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From Humble Beginnings

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The cascade of buildings towered above him as Ace roamed aimlessly through the streets. The familiar stench of engine exhaust, greasy food stands, and summer air hung all around. They filled his already smoke filled lungs as he inhaled the end of his cigarette, letting the smoke exit through his nose as he exhaled.

He’d reached the butt end of the stick and grumbled, gnawing at it briefly before tossing it into a nearby puddle. He was ticked about it, but then again when was he never ticked about something. Today, perhaps it was the fact his gang needed money for food and now he was out scouting possible targets to rob. Or, it could be that he’d finished his last cigarette and was pissed at the now empty box in his pocket poking into his thigh.

He clawed at the box and threw it to the ground, stomping it flat into the pavement. It had taken him forever to gather up enough change to afford that single box. However, between him and his greedy gang members, it had been finished off within the span of the past three days. Now, there was no way he could obtain another anytime soon, given he was going to need to use the money he gathered today to get food for his friends.

It was the price he paid for being their leader. They relied on him, looked up to him, so he couldn’t let them down. Perhaps it was his morals showing through; the care and love he actually felt for them deep down. But, it most likely may be the fear of all four of them turning on him together if he didn’t provide what they wanted.

Either way, it was up to him to pull through today. He’d have to focus on his own needs later and deal with the itch for nicotine at a later date.

He decided to stop at the entrance of an alleyway, leaning against the wall of an apartment complex as he scoped out passerbys. It was a busy Monday, people bustling left and right to where they needed to be. He’d watch each one go by, making notes of what they wore, what they carried, trying to make judgemental notes of their character based on that alone.

He’d learned his lesson plenty of times thanks to the Powerpuff Girls’ interventions during many of their numerous schemes. He had to be careful, pick ones that wouldn’t make a fuss. He decided to walk down the alleyway to its other end, hoping for a less busier street to find his target.

That’s when he saw him. A tall, lanky, figure making his way down the sidewalk. His hair was a bright azure blue, a little uncanny. He walked with hands in his pockets, head down, and a small line of smoke trailing from his mouth. Bingo, cigarettes and cash, he’d found the gold mine.

His hand reached to grab the knife in his back pocket, keeping hidden behind a large dumpster as the man walked by him. He was young, maybe around his age, thin and seemingly unfocused on the world around him. Perfect.

As he walked by, Ace slipped out from the dumpster to make his move. He grasped onto the man’s right arm while his other hand held the knife only inches away from his throat. He heard him softly gasp, his body tensing up under his hold. He didn’t even try to fight back, just stood in place while trembling slightly.

“Don’t move. Don’t talk. I ain’t goin’ to do nothin’ if ya don’t.” Ace warned, his free hand moving from his arm now to grab his cigarette.

He placed it in his mouth, taking a long drag before sighing out the smoke with relief. He didn’t mind smoking from someone else’s cig, after all he did it all the time with his gang.

“Got any more of these pretty sticks, ey? Maybe a few extra dollars?” Ace pressed the knife closer to his neck now, still keeping it from touching the skin however.

The man kept quiet, only making a soft whining sound in response that sounded somewhat like speech.

“What?” Ace asked, then realized. “Oh, well, now you can talk. Answer me.”

“I gots nothin, dude. Nothin on me.” The young man replied finally.

He had a heavy accent, and the high pitch of his voice gave away how young he really was.

“Sounds like crap to me, beanpole. No one just carries round one cig, you have to have more. And cash, I want your cash too.” Ace began to reach into one of the man’s pockets, but a hand quickly grabbed his own and pushed it away.

“No!” The man yelled, ducking his head into Ace’s chest and pushing him backwards.

“Ah! Hey!” Ace yelled, dropping the knife and cigarette in response to being pushed back.

The lean man then turned around and grabbed for the knife, pointing it in his direction now.

“Hey, wait, hold on a second-” Ace began, but the knife was shoved closer to his face and he stopped talking.

“Alright! Back off right now or I’m going to have to… to… huh.” The man’s voice trailed off as he looked down at the weapon in hand, or, so he thought.

