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Devoured by the Sun: Blue Beetle or Escarabajo Azul

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El Paso. The Passage. The door from one place to another. Today, The Passage is sealed by chain linked fences; eighteen feet high, electrified, watched by surveillance towers by day, illuminated by spotlights by night. La migra kicks up gray dust like a plumage of smoke as they prowl, as though there's a fire brewing under the earth. They tell us the fence is for inmigrantes indocumentados. To keep them out. But I can't help feeling I'm in a cage. Driving along el Rio Grande, seeing that fence, freedom feels so fragile. Because at the same time, doesn't it keep us in?

-Jaime Reyes


Jaime Reyes was running from la policía. His breath rasped in his throat and his body trembled at every footfall as he sprinted down the street. Couldn't keep going. His legs were about to give out. Pastel, one-story homes streaked past. A single whine sounded from behind and blue lights beat the pavement around him. He swerved down a driveway and leapt over a low cinder block wall of the backyard, nearly colliding to the ground in exhaustion. Just a bit further. Poco más, he chanted to himself, poco más. He forced his feet to move. Tires screeched and the police car sped to head him off.

The suburbs of El Paso sparked to life as dusk settled over the city. Families returned home from jobs and after school activities to seek sanctuary by their air conditioners. One yard over, a screaming toddler splashed about in a kiddie pool.

Jaime felt as though his skull repeatedly expanded and contracted along fissures, squeezing his brain, then ballooning outwards. His vision spun and flashes of light spiraled in his peripheral vision in bright yellows and blues. He couldn't remember why he was running. Why they were after him. If only he could stop and think. But he couldn't. Keep going. Undetected. Lay low until all systems were functional.

He shook his head as though to fling the thought from his mind. Why couldn't he think straight!

Jaime reached the edge of the block. He leaned against a house to catch his breath and assess the street. Even though the sun had barely set over the mountains, everything looked strange. Bland. Like a photograph that had sat in the sun too long. He looked at his hands. They were jet black. And glowing. His fingertips were glowing. He sobbed and clenched his eyes and fists closed.

"Something's wrong," he panted. "There's something wrong with me." He was hallucinating. Or dreaming. Had to be a dream.

Keep moving. Remaining stationary compromised his safety. Jaime lurched forward and jogged down the street, dodging behind parked cars and skeletal trees. As he went he struggled to place things into order. That afternoon he left school, chilled at the library to start on his project due next week, then he went to the garage. Jaime stayed to help his padre because Luis -

Luis! The shooting. Jaime jerked to a stop in the middle of the road.

"Papi," he gasped.

Jaime spun around just as the police car screeched to a stop.

Evade! Jaime tensed to flee, but he dug against his panic. Every nerve in his body shrieked at him to run; the idea crowded out all thought, all senses. He was alone in a smog of fear. It thrummed across his skin, in his ears, over his eyes. Somewhere beyond it he could hear someone yelling, like a voice from the next room. But he couldn't discern the words over the din of that one thought.

Evade.

He stumbled back through the haze.

Papi. He had to make sure his padre was okay. He locked onto this idea like it was air. At each breath of it, the haze fell away until at last he found himself again on the street.

"I said on the ground!" a man shouted.

Jaime blinked. A police officer braced himself behind his car door. His gun leveled at Jaime's head.

"On your knees," the man said again, "Do it!"

Instead of fear, Jaime felt dazed. His vision rippled as though a rock had been hurled into a pool of water. Geometric shapes drifted across his sight. He watched as the shapes settled over the officer's chest. Strange. It was almost like he could see the man's vital organs. He paused at this label. Vital organs? He spent too much time around his madre.

He felt his arm rising. Fear spiked in anticipation of spying his strange ebony flesh and glowing fingers. But instead of an arm, he was met with a conical device. Plated metal shaped a weapon that could have come right out of one of his video games.

For a moment he had time to wonder, Why is there a sonic cannon on my arm? though not questioning how he knew what it was. Then his mind flipped through calculations. To destroy the steel and aluminum vehicle, he'd have to take into account the stiffness of the structure, its mass and size; and once out of the way, Jaime could deal freely with his opponent. The human body was susceptible from frequencies anywhere from 1 to 80 hertz at a high enough decibel and power levels were sufficient for liquefaction of the organs.

Jaime realized all of this in the time it took to aim the sonic cannon. Somewhere in the back of his mind, liquefaction raised a shrill alarm. That didn't sound right. But by then the police car exploded. At first he thought it had been hit by another vehicle, or something had crashed out of the sky. Shrapnel shot outwards, lodging into parked cars. The debris launched all over the street with a sickening shredding sound. The body of the car lay in a heap as though rammed by a rhinoceros. The fuel tank had ruptured and the sharp chemical smell of gasoline curled into the air.

Jaime stood frozen, arm extended. No. Not arm. Weapon. He'd ... He, Jaime Reyes, he just shot someone.

Jaime moved forward panicked. He shot someone? They could be dead! His heart thrashed with such force he was sure it would break his ribs. The officer had been blown clear. The cop lay injured on the ground. Jaime rushed to help free him from the rubble. The man cowered. His eyes were wide and his pupils dilated with shock. But unliquified, and more importantly, alive.

"Don't want to die," he was saying. He watched Jaime like a mouse watches a predator. He didn't see Jaime as a person. He was a killer.

"I'm sorry," Jaime stammered. "I didn't -"

"Please," the cop whispered, as though it were a prayer. "I don't want to die."

The officer was bleeding from the head, another wound across his arms where he tried to shield himself, and one leg looked oddly turned. But the man didn't want Jaime's help.

Jaime stared at his hands again. The dark metallic skin was separated into five digits. No gun. No weapon.

"Que demonios está pasando," he breathed. "What's happening? Why's this happening?"

A spotlight struck the scene. A police chopper swarmed overhead. Down the road, two other police cruisers sped toward the wreckage. He looked to the injured man and the demolished car.

"Ay Dios," Jaime said. "Dios mío." He laughed. He had to. This was a joke. Completely manches. He attacked a cop. Blew up a car.

A loud artificial voice sounded from the helicopter. "Down on the ground with your hands up."

The rear rotary system on the chopper was the most vulnerable point. Hovering as it was, the aircraft made an easy target. Jaime aimed the sonic weapon, frequency already adjusted for the helicopter's carbon nomex body.

"No!" Jaime shouted. He jerked his arm to the side. An invisible shockwave shot through the air and shattered the wall of the apartment building just below the aircraft. The chopper swerved and for a moment Jaime feared he'd hit it. Then it leveled. A sniper perched in the side door started shooting at him.

Asphalt exploded at his feet. He bolted, taking cover by a nearby car, ricochets singing past his head. This was becoming an annoyance. It would be quicker to eliminate the threats completely. A concentrated laser output of 500 kilowatts should effectively eliminate-

Jaime clutched his head. "I'm officially pirado. I'm having a mental breakdown."

If he wanted to escape, rather than engage, the best option was to find an area where the aircraft was unable to pursue him. Tall structures. Narrow turns to limit maneuverability.

Like downtown. He was nearly three miles from there.

Then he should fight!

No, he should give up. He was in deep as it was and only making it worse.

But they were attacking. Shooting at him. He couldn't surrender to the enemy.

Enemy? They were the malditos El Paso Police, not some psycho murders.

Then why were they shooting at him? Jaime slammed his eyes shut. This was wasting time. Dispose of local law enforcement before more reinforcements arrived. Probability of survival certain. Options: single laser pulse to the head-

"Cállate," Jaime yelled at himself. "I'm not disintegrating anyone!" He took deep breaths, petroleum oil stinging into his awareness.

Jaime looked down at his feet where a pool of gasoline had trickled from the spill. He peered over the edge of his cover. The two other police cars had arrived on the scene. The wounded man had been retrieved from the wreckage and three others were circling in on Jamie to ambush him. He stared at the rainbow stain of the gasoline. His thoughts became clearer, like a lens shifting into focus. It was as simple as thinking it.

Smoke screen.

Jaime bent over, forefinger radiating with an intense light. The fumes caught before he even touched the asphalt. The fire prowled across the ground like an animal and leapt into the air with a roar. Smoke as thick as mud billowed upwards. The turbulence from the chopper immediately spread the black cloud. The officers sprang back from the blaze, covering their noses and retreating. The helicopter wheeled upwards as the flames kicked higher and higher.

Jaime was blocks away before anyone could think to look for him, sprinting for home. He cut through yards and down alleys to avoid anyone spotting him, and checking the sky whenever he heard the thumping rhythm of helicopter blades. Or maybe the thumping was only his heart.

Jaime only stopped to catch his breath when he reached Evergreen Cemetery. By now night had stretched across the city. In the distance, radio towers winked along the mountain's ridge like red stars in the jeweled sky. He took the shortcut through the cemetery. There was a bus stop on the other side where he could catch a ride home.

Home. Maybe his padre was there, pacing the living room floor, worried sick about him. Jaime hadn't actually seen him get shot. Just seen the gun, heard the crack of sulfur igniting. His padre hadn't actually been ...

Jaime couldn't remember exactly what he'd seen. The gangster charging in. Luis pulling a gun and Jaime's padre trying to stop him.

That Jaime remembered. And he remembered the gangster brandishing a gun of his own. He remembered his padre yelling at him to call the police. The arguing. The gangster's cold eyes. Then Luis pulled free. There was a bang and then -

Jaime finally dared to look down at himself. He wasn't wearing pants, or shoes, or a belt, or anything he'd left the house with that morning. Even in the dim light of the graveyard, he could see surprisingly well. The suit - if it could be called that - was hard like armor, but at the same time flexible. No bunching or stiffness as he bent his limbs. There were no seams. He couldn't take it off. He didn't even remember how he put it on. In fact it was more like a skin. He could feel the sticky night air over his limbs, the tough parched earth under his toes. But where was his skin?

"This isn't real," he told himself. "This can't be real. I'm dreaming. I'm dead. I'm in a coma." His pace quickened past the ordered rows of gravestones. "I'm insane," he went on. "No, I got shot and I'm having hallucinations from severe blood loss." He nodded. "I'm heavily sedated on pain meds. This is all in mí cabeza. I'm going to wake up in a hospital bed." But he read normal for all mental and physical faculties. He wasn't injured in any way. There was no waking up because he was already in a lucid state despite the increase of endocrine hormones from the stress of- "This isn't real!" he yelled at himself.

He jerked to a stop, hands clamping on either side of his head. This headache. Dios. He hadn't felt so fried since he and Paco drank five cases of energy drinks so they could play through the entire Halo series. Jaime breathed deeply, focusing on the emerging stars overhead. The longer he stared, the more twinkling pinpoints appeared, until the sky was more celestial light than the blank backdrop of outer space. His heart steadied. And for a moment, the world held its breath. When had the heavens been so near? A shooting star streaked across the sky.

"Make a wish," he said. Home. All he had to do was get home and everything would be okay. The shooting star seemed to gleam brighter as though acknowledging his desire. It was also gaining speed. And it was coming straight at him.

A sudden spike of adrenaline lit through Jaime's body. He took off like a shot, barreling between headstones. He didn't hear an explosion, but all of the sudden he was flying through the air as if he'd been thrown. He struck a tombstone and it snapped. He hurled on, cascading over the ground and then WHAM!

The world stopped spinning and he lay on his side. His back and arms burned, then seared. Assessment: four fractured ribs, two broken; various abrasions, minor to mild; dislocated elbow. Power levels: insufficient to treat all injuries as well as defend against oncoming threat. Options-

Jaime tried to lift his left arm. He sucked in a breath, holding it stiffly against his stomach. He knew he shouldn't be moving. But someone had fired a freaking rocket launcher at him. He'd landed against a weathered marble monument, explaining the wind knocked out of him. He braced himself against the monument and scanned the graveyard. About ten yards away, a smoldering crater glowed in a scorched patch of dirt. Headstones around it were blackened or toppled. Further out, Jaime spied several shapes darting between the totems. Not several. A whole pack. They were in a ring and they were tightening, tightening, like a noose around his neck.

Jaime swore. Police, helicopter, now what? Priority: healing his arm so he could perform defensive maneuvers. The rest of his injuries could be dealt with in time. He felt a tightening along his shoulder and the area seemed to emit a dim blue glow. There was a wrenching pain and his arm rotated without him willing.

Jaime yelped. "Santo cielo!" A nauseating pop sounded from his joints as his arm grated into its socket. The crippling burn dulled. He tested his arm, bending it gingerly. Since that was taken care of, he'd better assess the possible threats.

Jaime peered into the graveyard. The tombstones stood as silhouettes in the darkened field. They looked like hundreds of skyscrapers posted along endless streets and stretching into the horizon. He thought he saw a figure crouching at the corner of a mausoleum. They were dressed in black and hefted a gun much larger than the pistols the police had been carrying.

A burst of violet light was his only warning. The next moment, a blast of energy struck and Jaime was blown sideways from the force. It felt like he'd been pegged by a baseball. He collapsed against the marble slab.

"Ow! What the-"

Then another amethyst flash, another hit. Plasma slugs. Each blow deteriorated the integrity of his suit. Priority: disable assailants before depleted power levels left him unable to perform repairs. He cowered under a barrage of hits, the blasts coming from the left, right, all around. But with a sweep of his eyes, he locked on to their positions.

The attackers were all equidistant from him making eliminating them all the easier. The soil's conductivity depended mainly on its composition, moisture, and temperature. Jaime charged his fist and struck the ground, releasing 40,000 amperes into the earth for just two seconds. The plasma shots immediately stopped. Several cries sounded and Jaime saw the ambush drop. The ground resistance must have been a bit higher than calculated. The current hadn't been sufficient to be lethal-

"Just shut up," Jaime seethed. He checked the damage caused by the slugs. His whole right side felt like a bad sunburn and one strip right across his thigh was actually steaming. He fingered it, wincing.

A flash of amethyst swelled atop a mausoleum. Jaime swore and lept to the side. A smoldering hunk of marble was left in his place.

"Por favor. Don't you people know when to quit?"

Glowing violet slugs riddled the tombstone he hid behind. Jaime dodged from one to the next until he came to a large granite angel. Peeking out from one of its wings, Jaime spotted the shooter. The man had escaped Jaime's stunning pulse from his perch on the roof of a solemn gray mausoleum. He had the same weapon as the other thugs. His eyes adjusted and Jaime could see, literally see, the energy radiating from its canister, arching out in bands. But the gun was useless now. Having analyzed the particles, his suit was now calibrated against the weapon. Further attacks, though forceful, would cause no additional deterioration to his defenses. Priority: eliminate remaining threat.

Before he could let loose a hiccup of protest, Jaime was striding to the side of the angel. Amethyst slugs immediately struck him. Several at his chest and head - those barely registering beyond a firm strike - and one at his injured thigh. Jaime stumbled. Okay, that one hurt.

Jaime returned fire at the mausoleum roof with a wide dispersion blast of the sonic cannon. The assailant vaulted from his roost and rolled to the ground. He tossed his useless weapon to the side and switched to another. This one had no glowing aura of energy. It didn't need one. The cold power of led, aluminum, and steel glinted in the dark. Jaime had a feeling that a M16 rifle would hurt a heck of a lot more than the violet thingies.

"Put it down!" the man barked.

"You're the ones who shot at me," Jaime said. "You put it down!"

"Not a chance."

The two stared at each other, neither twitching an inch.

"This count as a Mexican stand off if I'm the only Chicano?" Jaime muttered.

"What?" the man called.

"I said, you make one move I'll laser your face off!"

"Take it easy."

The man was dressed in thick, black clothes, heavy boots, helmet, and an oblong headset that made him look bug-eyed. He was not the El Paso police, that was for sure. Ay Dios. He must have been from the Fort Bliss Army Base. And now Jaime was wanted by the US military. Could his day get any better?

"So what's the plan?" the man said.

Jaime had already indexed ten different ways - plus their variations - to kill the soldier. Jaime wrestled with the idea, balancing over the rocky drop of sanity's cliff. He let out a half laugh, half sob. He had no idea who he was anymore. What he was turning into. Something was pushing him over the edge and there was nothing to grab on to. And he half wanted to take the plunge. To let go, see what the freefall would bring. It was getting harder and harder to remember why he was holding back.

"I'm not a criminal," Jaime said. "This is messed up. I didn't do anything." The soldier said nothing. "I just ... I need help-" All moisture in Jaime's mouth evaporated and his voice tapered to a whisper. He tried to speak but his throat refused to obey. Why was he trusting some random guy? And Jaime was revealing too much information, displaying weakness. Just shoot him!

"Okay," the man said. His voice was soft. Jaime felt his stress melt at his tone. "If you really want to prove that, put down your gun." Jaime didn't move, not knowing if it was because he couldn't or because he didn't want to. The soldier slowly lifted the strap of his gun over his head and dropped it on the ground. "I want to help you. See? No gun. How about you?" He nodded to the weapon Jaime still aimed.

Jaime's arm trembled. He shouldn't listen. He should shoot him and escape. But the army was the good guys, right? He couldn't keep this up. The running. The shooting. He might end up killing someone. He was going to kill someone. At the moment, he couldn't tell what he was going to do. It shouldn't even be a choice! So why? Why couldn't Jaime stop?

The man stripped his head of the helmet and night vision goggles. His eyes were a bright blue, creased as he squinted in the night. Those eyes held no fear, but a silent strength.

"I can help you," the man said. And Jaime found himself believing. To keep from crossing that line, he needed to believe. "But you need to put the gun down."

"It's a sonic cannon," Jaime whispered. The man cocked an eyebrow. Jaime forced the weapon to lower. He felt it shift back into a normal arm. He was getting help. Everything was fine now.

Something bit him in the thigh, right at his suit's weak point. Jaime stumbled and cried out. The soldier moved faster than Jaime could follow. He grabbed Jaime's arm, twisted it back, and kicked Jaime above the knee. Jaime's legs buckled and he fell to the ground, driven into the packed earth as the man pounced on top of him. Jaime tried to shove him off.

"Don't," the soldier hissed in his ear.

Jaime felt sick. "What-" he panted, "what'd he do to me?" Jaime had been shot with a lethal dose of carfentanil. Priority: keep circulatory and respiratory systems functional.

"Gave you enough sedative to drop a herd of elephants," the man answered. "Don't fight it."

No. The soldier said he'd help. He ... said ...

Jaime's fists unclenched, his body sagged, and night descended.


 

Lose Spanish translation as taken in context:

ay Dois - oh god
cállate - shut up
Dios - God
Dios mío - my God
inmigrantes indocumentados - undocumented immigrants
la migra - border patrol
la policía - the police
madre - mother
malditas - freaking
manches - ridiculous
mí cabeza - my head
padre - father
papi - dad
pirado - crazy
poco más - bit further
por favor - please
que demonios está pasando - what the hell is happening
santo cielo - good heavens

Chapter Text

When they tell stories of my padre, he sounds perfect. He was funny. Handsome. Smart. Moral. Hard working. A good husband. A devoted father. If he was so perfect, why did he leave me to care for his wife and children? That's what I remember. That he died.

-Paco Testas


BEFORE ...

Jaime scanned his profile in the tiny mirror on the medicine cabinet. He worked a handful of gel through his hair to tame the bedhead mane flaring around his head. "Hello, caliente," he complimented the figure. His reflection returned the greeting with a very attractive grin - if Jaime could say so himself. Despite the sacredness of this morning ritual, his madre invaded the bathroom.

"There's such a thing as knocking," he told her, flushing slightly at the idea that she'd overheard him.

"Buenos," she greeted. She was already showered and dressed in scrubs. She squeezed in at the sink next to him to apply in quick succession a torrent of makeup products that did who knows what. "You're up early."

"Got some stuff to do before school," Jaime said.

She cocked her head to stare at him over the rim of her glasses. "Any reason you're wearing perfume of your papá?"

Now he knew he was blushing. "What? A chico can't smell nice?" He retreated to the hall.

"Ve, bonito," she teased after him. "I'll see you after school."

Jaime's padre and hermana were still sleeping so the house was silent apart from the snapping of cosmetic products from the bathroom. He grabbed his bag and slipped out of the house.

The morning was crisp and cool enough to see his breath. The sun already bleached the night into oblivion. Despite his jacket, goose bumps erupted over his skin. It took him thirty minutes to reach Paco's. It was a ramshackle of a house, with broken tiles missing from the roof and the sagging face in bad want of a paint job. It was actually Paco's tío's house. And it wasn't in a part of town his parents would ever let him go. In fact, they'd flip if they found out Jaime had so much as set foot there let alone went almost every day.

Jaime rapped at the window on the end where Paco slept. Cardboard had been crammed over the windows to block the light. When all remained silent, he pounded the glass. At one corner of the window, a finger peeled up the cardboard, then darted back as though burned by the light.

"Come on, vato," Jaime called. "You're gonna make us late."

No movement.

"Paco!" he beat the wall this time.

Paco swore and the cardboard shield came down. "You're gonna wake up my tío!"

"Let's go. It's already seven."

"Man, I'm not going."

"Why not?"

"Got this stupid assignment I couldn't finish."

"What period?" Paco answered so softly Jaime almost didn't hear him. "Seconed? Paco, that's your Spanish class!" Jaime burst out laughing, then added gravely, "It's your mother tongue. How can you stand the sight of yourself?"

"It's not my fault the teacher has it out for me!"

"We have a field trip. We're off 'til after lunch so no excuses."

"Oh yeah. That community service thing." Paco considered. "Yep. Definitely not going."

"Get your stuff," Jaime said. "I'm not missing home room again." But the cardboard was replaced. "Paco?" A honking snore emanated beyond the window. Jaime sighed, then paced to the front door and calmly tapped the doorbell twenty times in a row.

From within the bowels of the house, Jaime heard a thud — presumably Paco leaping out of bed — and a deep voice let loose a string of profanities — presumably Paco's tío woken up.

Paco's voice came, "Okay already!"

Ten minutes later, Paco shuffled out of the house, delirious with sleep. "Mano, my tio's gonna kick me out you keep doing this."

"If you'd come to school on your own I wouldn't have to."

"I was sleeping," he grumbled.

"Hence the shouting and banging," Jaime said. "I'm gonna start a service. Jamie's School Escort: Making sure your slackers get to class since 1986. Hablamos espanol." Jaime tapered off as he examined his friend. Paco wore a wrinkled wifebeater top and shorts that looked as though he'd slept in them — which he probably had. He hid his buzzed head under a faded orange bandana and his backpack looked too light to contain anything heavier than a pen. But that wasn't what caused Jaime to stare.

Paco shifted under the scrutiny. "What? Got drool on my face?"

"What's with your eye?" Jaime said.

"It's called sleep deprivation."

"You get hit?"

Paco scoffed and started toward the street. "No big deal."

Jaime was right on his heals. "What happened?"

"Will you chill? I'm not Brenda, Jaime."

"Then what happened? And don't try giving me some 'I fell' crap."

After a moment, Paco rolled out his shoulders and boasted, "Some cholos thought they could take me. They were wrong."

"You got jumped?" Jaime's tone was anything but impressed. "Freak, Paco. Were they those gang members? What happened?"

"Kicked their butts. That's what happened."

"Was it those same guys?"

"I dono. Maybe."

The two walked on in silence. Jaime didn't know what had started the whole thing and Paco claimed he didn't either. After a few fights and dodging them in the street, the cholos had followed Paco home one day. After that, he hid out at his tío's hoping the whole thing would blow over.

This had to be the third time this week Paco had run into trouble. The constant toll was starting to show. The mischievous spark in Paco's face was smothered under lines of worry. He'd practically dropped out of school. And to top it off, Jaime heard that Paco had been hanging with a group called The Posse. Apart from their name not being very original, The Posse was the rival gang of the cholos who'd been hassling Paco. That meant protection. But that safety came at a price; one Jaime hoped Paco was far from considering.

"I'll think of something," Paco said as though responding to Jaime's thoughts.

Jaime glanced at him, then said seriously, "Well, Milagro has a bunk bed in her room." Paco hit him and the two laughed.


Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context :

buenos - good morning
caliente - hot
chico - guy
cholos - gangsters
hablamos espanol - we speak Spanish
hermana - sister
madre - mom
mano - bro
padre - father
papá - dad
perfume - cologne
tío - uncle
vato - dude
ve, bonito - go, handsome

Chapter Text

There's a heaviness in the air. Something's crowding all around him. Some horde of demonios that I can't see. But I feel them. Their corrupting power radiates outwards, reaches into my chest. Their cold fingers close around my heart. They crush it. And I feel my ribs contract, collapse, and I suffocate as I'm pulled into that empty hole. That's why I forgive him. Because if that's what I feel just being close to him, I can't imagine what he endures at the hands of his demonios. I forgive my father. But I can never forgive myself for that.

-Brenda Del Vecchio


BEFORE...

"Miss Del Veccho," the teacher spoke, "wouldn't you prefer assembling the care packages with the other girls?"

Brenda gave Mr. Soares a weird look. "I came to work." At that she dumped her armful of rubble into a wheelbarrow.

Paco's gloved hand came up and he volunteered, "Mr. Soares, I'd like to go work with the girls."

"I bet you would," was all their teacher said before moving off.

Jaime wiped his brow, then straightened and cupped his eyes against the sun to scan the block. Here and there his classmates picked through the remains of a demolished lot. Amongst them were teachers and college students acting as coordinators. The three blocks had been emancipated to bony remains by a fire. In the lot where they worked, demolition crews had already carved away most of the ruins from the previous building. A cement foundation and structural frame were already in place for the new homeless shelter. Jaime's school along with a local college were there to clear the lot of any remaining wreckage.

Though most people wouldn't expect a desert climate to get cold, El Paso sat almost 4000 feet above sea level and snow fell whenever there was moisture enough to have any. As it was, winter's grip was loosening and tender green shoots tested the land in preparation of spring.

