I'm just as fucked up as they say, I can't fake the daytime
I found an entrance to escape into the dark
Got false lights for the sun, It's an Artificial Nocturne
It's an outsider's escape for a broken heart
-Metric Artificial Nocturne
"Gimme some good news, Jules." Mike growled as Mutt zig-zagged across the abandoned streets of Motorcity, trying to avoid the mass of Shock-Bots behind him.
Julie's answer was instant and succinct. "We're not dead yet."
"Not helpful." Mike muttered back as the final member of their trio hollered in the background.
"Remind me again why we keep him around?" Julie inquired, her question punctuated by the sound of 9 Lives' weapons fire.
A wave of Shock-Bots exploded over head, Texas delivering a bad one-liner as a victory cheer. "Ooh, yeah." Julie smirked. Texas was kind of a weird guy, but he was a good fighter and loved to take down KaneCo's bots.
"Keep it coming guys." Mike grinned, closer to a baring of teeth. They were Eastside, south of familiar territory, and being followed by a cloud of Shock-Bots all aiming at their destruction. And from the graffiti of large pointy teeth and ravenous wolves surrounding them, he doubted that the natives were entirely friendly either.
After their last encounter with the Terras and the Duke of Detroit, Mike was in no hurry to get into another dispute with the locals.
What he wouldn't give for a way to get more information. Julie was an excellent spy, but there was a limit to how much information she could get without blowing her cover. And with just Texas and himself maintaining their rides at Jacob's, there just wasn't enough time to acquire some.
Unfortunately, while everyone hated Kane, there weren't many people who were actually willing to stand up against him.
Julie let out a distinctly un-lady like curse. "We've got company." She informed them, 9 Lives swinging back behind Mutt. Mike glanced to the side and spotted a huge H.O.U.N.D. pacing Mutt, freaking mouth open and showing a mean pair of jaws.
There were more H.O.U.N.D.s on the tops of the buildings, blasters open and firing up at the Shock-Bots, the giant robot canines apparently ignoring them. Mike swerved to avoid being landed on by several Shock-Bot remains. "Dude." Texas' unbelieving voice exclaimed. "One of those dog thingies just ate a Shock-Bot. Can I do that?"
"Not right now, Tex." Mike said, scanning the area. It seemed like they were being herded by the H.O.U.N.D.s, the huge metal canines weren't actively attacking the Burners, their blue eyes glowing in the low light, but they were sticking close. One pulled up ahead of him motioning with its huge head to move to the right, then led them in that direction. Mike followed, matching the H.O.U.N.D.’s slowing pace, Julie and Texas following him. "Ease up guys, think our escorts are bringing us to a stop."
"Ambush?" Julie inquired.
"Possibly. Eyes and Ears open."
Texas whined. "Can't we just smash them?"
"Considering what they just did to those Shock-Bots?" Julie snorted. "No, thanks."
"Hey," Mike smiled. "Maybe we'll get a friend out of this."
That was met with snorts of scepticism that only made him smile larger. He couldn't help but to hope. It was really about the only thing he had left some days.
They were escorted to a large warehouse, the metal door rattling shut behind them, sealing them in the fortunately illuminated empty room. The H.O.U.N.D.s backed off, circling around the edges of the warehouse, sitting or sniffing at each other as their tails wagged slowly, much like large dogs from the holovids. Their single blue eyes never stopped watching them however.
Mike turned Mutt off, stepping out of the car. "Hello?" He called.
Julie and Texas followed, Julie leaning against 9 Lives, crossing her arms as she stared at the H.O.U.N.D.s suspiciously. "Thought all of Kane's bots had red eyes." She commented softly. "And these guys have tails. Have you ever seen H.O.U.N.D.s with tails?"
"Not to my knowledge." Mike quietly agreed. Hopefully this meant they weren't dealing with Kane.
Texas wandered towards them, spinning slowly as he took in their guards. "Whatcha thinking?" Texas asked in his version of a whisper, which meant that it echoed. "Ninjas? Werewolves? Werewolf Ninjas?"
"I-" Mike was saved from answering the building jolted, leaving a ringing feeling in his ears. He would have thought was an explosion, but there was no accompanying burst of light, no flash of heat. "What was that?"
"On it." Julie sat back down in 9 Lives, bringing up her scanners. "I'm... Not sure. Think it might have been some sort of Electrical Magnetic Pulse, looks like the Shock-Bots are dropping like flies out there. But I thought the Shock-Bots were shielded from that sort of thing."
"They are." Mike frowned. Or at least they were when he was still working for Kane.
"Guess we're shielded too." Texas nodded, motioning to the H.O.U.N.D.s, who were all turning to look towards one of the far walls, tails wagging furiously. Mike held up a hand as a door opened on that wall, a cloaked hooded figure carrying a staff stepping out. Several of the H.O.U.N.D.s, each easily half the size of Mutt, jumped to greet the person, tongues lolling out as they wrestled to press close to whom Mike assumed was their owner.
"Yes, yes, good job." A higher pitched tenor than Mike was expected greeted the H.O.U.N.D.s, the large pale hand not holding the staff patting the killing machines, scratching the tops of their heads, under their jaws. "You're all brilliant. Now, shoo. Shoo. Daddy's trying to walk here and you're not helping."
They really weren't, blocking the figure's path with their squirming until the old battle scarred one next to the person growled, the rest of the H.O.U.N.D.s obediently opening a path for the man to walk, although their tails never stopped wagging.
Texas leaned closer. "That's kind of creepy." He informed them.
Mike shrugged back. It was the kind of creepy that had just saved their bacon. Hopefully. He stepped forward. "Hi, I'm-"
"-Mike Chilton of the Burners." The hooded guy waved it off, resting the hand not holding the staff on the battle scarred H.O.U.N.D.'s shoulder as he walked, the rest of the H.O.U.N.D.s trailing. "Julie and Texas as well, I presume."
They traded looks. While most people knew of the Burners or Mike's name, Julie and Texas' weren't quite as well known.
"Relax. A mutual friend informed me." Mike thought he could see part of a smile flash under the dark green hood that obscured the man's features. "As long as you don't attempt to attack, my pack's mostly friendly."
"Um... yeah." Mike watched out of the corner of one eye as a H.O.U.N.D. yawned, tongue waving. Mostly friendly. "We're cool. Tex? You got that?"
"But-" Texas eyed the H.O.U.N.D.s with a hang-dog expression. "I'd love to try some of my Kung-Fu action-"
Julie caught his arm as he started swinging. "Not here." She hissed, eyeing several of the closer H.O.U.N.D.s, who had perked up and were eyeing Tex with interest.
The H.O.U.N.D.s owner snorted, although not without some amusement, and Mike decided he liked the guy. At least for now. "Just give it a few more minutes for the last of the effects to fade and my pack'll clear the roads so you can leave." The hooded guy said dismissively. "I'm sure you want to leave as much as I want you out of my territory."
"Your territory?" Mike questioned. "Marked by where the teeth and wolves are painted, then?"
"Got it in one." And this time he could see the flash of teeth in the light. From this close, Mike could see that the guy was taller than he was, although the bulky cloak obscured the shape of his body. "It's a warning that not everyone pays attention to."
"Uh... yeah. Sorry about that." Mike shrugged, catching the mild chastisement. "No harm meant. We got a bit lost, and then the Bots, and..."
"Right." With a flick of a hand, a glowing blue screen was brought up next to the guy, fingers tapping a few keys before it disappeared again. Mike's communicator beeped with a new message from an unknown person. He brought it up, finding a map with highlighted directions on how to get back to Jacob's Supermarket on it. Mike quickly forwarded it to Julie. Texas generally didn't care about directions, but Julie liked to know where she was going.
"Thanks!" Mike grinned. "And thanks for the assist back there."
"Don't mention it." The guy held up a hand. “Seriously. Don't. And don't bring your battles back here for me and my Dogs to defeat either. I can just as easily leave you out there if you try."
He traded a look with Julie, who had one eyebrow cocked. It was a good point; the EM Pulse could have just as easily taken out their cars as well as the Bots, leaving them at the mercy of the H.O.U.N.D.s. Instead, he'd escorted them into a shielded area before firing the pulse.
"The way you took down those Shock-Bots, it seems to me like you don't have any love for KaneCo." Julie stepped forward. "And if you know about us, then you know we don't either. And we could really use some help. Would it be possible for-"
"Look, I'm not interested, okay?!" The guy's voice cracked as the arm holding the staff swung wide, cloak flaring out and revealing a figure that was skinny, even for Motorcity standards. "All I want is to be left alone. No KaneCo, no one laughing at me, no crazy people in flashy cars, just me and the Dogs, alright?"
For a brief second, Mike could have sworn he saw a flash of blue from under the deep hood, like the eyes of the H.O.U.N.D.s that were staring them, their tails no longer wagging as they made a protective circle around their human.
Mike held up his hands, leaning back slightly to show he was harmless, but holding his ground. "Soo, we'll call you?" He drawled brightly with a hopeful grin.
Next to him, Julie's palm hit her forehead with a meaty sounding thwack. Thankfully, it made the guy snort, closer to an aborted chuckle. Several of the H.O.U.N.D.s glanced between him and the Burners, one or two wagging their tails slightly in a confused manner.
The guy motioned towards the door with the staff, fingertips lighting up in pale blue as he made some sort of arcane looking gesture. The metal door that had been sealing them in rumbled to life, slowly creeping upwards, and revealing the way to freedom. "Should be safe enough for you to leave now." The hooded guy said, more of a command than a suggestion. He turned around, the old H.O.U.N.D. circling around him, momentarily obscuring the man from view as they made their way to the door he'd first appeared from. "Safe travels."
"Don't let the door bite you on the ass." Texas muttered sulkily, making his way back to Stronghorn. "We don't even get to play with the doggies!"
"Prolly safer." Julie waved it off, patting Mike's arm as she moved back to 9 Lives. "Coming, Mike?"
"Yeah." Mike stared after the guy before backing towards Mutt. At least it was a peaceful ending for once. But still, it kind of rankled that they had been saved and the guy was just leaving. "Hey! I owe you one! You need anything, just ask!"
The guy held the staff up in acknowledgement. "Just tell Jacob he owes me a batch of mayonnaise okra muffins." The guy called back, not pausing. "They're disgusting as hell, but addictive." Was the smaller grumble.
"Got it." Mike grinned, spirits rising as he climbed into Mutt and started her up. So the mystery guy knew Jacob. And not only knew Jacob, but ate some of Jacob's experimental baking, which the old guy usually didn't sell, but tried it out on people he knew. That meant that Jacob knew him, at least to a certain degree. Hopefully enough for a name and some information.
Such as how he had a huge pack of KaneCo H.O.U.N.D.s at his beck and call.
Mike rolled down the window, sticking his head out. "So we'll call you?" He shouted, loud enough to be heard over their cars engines. The guy faltered, then disappeared, the H.O.U.N.D.s following after.
Mike grinned and cruised out of the warehouse, back onto the streets. The H.O.U.N.D.s were grabbing the Shock-Bots in their massive jaws and hauling them to the sides of the road, leaving it clear for them to drive through - as long as they were paying attention. He pulled up the map they'd been given and started navigating their way home.
Julie's avatar popped up on the dash. "Are you trying to ask him out?" She asked, although there was some amusement in with the irritation.
Mike hesitated for a second, rolling her question around in his head before answering. "Maybe?" He shrugged, turning on to a wider road and picking up speed. There were Shock-Bot remains everywhere. Their mystery guy hadn't just gotten rid of the Bots, he'd annihilated them. "Dunno. But I've got a good feeling about this guy."
It was similar to the feeling he'd gotten when he first met Julie and Tex, and to some extent, Jacob. Of knowing that they belonged somehow. That they were going to be a big part of his life. Family. Pack, something.
Tex's avatar appeared next to Julie's. "Wait, so does this mean Mike has a boyfriend?" He demanded. "Cause that's totally not cool."
"Oh?" One of Mike's eyebrows rose, wondering if this was going to be a problem. It wasn't like he was even really seriously considering what Julie was saying, but still...
"Yeah." Texas fervently declared. "Cause no one gets to date before Texas does."
There was the meaty thwack of Julie's palm hitting her forehead over the comm line.
"And if either of you two girls DO start dating, I get to give your dates the 'Punch Sticks' lecture." Texas continued. "I've got two Punch Sticks-"
"You mean 'arms'?" Julie muttered with a long suffering sigh.
"-And if your dates even attempt to do ANYTHING improper, Daddy Texas is gonna shove his shiny size 10 boots Right Up Their BUTT!"
"Uh, right." Mike nodded, trying not to laugh. "Thanks for that, Tex." That was definitely one thing about Texas, there was no missing that he did care.
"Anytime." Texas' avatar grinned broadly at them.
"He likes my Okra Mayo Muffins you said?" Jacob said, stroking his whiskers. Their mystery guy's directions had been spot on, taking them through side streets Mike hadn't even known were there. "There's only one guy I know who can handle those. Goes by the name of 'Hound'."
"'Hound'." Mike echoed, rolling the word around in his mouth. Like the large H.O.U.N.D.s that he kept company with.
"Sounds like a lame fake name." Texas mused. "Not nearly as cool as 'Texas'."
Jacob shrugged. "Don't know too much about him really. Bit of a loner, usually shows up when there's no other customers around. Barters news and occasionally car parts for food. I don't even know how old the guy is, much less what he really looks like. He's always got a hood on hiding his face."
"Wait, like a long green cloak?" A boy poking through the produce piped up. "Carries a staff?"
Mike turned to look at the kid, who seemed to have an odd medieval hood over his shoulders and a fake axe tucked into his belt. "Yeah. He helped us out of a jam earlier today."
"Yeah, that's definitely him." The boy beamed at them. "Lord Vanquisher the All-Seeing."
"'Lord Vanquisher'?" Mike found himself repeating along with Julie and Jacob.
"Now that's a much cooler name." Texas nodded, looking pleased.
"He's the most Powerful Mage EVER! You can't cheat in front of him or anything, he sees EVERYTHING that happens in the South-East side! And he's the Guardian of the Dungeon of Anguish!" The boy bounced excitedly. "After he and his wolves defeated the Dragon there, freed enslaved Gnomes, and rescued me and Phillip!"
