Book 5, 4: Steak Out, Meat Cute
Charlotte carefully, oh so carefully, please don’t let anything happen to the wonderful contents, tugged at the Velcro straps on the big, Price Rite-brand insulated shopping bag, pulled still-warm baozi out. “One each. Eat ‘em while they’re still warm.”
Rose took hers, looking a little dubious. “That’s not a lot of food.”
“Dinner’s laid on at the Yurt. BLTs with hot and sour soup. Besides, there’s a salad roll in here for each of us.”
Rose looked uncertain.
“No green onion in yours. Auntie Ma remembered. Also, there’s more baozi.”
“’In case your young men show up,’” Dora said, doing a pretty good imitation of Auntie Ma.
Charlotte blushed. “Will they?” She asked, a little roughly.
Rose hooked her thumb over her shoulder. The shiny new condominium overlooking Superintendent Hite’s building had a penthouse down one end. In the cold, Philadelphia evening twilight, darkness pooled along one edge, where there shouldn’t have been room for anyone, never mind an oversized ninja.
But that was the ninja way. Looked like Bruce wasn’t the only one out being one with the night tonight. If he showed up. Charlotte bit her lip anxiously as she carefully unfolded the wrap on her char siu, then forgot herself in the sweet and savoury chopped beef steak and the deliciously chewy, steamed dough.
“Does that mean he’s coming over, or not?” Twelve asked. His baozi had already disappeared.
Rose shook her head.
“’Snooze, lose,” Brian announced as he took his second baozi from Charlotte.
“I can’t believe we’re here to protect Dad’s boss. ‘Skinner!’”
“May I, and I say this with the most profound respect for your Earth culture, ask just one question?” Brian asked. “The who the what now?”
Dora turned on Brian and squinted. “Superintendent Chalmers and Principal Skinner? On The Simpsons? TV? Cartoon show? Used to be funny? Eighties kids can’t stop quoting it?”
Brian shook his head. “Anything like The Flintstones? ‘Cuz that stuff’s dope.”
“Seriously?” Dora actually put her hands on her hips to cock an attitude, which was pretty funny to see, considering that she was sitting cross-legged, elementary school kid style, up against the parapet so that she could watch the pool of light cast on the sidewalk far below by Superintendent Hite’s den window. “They have Flintstones on TV on Landing instead of The Simpsons? I can’t wait for the Twenty-Second Century, when South Park hits the scene. Your great-great grandchildren, if you should have them, not that there’s anything wrong with that, will love it.”
“I don’t follow?” Brian looked confused.
“Okay,” Rose said, exasperated. “First, that was a Seinfeld reference, which isn’t helping at any level. Second, Dora is saying that Landing’s a bit behind the times, which is like saying water is wet. Third, South Park is funny, sometimes.”
“Your explanation helped this humble backwoods home boy, and now I understand all that has passed in this completely irrelevant conversation, and I do not say this in a very sarcastic voice for any particular reason, or to suggest that Dora is just messing with me. What about your Dad’s boss, Dora?”
“Well,” Dora answered, “As I was trying to illustrate with a reference to a bit of pop culture that everyone should be able to get by now, the principal is the main man in a school, but every time the Superintendent comes to visit, it’s like he’s back in grade school. It can be tough. Like last November. It’s pretty embarrassing when some washrooms get vandalised so bad that the Superintendent feels like he’s got to come and address an assembly about respecting the custodial staff. Also, gross.”
“So your Dad was embarrassed. I get it,” Brian said.
“Well, actually. . . Hite was pretty cool about it, Dad says. Dad also said that that was because he’s only been on the job for a year and a half, and it was his first big visit to Tatammy. Problem is, he totally had that ‘You’ll understand when you’re older’ tone going on when he said it.”
“So there was something else going on behind the scene,” Rose said. “Bruce already suspected that. I mean, look at all the members of the supers community that were there. Mr. Stone and Father Asplin are there because a union’s involved, so, like, unions and social justice so obviously the Archdiocese? Mrs. Crudup and Miss Hirsch because, what, they’re old? Mr. Jefferson in case somebody needed a lawyer? Give me a break.”