Jaime melted, but it wasn't because of the sun or from working for three hours. This melting started deep in his bones, somewhere where the marrow formed, where blood was born. It started right in his shins, echoing up to his knees.

"Isn't it great?" Brenda shot Jaime a smile — the source of his bones melting like wax — and went on, "She's throwing it in Upper Valley at her estate. She even said she'd rent me a live band. There's going to be security to make sure people don't sneak in. So don't lose your invitations."

"Who else is coming?" Jaime asked wondering how big a party had to be to entice party crashers.

"My tía said I could invite up to two hundred."

Paco's eyebrows shot up. "Dang, chica. Wish my relatives were loaded."

Jaime had been happy for Brenda when she'd passed him and Paco the party invites on the bus, but he couldn't help feeling let down. In the past, Brenda's birthday's had been anything but special. Her dad didn't spring for a balloon let alone a cake. Jaime doubted he even remembered. The endless let downs had left her bitter and this year she had been dead set on skipping her sixteenth birthday.

"Don't bother getting anything," she had told him. "It's stupid the way people obsess over birthdays." But Jaime saw how hard she stared across the room when she said this. "Stupid," she repeated as though to convince herself.

For the past month, Jaime conspired to throw a surprise party, something with her friends, let her know she had family beyond the walls of her house. But his totally thoughtful and sensitive idea had been trampled under the prospect of catered food, live music, and a pool.

It was for the better, he told himself. His party would have been lame. And wasn't the most important thing that Brenda was happy? She was practically glowing, bouncing around the lot, eyes filled with visions of every birthday wish she was finally getting. And she deserved each one of them.

The three soon filled up their wheelbarrow with chunks of brick and charred wood. It was Brenda's turn to wheel it to the dumpster at the end of the street. He and Paco stooped across the grounds, snagging more trash as they went and tossed it in a pile.

Jaime and Brenda had met in elementary on the playground. Brenda had just been told she threw like a girl by a boy who was almost twice her size. She punched the boy in the mouth, knocking him right on his butt. She then leaned over him and asked, "I hit like a girl too?" The boy was Paco. Needless to say, the three became friends and Paco never joked about Brenda's throw again.

Brenda was the coolest girl Jaime knew. Somewhere along the line, the cool girl developed the power to melt him. His bones went soft, his heart pounded, and his hands trembled as though he were terrified though he didn't know of what. And when this happened, he laughed too loud and his brain flushed all sense and reason from his cranium. His impulses took free reign.

There's a wall, his impulses told him, I'll jump off it.

Look, french fries! I'll stick them up my nose.

I'll talk like Kermit the Frog for half an hour because that's funny.

All to get her to laugh. To look at him. To think he was brave and awesome. Only when his brain started functioning again, Jaime ended up feeling stupid, and Brenda flat out told him he was. Jaime told his impulses to shut up. Clenched his fists until they stopped trembling. And tried only to see Brenda as the cool girl. Not hot. Nothing that would start his bones melting.

A shout jerked him out of his musings.

"Think fast!"

Jaime turned just as Paco tossed a cinder block at him.

"Paco!" Jaime caught it but stumbled from the force. He ended up ramming into someone. Before he could even think to apologize, he was punched in the back.

"Watch it, nerd." Jaime cringed at the voice. Why? Of all the people to run into.

AJ was a senior. That meant bigger. He was short tempered to top it off. At his side as always hung his buddies Leo and Javier. Leo was a rat faced boy, pinched and bony like a misshapen clay figure. Javier towered at six foot two, and his powerful limbs were backed by taught aggression.

"What, the whole block not big enough for you?" AJ said.

"Chill," Jaime said. "Didn't mean to."

AJ jabbed him in the chest. "You're lucky I don't have time for you. Where's Brenda? She's usually hanging around you losers. Need to talk to her."

"Why?"

"You her secretary?" AJ droned. Javier and Leo found that particularly hilarious, falling into each other with laughter at AJ's oh so sharp wit. Pleased by his own humor, AJ went on, "Pathetic the way you're always following her around."

Jaime was not one for pithy retorts. That was Paco's area of expertise. Still, he tried, saying, "At least I'm not chasing around a girl who dump me." Not bad. Not great. Yeah ... Jaime really needed to work on his comebacks.

"You think I'm chasing after that redheaded slut?" AJ leered. "Been there. Tapped that." His buddies guffawed and they exchanged fist bumps.

Jaime dropped — or perhaps more accurately tossed — the cinder block squarely on AJ's foot. The boy hollered and reeled back. Jaime offered an 'oopsie' face complete with a small gasp of sympathy. Paco bent double in laughter.

"Sorry, man," Jaime cooed. "It was an accident."

AJ swelled up, fury swallowing all pain. "I'll give you an accident." He lunged, fists raised. Jaime braced for the strike.

Did he regret it? Hells no.

AJ was expert in dealing a beating. He didn't go for the face. That left evidence. The hit caught Jaime in the gut. He felt his breath crumple from the force.

Before AJ's second punch could land, Jaime was jerked back and Paco stepped between them. Paco wasn't as tall as the twelfth graders, but he was big. His bulky mass was sufficient enough to cause even AJ's fury to pause.

"Back up off my hombre," Paco said in a low voice.

"Move it, Taco."

"That's cute coming from a dude named after a little mermaid, Ariel." AJ's eyes bulged. Paco dared utter the forbidden name.

Meanwhile, Jaime gasped, holding his middle. Three to two wasn't exactly Jaime's idea of a pleasant tumble. Especially when two of the three looked like they ate barbells for breakfast. While Paco could probably take AJ, Jaime was compact, made for running (generally away); not jumping in the middle of a full out brawl. He doubted he could even take down Leo.

AJ slammed a meaty fist into his palm. "Had enough of both you. Acting like you're better than me."

"You say that as though it isn't true," Paco shot back.

"You got no idea what you're in for." At this, AJ glanced for his buddies. To both his and Jaime's surprise, instead of their posts at AJ's side, they stood well behind.

Javier mumbled, "Don't think that's a good idea, AJ."

"Heard he runs with The Posse," Leo added.

AJ turned right into Paco's smug smirk. "Tell me," Paco dared, "what am I in for?"

"This isn't over." And with that, AJ and his buddies slunk off.

"Anytime, princesa," Paco called after him. He turned to Jaime. "You okay?"

"Think I inhaled my spleen," Jaime said.

Brenda returned, empty wheelbarrow in tow. She stared after the upperclassmen. "What was Ariel doing over here? Was he bothering you?"

Paco brushed the dust off his gloves. "Nothing I couldn't handle, chica."

"Jaime, you okay?" she asked when he only glared after the trio. He felt her take note of the way he grimaced and held his stomach. But she didn't say anything. She wasn't the kind of person to do that.

"Can't believe you dated that idiota," Jaime muttered.

"One," she said. "One date. And don't remind me."

Paco took a water break, surveying their progress. "Looks pretty good. Can hardly tell there was a bonfire big enough to be seen from space."

"What caused the fire, anyways?" Jaime asked, eager for any topic besides AJ.

Brenda was the one to answer. "Heard the teacher say there was some lab accident nearby and the whole block went up in flames."

"Several blocks," Jaime added, noting the blackened buildings further down the road. He hefted the same cinder block that served as his weapon of justice and dropped it into the now filled wheelbarrow. "I got this one." Jaime hulled the load to the end of the street. He dumped the contents and took a breather before heading back.

The street looked eerie on this side. The buildings were windowless, leaving gaping openings into their charred depths. Soot painted the walls and building exteriors. Some roofs had caved, exposing the remains like some scene out of a war movie. Walking back, Jaime was drawn to an office building roped off by caution tape. He stopped. This must have been the lab. From what he could tell of its remains it used to be a three story building, sleek and modernly designed. Only last month this area had been up and coming. Now businesses were in shambles, stores closed, and ... what was that? He craned his neck to get a better view of the doughnut-shaped ring the size of a swimming pool. He was too far back to tell.

Jaime glanced one way, then the other. Couldn't hurt to look. He ducked under the tape.

"Can't you read?" a voice said and Jaime's heart leapt into his throat. He whipped around and was relieved to see Brenda, hand cocked against a hip. "I thought Paco was the one failing English."

"It says caution," Jaime said. "I'm being cautious."

"You know that's not what I meant, burro. What you doing?"

"Just looking. Think this was the lab where the fire started."

"Yeah, so you're probably stepping in a bunch of deadly chemicals, genius."

"Think there's a particle accelerator. And who knows what other cool stuff this place has."

"We can't just walk around."

"Scared?"

"No. Just not stupid." Jaime grinned. Brenda's chin jutted out. "If my hair falls out, I'm breaking your teeth." She ducked under the tape and followed him.

Scorched computers and equipment scattered the debris, plastic melted and distorted. Even so, Jaime could tell it was once very new generation.

"Look, sorry about Ariel," Brenda spoke up.

"What for?"

"Paco said you got in a fight."

"It wasn't a fight."

"Then what was it?"

A near death experience.

"Nothing," Jaime said. "And you shouldn't apologize for him. Not your fault AJ's a dick."

"He was probably mad because I didn't give him an invite to the party."

Still determined not to talk about Brenda's pseudo-ex, Jaime shrugged. "Who knows with him."

They'd reached the back where the miniature particle accelerator lay. One side had collapsed, making it a C shape. Brenda clamored over the rubble to the center of the mechanism. The broken ring was no larger than his bedroom at home, probably making it a prototype for some larger project.

"Okay," she relented as she turned full circle. "This is pretty cool."

"Told ya."

"Think this is what started it? Some scientist crashed a few atoms together and ka-boom?"

Jaime shrugged, turning to examine the rest of the lab. He could see the remains of worktables, high powered microscopes, and who knows what else. He picked his way past a steel wall that had survived and entered the neighboring room.

Here, there was just the regular debris from the building. Nothing interesting. He turned to head back when he spied something sticking out of the ground. What caught his eye was its color. Everything else was a muted gray, coated under grime and soot. This object was spotless as though it were a shard of fallen sky.

Jaime bent then paused. Several large canisters were partially buried in the debris but the labels were still readable. Liquid nitrogen. If those had been damaged in the fire, one wrong move could leave him with a popsicle for a hand. Jaime reached around the containers and pulled at the blue object. It gave way with a few tugs and he stepped away fast.

"What you find?" Brenda stood in what used to be a doorway.

Jaime examined the object. It was about the size of his palm, heavy as lead, a polished surface. It was a carving of a bug. If it hadn't been for the color, Jaime would have guessed it was a fossil. "Some sort of rock," he said and showed her.

"Wow. That's so cool."

"It's a bug," he said.

"Technically, it's a dung beetle. It's the symbol of resurrection."

"How do you know that?"

"I'm sorta going through an Egyptian mythology phase. It's gorgeous," she said, eyeing the figure. "Think it's carved from a single piece of stone. Look at the detail on the legs." Jaime bent towards it as well; less to admire the craftsmanship, more to enjoy their faces being so close together. Their foreheads were almost touching and a strand of her hair tickled his brow. All day working and she still smelled sweet; like vanilla.

"Brenda?" He said her name softly. They were close enough for him to say it that way.

"Yeah?"

"Uh ..." What incredibly romantic thing had he just been about to say again? "Really looking forward to your party."

Damn him.

"Me too."

Quick, say she smells good. Say she's beautiful. Tell her you like her more than as a friend! "Brenda, I-"

"Hey," a man's voice barked.

And moment gone. Damn him twice.

The two turned to see a man in a navy blue jumpsuit, gloves, and heavy work boots. His head was covered by a stark white hardhat. That coupled with his beet red face made him appear very patriotic.

Jaime was suddenly very certain that the caution tape had actually read, "KEEP OUT!" He jammed the bug carving into his back pocket without thinking twice.

"You're not allowed to be back here." The man's eyes nearly popped out of his sockets as his volume level rose. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"Nothing, sir-" Jaime stammered.

"You're trespassing."

"We were just looking," Jaime said. "We didn't know-"

"My ass you didn't."

Jaime's mind went into overdrive. They were suspended from school. Probably had to pay a fine. Maybe they'd be sent to jail. Jaime thought of his madre and cringed. Maybe worse than jail!

Brenda whispered something. Jaime glanced at her. Her eyes flicked to the side. A hole in the outer wall. In a split second he understood and nodded.

"Cops are on their way you little-" the man's popping eyes widened. Brenda and Jaime shot through the opening in the wall and booked. "Get back here!"

Spurred on by a string of expletives, the two tore down the street. Only back at the safety of the clean up site did they stop, panting behind the construction site, wearily watching the street for the man in the jumpsuit. No one followed.

Brenda glanced at Jaime, a sly smile at her lips. "Nothing like a brisk jog from the man to get the blood pumping.

Jaime breathed out a laugh. "Thought we were screwed-"

"Jaime! Brenda!"

The two jumped in alarm. He spoke too soon. Their teacher Mr. Soares marched up, glaring down his pinched nose. No where to run to now.

"And where exactly did you two sneak off to?" Mr. Soares drilled. The two exchanged glances. "Have half a mind to toss you in detention. Lucky I didn't decide to leave you. Put those rears in gear." At that he turned and embarked the bus that was already packed with their peers.

He and Brenda let out joint sighs of relief. They boarded the bus and slid into the fo-leather seats that Paco had saved for them. Only when they were well on their way back to school did they relax.

"Hey, what did you do with the scarab?" Brenda asked Jaime.

"Huh?"

"That beetle rock."

"Oh." Jaime shifted in his seat to ease the pressure off the uncomfortable bulge in his back pocket. "Must have dropped it," he said to the window.


 

Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context :

burro - idiot
chica - girl
demonios - demons
hombre - man
idiota - idiot
madre - mother
princesa - princess
tía - aunt

Chapter Text

War is a game of chess. Every soldier, every outpost, every vehicle, all of it; we're worth certain points. To sacrifice something of low value to protect that of greater worth is the law of the battle field. A pawn to save a knight. A knight to save a rook. A rook to save a queen. Lives have price tags. It's economics. It's math. In the game of war that's what a human soul comes down to: numbers.

-Peacemaker


PRESENT ...

Peacemaker was exactly six foot one and one hundred and eighty pounds. He was barrel chested, straight backed, and an expert marksman. He almost always was seen chewing on the end of a cigar - Cuban only - never smoking though an earthy savor clung to his clothes. He wore a black uniform, marking him as a field agent and the fabric was kept clean and lintless as though he lived in a vacuum. Although the insignia at his shoulder proclaimed him a Knight, he had no problem bossing around a Rook. No one bothered to correct his lack of respect for his superiors. With muscles like a bears and enough scars to make a sadist blush, no one was stupid enough to so much as frown in disapproval.

The aircraft touched down on the helipad at 0300 local time. The new V320-Osprey had the speed of a jet and the maneuverability of a helicopter accomplished by the unique twin tilt-turbine engines. Even though he'd ridden one before, Peacemaker was still impressed. He hefted his dufflebag and jumped from the aircraft. Personnel milled about to refuel and tend the plane. Peacemaker tried to orient himself.

He paced to the edge of the tower. Below, the castle was dark. Here or there patrolmen or spotlights threw up a dim orange glow against the stone walls. From their approach in the air, Peacemaker had watched the imposing dark structure against the sky swell. The fortress was set high, capping the ridge of a mountain. From his position, he could make out the courtyard, the keep, great hall, gatehouse, and there, the barracks. He plotted a course for the soldier's quarters in his head. It had been a while since he'd returned. A long while.

"Sir!" a voice shouted. Peacemaker turned to one of the ground marshalers. He wore bright orange sound-canceling ear guards. "You're asked to report to the keep!"

Peacemaker nodded and braced against the mounting jet lag. Sleep could wait. Being called back like this, no warning, so quickly, it had to be something important.

His trip to the keep was uneventful. The castle's interior defied every trope that pervaded the concept of a castle. The halls were well lit for security purposes. Besides, candelabra were against fire codes. Cameras were mounted at almost every archway and corner. Keycard access points and fingerprint scanners controlled entrances. Doorways had been reinforced with steel frames and motorized locking mechanisms.

When he reached the keep, a Pawn on desk duty referred him to the third level briefing room. A short elevator trip later, he disembarked on the proper floor and marched into the briefing room. Stainless steel panels had been drilled into the ancient stonework, making the room bright and sterile feeling. A walkway led to the front of the room, either side lowering a few steps into tech pits where tables circled the edge of the room harboring touch screen desks, towers of monitors, and a fleet of nerds attending to the technology.

Peacemaker scanned the intel agents, all clad in white uniforms. They were a sun deprived and frail race. Peacemaker's lip curled. Of course he valued the results of their work. Intel was as vital to survival as a well maintained weapon. But this? He eyed the closest white Pawn, an emancipated boy hunching over a computer. It looked as though his wrists would snap if he so much as looked at a .9mm let alone tried to lift one. Though he shouldn't judge too harshly. Pawns were only support staff afterall.

Peacemaker breezed past the huddled Pawns to report to the white Bishop at the head of the room. The main monitor immediately caught his eye. It was mounted on the wall, several times larger than any TV screen he'd ever seen. As he stared at the screen, he felt his heart skip a beat. Even though he had been in the graveyard in El Paso, witnessed with his own eyes, the sight of the creature made his blood run cold. He glanced at the monitors of the white Pawns. Each screen was hedged with readings, analysis, and data regarding their latest prisoner: the Texan.

"Agent Peacemaker," the white Bishop nodded. "Welcome."

"Orders are orders," Peacemaker said. "There a reason ya jerked me all the way over here?"

"Can't you guess?" The white Bishop gestured to the screen.

"Already gave my report. Ya need me ta read it to ya?"

"I called you here," a woman's voice said. Peacemaker turned as his side's Bishop, Jessica Midnight, paced to the front. Midnight was everything he'd expect from a black operative. Military pixie cut taming her dark hair; eyes as hard as stone, squinting into his soul with their piercing gaze. She was alert despite the early hour. In place of the ornate officer's uniform, she was dressed in the standard field gear including a sidearm; always ready for action.

Peacemaker nodded, his abbreviation of a salute. "Midnight. Nice to see you out of the fox hole."

"You were the first to interact with the Texan anomaly," Midnight said. "And the only one in your unit it didn't incapacitate." Always right to business with her.

Peacemaker turned back to the main screen. The monitor showed the slumped figure of the Texan restrained in one of their security cells. Peacemaker knew first hand that the Texan's body—or whatever it was—was hard as steel and metallic, even at the joints. He had no clue how the thing could move. But that wasn't his job. In fact, nothing involving the thing concerned him. He caught it. End of story.

Peacemaker shrugged. "If you wanted to thank me, ya could have sent a card."

"It spoke to you, correct?"

"You people even read reports? Why I even bother ta write the thing? Yes, he- it talked to me."

She nodded once. "How are you with interrogations, Peacemaker?"

"You called me off my post to question it?" Peacemaker said. "Really? There was no one else within a three foot radius?"

White Bishop suppressed a smug smile at the reaction. "My thoughts exactly."

"A word?" Midnight said. She whisked forward, barring the white Bishop from their conversation.

"Why you wastin' my time?" Peacemaker asked. "You know how close I am to the arcane artifact-"

"I'm trying to help you," Midnight said. "After that rogue black Knight, our King and Queen are second guessing their picks for promotion. Think you'll get so much as a thank you for that arcane nonsense? They are, however, very interested in the Texan."

"And why's that?"

"All I know is our King wants this done by black side."

"Does he?" Peacemaker frowned, noticing the slight emphasis she placed on the word King. What made him consider this significant, was the way her eyes darted to the sides, the way she focused on her peripherals, trying to make sure no one was listening.

"There's plenty of black Knights around here," he said. "Still no reason to call me."

"Don't sell yourself short. You've proven yourself, Peacemaker. Our King recommended Bordeaux for the interrogation. But I convinced him that you were the better choice. More experienced. Had a previous encounter with the prisoner."

The better choice. What she meant was Peacemaker was Queen's Knight. Sasha Bordeaux. The name was familiar. As far as he could remember, Bordeaux was a fairly new agent. Trained by Midnight as a matter of fact. And as he recalled, Bordeaux was King's Knight.

Both Peacemaker and Midnight were black Queen's agents. As far as duties went, nothing changed. It was a preference of who you got along with. As it was, the current black Queen just happened to be more his pace.

Often absent from the Keep, Peacemaker missed all the little dramas that went on behind the scenes. The power plays. The challenges of the intricate checks and balances. Peacemaker took a moment to ponder Midnight's layered speech. Both black King and Queen were interested in the creature; but their goals were different.

For some reason, Black King was trying to get his men in on the Texan case. Probably so he could restrict the flow of information to the other King and Queens. To counter King's unknown motives, Queen was sending one of her own.

Peacemaker prompted, "What's our royal Queenliness have to say about King's ... interest?" He wasn't as clever with the political speak as Midnight was. But his question got across; Does our Queen think black King's making a play?

A shrug from Midnight.

Peacemaker grunted, brow furrowed.

"Any progress made on this case won't go unnoticed," Midnight said. "I'm sure an observant agent would be well rewarded."

"Rewarded? You mean the opening for Rook?" he clarified.

"Twenty plus years in the field; don't you think it's time to secure a position in a more senior office?"

"Didn't know ya cared, Midnight."

"I could use someone in operations command who sees things on the same level as I do."

"Don't play well with the other kids? Sweet of you to think of me." Peacemaker considered. He was still in his prime. A bit slower to heal, sure. Maybe his mind wandered every now and then. And the thrill; the action; kept reminding him he still had a heart beating away. But maybe it was time ... start thinking about the future.

Midnight allowed a small smile, seeing she'd convinced him. "Knew you'd do the smart thing."

"I ain't said nothin about leaving the field. Just keepin' my options open."

The white Bishop didn't look pleased with his change of mind. Peacemaker knew white Bishop had hoped to gain some glory by having a white operative crack the Texan. Midnight must have really called in some favors to bump Peacemaker to the front of the line.

"Keep me up to date on your progress," Midnight told him. She could have been talking about the interrogation. Or about any reason why black King would be interested in the inmate. But the tilt of her tone seemed to speak to something else. Remember me when you get to the top. Remember what I did to get you there. And remember you owe me for that, she was saying.

Peacemaker suppressed a sigh. Politics. One good reason to stay the hell out of the keep and in the field. Instead he nodded and said, "Sure thing." With that, Midnight excused herself and Peacemaker was left to plan an interrogation.


Jaime awoke screaming and trapeased from one nightmare into another. His arms were encased in dense metal gauntlets up to his elbows. These were attached to thick cables. And those were attached to the ceiling. He dangled from these restraints. He thrashed. But the restraints didn't budge. He kicked, but his feet were shackled in the same manner as his hands; knees to toe.

His side seared and he screamed again. His voice was not his own. It was the strangled shriek from some broken creature. His entire body arched, fighting. Bracing. Defying the crippling pain.

There were no people. Just machines. They were like the programed arms from a car factory. They descended from ceiling compartments, various tools in place of fingers. Scalpels. Needles as thin as hairs. A spinning saw. Clamps. Twisted metal that reminded him of a dentist's scrapers.

A gnarled barb came at him. He tried to break free.

Useless endeavor. The tensile strength of the cables was approximately fourteen tons each.

The barb pressed against his side, dug in, gouged. A second mechanical arm came at the wound with pliers and Jaime's screams rose in a vivid crescendo.

"Stop!" he yelled, "Stop!" until his words morphed into noise.

The machines didn't obey. They worried constantly at his body; or rather, at what was covering it. The glimmering forceps pried away layers of thin onyx like peeling layers from an onion. It was like ripping off his own skin.

And maybe they were. Maybe that was his body and he was trapped in a Kafkan hell. What was at the middle? Oh god, why couldn't Jaime remember what was under it all?

A scalpel honed paper thin moved in, slicing gently, parting the weak point in his body. A yelp escaped his clenched jaw.

Defences weakened, he thought. Priority: prevent access to core.

A warmth stretched across his side. The scalpel halted and snapped. The mechanical arm withdrew, then returned, a toothed saw equipped. It lowered to his hip, carefully selected where his leg met his socket, and sunk its fangs in.

And on it went. The whittling. The gouging. The ripping. Tearing. Hurting. Little by little, his own body betrayed him. His muscles, fighting so desperately at first, unclenched and sucuomed. His ears dulled all sound until his world became his own shrieks in the hollow fire of his prison.

But no matter how deep they gouged, how many sheets of shiny flesh they removed, there was always more. More of his body to be hacked from his ropey sinews. What was he? What did he do to deserve this; this infierno?

No matter how loud he screamed, the mechanical arms—whirling, bending, moving with such grace and precision—never once paused.

Jaime had no idea how long it lasted. He cowered and trembled, waiting for the next groove to be carved into him. He panted, wanting to cry. To die. To get away from this wretched body that made him so weak. So hurtable.

Threat: receding. Running diagnostics. Vitals: abnormal.

Every time he thought of opening his eyes, his heart hammered and his breath caught in his throat. At last, Jaime peered through cautious lids. No tools. He dared to glance up. No mechanical arms. The room was empty. Metal sheets had been riveted into the walls. There was a slab at the wall that Jaime supposed was to act as a bed; when he wasn't, you know, dangling from the ceiling. The floor was mettal as well, patterned with bumps for traction. The floor sloped to a drain at its center. For easy clean up once they actually managed to peel his skin off, he guessed. Jaime clenched his muscles to still his shaking.

No. He was not a ... an animal waiting to be slaughtered. He craned his head up to examine the gauntlets imprisoning his hands.

Vitals: stabilizing. Priority: escape.


 

Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context :

infierno - hell

Chapter Text

If I were the smartest person in the world ... oh wait. I am.

-Nadia


Information was power. That gave the interrogation subject immense power because they had all the answers. The key was to shift that power.