The man shook it, then touched the tip a bit forcefully.

“Is this… fake?” The man asked.

Ace felt beads of sweat on his forehead. Shit! He’d been caught.

“W-what? No it’s not, give it back-”

He then watched in horror as the man slammed his palm down on the knife, only for the blade to be pushed inward into handle.

“It’s a phooey. A party trick knife.” The man stated, looking up at him with a confused look.

“S-so what!? That was just a bluff! A warning.” Ace tried to retaliate, stepping backwards as he tried to think of a quick response.

“I got a gang! They’re waitin' in the shadows, yeah. If you don’t hand over everythin’ in your pockets I’ll send them after ya.” Ace threatened, hoping it would be enough to scare the man into cooperation.

“Wha? All this?” The man asked, reaching into his pockets and holding out the contents.

Ace eyed the items, before squinting in confusion. A skinny wallet and a flip phone, however, the phone was plastic. Fake. And the wallet had multiple coupons poking out from it.

“Huh?” Ace snatched the items, opening the wallet first and shuffling through it. No cards, no cash, just coupons. Upon inspection, expired ones at that. “Why on earth are you carryin’ around coupons and… is this a toy phone?” Ace asked, looking at the fake device.

“Cause’ my dad said this would ‘appen one day. Said “Stuart, don’t take anything of value out on the streets. People in this town will rob ya the first chance you get”. That’s what he said alright; first day we moved here.” The man named Stuart recited.

“But the phone?” Ace asked.

“I likes to pretend I’m on it in crowded places.” Stuart told him.

Ace was completely dumbfounded, staring at the worthless items and then back at Stuart in defeat.

“Don’t even have… a cig on ya?” Ace asked half-heartedly.

“Tha was my last one.” Stuart told him, pointing to the cigarette Ace had taken from him that now lay on the sidewalk.

“Ugh! Fantastic! Perfect!” Ace shouted, handing back the items and running his hands through his hair in frustration. “Gang’s gonna starve… what’s this guy got? Coupons...” He mumbled to himself.

“Starve?” Stuart asked, looking at him with wide eyes.

“S’why I needed the money, nitwit. Don’t got a job or nothin, we’re all just kids. Gotta eat somehow…”

“Well, if food is all you needed then why didn’t you say so.” Stuart said, putting his items back into his pockets.

“Huh?” Ace replied, looking at him with a raised brow.

“I can get you food. For free too. My mum has a job as a nurse at the hospital. Hospital food don’t taste too bad.” Stuart informed him.

“You… you’re not gonna turn me in or nothin? This ain’t a trick, is it?” Ace asked, keeping himself wary.

“No tricks. Promise.” Stuart said, offering him a smile that made Ace feel a bit uneasy.

“I jus’ tried to rob ya, are you serious?” Ace asked, still in disbelief.

“Dad may have warned me about robbers, but it’s my mum who taught me to always be kind. Now c’mon, they should be serving lunch just about now.” Stuart told him, walking past him now and gesturing for him to follow. As he passed him, he set the fake knife back into his hands.

Ace could only stare at him in shock. Was this dude for real? Just a few minutes ago he’d been holding a knife against his neck, now he was treating him to lunch?

Ace in no way fully trusted him, but if it was a possible opportunity to get his friends some food it was worth the risk. Warily, Ace followed behind the man named Stuart. He walked with his hands in his back pockets, seeming unphased by the stranger behind him who’d just threatened him. Ace frowned, pushing his hands into his jacket pockets and sighing.

Either this guy was way too kind, or he was extremely dim.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

They’d walked numerous blocks until they finally arrived at the hospital where Stuart’s mom supposedly worked at. Stuart had led him around to the back and had requested he wait for him to come back.

As Ace watched the lanky man disappear into the building, he quickly began to doubt he was even coming back. Especially when a few minutes passed, that soon turned into half an hour. Ace eventually felt as if he was wasting his time waiting around for something that may not even be coming, so he was fully prepared to leave by the time the back door finally opened once again.

