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The drive with James was spent listening to him berate a programmer that had dropped the ball over speakerphone. They were working towards a solution, but all Lucy could feel was jealousy for having the time she normally spent with her dad taken away. She got so little of it nowadays that her jealousy felt more like envy, but every so often James would give her an exasperated look and visibly roll his eyes before giving more advice that he clearly thought was just common sense.

They waved each other goodbye, and Lucy found herself at Crawmer Mall early. She spent half an hour browsing the various stores selling games before checking her phone to see if Gracia had sent a text about where to meet. It turned out she had.

Still, Lucy waited to enter the clothing store in question, and walked in at exactly one minute past two. That way she wasn’t early or on time, but not so late that it wasn’t unfashionable.

She didn’t want Gracia to think she was eager to hang out or something. Even though she totally was.

Gracia was browsing in the relative middle of the store and was easy to pick out upon entering. The other girl looked up as Lucy approached, so she stopped a little further away than usual and waved awkwardly. Lucy was given a quick once over and Gracia stepped over, pressing the camisole against Lucy’s front.

“Could work for you.” Gracia said before stepping back. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“S-sure.” Lucy stammered. Weren’t people supposed to say hi when meeting up someplace? She’d seen her dad do that a bunch. He always gave them firm handshakes, and had taught her to do the same. “So…”

“What is it, doll?” Gracia asked, focused on the next garment she’d since picked up.

“What’s happening… tonight?”

Gracia put down the cloth and looked at Lucy. “Hm. You’ve got appropriate clothing this time. No red. Good. It’ll fit right in, darling.”

Lucy’s mouth dried up a little. So I wasn’t dressed right last time?

A light giggle escaped the other girl. “Now that I know you a little better, those looks of yours make more sense. You’re still worried about wednesday night, aren’t you?”

Lucy nodded slowly.

“Well, I invited you here to help assuage those fears. But that jacket hides it well. Nobody that doesn’t already know will guess you’re the topless crook.”

Lucy frowned. “I... don’t follow?”

“You don’t?” Gracia seemed surprised. “Have you been ignoring your feed or something?”

“No… but I don’t really follow current events.” Lucy gestured vaguely. “It’s all doom and gloom, and I don’t need that.” She much preferred her fanciful fanfic updates.

“Understandable, I guess.” The other girl retrieved her phone and navigated to something. A video. She offered it to Lucy. “Here. It’s enlightening.”

Lucy took the phone and pressed play. She nearly dropped it immediately when she saw the security camera footage of herself swinging a crowbar at the glass door of the dairy. “Wh- what?”

“Darling, I thought you knew.” Gracia said, looking over Lucy’s shoulder. The footage had changed to reduce Lucy’s shot to a quarter of the frame, with a newscaster speaking on the side and a rolling number below. It had a hundred thousand views. “Hence today I was gonna put effort into making a new look for you.”

“P-please don’t call…” Lucy stammered.

“I’m not going to call the cops on you.” Gracia seemed amused as she took her phone back. “You’d just call them back on me. Why would I do that?” She looked back at the video on her phone before closing it. “But honestly, I’m surprised it didn’t go more viral than it already has. I’ve seen these things, darling, peak traffic only for the first day or so. Nobody’s going to out you now.”

I want you to stop calling me that. Lucy thought futilely. “I- I didn’t-”

“Wait, is this an original?” Gracia was paying attention to Lucy’s jacket now. She was touching the tag on the left of the collar. “This is what Meg Ryan was wearing in The Great Warp.”

“It is from the original line.” Lucy recited, grateful that the topic had shifted. “Not the original though.”

“Well of course it’s not The original. You’d need to be Meg herself to wear that.”

“Ah.”

“But this is a very convincing copy.” Gracia grinned and let go of the tag. “That might even be a good icebreaker later tonight. Just don’t take that jacket off if you feel like you’ll be recognised. The picture isn’t that good anyway, but unless you take off your shirt as well, nobody should figure it out.”

“Icebreaker?” Lucy repeated.

“You want to make friends, don’t you?” The other girl booped Lucy on the nose. “Honey, where we’re going, there’ll be plenty of people ready to talk. Maybe hold off on using it on the boys? They’ll appreciate it less than the girls.”

“Stop.” Lucy said, attempting finality. Gracia put her hands on her hips and stepped back, seemingly allowing Lucy time to think. “You never said what exactly you wanted us to do tonight. I want you to tell me what that is so I can make my decision to stay or go.”