One way to do this was to restrict the subject's sense of time and place. Leave them isolated. Keep them off balance. Second and more importantly, come armed with your own knowledge. Meaning know the subject. Know who they were, what they wanted, what they needed, who they cared for. That insight would give you power over the subject.

So far, intel proved the most difficult task of yet.

Peacemaker kneaded the bridge of his nose. "That's all very useless," he barked at the young woman seated before him. "Can you at least tell me what tha hell I'm looking at?"

Nadia was the white Pawn assigned to work with him on the Texan inmate. As far as Peacemaker could figure out, Nadia's purpose was to make his task of preparing for the interrogation impossible. She sat at a computer console quilted with a dozen screens, each depicting something different. Her white uniform had been traded in place of camo cargo pants, a tank top, and a purple beanie hat with cat ears.

"Could you be a bit more vague?" Nadia shot back.

"That its skin?" Peacemaker jabbed at the screen. "I looking at a genetic experiment? An alien?"

Nadia pried a lollipop out of her mouth. "Naw, dude. Far as I can tell, it's some sort of exoskeleton. There's someone or something under it."

"Well what is it? Chinese tech? Spandex? Tha fairy godmother? What?"

"Search me," she said. "It's resisting our scans. Tried removing it but it keeps growing back."

"You get paid ta give me problems? Tell me what you do know."

Nadia gave a lavished roll of her chestnut eyes. "That could take a while. To save us the time, I'll assume you just want to know what info I have on the Texan." She swung to the consul, expertly navigating the screens. "We examined the samples we extracted. Got a good look at their microscopic makeup-"

"Once again," Peacemaker broke in. "Useless."

She spun back to him. "Maybe if you told me what you were looking for. That is unless you'd rather play a few more rounds of Guess What I'm Thinking."

Peacemaker forced his breath to come evenly. Whites. "What's wearing the exoskeleton?" he said through gritted teeth. "Can ya tell me that?"

"Well ... we did get resident traces of DNA off the material-"

"DNA. You didn't think to mention that before?"

"You didn't ask, brawny boy. And you're the one in charge of the questioning? My four year-old niece is more direct than you."

"Get any hits from the system?"

"Nope. But DNA looks human."

"Okay, your job, find out what's wearing that thing."

"You mean who's wearing it," she corrected.

Peacemaker glanced at his watch. Not much time left. He was expected below ground on the hour. And he still didn't know what approach he was using.

Of the fifteen interrogation techniques, over half were inapplicable. From his brief interaction with the Texan, Peacemaker knew it — or he now that they knew it was human — responded to a calming approach. The Texan seemed naive and trusting from the way he stood down after only a brief talk. That meant inexperience. The suspicious part of Peacemaker's brain whispered, Unless he wanted to get captured. It wasn't like their organization didn't have enemies. And the thing just happened to show up in the same city as a covert op?

Peacemaker turned to the white Pawn. "That thing," he nodded to the image of the Texan, "could it get loose? Saw it shrug off plasma blasts like they were snowballs. Then it turns around and fries my whole team without firing one shot."

Nadia beamed. "I know, right? It's masking its output, but I think that baby could pack enough juice to wipe out the whole base."

Peacemaker felt his heart rate spike. "You didn't think about mentioning that earlier!"

"Chill your pants, chief. You're safe as a baby duck." She tapped the screen, enhancing the image of the restraints. "Helped put the finishing touches on myself. This baby can hold a Tamaranian on steroids."

"Say that again," he breathed out. "In English."

"It'll hold, dude. The energy buildup won't reach critical levels for a while."

"What energy build up?"

"Didn't tell you? It's recharging. Like a cell phone. It's this little device you plug into the wall-"

Peacemaker took slow deep breaths. Whites. He went to the intercom and called for Midnight. No, it could not wait. And no, he couldn't explain over the line. This was a priority one matter, you worthless desk jockey.

He punched the device to illustrate the urgency, denting the casing.

"You don't get Midnight down here now, and I mean right. Now. I will find you. You hear me? And when I'm done, they'll be able ta fit you in a shoe box."

"She's on her way, sir!" the desk jockey's voice piped over the intercom.

Peacemaker grunted, and returned to the white Pawn while he waited. Nadia stared at four screens simultaneously without blinking. The images flashed by, showing bird's eye view of houses, buildings, landscapes. Having studied the region thoroughly for his mission, Peacemaker immediately recognized the area. El Paso.

"What you up to?" he asked.

"What you told me to."

"Let me ask again. What are you up to?"

"The who, dude." She paused, turning to clarify, "Not like that retro British boy band, The Who." She chuckled at her own reference.

Peacemaker bent over her. "Call me sir, pipsqueak."

"Only if you call me Almighty and omnipotent overlord." Nadia spun the chair back to her desk. "I'm trolling satellite footage of El Paso; backtracking his movements to find where our Texan originated, and thus get the who. Once again, no relation to the boy band."

Peacemaker bent forward, at last impressed. "And?"

"If you'd shut your trap for half a sec I'd have it already. Uh, sir," she added when he cracked his knuckles.

The door opened behind him and Peacemaker turned. But instead of greeting Midnight, he faced another black Knight. Her eyes were a light brown, watchful like his own. Her hair was chin length and dark enough to match her shirt. He glanced at her embroidered name tag. So this was Midnight's pupil. Black King's favorite Knight. Sasha Bordeaux.

Bordeaux held two styrofoam cups, one of which she offered to Peacemaker. He accepted. No point in being petty even if she was technically his rival. They were just two Knights caught in the scrimmage between their superiors. They settled side by side, one arm crossed at their middles, the other holding the steaming cup in front of their mouths, staring at the monitors as though surveying a horizon.

"Didn't know the keep started up Casual Friday," Bordeaux said sipping her coffee. Peacemaker snorted. His thoughts exactly.

"It's Wednesday," Nadia said, oblivious to the implication.

Bordeaux was a stark contrast from her teacher in many ways. Where Midnight was a blazing rampage of movement and urgency, Bordeaux was thoughtful. Her voice was soft and measured, her face a carefully crafted mask of neutrality. Everything was done with consideration, as though Bordeaux spent time analyzing every possible outcome before so much as blinking.

"Called for Midnight," Peacemaker said.

"You got me," was Bordeaux's answer. "What'd you find?"

He downed the coffee in one scorching gulp and chucked the cup in the trash. "Bringing this thing here was a bad idea," he told her. "Think it allowed itself ta be captured. The Pawn told me it's a threat to the castle."

"Blow it sky high," Nadia chipped in.

"I was told the prisoner was secure," Bordeaux said.

"Not knowing much about it, I'd say we were making an educated guess," he said.

"Is the threat immediate?"

"We got a few days," Nadia said with a shrug.

"How many?"

"Can't tell without longer observation." The Pawn clapped her hands together and leaned back. "Oh, I am good," she praised. "Gather round, chickadees." Nadia moved an image from one of her many secondary screens to the main one. "This is the intersection where our Texan first showed up. See that rinky-dink garage on the corner? Can't access any security feed from the inside, but traffic cameras give us an adequate view. This is footage a few hours before we picked up the alert."

The scene played in fast forward, cars on the street stopping, speeding, a few people entering and exiting the garage.

Peacemaker breathed out through his nose. "I'm assuming this has something ta do with the prisoner. But maybe I'm givin' ya too much credit."

Nadia rolled her eyes. "Dude, you'd have to take out a loan to give me half the credit I deserve." She paused the image and pointed at two figures. "Beard guy is the only one working the garage and all the customers have left. Then skinny kid goes in." The footage jumped ahead to the scene of a man approaching the garage. "Then mangy goes in." Another time jump. "Last of all, some thug. Around here, 911 is called."

"If there's a point-"

"Keep your shorts on, chief. Okay, so we have four people inside; beard guy, skinny kid, mangy, and thug." At this point the footage played at normal speed.

The traffic had died to nonexistence. Judging from the angle of the shadows, the sun was setting. Stillness on the frame except for the spinning numbers of the time stamp. Then, a flash lit the inside of the garage, so fast Peacemaker thought it might have been a glitch in the recording.

"Muzzle flash," Bordeaux said. And she was right, he realized. A gun had been fired within the building.

Seconds later, there was a second burst of light, this one more intense. It reminded him of a flash of lightning. Then a figure fled the building. Peacemaker squinted to see who. The thug. And just in time. The police arrived on the scene. Then, the Texan emerged from the garage. It paused, glanced at the cop, down either side of the street, then ran. The image froze on pause.

Nadia spun towards them. "Police report stated that there were two people taken to the emergency room from that shootout. One man named Luis Rivas; an employee at the garage. Second, Alberto Reyes; garage's owner." She pulled up their drivers licenses as she said their names. Peacemaker easily identified them as the beard guy and mangy.

"That's three out of four," Nadia said, her excitement reaching its peak.

"You think the kid's in the suit?" Peacemaker said slowly, realizing what she must be implying.

"Well he didn't evaporate, slick. And no one else entered the building. The Texan had to come from somewhere. Ergo ..."

"The kid is our prisoner," Bordeaux breathed. It was the first hint of emotion she had shown; surprise. "Can you get a clear image of him from the traffic cam?"

"Done and done. Already cross referenced it with yearbook photos in the area." Nadia tapped the keyboard. "Say hello to our Texan mystery man. Boy really. He's only sixteen."

The image of a teenager popped on the main screen. The Knights eyed the photo. The boy had chin length hair and a caramel toned face, which was smooth except for a lean patch of hair at his chin. The jeering of some unseen cameraman made his smile forced and awkward.

"You found all that in the time it took me to drink half a cup of coffee?" Bordeaux said.

Nadia beamed, her grin cocky. "Like I said: you can't afford the credit I deserve." She passed Peacemaker a tablet explaining, "Uploaded what I could find on the kid and his family."

Peacemaker scrolled through the file. At first glance, no red flags popped up. No suspicious trips to international hotspots. No apparent affiliations with known organizations on the watch list. Yet. There was always something. And he would find it. One way or another. Even if he was only-

Christ, did she say sixteen? He double checked, scowling at the information. What had this kid gotten himself mixed up in?

Not his problem, he reminded himself. Texan wasn't the first kid who'd been sucked into a rogue cause and wouldn't be the last.

He tucked the device under his arm and asked the Pawn, "You're sure it's contained?"

"Stuck like gum on your shoe. No worries, chief."

"Page me if anything changes."

Bordeaux stopped him as he turned to leave. "I'd like to observe the interrogation if that's alright."

And here it was. The play. Peacemaker considered. He was supposed to keep the interrogation to himself so black Queen would have the advantage. But Bordeaux was a fellow Knight. You just didn't give one of your own the shaft. And why should Queen have the advantage? The more everyone knew the better, right?

"Couldn't hurt," he said and shrugged. Bordeaux gave a nondescript nod. He had the feeling that if he'd said no he would have gotten the same nod; neither thanking or condemning; guarded.

The Knights moved to the lift. Midnight might not be pleased with her tagging along, but Peacemaker reasoned that if Bordeaux got any leverage on the case he could call in this favor. He shook his head. Look at him, already thinking like a politician.

The trip down into the mountain's depths was silent. Peacemaker wasn't a talker to begin with. And he had a lot on his mind, all of it made more complicated by the fact that it was centered around a teenage kid. This was part of something bigger. He could feel it. So did Bordeaux. He saw it in the way she stared straight ahead as the elevator plummeted; like she was trying to force the brushed metal doors to open to a passage of truth.

He jumped when he realized Bordeaux was using the reflective surface to watch him. Midnight sure knew how to train them.

"You been in the zoo before?" she asked.

He shook his head. "First time. But the Texan's not the first I threw away," he said. "Just hope I don't run into anyone I know." She almost smiled at that. But the twitch at her lips could have been an itch.

The keep's prison, internally referred to as the zoo, was located thirteen miles under a mountain range. It was where all the creeps were kept that didn't deserve the light of day, but were too useful to get rid of. The international and political hostages that were shelved until needed, kept secure from rescue attempts or assassinations from their own people to keep them silent. Intergalactic criminals. Clones. Inter-dimensional invaders. Beings summoned or twisted by arcane magic. Even rumored to be a few time travelers in the mix. Anyone and everything too dangerous to know about let alone come face to face with.

Peacemaker and Bordeaux used three different elevators and passed a dozen security checkpoints. The upper levels housed the traditional cell doors; bar chic. Even at this ungodly hour, he could make out bodies leaning against the bars, their forms shadows, their eyes dark jewels. Shrieks echoed hollowly against the stone walls from night terrors or those so forgotten the very act of living was too horrific.

Then iron plated doors with a Plexiglas observation window. He glanced over and from the window a creature stared back with large orange eyes. He had a moment to register that instead of a mouth there was a wide, curved beak. Then he passed.

Deeper, vault doors were put into place. Sometimes the cells had no doors at all, prisoners lowered into a room and left there with no intention of being removed. Which one would the kid be put in when they were done? Peacemaker quickly shook his head, again reminding himself, not his problem.

To get into the holding area where the Texan was kept, they went through retinal, finger, DNA, and a few other screenings. He wouldn't have been surprised if they asked him to take off his boot for a toe print. Once waved through, they were escorted to the proper cell. Rows of vault doors lined either side of the hallway. A complicated series of bars and pressurized seals accompanied many doors. Some had an extra layer of a shimmering blue force field. The door they came to had one of those force fields. Their escort entered a series of complicated codes by hand and voice, swiping cards, turning keys. Peacemaker guessed that at the main desk a guard was also entering in authentication. Rule of the keep: no one holds all the cards.

Whatever they did, it worked. The force field flickered out, a loud clack sounded as locks ratcheted back, and a soft hiss escaped from the airtight room. The escort informed them that they were being observed and would have to leave after thirty minutes as standard procedure. They were not to touch the prisoner, give the prisoner anything, yada, yada, yada. He'd heard it all before. One last thing, if the prisoner tried to get loose, push the red button. It was big, shiny, located at the wall. Couldn't miss it.

"And what's the red button do?" Peacemaker said, treating the escort to his most intimidating stare down. "Cuz if it floods the room with poison or something I'll take my chances with openin' the door and hopin' for the best." Again, Bordeaux's lip itched.

The escort assured him it only produced a shock to the prisoner. The vault door glided to the side, gears whirring. The two Knights entered, door sealing behind them. There was a sickening snick, then a louder crack as the locks re-engaged. A small sucking noise as the door was pressurized.

A sinking sensation weighed at Peacemaker's innards and he saw Bordeaux's shoulders go ridged. The soldier in them both wanted a retreat; some clear exit plan. Being locked in an airtight cube under several million tons of rock didn't sit well with him.

He gripped the tablet and forced his unease to the back of his mind. He had his mission: Find out why a kid. Why this kid. What was the play. What was the exoskeleton. What was it for. Why El Paso. And why, why was black King so interested.

Bordeaux positioned herself by the wall, taking the role of observer as promised. And, he noted, she was in reach of the shock button should anything go awry. He gave her a brief nod and faced the prisoner.

Chapter Text

You have to demand a place in the world, my parents tell me. They tell me how lucky I am. How good I have it. How many opportunities I have if only I study, work hard, and demand a place; because I have a right to one. They tell me this as they labor. They struggle to make ends meet; juggling a mortgage, two jobs, overtime. Somehow they still find time to tell me I can make it; that they believe in me. We choose what we do with the life we're given, they say, and if anyone says you don't belong, you let them know you do. You show them. You demand your place.

-Jaime Reyes


Progress: 64 percent. Assessing Female and male subjects. Female: possesses weapon.

"Remember me?" the male spoke.

Lead projectiles: potentially hazardous in present state. Do not allow deployment.

"Sorry about this. But you scared a lot of people with that stunt you pulled. I really do want to help you."

Male: possesses weapon. Plasma projectiles: non-lethal. Still hazardous in present state. Do not allow deployment.

"Hear you're from Texas."

Progress- Texas?

"Live in El Paso long?"

El paso. Literal translation: the passage. Geographic translation: Texas-Mexican border. Symbolic translation: home.

"Your name's Jamie, right?"

Why could no one ever get it right? Was it really that hard? Every new school year. Every new teacher. What was it they'd say? Remember. Do you remember before? Priority: remain on task. Progress: 66 percent.

Just a sec. What was it ... it's right there. The memory. You can almost reach it. El Paso. What did it mean? Literal translation- No! Not that. The other thing. Symbolic translation. That was it. ... Home.

Who is that woman? That guy? You remember him. He looks familiar. But from where? El Paso.

"Jamie Reyes?"

That's what they'd say. The teachers would call, Jamie Reyes? Paco would be snorting at your rotten luck. Brenda would give you a sympathetic eye roll. And you- what would you say? It's right there. You feel your mouth forming the word; it remembers the shape.

"It's Himay," you say.

That's right. Now you remember. Jaime Reyes. Symbolic translation: name.


Peacemaker frowned, then realized the boy was correcting his pronunciation. "Right. Jaime. In Spanish the J's said like a H, right?"

A single nod. It was heavy with all the dejected tiredness of a soldier fresh from the battlefield. Peacemaker let the silence worm its way into the kid. Silence barrier was broken. Time to let the kid spill his guts. But the boy hung silent, expressionless and dazed. Peacemaker could feel the boy's gaze focus on him. Molten gold eyes met his. Where the whites of his eyes should have been was amber in color, and his irises were a glowing yellow. It screamed alien origins if Hollywood was anything to go by. His head jerked, as though catching something familiar in the back of his mind.

The boy's voice was hoarse as he spoke. "You're that soldier." Peacemaker offered a nod in return. Anger boiled over the innate apathy. Jaime pulled against the restraints. "Is this your idea of help, you sick psicópata!" The boy thrashed.

"Like I said," Peacemaker calmed, "sorry it had ta happen that way."

"Sorry? You have any idea what they've been doing to me?" His voice cracked. "Where am I? What do you want?"

Peacemaker idly scrolled through the file on the tablet.

"You can't keep me here," Jaime said, "When my parents find out-"

"Yes, your family," Peacemaker noted and began reading from the file. "Father Alberto; mechanic. Mother, Bianca; nurse. Younger sister, Milagro; first grade. I bet you miss them." Jaime's emotions were clear this time. His golden eyes went wide in hurt. "I bet you want to go home. We want that too. We want you to get home, Jaime. But you need to help us do that. You need to tell us what you know. Think you can do that? For your mom and dad? For your sister?"

For a split second, Peacemaker had trouble remembering why this kid was shackled from the ceiling. He looked so ... lost.

"I didn't mean to hurt that cop," the boy said. "I just-" His eyes slammed shut and his chin dropped to his chest. Jaime swallowed a few times. "When can I get a lawyer?"

Peacemaker almost laughed. "You don't."

"Why not? And who are you anyway? Don't you have to tell me who you are? Show some ID or something?"

Kids today. Watch a few pop-culture crime shows and think they're certifiable experts on criminal law. But it was best not to wall him off. Had to keep him talking.

"Name's Peacemaker," he answered.

The boy stared at him. "Isn't that kinda an oxymoron?"

"What'd ya just call me?"

Jaime's eyes widened and he leaned back. "I just meant you can't really make peace."

"Oh, I beg ta differ."

"So ... are you army?"

"We're an organization."

"We?"

"We focus on cases like you."

"What kind of case am I?" the boy asked.

"Don't play cute," Peacemaker said. Time to get aggressive. The kid was dancing around the issue. "The super-freaky-weapon cases," he went on. "While we're on the subject, you want to tell me what you were doing in the middle of El Paso dressed like that?"

"I live there-"

"Get the suit from there too?"

"What? No-"

"From across the border?"

"No-"

"Are you the only one?"

"Only one of what-"

"How many are there? Who's in charge?"

"No one-"

"Who you working with? Where'd you get it?"

"I DON'T KNOW!" Jaime shouted. "I'm not part of a conspiracy or terrorist-whatever. The last thing that happened ... this police car's chasing me. And- and- and I was just scared so I ran. I know it was wrong and stupid. I keep having these ... ideas. Like what the freaking vibrational frequency is for human organs. And something called Ohm's law. And the oxidation of graphene alloy and it just won't stop! And then I'm like knocked out — thanks for that — and wake up in an episode of Guantanamo Bay's Top Ten Geneva Convention Violations. So believe me when I say I am the last person who knows what's going on!"

Jaime had plowed through, barely taking a breath and his chest heaved. "My idea of breaking the law is cutting through my neighbor's yard to get to the bus stop," the boy went on. "So I'd appreciate it if you'd stop treating me like a terrorist. I didn't fight you. I gave up. Doesn't that mean anything?"

The tablet in Peacemaker's hand let out a soft ding at a notification. He ignored it. The kid sounded sincere. Peacemaker almost believed him. "Okay, Mr. Cooperative," he said. "Take off the suit."

"The what?"

"The exoskeleton. The armor. Take it off."

Jaime looked down at himself. He shook his head.

"You want me ta start treating you like a kid from Texas," Peacemaker said, "start looking like one."

Ding! went the tablet.

"What's ... what am I wearing?"

"You tell me. You can start by tellin' me where you got it."

"I don't know."

"Who made it? Who gave it to you?"

"I already told you I don't know!"

"You want me ta believe it was a happy coincidence you got your hands on an experimental weapon?"

Another ding from the tablet.

"Well you can have it," Jaime said. "I just want this thing off of me."

"That's great kid, because we want it off."

"Who's we?"

"So how's it done?" Peacemaker asked.

"Who are you?"

"There a special code you gotta use?"

"I'm not saying anything else until I see a badge or something."

"There some sort of trick to it?"

As he talked, Peacemaker circled around the prisoner. The exoskeleton was the deep ebony of space. There was a rear external generator of some kind mounted on his back, about the size of a bookbag. The armor ended at the boy's lips. The boy's teeth and pink gums could be seen when he spoke. Peacemaker wasn't sure how the suit managed that. An adhesive maybe? It clung like a skin to Jaime's body.

Peacemaker evaluated the exoskeleton. It was sleek. Aerodynamic. Meant for speed; stealth; striking hard and fast. Not for heavy-duty warfare; more like a special forces unit. Off the top of his head, Peacemaker knew a dozen countries and criminal masterminds that could design something like that. And a legion of organizations that would buy it. But a garage? In Texas? And a kid? They had to fit somehow.

Peacemaker came to a stop in front of Jaime, staring right into those molten amber eyes. "What's your game, kid? What were you doing in El Paso? What's your mission?"

"I already told you I don't-" a pause. "Mission?" The boy's eyes dropped and he shook his head again.

Peacemaker cocked an eyebrow. "What aren't you telling me? Come on, Jaime. This will go better for you if you tell me now."

"Shut up," he whispered.

"'Scuse me?"

"I don't have any directive. I just want to go home." He looked back up. "I didn't want to hurt anyone."

"Just like you didn't want to hurt your father? Or Luis Rivas?" A complete shot in the dark. Peacemaker had no idea what had happened inside the garage. But the boy's eyes went wide, telling all. Peacemaker almost felt guilty.

A ding sounded. Peacemaker tucked the tablet under his arm annoyed. This was crucial. He was slowly pulling the rug out from under the boy. Couldn't let a distraction interrupt.

"I was trying to-" Jaime began, then tried again. "Luis pulled a gun- I didn't mean to hurt him," he stammered.

"But you wanted to."

"No- I mean yeah, but-"

"And you didn't just hurt him. You killed him."

"What? No!"

"Or didn't you mean that either?"

"He's not- dead?" Jaime's breath shallowed. "I- I didn't mean-" He squeezed his eyes shut. "This is a nightmare."

Time to reel him in. He was scared. Peacemaker made his final play by dangling understanding in front of him. The safety of being understood, connected was what this kid needed. "People are hurt," Peacemaker said. "This is already out of your control. But it's not too late. I believe you, Jaime. You're a good person. Someone's using you. They're playing you. Your dad got hurt. Luis. Those police. Who's next?" He stepped closer to make sure he had the boy's full focus. "You don't owe this person anything. Look what they did to you. Your family. Your life. Let me help you. Tell me, Jaime, who gave you the armor?"

"No one," the boy said. "I don't know what it is."

Peacemaker stifled a growl. This kid was not going to break easily. Peacemaker cracked his neck one way, then the other. Calm approach wasn't working. Time to amp it up.


Progress: 90 percent.

The man who called himself Peacemaker — still an oxymoron in Jaime's opinion — popped his neck. Twice. Jaime shuddered. He hated it when people did that. The tablet under Peacemaker's arm kept making this annoying sound every so often but the soldier never checked to see what the message was. The device did it again.

Ding!

"I don't know what you're playing at," the man rumbled. Gone was the soothing tone. His voice echoed with the dangerous power of thunder. Peacemaker's face morphed into a hard, unsympathetic surface. The room seemed to grow darker, shrinking around them. Jaime felt his heartbeat pulsing through each and every vein. Peacemaker's blue eyes suddenly seemed deep and dangerous, as though Jaime perched at the edge of a well staring down into the bottomless depths of the cold earth.

"I'm tryin' ta be nice," the soldier said. "Be on your side." His hand shot out and latched around Jaime's throat. "You're not givin' me a lot ta work with."

Threat detected.

Threat? The guy was trying to strangle him!

Priority: remain on task.

How about remain breathing!

Progress: 92 percent. Remain on task.

"You know what's good for ya," Peacemaker said, "you'll answer."

"Suéltame," Jaime gagged. "Get off!"

The soldier spoke slowly, giving time and weight to each syllable. "Who are you working with?" He leaned closer. "Jarvis? Luthor? Who?"

"No one-"

"Who!" The grip tightened.

Respiration restricted.

No kidding!

Diverting all power to main task. Progress: 93 percent. 94. 95.

That burned- ow. Ow. Ay! Glowing lines swelled over his body, tracing his outer thighs and arms. It felt like a thousand tiny knives carving along his limbs.

At the glowing, Peacemaker leapt back, drawing his weapon to defend himself.

96.