"Gnomes?" Mike's eyebrow rose. Dragon?
"That's what we call them." The boy shrugged. "We don't see them nearly as much as the wolves, but they help Lord Vanquisher keep the peace. As long as we don't make ourselves too big of a nuisance, he lets us play in his territory. He even oversees the tournaments for the Crown of Raymanthia, makes sure the battles are just. Even the stupid Bardonians are following the rules now that we have someone neutral acting as a referee."
"Wait a minute, what do you mean 'play'?" Julie quickly interjected.
"LARPing." The boy gave them a flat look, like they'd suddenly turned into idiots. "Live Action Role Play-?"
The Burners exchanged looks and shrugged. The boy rolled his eyes. "Lame."
"Sam!" A woman called and the kid dropped the Rootcap back in the bin and ran after her.
"And the mystery gets deeper." Mike mused mostly to himself. "Doesn't want people around, but allows people to hold battles in his territory. Anyone here ever heard of 'LARPing'?"
"Texas thinks this sounds like a stupid nerd thing."
"I think it sounds like an opportunity." Mike smiled to himself.
"Oh, Mike." Julie gave him a worried look. "You're not thinking-"
"Of going back?" He shot her a grin. "Yeah. I think he'd be a good addition to the group. Or even just an ally. Think about how easily he took out those Shock-Bots. If we could do that on even a one-tenth scale, that could really turn the tide for us."
"Okay, I'll give you that." Julie nodded. "But what's he going to want in return? He doesn't seem interested in company other than those dogs, or getting back against Kane. Remember the Duke? If Jacob hadn't been with us..." She let it trail off.
"I know." Mike nodded, grin fading. If Jacob hadn't been riding with them that day to modify Julie's holo-technology, he might have lost all three of them to the crazy Duke. As it was, it was a damn close call and he still had unpaid favours hanging over his head to some of the other groups.
Julie stepped closer, resting her hand on his arm, giving it a squeeze. She disliked playing the role of Devil's Advocate, but her questions and insight were often invaluable. Even when they debated something, he was always glad to have her by his side.
He gave her a small smile in return. As much as a good point she made, he still wanted to see if he could get Hound over to their side. "Well, in the meantime, there's always muffins."
A few days later, Mike slowed Mutt down as he spotted the first graffiti of teeth, finding wolf silhouettes a few abandoned buildings down from it. He cruised slowly, eyes open for activity. It felt like there were eyes on him, watching him, but he didn't see anyone.
At least, not until he got deeper into Hound's turf, a huge H.O.U.N.D. appearing next to Mutt, blue eye glinting at him. Mike smiled and waved back, sparing a thought for if he should have somehow attached a white flag to Mutt to signify that he'd come in peace.
A second appeared on Mutt's other side, then one in front. They took him in a different route, instead of to the warehouse they'd first met to an unfamiliar area, one that looked almost like a cathedral, covered in brightly coloured paint and light. The H.O.U.N.D.s stopped and Mike parked Mutt, staring up at the tall historic building. "Wow."
"I'd love to take credit for all of it, but the building was here when I arrived." A casual voice drawled. "I just added to the art. But I get the feeling that you're not here for the view."
Mike looked up to find what looked like a giant one-eyed monster staring down at him. "You're right." He grinned back. "But I certainly don't mind the distraction. Seriously, wow. You've got some real talent."
That earned him a chuckle and the cyclops reached up, taking his mask off, revealing a dark-skinned guy even taller than Hound. "You must be Mike." The artist said, a cheerful but wary look on his face as he came down the steps. "You certainly smile enough."
"That'd be me." Mike easily agreed with a smile. "And you are? Gotta admit, I was under the impression that Hound doesn't like having people around."
If he was surprised that Mike knew Hound's name, the artist didn't show it. "Call me Dutch. And yeah, he doesn't, but he does make the occasional exception. I was havin' a bit of trouble when I first came down from Deluxe, he and his Dogs saved my bacon. In return for painting the territory markers for him, he lets me hang here. We mostly leave each other alone and it works."
"Glad to hear it." Mike nodded. So Hound wasn't just by himself. He felt oddly better knowing he had at least one human friend around.
That earned him a sceptical look from Dutch which quickly was replaced by a bland expression. "So what brings you by, other than the fact that your ride needs a tune-up?"
Mike startled slightly. "Uh... yeah. We've been kinda busy lately, fighting Kane and all." He shook his head, motioning to the passenger seat of the car, where a still warm box was resting. "But I didn't come for that. Jacob made a fresh batch of Okra Mayo Muffins this afternoon, and Hound mentioned that he liked them, so dropping some off as a thanks for the rescue."
Dutch made a queasy face, waving a hand as if smelling something nasty. "Dude can have 'em, those things are disgusting. Yo, Roth!"
A high pitched squeal answered them, a green painted Shock-Bot with one eye rising out of the building and floating down next to Dutch. In the place of the gun turrets, there were large arms that seemed to be made out of vines similar to what he'd seen on Terra, which it used to carry a large tool box that it set down at Dutch's feet. Dutch motioned towards Mike. "He's got some muffins for Hound. Can you take them to him?"
The Shock-Bot, Roth, made another squeaking sound and saluted before drifting over to Mike, giving him an inquiring noise. It was a little strange to be so close to a Shock-Bot that wasn't trying to kill him, it threw Mike off a little bit. But he rallied, reaching back into Mutt and grabbing the box, holding it out to the Bot. Roth squeaked in return, opening the box and peering inside.
"Roth! None for you!" Dutch scolded. "And don't let the Dogs get them either. Not sure those things are fit for human consumption, but they're certainly not for Bot!"
The H.O.U.N.D. sitting closest to Dutch gave a hopeful whine, tail thumping on the ground, and Roth held the box over its head, making a scolding sound. "Hey." Mike waved a hand. "If you could pass on my apologies for not calling ahead, but I didn't seem to get his number."
Roth made another squeaking sound before spiralling up into the sky to take the muffins to Hound. Mike told himself he wasn't disappointed that he wasn't getting a chance to actually see their hooded mystery man again.
"Don't worry about Roth, I re-built him, then me and Hound re-programmed him ourselves." Dutch waved it off. "He's good people. Keeps me company."
"I'll take your word for it." Mike flashed Dutch a small smile before it faded. He'd passed through some of the areas that had been littered with Shock-Bot remains on the way in, and they were completely gone now. "Is that what you did with the Shock-Bots he took out a few days ago?"
"Only the ones we could salvage." Dutch motioned to the building behind them. "Hound finished with them last night, I'm in the process of decorating them now. Since we've already got giant H.O.U.N.D.s, and the Gnome helpers, paintin' them up to look like Gargoyles. Tried for bats, but it didn't look quite right. Got a spooky theme, might as well stick to it."
"Okay." Mike nodded, feeling out of his depth. While he could and did enjoy art, it was definitely not among his talents.
Dutch chuckled, not taking offense, and Mike got the feeling that this was a common response when Dutch discussing his art. "Anyway, since you're here, might as well pop the hood. It's gonna bother me until I figure out what's making that noise. Fine vehicle like that should growl, not hiccup."
Mike almost wanted to protest that it was only a minor knocking, but if Dutch was someone who actually had some mechanical skill, which he had plenty of if Roth was any indication, then it was too good of an opportunity to pass up. "I could use some help." He admitted, wondering how far he could trust this guy. If Mutt was out of commission, then that could potentially put him in a very bad place with little chance of back up.
He glanced over at the H.O.U.N.D. who was sitting a few metres away from the car, watching them. The H.O.U.N.D. tilted its head back at him, then decided to take a nap. The other two H.O.U.N.D.s seemed to have the same idea, one of them curving around to chew on their hind leg with the sound of clanking metal on metal.
"Hound's not the kind of guy to ambush someone after he's invited them in." Dutch assured him with a small smile. "The Dogs are just as much for our protection as anything else. And I've got no ill will towards ya. You're workin' hard fighting Kane, and I'm completely down with that. Figure this is the least I could do ta help."
"Don't hear that all that often." Mike admitted. "Most people just don't want to get involved."
"I get the not gettin' involved part." Dutch shrugged. "I mostly came down here so they'd stop goin' after my folks cause of me, down where I could have the freedom to do my thang. But you seem okay. And you brought Hound muffins, so I figure a tune-up isn't a bad way to spend a few hours."
"Well, when you put it like that." Mike smirked, reaching in and popping the hood. That was a language he could understand, barter, favours, and honour. It was the currency of Motorcity. And he was starting to get a similar feeling to how he did about Hound, like he was going to be seeing a lot more of Dutch in the future.
Dutch grinned back, propping the hood up with the air of someone who was familiar with cars before reaching down and pulling out a flashlight from his toolbox, shining it around Mutt's engine. "Awwww.... Man." Dutch groaned in appreciation. "This ride is sweet. Makes me want one of my own. Where'd you get all the parts?"
"Here and there." Mike joined him, sticking his head under the hood. "Months of salvage."
"I'll believe it." Dutch whistled, poking at various hoses. "You have any spare parts on ya? Oil filters? Cause I've got the feeling that this one's past its prime."
"Back at the Garage." Mike motioned over his shoulder. "We're pretty much fully stocked."
Dutch looked slightly tempted, then shook his head. "We'll just have to make do with what I have here." He said firmly.
"Maybe next time." Mike grinned, patting Dutch on the shoulder. Dutch looked up, giving him a surprised look. Mike shrugged. "You're willing to work on my car with me. Least I can do is welcome you back to my place, where we've got all the parts. Maybe see if we can't help you with a project of your own."
He got a suspicious look in return, Dutch slowly rubbing his chin as he sized Mike up. Mike just smiled back. He'd changed it around from Dutch doing this as a way to return a favour to Hound, to bartering with Mike and the rest of the Burners. They could definitely use the help, and another friendly face around the place was always nice. It often felt too empty with just him and Tex by themselves at the Garage most of the time, Jacob off growing his plants and Julie working her cover in Deluxe.
"Alright." Dutch finally nodded. "We'll see."
It wasn't a 'yes', but it was far from a 'no'. Dutch was willing to think about it, which was more than Mike had when he'd driven up. No matter what they did from here, it wasn't a wasted afternoon.
Even if he didn't get to meet up with Hound again.
It was a couple of rough days later before he could make it back to Hound's Territory, this time with Julie in tow and spare parts to work on 9 Lives. While Mike would have dearly loved to have all the cars working in top shape, he wasn't sure about introducing the laid-back Dutch to Texas just yet. Texas was a good guy, and a great fighter, but he was intense and could be overwhelming in anything other than small doses.
And Mike really didn't want to chase Dutch off, not if there was any chance at all of getting Dutch to join as another Burner. The artist certainly wanted a set of wheels bad enough.
They slowed as they spot the first jagged teeth, cruising along. Being in Hound's turf was both relaxing and nerve-wracking. There was very little worry about being attacked by Kane, but being surrounded by H.O.U.N.D.s was just a bit creepy. One H.O.U.N.D. by itself was a challenge to defeat, a pack with an unknown amount of numbers was worth a pause. And while Mike really wanted to trust Hound, they'd had potential allies turn on them before.
When the H.O.U.N.D.s appeared this time, wasn't alongside Mutt, but forming a line across the road, barring their entrance. Julie's avatar popped up on his dash as they both came to a complete stop, a half dozen blue eyes glowing at them. "Mike?"
"Dunno." He shrugged, looking around. No sign of the Shock-Bots that Dutch had been painting, or of Hound himself. His dash lit up, a new message from an Unknown Sender. "Hold on."
There was a black cube instead of an avatar, but it was definitely Hound's voice speaking. "Busy today and tomorrow. Monday should be fine."
Mike let out a sigh of relief, worry that he'd offended Hound or Dutch fading. "They're busy today and tomorrow." He informed Julie. "How's the day after sounding to you?"
"Think I can wrangle a few hours." Julie nodded. With her double life, sometimes it was days before they saw her.
"Alright, will pass it on." He grinned, hitting the reply button. "Sorry to disturb you while you're busy, Monday will be great. Looking forward to seeing you then." He hesitated a moment before sending it, then added a quick message. "If I had your contact information, I could call ahead."
"You just can't help yourself around this guy, can you?" Julie shook her head with a small smirk as he sent the response.
"Not really." He admitted, backing Mutt up. He loved his Burners like family, Dutch was cool and all, but there was something about this guy that had him itching to know more. Mike could almost swear he'd met him before, there was a slight feeling of déjà vu.
"Alright." Julie's smirk grew bigger. "Just watch yourself, big guy."
"Will do." He smiled as they got themselves turned around, heading back the way they'd come. The H.O.U.N.D.s stayed where they were, one of them twisting around to scratch the back of their head with a hind leg. "Race you back to the Garage?"
"You're on." Julie grinned, revving up 9 Lives. "GO!"
Laughing the whole way, they raced back home.
Monday brought them back Hound's turf, and this time when the H.O.U.N.D.s appeared, it was to escort them back to Dutch's Railroad Station. Dutch himself was sitting on the steps, his mask shoved up on the top of his head, watching them with a small grin, one arm draped over Roth, the two apparently propping each other up.
"Hey, Dutch!" Mike grinned as he stepped out of Mutt. "Gotta thank you buddy, Mutt's running pretty sweet since you tinkered with her." And Mike had made sure to replace the oil filter once he got home.
"Glad to hear it." Dutch grinned back, rising to his feet. "And I see you brought yourself a friend."
"Yup. Dutch, meet Julie. Jules, this is Dutch and Roth." Mike made the obligatorily motions and introductions.
"Hey." Julie smiled, stepping forward. "Love the art."
"Thanks." Dutch smiled back, shaking her hand. "Mike didn't say that his friend included a pretty lady." He said, somehow making it sound like a sincere compliment and not a pass.
"I think he forgets sometimes." Julie grinned back. "He did, however, say that you were a master at cars. Was hoping to work out some sort of trade for a tune-up of 9 Lives."
"Man, you all got nice cars." Dutch sighed, looking over at 9 Lives. He walked around the former Police Cruiser, giving it a once over. "Don't recognise some of this hardware."
"I specialise in decoys." Julie pressed a button, bringing up a screen and making two holographic clones of herself.