“Okay.” Gracia said easily. “I already mentioned that I was, thankfully needlessly, worried about your appearance. Then I want to buy some other general stuff and have us a bite to eat. Then we’ll head westside for an event.” She paused and struck a slightly dramatic pose. “One hosted by the Bad Dogs.”

So that’s why you were worried about me wearing red. “I’m gonna go.” Lucy decided and turned away.

“If you’re worried about getting caught, it’s not likely to happen.” Gracia called after her. “Saturday night fights are more than just the fight, doll. ‘Course, the superpowered ones are a big part of it. But mostly it’s common ground for people to hang out. Some people don’t even enter the actual stands. And you’ll be under the Bad Dogs’ protection while you’re there, crazy as it would seem.”

I really want to see a super fight. Lucy shook her head to dislodge the thought, but another took its place. I want to have people. Company. Fuck. She turned back around.

“You’re manipulating me.”

“Is it so bad though?” Gracia rebuked. “You want something, and it doesn’t take much from me to extend an invitation to exactly that. It’s not like it’s even that risky for you, darling. This time, that is.”

“You just said ‘yes, and...’”

“Yes.” Gracia smiled. “And?”

Lucy swore inside her head. “I shouldn’t have come here.”

“But since you’re already here…” Gracia turned half away, gesturing for Lucy to follow. “Shopping?”

Fuck. Lucy shook her head as she caved and walked forwards. “I don’t need more clothes.”

“We’re going to buy more than clothes.” Gracia smoothly rebuked. “But it is a great place to start. You can learn a lot from looking at a girl’s clothes, but you can learn more from watching her buy them. You could learn more about me, I could learn more about you. It’s a bonding thing.”

Lucy narrowed her eyes. You’re only saying that because you know that’s what I want the most. It hurt to willingly say it, but… “Well lead on then.” Don’t let me think about me being the topless crook.

Gracia quickly took to fussing over various articles of clothes, picking out things for both herself and Lucy. Less than half of those things made it to the changing room, and none of them were purchased. Apparently the colours were too summer for the manipulative girl, and she didn’t want to wear jeans since Lucy was already wearing jeans.

As for Lucy, she put everything Gracia picked out for her quietly back on the racks.

That wasn’t the end of it though. Gracia all but pushed Lucy out and into another store where she actually bought something and decided to walk out wearing her new purchase. Before she’d been wearing near black three quarter jeans, now she wore actual black leggings with a green plaid skirt over the top. Lucy thought it clashed with her shirt, and said so.

“I agree, but you need to work on your tact, honey.” Gracia responded. “I’m beginning to see why I found you as you were.”

With no friends. Lucy flushed and stared at her feet.

“And besides, I’m trying to not stand out too much.” The freshly dressed girl continued. “It would be rude of me to invite you somewhere and then hog all of the attention. Wouldn’t it?”

“Would- Fine. Thanks, I- I guess.”

“You know what you need?” Gracia asked as she held a crop top against Lucy’s chest. “Confidence.”

“I, try…” Lucy pushed the crop top away.

Gracia hummed and pressed the same top against herself. It was plain to see that Gracia would be the one to wear that piece much better of the two. Lucy could almost feel pain when the other girl casually dismissed it.

“Of course, confidence is just one part of things.” Gracia continued. “I actually have a book about it, The Legend of Legendary Charisma. Got it from my dad the christmas before he won the lottery and took a vacation for five years and counting. He would always go on about self help books, give them to me in the place of toys or clothes for birthday presents. As you would expect, most of them were bullshit, but I found my quality of life improved after reading this one.”

“What did it say?” Lucy asked, not sure if it was despite herself or because she craved the conversation.

“A whole bunch of bullshit. But that’s the thing about charisma, isn’t it doll?” Gracia gave the first rueful smile that Lucy had seen on the girl. “A charismatic person can twist others around their fingers, say a bunch of bullshit that somehow makes them do things they never would imagine themselves doing, and they can practically get away with murder. Someone could think they even had a blue power, and they might be right. But most of those CEOs back in the day didn’t have any of those blue vials.”