"Knock it off," Peacemaker barked, aiming at Jaime's chest. "Warning you."

97.

Peacemaker fired. An amethyst bolt of plasma struck Jaime over the heart once, twice. It stung like carpet burn.

98.

Then, electricity surged through his body. Jaime's muscles locked. He tried to scream but his lungs were petrified. At least he thought they were. But he could hear himself swearing.

The charge disappeared. His body sagged, aching as every muscle cramped.

"So that's what the button does," a woman said. Jaime had forgotten she was even there, standing silent by the door. Her hand came off a red button. She watched Jaime with narrowed eyes, almost daring him to try again.

"That was level one," she said. "Don't know what you were doing, but try it again, I'll skip to level five."

Jaime panted. The shock felt like it had scrambled his brains. What was he doing again? The task. What task? Oxidation. Graphene. Had to keep weakening the gauntlets.

Ding!

All eyes went to the tablet on the floor. Peacemaker had dropped it when he pulled his weapon. Plasma gun still in hand, Peacemaker scooped up the device. Jaime glanced up at the gauntlets.

Progress: 98 percent.

Órale. He didn't want to get electrocuted again.

Peacemaker navigated the screen and paused as he scanned the notification. His face went pale.

Does he know? Jaime wondered.

Peacemaker's gaze darted up and the two locked eyes. Whatever that thing said, it certainly wasn't "A-okay" judging from his expression.

He knew. Ahora. Get free now!

Progress: 98 percent.

"Bordeaux!" Peacemaker warned.

98, 100. Same thing. Jaime grit his teeth. Mustering all his strength, he heaved his arms towards his center. The gauntlets groaned, then gave, shredding away from the middle in corroded shards of rust. Jaime dropped to the ground. He wrenched his legs free just as the woman named Bordeaux slammed her fist on the red button again. Electric sparks exploded from the broken cables, cascading across the floor.

Several purple plasma slugs pegged Jaime's side. He grabbed the still sparking cable and thrust it at the soldier. Peacemaker dodged but Jaime followed. The crackling cable connected with Peacemaker's middle. He yelled, falling to the floor in a heap of limbs.

A kick caught him in the back and Jaime went flying forward. He hit the ground on his hands and knees. Bordeaux's foot descended like an ax and he collapsed, breath knocked out of him.

She pounced, knee planting in his spine. He tried to roll her off, still choking for breath. His arm was twisted behind his back and something cold and rigid pressed against his temple.

Gun.

Jaime froze. His brain buzzed with counter maneuvers, half of which he didn't understand. His mind screamed at him to move, to act, to fight. But the presence of the weapon kept him as he was. Which was absurd because the probability of death-

Jaime could guess the probability of his brains splattering against the wall. There was a freaking gun pointed at his head!

"Don't move," Bordeaux spoke. She didn't need to say "or else." That was clear from the increased pressure of the gun. She shifted, trying to reach something at her side. A second weapon? Another tranquilizer? A phone to summon help?

Whatever it was, he had to act now. Now!

But the gun-

Forget the weapon. She couldn't use it if she was dead. Sixty million volts had been transferred to him from the shock. He could easily deal it back. One hundred milliamps was sufficient to induce ventricular fibrillation of the heart.

Kill her? The thought felt like little bubbles swelling in his cranium. The pressure built in his skull. Why shouldn't he?

Peacemaker's words echoed over the headache, I believe you, JaimeYou're a good person.

Jaime clenched his fists. Good people just didn't go around killing. Even if someone had a gun to his head. That meant no ventricultaion or whatever it was. On the other hand, who was he to oppose the forces of karma?

"What goes around," Jaime grunted. His skin crackled as electricity lit into Bordeaux. A non-lethal current, but the result was effective. The shock blasted Bordeaux across the room. She slammed into the metal plated wall and slumped to the floor.

Jaime scrambled to his feet. Peacemaker lay on the ground behind him; Bordeaux to his left. Neither moved.

"This looks bad," he muttered. And it didn't just look bad. He had assaulted two army soldiers. That was like attacking the whole United States. That was like ... treason. He was going to jail for treason. No. Federal prison. He just had wanted to get away. Instead he attacked the good guys.

"Bad," Jaime groaned. "So bad." And it got worse. An alarm sounded; a wailing blare that made his eardrums want to split. Any moment now some squad of crack commandos would come barging in and make him wish he was never born.

But something else happened first. The mechanical arms popped out of their seamless ceiling compartments. There were four of them on all sides; each brandished familiar weapons; a syringe, a serrated blade. He felt sick. The world seemed to tip up at the edges, folding over him. His breath came shallow.

He was not letting those things touch him again. Not even an option. So ...

"Do something," he told himself. Jaime spun, trying to keep an eye on all four arms at once. "Que hago?" The answer came immediately.

Fight. Escape.


 

Loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

ahora - now
órale - hurry up
psicópata - psycho
que hago - what do I do
suéltame - let go of me

Chapter Text

Knowledge is power. Knowledge is information. Information is power. I'm a complete disgrace; a sell out. I'm feeding the machine; supporting a system that expects total access to all and allows none in return. Information flows in. Power flows in. The people are left powerless. And I help keep them that way. At least that's what my brother tells me.

-Nadia


Nadia sat on the edge of her seat watching the interrogation. Being Pawn in charge of the Texan investigation, she had full access to the footage in the cell. Technically, the black Knight Bordeaux could have observed the interrogation from Nadia's office. But Bordeaux insisted on going with Peacemaker. That was practically like asking him on a date. Isn't that how those field operatives worked: bonding through inflicting pain on others? In any case, some time alone with Bordeaux couldn't hurt Peacemaker. Maybe they'd get laid. That would loosen them up.

In the interrogation, Peacemaker acted like a big fluffy teddy bear. He had a way of talking that made you want to listen. A deep powerful voice. Whatever that voice said sounded true in virtue of its intense resonance. But the Texan kid was elusive. No answers were given. Nadia found herself buying his story. Maybe he really didn't know what was going on. But then there was a slip up.

"I keep having these ... ideas," Jaime said. "Like what the freaking vibrational frequency is for human organs. And something called Ohm's law. And the oxidation of graphene alloy and it just won't stop!"

Nadia felt her heart plummet. "Graphene alloy?" she breathed. No way. He couldn't know. Nadia took several deep breaths. Calm down. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe Jaime guessed. Yeah. He just guessed that his restraints were state of the art steel-graphene alloy gauntlets. Even if he did know, he couldn't induce oxidation ... right?

She linked up to the tablet she'd given Peacemaker and sent him a notification.

Possible issue with restraints. Standby.

She glanced expectantly at the screen but Peacemaker either didn't hear the notification or ignored it. He kept on questioning.

No big deal. She wasn't even sure if Jaime was escaping. Nadia flexed her fingers and pulled the keyboard towards her. She just had to confirm the integrity of the gauntlets. She accessed the restraint's regulators.

"Structural fatigue," she read. "Aw cuss!" She slammed out another message to Peacemaker and sent it.

Get out!

But Peacemaker ignored the tablet. And things got bad. Nadia watched helpless, sending message after message that went ignored. And when Peacemaker finally did see, it was too late. Jaime ripped free of the restraints. Before Nadia could even swear properly, both Peacemaker and Bordeaux were out. Two black Knights taken down by a kid her brother's age. That was just scary.

An alarm sounded in the room, its blare squeezing through her desktop speakers. The mechanical arms tried to restrain him. One tonged arm latched onto Jaime's shoulder. He tried pulling it off, rammed from the side by another that wielded a spinning saw. He was knocked into the wall from the force. The other two tried restraining his legs. Jaime twisted his grip, ripping the tonged clasp from his shoulder. The machine sparked and the metal crumpled at his strength. He punched the spinning blade and the bearings broke, sending it whirling into the door where it lodged. His feet were pulled from under him and he dangled, kicking with all his might. The spinning blade was replaced with a spike-like javelin head. Jaime's hand morphed into a stump. The end glowed blue, then white, and the javelin, arm and all, was blown apart. He repeated the maneuver with the remaining two, demolishing the metal arms into splayed fragments of metal and wires. He fell to the ground released.

Nadia jumped to her feet, chair skidding back. A red notification popped up on her screen summoning her to the briefing room for an emergency. The emergency. She dashed out of the room, grabbing her white uniform as she went. Peacemaker's voice echoed in her head.

"Think it allowed itself ta be captured."

The power in that exoskeleton was enough to level the castle, she realized. And it was right underneath them.

The briefing room was as hectic as a shark tank filled with blood. Orders were shouted across the room. Warnings and alarms lit up screens. Nadia fell into line, taking her place at one of the many computer stations. A breach in the zoo wasn't unheard of. But the Bishops were locking it down before it could come to that.

White Bishop Faraday issued orders through a mic. "Get a squad of black Knights on sublevel five. Don't want that thing stepping one toe outside its cell."

Black Bishop Midnight leaned over the console manned by Nadia. "What's the target's status?"

"He's just standing there," Nadia said.

"Who's he talking to?"

Nadia consulted her computer. "He's not sending any transmission," she reported.

"Want it sedated immediately," Bishop Faraday barked marching over.

"Technically it's a him-" Nadia trailed off under both White's and Black's glare. "Uh, yes sir." She pivoted back to her console. "Activating secondary containment."


Jaime kicked the remainder of a mechanical arm off his leg. His body glowed, repairing the damage taken to his chest from Peacemaker's plasma hits. Vitals: stable. Threats: Eliminated. Energy levels-

"How about this for inventory?" Jaime brooded. "Evading police: check. Arson: check. Assault: check. Defacement of government property ..." Jaime's hands passed over his face and he shook his head. "I'm gonna need a lawyer." He peered at the unconscious soldiers. "A really good lawyer."

It was best to eliminate the possible threats before they presented a future problem. His arm twinged to change into a weapon.

"Para!" Jaime grabbed his wrist to prevent it from morphing completely. "Sé serio. There has to be an off button to this thing."

What was it the soldier had called it? An exoskeleton. Jaime glanced down at himself, wondering how it came off. There wasn't a zipper, that was for sure. The suit did things without him wanting. Like changing into a weapon and hurting people. Because he never wanted to hurt anyone.

Right?

Jaime kneaded his temples. Luis. Peacemaker said he was dead But he couldn't be, right? Jaime wasn't a killer. And no matter what a crappy employee and husband he was, Luis didn't deserve to die. Jaime had only wanted to ... stop Luis. Stop him from what? Luis had already fired the gun. Jaime just remembered a blinding anger. Hate so hot it burned him from the inside out. Luis hurt his padre. The only thing that mattered was hurting Luis back. Eye for an eye.

"Centrarse!" Jaime scolded himself. He could think about that later. Once he got out. Once he got home. Once he saw his padre and knew he was okay.

From the wall, several compartments opened. Large weapons unfolded and aimed at Jaime. "Okay, traje. Now would be a great time for suggestions." His brain buzzed but no twinge in his body to produce a counter weapon. "Recommendations. Observations-" The five weapons simultaneously whined as they charged. "Do something!"

He cringed as the weapons fired. A shield unfolded from his upraised arms. The blast struck the armor and dispersed like oil against water, energy dancing across the floor.

The blast would render him unconscious if contact were made. Continued attempts to diffuse the charge would fail. Shield degradation: 22 percent.

A nonstop barrage of blasts nailed Jaime's arms.

Shield degradation: 40 perc- 52 percent.

Jaime was all for blasting the crap out of these things. But he was unable to form a weapon due to maintaining his shield. His brain provided several solutions that would incinerate everything in the room. Jaime eyed the unconscious forms of Peacemaker and Bordeaux.

His concern for their lives was irrelevant next to his own survival.

"They are people," Jaime told himself through gritted teeth. "They did horrible things to me, but they are people. They don't deserve to die."

Then Jaime was doomed to recapture. Shield in critical condition.

His arms were stinging from the blasts. Watching the energy skipp across the floor like sparks, he got an idea. He only hoped the suit knew about ping-pong. Instead of lessening the impact by scattering the blasts, Jaime tried to get the suit to take the full brunt and rocket it back at the assaulting weapons.

For future reference, the correct terminology was-

"Don't really care about that right now," Jaime said through gritted teeth. Flaring over his vision, a diagram overlaid the room complete with angles and predicted trajectories. Adjusting the shield, Jaime took aim at the first weapon. A miss, followed by a direct volley of hits. He repeated the maneuver for the remaining four cannons. In no time, the weapons were smoldering craters in the wall.

His tattered shield crumbled to the ground and Jaime turned for the door. There was no handle, lever, keypad, or anything that could open this thing.

First, he had to assess whether it was a feasible escape. Implementing: radar and radiation detection.

Jaime's head whipped to look over his shoulder as he felt a sharp pressure in his back. Two scimitar-like protrusions sprouted from his shoulder blades, tip first. The blades were curved after the Arabian style. Did everything have to be solved with violence?

Then he realized they weren't weapons. Rather they acted as dual receptors. Combined, the two devices gauged depth just as eyes would.

The yellow filter across his eyes dulled. He stumbled off balance as his vision rippled. Using a combination of frequencies from the light spectrum that he'd never heard of, the exoskeleton allowed him to see through the walls of his prison and past the door. It was unlike anything he'd ever experienced. His eyes stared into darkness but saw things in a different way just as seeing was different from hearing or touch. It was a new sense, one he couldn't begin to explain. He saw energy, heat, sound. He knew there was a wall, but that didn't hinder his perception.

Threat detected.

"Por el amor de Dios," Jaime groaned. "What now?"

Soldiers stacked up on the other side of his cell door, preparing to mow him down should he attempt escape. He was trapped.

If he would only reconsider deadly force-

Not happening.

Jaime examined his prison, still absorbing the spectrums. Eight-foot thick walls. Scans revealed that his cell like others, were hollowed right out of the earth like cubbies. The walls were composed of various materials; mainly granite, limestone, and marble. Also reinforced with steel bracers. But that shouldn't be a problem. Power levels were sufficient to tunnel through several hundred feet and still maintain energy for combat maneuvers.

To his left was another prison cell. If he blasted his way through the wall, he could emerge further down from where the ambush waited. The thickness of the walls made it difficult to see, like peering through a fog, but he thought he could detect a checkpoint down the hall; a large metal door. If he could circle past that, emerging on the other side, the soldiers would be trapped in the hall while he escaped.

He aimed his fist at the wall.

Sound plan. Only what if the soldiers entered the cell and followed. He'd be attacked from behind.

Jaime considered the door. His senses adjusted until he could see the motorized gears and locking mechanisms. A specialized frequency should disable the lock's components and hold the soldiers off. His hand morphed into a sonic emitter and he targeted several points in the door. He heard the protest of metal and popping of gears. Done.

He faced the neighboring cell again, adjusting the frequency. In seconds, the wall shook itself to rubble. Jaime stepped into the room, disabling this door as well. He shivered. It felt like he'd stepped into a freezer. Huge grated vents pumped in frigid air. The exoskeleton tickled him and somehow altered to dampened the cold.

He paced to the wall to continue tunneling. He heard a noise. A small scuffle. Someone else in the cell. They were pinned under a block of rubble.

"Dios mio!" Jaime rushed forward and pulled the stone off the person's thigh. He dusted them off. A woman in a forest green jumpsuit lay unmoving.

"You okay?" he asked. "Are you hurt?"

The woman groaned.

"I didn't know there was anyone over here." Jaime fell to a knee beside her. "Are you okay?"

"P-p-please," she whispered.

Jaime eased her into a sitting position. "Is it your leg? I'm so sorry." She appeared uninjured. Scans revealed no serious damage.

The woman was shaking so badly she could barely speak. Her skin was deathly blue with splotches of purple. "S-s-so cold." Her arms snaked around his neck. She pulled him in, mouth locking over his. Jaime jerked back but the woman was wrapped so tightly she came with him.

"Excuse me," Jaime yelped. Or tried to. It came out as "Oscumoo!" He felt a shiver crawl through his body, starting at his heart and pumping out with every beat.

"Grt orf," he said and pried at her arms.

His core temperature was plummeting. The suit seemed to buzz over his skin, trying to compensate. But every second he just felt weaker and colder and- it was her! Jaime shoved the woman as hard as he could and the two tumbled apart.

"Cuál es tu problema," he yelped. "What did you just do to me?" His vitals gradually stabilized.

The woman rose to her feet, eyeing Jaime cautiously. "Thanks for the pick me up." She scraped a mane of stark white hair out of her face. "You're not Checkmate."

"No," he answered slowly. "Who's Checkmate?"

"You're a prisoner?" she asked.

"Uh ... it's complicated. I was running from the police-"

"You made that?" she pointed to the hole in the cell wall.

"About that," Jaime cringed, "I really thought the room was empty-"

She grabbed him by the arm and yanked him to his feet. He cringed at her touch but there was no draining sensation. She heaved him to the door. "Blow us out," she ordered.

"There are soldiers out there," Jaime said.

The woman's eyes were on the vents overhead. "I can't last much longer in here."

"I open the door, that will let the bad guys in." Technically the army was the good guys. What did that make him? Jaime shook his head. Focus.

"So redecorating is your brilliant plan?" she spat back.

They both whipped to face the door to Jaime's cell. Sparks fountained from the creases. The soldiers were making a move. "They're coming!" she said. "Do you think we'll get another chance? Get us out of here."

Jaime scanned the next cell. There was someone over there. Jaime aimed at the left corner, furthest point from the unknown prisoner, and blew the wall.

The woman was through the hole before the dust had settled, Jaime following after. This cell was warm. At least it was until the woman sucked in a deep breath. The temperature plunged as though he had jumped into an ice bath. Jaime disabled this door's mechanisms as well while frost crept up the walls.

"God, that feels good," the woman sighed. But Jaime barely heard her. His eyes were on the large creature that they had just woken up.

"What is that?" Jaime yelled.

Phylum: Chordata. Class: Mammalia. Order: Primates. Family: Hom-

"I can tell it's a monkey. Thank you!"

Actually, an ape.

"They weren't kidding when they called this the zoo," the woman said.

The creature stirred. It's dark eyes blinked. It rocked to its haunches and stood on its back legs. Rising. Rising. It towered at over six feet tall. Maybe seven. Jaime and the woman took a step back. It scowled down at them from a heavy brow. The creature's black lips peeled back to reveal large, yellowed canines.

"Why is there a gorilla in an army base?" Jaime whispered.

"To make the world a safer place," she said with false glee. "You forget about those Checkmate agents? That door won't hold much longer."

"But-" Jaime sputtered and pointed to the beast.

"Don't mind him. Bet he's as happy to blow this joint as we are."

Jaime moved to the adjacent wall, feeling the creature eye his every movement. He swallowed and fired another sonic blast.

Cell number three, another prisoner, this one thankfully human. A woman in a similar green jumpsuit. She had blond hair knotted in a bun. She sat cross legged on the floor, eyes closed.

There were high levels of irrational energy in there. He paused at the thought. What's irrational energy?

Unknown. Also known as: Black Science, Sorcery, Magic, Witchcraft-

"Move it, shorty," the woman said. She shoved him from behind. But his knees were locked and he didn't budge an inch.

"I can't go in there," he said.

The cell was whitewashed, drywall covering stone walls and ceiling. Even the door was sunken back to create a flat surface. All over the walls were symbols painted in bold strokes of scarlet. It looked like blood, but he knew it couldn't be; not that bright. The characters were some language Jaime didn't know-

Sanskrit. Hebrew. Coptic. Sumerian.

Apparently he did know.

A series of pentacles were positioned on the floor, each inside the other. At their center sat the prisoner. She didn't give any indication that she noticed her wall being blown apart.

The cold woman pushed past Jaime. She entered the pentacles, crossing to stare at the prisoner.

"Don't need to be afraid," the cold woman said. "She's sleeping."

Jaime tried to follow, but ropes seemed to hold him back. He couldn't, no shouldn't go in there. Engaging with irrational energy would be catastrophic-

The cold woman planted a fist on her hip and glared at him.

"I can't," he said again. "This ... black science is like ... bad for the exoskeleton or something."

"For the love of ..." The cold woman flicked her wrist. Crystal daggers shot through the air and shredded the pentacles, breaking the lines. All the red seals and symbols bled into black. It was creepy. Like, The Exorcist creepy. Irrational energy must be demons or spirits or whatever. Jaime felt the pressure holding him back decrease. He crossed himself before entering, reciting a silent prayer for good measure.

A closer look at the cold woman's daggers, Jaime saw that they weren't crystle, but ice. He disabled the door and turned to continue tunneling. He jumped back when he came face to face with a pair of wide blue eyes. The sleeping woman had woken up.

"The leaves are eating the air," the woman told him. Her hands fluttered in front of his face as though she swatted some invisible pest. "Say hello to the angry dancers."

"Uh ... hi?" Jaime said. He inched back. Every horror movie he'd ever seen screamed that the innocent looking air heads were actually possessed psycho killers. It was only a matter of time before she made a suit out of his skin so they would "always be together."

In that case, Jaime should eliminate her before she got the chance.

Jaime tensed his muscles to keep his sonic weapon from pointing at the woman.

"Did you know the buttercup gives birth to light?" psycho lady said.

Jaime shrugged, unsure how to answer, taking another small step back.

She stepped forward, her face inches from his. "You keep moving away from me. Did you know that?" She frowned. "Or am I moving away from you?"

"We don't have time for this," the cold woman said. She grabbed Jaime's arm and pulled him to the wall.

Psycho lady faced the cold woman and frowned. Recognition slowly dawned in her face. "Frost," she bubbled. "My old teammate. You look pale. Try some rouge." There was a scuffle behind them. The gorilla squeezed through the hole. Psycho lady beamed at the creature. "Hello, good sir," she said and bobbed her head. "Hope this isn't too forward, but what size shoe do you wear?"

Jaime leaned over to mutter to Frost, "She's a few tacos short a fiesta, if you know what I mean."

The woman named Frost redirected him to the wall. "When Checkmate gets through, I'd like to be halfway to the surface."

"Almost there," Jaime reassured. "Just one more." He blasted the wall.

Cell number four, prisoner number four. This cell was also painted white with red symbols. A blast from Frost and the black science was eradicated. This prisoner was a woman as well, dressed as the others. Her head was sheared to the scalp. She stood from her position on the floor, stretching as though waking from a nap.

"Prison break," the bald woman said. "I like." Her silky voice was thick with an Indian accent. She turned to the door, eyes closed.

Jaime's skin prickled. Increase of irrational energy.

He glanced back at psycho lady. She was trying to get the monkey—

Ape.

—ape to engage in a conversation about fairies that lived in animal fur. Nothing emanated from her. So where was the irrational energy coming from? The bald woman began muttering something under her breath. Her eyes opened and Jaime took a startled step back. Her eyes glowed neon pink.

He didn't have time for shock. At that moment, a sharp hiss entered the air. Gas flooded the room from vents.

"It's raining!" psycho lady giggled.

Jaime covered his mouth to keep himself from breathing it in. Frost and the gorilla had similar reactions. "What is this?" Jaime yelped.

Contains: One part carbon, one part hydrogen, three part chlorine-

"This isn't chemistry class," Jaime said. "Just tell me if it's poisonous."

Filters render toxin ineffectual.

"I'm talking about them!" Jaime pointed to the women and the gorilla.

His concern for their lives was meaningless next to his own survival.

Jaime growled in annoyance.

Frost gave him a weird look. "Enchantress isn't the only cooky one in the bin." She rolled her eyes and said, "I got this." Hands held away from her sides, she took a deep breath. The temperature dropped. The gas condensed and drifted to the floor as snow. Psycho lady ooed and awed.

"Don't eat it!" Jaime ordered and covered her mouth.

The psycho named Enchantress frowned. "Meanie."

Meanwhile, the vents iced over, blocking the gas. All the while, the bald woman's chant became louder. A purplish glow enveloped the door. Mouth slack, Jaime watched the metal melt away and drip to the floor like water.

The five scrambled through the opening into the hall. Jaime disabled the checkpoint door to keep the soldiers trapped a few moments longer until they-

A clang rang through the cells behind them and the floor trembled with an impact.

"They got through," Frost warned. "Run!"


 

Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context :

centrarse - focus
cuál es tu problema - what is your problem
dios mio - oh my God
padre - father
para - stop
por el amor de Dios - for crying out loud / for the love of God
sé serio - seriously
traje - suit

Chapter Text

My padre never talks about the guerra. We have the stars and stripes flying on the side of our house. He keeps his medals framed on a wall at the garage. A scar runs all the way across his back like a white-purple road. Mami said he was grazed by shrapnel; that he was lucky. I guess he was. He got a purple heart. Other's got killed.

-Jaime Reyes


Jaime fired close enough to keep the soldiers back, but sooner or later, they would realise he wasn't aiming to hit.

And don't even think about recommending some lethal maneuver, Jaime brooded silently.

This limited options. Retreat was not recommended. If Jaime allowed the soldiers to exit the cell, he would be vulnerable to their attacks.

A glance revealed the other prisoners taking Frost's advice and making a run for it.

"You can't just leave me here!" Jaime yelled. A translucent green barrier suddenly appeared and blocked the prisoners' retreat. A glance to his left and he knew it was Enchantress holding them back. Sharp snaps of jade lightning jumped between her fingers.

"This feels like cookie dough in summer," Enchantress said. The gorilla beat its fists against the force field but the barrier didn't so much as tremor.

"Out of the way or else," the bald woman snarled. A rose aura radiated around her hands.

"I'm sorry," Enchantress said. And she looked it. Her lip trembled as though she were about to cry. "The rats can't escape the mouse trap."

The bald woman muttered a string of words and thrust her arms forward. Pink energy whirled at Enchantress. She blocked and counter attacked.

Jaime cringed at his proximity to magical energy. His brain was on fire! Hundreds of scenarios flashed through his synapses, fanning the flames higher and higher. Must not engage with irrational energy. Repairs were not completed from the last encounter. Priority—

"Watch out!" Frost warned.