Dutch gave a low whistle. "Okay, I'll do a tune up on the engine if you'll give me a look at that tech." He decided. "The potential for art is nearly endless. Not just flat paintings, but floating morphing sculptures would rock."
"Done." Julie grinned, her holograms disappearing. It could be considered a low price, but if it made both Dutch and Julie happy, it was a good bargain. "I brought some stuff with me, but I'm sure Mike told you that we do have a fully stocked Garage if you wanna come back with us."
Dutch looked up over at Roth for a moment, a thoughtful look on his face. "Next time." He decided. "You've got a third driver, right? And you'll probably be bartering to tune up theirs next. Next time we'll go to your place, as long as I can catch a ride back."
"All you have to do is say the word." Mike promised. "Not trying to trap you into anything. Burners are all about Freedom." Doing what you wanted without someone else trying to tell you what to do.
Well, as long as you weren’t hurting anyone.
"Alright." Dutch nodded, giving him a serious look. "I'm holding you to that. Literally."
"Hey, you're the one with these guys are your beck and call." Mike motioned to a yawning H.O.U.N.D.. "You think I'm gonna mess with that?"
Dutch laughed. "Eh, they're not mine." He waved it off. "They do their thing, I do mine. Alright, pop your hood pretty lady, and let's see what we've got here."
Julie did so, Dutch taking a look under the hood with an appreciative sound. "Wait." Julie said suspiciously as she joined Dutch. "Who are you calling 'Pretty Lady'? Me or 9 Lives?"
"The car." Mike could see Dutch nod, his hands twitching to touch the still-warm engine. "Definitely the car. Helloooo, beautiful."
Julie looked over at Mike, a wide grin on her face. "I like him." She decided, giving him the Julie Stamp of Approval. Considering that Texas still only grudgingly had that because of his inability to realise she was female, Mike considered that a good sign.
Mike laughed, leaning back against Mutt, feeling happy. Now if Dutch could get along with Tex, they just might have a fourth member to their team. Definitely needed to look into finding him a chassis to make Dutch a car of his own.
"You never stop smiling, do you?" A tenor voice surprised him. He turned to find Hound walking up, one hand on the beaten up H.O.U.N.D.'s side, the other carrying his staff. He was missing the long dramatic cloak, but a large hooded sweatshirt covered his face, save for the dimpled curve of his chin.
"Not really." Mike admitted with a shrug. "Pleasure to see you again, Hound. And thanks for letting us invade. How'd you like the muffins?"
"I ate them all that day." Hound admitted with a sigh. "Thanks for delivering them, you didn't have to."
"I wanted to." Mike waved it off. And it had paid off, even if it wasn't the way he'd hoped. "Hey, you know if we had your number, we could call ahead so we didn't intrude at bad times."
Hound made a noncommittal sound in the back of his throat, motioning to Julie, who was explaining some of 9 Lives features to Dutch. "I was hoping to speak to Julie." Hound said, losing the friendly air he'd had moments before.
Mike shrugged. "Hey, Jules." He called, getting her attention. She and Dutch turned to look in their direction, Dutch giving Hound a small wave in greeting.
"If I could have a word." Hound said, motioning over towards Dutch's building with his staff.
Julie glanced over at Dutch, who nodded, turning back to 9 Lives. "Sure." Julie shrugged, wiping her hand on a bit of rag before walking over. "What's up?"
"In private." Hound amended, the large H.O.U.N.D. he was touching moving between himself and Mike before Mike could step forward.
"Uhh..." Julie looked between Hound and Mike, a worried look on her face. Mike shrugged, not having a clue what was going on. There was a brief glow of blue light from the H.O.U.N.D.'s other side, Hound pulling up a screen that was visible only to himself and Julie.
"About your father-?" Hound said in a soft whisper, Mike's ears barely picking it up.
Julie turned pale. "Personal matter." She said quickly, waving a hand to Mike as she backed up a step.
Mike frowned, it took a lot to rattle the normally cool Julie. "Jules? Hound?" He inquired, concerned.
"I'm not planning on hurting her." Hound stated, and there was an unspoken 'yet' hovering in there. "Just want some answers before deciding on what actions to take."
"It's fine." Julie gave Mike a weak smile, moving to the far side of the yard. Mike watched them go, noting their small guard of H.O.U.N.D.s doing the same, their tails not wagging.
"You can relax some." Dutch said, moving to stand next to him. "Hound's paranoid, but I've never seen him actually hurt someone unless it was a last resort. He probably picked up some information from the KaneCo servers that he's going over with her."
"KaneCo servers?" Mike echoed, one eyebrow coming up in question.
"Hound's a Programmer." Dutch motioned to where the pair was talking, the battle-scarred H.O.U.N.D. wrapping around Hound's lanky figure as much as possible, obscuring Hound and his screens while allowing Mike to keep Julie in view. "Best in Motorcity. Swear the guy speaks code better than English. He's in and out of Kane's computers all the time gathering intel and planting viruses. In fact, most the computer problems KaneCo has are because of him."
Both of Mike's eyebrows rose. If he hadn't wanted Hound as part of his group before, he certainly wanted him now. "So the hood-?"
"Not a clue." Dutch shrugged. "Like I said, we're not exactly friends, mostly he just tolerates me around. Never seen him without something obscuring his face though."
Mike nodded, keeping an eye on Julie, who seemed to be visibly shaken but holding her ground. He could tell from the flickering light that Hound had several screens up with data moving, but he couldn't actually see what was on them.
Both Tex and Jacob had voiced their worries about Julie's involvement with the Burners, since she spent so much of her time up in Deluxe, and then the fact that she worked as an intern for KaneCo. None of them were exactly sure of what she did as an Intern, but it definitely gave her access to some pretty highly classified information. It certainly wouldn't be the first time someone had treated her with suspicion because of her dual lives.
Julie had never stated what it was that brought her to Motorcity or searching out Mike specifically, but whatever it was, it was personal. The two of them never talked much about it, partly because Mike still ached almost a year later at how much of an idiot he'd been, blindly following Kane's orders. In retrospect, there were a lot of orders he'd obeyed that made him nauseous now. Innocuous at the time, but mortifying when put in a bigger picture.
Both of them defecting from Deluxe had given them a feeling of kinship that they didn't have with the others. Jacob had moved away from KaneCo before the dome even went up, and Texas had never been up to Deluxe until he'd joined the Burners. They had no idea what it was really like there.
Which was one of the reasons why Mike never doubted Julie, or what she was doing up there. He couldn't protect her when she was up there, the only thing he could do was trust that she could take care of herself, and trust that she was coming back safely. That trust was the price of their bargain, and one he was willing to pay.
Julie and Hound seemed to come to some sort of agreement, Julie bringing up her yellow-tinted screens, the two of them tossing data back and forth at each other. Julie finally nodded, stepping away and walking over, her expression tight.
"Jules?" He inquired, holding an arm up in silent invitation. She walked into it, resting her head on his shoulder as he wrapped his arms around her. "You alright?"
"Yeah, fine." She said tightly, hands clutching his jacket. "You know I'm not going to betray you or Motorcity, right?" She asked softly, seeking reassurance in her own way. Whatever she and Hound talked about had really shaken her up.
"I know." He agreed, rubbing her back. "It's okay, Jules. We've all got secrets."
"Yeah." Julie nodded. "Some worse than others." She added in a quiet undertone. The only thing Mike knew about her family was that her mother was deceased and she didn't get along with her Dad.
"You know if you need to talk, I'm here to listen." Mike reminded her, resting his chin on top of her head. Julie nodded, holding on for a minute more before taking a deep breath and pulling away.
"Thanks, Mike." Julie said, giving him a crooked smile as he released her. Whatever she and Hound had discussed had rattled her, she wasn't quite back up to her normal self, but she was back under control.
"Anytime, Jules." He smiled back. "Anytime."
She nodded and turned back to Dutch and 9 Lives, a stubborn expression on her face. He watched Dutch casually greet her, asking a question about her car as if she'd never been pulled away to talk. It seemed to help settle her and the two of them went back to work on 9 Lives.
Superfluous once more, Mike glanced over to see where Hound was, finding the guy sitting cross-legged in between the multiple forelegs of the battle-scarred H.O.U.N.D., staff leaning against his left shoulder. Multiple screens were open in front of him, his fingers flying across them, despite the fact that Hound probably shouldn't have been able to see them through the material obscuring his bowed head.
He could see why the kids called him a Mage. Hound certainly looked like some sort of mythical magic user like this. Only his magic was codes, not spells.
Mike walked over. "Hey." He said, the H.O.U.N.D. lifting its head off the ground to stare at him. It didn't seem friendly or hostile, just watching.
"Hi." Hound greeted him back with a curt nod. "Here to ask what that was about?"
"Nope." Mike held his hand out, having the vague idea that was what you supposed to do when greeting a dog, let them sniff you. He'd never actually had a chance to pet one though, there weren't a lot of animals in Deluxe, and most of the ones in Motorcity weren't friendly. The H.O.U.N.D. leaned forward, taking a large sniff, warm air blowing over his hand. "This guy got a name?"
Hound's fingers paused over his screens. "Wait." He dead-panned. "I pull one of your people aside, grill them for a couple of minutes, and you ask what my Dog's name is?"
Mike thought about it. "Yup." Whatever they talked about, it was between Julie and Hound. He trusted Julie to tell him if he needed to know. Although the 'betraying' comment certainly narrowed it down. Hound probably had discovered that Julie was an intern. Or that her Dad worked for KaneCo. Which really wasn't much of a surprise, anyone who lived in Deluxe worked for Kane.
"Right." Hound shook his head, resuming his work. "You're certifiable. And this is Thunder. Before you ask, yes, he's been with me the longest. He used to have a partner named Lightning before Kane blew her up, so he tends to be a bit over-protective."
"Warning taken." Mike smiled. "Hi, Thunder. Nice to meet you."
Thunder stared at him for a moment, then put his head back down on one paw. Mike wasn't sure if he'd been insulted or not. Could he be insulted by a H.O.U.N.D.?
"Mind if I join you?" He asked.
"Working." Hound pointed out, his hands not ceasing their movement. .
"I know." Mike stuck his hands in his pockets. He’d mostly come along for the company, and to introduce Julie to Dutch.
"Whatever." Hound finally shrugged one shoulder. "Do what you want."
"Thanks." Mike grinned. He paused a moment. "Think Thunder will take offense if I lean against him?"
"Only one way to find out." Hound said, just a bit of a sarcastic edge to his voice. "If he bites you, it's a no."
"Fair enough." Mike agreed. He could probably dodge in time if that happened, he doubted Thunder wanted to accidentally hurt Hound in the process. Broadcasting his movements, he put a hand on the armour of Thunder's shoulder, then eased himself down until he was sitting on the ground, leaning against the H.O.U.N.D.'s side. The big H.O.U.N.D. lifted his head to watch Mike, but made no move of protest, so Mike figured he was golden.
And from here, not only was Hound next to him, within reaching distance if he stretched his arm out, but he could keep an eye on Julie and Dutch, as well as the other H.O.U.N.D.s who were circled around them. It was almost comfortable like this. The only thing missing was Texas' loud shouts. And maybe Jacob puttering around in the background, making strange cooking sounds.
He closed his eyes as he took a deep breath, smelling metal and the acidic scent of electricity, something strangely like contentment curl up in his gut. Yeah. These were his people. They weren't there yet, but they would be, and it'd be good.
Without meaning to, Mike drifted off to the sound of Julie and Dutch's quiet conversation, Hound programming something, and Thunder's internal servers.
The next time Julie came back down from Deluxe, she nearly knocked him down in greeting by jumping up and wrapping her arms around Mike's neck. He had to quickly grab her to keep them both upright. "I want him." She announced, her eyes inches away from his.
"Uh... Okay?" Mike agreed.
She rolled her eyes. "Dutch. I imitated a house plant today. A HOUSE PLANT."
"I didn't even know Kane's Headquarters had house plants." Mike said, feeling confused.
"A few. That's despite the point." Julie let him go, dropping to her feet. She tapped her wrist, pulling up her holograms and a second later, her friend Claire was standing there next to him. "I'm not limited to just myself or 9 Lives anymore. Anything I can scan, I can replicate." She explained with a broad grin. "All thanks to his upgrades. I owe him BIG."
"Nice." Mike grinned.
Julie gave him a suspicious look, Claire fading away. "You want him too?" She finally questioned.
"Yes." Mike agreed, then caught himself. "-To join the Burners." He quickly amended. He wasn't fascinated by Dutch the same way he was Hound. "I think Dutch would be a good addition. And that we need to keep an eye out for a good chassis."
She nodded. "Agreed. I'm on my way over to talk to him about the tech, I'll see what I can get out of him as far as what kind of car he'd be into. And maybe set up a date for having him come over to look at Stronghorn."
"Thanks, Jules." He smiled. "You want company?"
She rolled her hips, shifting her weight to one side, crossing her arms in front of her and his grin faded slightly. He was caught. "You're just hoping for another encounter with Hound." She drawled.
"Maybe." Mike agreed, only slightly embarrassed as he reached up and rubbed the back of his neck. He didn't have any convenient excuses to go back to Hound's territory, and Hound was suspicious enough that Mike didn't think 'I just felt like visiting' would cut it with the guy.
"Yeah." Julie leaned forward, slapping a hand on his shoulder. "Thanks, but I think this is one mission I can handle on my own." She informed him, with just a bite of sarcasm. He was probably coming across as overbearingly protective, and he had no wish to get involved in that fight again.
Even if it would kill him if something happened to one of them.
"Alright." He nodded, shoving his hands into his coat pockets, backing down. And if she went on her own, hopefully it'd show that he trusted his team-mates in Hound's turf without him.
Julie smiled at him. "I want Hound in too." She admitted, bringing up a screen, data scrolling past. "KaneCo's servers are suddenly a lot easier to hack since we talked, and I think it's his doing. But he's extremely paranoid, and I’d be willing to bet he’s got legitimate reasons for that. It's going to take some patience to get him to join."
"So we'll get Dutch, and work on Hound in the meantime." He shrugged. "It'll work all work out." Although they really could use Hound's skills in the meantime. He hated this feeling of being a sitting duck, waiting for Kane to randomly strike.
"It will." She smiled and patted his arm before turning and sauntering away. "And in the meantime, I'll see if I can't get his number for you!" She added just before she disappeared.
