Asylum Headquarters, Eon City, Present Day.
Natalie Fawkes. Training.
THUNK. The corner of the queen of spades sunk into the bull’s-eye of the practice target.
Natalie remembered her dad first showing her how to throw playing cards accurately. Not many people knew how dangerous paper cards could be with just an added flick of the wrist. Especially her special deck, with the sharpened gilded edges.
The ace of clubs followed the queen, hitting the bull’s-eye millimeters next to her with another satisfying THUNK.
“Nice,” came a voice from the doorway. Natalie’s reflexes kicked in, and she raised another card as she turned toward it.
“Geez, Parker,” she breathed, dropping her arm as she scolded her twin. “Don’t startle me like that!”
“Hello to you, too, sis,” Parker said, dryly. “I had a feeling I’d find you in here.”
Natalie turned back to the target, barely stopping to aim before she sent the next card flying into the center. “What’s going on?” she asked. She had come to the training room first thing in the morning to get away from people; only her annoying brother would miss the message.
“I just finished breakfast, and was about to go out on patrol,” Parker said, innocently. He knew that he was bothering his sister but couldn’t help poking the bear. “Can’t a guy just want to say ‘good morning’ to his sister?”
“Good morning,” Natalie said through her teeth. “Now go away; I’m trying to concentrate.”
Parker did the opposite – he came and grabbed the deck of cards from her. “Come on, I know Dad taught you better than that,” he chided. “What was the point of all those blindfold exercises if you actually have to look at the target?”
He threw three cards in quick succession over his shoulder, just to prove his point. Not only did they land in the bull’s-eye, but they didn’t even touch the other two that Natalie had thrown.
“Give it back!” she cried, whacking her brother on the arm until he handed the deck back to her. “I was just warming up,” she added, glaring.
“Uh-huh,” Parker teased. Natalie glared at him and tossed two more cards over her shoulder. She didn’t need to look to know that they landed exactly above and below the rest of the cards sticking out of the target. Parker whistled. “Okay, that was impressive.”
Natalie tossed her hair as she turned back to her exercise. In high school she had started dying it black to match her Goth appearance. Their dad had said it was just a phase, but it was one she still hadn’t grown out of seven years after graduation; the only difference was that she had let it grow out long, instead of the short, spiky ‘do she sported back then. She used heavy eyeliner and black finger-less gloves as part of her motif as the vigilante hero Trick.
Unlike his twin, Parker kept his hair its natural blond, and trimmed it for a feathery look. His black-and-white speckled wings matched his outfit nicely in his look as Blackbird, without coming across as too harsh. He completed the domino look with gauntlets over his hands; the metal fingers were sharpened into points and served as his “talons” when he wanted to control his strength.
At twenty-four years old, the twins now worked as professional Watchers; they had gotten their licenses shortly after high school, and had taken down a few bad guys on their own before being tapped for a newly-formed team in Eon City – the Asylum. For the last year the twins had worked their way up in this new team, and were regarded as some of the top performers.
Parker shrugged his shoulders the way he always did – he needed to loosen his muscles from the drag of his wings – and folded his arms behind his head. “Well, nice talking to you as always, sis,” he said, grinning at her. “I need to get to patrol. Oh, and Agent was looking for you.”
Natalie made a face at her brother’s retreating back as he walked out of the training room. He just waved without turning around, and called back, “Stronger together.”
“Stronger as one,” Natalie called the second line back. It was their good-luck charm, so she had to do it – even if she didn’t feel like dealing with people.
Parker and Natalie always sought each other out before going on patrol – it was a habit developed since their mother went on a mission and never came back. Natalie wasn’t a superstitious person, but they had a dangerous job; this was the twins’ way of making sure they saw each other one last time, just in case.
Natalie threw one more card, bisecting three others already embedded in the target, and went to find Agent. She called the elevator to go to Agent’s office on the top floor of the headquarters building, and was taken aback to see him standing in it.