Out walked Stuart with a big box in hand. Whatever was in it must’ve been heavy, for when he reached the steps he would’ve went tumbling down if Ace hadn’t ran to catch him. Ace gripped onto the box tightly as Stuart steadied himself again, standing up straight and letting out a sigh of relief. Their eyes met briefly, before Ace coughed and looked away.

“Thanks, wouldn’t want all this to go to waste.” Stuart said, lifting off the lid of the box.

Ace peeked inside and his mouth began to salivate. Somehow, Stuart had managed to gather a plethora of bread, fruit, beans, and veggies. It was enough to feed his gang for a couple days at most, but it was more than he ever imagined gathering that day.

“Holy shit… how?” Ace looked at him with wide eyes behind his shades.

“Jus’ asked my mum if I could have a free meal, she said yes. So I sorta grabbed everything I could without raising suspicion. I do hope this is enough.” Stuart told him, giving him a smile.

“It’s more than enough, really. I’ll take it.” Ace said, letting Stuart hand over the box.

As Ace looked down at the box, his eyes trailed back up to Stuart. The man was looking at him with a goofy smile, an extremely friendly one at that. Ace was still unsure as to why he was so willing to help him, but decided he should just be grateful he’d actually came through in the end.

“Er um, I guess I should say thanks, huh?” Ace sputtered out, not used to using such a word.

“You’re welcome, um… sorry, don’t think you ever introduced yourself.” Stuart told him.

“... Ace.”

“Ace. Hmm, fitting.” Stuart nodded.

The two stood in silence now, the atmosphere quickly becoming awkward. What was Ace supposed to do or say now? He suddenly felt extremely guilty for the stunt he pulled back in the alleyway. For once in his life he actually felt shame for trying to rob someone. Guess it’s cause he’d never met someone like Stuart before, so willing to help him in his time of need even after not making the best first impression.

“I’m… sorry for tryin' to rob you.” There, he’d said it. It felt like fire against his tongue, but he got it out.

“S’all good. You jus’ wanted to help out your friends. Maybe you can ask people for help instead of robbing them, ya? Especially with a fake knife, haha.” Stuart said, chuckling to himself after the last sentence.

“Yeah…” Ace didn’t exactly quite take in Stuart’s advice, but wanted to humor him at least. “Well, can’t exactly afford a real one at the moment. Just gotta stick with the faulty one for now.” Ace sighed, adjusting the box in his hands.

“Well, I do wish the best for you and your gang. I wish I could do more, but don’t exactly got many funds on me myself. If my wallet didn’t make that evident… I am getting a job at my dad’s auto shop, though! Gonna be able to afford lots of things soon, like movies, CDs, maybe even get myself a keyboard… how bout that.” The blue haired man pondered, seemingly now lost in his own daydream.

“That’s nice and all, but I really got to get back my guys. Can’t let this food spoil.” Ace said, wanting to hurry up the conversation.

“Oh! Course, right. See ya later then! Or not.” Stuart shrugged, waving him a goodbye.

“Yeah, bye…” Ace turned but stopped himself. Ugh, there was his better morals getting the best of him again. “...thanks again, Stuart.”

“Welcome.” Stuart said in a soft voice.

With that, Ace began the long trek back to the dump.

On his way there, he kept thinking about the strange encounter with the blue haired man. How undeterred he’d been by his threats, his kindness, the way he spoke. He was almost positive he wasn’t too bright, but damn, if the guy wasn’t generous.

People like him were such a rarity in the city of Townsville, he’d pretty much given up hope of expecting common decency and settling for the sad reality of no one wanting to offer a helping hand to teens in need.

He recalled how the man had said he’d just recently moved to the city, so perhaps wherever he was from was different. Ace wished he and his boys could live somewhere kinder, a place where they could be given the help they needed and not have to live in fear of 5 year old little superhero girls threatening to kick their ass over petty things. For now, he had to settle with more harsher methods of getting what they needed.

The food inside the box was wafting into his nostrils as he walked, making his stomach growl. He knew he would have to wait to eat with his boys back home. It was only a few more blocks left till he reached the dump, though, he didn’t like calling it that. It was home, their hideout, base, any other word that dump.

Finally the sign came into view : “Townsville City Dump”.

