Never 1-II

Movin’ To The Top.

I froze. The memory of screaming, raw and hoarse, filled my head, driving out any other thoughts. I couldn't have moved in that moment any more than I could have suddenly sprouted wings.

There was a snap-hiss, barely audible over the roaring flames, and suddenly the inferno disappeared. The woman stood there still, looking slightly bemused, and then slowly pitched over. She hit the ground with a heavy thud, and lay there limply, her breathing the only movement.

And just like that, it was over. I leaned forward, resting my hands on my knees, and catching my breath. My heart was pounding in my chest, my lungs heaving and panting, sweat rolling down my chest, and not just from the heat. That was… damn it. That could've been really bad. It had been almost two years now, and still…

I stood back up, calmer. I always thought I had it down, and then it'd come up again when I was least expecting it.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I sighed, pulling it out and answering the private number.

“Yer welcome,” said the voice on the other end immediately.

“Hello, Lis. How are you? Good? Well, that’s good. Me? Oh I'm just swell.”

“Oh, I'm sorry, did I or did I not just save yer life?”

“...thank you, Lis.”

“See? Was tha’ so hard?”

Lisette DuPont is, sadly, my best friend. Acerbic, rude, generally unpleasant, and with an accent that sounded like she'd thrown every other accent in the world into a turbocharged blender, she’s… definitely unique. She does have her good qualities, but you kinda have to dig for them. With a JCB. And industrial quantities of explosive. And possibly an exorcist.

Like me, she’s a super, and like me, she’s a vigilante. We’re part of a… well, we’ll get to that in a second. What’s important is that she had no reason to be anywhere near me, and yet she’d taken out the flame-thrower.

“Lis, what are you doing around here? I thought you were helping the others with… that thing?”

“I am,” she replied cheerily. “S’just around here, and thought I’d jus’ peek in on ya. Good thing I did, huh?”

“Wait, they’re around here?! Shit, shit.” I turned and began pacing. “How close?”

She laughed - well, snorted. “Jeez, relax. I’m like five blocks from ya, and they’re like five blocks from me. Plenty o’ space, ya giant pussy.” Lis’s power lends itself to an overwatch role pretty well, so that’s what she usually does for us. She likes it because she can nest up with way too much junk food.

I breathed out a sigh of relief. “Oh, good.”

“Wait. Ya mean you weren’t intentionally hoverin’ around in case somethin’ went wrong?”

“What?” I asked, confused. “No, of course not. Why would I do that? This is just my normal patrol route.”

“Pfft. Patrol route.”

“Literally nothing about that was funny.”

“It is when I can see yer face.”

“What?!” I spun around futilely. I was standing in an empty back road, industrial buildings on one side and the abandoned apartment buildings that characterized the neighbourhood on the other. The high rises, including the Tower, glittered in the sky above the former, and the other side of Lake Michigan above the latter. There were myriad buildings in between on both sides, though, so she could’ve been anywhere. “Lis, don’t fuck around with me.”

“Hmm…” she pretended to consider it. “Nah, I’m gonna keep doin’ it. I think I earned it, considering I saved your life.”

I sighed. “Lis, I’ve literally punched out a guy who had a knife to your throat. I think we’re even.”

“What about that time when the guy who made those spheres-”

“Balanced out by the one with giant sword.”

“The creepy clown?”

“Plant-fucker, remember?”

“Uh… the boyband?”

“Sword one again.”

“Fuck! The…” she clicked her fingers. “The goddamn Cabal! Hah!”

“The goddamn Cabal, twice,” I repeated back drily. “Hah.

“Gawd fuckin’ dammit! You piece of shit!”

“Now, now,” I admonished. “That’s no way to talk to the person who’s saved your life.”

“Fuck off,” she laughed. Then, suddenly serious, “You okay, though?”

I ran a hand through my dreads, forgetting I’d held them back with a scrunchie, and felt them come loose. “Yeah,” I replied, irritated as I fixed my hair, “I’m okay. It just… it doesn’t get easier, you know? It’s not scarring over.”

“Yeah, I know.” Lis has seen some shit. Don’t get any ideas, though; her repellant personality isn’t hiding a soft, sensitive core. That’s just how she is. She doesn’t have layers; she’s just one solid block of... Lis. Still, she’s still a human being, and she can empathize. “So… I guess I saved you from an emotional threat as well as a physical one, which means we’re fuckin’ even, bitch!” Sometimes. She can empathize sometimes.

“I’m not even gonna try,” I muttered. “So… how’s it going?”

“Ha!” she crowd. “I knew it. So much for ‘this is a stupid idea an’ if you all die it ain’t my fault’.”

“Just… just tell me, please.” Belatedly, I realized I hadn’t gotten my cape back. I strolled over to where it lay and picked it, shaking it out, and stomping on the big man’s fingers as he tried to swipe at my leg. The fabric was unharmed, if a little stained, and I swept around my shoulder and popped the buttons back into place.