“Hey,” Agent said as Natalie moved to stand next to him. “I was just looking for you. I’m going to scout a potential new recruit,” he said, putting his hands in his suit pockets and letting his ever-present umbrella lean against his side. “Would you like to come?”
“Me?” Natalie asked, slightly confused. “Sure, if you want me there.”
“After you,” Agent said, giving her a cocky half-grin as the elevator doors opened to the garage. He gestured towards his car with one hand as he effortlessly picked up the umbrella with the other.
As Natalie slid into the passenger seat of Agent’s jet-black sedan, she couldn’t keep it in any more. “Why exactly would you want me to come along on this one?” she asked, suddenly suspicious. “I mean, it’s no secret that I’m not a sociable person.”
Agent didn’t answer her as he turned the key in the ignition and pulled out of the base’s garage. They were down the road before he spoke. “Do you know anything about this recruit?” he asked.
Natalie did not. She rarely paid attention to the Watcher recruit lists, unless she knew for a fact that they would join her team. “This girl actually did her year-long training a few years back,” Agent told her, picking a file out of the center compartment without taking his eyes off the road. Setting the file in Natalie’s lap, he added, “She’s taken the licensing exam eleven times since then.”
“Why would we want her for our team, then?” Natalie asked as she picked up the folder. She turned it open to the first page. “I mean, it wasn’t that hard. How stupid would she have to be – holy crap!”
Agent smirked, knowing she had just read the new recruit’s test scores. “Ninety-ninth percentile?!” she exclaimed, flipping through the pages. “Every time, even the first! How the hell hasn’t she gotten her license yet with scores like these?! I was in the top of my year at ninety-two…”
“She’s got incredible strength and stamina,” Agent explained. “She’s a naturally gifted athlete with a photographic memory. Apparently she’s trained her whole life to be a Watcher.” Natalie just slapped the folder with one hand. Agent answered the silent question: “But she’s human.”
“Human? No way.” Natalie flipped back through the folder, trying to find something wrong with the girl who seemed perfect on paper.
Agent decided to save her the search. “She never made it past the medical exam.”
“Why not?” Natalie asked, turning to the page. “Was she taking steroids or something?”
“No – that would have disqualified her from taking the test again,” Agent said. “The doctors found an irregularity in her blood. She has a vitamin deficiency that keeps her blood from clotting. She bleeds easily, and so was deemed ‘unfit’ for Watcher work. They denied her license because of it.”
Natalie found the black mark in the recruit’s record. “So how did she get her license, then?” she asked. “I mean, she has to be licensed if we’re recruiting her…” She turned an accusatory glare at Agent as she realized. “You messed with her paperwork, didn’t you?” she accused.
Agent tapped his fingers against the steering wheel. “Not yet,” he admitted, “but yes, that is the plan. Someone this good, I want to grab her as soon as possible.”
“Her condition doesn’t bother you?” Natalie asked him. “If she’s in the field and gets hit, she’d be down for a while. And we get hit a lot,” she added, in case he forgot.
“She’s done extraordinarily well in simulations,” Agent said. “She had to have taken some hits during training, and she’s still standing.”
“But that’s why you asked me to come,” Natalie guessed. “You want me to size her up.”
“That,” Agent admitted, “and you’re a fellow human who can keep up with Third Gens. You know how rare that is.”
“So are you,” Natalie said, but her small smile showed that she was pleased with the praise.
“I’m a highly-trained government agent who has been working as a Watcher-certified vigilante for almost two decades now,” he reminded her. “You’ve only been doing this five years, without any other special training. Plus you have some… flare that I’m not allowed to use.”
“So you want me to do a magic show for her?” Natalie was even more confused now.
“No,” Agent said. “Here’s how this is going to work…”
* * * * * * * *
Eon City, Andy’s Gym.
Haley Prince, frustrated.
Haley Prince massaged her hands as she glared at the punching bag. It hung there, taunting her as she sorted through her emotions.