“Home sweet home.” Ace said under his breath.

As he entered the dump, the overwhelming stench of rotting food filled his senses. To many it’d be choking them instantly, but Ace had grown so used to it by now he was no longer affected by it.

It didn’t quite matter in the end, given the gang had set up their hideout in the outskirts of the mountains of trash around them. A couple abandoned semi truck cargos was what they called home. One for sleeping, the other for other activities and items they owned. It wasn’t much, but they were content.

Once they semi’s were in his sights, he saw Lil Arturo and Grubber atop one of the cargos seemingly taking nap. Below them, Snake and Billy toyed with their tiny television they had set atop a crate. They’d managed to connect wires from a local power source to it, giving them at least some means of entertainment.

“No, Billy! We are not watching the kids ssshow about dogs again!” Snake hissed at Billy, tuning through the channels until it landed on a station playing some action movie.

“But I want to see puppies!” Billy whined, reaching for the tuner again.

“Ssstop! Before I knock ya sssilly.” Snake threatened.

“Woah, woah. Settle down, boys.” Ace called, causing the gang to turn to stare at him. “S’nough of that. No fightin' amongst us, got it? I know you’re rowdy about having empty bellies and all… but I have here your salvation!”

“Food!?” The gang yelled in unison, rushing to Ace’s side and trying to peek inside the box he held.

“Hey, hey! Wait your turns! There’s enough for all of us. Let’s go sit down to eat, kay?” Ace ordered, watching them all now rush into one of the semis.

By the time Ace had reached the cargo himself, setting the box inside and hoisting himself up, the gang was already sat around the crates they used as a table. Each staring at him with hungry eyes and drooling faces.

Ace set the box down by the crates and began to unload his harvest. He gave each boy a bread roll, and a small serving from everything else. The minute he was done setting up they were already stuffing their faces, though Ace soon followed suit. Once they were done, Ace quickly stashed the box in their ice cooler for later.

“Damn, Ace. How did you manage to score all that?” Lil Arturo asked him, picking at his teeth with a toothpick.

“Did’ya rob a convenience ssstore or sssomehthing?” Snake asked, eyeing Ace curiously.

“Not even close. I tried to rob some skinny little twerp, but he managed to catch me off guard. Thought he had the jump on me, but then he actually offered to help. Brought me all this food.” Ace explained.

“Really?” Snaked asked. “A guy you tried to rob… helped you?”

“Yeah, surprised me too. He seemed pretty goody-two-shoes, but was chill about it.” Ace told them.

“Should’ve gotten him number or somethin’, we could use someone like that.” Lil Arturo said aloud.

“Yeah! He can get us food!” Billy exclaimed.

“Hmm… perhaps. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the guy again anytime soon, though. This city is big, after all. Let us just enjoy what we got for now.” Ace said, leaning back in his chair and closing his eyes.

“But if we do sssee the guy again, we’ll get him to give us sssome more food, right?” Snake asked.

“Yeah, sure, sure.” Ace replied, but honestly deep down not fully agreeing with the notion.

Ace was all for taking opportunities when he saw them. Free food, quick cash, anything. But, something about the idea of using Stuart like that just didn’t sit right with him. Perhaps it was the kindness and generosity he had been shown by the blue haired man that made him feel the change of heart. It was so unlike Ace to think about more than just himself and his gang, but Stuart seemed to of had that effect on him.

He thought about the warm smiles he’d given him, that dumb grin and bright blue eyes so full of compassion and care. How he carried himself without a care in the world, how his scattered brain seemed to ramble on about the most trivial of things.

“Hmph… what a chump.” Ace mumbled.

Though, deep down he had appreciated the treatment. He was just too stubborn and “cool” to admit it to himself.

He didn’t think he’d ever have to worry about the man again anyway. No way they were ever going to meet again in a town this big. He’d become just another memory, another face for Ace to push to the back of his mind.

Though, compared to all the things Ace has been through he felt deep down he’d never forget the kindness Stuart had shown him.

He sure had a hard time getting it off his mind as he lay in bed waiting to fall asleep that night.