team member.”
“I definitely approve of your recruiting tactics. Good barbecue is a bribe that’s hard to ignore.”
Joe’s flattery and Iron Works’ amazing barbecue were just the balm my battered self-image needed.