Hook. Eleven tests, eleven denials.
Kick. Nobody wants the girl who bleeds, no matter how good she is.
Cross. Even the suit hadn’t contacted her yet, despite his promise. She was starting to think he was a figment of her imagination.
Jab. It was this stupid condition holding her back, and she needed to figure out a way around it.
The blows came faster and harder as the frustration took hold. She couldn’t talk to her friends about it, or her family; not a single one of them understood the driving need Haley had to become a Watcher. They all just told her to find something else to do with her life.
But what? The police and the military wouldn’t take her for the same reason that kept her from getting a Watcher license. She had no interest in working in her mom’s bakery like her brothers. Her dad’s business bored her to tears, and she didn’t care about learning enough about computers to help there anyway. Becoming a professional hero had been her dream since she was a little kid, and she had worked her entire life towards that one goal; now nothing else was good enough.
The self-defense classes she taught at the community center were rewarding, but they didn’t pay enough to live on.
Why does adulting have to be so – cursed – HARD?!
With that last thought, Haley gave the bag a blow so powerful that a seam popped. She blankly stared for a second at the steady trickle of sand as it fell out of the stupid bag before she moved to take it down.
“Another one?” Andy, the middle-aged gym’s owner, clucked at her, raising his eyebrows as he helped her with the bag. “That’s the second bag you’ve broken in as many months!”
“Sorry, Andy,” Haley said. “I’m just going through some stuff right now.”
“We’re all ‘going through stuff’,” Andy pointed out. “The rest of us find a hobby that doesn’t involve punching the stuffing out of things.” He grinned at her to show that there were no hard feelings, but Haley knew she would still pay for a replacement bag. Andy knew exactly what was on Haley’s mind; he had known her since she was a kid, after all. “These things have a way of working themselves out,” he told her as they set the worn-out bag in the back room. “Maybe you should find a real sparring partner, instead of taking it out on my poor innocent bags.”
Haley smiled back at him. Andy had been a good friend to her and her brothers since they were kids, letting them use the gym after hours in exchange for odd jobs on summer breaks. “My brothers all got too busy when they finished college,” she explained as they finished moving the ruined bag to the back room. “Without them, there aren’t many people I feel comfortable sparring against.”
“Maybe you should challenge her after all,” came a voice from near the front desk behind them. “She looks like she matches you for strength.”
Haley turned around, surprised. Two people, a man and a woman, stood near the front desk, watching them as they put the bag away. The man was the same suit that had been at the exam two days ago; she recognized the omnipresent umbrella leaning against his leg.
The woman looked closer to Haley’s age, but seemed out of place in the boxing gym. She was small, and had long, straight black hair, pale skin, and dressed like the goths Haley used to see in high school: black cargo pants, combat boots, and a black tank top with the words “piss off” written in large block letters on it. She had black finger-less biker’s gloves on, and a black bandanna wrapped around her arm to complete the look.
She was also the one talking about challenging Haley to a sparring match.
The well-dressed man chuckled, contrasting the stern appearance of his companion. “I’d like to,” he admitted in response to the woman’s suggestion, “but I can’t watch a fight I’m in.”
The goth-girl sighed. “Fine then,” she said, “but don’t ever say I don’t make sacrifices for the team.”
She walked over to Haley, who tried to stop gawking long enough to ask, “Can I help you?”
“You’re pretty powerful against a punching bag,” the goth-girl said. “How are you against something that hits back?”
The man stepped forward and interjected, “What my companion means to say is, ‘would you please spar with her?’” He gave the goth-girl a wry grin, nodding his head toward Haley.
“‘Would you please spar with me?’” the girl mimicked, rolling her eyes. Haley wasn’t sure what she thought about the suit yet, but the girl was rude. Haley tried to get out of the conversation with them as politely as possible.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I only really spar with my brothers. Maybe someone else around here will be your partner.” She gestured around the gym, only then noticing that there weren’t many people around. It was the off-season and the middle of the week, so the gym’s main clientele wouldn’t arrive for a few more hours.