"Thanks, Jules." He muttered, watching her go. Mike sighed to himself, trying to remember what he had been doing before he got distracted by Julie.
A couple of weeks later, a few gift-bribes of Okra-Mayo Muffins on Mike's part and some art supplies Julie had found, they managed to convince Dutch to check out Stronghorn at the Garage.
Even after hanging out with Dutch a few times, neither he nor Julie could quite predict how Dutch was going to react to Texas. Mike figured it was one of those 'make it or break it' moments, either they'd have a chance to get him to join, or Dutch would take off screaming. Mike was willing to take it either way, just as long as Dutch was willing to keep talking with them afterwards. They didn't have a lot friends down here.
"So you're the guy Mike and Tina won't stop talkin' about." Was Texas' greeting to Dutch, aggressively sizing the tall man up. Both Mike and Julie grimaced, bracing themselves for Dutch's reaction.
"Tina?" Dutch inquired, clearly confused.
"You know." Texas motioned towards Julie, who raised her hand and waggled her fingers at Dutch, a fake smile plastered on her face. "The girl."
Dutch's eyebrows rose. "You mean Julie?"
"He can't seem to remember my name." Julie explained in a loud stage whisper.
Mike watched as Dutch's face flickered through several expressions before settling on confused. "And you put up with that?!" He hissed, leaning closer to her.
Julie paused, thinking about it. "Yes." She finally nodded. "He may be a moron, but he's our moron."
Mike found himself nodding in agreement. It was true. They hadn't found Tex so much as Texas had adopted them, deciding that they needed 'Daddy Texas' to watch their backs. Which was something Texas did take very seriously.
"Also." Julie added with a bit more of a sincere grin. "All that action Kung-Fu grip means he gives great massages. And hugs."
"Okay." Dutch nodded, accepting that answer.
"Hey, you know Texas is right here." Texas protested. "Hello?"
"Right. Yeah. Sorry about that. I'm Dutch." Dutch said, holding out his hand.
"Another country!" Texas cheered, bypassing Dutch's hand in exchange for giving the tall man a brief manly squeeze, then patting him on the back, making Dutch stagger forward. "Yes! That is awesome!"
Dutch glanced between them and Texas before finally shrugging. "So you have a car too?" He inquired.
"Not just a car!" Texas proclaimed. "A Lean, Mean, KaneCo Punching Machine! Come on, I'll introduce you to Stronghorn! Oh, wait until you see my babe, Stronghorn makes those two seem like sissies!" He announced, catching Dutch around the waist and dragging him out. Dutch followed, protesting only half-heartedly, looking like he was trying hard not to laugh in the face of Texas' enthusiasm.
"He can handle Texas." Mike grinned, feeling pleased.
Julie grinned back, feline-happy as she crossed her arms in front of her. "He in?"
"Oh, yeah. He’s in."
"Hey!" Mike pulled up in front of Dutch's Railway Station with a grin. Hound was sitting on the steps, sans-Thunder for a change, hood pulled low over his face, his staff propped up against his left shoulder. "Wasn't expecting to run into you today! Everything okay?"
"Yeah. Dutch is around the side." Hound motioned with his thumb. "You'll want to drop off what you brought with you there."
"Alright." Mike agreed, triggering his comm and passing the message on to Julie and Texas. 9 Lives and Stronghorn passed by, the latter towing the chassis for a hot rod behind it. A few of the Dogs followed, sniffing it curiously. Somehow, he wasn't surprised that Hound knew what they were bringing in today for Dutch.
It was kind of alarming to realise that he was getting comfortable enough around the H.O.U.N.D.s to call them 'Dogs', like Dutch did.
Hound's head didn't turn as the cars passed, but Mike got the feeling that he was watching them anyway. "He'll like that." Hound finally said, his voice flat. "You asking him to join the Burners today?"
"The plan is to give him the chassis no matter what he says." Mike nodded. "But yeah, we'd like to ask him."
He hadn't really thought about it, but in asking Dutch to join the Burners, they were kind of taking away the only person Hound had in his life, weren’t they?
"Good." Hound tapped his staff on the ground before using it as a prop to rise to his feet. The motion pulled the hood back slightly, revealing a crooked round nose that looked like it'd been broken before, half obscured by long strands of golden hair. Hound pulled the hood back over his face, hiding it once more, tone almost defensive as he spoke. "I never meant to keep him here, just give him a hand for a while until he adjusted to Motorcity. There's not a lot of people with his kind of imagination anymore."
Mike tore his gaze away from Hound to look up at the Railway Station, the colourful murals that covered it, the strands of lights decorating it. It was a rare and precious gift that Dutch had. "Yeah." He agreed. "That's true."
"I'll keep the place safe for him." Hound promised, reaching into the front pocket of the sweatshirt. "Dutch knows he's always welcome back. But in the meantime-"
Hound tossed Mike something shiny and silver. Mike caught it in one hand, almost without thinking, belatedly realising that it could be a trap, or a grenade. But when he looked down in his hand, a shiny silver skull stared back at him.
"Wait, this is Spark Tech!" He stared up at where Hound had been, finding the programmer slowly walking away. "Hound! Are you sure?"
Capable of cutting through metal like butter, Spark Tech was not only extremely rare, but expensive. It was like being handed Excalibur or a Vorpal Sword.
Hound raised his free hand, waving it off. "Use it to keep them safe." He called back. "I'm trusting you."
Mike triggered the skull, it morphing into a long staff, the tips glowing blue in flames. He gave it a few experimental swings and twirls, the balance and movement almost instinctive, like it had been made for him. With this, he wasn't just reliant on Mutt anymore, he could actually get out there and fight head on. He triggered it again, the staff retracting into the skull, fitting easily in his hands.
"You got it." He promised, meaning it with everything he had.
He wasn't sure if Hound heard him or not, Thunder joining him at his side. Mike half-debated shouting after that maybe he could get Hound's number, so he could call him with status updates, but decided against it.
Blond. Hound was blond. He gleefully filed the information away along with the little bits of information he knew of the programmer. There weren't a lot of blonds around, darker hair like his own and the rest of the Burners being a lot more common. He'd run into a couple up in Deluxe, including his immediate supervisor in the Cadets and one lab assistant a few years ago who screamed like a girl when they took him to his new department.
He wondered what happened to that guy, hoping that he was doing alright, even if it wasn't likely. In retrospect, people usually didn't act like they were being sent to a death sentence for being promoted. But then, a lot of things weren't as they appeared to be when working for KaneCo.
Setting that train of thought aside, he tucked the skull into his pocket, walking around the corner to join up with his friends.
"Mike!" Dutch grinned and waved as Mike rounded the corner. "Good timing my man! You should see this stuff that Hound found in the Under Depths!"
"12 Point seat-belt safety system." Julie rattled off, nearly bouncing in her delight. "Vintage 2072 Plasma injector. Headlamp control system, still in the box! A full fusion battery! This is a HAUL!"
"Even Texas is impressed." Texas said, thumbing his nose.
"I'll say." Mike said, looking around. There were easily enough parts to build Dutch's new ride, with some left over. It would have taken them months to find this many usable parts. And they certainly could have used that fusion battery a few months prior, when the East Gate went down. "There's even a sound system!"
"Actually." Dutch cleared his throat. "That's for offense. I'm thinking some sort of sonic device."
"Awesome!" Mike couldn't wait to see what Dutch built. Hound was right, there really weren't a lot of people who had the type of imagination to look at one thing and see something completely different that had nothing to do with survival.
Well, except maybe Texas, with his fascination with dragons and lasers. Pew pew.
"Need a hand?" Mike asked. "Or three?"
"Maybe." Dutch smirked, leaning against the hot rod chassis. "There something else ya tryin' ta ask me here, Mike?" He asked casually, Roth dropping down to hover over Dutch's shoulder.
"Possibly." Mike smiled back, sticking his hands in his pockets, finding the Burners logo patch that he'd stashed there. He pulled it out, holding it up for Dutch to see. "You in?"
"Oh, hell yeah." Dutch grinned from ear to ear, grabbing the patch and holding it up in the air as Roth flew in circles with a happy whine. "Cannot wait to get this sweet baby up, running, and helping y'all kick some KaneCo butt!"
"Glad to have ya." Mike grinned back, patting Dutch on the shoulder. Julie and Texas weren't quite as reserved, taking turns hugging him, much to Dutch's obvious confusion.
"We're kind of a touchy-feely bunch, in case you hadn't noticed." Mike assured him.
"Yeah." Dutch agreed, looking just a bit shell-shocked. "Just a bit. I thought it was a one-time 'Hi, nice ta meetcha' thing."
"Nah." Julie waved it off, wrapping an arm around Dutch's lanky waist and leaning against him. "Although, just to let you know, we'd still help you out with the car, even if you'd said no."
"I know." Dutch smiled back at her, resting his hand on her shoulder. "That's what made me say yes. Ya gotta walk the walk if you're gonna talk the talk."
"YEAH!" Texas threw his hands into the air. "TEXAS!"
Mike laughed, a feeling of rightness filling him. Four. They were four now, almost complete. Just needed the fifth.
It was a few weeks and a few confrontations with KaneCo later when Julie threw Dutch an amused look, crossing her arms in front of her. "We just got you, and you're already looking to leave us?" She drawled, one eyebrow hiking up.
"Wait, I... No! I'm not!" Dutch fumbled, waving his hands, then paused and glared at her. "Hey."
"Teasing." She assured him, propping an arm against him and leaning. "Not that I blame you, this place is nice. And the scenery isn't so bad either." She said, looking up at the glowing Cablers' Settlement
"Yeah." Dutch agreed, his gaze firmly focusing on Tenny, who was talking with her father. Julie shot Mike an amused smirk. Mike chuckled, but he was preoccupied.
The Elites he’d just fought had been different. Scarily different. Stronger, faster. They did not need more complications today, really they didn't. They almost hadn’t repel Kane's attack, which would have ended badly for everyone involved.
The Cablers' kept one of the largest sources of energy Motorcity had alive and running. Without it, there was a good chance that most, if not all of Motorcity would be reduced to near complete darkness. As if it wasn't dark enough down here as it was.
"We need to get those security programs alive and running, stat." Julie said, bringing his attention back to the problems at hand. "Which means we're going to need a Programmer."
"And not just a Programmer, but a good one." Dutch agreed with a sly smirk. "The Best."
Texas glanced between them. "Do we know anyone like that?"
"Possibly." Mike grinned. "You guys think you can hold down the fort here while I go talk to our friend?"
"Can do." Julie gave him a mock salute.
"Just remember, if he won't leave, he can do things remotely." Dutch reminded him. "He's probably not going to want to come, but there are other options."
"Got it." Mike nodded. Good to know. "Thanks."
"No, seriously." Texas piped up. "Who do we know like that? Texas is confused."
"It's alright, Texas." Julie patted Texas on the shoulder before tossing Mike a wink. "Go get your guy, Mike."
Mike rubbed his forehead. "Thanks, Jules." He muttered. Hound wasn't 'his guy'. Not even 'their guy'. Yet.
She just laughed, pushing Dutch in Tenny's direction while Texas frowned in the background, trying to puzzle out who they were talking about. Which was probably distracting him from hitting on Tenny, leaving the path clear for Dutch to talk to her. Mike did have to give it to Julie, she was a master at dealing with people.
He could hear Dutch talking about upgrades to the Cablers' security systems as he climbed into Mutt, making a mental note to bring Dutch his toolbox on his way back. While the Cablers had tools, Dutch would probably prefer to work with the tools he was familiar with.
Mutt started up with a smooth growl, and he drove off, heading to the East side. Dutch was correct though, Hound never left his territory, unless it was to occasionally pick up groceries from Jacob. And even then, it was only a short jaunt away from his turf. Even the Duke travelled more than that, even if it was just to annoy them.
Another weird thing to add to the list of things about Hound.
But even if Hound didn't drive, or wasn't interested in driving, he could still ride. Hound’s ability to seemingly always know everything going on would be useful while fighting Kane-Bots. And if he could sneak past Kane’s security and do stuff on the fly, he’d be invaluable.
He slowed a bit as soon as he passed the first markers for Hound's turf, but not too much. His dash beeped, incoming call and he answered it. "Can't play today, Mike." Hound's black cube said, sounding distracted.
"Wouldn't be calling if it wasn't important." Mike informed him. One of Hound's Dogs joined him alongside, just keeping pace. "Kane's trying to take out the Cablers. We need help getting the security web up before the whole thing goes down."
Hound groaned. "Of course this would be on the weekend, when I'm busy." He muttered, sounding aggravated. "Alright. I can spare a few minutes to chat. If this is something you could handle on your own and using it as an excuse to bug me, my Dogs are eating your Mutt."
"It's not and I'm willing to risk it." Mike assured him. The black cube seemed to wilt in response.
"Fine. Take a right." A second window opened, a map with a flashing arrow giving directions. It was to an area Mike hadn't been to before, leading to what looked like an old park or a school. Mike allowed himself a brief grin, following the directions.
He stopped at the top of a hill, stepping out of Mutt to stare at what looked like a battlefield. There were people in costumes fighting each other with swords, axes and daggers. As he watched, a guy dressed as a giant bull fell over, lying 'dead' in the dirt. Another guy took a crude floppy spear to the side, falling over and dying in a dramatic fashion. People on the side-lines applauded the death scene.
What was it the kid had called it? 'LARPing'?
A small glaring teenage girl with her hair in a braid approached, her sword pointed at him. "What are you doing here, Outsider?" She hissed dangerously.
It might have worked better if her sword hadn't wobbled, obviously made of foam.
"Stand down, Darkslayer." Hound's voice commanded. "His business is with me." Mike looked up to find Hound back in the voluminous dark green cloak, riding astride Thunder, his staff in hand as if to strike. If he hadn't been familiar with the guy, Mike might have felt scared. It was certainly an awe-inspiring sight.
"As you command, Lord Vanquisher." 'Darkslayer' pressed a hand to her chest and bowed, respectfully backing away, and sheathing her sword. She continued to give Mike the stink-eye however.
"Let me guess." Mike looked out over the field again, then back up at Hound. "'Live Action Role Play'-? This is why you're sometimes busy?"
