The white expanse of wall stretched for hundreds of metres on either side of him, and behind him, smooth and unblemished. He let the bag in his hand fall to the ground and pulled his jacket together, pulled the zipper up to his sternum. It got cold at night, and didn’t heat up until the sun was well in the sky. It was early morning still, and he rubbed his hands together, the ink on his knuckles brushing up against the calluses on the tips of his fingers when he moved the digits around. He’d have to be fast: Scarecrow had eyes all over the city, and patrols where their cameras couldn’t reach.
There were small buckets of paint in the white plastic bag, paint that had once been white, but that Frank had dyed with scraps of clothes he’d scrounged from Wave-Heads, spices, a handful of illegal berries. The colours he’d ended up with weren’t exactly vibrant, but they were bright enough that they’d drive the goons of the Better Living Industry crazy. He sketched out his pattern, and got to work as quickly as he could, painting stripes and squares, swirls and corners, until he was left with a huge mural of blues, greens, and reds.
He looked at it, and nodded. All he needed now was the yellow, so he ducked down to pry open the fourth and final bucket of paint. The others were all empty, and he’d have to dispose of them somewhere where they couldn’t be traced back to him. The lid came off with a suck, and he grimaced at the yellow on his fingertips.
A small whine made Frank freeze, hands hovering above the lid of the tin.
He looked up from his (illegal) bucket of paint into the barrel of a gun the colour of the wall Frank hadn’t painted.
A fanged face stared down at him, black-rimmed eyes lifeless, mouth frozen wide in a grotesque shriek.
A second whine answered the first, from behind Frank.
He took a deep breath, and in one fluid motion, turned and tossed the contents of the yellow bucket at the face of the Draculoid in front of him, and whirled with the centripetal force to slam the now-empty tin into the side of the second Drac’s head.
The white-suited body stumbled back, and that was enough for Frank to move forward to punch it in the face. A hand snaked around his throat, and Frank kicked out at the Drac in front of him, hard enough that it went down, clutching its stomach. For the one behind him, he gritted his teeth together, and moved a foot back between its legs to widen his stance. He tugged at the arm around his throat, and, at the same time, shoved back with his hip so that the Drac came tumbling over his back, and fell on top of the first one.
The winded one on the bottom of the small heap gargled something incomprehensible into its armband before Frank kicked its head, but he recognized the stream of sounds as one that he’d heard before. Five minutes after that, three fucking hardcore Dracs had come to take him out.
It was calling for backup, and he knocked out the remaining Drac before sprinting down the alley. He had to get as far away as possible, and hope that the direction he chose to run in was the one opposite to the nearest Scarecrow station.
He would have taken their ray guns with him, but they wouldn’t have been of any use. He’d tried, countless times, to fire one of the white contraptions, but there seemed to be some kind of brainpower inside of them that meant that only Dracs could fire the things.
He didn’t know how they worked. He just knew that they didn’t work for him.
When he rounded the corner, out into the main street, he caught a glimpse of a white arm before a BL/Ind logo on a face mask was staring at him.
He skidded to a halt as the Scarecrow raised his ray gun.
It gargled something, and then in a tinny voice, said: “Do. You. Surrender.”
He raised his hands, palms out, and nodded.
Behind this one, he could see two other Scarecrows. Fuck, they had to have been close to have gotten here so quickly. Frank had to act before they pumped him full of drugs, so the second the Crow’s gun was low enough, he pulled his fist back and punched it in the face. There was no crack: he’d probably hit the thing’s chin, but the action surprised it enough for it to not notice Frank moving again. It looked like it wasn’t a woman, so he aimed for the groin, and shoved his knee as far into the soft tissue as possible before shoving the mostly-out-of-commission Crow towards the second one.
The third one had moved when Frank had, and he looked for it for a split second before the butt of a ray gun crashed into his nose. He squinted his eyes at the sudden pain and brought his hands up to cup around his face, and in that moment, the Crow’s hand came out of nowhere, wrapped around his throat, and slammed him into the wall of the building beside them. Frank heard, more than he felt, a crack louder than when his nose had broken. His vision went white before he realized that, because of his act of defiance, they didn’t consider him a possible asset anymore.
They were going to ghost him.
He blinked, and kicked out as hard as he could with thumbs digging into his throat. The Crow grunted, and the hand digging into his windpipe loosened enough for Frank to rear his head back, and slam his forehead into where he thought the Crow’s nose probably was.
He was rewarded by being dropped to the ground, where he pushed off the wall and launched himself at the Crow’s midsection. When it hit the ground with Frank on top of it, there was a sickening smash, and its arms fell limply to its sides.
Strong hands cupped under his armpits and yanked him off the dead Crow, and a foot connected with his ribs.
A burst of pain spread from where the hard boot had found its home in Frank’s side, and he gasped, and tried to roll away from the second kick. The hands under his arms were too strong, and the foot slammed into his ribs again, in the same spot. Something popped, and Frank slammed his head back as hard as he could. Pain blossomed in his head, and he clutched it in his hands moments before he was kicked again.
His breath was coming shortly now, in sharp gasps, and he rolled to the side just enough so that when the foot came again, it connected with the Crow behind him. It had loosened its hold on Frank to tend to its face, and he pushed himself onto his feet. There’d been a discarded ray gun where he’d fallen, and he slammed the butt of it into the side of the standing Crow’s head. It grunted, so he did it again, and again, until it fell to the floor. That left one, and between gasps, Frank did the same to it before keeling over in the heap of white.
His side did not feel good, but he had to get out of here before these three were reported as missing and more Scarecrows were sent to their aid. The pain in the back of his head was not as bad as it should have been, and Frank chalked that up to the adrenaline that was making his bloodied hands shake on the ground. He could barely breathe, but if he took in short gasps, he could manage just fine. At least his every movement and breath were only accompanied by sharp stabs to his side, and not the rolling nausea of a collarbone break.
He could definitely manage, so he got to his feet.
A ray gun whined somewhere near his ear.
Frank’s hands clenched into fists at his sides. “Fucking ENOUGH,” he shouted. He did the “duck-n-whirl”, which was a technique he’d both created and managed to perfect over a few years of ducking and whirling. He didn’t have to duck very far, because he was already pretty short, but it was the whirl that took coordination and practice. He combined it with a hand stretched out, and then a thrust up once the beam of heated light from the ray gun had sizzled past his head, so that his hand connected with the gun holder’s hand. The gun clattered to the floor of the alley, and Frank thrust the heel of his other hand up into the holder’s face.
He was mildly surprised, but no less deterred, by the brightness of the invader, and he didn’t let it stop him from diving towards the fallen gun. Hands wrapped around his neck, and Frank was mildly surprised that the fruit with the mask had managed to ignore the broken nose enough to act.
“Give me the gun,” a rough voice purred in Frank’s ear, “and nobody gets hurt. You can’t use it, anyway.”
He didn't need some kind of fucking light beam to use the thing. As a hard plastic shell, it was enough of a weapon to stand on its own without the magic of technology. Frank already had the ray gun in his hand so he slammed his elbow back into a hard stomach. Breath puffed past his ear, and he turned to hit the gun into the base of the man’s skull. He didn’t hit as hard as he probably could have, but the locks of red hair surprised him.
He didn’t have time to linger, to ask for phone numbers and twirl the shaggy strands of his hair around his finger. He had to fucking run. He was getting weaker by the minute, and if he didn’t get down to the nearest Hyper-Thrust soon, he was going to be dead meat. He took off down the alley, and decided that yes, left would be the best way to go.
Because of his height, he often ran slightly crouched over. With the pain in his side rising to a deafening crescendo, he had his head almost at the level of his shoulders. When he rounded the corner, his shoulder connected with a soft, unsuspecting stomach, and he and the man he’d run into fell to the ground.
Lucky for the man, he was wearing some kind of a yellow helmet, but he groaned and curled up into a ball, anyway. Frank’s nose wrinkled. You had to be a pretty huge douche to run around the slums of Battery City with a helmet on.
He pushed himself off, and kept running in the direction he’d originally chosen, and it was only when he turned into a side street and almost ran into an old, beat-up Trans Am that it clicked.
Yellow mask, red hair, brightly-coloured clothing. Yellow helmet with “Good Luck” on the front, extremely impractical, but very recognizable?
“Fuck,” he swore, before diving into the front seat of the car, and ducking under the wheel to get at the steering column.
He’d just knocked out a fucking Killjoy.
He wasn’t sure whether to think of himself as badass or a dumbass (a Killjoy? Really?), but a whine and cold plastic under his chin made him think that he should probably choose the latter.
Frank swallowed, his hands on two nearly-stripped wires. He could start the car, but it would probably surprise the Killjoy into pulling the trigger. He could try to take the gun, but it would probably surprise the Killjoy into pulling the trigger. And at this range...
Frank lifted up his hands.
He was about to slowly edge out from under the wheel when the Killjoy grabbed the back of his jacket and hauled him out of the car and onto the ground, where he landed, hard, on his front. The shock that radiated from his side made his toes curl in his boots, and the knee between his shoulder blades didn’t help much.
“Who the fuck are you?” The Killjoy hissed. His voice was low, and he still had his gun to Frank’s head.
“I’m,” he croaked, coughing a little from the dust he was inhaling from the ground.
“He’s the motherfucking piece of shit I’m going to dust.”
That was not the voice of the Killjoy on his back. From what Frank had read, he knew that there were three of them. He knew what their faces looked like from the posters hanging around the city, and he knew the names of their guns, but not which name went with which face.
“I’ll dust him after you, Party,” the third Killjoy offered. His voice was higher, and when Frank twisted his head, he saw a bushy-haired man behind the red-haired one he’d knocked out. There was a helmet under his arm, and he was glaring. “Just to make sure he stays dead.”
Red hair was Party Poison, then, and Frank gulped. Party Poison was the leader of the small gang. Jet Star was either the bushy-haired one or the one with sharp knees and sharper eyes.
“Sounds like a deal, Jet,” Party said, sliding his yellow gun back into its holster and coming closer to Frank. The bushy-haired one, then. That left Kobra Kid, who must be the one detaining Frank. He’d twisted one arm up behind Frank’s back before kneeling on him, and Frank was starting to think that he was going to die with pain coming from all sides. “You’re a snarky little runner, aren’t you?”
“Ran right into me,” Kobra muttered.
Party ignored him. He tilted his head to the side, and reached a finger out to touch Frank’s sensitive nose. Well, what was left of it. Frank squeezed his eyes shut, determined not to cry out or cry. “What are you doing here?” Party whispered in his strange, rough voice.
Jet cleared his throat. “Little fucker took out two Dracs and three Crows.”
“A real motorbaby, huh?” Party chuckled, and slapped Frank’s face. He stood, and Frank opened one of his eyes. “Well, if he’s against the Dracs, he might be for us. Cuff him, Kobra, and put him in the back with Jet.”
Frank couldn’t do much to avoid being cuffed with his hands behind his back, and shoved into the backseat of the Trans Am. The car rumbled, doors slammed, and Frank jerked in surprise when the car moved.
With his hands behind his back, he had to steady himself with his legs. It didn’t take him long to get the hang of it, and he finally leaned back, to try and relax a little. He choked in surprise when his head touched the seat of the car with a sticky sound and a bright burst of pain behind his eyes.