“Nope,” said the girl, putting her hands in her pockets. “It has to be you. You’re Haley Prince, right?”
Haley frowned. “How do you know my name?” she asked, guarded. It was a stupid question, she knew; after all, the girl had come in with the suit, who obviously knew about her from the licensing exam. But Haley wanted to size them up, and asking a stupid question was the easiest way to get behind a person’s guard. People usually underestimated the “big, slow girl” if they didn’t know her – and Haley used it to her advantage.
The goth-girl frowned back, mocking her. “How could you possibly want to be a Watcher if you don’t want to fight people?” she taunted, moving towards the ring. “Come on, show me what you’re made of.”
Andy came out of the back room then, looking between the three figures. “You don’t really want to fight Haley, sweetheart,” he said to the goth-girl. “She’ll snap you like a twig.”
“We’ll see,” the girl scoffed, climbing up into the ring. “Unless you’re chicken,” she added for Haley’s benefit.
The well-dressed man just shrugged at Haley’s questioning look. “Natalie’s a little… abrasive,” he explained. “We’re working on that. But please, Ms. Prince, we would like a better demonstration of your abilities.”
The goth-girl was starting to get on her nerves, and maybe a good sparring match was exactly what Haley needed to blow off steam. She didn’t know why these two strangers had their eye on her, but it might be the opportunity she was looking for. “Fine,” she said, climbing up into the ring after her. “Your funeral.”
Natalie started attacking as soon as Haley turned around. Haley had to bring her arms up in defense quickly, taking the hits and not letting the smaller girl move her. Haley’s biggest strength was her size – she was nearly six feet tall, and her broad shoulders were well-suited for her dense muscle mass. Most of her opponents couldn’t move her if she didn’t want to be moved.
As soon as Natalie’s hits slowed by a fraction of a second, Haley shifted her weight to throw her off balance. The smaller girl was faster, too, but Haley knew how to compensate for it from years of practice. She got in a few quick jabs before the other girl jumped backwards and started circling her.
“Not bad,” Natalie said, wiping the sweat off of her forehead. She touched the spot where the jabs had hit her, and winced when she touched them. “That’s going to bruise nicely.”
“Had enough?” Haley asked.
She got the answer that she was hoping for: “Not even close.” Natalie bit her lip as she studied Haley. “You’ve got a solid defense, I’ll give you that.”
“How did you know my name when you came in?” Haley asked as she feinted a hit. Talking was one way to take her opponent’s focus off of the fight, which could help.
“Agent over there has his eye on you,” Natalie said, using her thumb to indicate her companion. “He seems to think you’re promising.” She jumped closer, aiming a punch at Haley’s jaw.
“Oh yeah?” Haley asked, dodging the blow and bringing her closed hands down on Natalie’s shoulders in response. Natalie inched to the side so that the blow hit her shoulder instead of her spine; it was a testament to Natalie’s strength that she didn’t go down, but the muscles in her shoulder were better suited to taking the blow in any case. “And what do you think?”
Natalie turned quickly, pulling a handkerchief out of her pocket as she went. She swiped the cloth in front of Haley’s eyes, and swept her foot to knock her down. As Haley fell to one knee, Natalie jumped up to give a final blow. Glitter sparkled around them, momentarily causing Haley to see double as her brain tried to process the speed of events. She only just got her guard up in time to protect her face from Natalie’s rain of blows.
“I’m less impressed,” Natalie said. A playing card appeared in her hand like magic, and she flicked it at Haley’s arm. It didn’t hurt much – just a paper cut – but Haley winced as a gash opened up on her arm.