Now that he thought about it, they'd run into Hound's turf the first time on a Sunday, and then Hound had been busy the next Saturday and Sunday. It certainly explained the cloak. And why Hound had taken the Bots down as fast as he had, if there was a chance of the Shock-Bots attacking the players. Foam weapons weren't going to do much against metal and synthetic polymers.
"I'm the Mod." Hound agreed, Thunder letting out a groan as the giant H.O.U.N.D. lay down on the ground, his human remaining seated on his back. "But you didn't come to talk about that."
"No." Mike agreed, giving Hound a brief overview of what was going on at the Cablers' Settlement. Hound listened, only pausing him once, Hound’s voice echoing out from a Dog on the field that someone was disqualified for dishonourable combat, throwing sand in his opponent's face. Considering that Hound was facing Mike and his head never moved, it was somewhat eerie.
"I can't leave." Hound finally said when Mike finished explaining. It was on the tip of Mike's tongue to say that saving the Cablers was a lot more important than a game, but it he bit it back. LARPing was obviously important to Hound. And from the crowd of people that were gathering around in a defensive circle giving Mike suspicious glares, Hound was clearly important to them.
"I understand you have responsibilities here, in your... Kingdom." Mike finally said, trying to find the right words to get them the help they needed without alienating Hound as an ally. It was a Kingdom, right? At least, that's what he thought the kid back at Jacob's had mentioned. "Is there anything you can do from here? Remotely?"
Hound thought it over for a minute, then sighed. "Let me try something." He finally said, setting his staff across Thunder’s shoulders and bringing his hands up, blue screens flickering into life. From this angle, the glow illuminated his lower face. Hound had a wide flexible mouth, which was currently pinched in a frown as he concentrated.
"And who are you?" A large guy wearing a bright orange traffic cone on his head demanded. "To be asking such boons of Lord Vanquisher the All-Seeing?"
"Uh..." Okay, now things were definitely getting out of his comfort zone. He could deal with the cloak and the 'Lord' stuff to some extent, but there was only so much he could easily explain or handle. He really didn't want this to turn into some sort of combat thing.
"Peace, Oracle." Hound cut the guy off, holding two fingers in the air, a note of command back in his voice as his other hand continued frantically typing. "He is an ally from a not-so distant land, Mike... The Smiling... Dragon." Hound finished, somewhat absently.
Mike just smiled in confusion, having no idea what was going on as the crowd chattered excitedly. 'Smiling Dragon'-?
"That is an awesome name!" A red-headed guy wearing glasses exclaimed as the costumed people around him nodded. "Way cool!"
Right. So apparently he'd just gotten named. Joy.
"The security network you're looking for is disconnected from Kane's main networks, I cannot access it from here." Hound said in his normal voice, hands hovering over the screens. "Sorry."
"Okay." Mike nodded, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. So Hound couldn't access it from here, and he couldn't leave... "Is there some way we can set up a relay, something at the Cablers that you can use to access the systems there from here? A communications beam? A remote? A patch, something?"
Hound didn't move, but Mike had the feeling that he was being sized up, stared at. "You really want to help them." He finally quietly commented, voice cautiously surprised. "What do you get out of it?"
"I..." Mike shrugged. "Nothing. I don’t get anything out of it.They asked for help. I'm just trying to get it to them." He just wanted to help people.
Hound was silent a moment longer, then threw a hand out, the cloak rippling dramatically behind him. "I grant you use of six of my Dogs and a dozen Gargoyles." He intoned, back in the Lord Vanquisher voice. "The Gargoyles shall be my hands, the Dogs their defenders. Is this acceptable?"
If Hound could remotely control the former Shock-Bots, and they had hands like Roth did, then Hound could use them to do the programming from here. "It is more than adequate." Mike said, mimicking Darkslayer's actions, placing his hand over his heart and bowing. "Thank you, Lord Vanquisher the All-Seeing."
Hound nodded. "As to the rest, do you find this acceptable? I will be distracted whilst I work this large magic, I will not be able to watch as closely as I usually do."
"Yes, Lord Vanquisher!" The LARPers chorused, many of them bowing or saluting with their weapons.
"Alright then." Hound made a summoning motion, several Shock-Bots painted with snarling Gargoyles floating down from above, Dogs circling around Mutt. If Mike hadn’t been aware that they were allies, he might have panicked, just a bit. "Go forth then, with Honour!"
The LARPers let loose a happy cheer, waving their weapons in the air. Mike gave Hound a small bow and a smile, before turning to climb back into Mutt.
"Oh, and Smiling Dragon?" Hound called after him, dismissing his screens as he grabbed his staff. "Try to bring them back in one piece." He added, the fading glow of the screens briefly illuminating a crooked smile.
"I'll do my best." Mike agreed with a wide grin, hopping into Mutt and starting her up. The Dogs seemed interested in the growl of Mutt's engine, howling in response. Mike laughed as he reversed, taking off back the way he'd come.
The Dogs easily kept pace with him, circling around him as if they were guarding him, the Gargoyles trailing afterwards in the sky. He called Jacob, having him grab Dutch's tool box and bring it to the Supermarket, making a quick detour to grab it before heading to the Cablers, not wanting to deal with the logistics of trying to get the former H.O.U.N.D.s and Shock-Bots past Jacob's security at the Garage.
It wasn't until the Cablers settlement was in sight that he remembered to call ahead, warning Julie, Tex and Dutch that he was arriving with assistance. That didn't stop everyone from freaking out when he pulled up, huge Dogs and Gargoyles in tow.
Hound's avatar popped up next to the Gargoyles, his black cube wearing Lord Vanquisher's green and gold cloak as he greeted Tenny's Dad, Bracket, inquiring where the panels were so that he could finish the programming.
"You got some weird friends here, kid." Bracket slapped Mike on the back as the Gargoyles flew up among the cables, working on finishing setting up the defence shield. "Grateful for all the help we can get, but oh man. If I weren't seeing it with my own eyes."
"Yeah." Mike agreed. "He's a real Wizard."
In the end, they'd lost three Gargoyles to Kane's giant vacuum cleaner with teeth, and he'd had to give one of the Dogs a ride home on the top of Mutt due to a twisted leg occurred while fighting one of the Boosted Elites, its mouth open, tongue flapping in the breeze. Julie swore that it was faking it since it had three other forelegs, but Mike didn't mind.
And the Cablers wanted to enter trading negations with Hound. Mike wasn't sure what they would trade, but he was pleased that people were getting along.
The day could not have gotten any worse. Not only was it the One Year anniversary of Mike's departure from KaneCo and coming to live in Motorcity, but there were crazy metal-eating robots running amok, and some guy with a severe vendetta against him.
The Duke wasn't any help, at either narrowing down who this guy was, or dealing with the metal-eating robots. At least Texas was quiet as he acted as Mike's shadow, it was nice to have some moral support as Mike tried to figure out who this guy was and what he wanted. Other than Mike either severely injured or dead.
The dash lit up, Unknown Sender, and he triggered it. "Hey, Hound." He deadpanned. "Let me guess, you've got a metal muncher infestation."
"Had." Hound's black cube corrected. "Turns out, they don't like getting food poisoning any more than I do. Stupid addictive Okra-Mayo Muffins..."
"Wait, you know how to stop them?!" Mike straightened, feeling slightly better.
"I had to figure it out, they were going to eat me!" Hound said, voice cracking in panic. He coughed and amended himself. "-Eat my turf and my Dogs."
"Thought your Dogs would be like Roth, made out of synthetic polymers." Mike frowned.
"The newer ones yeah, but not all of the older ones like Thunder." Hound said dismissively. "Anyway. I've got a couple of old-school wrecking balls made out of pig iron that should be a pretty good bait if you guys want to pick it up."
"Let me get the guys." Mike grinned, pulling up Texas, Julie and Dutch, Hound joining in a conference call to fill them in. Dutch cheerfully extrapolated on what Hound was saying, the two of them figuring out how to get the wrecking balls to the bridge that the metal munchers seemed to be focusing on, using Roth and the Gargoyles.
"How much do I owe you for the assist?" Mike asked, he and Texas approaching the building complex where his life in Motorcity had started, the red hourglass symbol staring at him like an accusation. Despite Mike’s protests, Kane had still destroyed the buildings. And then he hadn’t done anything with them, just left them in rubble so nobody else could use them either.
If he couldn't have it, no one else could. How like Kane.
"Happy Anniversary." Hound said, his cube bouncing in a nod. "I know it may not be the happiest day for you, but I for one am glad that you're down here helping people out instead of up there under Kane's command."
"Thanks." Mike swallowed, his throat tight. In many ways, so was he. But it still hurt. "I am too. I mean, I never would have met any of you otherwise, right?"
He didn't want to think about what it would be like without his Burners, his pack. Without Julie's sarcastic sense of humour, Texas' loud boisterousness, Dutch's mellow artisticness, and Jacob's tired crankiness. Or Hound's occasional mysterious help.
It wasn't easy, but he had good life here, one he wouldn't have had if he'd stayed in Deluxe. And while he wished he'd realised what Kane was doing long before he had, he probably wouldn't have the fighting skills or abilities he did now if he'd defected earlier.
Julie, Dutch and Texas gave back affirmatives that he didn't hear, Hound's cube staying silent. "Anyway, I'm here." He said, shaking the melancholy from his brain. "You guys get on that and I'll meet you back in the Garage as soon as I deal with this one. Hound, you joining us? I think Jacob's making something special."
"Thanks, but I'm good." Hound said, obviously about to sign off.
"Wait!" Mike bit out. "You wouldn't happen to know about some guy running around in red armour, would you?"
"As much as it may surprise you guys, I only know what's going on in the Southeast side, not the entirety of Motorcity." Hound said with some humour. "I'm good, but not that good."
In other words, he knew what was happening in his territory, but not much anywhere else. On the plus side, that meant that 'Red' was probably hiding somewhere other than Hound's turf. "Ah well. It was worth a shot." Mike grinned. "Thanks."
"Later." Hound disappeared. Mike belatedly realised he should have asked for Hound's number again, it seemed like the guy was finally starting to warm up.
"You be careful." Julie said, her avatar frowning. "I want you back in one piece."
"Don't worry your sweet head, little lady." Texas assured her. "Tiny here has Ol' Daddy Texas backing him up. And nothing's getting past me."
"Holding you to that." Dutch agreed, logging off. Julie and Texas quickly followed, Mike stepping out of Mutt, staring up at the building.
All he had to do now was wait. Red would come to him.
"You okay?" Julie's voice was concerned as Mike was hauled upright out of the snow. Mike didn't think he'd ever been so cold before, he could barely feel his hands and feet, much less his legs. Motorcity clothing was not designed for dealing with freak snowstorms.
"Get me to Mutt." He growled. This had to end. Now. They were going to destroy that Climate-tor, once and for all.
"No problem." Dutch assured him, helping him to 9 Lives. Dutch’s car glowed in the background, next to the shadow of Stronghorn. They settled him down in 9 Lives passenger seat, Julie passing him a thermos of hot chocolate. He poured himself a cup, cradling the warm metal in his hands, only slightly embarrassed by the way his hands trembled.
"How'd you find me?" He asked. "Snow's blocking communications, I couldn't reach you at all."
"We got the message you sent, with the snowshoes." Julie smirked, pulling 9 Lives away nice and easy. "Then Hound contacted Dutch, using one of his Gargoyles to boost the signal, rather pissed off about a large tentacled thing spewing white stuff all over his territory. Apparently the Climate-tor came a couple of blocks away from Dutch's place, the same place your snowshoes stated, 12th and Michigan. I ripped the Nav logs out of the Climate-tor when we did find it, and between the two we were able to locate you."
"Nice." Mike grinned, taking a careful sip of the hot chocolate. It warmed his throat all the way down, almost painfully so. "Good work Jules!"
"Hound was actually pretty helpful." She admitted. "He either couldn't or wouldn't leave, I think the snow was messing with his Dogs like it was Roth. But he pointed out that if Kane was trying to freeze Motorcity, the Freon the Climate-tor was blasting needed moisture to turn into massive amounts of snow, which meant that it needed to stay near the water."
"So on the east side, near Lake Erie and the canal." Which went by Hound's turf. Although it might have been amusing to see what it would have done to the Terra's plants. Maybe take out a few of their poisonous spores. "Good thinking. So what's the plan?"
"The plan, now that we have you back, is that we go get Mutt, then blast the thing to pieces." Julie smiled, more of a snarl, her fingers looking like claws against the steering wheel.
"I like this plan." Mike grinned, feeling his body warm up again, and not all of it because he was out of the snow and drinking hot chocolate.
He couldn't wait to take this thing down.
Mike's dash lit up as he patrolled, an incoming call from an Unknown Sender. He grinned, responding to it. He'd yet to be able to track the messages back or even be able to save them, but it was reassuring knowing that Hound could still contact him. Eventually he'd get Hound's number so he could return the favour.
The now familiar black cube popped as Hound's avatar. "There's a distress call about to come out of the East Side." Hound stated, his voice cracking in panic. "Do not respond to it. I repeat, do NOT respond to it, Mike."
"Why not?" Mike inquired, pulling Julie and Tex up on the dash and joining them in so they could listen. Dutch was back at his Railway Station, hiding out for a few days to relax and Mike was loathed to disturb him if they didn't have to. "What's going on?"
"Some sort of virus." Hound made an annoyed sound. "It spreads through physical contact, it jumped from humans to some of my Dogs. I'm attempting to pull the others back, but they don't like it enemies they can't bite. Dutch and Roth are at their place here, the Gnomes say that so far no one's bothered them."
"A virus that affects both people AND bots?" Julie echoed. "What are they doing?"
"Attacking everything that moves." Hound sounded stressed. "They're not killing anyone, just spreading the infection, but I'm afraid of what this could mean. Few of my Gargoyles have spotted KaneCo employees wandering around in bio-hazard suits the past few days, and there have been some strange little boxes floating around."
"Sounds like a ploy." Texas mused. "Distraction and then attack. It's a sound battle strategy." And if Texas could figure out the battle plan, it wasn't a particularly subtle one.
"Which means that not only do we have to deal with the infected people and bots, but an incoming invasion." Mike growled. "Great. Ideas?"