When he opened his eyes and could see again, he saw Jet smirking at the side, his big arms folded across his chest. Party was glaring at him in the rearview mirror. “You bleed on my leather and you’re a fucking ghost,” he snarled.
Frank looked down between his legs at the blood dripping from his nose and onto the seat.
“Little too late for that, Party,” Kobra said from the front.
Jet chuckled. Kobra glanced back at him, over his shoulder for a second before turning back to the road. “We taking 1138?” he asked.
Party grunted. “Hopefully they’ll all be dozing and won’t see us for long enough to give chase.”
Frank wiggled his fingers and watched the city whip by their open windows. The wind coming in was uncomfortably cold, but it dulled the pain throbbing in every part of his body, so he just rolled his shoulder back and leaned into it. It wasn’t very likely that Scarecrow wouldn’t be monitoring whatever road they were talking about, especially not after what he’d just done. They’d be all up in arms over this. Party took several sharp turns that made Frank’s shoulders and thighs burn, and then they were finally speeding through what looked like a tunnel. He’d never seen anything like this, did it go to another section of the city?
Tiles flew past them, quicker and quicker, and at some point, a booth flew by, and some kind of advertisement for BL/Ind. And then with a slight pop, everything was suddenly brown. The grey and white of Battery City were replaced by dirt and sand and when Frank looked forward, a few mountains.
He twisted around in his seat, and his eyes widened when he saw the towering beast of the city slowly retreating into the distance. “We’re not in the city anymore,” he said, turning forward to look at Party. “What the fuck?”
The Killjoys laughed, and Frank scowled. “What?!” he asked, to nobody and everybody. “You can’t just leave the city like that.” He paused, and darted his tongue out to lick his bloodstained lips. His nose was still dripping, and was starting to throb pain up between his eyes. “Can you?”
They ignored him, chuckling to themselves, so Frank turned back to look at the City he had never seen the end of. The place that had been his home for twenty-some-odd years. He was probably twenty-six by now. Maybe twenty-five, depending on what day it was. Lost in thought as he was, Frank didn’t notice the white cars pulling up behind them until he blinked.
“Dracs,” he said, and turned to face the front road. How had they found them so quickly?
“Can you shoot, Poison?” Jet asked, pulling his ray gun out of his pocket.
Frank stared at the plastic. It was bright blue, but it looked just like one of the Drac’s guns. It wasn’t just Dracs who couldn’t use them, then. Maybe they could be reprogrammed for different people? If he’d been a tech-brain, he probably could have figured it out.
“Don’t think so,” Party said. “Thanks to our good friend, back there.” He looked over at Kobra.
Kobra raised his eyebrow, and quirked his mouth to the side. Frank looked over, and Party’s eyes were squinting, and his lips pursed for a moment. Kobra tilted his head to the side a little, and Party sighed. “Do it,” he said.
Frank frowned. That had looked like a silent conversation to him, and he glanced over to Jet. Jet was focused on looking behind them, though, and didn’t even bother to look at whatever Kobra was doing in the front seat.
“Jet,” Party said. “Uncuff him.”
Jet turned back around, and his hair took half a second longer to follow. “What?”
“We need all the hands we can get,” Party grumbled.
Before he could say a word to object, Jet’s big hands were removing the cuffs from his smaller hands. Kobra reached out, past the arm rest of his seat, to take one of Frank’s hands, and there was a sharp prick in his thumb. “What the hell?!” Frank asked, but Kobra smirked, and tossed a ray gun into his lap.
“Shoot like you’re gonna die,” he said. “Because if you don’t, we probably will.”
Frank stared, mouth open. They expected him to use one of these? It looked like one of the generic white zappers that Dracs carried. “It won’t work,” he said.
“It will,” Kobra said.
“Kobra’s a ‘chip,” Party said, with a note of something that Frank might have considered pride if he wasn’t about to use a gun he wasn’t sure would work to shoot at some Dracs that definitely wanted to dust him.
He picked up the gun, and aimed it into the desert. He pulled the trigger, and a white flash flew from the barrel. It kicked a bit, but more up than back, and Frank nodded. Okay. He could do this. He’d used a sling shot once, as a child, before his mother had given him a blue pill. He leaned out the window and tried to ignore the blinding pain in his side. He closed one eye, aimed at a Drac on a motorbike, and pulled the trigger.
The Drac flew back, bike kicking up a dust storm as it fell to the side, and Frank grinned. That was so much easier than fighting with nothing more than his bare hands and a piddly bucket of paint. He usually didn’t even have the bucket. He pulled himself up, and aimed for the tire of the car chasing them, because he didn’t trust himself to be a good enough shot to take out four Dracs and a Crow in one go. It took three shots, but the light burned a hole through the rubber. When the white car faltered, the occupants of the car stopped shooting, and Frank aimed, and got the two hanging out of the windows.
That left the Drac driving the car, and the Crow in the front seat. Frank wondered, pulled the trigger, and, no. The light that passed through the window did not seem to do anything to the Crow. It didn’t burn a hole in the glass either - a special kind of windshield designed to refract the beams, maybe?
While he was wondering, Jet took out the last of the things chasing them, and ducked back into the car.
Frank did too, and didn’t realize until he was sitting that he was smiling.
The stretch of his lips felt so out of place: he couldn’t remember the last time he’d smiled. When he looked back over his shoulder at the pile of white, with the receding line of the city in the background, he frowned. The sun was high in the sky, but if he tried, he could probably walk back before nightfall, find a group of Wave-Heads, and get them to take him to some kind of medic. He was having trouble breathing: his breath was only coming in shallow bursts, and he felt an uncomfortable weight in his chest, like he might need to cough.
Now, how could he get out of this cursed car and back towards civilization?
He thought of the way Kobra and Party had had a silent conversation, the quirk of their lips and the light in their eyes. And he thought of Jet, chuckling at Kobra’s comments, of the twinkle in his eye, and the crinkle around their edges when the two of them had exchanged a glance.
And he looked down at the hand in his lap, at the hand that was holding a working ray gun.
Frank moved before he could hesitate, and jammed the barrel of the white zapper into the soft tissue at the base of Kobra’s ear. Kobra’s back stiffened at the familiar feeling of plastic against his skin. His Adam’s apple bobbed when he swallowed, and Frank could feel his pulse vibrating down the length of the gun. Jet froze beside Frank, like he was afraid to move in case Frank was going to pull the trigger. Frank had expected that. Well, hoped for it.
Party glanced over and saw the gun. His mouth set into a grim line, lips tight. Frank was looking at his eyes, which were focused on Kobra for a second before they flickered over to meet Frank’s.
Frank grinned. Or, he was about to, when something flashed behind the green-sparked hazel of Party’s eyes, and he slammed on the brakes. The force of the car suddenly stopping propelled Frank forward, into the back of Party’s seat. The angle he’d been sitting at before was just enough so that his damaged side was the one to hit the edge of the seat. When the car screeched to a halt on the dusty pavement he fell back into his own seat, eyes glazed from the pain shooting up his torso.
Party turned around, and launched himself over the head rest to lodge his fist into Frank’s already-broken nose. Frank’s eyes watered, and he inhaled sharply.
That was enough. That, and the seat that had dug into his side. And the boots that had kicked him. And Kobra, slamming him to the floor. Frank coughed. He hadn’t meant to, not into Party’s face, but it was right there, livid, and his breath was so short now, his chest was clenched tight.
He scrambled to open the door, and fell out on his knees onto the dusty ground as Party wiped the off the blood that was now coating his face.
Frank heard some dim noises, a guttural growl of words, but he just crawled forward, and shook in a breath so he could cough it out. Instead of phlegm or air, blood came spraying out of his mouth, dripping onto the dust below. He could feel it, at this angle, pouring down (up?) his windpipe and out his mouth, a slow and steady stream of heavy red.
Something pushed him away from the puddle of colour and onto his back.
Frank blinked once, blearily. His eyes wouldn’t focus, but it was a mostly-blonde head above him, hair falling down as hands unzipped his jacket.
He blinked again, and concentrated. He took in a short breath, and focused on Kobra, pulling a knife from a bag. He deftly zipped it from the bottom of Frank’s shirt up, effectively cutting it in two, and Kobra pressed something to the spot that made Frank’s eyes roll back in his head. His back arched, and pain tore through his side.
He took a deep breath, real and free, and darkness swallowed him whole.
Frank opened his eyes to a dingy beige ceiling, and his stomach jerked in surprise. The colour that coated the ceiling was illegal, had he dragged himself to one of the more secluded Hyper-Thrusts? He turned his face to the side. The splashes of colour decorating the walls made him blink. Beige he could understand, but these were shades of blues and reds that he’d never even seen in illegal magazines before, let alone walls.
Strands of red peeking out from hard, yellow plastic flashed across his mind, unbidden, and he sat up with a jolt.
This was probably where the Killjoys lived.
Fuck. He clutched a hand to his side, to the sharp burning that seemed to be coming from there. He was wearing a t-shirt that he didn’t recognize, and he peeled up the hem to reveal layers of mostly-white bandages. His breathing was fine, which meant that Kobra must have fixed his ribs.
His hair wasn’t falling in his eyes, either, and he reached a hand up to find bandages wrapped around his skull. There was some kind of stiff tape across the bridge of his nose, and the skin of the majority of his face felt tender.
He was still wearing his own pants, but the black material was stiff around where he must have been dripping blood earlier. There was a small window at the top of one of the walls, and a vaguely orange light was streaming through, which meant that it was probably late evening. There were no boots on his feet. Where the fuck were his boots?
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, ignoring the pain in his side, and scanned the room. They weren’t anywhere that he could see, so he settled for unwinding the bandages around his head. They would just look out of place in the City, and he had to go back there. He couldn’t trust the Killjoys. He couldn’t trust anybody.
There was a chair in the middle of the room upon which a small, white cup was sitting. Frank deposited the bandages there, and peered inside the BL/Ind-brand paper. A small, blue pill was nestled in the cup. There was a note, on white paper, written in blue ink.
Frank snorted, and ignored the cup. He wasn’t stupid. There wasn’t a chance in hell that he was going to pop another one of those life-suckers.
He left the cup behind, and turned to face the bright yellow door. It was closed, and he twisted the handle as slowly as he could before nudging the door open with his shoulder. It slid half an inch before he stopped it.
He could hear voices muttering and talking.
When he opened it a tiny bit more, he saw that the room was opening up into a hallway of some sort. The walls were lined with aged photographs, black-and-whites from days gone by. Dust coated the glass sitting in the frames, thicker at the edges and nonexistent in the middle of some of the pictures. Frank inched his way out into the hallway, staying low, legs in a steady stance in case anyone was about to sneak up on him. The voices were louder from his right, so he turned left, and walked as quickly and quietly as he could. It wasn’t hard: bare feet on some kind of linoleum made some noise, but it was significantly quieter than the sound of boots crunching their way through a hall.
Frank stole past several posters for concerts, an old advertisement for something called “Root Beer” which puzzled him for a few minutes, it evoked vague memories of before-BL/Ind, but nothing that he could quite grab with both hands.
He left it on the wall, and tried a few doors, quietly opening them and peering inside. Some kind of ancient bathroom, a supply closet, a kitchen. They were all devoid of human life.