Gracia paused, looking Lucy in the eye. “The first thing you say after a pause like that is given much more value. Confidence like I was talking about, it can come from up here like it does for you.” Gracia reached up and tapped Lucy’s forehead, making the girl flinch back. “It can be so certain, based on information and facts, the things you know and the things you suspect. But it will be fragile. The confidence that comes from down here…” She tapped her belly with two fingers. “That is based on what you feel. It is both more powerful and far more difficult to shake. What you feel changes much more slowly than what you know, after all.”

Lucy frowned. “So you learned… two things from that book?”

Gracia’s slightly condescending smile crossed her face again. “That’s right, darling. But more like three. I’ll hold on to that last one for a little while.” She held up a pair of pants. “Are you sure I can’t convince you to try ripped jeans?”

“An artificial looking costume makes for an artificial character.” Lucy repeated.

“Oh my.” Gracia commented, putting the pants back. “Who said that?”

“My mom.”

“I’m interested, what does she do?”

“Costume design. Make up.” Lucy shrugged. “She’s very successful.”

Gracia crossed her arms and tapped her chin, considering. “I would very much like to meet her.”

Lucy’s tone fell flat. “I’ll let you know when she’s in town.”

“I see I’ve stepped on a landmine.” Gracia returned the latest article of clothing to the rack. “Let’s move on to phase two of tonight, shall we honey?”

“Phase two? Do you mean food?”

“Oh no.” Gracia smiled, a dark look in her eye. “It’s more of an offer than anything. You’ll see.”

The two girls went from a middle to high end clothing store to a two dollar shop. All sorts of cheap stuff surrounded Lucy, but she was focused on the wall of masks in front of her. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what Gracia’s ‘offer’ was about.

“You’re trying to use me again.” Lucy said, accusing the other girl with a resigned tone.

“Hmm…” Gracia hummed, not looking at Lucy but at the wall of masks. She’d already passed over the masks of popular or deceased heroes. “Yes and no. I would like to have you along for another job, darling. You’ve already taken that first step, which makes you far more appealing than any of the other girls. You even took to swinging that crowbar with gusto.

“What you’re missing, doll, is that I do not have another job lined up. I probably won’t for weeks. Half the crew got busted, remember?”

Lucy sighed. “So what is this for then?”

“Just. In. Case.” Gracia tapped three masks before picking up the last. It was a plain mask, white and devoid of most features. “Keep your avenues open, you know?”

Lucy hesitated, then took the mask. It wasn't as cheap as she thought it would be. The plastic didn't bend in her grip, and the eyes had clear plastic in them. It was just that the elastic band used to keep it on someone's head was as cheap as she'd suspected.

She put it on and looked at Gracia. “Think I’d be recognised like this?”

“No. It’s the lack of a shirt that makes the topless crook.”

Lucy let out another sigh and pulled the mask off. “What am I even going to do with this? What ‘activities’ are you going to try roping me into?”

“Just the ones I think you’ll like.” Gracia said, back to searching the masks. “The group activities more than the solo jobs. I can’t imagine you’d like tailing anybody.”

Lucy kept silent about how she’d become very good at exactly that after spending so long wanting to enter other friend groups. Or just, enter a friend group.

“You should be prepared, is what I’m trying to say.” Gracia continued. “Luck isn’t really quantifiable, but you can only take advantage of it if you’re able to take advantage, doll. A well paying job comes my way, I jump at the chance to do it. Just like you jumped at the chance to spend quality time with me.”

Gracia turned and gave a brilliant smile. “Thanks for making me feel special, by the way.”

“Wh-what? I- How?” Lucy spluttered in a flustered attempt to ask one question in several different ways. But Gracia just smiled and looked back to the masks.

“Perhaps this one? It’s a bit more daring.”

Lucy caught a look at the mask and finally remembered herself. “No. It’s a dog. I’m not going to associate with the Bad Dogs.”

“But they’re the Bad Dogs.” The other girl stressed, as if that meant something.

“They’re all criminals and some of them are murderers. The only reason they aren’t gone yet is their overwhelming firepower. Or… just power. Maybe if we lived in any other city, but not here. No dogs.”

Gracia gave a slow nod of agreement. “Makes you wonder why they’re even allowed to sell this kind of thing here.”

I know the reason. Lucy thought as Gracia held up a hand.

“Wait, I know. It’s money.” Gracia grinned and Lucy rolled her eyes. “Shall we go grant the owner two dollars for that then? I can shell out the coin.”

“I’m not going to walk around with this in my hand or on my face.”

“Then I’ll put it in my bag. You really should’ve brought more than that.” Gracia nodded at Lucy’s purse.