It was an illegal move in a real match, but something about this girl told Haley that this wasn’t a normal sparring session – they wanted to see what she could do, even when the odds were stacked against her. Haley could hear Andy protesting somewhere in the background, but her focus was on the fight. Natalie backed off, scoffing. “A cut like that puts you out of commission, right?” she taunted, panting from the exertion. “Sparring only against your brothers keeps you from seeing the damage a real opponent can do.” She held up more playing cards, as if to say that was only a taste of what I could do to you. If all of those cards were as sharp as the first one she had thrown, Haley knew that the other girl could cut her to ribbons in seconds if she wanted to.
Haley stood up, keeping an eye on Natalie as she glanced at the cut. “You’ve made three mistakes,” she told her, shaking out her arms and putting her guard back up. She was tired of playing defense; it was about time this witch learned what it felt like when Haley went on offense.
“Oh yeah?” the goth-girl asked. “What’s that, then?”
“First,” Haley said as she darted towards her opponent in another feint, “Just because I don’t stop bleeding doesn’t mean I bleed much faster than anyone else. A small cut like this won’t bother me for at least an hour.”
She reached in her pocket and pulled out the tube of sealant she kept there. “Second, I keep this stuff on me. If I can get a spare second in a fight, I can stop the bleeding easily.”
Natalie went on offense again. “You never get a second in a real fight,” she said as Haley dodged her hit. Haley slid the tube back in her pocket, nodding her head to the point.
“True,” she said. “But there’s one more thing that I see your file on me probably didn’t tell you.”
“And what’s that?” Natalie asked as Haley inched closer to her.
Suddenly, Haley swiped her foot, knocking Natalie off-balance. She grabbed the other girl’s arms, spinning her around until her back was facing her. Haley then grabbed the back of Natalie’s head and shoved her forward into the mat, putting all of her weight behind the move.
The result was that Natalie’s arms were caught by Haley’s left hand, her head was trapped by Haley’s right hand, and her legs were trapped by the rest of the bigger girl’s weight. She struggled to break free, but Haley’s grip was like iron. Haley leaned forward just enough to finish her thought.
“Your third mistake?” she told her, tapping the other girl’s face against the ring floor. “My brother’s a bear-satyr.”
She could hear Andy laughing with the agent off to the side. Natalie said, “Okay, fine, you win,” and Haley let her up.
“Haley’s the youngest of five,” Andy was telling Agent, “and she’s the only girl and only human in her family. Two of her brothers are Third Gens, and the other two are satyrs; the bear-satyr is seven feet tall and nearly four hundred pounds. The other satyr, a gorilla, isn’t much smaller. She grew up fighting them all, and wins at least half the time.”
“It helps that Dean doesn’t really like to fight,” Haley added, winking at Agent. “He’s a big teddy, really.”
“And she beat Natalie, here,” Agent said, sounding impressed, “even when she used her tricks.”
“Yeah, what was that?” Andy demanded, the grin sliding off of his face into a scowl. “That thing with the cloth and the cards was fighting dirty, and we don’t allow that here.”
“Sorry,” Natalie mumbled, not sounding sorry at all.
Agent explained, “We had to fight a little dirty. We had to know how she’d handle it.”
“So are you finally going to tell me what this was all about?” Haley asked.
Agent held his hand out for Haley to shake. “I represent a Watcher agency here in Eon City,” he told them. “You might have heard of us: the Asylum?”
“You guys are from the Asylum?” Haley asked, her annoyance turning to awe at the name. “That’s the new Watcher group that patrols here; you guys are supposed to be one of the best agencies in the country!”
“And we only recruit the best,” Agent said, nodding his head towards Haley. “We would like you to come work on our team.”
Haley’s eyes widened in excitement, before she remembered. “But… I’m not licensed,” she said, looking at her feet in embarrassment.
Agent waved a hand in dismissal. “That won’t be a problem for us,” he said. “You can expect your license in the mail in a few days; we want you reporting for duty on Monday.”
Haley’s eyes widened again. She looked at the man, wondering if this was some kind of joke. “You’re serious?” she breathed. When he nodded, she had to hold herself back from jumping. “I-I’ll be there,” she stammered, shaking with an adrenaline surge that had nothing to do with her recent fight.