A familiar canary yellow Jeep pulled up in the street below. Charlotte didn’t need to see anything more than folded leg in white leather that looked as though it were long enough for the knee to hit oncoming traffic to know who’d arrived. “Subtle,” she growled.
“Yeah,” Dora said. “Madison gives sexy a bad name. Hey, piece-of-meat girl!”
A second later, the window of Mr. Hite’s den shattered outwards as Mario came plunging out on a pulson flame, his arms wrapped around Superintendent Hite. Who, understandably, considering that he’d just been tackled by surprised at his desk while surfing the Web and carried through the window into the winter cold night, was screaming like a girl.
He didn’t stop screaming as Brian activated the second subtle spell of defence that he’d cast earlier, sending the Superintendent slipping through Mario’s arms. After all, now he was falling. Nobody likes falling. Just one of those things, Charlotte thought.
Of course, she’d planned for that, too. The golden nimbus of the needfire flowed around the Superintendent, whisking him away. Charlotte had imagined the Superintendent gratefully thanking them for saving his life so many times that she was almost sad as she watched Dora land him on the carefully prepared teleportation gate that Brian had laid on the sidewalk at the corner down from his place, sending him through to the Liberty League headquarters.
Only first the spell had to take effect, and Mario was blasting along directly after his prey, towards the still-open teleportation gate. Uh oh, Charlotte thought. It wasn’t like the Liberty League was at their headquarters tonight. She had no idea what their internal security was like, but there was a real chance that Mario would be able to just grab the Superintendent and leave.
Only. It turned out, he would have to beat the Dark Ninja, first. The massive, black clad form had swung out from his hiding place to meet Mario, swinging nunchuks in both hands. As the collision rebounded in the street below, Charlotte could see the teleportation gate close.
Well, good on that, she thought, but so much for keeping Michael in her pocket as a trump. Also, she thought to herself, but maybe it would be a good time to dodge away from the direction Madison was pointing before she collected another chaos blast-themed bruise?
Only it turned out that wasn’t on the agenda, after all. Suddenly, the roof underneath of her collapsed, and it was Charlotte who was falling. Reflexively, she rolled her landing, coming up, Pearl Harmony Sword instinctively in hand. But it wasn’t going to help her, or Brian, against the mass of bricks falling after them. Brian, who landed on his head, couldn’t even dodge.
“I’ve got it –Unh!” Dora shouted from above. The grunt was from whatever hit her and dropped her to the remaining, intact bit of roof. But in the moment when the needfire was operating, a golden ram had swept the air above Charlotte and Brian and cleared away the bricks.
That gave Charlotte a chance to look around her. Fortunately, it looked like the building had still to be finished inside and there were no teants. The apartments were bare of internal walls, and there were no doors. Also, no roof, which would be a problem for the construction dudes.
She bent over Brian, quickly checked pulse, eyes, respiration. He looked back up at her. “I should know you, right?”
“I hit my head, right?”
Charlotted nodded, again.
“I think I’ve got a concussion.”
That seemed pretty clear and reasonable for someone with a concussion, but brains could do weird things, and presumably especially half-elven brains. Charlotte nodded a third time, then vaulted to the roof.
Dora was slumped at the edge of the crumbled area. There was something . . . off about her. Rose was dodging, as a creepy guy with a hipster goatee, wearing gold and red armour fired off blast after blast. Then Twelve did a dramatic stand-still pose in the air. “Ready for me to feed you your post-ironic nonconformism, you Broderist asshole?”
Crap, crap, crap. Charlotte thought as she recognised Timelapse from her school briefings. She desperately hoped Dora was okay, although realising that that wasn’t what Timelapse’s powers did.
“Big talk,” the creepy guy said. “Oh, and blame Obama for this.” The eerie blue Cherenkov-radiation effect of his powers washed over Twelve.
Who just got bigger and meaner looking, because artificial aging was not exactly the best way to attack an adolescent immortal.
“Thanks,” Twelve rumbled. “Thought I’d never get huge enough to fight Mario.” And then he did his power dive straight at Timelapse.
And missed, because that was not where Timelapse was. Twelve went smashing right through the bricks of the roof. One more team-mate out of the fight.