"To compound the problem, they've got about a quarter of my Dogs, I can't control them." Hound sounded vaguely apologetic, but mostly frustrated. "That's why I called you, if you go where the infected are, you'll be going up against them."
"Great." Mike muttered. He really didn't want to go up against Hound's pets. "Hold on, let's get Dutch and Jacob in on this too."
Two more windows popped up on Mutt's dash, Hound quickly filling them in.
"Okay." Dutch said, his avatar frowning. "So my question is, what can affect both Humans and AIs? Can that be biological?"
"Unless Kane's changed things a LOT, the answer's no." Jacob growled. "The systems are completely different, it should be impossible."
"But mechanical things can affect biological." Hound stated with the air of experience. "So if it's not biological, then it's got to be mechanical."
"Which narrows the field down." Mike said, somewhat pleased. He turned the corner and quickly slammed on the breaks, his roadway blocked. "Oh, dear."
"Mike?" Julie inquired.
"It's not just East Side." Mike said, quickly backing up as the mass of groaning drooling people staggered after him, surrounded by a gold mist. "I'm Central and can definitely report that it's spread here."
Dutch made a curious noise. "How do you know?"
"Normal people aren't gray and drooling." Mike reported. "Or have green teeth."
"Do they look like Zombies?!" Texas eagerly asked. "Quick Mike! Do a Head Shot! It's the only way to kill them! Ya gotta destroy the Brains!"
"Not gonna happen." Mike shook his head. "Pretty sure they're still alive, or at least mostly intact."
"Do not engage!" Hound snapped. "I repeat! Do not engage!"
"No problem." Mike agreed, turning the wheel to do a three point turn to get out of there. He'd just come to a brief stop when a guy lunged for the car, landing on the hood. "Aaah!"
Several voices called his name as he hit the gas, finishing the turn and driving away. The guy groped the hood to prevent himself from sliding off, but the wind pulled him away. "Okay, I think I'm good." Mike reported as he sped away. "But I just had one of those guys on my hood. Think we're about to find out if it's affecting cars as well as Bots. How fast did it take effect?"
"Less than a minute." Hound reported. "Dammit, I don't have any eyes in the air, I didn't want to risk contamination...." He groaned, obviously torn.
"Flying contaminates would be worse than ground." Jacob assured him, calming him down. "You made the right call. Mike? How are you doing there bud?"
"I'm... fine." Mike reported, eyes scanning Mutt's systems. "Mutt's fine too. There's not even a stutter or a hiccup."
"There'd better not." Dutch growled, fiercely protective of the vehicles he'd worked on.
"Well." Julie sighed. "Then Texas is at least partially right. It's going after anything with a brain. Got anything else to report, Mike?"
"Hey, if it's mechanical based, what about your EM Pulse generator Hound?" Dutch piped up. "Magnets should take whatever it is out, right?"
"If I do that, it'll wipe the systems too." Hound said reluctantly. "Which won't be bad for the humans, unless they've got something like a pacemaker or something, but I'll have to reinstall the Dogs."
"I'll help." Dutch volunteered.
"We'll all help." Mike corrected, speaking for his group. Tex and Julie nodded, backing him up.
Hound sighed. "Alright. I think I've got some radiation suits around here or something, that should stop any potential contamination. But I'll need someone else to act like bait, I can't do that and operate the pulse at the same time."
"I'm closest." Dutch grinned.
"As long as we stay in our cars, we should be able to avoid contamination." Julie spoke up. "We can herd people closer. We just have to keep the cars out of the pulse range, right?"
"Yeah." Hound nodded, still sounding reluctant. "Alright, I'll go set this up on my end."
"If you give us your contact info, we can call you when we've got everyone close to your turf." Mike cheerfully offered.
There was a long silence. "I'll call you in 10 minutes." Hound said, then cut the connection, much to Mike's disappointment.
"Don't worry about it." Dutch advised. "You're getting to him, man. Trust me. I'm on my way over to Hound's main warehouse, Dutch out." Dutch's window closed as well.
"Ready to wrangle?" Julie asked with a feline grin.
"Oh yeah!" Texas hollered. "GIDDY UP, LITTLE DOGGIES!!!"
Their plan went off without a hitch, setting up two blasts, one for the infected on the East Side, then corralled people in Central while the machine warmed up again in the back of Sasquatch for the second. Dutch was the one to spot the left over silver sheen, Jacob taking a closer look and finding the nanobots. Jacob and Dutch worked with Hound over the comm lines to figure out a radio frequency to jam the nanobots and prevent them from working in the first place.
When Kane's troops had a bad moment when they charged in from the East Gate, expecting easy pickings. Instead, they found 9 Lives, Stronghorn, Mutt, and a couple dozen of Hound's pissed off Dogs waiting for them.
Much to Texas' disappointment, they didn't stick around to fight, quickly going back the same way they'd come in.
"I think that deserves Antonio's." Julie declared, looking like a pleased feline.
"YEAH!" The suggestion brightened Texas' mood right around.
"Alright." Mike agreed with a grin. "Pass the word along to Dutch and Jacob, would you? I'll see if I can't get Hound to join us. And then we can help him with his Pack."
"You got it boss." Julie snapped off a playful salute and a wink. "See ya soon. Good luck!"
"Thanks." He said dryly. Although, hopefully this was the break-through they needed to get Hound to join them on a more regular basis. Or preferably, a more permanent basis.
Little steps. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the guy away, especially when it seemed like he was starting to open up to them a bit more. Hound was at least was calling them, offering assistance and information, and that was way more than they had from anyone else.
It was almost a comfort to see the familiar shapes of the Dogs running alongside Mutt, directing him to the large warehouse they had first met Hound at. The door was open, Gargoyles working as pairs to carry the limp bodies of fallen Dogs in. He spotted a few pairs of small glowing blue eyes in the background that didn't look like either Dogs or Gargoyles, but they were gone before he could try to get a look. The illusive Gnomes, he figured.
Mike pulled Mutt off to the side to leave more room for the Dogs, turning her off and stepping out. "Hey." He called, looking around. It was darker in the warehouse than outside. "Hound?"
"Sorry, forgot to turn on the lights." Hound's wavering voice called. There was a flicker of light blue light, then the overhead lights flickered and turned on. Hound was crouched down next to one of the fallen Dogs, his hand stroking the Dog's neck, Thunder sitting behind him, posture mournful. The eye of the fallen Dog was black, as if the Dog were dead, not waiting for its systems to be reinstalled.
"There you are." Mike gave a quick smile, walking over. There were about a dozen dogs laying around the place as far as he could see, the Gargoyles bringing in more. "The nanobots really got to them." He commented quietly, his smile fading.
"Yeah." Hound agreed, sounding tired. "It's one of the things about my Dogs, they're loyal. They don't like to abandon their packmates. One got infected, then the others didn't want to leave their partners, and it spread."
"How many did it get?" Mike asked. Hound had said about a quarter of his Dogs, and Mike wasn't sure how many Hound actually had.
"Approximately twenty." Hound paused. "I may have gotten the percentage wrong, I was a little shaken at the time."
In other words, he still wasn't telling how many Dogs he head. Mike chuckled. Just because someone was paranoid, didn't mean that KaneCo wasn't out to get them.
"Right, so the others were planning on meeting at Antonio's for celebratory pizza before coming over here to help." Mike said, motioning over his shoulder in the direction he thought the cafe was. "I figured I'd swing by and see if I couldn't pick you up to join us."
"Thanks, but no." Hound patted his fallen Dog's neck. "I can't leave."
"If it's the Dogs,..." Mike ventured. "I'm pretty sure they'll still be here in an hour."
"No." Hound's voice cracked. "I mean I CAN'T Leave."
"What? You mean like ever? You're trapped?" Mike asked, confused. He knew Jacob had seen Hound just last week at the Supermarket. But if Hound was trapped, then maybe they could do something about that.
"I'm not 'trapped'." Hound shook his head, tapping his staff on the ground before rising to his feet. "I'm not like you guys, zooming everywhere in your cars. This is turf, this is my territory, this is where I'm safe."
"You'd be safe with me." Mike protested. "Me and Mutt, we wouldn't let anything happen to you. Heck, bring Thunder along, I'm sure he could keep up." The old Dog could ride on top, he'd probably enjoy that.
"Dammit, Mike." Hounds hands clenched into fists. "You're not going to stop pushing, are you?"
Mike held up his hands, trying to defuse the sudden tension. "If this is about your contact info, I can drop it, I swear." He didn't think he'd been pushing for it that hard. He didn't even ask for it every time he talked to Hound now, just once in a while, mostly to see if he could get Hound to smile.
"And you probably will, for a while." Hound agreed, his tone turning bitter. "But it won't be enough, will it? Pretend sympathy and friendship, it's the same damn thing every time. You have to know what's going on with the weirdo. So why don't we just get it all done and over with now, and then you can go on your merry way, having gotten a good laugh at the freak."
"Wait, get what done with? What's going on?" Mike shook his head, trying to comprehend what was happening. Pretend what? "Hound?"
"Don't." Hound spat, turning towards him as he pulled the hood covering his face off his head, revealing a head full of tousled blond hair. He reached up under the fringe that obscured his features, pulling away a strip of black fabric that was covering his eyes, tossing it away. "Here." Hound said darkly, pushing the fringe out of his face onto the top of his head with his free hand. "Get a good look."
The first thing that caught Mike's attention was the fact that Hound was missing his eyes.
Where the right eye should have been was a hollow mass of scar tissue, and his left was large glowing blue eye of a H.O.U.N.D., the metal edges sticking out of torn flesh. Shiny pink scars continued away from his eyes in a jagged starburst pattern, up his forehead, criss-crossing down his long crooked nose, across his cheeks to end just above his lips.
The worst part, the absolutely worst part, was that even with the scar tissue Mike recognised that face, remembered it. He stared, mouth open, words stuck in his throat.
"So that's what it takes to get you to stop smiling." Hound snapped, his voice raw. "Shall I show you rest? The amputations? The implants? The places where they cut me open just because they could? How about-"
Mike snapped, crossing the distance between them in a couple of steps, wrapping his arms around Hound, one of his hands cradling the back of Hound's head, holding him tight. Hound tensed against him, causing Thunder to rumble, circling around them, clearly agitated.
"I'm sorry." Mike whispered, his voice muffled in Hound's shoulder, not caring if Thunder ate him the next second, he had to let Hound know. "I'm so sorry. I didn't know. I swear I didn't."
He'd fucked it all up. Everything.
Hound was the Lab Assistant Mike had escorted to his new 'Promotion' years ago, the one who had screamed like a girl and pleaded with them the entire trip, flailing ineffectually in an attempt to escape. Mike had laughed at the time, thinking the blond was just been being weird.
"You never stopped smiling." Hound muttered, voice thick as he dropped his head to rest it against Mike's. "It's the last thing I remember before they took my eyes. They didn't even wait for the doors to close or to strap me to a chair. The guard used his thumbs, punishment for seeing classified files I shouldn't have."
Mike flinched, jerking as if he'd been shot. He remembered hearing an agonised scream as the doors closed, and glancing back. His supervisor had tugged him along, saying it was nothing. They'd gone off to lunch, getting an extra treat for a job 'well done'.
"They used me as a guinea pig, testing to see what they could mesh with human flesh, make the Elites faster, stronger." Hound continued. "They removed my hands next, then my arms, laughing as I screamed. Eventually I stopped. They didn't. They laughed and laughed. One... one even pretended to like me, be my friend. He wasn't, it was all... some big joke to him."
Mike had heard echoes of rumours when he was a Cadet, of things they did with people who betrayed Kane. Torture or sent to work in a factory if you were lucky. Human experimentation or gladiatorial style fights against the latest Kane Bots if you weren’t. If Mike hadn't run when he had, that would have been his fate.
Or worse, because Kane had a... personal interest in Mike.
There were rumours about Kane's private tastes too. Ones that made the other rumours sound tame.
But that’s all they had been, or so Mike had thought. Rumours.
"That's not me.” Mike growled, holding Hound tighter, willing Hound to believe that. If Mike had known what they were doing, he would have done everything he could have to get Hound out. Instead, he’d walked away, laughing with his supervisor about the way the blond had screamed. He’d done nothing.
How many others? How many others had he lead to their demise? How many others were still up there, trapped like Hound had been? Being tortured and used for inhuman experiments?
"I'm getting that." Hound said quietly. He shifted, awkwardly wrapping his arms around Mike, as if doing so was something he'd never done before, his staff pressing uncomfortably against Mike's shoulders.
The action startled Mike out of the dark spiral of his thoughts. “How'd you escape?" KaneCo was practically a prison in and of itself, it wasn't as if someone could just get up and walk out. Especially while caged as an experiment.
"No eyes doesn't mean I can't program." Hound muttered, just a touch defiant. "They installed jacks in my spine. Plug right into the system. That's how I got Thunder and Lighting, reprogrammed them before they got off the assembly line, escaped down here with them. Lost Lighting on the way. That's her eye in my head ."
Thunder huffed, his breath stirring their hair, knowing they were talking about him. Mike could hear the other Dogs moving around in the background, circling them. Dogs that Hound had caught, repaired and turned into his pack, without any help from anyone else. Forming his own pack, using them to gain and defend territory.
"That's amazing. You're amazing." Mike said honestly, giving Hound another squeeze. Not only had Hound escaped and survived, but flourished as well. The LARPers clearly idolised him, accepting him as their ruler. He'd never turned the Burners away either, he'd often helped in one way or another, sometimes without even being asked.
"I'm not!" Hound protested, voice cracking as he shook his head. "I told you, I'm not like you guys. I'm no fighter, I'm scared all the time. The idea of going for a ride terrifies me, without my Dogs and my staff, I can't even see where I'm going!"
"So bring them with you, if you want to come." Mike offered. "Or you can jack into Mutt's systems. I've got a whole passenger side we can customise for you."
Hound made a confused noise in the back of his throat, jerking in Mike's grasp, but not pulling away.
"I've been trying to figure a way to get you to join the Burners since we met." Mike confessed, loosening his grip, fingers sliding through the longish blond hair. He got the impression that Hound needed this spelled out for him, that subtly would only be misconstrued. "In case you haven't guessed that part yet. We’d like you with us. Me in particular, but the guys like you too. You already know and like Dutch."