Agent nodded again and headed out the door. Natalie moved to follow him, but stopped in front of Haley. “Good match,” she said, holding out a hand to shake. Haley took it, grinning like an idiot at this turn of events. “I underestimated you,” Natalie added. “It’ll be interesting to work together.” She gave a small, tight smile, as if she rarely used those muscles in her face, before she walked out the door after Agent.
“See, kiddo?” Andy said, slapping Haley on the shoulder as they watched the strangers’ car speed away. When Haley looked, her old friend was beaming proudly at her. “I told you these things work themselves out,” he said. “Now let’s get that cut checked.”
* * * * * * * *
Agent and Natalie.
In the car going back to Asylum HQ.
Agent sounded amused as they headed back to headquarters. Natalie grimaced as she put her hand to her cheek; that last move would leave her aching for days.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said, slouching in her seat. “I’d like to see you do better.” Behind her hand, Agent could tell she was smiling. “So you’re going to fix her paperwork?”
“Yes,” he said. After a second’s beat, he added, “I’ve just never seen you lose before.”
“Shaddup,” Natalie said, whacking his arm. “It happens from time to time. Just because I never let you beat me when we’re sparring doesn’t mean I’m invincible.”
“I should really be recording this,” Agent said, grinning. “Parker would get a kick out of it.”
“Yeah, right,” Natalie rolled her eyes. “Anyways, this recruit looks promising. She could be the greatest Watcher I’ve ever seen, if she keeps up.”
Agent’s smile died a little. “She might have to be,” he muttered.
Natalie didn’t hear him. They pulled into the Asylum headquarters, and Natalie quietly sighed, “I just want a hot bath after that bout.” At Agent’s sly grin she added, “Not one word to the others.” They got out of the car, and Agent held up his hands in surrender. “I mean it, Agent,” Natalie hissed. “One word of this to the others and I’ll see you on the practice courts.”
“Death threats already?” a voice asked from behind them. Natalie whipped around to see Parker standing there with an identical grin to Agent’s. Natalie huffed and marched towards the door. “What’s she mad about this time?” he asked Agent as if his sister wasn’t still within earshot.
“She lost,” Agent told him with mock surprise.
“Really?” Parker said, matching his tone. Natalie didn’t turn around, but she did flip them both the bird before going inside as the two guys laughed behind her.
“Oh, man,” Agent said, “that is not going to get old any time soon.”
Parker walked over to him, his own giggles subsiding. “I actually came out to talk to you,” he said. “I talked to my contact in the city like you asked. The offer was still open; I start Monday.”
The smile fell off of Agent’s face. “Good,” he said. “Let me know what you find out.”
“Are you sure we can’t tell the others about this?” Parker asked, jerking his chin towards the door where his twin had just gone inside.
“This isn’t exactly by-the-book,” Agent told him, “and I’d rather not get her caught up in it when the bureaucratic storm starts raining down on us.” He put a hand on Parker’s shoulder, adding, “We can’t be too careful – if word gets back that you’re actually working on our side, you’re dead. You know that.”
“I know,” Parker said, “I just hate lying to her. She won’t take it well when she finds out what we’re up to. Especially because we didn’t ask her for help.”
“Natalie can be touchy,” Agent admitted. At Parker’s snort he amended, “Okay, she can get pretty bitchy at times. But she’s smart; she can see the wisdom behind this.”
“I really hope so, for both our sake,” Parker sighed, “or she might really kill us this time.” He grinned to show he was joking again. “Come on inside; Reiki’s barbecuing.”
“Now that I can get behind,” Agent grinned as well. “You go on ahead.”
As Parker went into the building, Agent grabbed Haley’s file out of the car and thumbed through it again. “I really hope you have what it takes, kid,” he muttered. “We’re going to need you.”
* * * * * * * *