The last door on the left was black.
It opened up into a dimly lit room that was open to the desert air. The air was cooling down from what Frank assumed was probably high to scorching temperatures, and the sun was setting on the other side of whatever building they were in, so all Frank could see was the darkening sky meeting the pasty horizon over the spider-adorned hood.
He reached out to run a hand over the dusty metal, warm beneath his palm. The Killjoys must have been out fairly recently for the car to be the temperature it was. He glanced over his shoulder towards the black door, but it was still closed, so he popped the hood as quietly as he could.
The engine of the car appeared before him like the organs inside a body. It was a living, breathing organism, and Frank frowned to see heat waves coming up from all the wrong places. Heat should be captured, used, not shoved away like some kind of commodity. Especially in a desert, where heat was abundant during the day. From the way the engine was built, he could see a few chambers being added, and the hot air being the power source for some kind of regenerative device. The engine looked like it complied with BL/Ind’s exacting standards for air pollution and energy consumption, but it still seemed to run off fossil fuels instead of the more energy-efficient batteries BL/Ind had created around 2016.
A flash of white caught his eye, and he walked around the car to see a white motorbike. Its sides were gleaming in the waning light of day, a brand new Drac bike. Frank ran a hand down its side, and looked back over his shoulder at the Trans Am.
He couldn’t take the car. They could trace that, find it easily in the city of grey and white. But this bike, he could dispose of it anywhere along the river. Nobody would notice. And the Killjoys probably wouldn’t come looking for it.
That settled that. He put his hands on the handlebars to test out their grip, wondering whether he’d be able to drive it. The pain of his side had settled into a dull ache, but his head was throbbing quite painfully. So, he’d need a helmet, then, and the Killjoys would want that back, but he could toss it into the river and be done with this crazy adventure. The yellow helmet, with the words “Good Luck” plastered across the visor, would have to do. He tucked it under his arm, and pried off the plate that would let him at the wires to start the damn bike.
He’d miss the working ray gun, but he’d lived without it this far, he could probably survive another day.
The wires were a bit hard to find, but bikes hadn’t ever been his speciality. He was just about to put them together when a voice from the doorway made him leap back from the motorcycle, and crouched down as he was, his back hit the wheel of the Trans Am and his head hit the side of the car.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
Frank’s hands flew to the back of his head, and his eyes scrunched up with the pain. He was sitting on the ground, and when he finally looked up, he saw Kobra standing with one hip cocked to the side. His blonde hair was falling into his eyes, but he just folded his arms across his chest and made no move to flick it away. He smirked at Frank, and raised an eyebrow. “Gee’s still pretty pissed about the whole trying-to-shoot-me thing, y’know.”
Gee? Frank darted his tongue out to lick his lips, and glanced from the bike to Kobra.
“Yes,” Kobra said, rolling his eyes. “I’m talking about the bike. You’re in enough shit as it is, don’t make it worse by making us chase you all over the damn desert.”
Frank swallowed. The more he heard about the trouble that he was allegedly in, the more he wanted to get out of this fucked-up place. He couldn’t take a bike with Kobra here, and he didn’t really see Kobra leaving anytime soon.
He could feel the helmet on the ground at his side, where it had fallen, and he had to get out of here somehow. He picked up the helmet, and tossed it at Kobra. The second the thing was in the air, he scrambled to his feet, and sprinted out of the garage, towards the open desert. It was going to be night soon, and he’d heard stories of people dying in the desert, but they died during the day, too.
Die from the heat, from the cold, or from a ray gun to his head. He’d choose cold over the other two any day. You were supposed to get some kind of euphoric blast before you died anyway, it didn’t sound like the worst way to go.
He hadn’t hesitated before choosing a direction to run in because he knew he’d only have about a two-second lead on Kobra, and the man was probably just as fast as Frank under normal circumstances, let alone with injuries. At least he wasn’t sedated, or hopped up on whatever kind of pill they’d tried to get him to pop earlier. Anyway, he’d known which way to run because he’d been thinking about the angle of the shadows, and how when they’d left the City, the sun had been at his left, and it had been rising, so all he had to do was put the setting sun to his left, and he’d be heading back home.
He could hear shouts from behind him, Kobra calling the other Killjoys, and the scuffle of feet, but he concentrated on his own feet, on pushing off from the dust and keeping one foot in front of the other. There were hills in this place, and all he had to do was get over one before finding somewhere to hide. The Killjoys had to be getting their fossil fuels from somewhere: were there gas stations out in this wasteland?
After a minute of hard running, Frank’s side was burning, and his lungs weren’t taking in as much air as they used to. His feet were aching, and the sand was still hot beneath his feet, so they were quite warm. They’d been callused before, because bare feet were the best tools for scaling the walls of abandoned buildings, which were where he stashed his things. But no amount of wall-climbing of walking about on rickety white wooden fences could have prepared his feet for this.
After about two minutes, Frank couldn’t feel his side anymore, which was probably a good thing. His forehead was dripping sweat into his eyes, though, and going by the way that the back of his head was stinging, it was probably dripping back there as well.
After three minutes, Frank passed a small bush, and heard the sounds of feet behind him, but didn’t dare to look back. His lead was minuscule, and it was all he had to keep him going.
After four minutes, the sounds of feet behind Frank was quieter. Like someone had stopped running. Maybe they’d decided he wasn’t worth chasing after.
After five minutes, he heard an exasperated huff of breath and the slow tempo of a person running becoming a person walking.
After seven minutes, Frank blinked back the black that was creeping into the edges of his vision.
He still couldn’t see the city.
The last Killjoy behind him was getting closer.
Frank’s throat was raw, and his eyes were prickling, but he refused to let anything out, because he had to keep this up if he ever wanted to go back.
After eight minutes, Frank could hear the breathing behind him getting closer and closer, and he stretched forward, desperately trying to go faster. His legs wouldn’t comply, his lungs wouldn’t listen, and his head was trying to kill him by slowing everything down, he was sure of it.
A hand snagged the base of the shirt he was wearing, and it threw his balance off. He skidded, shoulder-first, across the desert floor. His lungs were heaving, and he couldn’t really feel his left arm, actually, or his entire left side. He pushed himself up with his right hand, which shook with the effort, but he managed to get to his feet to face Party Poison, who was doubled over, panting.
If he could run right now, he’d probably get the best of the Killjoy, but when he took a step, his foot screamed in protest.
Party straightened up. He looked about ready to murder Frank. “You little,” he said, between breaths, “shit. Where the fuck are you running? There’s nothing out there for you.” He reached his hand out for Frank, but Frank slapped it away.
Party’s eyebrow twitched, and he stepped closer to Frank. Frank reached out and shoved him hard enough in the chest so that he stumbled back a few steps. “Get the fuck away from me,” he said, stepping back one, two paces. His feet and legs buckled beneath him, and he turned away from the Killjoy.
He was exhausted, and the tears came to his eyes unbidden, prickling at the corners and muscling their way forward and out onto his face. He doubled over, and hit the ground with his elbows, tucking his hands around his face as his shoulder shook with the force of his sobs.
He didn’t know why he wanted to go back. He didn’t fucking know. Except that it was his home. It was all he had.
He’d gotten off the pills that BL/Ind pushed years ago, but the City itself was still pumping through his veins. Under his skin like a disease, burning through his lungs like the first inhale from a cigarette in the white light of the new day.
It was a restriction-ridden weed, towering in the middle of a god-forsaken wasteland of colour, and Frank wanted to go back.
Tears streamed between the swirls of colour on his forearms. They fell to the dusty ground, and sticky mud coated the edges of his elbows and arms. Party Poison let him cry for a few minutes until Frank had nothing left inside. He felt a hand on his shoulder, hard and warm.
Frank pushed himself up onto his knees, and wiped his wet face with his even wetter arm.
His chest was still heaving with sniffles and the exertion of running for so long, and his eyes were still a bit swollen from the day before. The hand on his shoulder slid down to the small of his back, and he didn’t have the energy to tug away. Footsteps clattered up to them, and he heard the two Killjoys discussing something in low voices before a different pair of strong arms wrapped around his shoulder and tucked under his knees.
Frank squinted up at Jet Star, whose long hair was brushing the top of his head, and he felt the speed at which his pulse was racing. Party Poison was at Jet’s side, and Frank wondered for a moment at their strength. To run after him, and be able to pick him up and walk all the way back to the diner was a feat indeed. He was small but wiry, forced to be mostly muscle out of necessity. The steady beat of Jet’s heart beneath his ear made Frank feel like a child, wrapped in a warm blanket. The sway of Jet’s gait and the weight of his own limbs made his eyes drift shut, even as he was being taken back to the diner he’d so recently tried to escape from.
* * * *
The dirty beige of the ceiling wasn’t as much of a surprise the second time, but the body slouched over in the chair beside his makeshift bed was. Frank pushed himself into a sitting position, and watched the steady rise and fall of Party Poison’s chest. In sleep, the lines on his forehead were smoothed out, and the set of his mouth looked almost peaceful. With his white chin tilted forward, resting on his chest, he looked almost fragile, like he might break. Frank glanced up to the window behind Party Poison. Dark.
Party shifted in his sleep, and Frank’s eyes were drawn to the hand resting on the arm of the chair, clutching a white paper cup.
He wouldn’t have thought that the Killjoys were as bad as BL/Ind, but here he was, a prisoner in a barren land. It was no better than being trapped in the burning midnight glow of Battery City, and the air tasted different out here, as well.
He mourned his lack of shoes for a minute before he noticed a pair of boots, worn leather gleaming in the dim light of some kind of lamp, tucked beneath Party Poison’s chair. He didn’t have socks, but there were bandages wrapped around his feet. It hurt to put too much pressure on them, and Frank could only assume that he’d torn the skin on his soles the day before. Night before? Week before?
He slid his boots out from beneath the chair, careful not to nudge Party’s legs with the movement. There was a soft snuffle from above him, but the breathing pattern didn’t change even as he laced his boots up tight.
The building was eerily silent as Frank made his way out into the room he remembered hearing voices from the day before. He vaguely recalled the beat of metal on tables, cutlery of some sort? He was starving, and if they had food...well, he’d feel a bit bad about stealing, but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d been forced to.
When he emerged into the room, with moonlight shining through the open windows, he was surprised to find that it looked an awful lot like diners he remembered from history lessons. The food-bars in Battery City were scarce, and most of the remaining ones had been converted into pill stations around 2013. Everything in the City was a pill: emotions, food, medicine. Most of them were a combination of one thing and some underlying complacency dust, designed to snuff out all unwanted desires and emotions.
He rummaged in the cupboards, and found a Power Pup brand can of food. That meant one of two things: it was soup, or beans. He scanned the counter behind the cupboards for some kind of can opener, but found nothing more than a sharp knife. Trying to open a can with a knife would be way too loud: it would wake up the entire diner.
Fine. He’d just take the motorcycle while everyone was sleeping, wheel it out onto the dust-covered road and then open the throttle and head back to the City that was calling his name.
His hair felt greasy, but there were showers all over the City.
He passed the concert posters and the old photographs, and opened the black door as quietly as he had last time. The helmet was sitting beside the door, and he paused to pick it up, before rounding the body of the Trans Am.