While he was distracted, two soldiers rushed the door. Their blitz was foiled when Frost threw out a barrier of ice. Jaime drilled the ground in front of the soldiers with blasts to force them to retreat.

"Your aim kind of sucks," Frost said.

Indeed. If Jaime would allow the targeting system to lock on—

"I'm not trying to hit them," he shot back.

Behind him, the fight between the two magic users had halted. Enchantress pinned the bald Indian woman with her power. "You are Checkmate's prisoners," Enchantress said. "You are banned books and must be shelved. You're criminals."

"Don't lump me in with y'all," Jaime shouted over his shoulder. "I didn't do anything wrong!"

"Enchantress," Frost said and stepping forward. Enchantress wheeled towards her, green glow in hand. "You don't belong here anymore than we do-" Frost began.

"I'm not stable," Enchantress said.

"Admitting it is the first step," Jaime muttered and fired off another blast.

Enchantress went on, "Checkmate is going to help me control it. Control her."

"How's that been going?" Frost shot back. "Look what they did to you. You're a babbling idiot. They've kept you locked up, sedated. They were never going to help you."

"Liar!" Enchantress bellowed. Her eyes seemed to flash emerald and her blond hair flickered as though a shadow had passed over her.

"They made you a bunch of pretty little promises didn't they?" Frost went on. "That they wanted to help you. That you could trust them."

Jaime felt his own chest tighten in anger. Almost Peacemaker's words exactly. Did he ever mean to help Jaime?

"And what did they do?" Frost's voice lowered to a hiss. "Put you on their freek squad. Made you fight for them. And then? Run experiments. Throw you away. Break your mind. And conveniently forget all their sweet promises. Look at you!" Frost yelled. "You're a shell of the woman I knew, Enchantress. They destroyed you. I'm not the liar. Checkmate is!"

Enchantress seemed to swell like a cat. Her hair billowed out around her face, staining black. Her blue eyes glowed jade, and her features morphed, elongating, pailing. "Those ... those!" Words failed. She let out a roar of rage.

Irrational energy levels increasing.

"I'm not blind!" Jaime shot back.

In a flash, Enchantress vanished. Instantly, the cells were filled with the sound of gunfire and cries of alarm. Blasts of light and energy flared out to the hall.

The shimmering barrier was gone and Frost and the others were already sprinting down the hall towards escape. Jaime followed.

By the time he caught up, the gorilla ripped the doors off the elevator. It swung itself up the cables and climbed. The bald woman followed after muttering a spell and soared up the shaft. That left Jaime and Frost to climb after them by ladder.

"Stop staring at my ass," Frost called over a shoulder.

"My mother didn't raise me that way," Jaime protested. He'd only glanced up a few times. And that was to see how close to the top they were.

The next level of prison cells looked like a tank had gone through on a rampage. The gorilla or bald woman must have freed other prisoners. Some cells had been opened, scorch marks gouged the walls, pieces of ceiling had collapsed. And there were bodies. Jaime's legs were unstable as he pulled himself out of the shaft and rose to his feet.

Were they ...

Some were void of life. Others were unconscious due to injury. Others, sedated. Others-

"Stop scanning them." Jaime shivered. He felt the acid kick of bile press the back of his throat.

Frost paused. "You okay?"

Jaime tried to answer. To nod. Something. He could only stare at the face of a soldier. He had been shredded by something with claws. Big ones.

He felt a hand heft him by the armpit and drag him forward. "You really are new to this," Frost said. "Can't stop. It's a free for all down here. Some of these freaks don't have the sense to escape. They're killing anything that moves, Checkmate or no."

Jaime kept himself from glancing at something that definitely was not human. It had been sliced the same way as the soldier.

"This supposed to make me feel better?"

Frost slammed him to the wall covering his mouth. Her eyes were wide. In a moment Jaime heard what she had.

Low, heavy breathing.

The two ducked behind a pile of rubble and crouched there. The lights trembled over head slashing shadows with bright white. They tried holding their breaths to catch sound of the creature.

But Jaime didn't need his ears. The scanners allowed him to perceive the figure. It stooped low to the ground, only a blob due to the fact that the scanners didn't use visible light. And it was ... sniffing. Like a hunting dog. Jaime felt his muscles lock. His brain ratcheted through fighting maneuvers but all he could think of was that dead soldier.

The shuffling noise was closer. It would find them. Then he was dead.

A smell surrounded him like he had just jumped into a dumpster. Molding fish blended with rank beef. And something sweet. A shadow fell across their hiding place.

An explosion. Followed by a ear splitting roar. Frost was dragging him to his feet. He followed her lead, stumbling down the hall. He glanced behind him. Three checkmate agents were decked out with cannons on both arms. They drilled a beast the size of an elephant with bullets and plasma slugs. The creature howled, swiping out blindly with glinting claws.

The fight to get to the next elevator was a churning nightmare. Frost iced halls as she passed, sapping warmth like a vacuum. She trapped the feet of anyone who approached them in blocks of ice. Jaime followed her over bodies, ducking cover, and shooting off robots, soldiers, or prisoners.

They reached the shaft, climbed to the next level, and the madness started all over again. Jaime was too tired, too overcome with shock to bother arguing with the suit. He fired where it told him, destroyed checkpoints that blocked their escape, and disabled threats as they leapt up.

"We're almost there," Frost said with a half laugh. "Elevator to the surface is just around the corner. Can't believe we actually made it-"

The next thing Jaime knew, something struck him in the back of the knee. His leg buckled and he fell. At the same time, Frost stumbled and cried out. Her jumpsuit darkened at her shoulder and her face twisted in pain.

"That was a warning shot," a voice behind them shouted. "On the ground or I put one in your head." Jaime turned. He knew that voice.

Peacemaker. He had three other soldiers stacked behind him. Peacemaker had traded his pistols for a rifle. All had their rifles locked against their shoulders, held at eye level to target them. Scanners locked onto the weapon. M16 rifle. 5.56 caliber. Semi-automatic. 60 rounds per minute at a velocity of 948 meters per second. At this range with depleted energy reserves: thirty percent chance of fatal injury.

Jaime held his knee. The round hadn't pierced the armor. But there was a gash along the exoskeleton. No blue glow appeared to repair the damage. They were feet from the corner. But were they faster than the soldier's trigger fingers?

Priority: escape. Use the woman as a decoy to distract the soldiers.

"Get down," Peacemaker's deep voice thundered. "Now."

"Just try putting me back in that cooler!" Frost shrieked back.

"What's the vibrational frequency for stone again?" Jaime panted.

The maneuver had a 28 percent chance of success. The rates would go up if he would abandon the woman.

Jaime glanced at Frost. She understood the look of readiness in his eyes. She wasn't the only one who saw.

"Don't do it, kid," Peacemaker called out.

Jaime's rage boiled over. Peacemaker said he'd help. He said he understood.

He was a liar. Just like Frost said.

Jaime couldn't trust anything Peacemaker said. Jaime fired and so did the soldiers. A frozen shield blossomed from the ground stopping the bullets while Jaime's blast struck the ceiling just above the soldiers. Chunks of rock collapsed on them. Jaime grabbed Frost by the waist and heaved her down the hall at a sprint. They reached the elevator. The doors were gone, evidence that some prisoners had already escaped. The two clamored into the elevator pit. Shots rang through the hall. Bullets pinged around them.

Frost cut off a strip of fabric with an ice blade. Jaime helped her tie it around the bullet wound, trying to hide his trembling hands.

"Maldita 28 percent," Jaime grumbled and moved to the ladder. "Come on."

Frost gritted her teeth. "They'll just shoot us down. As much as I'd love to fall to my death, I'll make my stand here." Twin ice daggers condensed in her hands.

Jaime shook his head. There had to be another way—

There were several options ...

—a way that didn't involve killing everyone in a half-mile radius. If only he could magic himself out like that bald lady. She was probably halfway to the border by now.

Be advised-

"Yes, I realize we are about to be captured," Jaime seathed.

"Least we can do is try and take a few of them with us," Frost mistakenly answered. Still, the exoskeleton went on. Didn't it ever shut up?

Corrupted data has allowed only minimal retrieval of aeronautic capabilities.

Jaime frowned. Aeronautic? Wait, didn't that mean- A twinge ripped through his back. Jaime awkwardly hugged Frost to him. "Hold on."

"What are you doing?"

The suit whined as a thruster charged. "I'm not really sure," Jaime said. In the next moment, they shot upwards through g-force to the surface. "Woooo!" he whooped. Fear melted to exhilaration. In seconds they reached the top. They blew past a barricade that soldiers were erecting around the elevator entrance. A few soldiers tried shooting him down, but Jaime avoided it with a cartwheel. And while it probably looked cool, it was not intentional. He couldn't tell which way was up or where he was going; which made avoiding walls— "Ow." —rather difficult- "Ay!" That one was a pillar.

Impact eminent.

Jaime careened into a floor/ceiling/wall and tumbled to a halt. The two found themselves in a stone hallway. Morning sunlight made its way through arching, gothic windows. Just outside was a large courtyard surrounded by walls. A pale coat of snow padded the grounds. Wait ... snow?

"This isn't Fort Bliss," Jaime breathed. "Where the heck are we?"

Frost punched him. "You could fly this whole time? Why didn't you do that sooner!"

"I didn't know I could fly," Jaime said. At her exasperated sigh he went on, "The gyroscopes aren't calibrated and it wasn't safe. Hello, crash landing?"

"Idiot."

Jaime and Frost ran opposite the sounds of fighting. It didn't take them long to find an exit. A small side door with only one guard. Before Jaime could fashion a non-fatal plan, Frost stepped out.

The guard let loose the usual, "Hands up."

"Looks like you caught me, hot stuff." Frost unzipped the front of her uniform in a slow, languid motion. "Long time since I've been with a man." Her voice slid out sultry and rich. "Come on, soldier boy. Show me a good time." She moved as smooth as silk, sliding nearer and nearer.

"I said hands-"

"Just a quick one," she whispered. "Our secret."

In seconds she was past the gun, pale lips against his. She let out a moan of ecstasy. Jaime gaped. What was she- He stared at the ceiling.

Holy thoughts, holy thoughts, holy thoughts.

A gurgle followed by a muffled shriek brought him crashing back to the present. The man's gun dropped to the floor. He tried to scream. Frost forced herself on him until the man grew still.

She took a shuddering breath. "Thaaat's the stuff." She stepped back, lids half closed and delirious with pleasure. The soldier's body crumpled to the ground. His skin was cracked like an eggshell. And purple. So purple it looked black. Jaime found himself rushing forward. He reached out, then jerked back. He didn't need scanners to tell him what he could see for himself.

Subject died from hypothermia and suffered from severe frostburn over all parts of the body.

"Dios mio," Jaime said panting. "You killed him. You ... Was that what you were going to do to me?"

"Have to keep moving."

He shoved her back. "How can you act like that was nothing! You deserve to be down there," he bellowed. "I should have never of helped you, te asesina! Enchantress was right." She swiped at him with a blade but he dodged. His arm came out, ready to fire. "I won't let you escape, killer!"

"We don't have time for this," Frost hissed. "You try and stop me, we both get caught."

Priority: escape.

Jaime's teeth ground together. This was wrong. Wrong. Wrong! But he couldn't worry about that now. All that mattered was home, right? Frost smirked as she slid towards the door. She turned and ran.


 

Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context :

ay - ow
Dios mio - oh my God
guerra - war
maldita - damn
mami - mom
padre - father
te asesina - you murderer

Chapter Text

Sometimes when you do something that is right, you still do something bad. When it comes to the fight between good and evil, you can't get caught up in the shades of gray. Even the purest good has traces of darkness. And the darkest of all evil has a shred of truth. So no matter what happens, stick to your guns and don't let the thinness of the line shake you.

-Peacemaker


Peacemaker marched into the briefing room. Panic wasn't the word for the scene he observed. There were cries of dismay, rushing Pawns, hectic conversations, but black and white Bishop guided the frenzy away from chaos. Tasks were prioritized and dealt with accordingly. Focus on high risk prisoners. Set up checkpoints to barricade escape attempts. Get the wounded to the infirmary. And so on.

On the screens, escaped prisoners were tracked, orders issued to black operatives to contain and recapture. Peacemaker paced the room, searching for a screen that showed the Texan boy. He found something else.

"You," Peacemaker pointed a finger at a Pawn. The girl turned to him. "Aren't you that idiot who said the Texan couldn't escape?"

Nadia beamed up at him. "Hey, dude! Good to see you on your feet." She now wore the regulation white uniform though Peacemaker spotted the purple hat stuffed in her pocket.

"I should snap your neck right here."

"You're the one who ignored my alerts."

Peacemaker huffed out a breath. "Got anything on the Texan?"

Nadia swiveled back to her station. "Tracking him now."

Peacemaker's own attention went to the center screen. A satellite view followed a red box that indicated a moving target. "So he escaped?"

"Unless there's some other weirdo in black super suit shouting Mexican slang."

Peacemaker shook his head. This kid ... he was only making it worse for himself. "Where is he now?"

"Flying West."

"Flying? He steal a plane?"

"His suit apparently has built in thrusters."

Apparently. Just like he apparently could break invincible handcuffs and apparently escape an inescapable prison. "Get birds on his tail."

"Dude, he's too small. Too fast. Out danced those Ospreys like they were a couple of blind, one-legged hippos."

The crosshairs targeting the Texan flickered then went gray. The landscape stopped rolling and an error message appeared. Nadia manipulated the signal, navigated screens, and entered commands. The signal returned, then went dark again. "We lost him," she said.

"Get him back."

"Our radar's no use on a target that small and his energy signal's being cloaked. It's not like the mountains are helping either."

"Then fire up an Osprey. I'll track him myself."

"Don't count on it," a voice said.

Peacemaker turned to face Bordeaux. She looked as collected as ever—beside her frazzled hair, singed uniform, and fresh blood splatter across her boots. Her weapons were holstered but Peacemaker could smell the prick of sulfur from their hot barrels. Peacemaker knew he couldn't look much better. After being electrocuted, having a tumble with a Khund, and getting a ceiling dropped on him, he felt about as attractive as ground beef.

"Texan escaped on your watch," she said.

Peacemaker's shoulders drew back and he dwarfed Bordeaux in his shadow. "As I recall, you were standin' right behind me."

"It was your assignment. The responsibility's on you. You're out," she said.

"Out? What's that supposed to mean?" Heads briefly turned. But he didn't care if he was yelling. He was trying to do his job and some bureaucratic pile of shit was being shoved in his face.

Bishop Midnight beared down on them. "I ordered all Knights to spearhead containment squads. What are you two doing up here? Get your asses back to shooting things!"

"I merely came to inform Agent Peacemaker about his pending review."

"Review for what?" he shot back.

Midnight swore and her temper flared. She leaned forward, arms waving as she spoke, eyes ablaze with a will to thrash her protegee. "We're in the middle of an all out breach and you bring this to my house," Midnight spoke. "Don't you have the decency to wait until this is over? Not my people. You hear me, Sasha? We'll see about this so called review. Not any of my people!" She barreled through a swarm of Pawns, scattering them like bowling pins. She attacked the intercom, yelling over the line to get Peacemaker out of this mess.

Bordeaux ignored her. "This is the first prison break since Checkmate commandeered this facility."

Peacemaker shook his head. "And that's on me, is that what you're saying?"

"It doesn't have to be," Bordeaux said. "With help from certain people of influence, I'm sure nothing would come of these charges."

"Now I'm facing charges? For what, doing my job?"

"I'm not here to attack you," she calmed. "I have no control over this. I'm here to warn you what's coming."

"Really? Because you sure seem ta be enjoying this."

"From one soldier to another, I'd seriously rethink my loyalties. Change is coming for Checkmate. That's why all the officers have a brick up their rear. Everyone's scrambling to find enough backing, collect loyalty. When this change comes, you want to have the right people behind you."

"And what people are those?" he growled.

She didn't answer. And she didn't have to. Peacemaker gave Bordeaux a stare that would have had most men peeing their pants. She gave a nondescript blink.

A glance at Midnight across the room and he knew that whoever she was talking to, it didn't look good for him. Her face was bright red and a ferocious scowl slashed across her face. Midnight was powerless to help him.

Midnight, Queen, King, white side, blackside. It really was a scramble. Like digging through couch cushions looking for loose change. He'd walked right into the middle of it. And he'd been played a fool. Politics. He was better off in the field. Away from Castle. Away from all the backstabbing, shit eating powerplay. But here he was.

He knew who he was loyal to. Who he'd prefer to be loyal to. But this much was clear, unless Peacemaker switched and became black King's Knight, he was sunk.

Peacemaker faced Bordeaux. "You tell King-"

"Peacemaker," Midnight broke in. "Got you one last chance." A frown flickered across Bordeaux's face briefly. "Get that Texan back here in under 72 hours and you're golden. Don't say I never did nothing for you." Midnight whirled away just as quickly, focused on overseeing the lockdown.

Peacemaker didn't give Bordeaux a second glance. He grabbed the nearest Pawn by the throat and shot out a string of demands.

A jet. A four man team. And really big guns. And so help him if he got up to the helipad and there was one thing missing, you pale, malformed leech.

It didn't matter that the Texan was too small a target, that he was cloaking his energy signal, or that he couldn't be tracked. Peacemaker knew where the Texan was going. If he'd discovered anything in the interrogation, it was that the kid was inexperienced and scared.

72 hours. It wasn't much. But it was a lifeline. And he would hang on to it until the very last second.


Below, snowcapped mountains dove into a valley. Silver veins of rivers traced the craggy landscape. Life braved the valleys in sharp emerald, huddling beneath the snowline. The wind's icy tongue rasped against Jaime's body as he slid through the air.

"We ain't in Texas, Toto," he said.

Clearly this wasn't Texas. How Jaime could even confuse this landscape with-

"It's a movie," he began to explain, then realized he wasn't actually talking to anyone. "Nevermind. Where am I?"

According to Earth's global satellite positioning system: approximate latitude 46, longitude-

"English, hermano."

Request unecissary. Idioms of 40 million sectors resided in the database allowing Jaime to understand each.

"I know you're not speaking English. I mean what state are we in?"

Power: 12 percent. Main systems: functional. Life readings: normal. Operating system: under repair.

Was the suit trying to get smart with him? "What state are we located in? United States!" He rolled his eyes.

The premise of the question was faulty—

Jaime wondered how he could hit the stupid thing without hurting himself.

—since he was not located in the geographic area known as the United States of America.

He cocked his head. "What's that mean?"

He was located above the country of Italy along the mountain range called the Swiss Alps.

"Say what!" Jaime yelped. He took in the jagged landscape with wide eyes. The Franklin mountains in El Paso got a dusting of snow every now and then, so that wasn't new to him. But this ... this was the malditas Swiss Alps!

So cool.

And so far away from home.

"Fly me home, traje. You can do that, right? Like, across the Atlantic? Santo cielo! I have to fly across the Atlantic freaking ocean!"

This mode of action was irrational. Jaime's identity was compromised. He should not return to his residence.

"I'm going home."

In that case, elimination of those who would endanger his safety was advised. Recommendation: high intensity blast-

"We're not blowing up Italy," he said.

Incineration unnecessary. To wipe out the enemy's castle he need only cause an avalanche of sufficient magnitude.

"Forget these Checkmate freaks. I'm the one wearing the pants in this relationship. Literally. And I said, vete a casa!"

This mode of action would not be allowed. Priority: repair, recharge, and complete synchronization.

"I'm not doing anything until I see my family."

Query: Once this family was viewed, then Jaime would comply with directive?

"Sure. We'll talk all about that. After I get home."

Priority: home. Plotting course.

Sun at his back, Jaime split through the sky. Land gave way to ocean, and eventually, sun turned to dawn, and dawn turned to night. That was his life now; everything out of place. One big confusing mess.

Jaime watched the faceless water scroll beneath him. He flew low to avoid radar, so low the salty savor of el mar filled his body. Occasionally, he caught flashes of his reflection on the water's surface. He stared down at the ebony figure. Glowing eyes stared back up.

"Why is this happening to me?" he asked the figure. But his voice was eaten up by the wind along with any answer it had to offer.


 

Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context :

el mar - the sea
hermano - dude
malditas - freaking
santo cielo - holy crap / good heavens
traje - suit
vete a casa - go home

Chapter Text

There are some things — people, ideals, institutions — you have to support even though there are pieces that don't make sense. You support them because you believe in them; what they are; what they represent. I believe what the United States represents. As a soldier, I trusted that what I was doing was right. I served my country with pride. And I wouldn't change that. But there were some places I should have never stepped foot.

- Alberto Reyes


BEFORE...

Alberto resisted the urge to slam the door. Luis was asleep across the back seat, a shallow snore sounding from his gaping mouth. Even over the smell of grease and gas the stench of cheap liquor wafted off Luis's clothes.

Alberto shook his head. Late and drunk. He took a deep breath and returned to the black 1971 GTO. She was a beauty. 455 high output engine with 8.4 compression and 335 horses under that hood. Alberto ran his hand along the front fender and leaned over the engine.

Poor baby didn't want to start up. And she wasn't saying why. "Dime el problema, querida," he coaxed the car. After a few brief tests, he had a pretty good idea of what was wrong. He checked the oil and hissed out a breath. Shame.

He was rooting around a cabinet for his compression tester when the phone rang.

"Reyes Auto," Alberto answered. At hearing the response in Spanish, Alberto switched to the language as well. "Hello, José."

"I'm calling about my bike. Again," José said clipped.

Alberto glanced over at the 1999 Harley Night Train. The headers were on the seat, right where he had left them for Luis. "Of course. She'll be ready by tomorrow."

"You said that three days ago."

Alberto rubbed at his eyes and tried to do damage control. "I understand you're upset-"

"Upset? Try fed up. I'll be there in ten minutes to get my bike."

"She won't be ready in ten minutes. I told you I'll have her ready by tomorrow-"

"And I'm telling you I'm not waiting until tomorrow. I'll take her somewhere else."

"José, please. Give me until tomorrow. I'll give you a twenty percent discount for your trouble."

"No. I want my bike."

"Thirty percent. I'll even throw in an oil change on the house." Alberto gripped the phone as he listened to José huff over the line. José was a long time customer and always referenced the shop to his friends. Losing him was losing business, something Alberto couldn't risk. Especially right now.

"I want her by noon," José said.

"She'll be ready by then," Alberto promised. He hung up, breathing out a ragged breath.

"Everything okay?" a voice asked.

Alberto turned to see Jaime. He'd just come from school but was already dressed in his mechanic's jumpsuit ready to work. Alberto was pleased to see that niño Paco wasn't with him.

"Tranquila," Alberto said. "You got another thing coming if you think you're working," he said switching back to English. Jaime moved to the Harley, unwrapping the header pipes from the plastic. "Jaime," Alberto warned. "Homework done?"

"Mostly," his hijo said not looking up.

"Books," he said, finger thrusting to the exit.

"I can get José off your back. I helped you with this before. Let me instal it." With a glance at the snoring man in the back of the GTO he added, "Not like Luis is going to."

"Tell you what, you diagnose the problem with this baby," he patted the roof of the GTO, "you can work on the Harley."

A smile pulled at his hijo's mouth. "Really?" Alberto gestured to the Pontiac. Jaime opened the driver door. He swung into the car and turned the key. The engine sputtered but refused to turn over, skipping like a child with a cough. He let it go a few seconds, then stepped back out. Jaime rolled his eyes, thinking the solution obvious. "Fácil. Ignition problem."

"Spark plugs are sparking."

"Then ... the fuel injectors."

"How about you take a look instead of guessing."

Jaime circled to the front of the car, checked the spark plugs to make sure they were secure. Alberto kept his arms crossed while Jaime probed here, peered there. His hijo grabbed a spare cloth and pulled out the dipstick to check the oil. Alberto smiled. The oil came out thick and discolored.

Jaime made a face. "Why's it gray?"

"You tell me."

Jaime's face contorted. He tested the oil with his finger, then sniffed it. "Smells like ... coolant?" he said confused. "The engine's overheating somehow?"

"Close. Why is coolant mixing with the oil?"

"Because ..." Jaime shrugged. "I don't know. The guy put coolant in on accident?"

Alberto slapped him on the shoulder. "Back to those books."

Jaime let out a groan. "Come on, papi."

"Livros."

Jaime reinserted the dipstick and wiped his hands on his front. "At least tell me what's wrong."

"Blown gasket," Alberto answered as he disconnected the spark plugs. "Engine can't keep the oil and coolant separated so the coolant ends up in the oil pan."

"How was I supposed to know that?"

"Now you do." Alberto threaded the compression tester. "Now get to that homework."

"I can do it after. Let me help you with this."

"Out of the question. Luis, levántate!" Alberto blared the horn. The man in the back seat snorted and jerked.

"But papi-"

"There is no after this or after that, Jaime. Study ahora."

"You don't think I can do this but I can. You never let me-"

"What did I say?" He stared his hijo down. For a moment he saw Jaime's indignation flare up.

Jaime whipped away, unzipping his jumpsuit with a jerk. "Whatever." The phrase was almost snarled. The word was trying to cut Alberto, make him bleed.

"Watch your tone. Hey!" Alberto grabbed Jaime's arm and forced him to turn. Jaime's jaw was set. Alberto tried to keep his voice level and in control. Even so the waiver of anger was present. "You don't speak to me that way. Entiendes? You don't speak to anyone like that." His grip tightened. "Entiendes?"

"Yeah," was the clipped answer.

Oh, was he asking for it. "Yes, sir," Alberto corrected.

Jaime's jaw worked. For a moment Alberto feared his hijo would challenge him again. What should he do then, hit him? Back down? Scream? Laugh it off? Ground him? Alberto tried to slow his thrashing heart.