“Oh, fine, fine,” she drawled. “Not that you care, of course.”

“Lis,” I growled.

“Don’ get yer panties in a twist, jeez. It’s going fine. Well, this group is, anyway.”

“Which one? Sanjay’s or Jess’?”

“Apartment, Sanjay.” I made a face, and she did the obligatory vomiting noise. “Hold on, I’ll check on the others-” her voice cut off. When it came back, she was serious. “Flint, put in your earpiece.”

“Wha-?”

Now.”

Serious Lis meant that this was serious. I pulled my earpiece out of one of my belt pouches and slipped it into my ear. Immediately, a voice popped in, perfectly clear. “Skew, you piece of shit.”

That’s me - the name, not the voice. It’s my ‘superhero’ nom-de-plume, even if I don’t technically qualify for the title. And yes, I know it’s bad. If you can think of something better, I’d be glad to hear it.

The voice belonged to Sanjay Singh, a.k.a. Foresight a.k.a. a ginormous toolbag. If I didn’t already have one, he would be my nemesis (more in a sitcom way than a real way, though). He's another member of my… not team, exactly. We're a loose coalition of vigilantes and mercenaries called the Outliers (not my idea). If I was in charge, Foresight would never have gotten in, on account of him being intensely unpleasant. I'm not, though, so he's in. The Outliers were currently engaged in a raid against a group of superpowered criminals called the Cabal (formerly 'of the Enlightened Savior’, now just the Cabal). I'd argued firmly against it, partially because it was dangerous, and partly for… personal reasons. I'd been overruled, though, and so I'd chosen to remove myself from the plan. I wasn't lying to Lis: I really hadn’t planned to be nearby.

“Hello to you too, Foresight,” I replied dryly. We used codenames only on the earpieces. “Would you like to specify why I'm a piece of shit?”

He growled. “Shut the fuck up. The second team, Freefall's team, they're getting trashed. You know, the team you were supposed to be leading? You're closer than us. Get your piece of shit ass over there before your fucking cowardice gets them all killed.” (Freefall is the Jess that Lis mentioned earlier).

I pursed my lips, then began running. I didn't like Foresight, actually I despised him, but this wasn't about him. It was about the rest of the Outliers. “I’m on my way,” I said curtly, then switched to a private channel with Lis. “Ricochet (that's her 'callsign’), you read me?”

“Like an open picture book,” she replied.

“Good. I need directions. Also, why can't you help?”

She actually sounded pissed off. “They got a forcefield guy. Dunno from where. He’s blockin’ me while the others whale on our guys. They're on the edge of Ramsay Park closest to you- ah.”

Ramsay Park. Right. I hooked a left, heading down another deserted street in the general direction I knew the park to be in. “Ah what?”

“There's a freeway in between you and them.”

I let loose a stream of vitriolic swearing. Then, an idea hit me. “Are there any abandoned buildings by the freeway?”

There was a pause. “Yeah, there's one. Skew, please tell me you're gonna do what I think you're gonna do.”

I grinned. “I aim to please.”

She cackled. “Fuckin’ beautiful. Oh, hang a left.”

“You know it.” I followed her direction, turning into a dark alleyway littered with trash. At the other end, I could see the flickering lights of the freeway. “Okay, brief me. Who else is there?”

“On our side, Freefall, Tide & Ribbon and Stonewall. On their’s, the forcefield guy, one with an eye symbol that doesn't seem to be doing anything, Medusa and Strongarm.” Those last two I knew. Medusa had a petrification blast and creepy prehensile hair, and Strongarm had a particularly grotesque form of superstrength. We’d met before, and I remembered it less than fondly. “So… she's not…”

“Nah, she was with the other group. They took her out.” I released the breath I didn't realize I'd been holding. Good, that was one less complication.

I exited the alley, crossing a smaller road. A car horn blared to my left, but the lights were faint enough that I could tell I didn't need to worry about it. There were buildings on the other side, all around six stories, and then beyond them, the freeway. “Which block?!” I barked at Ricochet.

“Three to the right.” I found the one she was talking about, and burst through the entrance, which had no door. There were a set of fire stairs at the back of the lobby, and I took them two at a time. “There's an air-conditioning block right next to the edge. Yer gonna wanna go about… 20 degrees to the right from it. There's a two-story on the other side, nice flat roof. Should be about right.”

“Got it,” I replied, panting, as I burst out onto the roof. Over the edge, I could see the freeway, a six-laner, buzzing with cars and trucks. On the other side was a few rows of buildings, and then Ramsay Park. I quickly spotted the air-conditioning unit Ricochet had pointed out, and the building to aim for. Taking deep breaths, I retreated to the opposite end of the roof, mentally lining up the angles.

“Ricochet?” I asked into the comm.

“If yer gonna ask for luck, ya know I don't do that.”

“Nope, I don't need luck.” I bared my teeth in a grin to no-one. “I just want to make sure you're filming this.”

And with that, I sprinted towards the edge, hit it at full speed, and leaped out into the open air.