Leaning on the motorcycle was a small child. Her hair was curly, and stuck out of her head in a way that reminded Frank of Jet Star. She had the same sharp and wide eyes, though hers were a light blue.
“You’re not supposed to do that,” she said, and beamed at him. “I got to stay up late, Daddy let me.” She couldn’t have been more than six years old. And here she was, living out in the wastes, among hardened criminals.
Frank swallowed. “Is your daddy Jet Star?” he asked.
She laughed. “Come on,” she said. “Do you really think I’m that stupid?”
Should he try and run again? From the groaning protest of his legs, he guessed that he probably shouldn’t. And he couldn’t hurt a kid. He stepped back, to put a little distance between him and the girl, and his back met a warm, solid wall. He scrambled to get away, ending up with his back up against the Trans Am so that it wouldn’t be facing either Kobra or the little girl.
“Take someone else’s helmet for once, fuck,” Kobra said, and snatched his helmet from under Frank’s arm. “Jet’s got one too, you know.”
Frank looked from Kobra to the little girl, who was clearing her throat. “I stopped him, Kobra,” she said, ten different kinds of proud. “Didja see?”
“Sure did,” Kobra said. “Gracie, could you run inside and wake Party up?” There was a bit of a smile on his face as he watched her nod and run off, a smile that quickly faded when he turned back to Frank. He stepped closer, so that he was about a foot away from Frank, who shrunk back into the Trans Am. “Don’t you fucking try and run again. I’m sick and tired of patching you together, so unless you’ve got a real reason for being beat up, I don’t want to have any part of it. You tore a few of your stitches yesterday, you piece of shit. Do you understand?”
Frank nodded, too afraid to move.
“I’m serious,” Kobra growled. His blonde hair was slowly falling into his eyes as he stepped closer to Frank, who hadn’t ever felt this short in his life. He pulled his ray gun out of his pocket, and at this distance, Frank could feel the air displacing as he moved. The bright red of his gun snaked up Frank’s chest, and the barrel grazed the length of his windpipe before it settled under his chin. As though having Kobra practically pressed up against him wasn’t bad enough, now when he swallowed, he could feel the gun follow the motion. “You run,” Kobra whispered, “and I’ll shoot you in the fucking leg. My aim is awesome.”
He smirked, and held Frank’s eyes as he shoved the gun back into its holster. “Now, come on. You’re probably starving.”
Frank shook his head, and Kobra stepped back to give him some space, but his stomach betrayed him by growling. Kobra chuckled, and crooked his finger at Frank. “Let’s go, motorbaby. You first.”
Frank watched Kobra’s hands, resting on his hips right above where his gun was holstered, and shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. He shuffled off back towards the hallway, towards the main diner part. If Kobra was surprised that Frank knew where to go, he didn’t say anything, just motioned towards one of the booths with his head when Frank shot him a glance.
“Sit tight,” Kobra said, and scooped up the knife Frank had seen earlier. “Won’t be as gourmet as the shit you’re used to back in the city, but it’s better than no food at all.” The sound created when the knife punctured the can made Frank jump, and his hands flew to his ears. Kobra was grinning: he’d driven the knife to its hilt in the can.
The grin quickly turned into a frown when Kobra saw that Frank hadn’t yet sat down, and he twisted the knife ‘round the top of the can before scooping the lid off. “I said, sit down.”
Frank gulped, and scooted into the booth he’d been directed to, making sure to choose the side with a wall at his back. He tapped his fingers on the shiny table, one rhythm with his right, and a harmonizing one with his left. He’d been to a Hyper-Thrust once when a band had been playing, and the drummer had let him try his hand at the kit for a few minutes after their set was over. He’d given him a thumb’s up, and slipped a card into Frank’s pocket, “Just in case”. The next week, his face had been on the front page of an underground newspaper, with a red ‘X’ splattered across the photograph like fake blood.
Kobra placed the can on the table in front of him, and slid in across him.
Frank looked into the can, and wondered whether he could trust the food. They’d already tried to feed him pills. He watched Kobra as he reached forward to take the can, slowly leafed through it with the spoon, checking to see if there were any pills hidden in among the refried beans.
He couldn’t see any, but, all the same. He looked carefully at the contents of his spoon, one eye on the brown and the other on Kobra, as best as he could.
Kobra watched him, eyes dark beneath his thick eyebrows. His hands were steepled under his nose, and finally, he slammed his fist down on the table. “What the fuck are you looking for?” he asked. Frank jumped, and nearly lost the spoon. “Better food? Eat, already. We’ve got some questions for you, and you’d might as well get as much food into your stomach before Party gets here.”
There was a shock of red hair shuffling through the doorway, so Frank quickly shoved the spoon in his mouth. He ate as quickly as he could - it was something he’d learned to do back in the City, where when you found food you ate it quickly, or the Dracs would confiscate it from you.
When Party Poison reached the booth, Frank was done about half of the can. He felt a bit like an animal, eating so quickly, but there was no way to avoid that. Party was rubbing at his eyes with the heel of one hand, and looked almost sheepish when he slid into the booth. “Fucking exhausted,” he said, his voice a dusty croak.
Kobra nodded, his eyes still on Frank. “Get some sleep, then?”
“Not enough,” Party muttered.
“Never is,” Kobra muttered back.
Party cleared his throat, and Frank looked up from the almost completely empty can. He was stuffed, blessedly full, and though his feet felt like they were burning through the rubber like a car spinning out on the asphalt, he felt pretty good. His side still ached, and if he had “stitches”, then they must have done something where the bandages were wrapped around his midsection. He’d never been very good at biology, or medical studies.
“You didn’t take the pill we left you,” he said. “That first day when you tried to run all the way back to Battery City.”
Frank’s eyes darted from Kobra’s, which flickered in what he thought might be surprise, over to Party. “You,” he said, looking back to Frank, “ran that far without shoes or painkillers?”
Painkillers? So they were probably fairly similar to the emotional dampeners that BLI provided. He’d been in the hospital a few times when he’d been on the pills, but he couldn’t remember concrete details about how it had felt or what had happened. “I don’t take those things,” he muttered, and scooped out the last bits of beans from the bottom of the can.
“Fuckin’ BLI,” Party muttered.
Kobra shook his head. “You have to take them, they’ll get rid of the pain. Did you not take the one we left for you this morning, either?”
Frank shook his head. He adjusted the spoon’s position in the can so that the handle ran parallel to the edge of the table. “I told you, I don’t take those things.”
“You...” Kobra sighed. “They’re not. They’re not the same as the happy-makers that BLI pushes. They couldn’t find a way to mix them together properly, so the ones provided by hospitals are for their original purposes. These are for the gashes on your head, stomach, and now feet, thanks to your little stunt.”
Party slid the little blue pill across the table. Frank looked up from it, into the light hazel of Party’s eyes. “No,” he said, firmly. “I don’t take those.”
“It’s for infection, too,” Kobra said. “I had to operate on you in the middle of the god-forsaken desert. There could be all kinds of crazy bugs crawling around in your gut, and that’s the last place you want any of those things.”
“Is it going to make me sleepy?” Frank asked. He didn’t really like the sound of these so-called bugs. He didn’t want to take something that would remove his defenses, however.
Kobra shrugged. “It’s different for everybody. A little.”
Frank reached out and took the tiny pill into his palm. It looked so harmless, but he knew better than that. He didn’t quite trust these people just yet, though, not to not hurt him while his back was turned. “Do you have any water for me to take these with?”
Party slid him the cup of water, and Frank pulled it to the edge of the table. He put the pill next to it, and folded his hands on the slick surface. “What do you want from me?”
Party and Kobra exchanged a look, and after a minute that involved them periodically moving their eyebrows, they turned as one to face Frank. “Your name?”
Frank shook his head. “No way,” he said. “I’m not stupid.”
“Fine,” Party said. His mouth was slowly twisting into a frown. “Something we can call you, then.”
"What, like a nickname? Some stupid thing like Party Poison or Jet Star?" Frank snorted, and folded his arms across his chest when he slumped back in the booth. "Fine," he said wryly. "I'll be the motherfucking Fun Ghoul or whatever."
“Ghoul, then.” Party cleared his throat. “Why were members of Scarecrow after you?”
“I took out two Dracs,” Frank said. “One of them called for backup before he went down.”
“Without a gun?”
Frank raised an eyebrow to Kobra. “Their guns don’t work for me. It was fists or die.”
Kobra rubbed a hand on his chin. “They do if you hack ‘em.”
Frank rolled his eyes. “Well, sorry for not being some kind of fucking tech genius.” He shifted in his seat, and winced at his stomach. With one hand supporting his muscles, he remembered something. “Did you say you had to operate? On my side?”
Party looked at Kobra, who picked at some dirt beneath his nails. “Your side was all swollen and purple and bleeding. One of the Crows must’ve kicked in a few of your ribs, because one of them punctured your lung.”
Frank thought. “Is that why I was coughing up blood?”
Kobra nodded, slowly. “You were drowning in the middle of a desert. And I worked fucking hard to save your shit life, so I’d appreciate it if you’d take the damn pill. I’d hate to save you from something hardcore just to have you die of infection.”
“So how’d you fix me?” Frank hadn’t ever been good at biology, but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t interested in it.
“I cut you open, pulled your rib out of your lungs, set the broken ones with this, like, super glue stuff we got from a BLI hospital, and did this really gross thing with your lungs that can basically be summed up as stitching them back together. Your lung capacity might not be quite as good as it used to be,” he said. He raised an eyebrow at Frank, and a smirk tugged at one corner of his mouth. “And you should really stop smoking. Your lungs were sick, dude.”
Frank scowled. “You sound like my mom,” he muttered. “My life expectancy isn’t very high, being a vagabond and a rebel against BLI anyway, stopping smoking isn’t going to prolong my life by a lot.”
“I guess,” Kobra said. “But it would give you a bigger lung capacity so you could run farther.”
Party chuckled, and tilted his head towards Kobra. Strands of red escaped from behind his ear, and brushed at his jawline when he moved his head back towards Frank. “I think what we saw two days ago is pretty good evidence that he’s got a good lung capacity.”
Frank shrugged. “I don’t smoke that often.”
“Where did you think you were going?”
Frank looked at Party, who’d asked the question, and then tilted his head down to the table. Some of the shiny lacquer was coming off the edge. “Back to the City.”
The two Killjoys fell silent, and it was a few minutes before any of them spoke again. When someone finally did, it was Party, who Frank had guessed was kind of the unofficial leader of the troupe. “There isn’t anything for you there,” Party said.
There it was again. That ignorance, that denial. “What the fuck would you know? You’ve isolated yourself here so much, you have no idea what’s back in the city.”
“There isn’t any colour,” Party said. “There are Dracs and Crows, and black-and white villains that are empty inside. There’s BLI, smothering the life out of everyone in that batshit place.”
Frank laughed, but it felt empty, rattling around his chest like a trapped animal. He looked up, but his eyes felt empty, too, contrasting with the sharp edge of anger in Party’s eyes, the fury of a child who’s been berated for being wrong, so wrong.
“Sure,” Frank said. “There’s BLI. But you know what? There’s my family. People I know, who are trapped in that jail. There are tons of places underground, working against the batshittiness of BLI.”
“Sure, a few,” Party scoffed.