"I can't." Hound shook his head, body trembling slightly as his hands clutched at the back of Mike's jacket. "I can't, I can't."
Mike’s breath caught and he swallowed, his chest aching. “If it’s because of me-“
“No.” This time Hound was the one to tighten his hold, the staff bonking Mike in the back of the head. “It’s not you.” Hound said firmly.
"Okay." Mike agreed, rubbing Hound’s back. He could feel the difference in texture through the shirt, between normal ribs and a patch that had a hard plate under the skin. It made him want to punch something.
One thing at a time.
"I'll make you a deal, alright?” Mike said quietly, finding some of his conviction. Self-recrimination later. Hound and Burners now. ”Come with me to pizza. No one will laugh, no one will make fun of you. We'll come back together and fix up the Dogs. At the end of the night, if it goes badly and you can't handle it, just say no and I'll drop it. No more asking for your number, no more visits if you really want to be left alone."
It would kill him to do that, especially now. But if Hound asked, Mike would let him be. Maybe patrol outside Hound's territory once in a while, but he'd do it.
"However, if it goes well, and I think it will, just think about it, okay?" Mike continued. "It doesn't have to be a yes, just think about joining us. We could really use your help. And we'd like to help you."
"And if I say no to pizza?" Hound mumbled, still shaking slightly, but sounding cautiously optimistic.
"Then we work on the Dogs and I ask you to join us later." Mike said against Hound's neck. Hound even smelled like his Dogs, warm metal and electricity. "Your call. But I'm not giving up on you."
"Yeah, well." Hound snorted. "Just wait until you see me without a shirt."
"I look forward to it." Mike said honestly.
And then felt like kicking himself in the face. Repeatedly.
They both paused, not moving. "That... went into awkward territory, didn't it?" Mike ventured.
Hound nodded. "Just a bit."
"Right, well." Mike briskly patted Hound on the back. "Keep that in mind too. Just... for future reference. But that has nothing to do with you joining the Burners, I swear. Except for maybe as a perk? You know, if you want? I... am going to shut up now." He announced, hiding his blush against Hound's shoulder. Just shoot him now.
Julie was never going to let him live this down. If she ever heard about it. Which depended on how badly he flubbed this up.
Hound started shaking again, but this time it was accompanied by the muffled sound of laughter. "Oh, my gosh." Hound snickered. "Are you always this smooth?"
"Give me a break! I've never done this before!" Mike grumbled, which only seemed to make Hound laugh harder. But he wasn't pulling away or freaking out, so Mike was going to take that as a hopefully positive sign.
"Alright, fine." Hound finally said, holding a hand up as if in surrender, then patted Mike on the back. "Yes, I'll do it."
"You will?!" Mike brightened, hope rising. "Wait, which part?"
"The Pizza." Hound said, pulling back and Mike released him, hands sliding across Hound's too skinny waist. The guy really was all skin and bones, he could definitely use some fattening up. "We'll see on the rest of it."
"Alright." Mike barely kept himself from grinning. Thunder stared at him from over Hound's shoulder, Hound reaching up to poke Mike's cheek.
"Don't... stop smiling." Hound said slowly, his eyes hidden behind his hair again. "Especially not because of me. You should keep smiling. Not enough people do."
Mike nodded. "Okay." He agreed, catching Hound's hand. "Back then... I wasn't... I didn't mean to be cruel." Smiling and laughing, as he'd taken Hound to be sliced apart. He really had thought the lab assistant was just being overly modest about not wanting their promotion. "I am sorry."
"I get that now." Hound squeezed his hand before sliding it free, resting it on Thunder's shoulder. "I remembered it cause you seemed kind. You thought you were being helpful."
"I should have guessed." Mike muttered, clenching his hands into fists. He didn't remember everything he did as a Cadet, most of it blurring into monotony. Hound had only stuck out because of his unusual hair and the screams he'd made. Mike had been blind for so long. Mike had privately been thankful that he’d left Kane before he’d done anything too terrible, but now he wasn’t so sure. He was haunted by the idea of how many others had he escorted to be tortured or killed.
And how many were there still?
Hound stepped forward, grabbing Mike's shoulder before letting it go. "You figured it out eventually." Hound said, and it wasn't quite forgiveness, but maybe the start of it. He motioned to the ceiling with his staff, up towards Deluxe. "That's more than most other people have."
"Thanks." Mike flashed him a brief smile, but it faded. He cleared his throat. "So, um. Pizza?"
"Lead on." Hound agreed, pulling his hood back up, obscuring his face once more.
Thunder rumbled, standing up and waiting for Hound to put his hand on Thunder's shoulder before moving. "Um. You're not going to tell the others, are you? About everything?"
"Not unless you want me to." Mike shook his head as he hastened to open the passenger side door to Mutt before Hound got there. Hound seemed to find this amusing for some reason, Mike catching the hint of a smile as Hound sat down, wrestling the staff for a moment before getting it in. Mike climbed into the driver's seat, putting the key in the ignition as Hound fumbled with the seat-belt, Thunder sticking his head in to stare at what his person was doing.
"Do you want me to tell them?" Mike asked.
Hound shook his head. "No."
"Then I won't." It was Hound's business if he did or not. They all had secrets they wanted to keep, down here in Motorcity.
They got to Antonio's in not quite record speed, but not too shabby of a time either, if Mike did say so himself. Hound lapsed into silence on the ride over, keeping a white-knuckle grip on his staff and on the armrest, a cable leading from under the hood into Mutt's dash, the navigation systems up. Mike would have worried about the quiet except in contrast to his owner, Thunder ran alongside Mutt, lounge waggling in the breeze, looking excited to be going for a run.
He slid to a stop, parking Mutt alongside the rest of the Burner's cars. Thunder kept going, something going crash in the abandoned buildings surrounding the restaurant. "We're here."
"Oh, thank god." Hound announced, scrabbling at the seat belt. Mike chuckled at the honest response, getting out and hopping across the hood to open Hound's door. Hound almost fell out of the car, barely staying in because the staff was stuck.
"Easy there." Mike helped pull the staff free, then took Hound's free hand, helping him get to his feet. "Was that your first time in a car?"
"Not a lot of them topside." As symbols of personal freedom, Kane hated cars with a passion, incinerating any he happened to get his hands on.
"Good point." Thunder came trotting back, head held high, his jaws open in what looked like a pleased canine grin. Mike smiled at the happy Dog. "Looks like someone had fun." He commented, patting the metal head.
"Don't encourage him." Hound grumbled, releasing Mike and stepping forward to rest his hand on Thunder's shoulder. "Be good. I'll be back in a bit." He instructed.
Thunder grumbled in response, then turned to stare at Mutt, tail wagging. Hound shook his head, reaching out and latching on to the back of Mike's jacket.
"Um." Mike glanced between Hound and Thunder as he slowly started walking towards Antonio's, Hound a half-step behind him. "He's not going to... Do anything to Mutt, is he?"
"Depends." Hound smirked, apparently in a much better mood now that he was on the ground again. "You get us back home safely, and I swear to you that your car's virtue shalt remain unsoiled."
"Now see, it worries me when you start talking like that without the cloak." Mike muttered, opening the door and holding it open for them to pass through. The smell of good Italian food hit his nose, basil, oregano, garlic and tomatoes, and his stomach grumbled.
"As well it should." Hound said loftily, but he shifted to stand behind Mike, using him as a shield against the half-full diner.
"Told you." Hound muttered, staff tapping the ground. "I'm not like you."
"You're still one of the bravest people I've ever met." Mike quietly corrected, as Julie spotted him and waved. He waved back with a grin he didn’t entirely feel. "And the others have spotted us, too late to back out now."
Hound took a deep breath, straightening his spine. "Fine.” He muttered. “Let's do this."
"That's what I'm talking about." Mike patted him on the shoulder and stepped forward, Hound trailing after. Antonio’s wasn't particularly packed, but there were enough people wandering around that he had to dodge a bit.
At least until Hound stumbled, running into Mike for balance. He turned to find a big guy glaring at Hound, clearly spoiling for a fight. "Hey, watch where you're going."
"You watch it." Hound snarled back, staff striking the ground as he got into the guy's face before Mike could interfere. He caught a flash of blue light from under the hood, material falling back just enough to show Hound's bared teeth. "You're the one who tripped into me, buddy."
The other guy grunted back, walking away. If it wasn't for the fact that he could feel the trembling of Hound's hand against his side, Mike would have never known Hound was terrified.
"Nice job." Mike said quietly.
"Lots of practice faking it." Hound whispered back, a small twittering laugh in his voice as he pulled the hood deeper over his face.
Mike grinned, throwing an arm over Hound's skinny shoulders, pulling him close for a moment. "You certainly had me fooled, buddy."
Hound made a pleased noise back. It was fascinating, seeing past the mask Hound put up to the real guy underneath, see the scared guy who was just doing the best he could. Mike was so used to thinking of Hound as this powerful mysterious aloof guy, hidden under his hood. Which probably was one of the best reasons for wearing it, scars aside. The hood made it impossible to read his expression.
"Mike! Hound!" Julie greeted them with wave and a grin. "Thought you weren't going to make it. We kind of finished off the pizza, so there's a second one in the oven that we're waiting on."
"Thanks guys." Mike grinned at them before turning to Hound. "You want the inside or the outside?"
"Inside." Hound muttered, stepping forward, one hand reaching out and finding the back of the seat before sliding in. "That way anyone will have to go through you first." He added, dryly teasing and Mike couldn't help the small flush of pleasure at that. They figured out how to angle the staff, Mike sliding in next to Hound, sliding one arm along the top of the seat, behind the programmer's head.
"Don't think I've ever seen you this far from your turf, Hound-dog." Dutch said quietly, but no less pleased for his lack of volume. "Happy to see you out and about."
"Yeah, well." Hound shrugged, motioning to Mike. "Blame him."
"We do." Julie agreed. “Frequently."
"Hey!" Mike protested, but he was laughing. The topic shifted to stupid stunts they had pulled, Texas certainly won that by a large mile, showing off his neck muscles as he did so, making everyone laugh at the sight. Hound chuckled, but seemed mostly content to sit back and let the conversation flow around him, making the occasional wry comment.
Mike found himself unable to stop grinning as contentment bubbled up inside, despite the dark shadow of their earlier conversation. He safe and comfortable, his Burners were here, all happy and laughing around him, and Hound a warm presence at his side.
This was what Kane couldn't understand in his goal of domination. That this, these moments of precious camaraderie were worth fighting for. Family, Friends, and Freedom. This was what life was about.
Maybe food too. He was hungry.
"You're awful quiet, Mike." Julie said, teasing slightly.
Mike shrugged, slightly embarrassed to be caught ruminating. "I'm happy." He said simply.
He could see Julie, Texas, and Dutch exchange looks, their expressions softening as they realised that for this moment in time, they were as well. They were Burners. Live fast, live free. They would be fighting soon enough, racing for their lives, scraping to get by. But for the moment, all was right in their world.
"Yeah." Dutch smiled, then grinned, leaning back in his seat. "Yeah. I get that."
"Texas would prefer a little more punching." Texas said thoughtfully, eyeing around their table. Dutch and Julie quickly put their hands on his arms, keeping him where he was.
"That's okay, Tex." Julie said quickly. "We're good. Really."
Mike nudged Hound. "You?"
"I..." Hound seemed to think about it. "I'm better than I thought I would be." He concluded after a couple moments of contemplation, seeming almost surprised at his answer.
Mike grinned, but was distracted by their pizza arriving. He was just reaching to open it when Hound rested a hand on Mike's thigh, leaning towards him to whisper in his ear. "However, I do one slight problem."
"Yeah..." Hound seemed hesitant. "I can't see what's on the table." He confessed, low enough so the others couldn't catch what he was saying. Which meant that he couldn't see what they were eating. Heck, they could have had a weapon aimed at him the entire time and he may not have been able to see it. Crap. So much for a comfortable, relaxing meal.
Mike paused. "Eat back at your place?" He offered, loud enough that the others could catch the hint. The others glanced at Hound, then nodded, agreeing it sounded like a plan. Everyone got up, Mike giving Hound a hand where he seemed to flail, at least until he was back upright, staff in hand. Julie grabbed the pizza, Dutch standing at Hound's other side, silently giving support if he needed it, which he didn't seem to.
Still, Mike didn't realise how tense Hound was until they got within sight of the cars, the programmer giving a soft breath of relief as Thunder turned in their direction.
The Dog was reclining on top of Mutt, tail beating a staccato against Mutt's metal body as they approached. "Hey!" Mike pointed a finger at the Dog. "No dinging the ride! And I'd better find not find any strange fluids on Mutt!"
Thunder didn't seem to care, just staring patiently at them as they approached. "Does he eat pizza?!" Texas asked, bounding ahead. It didn't matter how many times he saw the giant Dogs, he always seemed fascinated by them.
"Definitely not." Hound protested, picking up the pace to get to Thunder before the pizza box arrived. Mike chortled as Texas got up into Thunder's face loudly proclaiming that he could take the Dog on. Thunder yawned in response, Texas staring down the Dog's gullet with a contemplative look on his face.
"Alright, Burners." Mike opened the side door for Hound, which had the side purpose of moving Texas away from the large Dog. "Time to ride!"
"Whoo-hoo!" Julie cheered, setting the pizza box in 9 Lives as she climbed into her car. "Race you there!"
"You're on!" Dutch called from Whiptail, already revving his car’s engine.
"Huh?" Texas tore his gaze away from Thunder, racing towards Stronghorn. "No fair starting without Texas!"
Mike chuckled as he climbed into Mutt, Hound already settled in, seat-belt fastened and with a death grip on his staff. "You're not plugging in?" He questioned, starting Mutt up.
"I'm trusting you, alright?" Hound said resolutely, his voice cracking just slightly. "To get us there safely. Drive like you normally do, whatever. Just... don't tell me how fast we're going."
"Can do." Mike knocked on the ceiling with a fist. "Off the roof!"
Thunder let out a whine of protest. "I don't think he'll be able to stay on for long." Hound assured him, bracing himself as Mike reversed, and drove off.