At last, Jaime's chin lowered. The response came out low. "Yes, sir."

Alberto released him and before he could say anything else, Jaime stomped to the back. Alberto kicked Luis in the leg. "Up front. Crank her up."

Alberto made note of each cylinder's PSI, mind smoldering as he worked. Teenagers. Moody wasn't the word. Erratic, maybe. Manic.

He's just trying to find his place , Alberto tried to reason with himself. But he was pretty sure  he  never talked to his padre like that. Alberto frowned. Was it wrong of him to keep Jaime from the shop? Every push towards his education, felt like a push away from Alberto. There seemed to be such a chasm between them now.

Half of him wanted to give Jaime the chance to try a hand at the Harley. It's not that Alberto didn't think Jaime had the skill. He had skill. But he also had a better chance in life if he studied. Why should Jaime be fixing cars when he could design them? No niño of his would be plastered with the stereotype of a lazy, ignorant Mexican. For every person who didn't judge, there were five others hardened by prejudice, certain that their looks ment no English, no brains, and no worth.

Two blown gaskets. Alberto closed the hood, struggling to cheer his sinking heart. Jaime deserved better. Alberto would make sure he got better. So let his hijo be mad. Jaime didn't understand how cruel the world could be, but he would. Alberto would make sure Jaime was ready. And his hijo would thank him. Algún día.


 

loose Spanish translation  as taken in context:

ahora - now
algún día - someday
Buenas tardes - good afternoon
dime el problema, querida - tell me the problem, baby
entiendes - understand
fácil - easy
hijo - son
levántate - get up
livros - books
niño - boy / child
padre - father
papi - dad
tranquila - fine

Chapter Text

I'm living one side of a statistic thanks to my father. Odds are good that I'll end up at the other side if I ever have a child of my own. I never want kids. I never want to hurt someone like I was hurt. Like I am hurt.

-Brenda Del Vecchio


BEFORE ...

It was called bushing. Jaime watched the dusty earth rock back and forth above his head. He curled his chin to his chest to right himself. He tried kicking, pulling free. Grips tightened around his ankles and wrists. His nose filled with dust kicked up by their sneakers. He smelled sweat at every inhale. Jaime's swing gained speed. This was it. He was about to be bushed.

Ten minutes prior, Jaime sat in the school library. He was supposed to be working on a research paper about Hamlet and his ghost dad. But he got sidetracked with a different topic.

Hunched over a computer, he read:

In ancient Egypt, dung beetles were representations of resurrection. After rolling a ball of dung, female beetles would lay their brood within and conceal the ball in the earth. Upon hatching, the pupa would consume the dung and spawn from the ground-

Gross! Skip that.

The hieroglyph for the dung beetle is most commonly translated as meaning "to come into being," "to transform," "to become," "to-

Did Brenda seriously find this interesting?

Just as the scarab rolled the dung ball, it rolled the sun across the sky. The scarab would seemingly bury the sun in the earth, mirroring the burial of the dung ball. The sun god Ra was renewed and reborn within the sun, emerging the next day from the earth. This cycle symbolized rising from death and ultimately eternal life.

Okay, that part was sort of cool.

Jaime turned away from the web search and back to his notebook. All over the margins of the pages were doodles of necklaces. He still hadn't drawn one he both liked and could actually make. Behind him, students clustered at tables and gossiped as loudly as they dared while Mr. Partridge the librarian prowled around shelving books.

Brenda's party was less than two weeks away. So far Jaime had learned a lot about Egyptian gods and scarab beetles, but he still had no idea what to make with the bug carving. He wanted that Egyptian feel without it looking corny. With a sigh he scrolled down the webpage and kept reading.

Themes of transformation, resurrection, and rebirth are depicted by a scarab beetle with bird wings in place of those of an insect. This furthers the symbolism of heavenly ascension.

Bird wings.

Jaime twiddled the pen between his fingers. He reached into his bookbag. The interior was warm even in the air conditioning. Weird. He retrieved the bug carving he found at the lab wreckage a few days ago. Because it had been at the bottom of his hot bag, the bug carving was warm to the touch. Due to it's weight, Jaime thought it would be better as a necklace. But the research had given him another idea. He placed it against the back of his wrist. It just might work.

In broad strokes, he sketched out a long rectangle strip, tapering the edges. Brushed aluminum would be perfect. The band had to be strong enough to last, easy enough to bend. He'd overlay that piece with a thinner layer, this one cut and engraved to look like feathers to give it detail.

Jaime finished his drawing by adding the bug carving as the centerpiece. This part he had already figured out. He would fasten the carving with soldered prongs, bending them over the stone. He flipped to a blank page and hatched out an image of the finished product.

"Perfect," he breathed.

A silver bracelet mounted by a sapphire scarab, its intricate feathered wings encircling her wrist. Brenda would love it. He would stay after school in the metal shop to work on it or his padre's garage.

Satisfied, Jaime returned to his Hamlet paper. He thought the dead king was way molesto coming all the way back from the grave just to tell Hamlet to go and kill some other guy. What the ghost should have said was for Hamlet to get with his girl Ophelia. But then it wouldn't have been a very interesting play because half the cast would still be alive. On the other hand, Jaime wouldn't have to write a stupid essay about it. He didn't get far into his paper when his cellphone buzzed.

A text from Brenda. It said:

Need u

Jaime's heart spasmed with elation then terror. As much as he'd like to imagine that Brenda had realized what a burning hunk of manly passion he was, he'd received similar texts before.

He was just about to text her back asking what happened when Mr. Partridge popped over Jaime's shoulder. The librarian had sensed the forbidden technology.

"Outside," Mr. Partridge somehow simultaneously yelled and whispered.

Jaime crammed his stuff into his bag and rushed to the exit. He tried calling Brenda's cell. No answer. Must be bad. He pushed his way through the double doors into the warm afternoon sun. He knew where she would be.

"Look who we have here," a voice said. That voice that oozed down Jaime's spine like hot grease. His body immediately stiffened, his legs tensed to bolt. He made it three steps when a meaty hand grabbed Jaime's bag strap and jerked it away.

Jaime spun around to face AJ and his sidekicks, Leo and Javier.

Jaime's heart collided against each of his ribs like a malat. His bag dangled just within reach. He knew if he tried to grab it AJ would snatch it away again. He didn't have time for a game of keep away. Brenda was waiting for him. She needed him.

"Give me my bag," jaime said. His eyes were drawn to AJ's thick arms. "Uh ... please?"

AJ smirked. "We got unfinished business." Jaime inched back. He was shoved from behind. Javier had circled around to box him in.

Oh good. Now he was trapped.

"Not now, AJ," Jaime said.

"You too good to spend time with your pals?" AJ said. Another shove. The circle tightened. "That's just rude right there."

"Just give me back-" Jaime swiped at his bag, it was passed, he was shoved. Jaime caught his balance before he fell. He knew he was dead meat. Three guys, the smallest of whom was twice his size. In situations like this, Jaime had two rules: one throw the first punch and two ... okay, maybe just one rule.

"Give me back my stuff," Jaime said one last time.

AJ's eyes narrowed while his smile widened. Jaime locked his fist, shoulder tensed to swing. But then AJ shrugged. "Whatever. Was just messing with ya." He held out the backpack.

Jaime blinked. That was it? He reached for his bag slowly, expecting it to be jerked away. His fingers closed around the strap.

AJ nailed him in the gut. Jaime crumpled to his face. His body spasmed. He tried to breathe and almost threw up. The world darkened and he cowered. Above him they laughed.

"He's crying," one said. "Look at him crying."

Javier grabbed his ankles, Leo his wrists. The two flipped him and stretched him out. Jaime tried curling back into a ball. They were too strong. The hot earth disappeared from underneath him. They were carrying him somewhere.

"He's shaking like a baby," another one said.

Jaime's breath returned, shallow and irregular. He felt himself swinging and immediately knew what they were doing.

Only freshman got bushed. Jaime was a junior and he'd been bushed no less than three times that year. Lucky him. Any guesses as to who bushed him each of those three times?

Jaime opened his eyes. Sure enough, he'd been taken behind the school near the bus lane. To his left, there were a row of thick, prickly shrubs nearly as tall as AJ and his buddies. To Jaime's right, AJ. Every time they swung him towards the right, AJ slapped him in the face.

They started the chant.

"One," swung out over the bush, then back, slap. "Two," over, then back, slap. "Three!" With one mighty heave he was released. Jaime arced through the air. He quickly covered his face with his arms and crashed into the jagged branches. He splintered the top of the bush and plunged into the mess of limbs. His jeans protected his legs for the most part, but his thin shirt was breached by needles. He bit his cheeks, refusing to make a noise. Beyond the branches, he could hear laughter and high fiving as the seniors moved off.

Jaime gingerly pried his arms away from his face and extracted his clothes from the thorns. He crawled free, clamoring to his feet. He froze. The three boys leaned against the school. Waiting for him.

"Who gave you permission to come out?" AJ sneered.

And again, the ground rocked below. Again, hit in the face. Again, crashing into the unmerciful briars.

Jaime waited a long time, laying suspended by tiny claws. The sun sliced through the branches and the pale sky glared down on his weakness and on his shame. He emerged slowly, peering this way and that for any sign of the three. Once he confirmed he was safe, Jaime crawled out. He picked leaves out of his hair and briars out of his clothes.

Bushed twice in one day. Jaime found his bag, grabbed it, and slunk off. What a loser.


Brenda sat in what passed for a park. There was a swing set and, theoretically, a soccer field. This early in the year, the tufts of grass were actually green in place of the bristly tan. A rusted, netless goal sagged at either end of the plot. A few kids ran in the lot, sneakers slapping against the deflated ball.

Jaime tried calling Brenda's phone. She let it go to voicemail. She didn't want him to hear her crying. He'd only worry. She stared dead eyed at the soccer field, not daring to blink, not daring to focus. She was perched on a picnic table, feet on the bench, hands limp between her knees, staring.

She wasn't sure how much time passed when the table shifted and creaked. Someone sat on the table top behind her.

"Hey," Jaime said.

Brenda blinked. Her eyes were dry but she wasn't sure if her they were still red so didn't turn. She forced her shoulders to untighten, her throat to unclench, her stomach to contract. "Hey," she whispered back, still not fully trusting her vocal chords.

Jaime said nothing more. This is why she called him and not Paco. Right now, Paco would be trying to crack a joke, asking her if she remembered that one time he threw up in the iMax, telling her some story he heard from this guy's girlfriend's sister. When everything was flying around in her head like this, she didn't need more noise.

Brenda leaned on her hands so that one of her shoulders brushed up against his back. Under the soft cotton of his shirt, she could feel the expansion of his ribs as he breathed. Blessed calm. That's what Jaime was. He could change the way a room felt just by being there, radiating peace like a sun.

She knew she should say something. But she didn't want to talk about it. "There's a book about me," she said still facing the field. She didn't know why she was talking about this. "Says I'm going to become him. Or marry someone just like him." She tried to laugh. It sounded hollow. "Says I'm a victim and I'll stay the victim or become the victimizer. Screw that, right?"

His voice vibrated through his shirt. "You look upset. What's wrong?"

Brenda felt a press of anger burning in the back of her throat. "I'm not upset. I don't look like anything. I just came here to think. I'm thinking, okay?"

"Okay. What are you thinking about?"

"I just told you, about this book."

"That's not what you're upset about."

Brenda leapt off the table and spun to face him. "I told you I'm not upset," she hissed. He cocked an eyebrow as though to point out that her yelling at him instantly disproved that claim. "It pisses me off when people think they know what I'm feeling. You're wrong. Like you know anything about how I feel."

How could he when even she wasn't sure? She was mad but felt like she was going to cry but laughter whirled around too. What she did know was this: calm gone. If she saw one spec of pity in his eyes, she would punch him.

Jaime was staring at her long shirt sleeves. Trying to see under them. Trying to guess what they hid. Anger boiled through her veins. He wanted to help her. Everyone was always trying to help her.

"What?" she yelled.

Jaime's gaze turned to the table.

"What're you staring at?" Her fists were shaking. She wanted him to stand up and push her. Push her so she could push him back. Hit her so she could beat him to a pulp. Her breath came shaky. Is this what that book was talking about; that she would lash out and hurt everyone around her even those she cared about? She grit her teeth. Screw that book! Screw Jaime and his stupid calm.

She was ready for him to say something. One word out of his stupid mouth and she'd ram it down his throat. With her fists!

Jaime said nothing.

Why didn't he fight her!

"Sorry," he said at last.

Her desire to hit him spiked and the next second leaked from her tensed muscles. What was he even apologizing for? For himself? For her? For her dad? She didn't even know why she wanted to hit Jaime. If it was him she even wanted to hit.

Jaime looked up at her. "If you want to talk we can. Or not. We can just sit here." He shrugged. "Whatever you need."

Need? She fumbled for that anger, strained to keep it clenched in her fists so she wouldn't just shatter; crumble into a million pieces like sand. She needed -

She huffed out a breath, forcing the pain away.

That book said she'd do this. Avoid the problem. Cover it up.

No, she needed to keep it together. So what the hell, under the rug it went. Jaime's expression didn't change. Constant calm. The eye to her hurricane.

She felt embarrassed for blowing up. Fumbled to find a way to justify it. Excuse it. She unclenched her fists. She was feeling about a million things and didn't know how to say any of them.

Instead, Brenda finally looked at Jaime properly. There were rips in his shirt and dried blood crosshatched across his arms. "You got bushed, didn't you?" He looked away, shoulders hunching that way they did when he was uncomfortable. Her remaining anger evaporated. The book warned her about this too. She was attracted to broken things; hurt things. She wanted to rescue them. Save them because she was helpless to save herself. Brenda sighed and climbed the bench to sit next to him.

No sweeping under the rug for her today. Not ever. She wasn't going to let some book label her. She'd do the opposite of what it said she'd do. She'd face the problem. She'd talk it out. She wouldn't become what the book said she would.

Brenda took a breath and began. "I got home," she said. "Dad was his usual charming self. He found the invitations to my party. He was pissed. Said I was doing stuff behind his back." Jaime faced her. His dark brown eyes creased. His fingers dug into his knees. "He didn't do anything-" she started to assure then stopped. The book said this too. That she would defend him. She would never defend what he did. Brenda licked her lips, then monotone informed, "We argued. He ripped the invitations up. He told me I wasn't having a party. That he wouldn't let me. I said I was. He pushed me into the wall. I left."

She could see a thousand questions swirling in his eyes. He didn't assault her with any of them. He never did. He knew she didn't need a judge. She had too many of those.

Jaime pivoted his whole body, making the worn table squeak. He looked straight into her eyes. "You're nothing like him," he said.

She blinked, and in that blink lightning ricochet against her heart. In that blink, she wanted to break down and cry, let out all her fear, and hate; wash the past away and clear her future. Cry with relief that someone believed in her. Cry in terror because they might be wrong. But when that blink was over, she laughed and shoved him. And she ignored the fact that the book said this too; that she was in denial about her feelings. Screw that book. She was tossing it out once she got home.

"God, I hope I'm not like him," she said with a smile and rolled her eyes. "The role of ojete is already filled in our trio."

"You better be talking about Paco," Jaime said.

Brenda shrugged. "Hard to tell, isn't it?" He bumped her with his shoulder and they both smiled. She glanced over at him. Brenda reached her hand up and ran her fingers through his hair. He looked at her sideways, body tensing.

She pulled the leaf from his tangled locks and tossed it to the ground. His dark chocolate eyes shot to the ground and he swallowed several times making his adam's apple pulse along his throat. Brenda felt a flush creep into her face. He didn't think that she had been about to ... The heat between their bodies seemed to intensify.

No. No, Brenda. This was Jaime. They were friends.

She pulled her sleeves over her thumbs. "I'll talk to my tía," she said trying to brush the awkward moment aside.

"About what?" Jaime asked.

"My dad. Maybe she can work something out with him.

"Right." Then his crooked smile lit up his face. "He'll come around, Brenda. So don't worry about your party. And don't let him ruin it for you. It's your day. Not his. Your life." He jumped to his feet and brushed himself off. "I told Paco I'd meet up with him at El Diablos. You want to come? You hungry? I'll get you some hot-as-hell cajun tacos. Extra brimstone. Just the way you like them. Guaranteed to peel the flesh from your mouth."

He was talking too fast. Too animated. And in a pseudo-Italian mobster accent.

"Chill, spaz," she snorted. "I'll come." She hopped down.

Jaime reached for his backpack, then paused. His smile waned. He ripped open the zipper and dug inside. "No no no," he muttered.

"What's wrong?"

"AJ better not have ..." Realization flashed across his face. "The library. I left it by the computers!"

"What?"

"I have to go. Meet you there."

"I'll come with you," she said. The school wasn't that far.

"No!"

Brenda shot him a look. "Uh, since when do you tell me where I can and can not go?"

Jaime was double checking his bag as he walked backwards. "It'll be faster if-" He broke off, hand at his pocket. He reached inside and his face surrendered to relief. "Got it." He huffed out a nervous laugh.

"Why the freak-out?" she asked.

He looked away and scratched his nose. "Thought I left my phone."

All that over a phone? She rolled her eyes. "Teatrero."

Jaime shook his head, frowning. "Weird," he said. "I know I didn't grab it."

"Let's go," she urged. "That talk of tacos got my mouth watering." The events with her father had shrunken almost to insignificance. Jaime helped ground her, now it was time for Paco to make her laugh, and for Brenda to stuff her face.

Jaime turned his back to her, shielding his bag from her as he zipped it up, then faced her, the item from his pocket safely within. She cocked an eyebrow at his odd behavior. Like hell it was his cell phone. He was hiding something. But she let it slide. They had cajun tacos to get to. Priorities.

As they walked, the two of them ranted about the essay due next week. Jaime was telling her how the play should have ended, hands waving about as he gestured to an imaginary stage. Brenda took a moment to scan him. Heat made his shirt cling to his slim body. His clothes were dusty and ripped. She winced at the smear of dried blood across an arm. She didn't need to ask who had bushed him.

This time, Brenda didn't bat down the surge of sympathy. Maybe that book didn't have to be all wrong. Maybe she could rescue Jaime, just a little. She smiled as she got an idea. She knew how to help him. All it would take were three invitations.


 

loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

molesto - uncool, annoying
ojete - asshole
padre - father
teatrero - drama queen
tía - aunt

Chapter Text

"Jaime," I say, "what is your job?" It's a question I've asked since he was ten. My hijo lets out an annoyed huff. "You know she can't watch those scary movies," I say.

"It's her own fault!" he defends. "She kept bugging me and wouldn't leave and-"

I raise an eyebrow.

"I know," he says and his eyes roll to the ceiling. "It's my fault. I'm supposed to protect her." My eyes flick expectantly to the kitchen where Milagro sniffs softly. He begins to protest. My other eyebrow raises. Another sigh from him. My hijo shuffles to obey. I don't hear what is said. But he smiles and teases her gently. My hija wraps her arms around his neck. He scoops her up in his arms. A soft smile brushes my mouth.

These are my hijos. They fight and are selfish. And then they surprise me with their capacity to forgive, and amaze me with their tender and puro amor.

-Bianca Reyes


PRESENT:

After his flight across the Atlantic, Jaime collapsed somewhere along the the outer banks of North Carolina exhausted. Surprisingly enough torture, fighting for his life, and flying at the speed of sound took a lot out of him.

He woke up hours later and, ignoring his cramping hunger, took to the skies again. The south was green and luscious. He couldn't believe how many trees there were. They piled across mountains and marched beyond into the flattening Midwest.

Then he entered the plains. Farmland. His spirits rose as he crossed over the Mississippi. He longed to pause over the ocean like vastness of the river, but a more urgent matter drew him on. He avoided Dallas, heading along the border of Oklahoma and then shooting down towards the far corner of Texas. At last, that pale earth he knew. Just there, the Franklin mountains. Cupped below them: home.

Jaime landed in the outskirts of El Paso. It was almost five. He planned to walk the rest of the way in. He didn't particularly like the idea of having his neighbor Mrs. Johanson glance up from her flowerbeds to see him landing in the back yard. But the suit refused to come off, clinging to the notion that it was likely Checkmate waited at his home.

Paranoid trasto.

He considered arguing with it-

Jaime's objections altered nothing.

-but that could take forever. He thought of waiting for nightfall. But he couldn't. Had to get home. Had to see his familia. Jaime followed the suit's coordinates to his street. At a distance that ensured he was nothing but a speck in the sky, he hovered unsure over his house.

Sun heating his body, Jaime evaluated the street. Scratch that. The suit evaluated, he stared. Their green minivan wasn't out front. In its place was a beat up two door car. His vision rippled and the scanners took over.

"Will you warn me before you do that," he told the suit. "You're gonna make me puke."

Jaime stared into the invisible light spectrum and peered into his home. There were only two people inside. One adult sized blob was in the living room seated on the couch. The other he knew was his hermana Milagro. She was in his room, playing a video game based on the heat from the TV. She knew she wasn't supposed to be in there without his permission. But he found he didn't really care about that. He never thought he could hurt so much seeing the little moco. All he wanted to do was run in and sweep her up in un abrazo.

"Coast is clear," Jaime told the suit. "Bajemos."

Negative.

"Look, we separated before. Do I have to pass out again?"

Segregation of combat operating systems from Jaime: not permitted.

"Why not?"

Segregation: direct opposition to directive.

"We need to work together, jefe. You know, like a team."

Affirmative. Jaime: surrender all functions.

"That's not what a team is."

Team: to join together.

"It's more than that. A team's ... it's ... Okay, it's like Han and Chewbacca."

Identify Han and Chewbacca.

"Well, obviously I'm Han," he said.

Adding information to database-

"What? No! I'm not actually Han Solo. It's a metaphor, you stupid traje!"

Metaphors serve no purpose to directive.

"There's more to life than your directive."

For once the suit was silent.

"I need to go home."

Negative. Unidentified personage within edifice. Obtain more data. Premises: unsecure.

"It's probably a babysitter." He tried to descend. The thrusters refused to obey. "Come on, traje. It's over. I'm home. Let me down and get off." But the suit was in the process of scanning the neighboring homes. His brain buzzed as information crowded in from all the different readings.

Emanation of radio waves detected from structure. Intercepting.

He winced as static screeched through his head and clamped his hands over his ears. A woman's voice emerged from the din, Spanish flowing from her lips.

"La cirugía se realizó sin problemas, gracias a Dios."

"Mami!" Jaime gasped. The sound of her voice — that voice like a warm quilt being drawn around him — made the ropes of tension uncoil from his limbs. That comfort was immediately offset with panic. Cirugía? What surgery? What happened?

The suit as always ran scans in the background, updating him on the environment-

88 degrees Fahrenheit, UV index: high. Humidity: 3 percent.

-and posting updates on things he'd just rather not know.

Secretion of cortisol: increasing. Metabolic levels: operating at approximately 70 kilocalories per hour. Glucose levels: below normal.

The constant bubble of information mixed with his panic kept him from information about his padre's condition.

"Cállate!" Jaime snarled and strained his hearing.

"Berto said Jaime was with him when the shooting happened," his madre was saying in Spanish.

"Alberto's awake?" This voice he recognized as one of his primas. They must be talking on the phone. Emanation of radio waves. He rolled his eyes. This thing needed to come with a dictionary.

"Not yet," his madre sighed. "He was lucid a few moments before they took him back to surgery. He's in ICU right now. I'll see him in a bit."

Jaime's head suddenly spun. ICU. That's where people went when they could die. His padre was in intensive care. It was serious. It was bad. The sound of his name drew him back to the conversation.

"Anything? Any news? Did he call the house?"

The prima hesitated to answer.

"Dios mio," his madre uttered. "Jaime."

"He's fine, Bia," the prima said. "I'm sure of it."

His madre spoke in a low tone she reserved for rude telemarketers, people who cut her off in traffic, and when he and Milagro fought. He called it her "calm before the storm" voice. "When that boy gets back," Jaime cringed. "I'm going to skin him with a butterknife and tack his hide to the fridge."

Jaime had no reason to fear harm. Subject "mother" lacked the tools to effectively disable defencive capabilities.

Jaime was not reassured.

His madre's voice cut off. She sucked in a quick, trembling breath. She was about to cry. Jaime's innards writhed. She'd been through so much in the last day. And worse, been through it alone. She was doubtless worn ragged from fretting at the hospital and accompanying papi through surgery and the ICU. On top of that, Milagro was probably enloquecido with worry. No one to reassure her. Protect her.

He should be there.

"Bia," the prima soothed, "don't worry. Everything will work out. I have things taken care of here with Milagro. You just take care of yourself. Alberto needs you right now."

His madre regained composure. "You're an angel. I don't know how I could get through this without family." The statement twisted a knife in his gut.

"It's what we're here for," the prima said.

The conversation continued but Jaime focused his attention on the dark shell over his skin.

"Listen up, traje," he growled. "I'm going inside. Get off."

Negative.

"That is my family!" he yelled.

Family serves no purpose to direc-

His body tensed and rage churned through his blood as thick as molten steel. "Don't even go there."

The prima's voice cut through the moment. "Bianca, get to a TV. It's Jaime. He's on the news!"

"What?" his madre yelped.

"What did she say?" Jaime joined.

Warning!

"What now!" he cried.

Jaime requested a warning when visuals would be manipulated. Intercepting satellite transmission.

He could swear the suit was getting an attitude with him. Jaime braced for the pinching shift. His eyes twinged and in front of him appeared a large image of a reporter behind a desk. Jaime reached out to touch it but felt nothing, hand passing through the mirage. The reporter was replaced with the sight of his padre's shop quarantined behind police tape. He gasped. His ears pinged and a voice over accompanied the footage.