Frank cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Shut the fuck up, I’m not done.” That put a sulk on Party’s face, but he leaned back. “Family,” he said, when Party was leaning back in his chair. “My whole family is in Battery City. I don’t really have any friends, but there’s life there. There’s...just...life. Have you ever seen concrete? And, like, sometimes you’ll get a crack, and just, a plant will sprout from the space you thought was dead. That’s Battery City. The life is underground, but it’s fucking everywhere in that city.”
Frank set his jaw at the look on Party’s face. “So, yeah. I want to go back.”
There was something that the two Killjoys weren’t telling him. Frank could see it in the set of their mouths, the hard glint of their eyes, the tilt of their brows. Fine. If they didn’t want to share with him, then he wouldn’t share with them. “Ask your fucking questions so I can go back to bed,” he muttered. He reached out to take the pill that was still on the table, not because he wanted to, but because if what Kobra said was true, then he’d legitimately saved Frank’s life, and he kind of liked being alive.
“Thanks,” Kobra muttered, voice quiet. “If you pull another stupid stunt like that one, I’m not going to stitch you back together.”
“Why were the Dracs after you?” Party asked. His voice, too, was dangerously low, but really, Frank didn’t even care.
“Thought I’d take up exterior decorating.” Frank shrugged. “They didn’t agree with my colour scheme. That it? You done asking me stupid questions?”
The little blue pill was going straight to his head, and maybe it was just him imagining it working, but he couldn’t really feel his side or his feet or his head anymore. The floors were swirling pools. His mouth twisted as he tried to steady himself, looking up to see a grinning Kobra. “Fuckin’,” he managed, through a mouth that felt like mush, “liar.”
“Oops,” Kobra said. “Did I give you the really strong one? My bad.”
Frank tried to remember an offensive hand gesture, but just blinked rapidly to keep his eyes focused. His guard was going to be down around these lunatics again. Fuck.
“Oh Jet,” Party called, in a sing-song voice. He, too, was grinning, though on him it looked more like a smirk than anything else. “Got another body for you to carry.”
Frank’s eyes drooped closed, but he saw Party lean forward across the table, a wicked glint in his hazel eyes. “Night, princess,” he murmured, before Frank was tugged under the current of unconsciousness.
When Frank woke up, his head was amazingly clear. There was a dull throbbing sensation surrounding his entire body, his side felt a bit like it was being slowly torn apart by malicious Dracs, and his feet felt like a pile of sharp rocks. But other than that, he felt great. He pushed himself into a sitting position, which really strained the lower half of his torso. He hadn’t ever realized how many stomach muscles he used when sitting up before now.
Party Poison was sitting on the same chair he had been the last time Frank had woken up in this stupid room. He was awake this time, and extended a cup towards Frank, a small green pill in the bottom of it.
Frank wrinkled his nose. “No fuckin’ way,” he said. His voice was still rough with sleep, and he had a feeling like his face was probably rough with a few days of stubble. He didn’t grow a lot of facial hair, but it definitely grew. He rubbed a hand on his cheek to check, and groaned inwardly at the scratchy texture.
“You probably feel like shit,” Party said. “This will help.”
Frank let his head fall into his hands, his back curved in a smooth semi-circle. “Not if it’s anything like that last one. Fuck.”
Like he knew what the other Killjoy was trying to get Frank to take. Whatever. “Anywhere I can clean up around this dingy place?”
“You take the pill and there can be.”
Frank tilted his head up, an eyebrow raised above eyes he suspected were red-rimmed from fatigue. “Tryin’ to blackmail me into poppin’ pills? You sound like fuckin’ BLI, you know that?”
Party laughed. “Kobra said this pill is just for the infection, and that it isn’t nearly as strong as the last one. He made you take that one so you’d sleep like a rock. And that if you aren’t a complete asshole, he won’t give you one of those without advance warning ever again.”
Frank leaned a bit closer, and eyed the pill. “Shower and a shave?” he asked.
Party nodded. His hair almost had a life of its own, the strands moving individually about with his every movement. It looked like he hadn’t taken a shower in a week, and Frank winced at the thought of ever doing that. If he couldn’t take a shower, he just didn’t feel human.
Fine. If they’d wanted to kill him, they could have done that already. There were worse things than being dead in this world, but he’d have to trust that the Killjoys wouldn’t do that to him.
Once he’d swallowed the pill, he fiddled with the rim of the paper cup before glancing up at Party. “How, uh. How long have I been here?”
“About a week,” Party said. “You were unconscious for most of it.”
A week. That would make it...Tuesday. “Fuck,” Frank swore, under his breath. He’d missed Saturday. That was the day he usually went down to the home to hang out with his grandfather. And he’d missed eating dinner at his mom’s place.
“You want that shower or what?”
Frank looked up, to see Party walking through the doorway. Shit. He hurried after him, ignoring the pain striking up his calves from his heels. The little green thing seemed to be helping a bit, or maybe it was the two days he’d spent asleep. His boots were probably back in the little room, tucked under Party’s chair.
They stopped at the supply closet, where Party took out a bar of soap. “Here,” he said, and shoved it at Frank. “I think we have...a towel...”
A single towel? That did not bode well.
“Well,” Party said, and handed Frank a small bag. “We’ll have to get you your own razor, I guess.” He frowned, and scratched at the nape of his neck. “We used to have a towel.”
Frank felt like a pile of dirt wrapped in some sweaty skin. Any shower, towel-less or not, was going to be better than no shower at all at this point. “Do you ever...wash your clothes?” he asked, turning the bar of soap over in the hand that wasn’t holding the small bag.
Party froze in the act of lifting up a small box. “Yes,” he said.
“There’s dried blood on my pants,” Frank said. “If you’re making me stay here, I’d like to have some pants without human remains on them.”
For a brief moment, he felt Party’s eyes roam from his feet to his face, and he shifted away from Party Poison, uncomfortable. “That could be arranged,” Party said. “You’ll have to wear a pair of my pants while yours dry. You’ll need a jacket, too...or some kind of long sleeved thing. The sun out here is like death. Hang on, let me see if Kobra has anything.”
Frank watched as he disappeared down the hall and into a room on the left. The diner was strangely quiet for what felt like late morning. The door directly opposite the supply closet creaked open, and Frank leapt back against the wall.
The door was only open a crack, but it was enough for Frank to see that it was a wide, light blue eye in a small face. It was the little girl from the day before. What had her name been? Gracie? “Mr. Ghoul?” she whispered.
“Uh,” Frank said.
The eye blinked, and looked down to where Frank was guessing her shoes were. “Do you need a towel?”
Frank looked down the hall, to the left. Kobra’s door was still shut tight. “Party said he couldn’t find one,” he said, hesitant. “I get the feeling like nobody around here really showers.”
She held up a thin finger. “Wait,” she said, and closed her door.
He was doing an awful lot of waiting, lately. Grace’s door opened before Kobra’s did, though, and she extended a towel towards him. It was blue, and had little rubber ducks around the edges. She was beaming, and when he hesitated, she stepped forward and tucked it into the crook of his arm. “There you go,” she said. “That’s my favourite one. It’s clean, I washed it.”
“I...” Frank couldn’t stop staring at the towel, fraying at one edge, the colour worn away at another. He took in a deep breath to thank Grace, and when he looked up, she was behind the door again, peering out through the crack. His throat closed up for a second but he swallowed past the lump, and licked his lips. “Thank you.”
She nodded, and closed the door a second before Kobra’s door opened. Party marched out, a few items beneath his arm. “Pants, shirt, socks,” he announced. “Oh, you found a towel. Where was it?”
Frank shook his head. “Just,” he said, and Party shrugged.
“I’ve already got the detergent, let’s go. When I said shower, I might have exaggerated, it’s really more of a sink. But there’s a mirror. And the water is...warm.”
Frank tucked the blue towel close to himself, and followed Party down the hall. A shower in a tiny, crappy sink was honestly better than nothing at all, though it could barely be considered a shower.
Once he’d locked himself into the tiny bathroom, he peeled off his jeans and the shirt that wasn’t quite his, and dumped them in the sink. Clean clothes came first, so even if he felt awkward standing around in his boxers, having his clothes back was something to look forward to. He scrubbed at the black denim, mixing water with detergent to get off the blood caked into the material. The shirt, he didn’t waste as much time on, and his boots looked like they’d been cleaned fairly recently.
He took the bar of soap that he’d been given, and ducked his head under the tap. His hair was caked with grease, and the dust that had flown into it when he’d been on his back in the desert, being cut open by a lunatic with medical supplies. The back of his head was sore, but they hadn’t cut away his hair, for which he was grateful. It wasn’t too long yet, but it fell to the base of his skull. He scrubbed until his arms started aching, and kept going until his forehead was covered in a thin sheen of sweat. The Killjoys weren’t going to let him go, and he had City baked into his skin like lizard meat on a rock. He wanted it back, the cold concrete cradling him like a pair of comforting arms, and the desert made him feel like he was covered in dirt.
He scrubbed at his hair, and then at his skin, until he felt raw, dirt dripping from the bar of soap and his rough fingertips and flowing in a murky stream down the drain in the middle of the floor.
There was dust under his fingernails that wouldn’t come out, and the cuts on the bottom of his feet were raw and red, and broken. When he unwrapped the bandages around his side, the skin was discoloured all around the wound that had been very carefully stitched together at least twice. It was strange, seeing your own skin not fit together properly. If he traced over the skin around the wound (which hurt like hell), he could feel that the skin didn’t quite flow in the same direction together anymore. The soap that had gone over the wound made it sting, and the water washing the soap away made his toes twitch on the ground involuntarily.
The face that stared back at him from the mirror looked like an old mask he’d once owned, a hasty collection of greens and purples that made him look like...well, a Ghoul. His finger shook as they worked the razor across his dark, hair-covered cheeks, the smooth skin such a relief beneath his fingertips. His eyes were rimmed with red, a sharp contrast to the rest of his face. His nose, they’d shoved it back into place, but there was a long line across it where the skin had split. It was mostly straight. Kobra had done good work.
He looked like a monster, even with a shaved face. And he felt like one.
He didn’t belong here, in this dimly lit bathroom. The steady stream of water down the drain was taunting, the drip-drip-drip of soap and dirt and water falling from his skin and onto the dirty floor echoed like a harsh laugh around the tiled room.
Tears pricked at the edges of his eyes, burning their way down his face, until a flash of colour caught his eye.
The little blue towel, hanging on the only hook in the room, rustled against the wall.
He reached into the water, and splashed it against his face before turning off the tap. His underwear was wet, but not clean, so he quickly washed it before wringing it out, and using the towel to dry both himself and the thin material.
When he was done, he dried his hair as best as he could with it.
It’s clean, I washed it.
He nodded. She’d washed it before giving it to him: it was only fair that he return the favour.
When he emerged from the bathroom, pants rolled up to his ankles where they were too long and stretched almost uncomfortably around his thighs where they were too tight, he felt almost clean. The bandages that had once been wrapped around his feet and side were balled up in his hand, and the wet clothes were in the other hand.
Not sure quite what to do with them, he hesitated in the hall. A few moments after he’d shut the door to the bathroom, Kobra peeked his head out into the corridor.
“Hey, Ghoul, I,” he started to say, but stopped when he saw Frank in the hall. He stared, his eyes blank, and his mouth a firm line. “Dude, what the fuck? You can’t just take those off, they’re holding you together.”