"Alright. As long as he doesn't rip anything off." Mike shrugged, putting pedal to the metal, easing them up to his normal speeds. Thunder let out a robotic howl from the rooftop, and Mike caught a glimpse in the reflection of a broken office complex of the Dog sitting on top of Mutt, clearly enjoying the ride.
"So, to just avoid any uncomfortable potential pitfalls in the future, I'm guessing the eye doesn't actually work all that well?" Mike ventured. Hound could walk just fine with the staff in his hand, but he hadn't been able to see anything on the table.
Hound fidgeted for a moment, reaching up to touch the lens that protruded from his eye-socket before coming to a decision. "The eye doesn't actually see at all." He finally said. "It's more like a transmitter jacked into my brain than anything else."
Mike did a double take, barely remembering to keep his eyes on the road. "So when you said earlier that you couldn't see without your Dogs and Staff, you meant that literally?!"
".... Yeah." Hound sounded like he was bracing himself for a blow.
Hound was totally blind. That certainly explained why he didn't worry about lights being on, or turn his head to actually look at people, or a dozen other small quirks Mike had noticed.
"Wow." The fact that Hound had been willing to leave that security of being able to see everything made his estimation of Hound's bravery rise several notches. "Seriously. You're amazing."
Hound was quiet, his hood hiding his face.
"So next time." Mike extrapolated. "We need to either bring one of the Dogs in with us when we go out to eat, or eat on the cars so you can see through them."
"Next time?" Hound ventured.
"Well, yeah." Mike shrugged. "I told you. We want you to join the Burners."
"You're sure?" Hound's voice cracked in agitation. "I mean... I'm not a fighter, I can't see. I'd be a liability to the team, and-"
"You're not a liability." Mike said firmly. "How many times have we called you up because we need your help, because we can't do things on our own? Not being able to see hasn't stopped you yet. It just means that we keep at least one of the Dogs with you at all times. Or Dutch'll help build you some way around it. He's good with stuff like that."
"Seriously?" Hound snapped, voice sceptical. "You find out I'm blind, and you just accept it and move on?"
Mike paused. "Yes-?" Was there some other sort of thing he was supposed to be doing?
Hound laughed, breaking into occasionally giggles as he shook his head. It sounded slightly hysterical, but a lot relieved, like Hound had just dodged something bad. Mike waited until the laughter died down to a few hiccups before speaking again.
"So how does this work anyway?" He asked, keeping his tone light. "I mean, we kinda figured you had a way to see things with the Dogs and Gargoyles a while back, but the staff?"
"Works a bit like sonar." Hound patting his staff, falling into a lecturing tone, sounding more in control of himself. "I tap it on the ground, and it sends out a pulse, which bounces back off anything in the area. Cybernetic systems in my arm and head translate that into a rough map, letting me know where and how far away everything is."
"And you can hit people with it." Mike grinned. Just he did with his Spark Staff.
"Yes, And I can hit people with it." Hound agreed with a long-suffering grin. "Delivers a nasty shock too. As far as the Dogs, I ask, and they let me piggy back on their visual feeds, which link up through this eye." He tapped the side of his head. "The downside though is that it's all flat, no perspective. You need two eyes for that." Or multiple eyes staring at the same thing.
"So the Dogs let you see what's around you, and the staff lets you know how far away it is." Mike concluded. As long as Hound was in his familiar turf with his pack, he wasn't limited by his lack of sight at all. No wonder he didn't leave. "That's amazing! How long did it take you to set up?"
"Um..." Hound paused, thinking about it, and then shrugged. "Not sure. A while? I've been down here... About two and a half years? I guess? It's really easy to lose track of time down here."
"That it is." Mike agreed. "So what about the Dogs? You just started collecting them? And the Shock-Bots?"
"Seemed like a good idea at the time, turning Kane's bots against him. Thunder took down one, I reprogrammed it, then those two took down two more, and it just escalated from there. " Hound waved a hand around. "Suddenly had all this fun tech to play with. And once you tone down the aggression factor a bit on the Dogs, they make really good companions- nngheehee!" A high-pitched whine coming out of the back of his throat as Mutt suddenly tried to drift sideways.
Hound really did make the most amazing alarmed sounds. Part of Mike wanted to take Hound onto the test track sometime, just to see what other kind of noises he could make.
As long as it wasn't fear or pleading for his life. It was going to take Mike a while to wrap his mind around and accept what he’d learned.
"You okay?" He asked, getting Mutt back under control.
"I'm good." Hound said quickly, waving it off. "Thunder just fell off the back. He's catching up now."
Mike glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw that Hound was correct, the Dog furiously chasing after Mutt, tail raised high like it was some sort of game, Stronghorn following quickly behind. Mike laughed. Someone was certainly having fun today.
Texas' avatar popped up on the dash. "Since when did you start using Dogs as projectiles, Mike?"
"Sorry, Tex." Mike smiled gamely. "He did that on his own."
"Ah. Smart Missile. Very clever." Texas' avatar nodded, attempting to look wise and failing "That shall still not stop the might of Daddy Texas!"
"I believe the phrase is, Bring it, Don't sing it." Mike snarked back, closing the chat window and hitting the accelerator. Hound noise like a cross between a moan and a laugh as he clutch his staff in a white knuckle grip.
"So, while I've got you here." Mike cleared his throat. "Did you have any questions? About me? Or the Burners?"
"Not really." Hound admitted with a small shake of his head. "I hacked all of the Burner's KaneCo profiles the day after we met. The reports talk about you in some really glowing terms, right up until you defected. Had a hard time for a while reconciling that with how you acted, I wasn't really sure about you for a while."
"Really?" Huh. Interesting. "What made you change your mind?"
“Ï talked to the Cablers.” Hound shrugged one shoulder. "You really did help them, for no reason other than they asked. -Hey! I know a shortcut from here!" Hound suddenly changed the topic as they got off the highways, following Whiptail and 9 Lives into the former residential areas. "Take the next left, then the second right. It should get us there before the others. I usually lead you in a roundabout way."
Mike grinned broadly. "Thanks." Mike agreed, following Hound's directions as if he'd always done so. Hound squeaked as they hit the turns, but seemed okay otherwise.
And just like that, they were back in Hound's turf, fanged teeth and wolves staring at them from the buildings. Several Dogs joined them, long tongues trailing as they tried to out-pace Mutt. Mike laughed at the thrill of it, cutting the turns as tight as he could to avoid hitting any of the Dogs.
"Changed my mind! New question." Hound squeaked as they took a particularly sharp corner, flailing to brace himself. "Do you always drive like a CRAZY PERSON?"
"Nah." Mike reassured him. "Sometimes I drive faster."
Hound just whimpered in response. They pulled up in front of Hound's warehouse bare seconds before 9 Lives and Whiptail did, more Dogs surrounding them, looking both excited and confused at the somewhat familiar intruders.
"Oh thank god." Hound muttered, reaching for his seat-belt. Mike chuckled, stepping out of the car and quickly walked over to the other side, where Hound already had the door open, working on getting his staff on the ground. Thunder trotted over, his head held high, mouth open and tongue lolling in what definitely passed for a dog-grin. "You're as bad as he is." Hound grumbled, pointing an accusing finger at Thunder.
Thunder just sat down, head tilted to the side, tail waving slowly.
"Can't say that I take credit for him." Mike laughed, taking Hound's outstretched hand and helping him out of the car. Stronghorn pulled up behind them, Mike having ditched him on the way in.
"How'd you get here so fast?" Julie demanded as she walked up, carrying the pizza box. "I totally had that one."
"Superior Intel." Mike said smugly, motioning to Hound who had reclaimed his hand and was moving towards Thunder.
"Fair enough." Dutch nodded, taking the pizza from Julie and passing it to Mike. "I shoulda thought of that, I'm almost as familiar with turf. Well, to the winners goes the pizza."
"Sweet. Thanks!" He reached into the box and took grabbed a slice of pizza, inhaling the aroma with pleasure. Unlike the Deluxian Throat Cubes, Motorcity food had real flavour. "Wanna slice, Hound?"
"Gimme a minute." Hound sighed, leaning against Thunder. The Dog turned and sniffed Hound in obvious concern, then licked Hound's jaw. Hound made a sound of disgust, absently shoving Thunder's jaw away, but the gesture seemed more like habit than real revulsion.
"No worries." Dutch waved it off. "So what all do we need to do for your Dogs?"
"Before that, Texas has a question on the Dogs." Texas said, eyeing the dogs with a thoughtful look.
"Okay?" Hound ventured back.
Texas pointed to the one standing next to him, who sniffed his hand. "Do the Doggies play fetch?"
Hound paused. "You know, I'm not actually sure." He finally said. "You can ask?"
"'Kay." Texas agreed, and then strode off towards the piles of junk piled up on the sides.
"What's he up to?" Julie asked, as several of the Dogs followed Texas, tails waving in curious circles.
Mike and Dutch shrugged. "Anyway." Dutch turned his attention back towards Hound. "So what are we doing to the Dogs?"
Mike mostly tuned them out as they started speaking about programming codes he finished off the slice of pizza in his hand, then grabbed a second one, passing the box to Dutch. Dutch offered the pizza to Hound, who finally took a slice before Dutch passed the box back, not missing a beat in their conversation. Mike wasn't too worried about bringing the downed Dogs back to life, Dutch and Hound would tell him what they needed him to do, and Mike would do it.
Julie came over to lean on Mutt next to him, watching their surroundings with a mellow air, a small smile on her face.
"Gimme some good news, Jules." Mike commented quietly. He could use some, and Julie often saw what he didn’t.
"He's definitely riding with you." She leaned back and smiled. "We're going to need to trick Mutt out again, aren't we?"
Mike thought about it, adding cameras for Hound to jack into, upgrading communications so he could see farther, hack into more networks. Maybe pad the passenger seat a bit more, so Hound had stuff to hold on to when the ride wasn't quite so smooth. Definitely needed to push the seat back a bit, Hound was all leg.
"Yeah." He agreed, something in him relaxing as he made plans for the future. "I think so."
She smiled, all smug cat. "Sweet."
He almost wanted to tell her that he'd known Hound up in Deluxe, if even for a little while, then dismissed the thought. As much as he wanted to talk to someone about it, it was Hound’s story, and Hound's choice to tell it or not. In the meantime, perhaps he could see about getting Julie to verify a few of those rumours, maybe shut down a few more KaneCo programs while they tried to take out the big guy.
They were distracted by Texas' reappearance, brandishing what looked like a tire iron. The Dogs were watching him with a bit of wariness, uncertain as to what he was going to do with what was possibly a weapon.
"YO DOGGIES!" Texas shouted, then threw the tire iron, it spinning off into the distance. "FETCH!"
Most of the Dogs just stared at him in confusion, but a few of them broke off in a run, eagerly chasing the 'stick'. One or two appeared to be trying to joyously chase the chasers, herding them to some place only they knew.
"YEAH TEXAS!" Texas threw his hands in the air and cheered before striking a heroic pose. "I Have Tamed The Fearsome Beasts!"
"Uh, Tex?" Dutch screwed his face up as he rubbed his forehead, as if he had the start of a headache. "I think the Dogs were already tamed."
"TEXAS HAS FURTHER TAMED THE SAVAGE CREATURES!"
Mike covered his mouth with his hand to hide his laugh as Julie just shook her head. Hound didn't seem to notice or react, but Thunder's tail was beating a happy beat against the ground as he watched the Dogs come back, one of them carrying the tire iron in its jaws at a jaunty angle as the others tried to snatch it away from it.
"I think we may need to consider moving our garage here." Julie commented dryly as Texas tried to convince the Dog to put the tire iron down, and failed. "Or extend his turf into ours. We're never going to get Tex back from the Dogs now that he knows he can play with them."
"Might not be so bad." Mike said optimistically as Texas' attempts to get the tire iron back resulted in a game of Tug-Of-War, the other Dogs looking on with interest. "Just wait, he'll start naming them and teaching them tricks next."
"Or he could just ask them what their names are." Hound spoke up. "Although I'm glad I changed the parameters to include all four of you guys as 'friendly' a few weeks ago, or he'd be mince by now."
Thunder yawned, showing off his fearsome jaws, making Dutch grimace and shudder. "Right.” Dutch clapped his hands, rubbing them together for a moment before pointing at the warehouse. "Let's say we get inside and to work on those Dogs."
"Right behind you." Julie said brightly, patting Dutch on the shoulder as the two of them walked to the warehouse, Dutch already going over what they needed to do with Julie.
"How's the pizza?" Mike asked, bringing the box over to Hound. "Want another slice?"
"This stuff's great." Hound grinned, grabbing another piece and diving into it. "Thanks for introducing me to it."
"My pleasure." Mike smiled back. He watched as Texas attempted to get one of the Dogs to shake his hand, which seemed to confuse the Dogs more than anything else.
Texas was probably fine where he was. Few more minutes and he'd probably try teaching the Dogs how to fetch again. By chasing after the tire iron himself.
"They really are a bunch of good people, aren't they?" Hound said quietly, taking a thoughtful bite of his pizza.
"The best." Mike agreed. There wasn't anyone else he was prouder to have ride with him. And they made a pretty damn good team, if he did say so himself.
Hound nodded as he finished his pizza, apparently coming to some sort of decision. He raised a hand, pale blue flickering at his fingertips as he typed a command.
A message popped up on Mike's comm, Unknown Sender. Curious, he glanced over at Hound, then triggered it.
It was a request to add Hound to his contacts list, his avatar not black or Lord Vanquisher for once, but showing him without the hood, blond hair covering his eyes.
Mike looked up at the real Hound. "You sure?"
"Yeah." Hound swallowed and nodded. "I know I said I'd give you my answer after the Dogs were fixed, but yeah. I'll join you. I mean, your pack. The Burners."
Mike resisted the urge to hug Hound, the programmer looking like he was ready to bolt at the slightest move. "We're happy to have you." He said honestly, adding Hound to his contacts list, just below Julie.
The name changed as he saved it. "Chuck-?" He read out-loud, glancing back up at Hound, curious.
"It's not a particularly scary or buff sounding name." Hound said quietly, a small nervous smile visible as he fiddled with his staff. "But I figured since you already know all my deep, dark secrets, you might as well know my real name too. No one's called me that in a while."
"I like it." Mike held his hand out. Hound took it, his hand cold but strong against Mike's. "Welcome to the Burners... Chuck."