“You… didn’t tell me exactly what was happening.” Lucy said, barely keeping herself from tripping over her words. “For all I knew you were going to try and make me gallivant into another store and break things. I wanted to make that as hard as possible.”

“Aw, honey.” Gracia surprised Lucy with a hug. When she was finally pushed off that condescending smile was spread across her face again. “I love this dynamic we have. It’s fresh.”

Lucy shoved the mask into her hands and huffed, trying to hide how flustered she was. “Can we go get food now?”

~~~

There was a single bullet in the magazine. He focused on that when things became overwhelming. When that bullet wasn’t in the magazine it meant things had gone very very wrong, but it was there now so things must still be some semblance of okay. Things were well. Not too bad. Perhaps just a little bad. A lot bad.

But not wrong.

Pistolwhip allowed his senses to turn outward once more. He noticed the vibrations in the floor, roof, and walls, and used it to identify the direction the sounds still too quiet for the ear were coming from. He needn’t have, since the idiot teens set up their boomboxes in the same spot every week, but the process of figuring things out was calming. He needed to be the calm in the eye of the storm.

Further out, people were moving around. Pistolwhip’s office was placed right next to the waiting room where tensions were high. The fighters weren’t moving about, or if they were, they were pacing. The highlights of the night, two men with obvious powers, were positioned opposite each other and as far apart as possible. They still stared at each other.

One had red tendrils of energy constantly flowing up and down their limbs, presently sized to not give away their presence. If he had been going for an intimidation tactic he would’ve let his power roll off of him, but for now it seemed he was more inclined to amuse himself by not taking his opponent seriously.

Said opponent had the power to enhance the self, or to appear to enhance the self. Pistolwhip saw through the illusion to the unremarkable man inside. That one’s power was probably something along the lines of tactile force fields that also had colour. How rare. A power that doubled as the costume. The second powered fighter must have had something riding on the outcome of the match. There was no other reason Pistolwhip could figure behind his unrelenting and hateful stare in his opponent’s direction.

The fact that said opponent was simply smirking back did nothing to alleviate the tension, which was the point.

Even further out, the stadium was receiving a final clean up before the rabble was allowed inside. The seating was still empty, and Pistolwhip lamented his inability to enjoy a deserted stadium five minutes before it became packed. Not that this place could be called a stadium.

It was an underground fighting ring. Literally.

Pistolwhip didn’t much appreciate being underground for personal reasons. But the fact of the matter was that this was his lot.

Finally, the people pressed against the door. The supervillain could already tell that one of them was a mole.

… and there was another one. Did they not realise how obvious wires were to him?

And, of course, Pistolwhip sensed all this from the quiet confines of his office.

Three clocks within his sphere of awareness struck twenty minutes to six, followed by a fourth that was two seconds late, as well as a much more late digital clock that was a whole minute and ten seconds late.

Pistolwhip stood with a smooth motion and placed the barely loaded magazine in his hand where it was meant to go- attached to the chest of his costume. The pistol that he brandished to earn his name went in the holster next to it. A final check to make sure his face mask was secure and the supervising villain slammed the doors to the corridor open, aware that the sound echoed all the way to the waiting room. The ratcheting tension he could sense in their bodies was difficult to miss. The villain quickly turned to the stairs, away from the sweaty people preparing to fight.

A sharp gesture had three lovingly termed mooks falling in step behind Pistolwhip. He’d sensed another wire since leaving his office. Each was briefed as to the appearance of the ones they were evicting from the event, and the supervising villain made to open the door, only to pause.

He hadn’t noticed right away, since the person in question hadn’t existed within his dominion of perception before. But after a near minute of absently keeping an eye on them Pistolwhip believed he knew who he was observing. She was tall for her age, and perhaps had an inch or two of growth left within her. Yet she huddled close to herself and thus did not stand out. It almost made him question who had hurt her, but the handprint of mostly healed lightning strikes answered that question well enough.

Still, the person standing next to her was much more familiar to the villain, and that was the key factor behind Pistolwhip connecting the dots.

“Well how about that? A minor celebrity in our midst.” His mooks glanced at him, unsure what he was talking about. He didn’t blame them, and he also didn’t explain.

The villain just smirked under his mask as he pulled the doors open. “I simply must say hello.”

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About the author

Rouge Rogue

Bio: Words are absurd.

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