“Gotcha!” Rose shouted in triumph. But, suddenly, Timelapse was behind Rose, and pushing her –straight off the roof.
“Now, you. The kung fu girl. You would not believe what I’ve got coming to me if I put fifty years on you.”
Oh, yeah. Madison would love that, Charlotte thought, as she thought, frantically, How did you dodge a guy who could step outside of time?
A black, winged fury exploded out of nowhere, raking Timelapse’s face.
Oh, yeah, like that, Charlotte thought, as she reached out with her sword to bat Timelapse’s aging field out of the air, moved by some instinct that had her in motion before the rest of her brain could wonder if that was the safest thing to do with her precious, Red Aeon-old magic sword.
It was, though, or at least, did no harm. It did make the Pearl Harmony glow an unexpected blue, instead of its usual, organically white colour. And not the jade blue of her brother’s Azure Tranquility, either, but the impossibly lush sky blue of noon.
“Get off me!” Timelapse shouted, as he finally connected, armoured gauntlet to Ginger’s lustrous black feathers, sending the diminutive crow flying. “Now. Where were we? Oh, yeah. We were working on a Golden Girls remake.” He grinned, held up his hands.
Charlotte was back to guard, sword out, hoping that the blue effect would protect her. But it wasn’t enough, damn it! They couldn’t just ward Timelapse off! They needed to take him down, force him to de-age Dora. Somehow.
–And then Timelapse rolled his eyes up in their sockets and collapsed, a spurt of blood erupting through his curly, black hair.
“Oh no!” Charlotte couldn’t help herself.
Twelve drew up in the air again, facing towards the penthouse roof, and, if anything, looked even more threatening before. “He’d better not be dead,” the adolescent Empyrean clone said, and his voice boomed in even lower tones than a moment before.
“Nah. Skull crease,” Scout announced, as he vaulted down off the roof of the penthouse, a tiny little pistol in his hand producing, Charlotte could have sworn, an equally tiny little whisp of smoke. “He’ll be down for a few hours, though. Best Ah could do. Hard to hit.”
Charlotte looked at the ‘mysterious.’ Gun-wielding vigilante she’d first met on Landing, and, later, in the dimension of Babylon, City of Man, and even gone on a date with here in Philadelphia. She couldn’t believe he’d show up here, now, because—
And he was wearing a brand new tie to complement his Western-style, denim jacket and pants, white cowboy hat and red, bandanna-style mask. A bolo tie, with a beaten silver Navajo-style silver disc-clasp at the top, and as she stared at it and marvelled at its blingy beauty, she realised that she couldn’t remember her train of thought.
Not that it mattered. Scout was here. Though, on the other hand, Dora was down, and Twelve was crouched over her. With a million emotions going at once, Charlotte tried to keep it cas. “How’d you hit him?” But her voice caught with a million emotions.
“Had to aim at where ah wasn’t going to aim, right? Tricky, but Ah’m an okay shot. “ Scout put his hand to the brow of his hat, tipped it slightly. “Mighty good to see you again, Miz Charlotte.” He turned to Twelve. “Haven’t had the honour, though, compadre.”
“That’s Twelve, Cornpone,” Rose announced, as she appeared on the roof.
Not waiting on introductions, Charlotte sank to her knees beside her friend. Dora’s aged face was . . familiar. Her relationship with her grandfather was more obvious, and the wrinkles were where they’d be on a woman who’d loved life and laughing, a long life. The life Dora wasn’t going to have, now. Her breath was thin and weedy.
Charlotte reached out. “St. Elizabeth of those left behind, and the Holy Sangha, help me now.” And, somehow, the healing power flowed out of –no, through her—and into Dora. Dora’s breathing steadied, but the aging did not reverse.
Charlotte’s chin slumped against her chest. From above her, Scout’s muscular arm wrapped around Charlotte, and, once again, just for a second, it flickered through her mind that it was a familiar embrace as well as a good one, before worries about Dora and guilt at the pleasure she took in it at this moment, chased the thought away.
“We’ve got to get her to the car!” Rose said, urgently.
Of course! Mrs. Crudup’s Cadillac! They had a time machine!