"-the shootout between two rival gangs carried into an hour long foot chase with police. Local teenager Jaime Reyes is suspect along with Paco Testas—" pictures of Jaime and Paco appeared on the screen "—a known affiliate of the gang known as The Posse. The whereabouts of Reyes are unknown-"

"What gang? What shootout?" Jaime trailed off. Images of the charred husk of of the police car in the street flashed by followed by the scorched cemetery, closeups featuring the damaged headstones, plasma marks, and crater from the rocket. His mouth hung slack. The world seemed to be dropping away from him. His brain struggled to process the report.

There was no mention of the fact that Jaime had been in a high tech suit, or the intervention of the army. But then, it hadn't been the army. It was some top secret organization that had intervened. From Italy! Did Italy even have secret agencies?

Checkmate covered up the incident. Manipulated the press. Silenced the facts. They even dragged Paco into it! Jaime's fists clenched. "Eso es una mentira," he screamed at the reporter. "That's total bull!"

The newscast droned on. "Five days since this shocking event, citizens still recover from repercussions of this gang violence. We take you live to Evergreen Cemetery where we talk with angry residents-"

Did the reporter say five days ago? The echo of these words tumbled through his skull. Five days since the incident. But ... how? It was only yesterday. He felt a slow sinking in his stomach.

"Traje," Jaime whispered. "What's today?"

The suit relayed the date.

"Five days?" Jaime repeated. Five days of torture. Five days without food, water, sleep. Five days of machines prying, ripping, shredding.

Peacemaker ...

Jaime slammed his eyes closed and shook his head.

Checkmate was right to imprison Frost. She was a killer. Dangerous. But he ... he was just a kid. They tried to kill him. They lied, made that bogus news report. Why did they want to ruin his life, hurt his friend, his family, make everyone turn against him?

Five days. His madre not knowing. His padre in surgery. Jaime forced himself to even his breath and tried to steady himself in the churning world.

Warning!

It wasn't a gang. It wasn't Paco. It wasn't Jaime's fault. How did this end up so twisted? How-

Warning!

"Not now you stupid, traje!" Jaime snapped.

Warning: Jaime was being painted.

"What's that mean?"

Painted: marked by means of an infrared laser to enable targeting system of propelled projectile to lock onto desired target. Jaime was warned that this would occur. He should have destroyed the enemy base to ensure they would not pursue. He should not have returned to El Paso.

Jaime's eyes swiveled to follow the yellow geometric shapes that whirled around. Another twinge in his vision. Twin electromagnetic beams shot through the sky, hovering over his chest. He followed them to their source. A van at the end of the block. There were four. A pinch and the suit zoomed in.

Rocket launchers. Two of them. Aimed at him.

A pop and the missiles fired simultaneously, hissing through the air.

He swore and his joints locked in terror.

Jaime need not panic. The laser energy was now being absorbed, rendering the threat useless.

"Thanks for the update. Next time you disable some threat you could tell me ... oh, before I have a heart attack!"

Jaime's cardiac functions were in near optimum conditions.

He wasn't listening. He glanced down at the street, at his house.

They were shooting rockets. Over his house. Over his hermanita.

His anger turned into something hard and calm. The suit responded, understanding what he wanted. Jaime felt the onslaught of emotions and his whirling thoughts fade.

Clarity.

No more running. It didn't matter what happened, as long as he accomplished the priority. He would to protect his home, protect Milagro. Eliminate the attacker. He joined the suit; a team.

Priority: kill Checkmate.


 

Loose Spanish translation  as taken in context:

ay Dios - oh God
bajemos - let's go down
cállate - shut up
cirugía - surgery
comprende - understand
Dios mio - my God
enloquecido - crazy
eso es una mentira - that's a lie
familia - family
gracias a Dios - thank God
hermana - sister
hermanita - little sister
hija - daughter
hijo - son
hijos - children
la cirugía se realizó sin problemas - the surgery went smoothly
madre - mother
mami - mom
moco - snot
padre - father
papi - dad
prima - cousin
puro amor - pure love
traje - suit
trasto - piece of junk
un abrazo - a hug

Chapter Text

Your face is a billboard. Emotions advertize weakness. The weak fall.

- Sasha Bordeaux


An hour after the zoo was breached, an hour after the Texan escaped, Sasha Bordeaux was summoned to the Black King. He couldn't know. Not yet. Bordeaux's terror was like a hard lump of ice in her throat, wafting out in waves, choking her. She swallowed the wedge of fear and it thunked to the pit of her stomach. There, it's freeze burned.

Black King's control room was spacious and prim. The checkered floor gleamed in the wash of light from the wall sized monitor over the desk. The King examined a series of smaller windows on the monitor. In them, he watched past footage of the Texan inmate, the interrogation, and the escape.

Black King hit the desk with a fist. "Run it again," he ordered. The computer hummed as it worked. Black King's seat in power had not softened him. Broad shoulders stretched the fabric of his shirt. He still had the physique of a black field operative. His holster and weapon were on a table behind him. If she thought she had a chance ... Bordeaux's hand twitched for her sidearm ... but she knew better.

Instead, she spread her stance and clasped her hands behind her back, sliding a mask of obedience over her features.

"Sir?"

He didn't acknowledge her right away, rechecking a line of text as it scrolled across the screen. He let out a low curse and half turned. "Data confirms it," he said. "Same energy signature. It's Kord."

"Couldn't be, sir."

"Of course not," he said. "It's impossible. And yet ..." He faced her. She was always startled at how charming Black King looked. A kind mouth. A softness about his eyes. His brown hair was parted to the side making him look more like an accountant than ... well, than what he really was. If she didn't know better, she would have guessed he was an average man. Average looks, average build, average voice.

But it was the little things, tics and cues that gave him away. His tight lipped smile, a smile that never quite reached his eyes. The constant scanning of his surroundings. The edge like a blade to his words. That aura about him. A darkness. A power. It was like the press of the sea. All around. Crushing.

"Something is amiss in my kingdom," he spoke.

Bordeaux said nothing. She kept her breathing steady. Her face smooth. He couldn't know. It wasn't possible. She had been careful. So careful.

"That suit," King went on. "It shows regenerative capabilities. Perhaps he finally got his blasted artifact to work; was wearing it. Perhaps it's ... healed him."

Bordeaux's eyes trailed to the old footage of the Texan in his cell. She had went down to the zoo to make sure; half daring to hope ...

"It's not him, sir. I watched the Texan interact with Peacemaker." she said. "He was Scared. Inexperienced. Couldn't be him."

"And yet Peacemaker is on his way to meet this new Beetle."

"Capture, sir," she corrected.

"Perhaps. Make sure that is all. I've ensured you're part of the retrieval team."

Bordeaux tightened her features to keep the wave of relief from showing. She was still his number one. For now.

"They say it's a boy," she said.

King shook his head, hand rubbing his jaw. "Maybe. An apprentice of his?" A frown slashed across his face. "We're entering the heat of the mid game. I do not need this unknown complicating the board. Go. And keep an eye on Agent Peacemaker. Black Queen seems to be positioning him for something. Dismissed."

"Sir." Bordeaux bowed slightly and took her leave.


Peacemaker glared across the Osprey at Bordeaux. The hold was small. Made smaller by all the equipment he'd requested for the mission. That put him and Bordeaux about a foot apart. The other members of his team were three black pawns, each strapped to the nines with gear. The final member of his team, though not present, was the white pawn Nadia. Peacemaker had tasked her with research for their mission.

When he had stepped out onto the helipad a hours before, it was a crisp morning, sun burning the clouds out of the sky and promising a smooth flight. He'd been optimistic about the mission despite the consequence of failure. The pressure of the field he could handle. Then he'd seen her. Sasha Bordeaux, standing beside the pawns. He hadn't bothered arguing. He only had three days to recapture the Texan and he didn't need to waste precious hours on rivalry. From what he'd seen, Bordeaux was capable enough so she would pull her weight.

But King's Knight. Here. In pursuit of the Texan. Again.

Now soaring over the Atlantic, Bordeaux met Peacemaker's glare with that neutral blink of hers. Apart from the engine's wine and the roar of the wind over the hull, the two sat in silence. Jetlag pulled down on his eyelids and weighed his limbs. But curiosity overcame his need to sleep.

Peacemaker stretched. "Level with me," he called to Bordeaux. "The hell is this about?"

"Simple retrieval," she said.

"Don't talk down to me. Castle's got its panties in a knot over this kid. Why's he so special?"

"He's proven dangerous. A threat ..."

"You were in the room with me," he cut in. "That kid's no threat."

"Then it was an accident that he escaped one of the most secure facilities on the planet?" Peacemaker rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Second thoughts about the mission?" she quired.

His head whipped up. He could almost feel his teeth cracking as he clenched his jaw. "I'll get him. But I'm not blind. This whole thing stinks."

Bordeaux stood and paced to the window at his side. He had to turn to see her properly. Nothing in her tone changed as she called over the engines, "When we arrive, you'll find your answer. Some things are just as they seem." Her eyes darted to the side, towards the front of the Osprey. He knew better than to give in to the itch to look. Bordeaux shrugged, turning back to her seat. "There's no mystery here. Just capturing an escaped prisoner." She settled onto the bench, double checking the supplies in her pack.

Peacemaker waited a long while before finally glancing to the front. The cockpit door was open, allowing a narrow view at the controls and windshield. Beside the door was the dark globe of a camera. It was used to talk to the pilots when the cargo doors were open at high altitude. The camera also linked back to ... to the castle. Peacemaker looked away.

Was she saying they were being watched? If so, why did it matter? And who was watching? No matter how he looked at it, there was no way the Texan kid fit into this.

Some things are just as they seem.

What was Bordeaux trying to tell him? He shook his head and leaned back against the wall to get some shut eye. Still no answers. In fact, he had only created more questions for himself. He let out a long sigh. How'd he get in this mess? He'd been doing fine. On a mission. Doing things his way. No trouble from the castle. Then that kid happened. Peacemaker shifted, repositioning his pack behind his neck as a pillow. He had stumbled into something big. Bigger than he realized. The Kings and Queens were up in arms about it. Black side was turning against itself.

He felt this before. The tension in the air, the crackling of energy before lightning struck, the held breath before a finger tightened over the trigger. A war simmered somewhere, building in pressure, ready to burst. And he had jumped right into the pot.

When we arrive, you'll find your answer.

Peacemaker's heart skipped with realization. Texas. The answer was in Texas. The key to it all. That was what she was telling him. But also something else. He had to step carefully. Peacemaker peeped through a half-closed eye at the camera. His movements were being watched.


1300 local time. No sign of the kid. And the clock was ticking.

Peacemaker was sure Jaime would return to familiar territory. People he knew. People who made him feel safe. Rookie mistake.

The trick was finding out which person Jaime would flee to. Peacemaker propped his laptop on one of the crates of equipment. The hanger echoed with the roar of the runway. While mechanics worked and refueled, he linked up to the castle's network, drumming his fingers on the casing as he waited. Behind him, his team loaded up two modified Hummer H1's. The Hummers were one of the closest civilian vehicles to a military humvee. The model was a few years old but it was worth it for the convertible top. Peacemaker glanced back as his men rechecked the gun turrets mounted in the backs. The sight of the ammo belts and cold black metal gave him a warm fuzzy feeling.

Bordeaux paused at his side, following his gaze to the weapons. "Think it's enough?"

Peacemaker rolled his shoulders. "Got a good look at that armor. He's light infantry. Can withstand light fire, but betcha anything he can't take anti-tank rounds. Downed him once. I'll do it again."

She slung a duffle bag over her shoulder and moved to the cars. Finally, the satellite link connected. He called his white pawn back at the castle and ordered her to start data mining.

"Step ahead of you, muscles. As usual," Nadia piped back. In a window on his laptop, her face beamed out at him. She must have been back in her office since she wore her cat-ear beanie. "Already scripted an algorithm to analyze Jaime's social media networks. It'll compile a list of known associates."

"What'da got so far?"

"Most of his conversations are about video games, cars ... teenager stuff, ya know?" Nadia scratched at her purple hat. Her face scrunched up and her voice lowered. "Why are we going after this kid? He's just ... a kid."

"Give me his top three most contacted associates."

"There's no closet I will not find and no skeleton I will not unearth," Nadia rambled on. "But Jaime's ... Look, are we like, sure about this?"

"The contacts," he redirected.

"But there's nothing-"

"Agent," he barked. "Your place is to answer questions. Not ask them."

Nadia glared. "Chill your shorts, sunshine." A file popped up on his screen. "I just think ..." She pulled her hat over her eyes. "Nevermind." The feed went dead.

Peacemaker hissed out a breath. Whites. So sentimental. He opened the file Nadia had sent. A brief readthrough and he plotted out a strategy. He assigned a pawn to Jaime's house. Another to the hospital to watch the parents. The last he sent to the third most contacted on Nadia's list, a cousin. Bordeaux he sent to the number one most contacted, Paco Testas. Peacemaker took number three on Nadia's list for himself, Brenda Del Vecchio. They spread out to their various positions, their net cast. Now, they waited.

He reread the file compiled on Jaime Reyes for the uptenth time. Reviewed the facts. Rehashed the mission in his mind. Did everything to keep himself focused as he watched Brenda's house.

Various gangs roamed the border between the Mexican Ciudad Juarez and the United States El Paso. But Peacemaker knew that the real threat came from a crime lord known as La Dama. If there was anything going down in this city, La Dama either had a hand in it or knew who did. And because he had been on the task force assigned to this crime lord, he knew almost everything about her down to her favorite brand of toothpaste. So Peacemaker knew that La Dama's deceased sister left behind a child. A daughter. Brenda.

La Dama was a fairly new player. But she had quickly raised flags for Checkmate. Peacemaker had connected at least three arcane artifact thefts to her. Another dozen he couldn't prove. He was getting ready to bring her down. He and his men were in position for a big sting. They were about to catch her buying black market items ... then they got an alert about some unknown meta taking potshots at helicopters.

Some would call Jaime's appearance on that night at that moment a coincidence. Peacemaker snorted to himself. No such thing.

La Dama must have gotten her claws into Jaime through the niece, Brenda. Struggling family. Ambitious young man. La Dama would have seen Jaime with her niece. Maybe she had talked to him a few times. Researched him. Then recruited him to whatever made up cause she thought could snare him. Made him one of her soldiers. A guinea pig for the armored suit.

Shame. Jaime seemed like an okay kid.

While Peacemaker wasn't allowed to use the the La Dama task force for this mission, they were still his men. They agreed to inform him if anyone matching Jaime's description — suit or no — showed up. So with his old team listening on La Dama's chatter, his new team staking out every person Jaime might run to, and Nadia monitoring his contacts, they were bound to get a hit.

Peacemaker ripped open a granola bar and helped it down with a swig of energy drink. A dust-crusted pickup was parked in the driveway. Girl lived with her father. Since arriving home from school an hour ago she made no move. He settled back into his seat.

Peacemaker was used to stakeouts. Some missions called for operatives to be holed up in places no bigger than a closet for days. He was trained to review mission facts. Recheck gear. Clean weapons. Tripple check plans. So when only three hours passed before an agent checked in, he considered himself lucky.

Peacemaker jumped as the radio crackled, a garbled voice buzzing over the line. He grabbed the receiver. "Repeat that, unit one."

"Unit one to Papa Bear. Picked up a blip on the radar. Thought it was a glitch. But I got eyes on the target. Repeat, eyes on target."

Peacemaker's grip tightened on the receiver. Unit one was posted at the Reyes's house. "Standby, unit one. I repeat, do not engage. All units regroup at his location."

Peacemaker peeled out in a squeal of rubber. The GPS predicted eleven minutes until he reached his destination. Already, he could feel the pre-battle jitters. A narrowing of his vision, a tightening in his muscles. The static from the radio and the hiss of the road became muffled. He took a few deep breaths to steady his nerves.

Back at castle, a review board waited. Black King was trying to lure Peacemaker to his side. Bordeaux hinted that someone at castle was watching their moves. If he failed ...

Peacemaker blared his horn as he swerved around a line of slower cars.

He would not fail. Four agents and a buttload of firepower against a rookie kid. There was no way he could fail.

This wouldn't end pretty for the kid. Nadia wasn't the only one sceptical about castle's orders. Peacemaker squeezed the steering wheel. No second guessing. That led to doubts and before you knew it, you didn't know what you were fighting for. Focus on the mission.

It was a simple task; capture Jaime and return him to the castle. He was an escaped prisoner. That's all Peacemaker needed to know. Forget morals. Forget conspiracies. Castle wanted Jaime in handcuffs. And that's what Peacemaker would give them.

Chapter Text

 In the thick of it there is no time to think. Think and you're dead. There's only reacting. Find cover. Fight back. Let your body move to the memory of drills. That's why you train; so that when there's no time to think, you react. You survive.

-Peacemaker


1650 hours.

Peacemaker peered through the binoculars. The kid hovered at about 700 feet. The missiles were on target. Now to see if they did any damage. The seconds dragged into minutes as he watched.

What if it did hit? What if he hurt that kid? Sure, the suit was dangerous and the kid could be as well. But his gut told him otherwise.

Peacemaker forced his doubts down. Focus on the mission. There was too much that could go wrong.

The Reyes's residence was a one story brickhouse. It was the second to last on the street at the bottom of a hill. High residential area. Directly after, a street, then the ground lowered steeply to Highway 54. High traffic road. Any conflict would result in a lot of collateral damage. Best to take him out in one shot so they weren't chasing him all up and down the suburbs.

Peacemaker gaped and jerked the binoculars away. The land to air missiles broke off course. A mixture of relief and anger churned inside him.

"Missed," one of the pawns said. "How the hell?"

"Must have scrambled the targeting systems," Bordeaux said.

"It can do that?"

"Keep a lock on his energy signature," Peacemaker ordered as he bent for his primary weapon. "Don't let him get away.

"Sir, he's not running."

"Good." He hefted his weapon, a Barrett M82 with armor piercing rounds. Hello, baby. Daddy has a special job for you. Peacemaker braced it against the hood of the car and steadied his sights. Jaime hovered dumbly like a duck in water. Peacemaker breathed out, squeezed the trigger, and ...

He was grabbed from behind. Jerked back. At the same time, heat slammed him. He hit the ground. Gun flung away. His ears didn't work. He slowly sat up. The pawn who saved him was bleeding from a cut on her cheek. The van was a smoldering mass of wreckage.

Slowly, time regained momentum. Things pieced themselves together. The missiles. Somehow, they had been turned. Jaime had hacked them. Targeted the missiles at the van.

Smoke rose. Shrapnel cartwheeled. Peacemaker's ears started ringing. If that pawn hadn't grabbed him, he'd be gone. Dead. Jaime almost killed him.

Killed his men.

Peacemaker turned. His men. Knocked over by the force of the explosion. But their four bodies were moving. Rising. Falling back on their training. Getting cover. Waiting for orders. His orders.

Peacemaker stood and scanned the sky. Jaime was still there. Not running. He wasn't a kid anymore. He was the enemy. Peacemaker steeled himself. No more pity. No more doubts. Though the Texan was a speck at this distance, he felt their eyes lock. Jaime came at them in a dive.

Too much collateral. Already civilians were coming outside, too bewildered to use common sense and seek shelter.

"Lure him away," Peacemaker barked. "Get to the highway! Go, go!"

The soldiers piled into the Hummers, abandoning the smoldering van. Peacemaker hopped into the back of an already moving vehicle. Driving was the pawn who saved him. Bordeaux was in shotgun. She assembled a rifle while eyeing the fugitive in the side view mirror.

The Hummer shot down the hill. The Texan dove for Peacemaker. He threw himself flat. The other vehicle shot off cover fire. Barreling through an intersection, the Hummers shredded through a fence and plunged twenty feet into the highway. Shock absorbers cracked. The cars bottomed out, swerved, rained sparks, roared into traffic.

Bordeaux turned in her seat and steadied her rifle's barrel against a roll bar.

Peacemaker struggled to stand as the car swerved. He saw the muzzle flash of her rifle. Couldn't hear the shots. He was focused on the airborne Texan hurtling after them at a hundred miles per hour.


Glucose: forty-nine milligrams per deciliter. Ketone: 5.3 millimoles per liter. Heart rate: 87 beats per minute.

"Weapons. I want a weapon."

Warning. Aeronautic capabilities functioning below capacity. Energy levels: Reaching critical.

"Give me a gun!"

Scanning targets.

"I don't care about them. Peacemaker's the one."

Subject Bordeaux deploying -

"Peacemaker!"

Error. Unable to deploy evasive maneuvers. Synchronization: Incomplete. Data files: Corrupted. Recommendation ...

"All his fault. Kill him. I'll kill him for this."

Warning ...

"All Checkmate's fault. How could they do this!"

Subject Bordeaux opening fire.


"He's gaining on us. He's gaining on us!"

"Will you hold this thing still so I can hit it!"

Peacemaker yanked the tarp off the gun turret. The mounted Browning was a .50 caliber machine gun that let off 10 rounds per second.

The Texan was thirty feet up. Flying as straight as an arrow. Easy hit.

Peacemaker pulled the bolt into place and secured the grips with both hands. He lined up his sights and fired. The short bursts thrummed in his chest, filling him with the power of man-made destruction. His shots came close. The Texan veered. Peacemaker followed, closing in. Almost got him ...

"Bridge!"

He released the trigger just in time. An overpass flashed by, heavy with traffic. On either side of the highway, suburban homes. All around them, civilian traffic. What a nightmare.

"We need to get in a less populated area."

"Where?"

"We're in Texas," he roared. "We're surrounded by desert! Get us in it!"

A blue glow came from the Texan.

"Enemy fire!"

The Hummer lurched. The sonic blasts shredded the road behind them. Cars swerved. Horns blared.

"We need to bring that thing down, fast."

He signaled the other Hummer and the two vehicles launched into the emergency lanes around traffic. The machine guns pulsed in unison. The Texan veered up and dropped back. Then the target disappeared.

Peacemaker swore. "Eyes! Who's got eyes?"

"Where'd he go?"

"Holy -" the driver jerked the wheel. Peacemaker turned to the front just in time to see the road disintegrate. The Texan had flown ahead of them. The Hummer hit a pothole, bottomed out, dodged another blast, swerved, sideswiped a pickup, dodged again, careened onto an exit ramp, hacked through bright orange road work signs.

The Texan was forcing them off the road, straight at traffic backed up from construction. He wanted them stopped, vulnerable.

"Get us back on the highway!"

"I'm trying-"

A near miss with a minivan.

"There," Bordeaux pointed. "A break in the guardrail. Go!"

The pawn floored it. They clipped the rail, caught air, plummeted down a gravelly slope, and jumped railroad tracks with Peacemaker letting off hiccups of suppressing fire.


Incoming fire. Subject Peacemaker: Still mobile in lead vehicle.

"Closer."

Inadvisable.

"He's not getting away. Not after what he did."

Warning. Second vehicle initiating fire. Positioning offers tactical cover for lead vehicle.

"They're in my way."

Eliminate second vehicle. Recommendation: Concentrated ion blast.

"No. Save power for Peacemaker."

Recommendation: Environmental attack.

"I'll throw this. Right in their engine block."

Locking onto target. Calculating trajectory. Direct hit. Second vehicle disabled. Locking on to lead vehicle.

"Nothing to save you now."

Warning. Subject Bordeaux opening fire. Subject Peacemaker opening fire.

"Target him!"

Calculating trajectory.


In seconds things went wrong. The Texan speared his other Hummer with a lamp post. The Hummer died, rolling sharply to a standstill. Cars swerved it. Some clipped it. Then a semi barreled up from behind, tried to stop, and jackknifed right into it.

His men.

The Hummer dropped out of sight.

The Texan attacked ... hurt his men.

Vengeance, steely and cold contracted like a vice over his ribs. Peacemaker drilled the air with rounds. He might have been screaming. His ears were dulled with the furious pulsing of his blood.

"Incoming!"

The Hummer swerved. Peacemaker was flung to the side and would have been thrown if he hadn't hit a roll bar. A crash. This one rattled the whole car, knocking him to his knees. A road sign lay embedded in the metal. Peacemaker stared at the giant lettering proclaiming "EXIT 28B." It was lodged in the truck bed. That could have been him. Sliced him right in half.

The machine gun had been dislodged from its mounting and lay broken and useless. Peacemaker punched the sign. "Take the 601." The 601 superhighway should get them out of such a densely populated area.

A bridge shot by overhead. Then another, forcing the Texan to pull up.

"The others," the pawn said. "Where's the other car?"

"Focus," Peacemaker said. "Keep going."

Bordeaux scanned the sky on her scope. "Look alive. Coming in low."

The Texan was changing tactics. Using civilians as cover.

"Watch that aim," Peacemaker barked. "Keep it on the sky." Minimize collateral. He wouldn't hit civis if he could avoid it.

The Texan was closing the gap. Coming in low and fast. Man could that kid move. Peacemaker switched to a sidearm. This fight was going to get messy.

Dodging between lanes, the Texan let off potshots at their tires. One hit an axle and the Hummer jerked unhealthily. The vehicle climbed as they sped up and onto a bridge. Peacemaker took aim, but there were too many civis, even on the superhighway. The Texan wove like a snake between the cover of cars, inching closer, closer. He was advancing on their left.

"He's flanking us."

"On my count shootout that car's tires," Peacemaker ordered. Bordeaux readied herself. "Three." He tracked the Texan as he disappeared behind a green sedan. "Two." An enemy. He was the enemy. "One."

Bordeaux fired. The sedan's front left blew and it swerved off course. His cover was gone. Peacemaker shot three times. Hit twice. The Texan's face contorted in pain and he veered straight up. Bordeaux followed with more suppressive fire. Peacemaker didn't know where, but he hit the kid. Didn't know how bad. But judging from the Texan's distance, it was more than a nick. Good old teflon-coated armor-piercing rounds.

"Got ya." Peacemaker readied himself for the Texan to dive again. "More where that came from."