Frank frowned, and looked down at the bundle in his hands. “My pants?” he asked.
“Are you even serious,” Kobra said, and rolled his eyes. “God. Come in here.”
Frank obliged, but only because he had nothing better to do. And because Kobra was scary, and he was probably holding a ray gun in his hand right now, ready to shoot Frank if he didn’t follow along. Once in the room, he was somehow forced onto a bed, and the old bandages were removed from his hand.
“Sit still,” Kobra instructed. “Don’t take these off, okay? You have no idea what’s good for you, clearly. These keep dirt out, and all the delightful things inside your chest where they belong. They aren’t easy to come by. Arms up. I’m just going to...” he reached for some kind of bottle, and a swab. The liquid that came out of the bottle was a bright yellow, which was interesting when Frank looked down from that to the blood oozing out of his lopsided wound.
Looking at his side like he was, he didn’t see Kobra move forward with the dripping cloth until it was pressed firmly over the wound.
That...that stung. That fucking burned. That made pain jolt down to the bottom of Frank’s heels, through his toes, up to his eyes, and made everything go black for a second. He cried out in surprise, and ground his teeth together. His hand had curled into a fist where it was lying on the bed. The second he could see again, he pulled his arm back. His shoulders twisted away from Kobra, who must have thought that Frank was trying to pull away from the material. He put a steadying hand on Frank’s other side.
But Frank’s dad had taught him that if you lead with your shoulders and hips, your fist will follow. He shoved his fist forward, mildly satisfied when the edge of his knuckles connected with Kobra’s jaw and sent him flying back.
“Dude!” Kobra sat up, surprised and angry. His eyes were dark, and he stood quickly, hands clenching into fists at his side.
“Ow, fucker,” Frank snarled. He’d put a hand over the wound, because it hurt like fucking hell, “the fuck was that? Don’t do that. Ever again.”
“It’s an antiseptic! It’s there to kill all the bacteria and shit festering in your open wound!” Kobra threw his hands in the air, and then rubbed the side of his face with a wince. “Fuck, you throw a good punch. That’s going to bruise.”
Frank ground his teeth together. The pain was already subsiding, but that had been an altogether unpleasant surprise. “Warn me, at least,” he muttered. “Before you do that again.”
Kobra reached for a roll of white, and held it up. “These are bandages,” he said, slowly and with a fake cheeriness. “They keep your booboos from hurting too much, and they make you all fixy-happy. I’m just going to put them on you, okay?”
Frank glared, and lifted his arms so Kobra could wrap the bandages around him. “Fuck you.”
“At least your stitches look fine,” Kobra said, wrapping the bandage too tight. On purpose, Frank was sure. He couldn’t quite breathe properly, so he glared at Kobra. “Can’t breathe,” he said.
“It’s the only way to keep it from bleeding,” Kobra muttered, moving down to reach for Frank’s feet. He paused, with one hand on Frank’s knee. His dark eyebrows drew together, and he glanced up at Frank's face, his thumb still tucked around the seam. “Why...why are these pants so tight? And grey? Are these my brother’s pants?”
Frank shifted on the bed, and lifted up his feet so Kobra could grab them and swab them with whatever stinging thing he’d put on his side. He expected the pain this time, and didn’t swing at Kobra’s face, though his fingers did twitch on the bed. “Yes,” he said. “Mine are wet.”
Kobra’s nose wrinkled. “Gross,” he muttered. “Just. Gross. If you could not share details of whatever you and my brother have got going on, that would be great, thanks.”
“What?” Frank frowned. “No, not...”
Kobra’s left eyebrow lifted up, arching closer to his blonde-brown hair. “You’re in my brother’s pants,” he said.
“Well,” Frank said. He licked his lips, tried to figure out what he could say that wouldn't sound completely incriminating. “Yes. Maybe. But, mine had blood on them, so I had to wash them.”
“Is that why he came in here and took my yellow shirt? So you could wear it?” When Frank nodded, Kobra shook his head. “Bastard. Well, you’d better put it on. It’ll probably look better on you than it ever did on me.” He leafed through the pile of wet things at Frank’s side, and frowned. “Hey, you found a towel. Where was it?”
“Supply closet?” Frank tried.
“Huh. Whenever I look there, I can’t find one,” Kobra said.
Frank was in the process of pulling the shirt over his head when the door to Kobra’s room opened.
“Kobra?” Party’s voice came through the crack.
“Yep,” Kobra said.
Frank tugged the shirt down over the bandages covering his skin, and glanced at the black stripes around his arm.
“Get suited up, we have to go out.” There was a pause, in which Frank fiddled with the hem of his shirt and heart a shuffling outside the door. “Do you, uh. Have Ghoul in there with you?”
“Yes,” Kobra said. “Why?”
“I, just, uh. I was looking for him. He wasn’t in the hall, or whatever.”
“Idiot took his bandages off,” Kobra said. He glanced at Frank, and cleared his throat. “When’re we leaving?”
“Twenty,” Party said.
“Okay, out,” Kobra said, turning to Frank. “Get out and go hang up your pants or whatever you have to do. Shoo.”
Frank gathered up his things and did as he was bid, ducking past a wide-eyed Party Poison on his way back to his tiny room. Were they going back to the City? Or just on one of those crazy Drac hunting missions Frank had heard about through a friend of a friend’s brother’s cousin’s friend? When he went out in the hall to ask Party, he was met with a firmly-set mouth and a disapproving tilt of his eyebrows.
“You’re not coming with us,” Party said. “You’re staying here. We can’t leave Gracie behind on her own, and we can’t take you too near the City until it’s out of your system.”
“But,” Frank protested.
Party shook his head. “That’s that,” he said. “Don’t argue with me, or I’ll shoot you.”
These people did not have anything resembling a conflict resolution system. Shooting seemed to be their only solution to potential problems. “Whatever,” Frank said. “I was just going to ask if I could stay behind and hang out with a seven-year-old all day anyway.”
Party seemed surprised. “Well, good,” he said. “I’m glad to hear that. Kind of weird, though. You’re not, like, a kid-lover or anything like that, are you? Because if you are...”
“Yeah, yeah,” Frank said. “You’ll shoot me. I get it. And no. That was sarcasm. Irony, if you’re poetic or whatever. Just tell me where I can hang my pants up so they’ll dry, and then you can leave already.”
Party headed off down the hall towards where Frank hoped was a warm and well-aerated place for hanging things up. He followed, and Gracie’s door opened when he walked past it.
“You’re staying with me, Mister Ghoul?” she asked, blue eyes wide.
“Yep,” Frank said, trying not to let the note of crippling despair and misery creep into his voice.
She grinned and twirled a strand of her curly hair around her finger. “This is gonna be so much fun.”
As it turned out, a seven-year-old trapped in the merciless desert’s idea of fun, and that of a typical City child were quite different.
Instead of a tea party, or playing with stuffed animals, all Gracie wanted to do was go out behind the diner and shoot empty Power Pup cans with a borrowed ray gun. The gun was borrowed from Frank, who’d been re-given it by Jet Star on his way to the Trans-Am.
“Take care of Gracie,” he’d said, in his strange, high voice, “or I will ‘take care’ of you.”
“By shooting me,” Frank had guessed.
“You learn quick,” Jet had said, and had patted Frank on the back. “If you see Dracs, shoot ‘em. And if you can’t, give Gracie the gun. She’s a wicked shot.”
When Frank had asked Gracie what she wanted to do, she’d picked up a robot doll thing, and a tin can, and beamed at him. “Shoot stuff,” she’d said. “Come on! I built a range. Just like in the old days, right?”
Frank had been six in the old days. “Sure,” he’d said.
Now they were in the desert, sweating under the burningly enhanced rays of the sun, lining up to shoot the “coyotes”.
“You gotta be real quiet,” Gracie whispered. “Sneak up on ‘em. See, or they’ll get scared and run away.”
Frank stared at the tin can that he was supposed to hit. “Right,” he said. Run away. Because, of course, a tin can’s greatest defense was its incredible speed.
“Shh,” she hissed. “It’ll hear you. Now, come around this rock.”
The rock was about an inch high. “Yep,” Frank whispered.
“You gotta peer out around it,” she whispered, “and, bam! Hit it straight away.”
“No aiming?” Frank asked.
“Oh, you have to aim. You just have to be lightning-quick about it.”
Frank nodded. Okay. He could do this. He could pretend that a pebble was a boulder and that a can was a coyote. He hadn’t seen a coyote in twenty years, so he didn’t quite remember what they looked like, but okay. “Ready,” he said. “And...” He twisted, moving around the rock, and shot.
The tin can sat there, grinning as smugly as aluminum could, completely unharmed. Bastard.
“You’re doing it wrong,” Gracie said. “Here, let me show you.”
Against his better judgement, Frank handed Gracie the gun. She put her back to the pebble, and peered out at the can. Her little face was twisted in concentration, and she took a deep breath, and moved. When she twisted, the gun, which was in the hand opposite to the direction she’d been twisting, followed the motion of her shoulders. The second it snapped into place, in the hand that had moved into position when her body had, she fired. The tin can leapt back, a hole through its middle.
Gracie leaped to her feet, and punched a fist in the air. “Yahoo!” she cried. “Critter never saw it comin’.”
Where did she learn these words? Frank stood up. “That was amazing,” he said.
“I’m pretty good, I guess,” she said. “Want to try, now? I’ll set it up again.”
Frank shrugged, and accepted the gun back from her. “Sure.”
He moved his arm around, from his side, like he’d seen her do, and let it snap into his waiting hand, sitting out in front of him. Yeah. He could do this.
Gracie ran out to retrieve the fallen coyote. The second her hand touched the paper-covered metal, a blaring alarm made Frank slap his hands over his ears and duck down to the ground. “What...”
Gracie abandoned the can the second the alarm sounded, and was racing back towards the diner before Frank even had the chance to make it back to his feet. “What is that?” he asked, scrambling to his feet and running after her. Within seconds, the alarm had stopped.
“Dracs,” she called over her shoulder. “We have to hide all of our stuff.”
“All of it?” Frank asked. But they had...all of the...actually. When he followed Gracie inside the building, gun clutched tightly in his hand, he saw that there weren’t a great number of decorations of things to suggest that humans lived there.
“How long do we have?” he asked, when Gracie disappeared into her room. She emerged a few seconds later, hair wild and eyes wide.
“A minute,” she said. “Go...” She glanced around, and pointed to the main dining room of the diner, helplessly. “Over there.”
“Do you need any help?” he asked. She was in Kobra’s room, picking up a number of neatly-organized things and shoving them into what seemed to be a hole in the floor.
“You’ll just get in the way.” Her face was concentrated, like she’d run through this a great number of times. Which, he realized, as she deftly slid the floor tile into place, she probably had.
“Won’t they find us?” he asked. She’d pointed him towards the end of the hall, where the diner room was.
“They’re just Dracs,” she shouted, from whichever room she was cleaning up. “They have no sense of smell and they’re empty inside.”
Frank peered out through the doorframe, at the wide windows in the diner. “What if one of them’s a Crow?” he asked.
“We’d be screwed,” she shouted.
“Well,” Frank said, and felt his heart pick up in his chest. “I think we might be screwed.”
Gracie peeked out into the hall. “What?”
“They’re parking in front of the diner,” Frank said. “Two Dracs and a Crow. In one of those white BLI cars. The long-nosed ones.”
Gracie took in a deep breath. “You can’t take them injured like that, can you?”
Frank shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Can you...” Gracie thought, and her face lit up. “Drive a motorcycle?”
Frank rolled his eyes. Please. He could drive anything. “Yeah I can.”
“Garage,” she said, and ran down the hall. Frank heard the front door of the diner creak open, and ran after her. When he found the garage door, he pulled it closed behind him, and locked it. Hopefully that would give them a few seconds of time.
“There aren’t any helmets left,” she said, thrusting a bandana at him. She was pulling a leather helmet-type thing with a red stop sign on the front of it over her curls, and buckling it under her chin. “So I guess you’re going to have to try not to crash, okay?”
Try not to crash. He’d never been given better advice in his life. “Hold on tight, okay?” he said to her, when he’d climbed onto the white machine. He felt the seat of the bike change when she hopped up behind him, and strong, little arms wrapped around his midsection, clasping each other in the front. It hurt, her arms pressing up against his side like that, but it wasn’t anything he couldn’t deal with. He didn’t have anywhere to put his gun, so he pushed it into her grasp before turning the key.
The engine roared to life, and he kicked the kickstand up. Fuck, that was loud. He twisted the handlebars, and lifted his feet off the ground.
The machine was heavy, and white, and powerful. It leapt away from the diner in a cloud of dust. Frank turned left when he exited the garage, because Gracie had yelled the direction in his ear when he’d turned the key. He could only hope that she had some kind of hiding place in mind, because beyond the throaty growl of the motorcycle, he could hear an answering roar of what he hoped wasn’t, but probably was, the BL/Ind car following right on their tail.
Frank kept his eyes glued to the makeshift road in front of them, and felt Grace twist behind him. “Don’t,” he tried to yell, but he could barely hear himself. There was no way that she could hear him. The hand with the gun in it moved away from his stomach, and twisted around behind him.
Frank squinted against the wind that was meeting his eyes. He could only imagine that it was hard to fight against when you were trying to aim for something. His feet were on the foot pegs of the bike, and he felt Grace’s legs tuck around his calves for balance. Her free hand was twisted in the fabric of his shirt, but he couldn’t move for fear of overbalancing them. He didn’t have a helmet, he couldn’t afford to crash.
After what seemed like forever, her arm returned around his stomach, and she propped herself up to put her chin near his shoulder. “Got ‘em!” she shouted. “Left at the first road.”
Frank nodded, and she ducked back down, protected from the wind by his back. The first road came after they’d been riding at a good eighty or so miles per hour. Frank glanced down at the speedometer for the first time since he’d climbed onto the bike, and that was definitely not an acceptable speed within the limits of Battery City. Even traveling as quickly as they were, they didn’t reach the first road for a good five minutes, if Frank was at all good at estimating time.
He felt Gracie nudging him with her head early enough that he could slow down accordingly. This road was much shorter than the last, and only required one small detour around a fallen Drac, and one right turn at the end.
The building they reached after Frank was sure his eyes would never be able to water again was as brightly-coloured on the outside as the diner had been on the inside. He pulled to a stop in what he hoped was the front of it. It was hard to tell, because all of the windows were boarded up, and the entire place was a giant work of graffiti. He cleared his throat of the dust that had managed to get past the bandana and down his throat.
When the bike came to a full stop, Gracie leapt off, and was running before he could even ask whether he’d come to the right place. She disappeared around the side of the building, and Frank was left on the bike in the hot sun.
“Well, shit,” he said. Nobody was around to hear him. He was talking to himself, like a crazy person. Fabulous. “Grace?” he called, carefully. She’d taken the gun with her, so he propped the bike up on its stand, and put his hands on his hips. What was he supposed to do out here? He didn’t even know where they were.
He walked cautiously over to one of the walls, bright pinks and greens clashing with each other against the light brown of the plywood. He traced one of the patterns with his finger, and turned towards the direction Grace had disappeared into.
One second, he was lifting his foot up to take a step forward, and the next, he was face-down in the desert sand, with a mouth full of dirt. He didn’t remember falling, and he definitely didn’t remember the knee that was digging into his back. His head throbbed, and he must have hit it against the ground when he’d been forced down by whoever was digging a ray gun into the base of his skull.
He coughed, and dirt went into his lungs instead of air.
“Who are you,” a voice growled in his ear, “and what have you done with the Killjoys? If you’ve killed them, I swear to the fucking bomb, I will end you.”
So this was where the Killjoys had gotten their shoot-and-then-ask-questions attitude. “Fucking,” he managed, before coughing again.
“Both of them?”
Frank struggled, and managed to twist his face around. “What?”
“Both.” The person on top of him tapped his head with the ray gun. “Kobra and Party?”
“The shirt, the pants. You’re fucking both of them?”
Frank laughed, and coughed. And then moaned, at the knee that was pushing his side into the ground. “Owfuck. Kobra’s going to kill you if you’ve ripped my stitches.”
“So you’re one of them?”
The weight on his back lifted, and Frank found himself pulled to his feet by a man who could perhaps be described as the least threatening human being on the planet. If it wasn’t the bright blue of his helmet, or the sharp, delicate cheekbones, it was the polka dots on his tights.
“No,” Frank said.
“But you didn’t kill them all, either,” the man asked.
Frank shook his head. He peeled up the yellow shirt, and inspected the bandages. Red was seeping through, and trickling down his leg. “Oh shit, you totally ripped them.”
“Okay, well, hey. I’m sorry. What’s your name? Gracie said something like...Ghoul?”
Frank nodded. “Fun Ghoul. I guess.”
The man nodded. “Show Pony,” he said. “Let’s get you inside, and get you fixed up before Kobra comes by and shoots me for ripping your stitches.”
Frank let Show Pony lead the way to the interior of the building.“Don’t worry,” he sighed, “he’ll probably shoot me instead, for letting you sneak up on me.”
* * * *
“So, what, you took the motorcycle and left? They didn’t chase after you or anything?”
Frank stared at Show Pony. The man had been watching him, had directed him over to a chair, away from a man in what looked to be some kind of motorized wheelchair, and a whole mess of electronic equipment. He’d handed Frank a can of something, open, and a spoon, and was choosing now, when Frank had just stuffed the spoon into his mouth, to start asking him questions. He tried to chew around what tasted like beans, and grimaced.
“Hey, Show! Show,” Grace said. She’d been at the wheelchair man’s side, but had rushed over when Frank had been led in. He couldn’t believe he was bleeding down Party Poison’s pants. “Did you hear? I shot ‘em.”
Show Pony raised one delicate eyebrow. “You?” he asked.
Frank swallowed, and licked his teeth clean. “They followed us and Grace was holding my gun,” he stopped to take in a breath, slow and deep, wincing at the pain in his abdomen. “So she turned around on the bike, and shot them.”
“Two Dracs and a Crow,” she said. “Shot the Dracs, leanin’ out of the windows, and then the Crow came out to try and shoot me, but I got him before he could do anything.” She beamed up at Show Pony, but he was too busy looking at Frank to pay attention to her.
“And Ghoul, here, he didn’t think to stop the bike and not let a small child shoot a gun that was probably only meant for him? Because that’s responsible,” Show Pony scoffed. “Letting a little girl do all the work for you. Who the hell do you think you are?”
Grace’s mouth twisted, and she looked down at the floor. Her eyes were wide, and if Frank didn’t know better, he might have said that she looked guilty, but he could see the slight wobble of her chin and the rapid blinking of her eyes. Show Pony wasn’t looking at her: he was glaring daggers at Frank, but Frank ignored him. He set the can of food aside, and reached a hand out to Grace. “Hey,” he said. “You were awesome out there.”
Grace looked away from him, at the closed door of the place, so Frank scooted forward on the bench. He pressed his left hand to his injured side, and stretched out his free hand, laying it on her shoulder.
“Aw, Grace, I didn’t mean it like that,” Show Pony said.
Grace sniffed, and pulled away from Frank’s hand. He ground his teeth together when she pushed Show Pony’s arm away, and bolted through the panel that seemed to be the only door in or out of this desolate place.
“Fuck,” Frank muttered. He pushed himself to his feet, hand still pressed to his ribs. The bandages felt a bit wet, but if he just kept pressure on the area, that would hold things back enough, probably.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Show snapped, and reached out for Frank’s arm.
Frank shoved the other man in the chest as hard as he could with one arm. If it had been any normal person, they might not have budged, but Show Pony was wearing some kind of ridiculous roller skates on his feet, so he rolled back a few feet. That was just enough for Frank to turn tail and get out of the strange building as quickly as he could.
“This is Doctor Death-Defying,” said the man at the electronic equipment, “and that was Mad Gear and the Missile Kids’ “Black Dragon Fighting Society”. Weather comin’ up, but first, we’ve got some strange developments here at the station. You’ll never believe who just dropped by for a visit...”
The sunlight outside of what was apparently a radio station made Frank squint. He needed to get a pair of sunglasses if he was going to be staying out here for too much longer. “Grace?” he called. He pulled his bandana up around his mouth, because there was a slight, warm draft, and it was blowing dust into his eyes and mouth.
He couldn’t see her, but he could hear a shuffling behind him, and a sniffling somewhere to his right. So back where the bike was, then.
He kept his left hand pressing down over his very wet side, between the bandages and the shirt he was really desperately trying not to get all bloodied up. Grace was crouched down behind the bike with her face tucked into her knees and her arms wrapped around her legs.
Frank lowered himself to the ground next to her with a gust of air. It wasn’t comfortable to prop himself up too much, so he leaned back against the bike as gingerly as he could, and kept his legs out straight in front of him. He tugged his bandana down past his chin, and scratched at his jaw. Beside him, the tense little body slowly relaxed, until Grace had her legs stretched out like his on the dusty ground. She sniffed, and wiped her nose on her sleeve. “You’re not, you know,” he said, after a few minutes.
She looked up at him, her eyes rimmed with red. Her breath caught in her chest, and she shook her head. “Wh-what?” she asked.
Frank shrugged. He picked at a spot of something on the seam of the jeans he was wearing, the cuffs darkened from the dirt they’d been trailing in. He pursed his lips, and tilted his head towards her before clearing his throat. “Just a little girl.”
Her eyes welled up again, and she sniffed. “I-I...I am.”
Frank shook his head. “Are not.”
Her little hand balled up into a fist, and she slammed it into the ground as hard as she could. The dust that rose up clung to her face, along the paths that tears had already taken, as fresh ones spilled from her eyes and cut through the dirt. “I am,” she spat. “I’m not allowed to ‘play with guns’, o-or stay by mys-self, or come along when they go on missions.” She choked, and hit the ground again, with less force this time. Frank put a hand on her shoulder. “A-and every time they go out, I’m s-so s-s-scared, that they’re not going to come back, or that they’ll, they’ll c-come back and he, he, he,” she shook her head, and squeezed her eyes shut as Frank moved closer, and pulled her to his chest.
The strength of this little girl spoke more loudly to him than anything he’d heard about the Killjoys. She was left alone every day in the desert, cleaned up after the Killjoys when they were gone, protected them, practiced shooting, and still managed to have a sense of wonder and creativity about a world that would shoot her before it even stopped to think about her. Here they were, leaning up against one of the signs of their oppression in a wasteland that she had to call home because of a megalomaniacal company, and she was still stronger than he could ever hope to be. She was what the Killjoys were fighting for, dying for.
She was colour, bright and pure.
It was shining through the blue lenses of her wide eyes, in the bounce of her step, and the width of her smile. She was the strength to stand up for what you believed in no matter what your size or gender was.
He’d thought that, back in the City, he’d been bringing life to a tomb, by painting walls and listening to music. He’d thought that he’d been shouting, by painting pictures onto his own skin with illegal needles. But when the Killjoys had pulled him out of there, he’d wanted to go back, to finish waging the war he’d thought that he’d been fighting.
The City didn’t have this. It didn’t have breeze, or wind that kicked up sand into his eyes. It didn’t have a burning sun, or a tiny spot of shade. It didn’t have pirate radio stations, or colour. It didn’t have life: sweat or blood or tears or laughter.
Frank tightened his arms around Grace as she tightened her arms around him, and he found that he didn’t need to cry anymore. Not about the place he’d thought was his home.
When her shoulders stopped shaking, Frank tilted his head down so that his forehead was pillowed in her curls, and his nose came out in the small space between them. “If it makes you feel any better,” he said softly, “I think they left you behind this time to take care of me.”
She chuckled. Frank smiled. “I’m serious. You’re such a motorbaby out there, with your shooting, you don’t even need to aim. The way you ghosted those Dracs that were after us, I don’t know if I could have done it.”
He could feel her smile against his shoulder. “Thanks,” she mumbled.
“Listen,” he said. “I might be bigger than you, and a little bit stronger, but I think we should make a deal.”
“A deal?” Grace pulled her head back so she could look up into his eyes. “What kind of deal?”
“I don’t know anything about shooting, or desert living, or being a good Killjoy,” Frank said. A grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “But you do. You’re good at all that stuff. And I know about cars and lifting weights and punching. So, what do you say, you protect me, and I’ll protect you?”
Her nose wrinkled, and she nodded. “Yeah. I got your back, Mister Fun Ghoul.”
“Shiny,” Frank said. “And, uh.” He paused, and glanced over his shoulder, back at the radio station. He couldn’t see anybody there, so he cleared his throat. “Your name is Grace, huh?”
Grace nodded. “Daddy says I don’t get a Killjoy name ‘til I’m big enough to pick one out.”
Frank worried at his lower lip, and then nodded. “I’m Frank. Don’t...tell anybody, I think it might be safer for them if...if they don’t know.”
“Not for me?” she asked.
Frank shrugged. “You got my back.”
Grace giggled. “But if I ever get tortured...”
“Well, we won’t give each other last names, then,” Frank said. “Deal?”
“Deal,” Grace said, and grinned. “Frank.” She wiped at her eyes. “Aw, I got your shirt all dirty.”
Frank shrugged. “It’s Kobra’s,” he said.
“But,” she said, and gasped. “Frank, you’re bleeding.”
“Huh? Oh.” Frank looked down. The yellow of Kobra’s shirt wasn’t quite yellow anymore. “He is not going to be able to get that out.”
“I got your back,” Grace said, and scrambled to her feet. She slid one leg back to steady her stance before she offered a hand to help him up. “We gotta get you stitched together, Ghoul.”
“Alright, alright,” Frank grumbled. He let himself be pulled to his feet because he didn’t quite trust himself to get up on his own. His head felt a bit light, like he hadn’t eaten in a while, and the ground seemed to be swaying a bit. It was a bit like being on a boat, he imagined, with the sea heaving one side up above the other. It didn’t stop when they ducked beneath the rotating panel of the radio station, but it seemed to get better when Frank sat down on the white table he could have sworn had been covered in things a few minutes ago.
The bearded wheelchair guy was mumbling things into his device again, but Frank couldn’t concentrate on both him and Show Pony at the same time. Show looked a bit guilty, but didn’t say anything to Grace, who had practically pushed Frank onto the table, and was sitting up next to him now, on his good side.
“I’ll hold your hand,” she said seriously, “in case it hurts, okay?”
A wave of nausea crashed over Frank when he tried to take off his own shirt. “Uhgh,” he moaned, and pressed an already red hand over the wound. It wasn’t nearly as bad as when Kobra had basically stabbed him out in the desert, but he’d passed out an awful lot quicker then. He just lifted his arms and let Show take his shirt off for him.
“Take this,” the man said, and shoved a blue pill into Frank’s hand.
Not another one. If it was anything like the last blue pill...well. Anything was better than this. He took it, and lay down on the table as instructed. Show Pony started peeling away his bandages, and decided to simply slice through them instead, with an awfully sharp knife.
Frank glanced down at the horrible mess, and felt his stomach twist. The wound was not clean anymore. It had looked mostly fine that morning, albeit slightly neater, but the stitches were just more gruesome now that some of them were torn apart.
“Gross,” Grace said. “You look kind of like Frankenstein.” She giggled, and patted his shoulder.
“Ohgod,” Frank grunted. His head fell back to the table with a bang. There was a bright light, and the room spun before there was nothing. The last thing he remembered was a little hand wrapped around his, and a pair of bright eyes, and then, nothing.
* * * *
A hand on Frank’s shoulder jerked him back into the world, where darkness had fallen and a set of screens across the room from him case an eerie glow over everything. Without moving his head, he glanced down at the curls below his chin which explained the muted heartbeat against his chest and the warmth along his front. Grace’s breathing was soft but steady.
His gun was just above where his hand was resting on the bed, and he hadn’t wasted more than a second assessing his situation. He narrowed his eyes, and grabbed the gun before twisting like Grace had shown him. The gun connected with the soft tissue of a neck, and Frank wondered why he hadn’t cocked the gun before aiming it. His other hand was stuck beneath Grace.
He wasn’t about to show fear to the Drac, though. The Drac who had put a hand on his shoulder.
And who had surprisingly red hair.
Frank frowned, and squinted. Hm.
Party Poison stared back at him, eyes wide. The gun moved when he swallowed. “Forgot to cock it, huh?” he said, in a low and throaty voice. His eyebrow quirked when Frank’s frown deepened.
“Fuck you,” Frank muttered. He pulled back the gun, and looked around the dimly lit room. It was empty until Jet Star peeked through the doorway, his eyes widening almost comically with relief.
He ran over, and knelt down in front of the bed that used to be an operating table, and before that had been a dinner table. His large hands moved to Grace’s shoulders, and she blinked sleepily awake. She rolled away from Frank, the heel of her hand moving up to rub her eyes. “Daddy?” she whispered, and smiled.
“Hey, baby,” he said. He tugged her to him.
With his arm now free, Frank tried to push himself up, but found that he couldn’t use the arm that had been under Gracie. He also found that the room seemed to be spinning, and his head seemed to be full of some delightful kind of fluffy cotton ball. His mouth was dry, too.
He tried to wet his lips, but didn’t manage to do much but fall back down towards the table. Bed. “Where’d the guy go?” he asked, and felt his eyes drift closed.
“Hey, Ghoul,” Party said, from somewhere in the clouds. “Not yet, okay? Wait until we get back in the car to fall asleep, can you do that for me?”
“Mm,” Frank hummed. “Sure thing, baby.”
He sighed, and tucked himself into a ball around his side which only hurt if he was lying on it. It was quite nice.
“Not at all what I meant,” someone said.
“Go to sleep,” Frank mumbled. “It’s night-time.”
Frank groaned when the hand on his shoulder started shaking him, and he swatted at it with a hand that seemed to be traveling through molasses. “Stoppit.” He snuggled closer to his gun, ignoring the hand shaking his shoulder. Voices floated around his head, saying things like:
“What the fuck happened to him?” and
“I, uh, may have knocked him to the ground...” and
“Fucking fuck, Show. Don’t tell me,” and
“No. Well. Yes. I mean. I stitched him back together.” and
“Get up, Ghoul.”
Frank cracked an eye open with some effort. Party Poison had moved from behind him to his front, staring into his eyes with those intensely part-gray, part-green, part-hazel ones of his. Frank wrinkled his nose, and blinked his open eye. “Five more minutes.”
“What did you give him for the pain?”
Party set his lips. “Come on, we’ve got to go. You can sleep back at the diner, okay? On a real bed, with a real pillow.”
“I, uh, one of the blues you gave me.”
“How long ago was that?”
Frank huffed. He looked down at his gun, and then back up at Poison. “I like pillows,” he confessed.
“Come on,” Party said. He slid his arm under Frank’s shoulder and hoisted him into a sitting position, supporting Frank’s slouching body with his own lean frame. Frank let his head fall onto Party’s shoulder. Well. He couldn’t really hold his head up is what it was. “You’re a heavy little motherfucker, aren’t you?”
“Naw.” Frank yawned. “‘M not into moms.”
“Kobra, could you get his other side?”
Frank raised an eyebrow when Kobra ducked under his other arm, and they made it off the table. His feet worked, a little bit, but he couldn’t quite put any weight on his legs.
Kobra leaned closer to Party. “Show gave him one of the blue ones when it was still light out.”
Frank closed his eyes, and rubbed his temple into the soft leather beneath his face. Party grunted, and nudged Frank’s side. “Step over this ledge.” Frank obliged, without opening his eyes. He felt quite dizzy, and like he should really be sleeping.
“What was that, three hours ago?”
“About. How did Ray carry this guy all by himself? Shit.”
“Don’t those things last, like, six hours? He was out for at least ten last time.”
“Ghoul, open your eyes, get in the car.”
Frank shook his head, and only blinked awake when a hand connected with his cheek. “Ow,” he muttered. “Mean.”
Kobra was smirking. “In.”
“You’re the worst one,” Frank sighed, and ducked into the car. He couldn’t quite figure out what to do, where was the place he was supposed to sit? He saw Gracie, leaning up against Jet Star. She had her head in his lap.
Frank frowned, and rubbed at his eyes with one hand. Yes, that looked quite comfortable. “Move,” he muttered, and poked her with a finger.
“What?” Grace asked, and shifted a bit.
Frank nodded, and just about collapsed. Grace was at his back, in between him and Jet Star’s stomach.
“Oh, fuck no,” he heard from somewhere, but the thighs beneath his head were pillowy and delightful. He wrapped his arms around one of the legs, making sure to keep his gun in one hand.
“Night, Gracie,” he mumbled.
She giggled, and draped an arm across his chest. “You’re silly.”
“You guys are just going to leave me like this?”
Frank closed his eyes, and tucked one leg closer to his stomach. The other one was propped up on the seat against the door to the outside.
“It’s easier than driving slowly and hoping he doesn’t fall over. Show gave him one of the blue things.”
“Night, Daddy,” Grace said, into Frank’s hair.
Frank sighed, smiling as he drifted off to sleep. The car rumbled to life beneath them. He was snuggled up next to two warm bodies, in a desert he didn’t quite hate anymore, with the promise of colour and life in his future. Of fast cars and guns of light, and cans of beans.
“Night, Daddy,” he murmured into the soft jeans under his cheek. He let the car, and the pills, and the laughter of his famous friends carry him off to sleep as they rumbled back towards the diner.