Assessing damage.

"He shot me!"

Amor integrity: 40 percent.

"That's it. Done with this crap."

Repairs: stalled until safety secured. Recommendation: Retreat, repair, attack when repowered.

"He's not getting away with this. With any of this!"

Prepping ion cannon. Energy levels: Reaching critical.

"He came after me. Tried to kill me. I'm ending this. Now!"


"He's under the bridge." Bordeaux swore. "Could come up anywhere."

"I got left. You take right." They posted themselves at opposite sides of the Hummer.

Seconds turned into hours. The tick of the concrete beneath their tires was like a countdown. Peacemaker's muscles cramped. A sweat built between his palms and the grip of his weapon.

"Do you see him? Where is he?"

Peacemaker repositioned his hold. "Come on. Come on. Where are you."

"You don't think ..." Bordeaux shifted, "that he can target us from under there?"

The bridge trembled. Then lurched, bouncing cars like a trampoline. Dust rocketed into the air. Road crumbled.

"Stop stop STOP!"

"Shit!"

"Bring it around. Turn it around!"

Brakes shrieked. The burn of rubber coated Peacemaker's mouth. The pawn spun the wheel. Cars screamed past them and disappeared. For a moment, they faced oncoming traffic and he thought they might make it. Then the car caught. The rear tires lost traction, spinning on air. Gravity clawed at the vehicle and it slowly tipped. They fell.

Chapter Text

Violence is random. No one can prepare for the unpredicted. All the training in the world doesn't matter. Only luck saves you from death.

-Sasha Bordeaux


Jaime doubled, hands on his knees, trying to regain his strength. The blast had taken a lot out of him. He rubbed at his arm. Bleeding. Not bad, but Peacemaker had shot him. And hurt him. Power levels too low to maintain combat systems and heal such a minor wound.

Under the bridge, dust hung like a fog. The smell of burnt rubber and gas fumes swirled in the haze. A pile of cars. Jaime's heart went cold.

"Dios mio. What ... what did I do?" He shook his head. Remember the priority.

What priority? What did that even mean?

Priority: task of greatest importance. Priority: kill Checkmate.

Kill?

Eliminate threat.

Threat?

The hazard to his safety. Eliminate Checkmate before they had time to recover.

The pileup looked like a bunch of toy cars that a toddler had thrown in a tantrum. Windshields were cracked, some shattered, their glass scattered like ice over the ground.

Checkmate couldn't still be alive. Who could survive that?

Within the wreckage, people started to move. Calling for help. Jaime hugged his middle. Those people ... His hands clenched into fists. Who had helped him? Who had come and saved him when he had been screaming, helpless.

But he had hurt them. He meant to stop Peacemaker but instead he'd ... how could he do that?

No! It was Checkmate. They caused this outcome when they pursued him. End them. Eliminate the threat. Then he could go home. Then he could see his family. Then he could fulfill the directive.

But ...

Like a wave, the past crashed over him and engulfed his senses.

Running. Lost. Terror like dark sludge blocking his throat. I can help you. Betrayed. Carfentanil. Don't fight it. Ripped from peace. Thrown to pain. Hurt like a fire, muscles screaming. Never-ending cutting and shredding. Prevent access to core. Five days. No food. Power low. Healing and wounding.

Jaime fell to his knees. "No. Stop. Stop it!"

The cold glitter of machines. His body thrashing, cringing. His voice echoing back unheard.

"Please, stop."

Jaime's chest heaved. The memories faded. They had been so strong. Like he had been there. Was experiencing it all over again. The ghost of it thrummed in his bones so strongly he trembled. It was too much. Too much to feel. He fell on his face, body clenched.

All he felt was pain. All of it. So he closed it off. He shut it out. Like doors closing in his heart, he took all his feelings and locked it away.

See what they did? They did all this. Caused all this pain. Tried to eliminate you. Mother crying. Father near death. Sister alone. The fear, the terror of your family. Checkmate to blame. Then a missile above your home. Your sister. Tried to kill you. To hurt her.

Jaime opened his eyes. The ground looked yellow through the filter. "They deserve to die," he spoke to the dust.

Affirmative.


A warm ache. Stillness. Slogging through thoughts, trying to reach awareness. Low-pitched ringing. Someone crying. Someone shouting. Something was wrong. Couldn't breathe. Trying to breathe and couldn't.

Sharp pain. This one in the ribs.

Breathe, damn it.

The struggle, real now and desperate; like a person under water, kicking towards the surface.

Peacemaker opened his eyes. Light struck his cornea. Tears formed, blotted out his vision. He blinked them away. Above him, the bright near-whiteness of the sky was dimming to blue. Dusk was coming. The earth breathed out a final sigh of heat, radiating back the kiss of the sun. Peacemaker breathed with it. His lungs contracted in short bursts. The wind had been knocked out of him, but slowly he gathered it back.

Not dead. Not yet. Now get up.

He knew he was in shock. That if anything were broken he wouldn't feel it. Wouldn't feel if he were wounded, or missing a limb. Real pain wouldn't start yet. But he had to move.

He lay in a patch of dwindling sunlight. There was a road under the bridge. Only two lanes and a turning lane. Cars were all around him. Some of them had all tires pointed in the air. Others traveling under the superhighway stopped at the sight of the wreck, people leaping out of cars, hands on their heads, some calling 911. Survivors were crawling from the wreck. Blood and tears mixed. Peacemaker didn't stop scanning the scene until he found the Hummer. It wasn't far from where he'd been thrown. There were bodies in the vehicle. Bodies that were not moving.

His men.

His limbs obeyed him now. He stood. Someone beat him to the Hummer. The figure reached for the bodies, for his men.

Peacemaker ran toward the figure. "Back off!"

The person turned. A teenager with black hair. It was him. The kid. He didn't look like his photo.

"There's too women trapped in there," the kid said. Peacemaker blinked. It wasn't Jaime, only some teenager. "I need help." Peacemaker moved to assist.

The Hummer was on it's roof, another car crushing it. Empty shells and debris scattered around his feet. The windshield was gone. Crushed like a can. The side windows had been compacted into narrow slits.

"Hey," the teen called. "Can you hear me? Mam? Ya'll are gonna be okay. We'll get you out of there."

Peacemaker tried the door. Didn't budge. "Bordeaux? Rockwell?"

A shuffling from within. "Here, sir," the pawn called through a cough. "Door's jammed. Bordeaux's not conscious. She's breathing. I think I see blood."

"Try climbing out the back," he ordered and circled there himself. Feeling started to prick its way into his body. A burning on one side. Broken ribs maybe.

"Caramba," the teen said. He stared at the ammo and guns. Peacemaker shoved past the kid and bent to the trunk. Smoke. Dimness. A dark figure moving. He fought the urge to crawl in and help. The best thing he could do for them right now was protect them.

Time felt like it was dragging. It had been about ten seconds. Too much time. Peacemaker found a duffel bag, pulled it, jerked the zipper open. A M16 rifle, rope, some other supplies he didn't have time to examine. This was it. All or nothing. He strapped a gun over his shoulder, stuffed the clips into pockets, eyes turning towards the sky.

Where was he?

"You're going to be okay," the teen called in. "Can you move? Try and reach my hand."

Where was he? Where was the Texan? Peacemaker switched off the safety. He was out there. Hunting. Closing in. Had to keep them safe. All of them safe. Best way to do that was draw the Texan away.

"I need your help," the teen said. "Help me!"

Peacemaker slung the duffel bag over a shoulder and backed away, still scanning the air. "A guy in a black suit and mask comes this way, run." Then he took off at a low jog.


Jaime's body moved, rose. Blood dripped from his left arm but he didn't feel the wound anymore. He didn't feel ... anything. "They deserve it," he repeated.

Affirmative. Eliminate threat.

It was best to survey the area from the air. But power levels needed to be conserved for weapons systems. There were multiple noncombatants in the area. Jaime had to locate the targets before they could flee the scene, before reinforcements could arrive.

Scanners locked onto objects, flashing across Jaime's vision at intervals. Dust drifted to the ground, coating everything in a tan frost. As the air cleared, shapes sharpened, punching the dreamy haze with harsh reality.

Jaime's eyes drifted over the metal carnage. A hollowness in his chest sucked all of his feeling in. All the fear, pain, panic that clamored around him, it faded into a small dark space within.

He located the Hummer. It had rolled onto its roof, pinned beneath another car. Jaime expected anger, a spike of adrenaline ... something.

But there was nothing. So much nothing his chest felt like it was caving in.

The dual receptors on his back protruded and a filter covered the visible light spectrum. The flush of body heat blossomed through the vehicle's steel body. Scans revealed three targets within the Hummer. The targets.

Locking on. High intensity ion blast would incinerate target.

No strength or will to argue. Jaime's arm rose.

The ground shred at his feet.

Gunfire. Seek cover!

Jaime wheeled behind a chunk of fallen concrete. He lay on his side, panting. "What was that!"

Trajectory places source at approximately 143 degrees Southeast.

"What?"

Pale blue line sliced across his vision, indicating the direction of the shooter. He crept up on his elbow to peep over the edge of the fallen bridge -

Terminate action!

Bullets pounded the concrete and sang past his ears. Jaime yelped and dropped.

Jaime could achieve visual without exposure to enemy fire.

"That was another case of 'would have been good to know beforehand'," he muttered.

Radar overtook his vision and a wave of dizziness rolled through his skull. If he hadn't already been flat on the ground he would have tipped over.

The area around him flared like a stain as the receptors mapped it out. Several meters away was the source of the gunfire. The primary target.

Jaime's arm cannon whined, charged and ready.

Alerting Jaime to the possible dangers as requested: 42 percent chance of injury. 20 percent chance of missing target while evading fire. Recommendation: Advance.

"Advanced what?"

Advance position. Move forward. Press the defensive line ...

Jaime scanned the terrain — an interesting sensation since he wasn't looking at it — and plotted a path to rush the target. He rolled to his stomach, gathered his feet underneath him. He imagined Peacemaker's body. Still. Lifeless. Like the soldiers at the base. Like the soldier Killer Frost had murdered.

This wasn't murder.

"He deserves to die."

Jaime bolted from his cover. The target tried laying down suppressive fire. Jaime fired back. Short non-lethal blasts. More for show, to put pressure on the target. It worked. As he reached cover, the target was retreating.

Target knew he was inferior to Jaime's advanced weapons. Pursue. End the conflict.

Jaime crept into the sun, leaving the bridge behind. A flash of black uniform. The target vaulted a stone wall and ducked into ... Jaime knew that place. The Fort Bliss National Cemetery.

Jaime came here every memorial day with his parents and Milagro. They helped put flags on the graves. Papi sometimes went off alone, pacing the rows. He once showed Jaime the headstone of a soldier he knew. Did that soldier deserve to die too?

Focus on priority. Pursue target.

Jaime jogged towards the cemetery wall. He boosted over and landed on the gravelly earth. There was no grass here. The fine rock and dirt ground was combed even. He scanned.

No visual. Sun's heat was equalizing the terrain. It was all one hot mass.

His vision stabilized in the visible light spectrum. The stark white headstones were knee high, precisely lined. All were identical with the exception of a wreath of plastic flowers here or there. The target had little place to hide. A few trees in the distance, a flowered bush or two. No sign of him.

Jaime's breath sounded like a tornado in the silence. His footsteps crunching thunderously.

Which way? Footsteps! No, just his imagination. The ground, just there. The gravel was uneven. Someone was here. They went that way.

Jaime peered down the row.

There. The target. They hid behind a gravemarker. The stone would not protect the target. It would only take one shot. Then Jaime could go back and finish off the others.

Jaime raised his arm, weapon already formed.

The target rolled to the side, facing Jaime in a crouch. A pop. A bright white object hurled at Jaime and struck him in the chest so hard he fell back. He hollered. Hot hot hot! Jaime batted the searing object away.

Peacemaker had shot a flare at him. The magnesium did not penetrate, but the integrity of Jaime's chest armor was compromised. Rise. Eliminate target. Jaime stiffly clamored to his feet, rubbing the sore spot. The target swung something around his head like a lasso, then released it, sending it flying at Jaime.

What ...

The belt flopped to the ground at Jaime's feet. Peacemaker dropped. Jaime's eyes went wide. His body began the movements, tensing, feet pushing against the ground, lips forming a perfect O. Not enough time. The suit was calculating chance of fatality. The belt had too many on it for him to count. He couldn't waste time counting. All he could do was think there wasn't enough time. And know that the pins, the pins from the grenades that were too many to count, the pins had all been pulled.


The explosions shook in his chest. Peacemaker leapt to his feet while debris scattered. He was already moving at a low crouch, rifle tucked against a shoulder, scanning for movement through the choking haze. He circled in to maneuver.

He hadn't been counting. If he had to guess, had less than half a mag left. He flicked the setting on his rifle to semi or single fire.

A cloud of dust and smoke obscured visual. But the map in his mind led him true. There. He lined up his sights. The Texan lay still. A dropping sensation jilted his stomach, like missing a step.

Dead kid.

His grip tightened. Make sure the threat is neutralized. He stepped closer. Setting rays of the sun sliced through the dust and smoke. The shape hardened. Not a body. Blackened headstones. The Texan was still alive.

Peacemaker swore and pivoted.

Jaime collided with Peacemaker before he could get the shot off. The two tumbled across the ground. The gravelly earth was unforgiving to his already battered body. He landed on his back. The Texan was a dark silhouette against the sky.

If Jaime were a half decent fighter, Peacemaker would have been dead. Should have been dead. No killing strike. And the kid left himself wide open.

A twist and Peacemaker threw him off. Peacemaker rolled to his feet just as Jaime pounced again. An obsidian like blade, fine and deadly, swiped at Peacemaker's chest. He dodged.

Just barely. Kid was quick and Peacemaker's injured ribs weren't helping his mobility. Another slash. Another. Another. Peacemaker stumbled away. A blade grazed his front, slicing clean through his kevlar vest. Didn't reach his chest but it did cut his gun strap. The weapon fell. No time to grab it.

"You liar!" the boy was shouting. "You lied to me. You said you would help me! You LIED!"

Distract him. Control the fight. Dictate each move.

"Turn around," Peacemaker yelled back. "Look at what you did. You hurt those people."

"No."

Peacemaker grabbed the next swing. This one was slower, weaker. He opened Jaime's guard and kicked his legs out from under him. The boy fell and Peacemaker dealt a kick to the head. Jaime rolled across the ground.

"You probably killed someone," Peacemaker went on. He marched over before the kid could rise, grabbed him in a headlock, forced his face to the cemetery wall, to the wreckage beyond. "Look at those people."

The fight seemed to drain from Jaime. The weapon shriveled into a hand and the kid pawed at Peacemaker's arms. "No! Shut up shut up shut up!"

"You blew up a bridge."

"I just wanted ... You wouldn't leave me alone."

"Look at what you did."

"You deserved it. You deserve to-"

"Did those innocent people deserve it?" he bellowed back.

The boy's head lurched side to side. "It was you. You chased me. You hurt me ... You ... Shut up!" With a strength that belied his size, Jaime stood, pivoted, threw Peacemaker over his back to the ground. The tremor in his voice was gone. "You tortured me. For five days straight. Locked me up. Put me through hell. Starved me. But that wasn't enough. You had to come after my family."

Peacemaker slowly gathered his feet under him, staying low. "You're dangerous."

The boy's fists clenched. "I'll kill you, you cabrón mentiroso!" Jaime ran to tackle him. Peacemaker rotated and shoved so the boy's momentum sent him flying past, but Jaime spun around, lunging again. The two grappled. Jaime's hands caught Peacemaker by the throat.

"Kill you for what you did to me! Five days. Cinco manches dias."

Peacemaker broke Jaime's grip and gave him an uppercut to the chin. But the maneuver barely phased him. Jaime's arm morphed into a sonic cannon. Peacemaker dove to the side as the blast hit. The force sent a shockwave, knocking Peacemaker to the ground, heat heavy on his neck.

He struggled to his feet, brain still rattling from the concussion. That was no sonic blast. He leapt behind a headstone as Jaime fired again. Ground blackened. That was some sort of high tech weapon that put plasma guns to shame. Peacemaker's gaze focused on the M16 he'd dropped. It was about ten meters away. It might have been back in HQ for all the good it did him. The headstone blew apart. Peacemaker frog hopped to another. He grit his teeth. His cover wouldn't last forever. Too much luck. One false move and it would be over.

From the way the kid was letting loose, he was either going to be out of bullets soon or he didn't need to worry about it. Peacemaker had a feeling it was the latter, in which case he couldn't just wait it out. Needed to close the distance. Force Jaime to fight close range. Play to Jaime's weakness: hand to hand combat.

Peacemaker tensed for the next blast, ready to move. The sound of crunching gravel alerted him. Peacemaker whipped around ...

SLAM!

Jaime plowed into him, driving him into the ground. Jaime's hand clamped over Peacemakers and twisted. Peacemaker felt something give and he yelled. He headbutt his assailant and shrimped out of Jaime's grip. He heaved a leg up and around the boy's waist and fell, forcing the kid off balance and letting gravity flip Peacemaker on top.

Peacemaker struck the throat, the eyes, every vulnerable point he'd ever heard of. The boy cried out and threw him off. It wasn't enough. Had to penetrate the armor. His gaze focused on the rifle. Peacemaker ran for it while the kid was recovering.

A tackle at the knees sent him skidding through gravel. A punch connected with his injured side. His body cringed, but he forced himself to move through the pain. In a fluid motion, Peacemaker rolled onto his back, kicked a leg over Jaime's shoulder, and locked it behind his knee in a triangle choke. Just as he expected with an inexperienced fighter, Jaime panicked, struggling wildly to get away. Peacemaker pulled on Jaime's head. In less than a minute the choke would disable him.

A sudden pressure heated Peacemaker's midriff. Blood poured over an obsidian blade.

His blood.

Not good. All sorts of vital stuff down there.

Peacemaker heaved Jaime off of him. The boy fell back, coughing and Peacemaker crawled towards the gun. He reached for the broken strap ...

A hand snagged his ankle, yanked him back.

"You put me through hell," the boy seethed. "Why? What did I do to you? Why are you doing this?" Jaime's blade morphed back into a hand. He grabbed Peacemaker by the shirt, other fist hitting his face. His nose crunched under the blow. "You lied. You told me you would help and you tried to kill me! Tried to hurt my family!"

Peacemaker struggled to breathe. Broken nose. He tried to fight back. Sprained arm. Jaime slammed him into the ground.

"Why? Why is this happening!" The boy's fist became a blade. His eyes were wild, his voice high and vicious.

Peacemaker lay helpless. All around him the white gravestones seemed to glow, protruding teeth-like from the ground, ready to grind him to dust, add him to their ranks. This was how he went? Decapitated by some punk teenager? In a graveyard?

No.

Do something. Don't just die.

He stared up at the Texan. Sometimes you just died.

"Your fault. All your fault. You deserve this."

The blade descended. Peacemaker didn't close his eyes.

A high pitched singing. The flick of impact. Jaime screamed and reeled away.

The boy collapsed. Peacemaker forced himself to his hands and knees. He scrambled for the weapon, gripped it one handed, and fell on his butt as he turned. The boy hadn't recovered. Peacemaker hugged his stomach, blood dripping from the wound. Jaime was on his side, clutching his thigh. The bullet had went through and through. Large caliber from the looks of it. Scarlet spilled over the boy's hands.

"So you can bleed," Peacemaker said and pulled the trigger. Before the rounds hit, thrusters whined, propelling the boy clear. He tumbled to the ground a few feet away.

"Madre. Madre. Madre de Dios! Ay Dios." He rose shaking to his knees. "Shut up shut up! I'm trying," Jaime sobbed. "It hurts. Madre. Madre de Dios it hurts!"

In Peacemaker's peripheral, Bordeaux steadied herself for another shot. Jaime launched into the sky, hurling dust in their faces. Peacemaker dropped the gun and collapsed. In the distance, he heard the punt of a body breaking the sound barrier.

Bordeaux and the pawn were to him in seconds.

So much blood.

"Took you long enough," Peacemaker said.

Bordeaux lifted his hand briefly. "Looks bad."

"Ya think?" The two lifted him. "If you drop me ..."

"Don't talk."

"Where is he?"

"Gone. Don't worry about it. Gotta get you patched up."

"He was talking to someone. Did you hear him? Someone was giving him orders." His head felt heavy. His hands, weak. Then a surge of nauseousness. The urge to throw up. Suddenly cold.

"Peacemaker? Stay awake. You hear me?"

He tried. He really did. But slowly, gratingly, consciousness was ripped from him.


 

Loose Spanish translation as taken in context :

ay Dios - oh God
caramba - dang
cinco manches dias - five freaking days
madre de Dios - mother of God
mentiroso - liar
(various other expletives left to the imagination)

Chapter Text

Blood is everything. It ties us; binds us to the good and the bad. What's important is that with blood … with family, you have someone to share the good times with. And no matter how bad it gets, you are never alone.

-Alberto Reyes


This is what he remembered:

Like the drone of a wasp, the bullet sung in. A heat, a pressure ripped through Jaime's leg. He screamed and reeled away from Peacemaker. Next thing he knew, he was curled into the fetal position, gripping his thigh, squeezing with all his might, straining to keep his blood inside.

The suit buzzed in his head, ordered him to act, to move.

Couldn't. Bleeding. Hurt. Hurt so bad.

Then he was airborne, flying away from the danger.

Jaime Couldn't feel the wind, couldn't hear anything. Weak and sick. Going into shock. He took deep breaths. Had to calm down. Had to think. Had to get help.

Who would help him? He was alone. Didn't matter. Just get away. Far away from the danger. Get help.

Warning. Power levels critical. Deactivating thrusters.

"What? What!" he shrieked.

The jets on his back cut out. He began to slow.

"No. No no." Calm. Had to stay calm. "Turn it on!"

Gravity pulled him gently, then like a wicked child sent him careening to earth. Jaime cut through the air, the ground zooming in like a speeding truck. Seconds before impact, the thrusters kicked in a short burst. His chin knocked against his chest, cutting his screams off. His joints jared and he tumbled to the ground a moment later, body flopping like a stuffed animal as he rolled.

"What the heck, traje!"

Jaime had sufficient warning. Power levels critical. He should have retreated and recharged before confronting Checkmate.

You're the one always telling me to eliminate things- Ay!" Jaime clutched his leg. "I need a doctor. Need a hospital."

Analyzing … Femoral bone: shattered by projectile. Femoral artery: severed by bone fragments. Blood loss: approaching two liters.

"I'm dead. I'm dead."

Remain calm. Priority: Stop bleeding.

"I need a hospital."

Initializing repairs.

"I'm not a machine," he shrieked. "I need a doctor!"

Remain calm.

"I'm shot!" Warm red. Everywhere. Hurt. So bad. The pain drowned out everything. He was going to die.

Negative.

He was going to die alone.

Negative.

Alone. With a freaking voice in his head.

A twinge rippled through his leg. He screamed. "Santo cielo!" Let him die. Oh God. "Stop! Stop!"

Artery sealed.

No more breath to scream. Body shaking. So weak. So cold. He was dead.

"Mami," he whispered. Or thought he did.

He was going to die alone.

Bone splinters realigned.

Then a horrible thing happened. His body … it … it fell apart.

"Ay Dios."

His skin, it was falling off in chunks.

"Ay Dios!"

Hunks peeled away, disintegrating like mud in water. He tried to hold his body on his bones. It slipped as sand through his shriveling fingers.

"What's happening!"

Energy levels critical. Unable to maintain exterior armor in current state. Shutting down defensive capabilities until power levels stabilize. Maintaining low level repairs and protection over injury.

Cold. Tired. Body melting. Jaime lay on his side watching his flesh fall to the dust.

"I don't … I don't understand."

Jaime was physically weakened. Glucose levels -

"Below normal. I know."

Slowly, he recognized his own skin. He had a body under that suit, he remembered. He touched his caramel arm and shivered. He could feel every whirl in his fingerprint. His muscles ached and his skin seared like a thousand bee stings. But this was his body. It was him. Only him.

Subject Jaime was vulnerable to all enemy attacks. Recommendation: seek cover. Regain energy. Ninety percent chance that after three hours Jaime would be subject to debilitating fatigue. After ten hours, Jaime's minor organs and peripheral functions would shut down. After twelve hours -

"Shut up."

His skin. His real skin. Jaime held up his hand, rubbed his chest. His own body. He almost forgot what it felt like. He lay naked except for a band of dark armor around his thigh. The strip encased the bullet wound and the shattered bone. He felt for a seam, but the armor wasn't like a bandage, rather it was rooted in his skin, like a scab, part of him. He shuddered and pulled his hand away.

Once he caught his breath, he eased to a sitting position. Dust clung to his body, streaking where sweat sprouted. A deep ache in his bone. That couldn't be helped. No energy left to heal. Had to find refuge. Water. Food. Water first. So much blood loss. Three hours.

A scan of the horizon. Orange earth rolled to the end of visability. No road. No buildings. No people. Not even a tumbleweed. Only rock, sand, brush, and empty skies.

Nothing.

Jaime struggled to stand, trying not to put pressure on his injured leg. He turned full circle. Blank desert all around. Pink sky arcing above. Stars pricking through the twilight veil.

"What now?"

Priority: Obtain water and food. Find shelter to perform repairs.

He thought of his house. Of how it should be. Him at the table doing homework. Milagro bugging him to play. Mami with her feet up, too tired to change out of her scrubs. And Papi …

Jaime's eyes teared.

Papi rooting for food in the fridge for the fifth time in as many minutes, grease in the creases of his hands. That's where he should be. Home. Safe.

Jaime swallowed. "Where am I supposed to go?"

Satellite imagery revealed a stream nineteen point six miles north, northwest of current location. Recommendation -

Jaime let out a roar. He said every swear he could think of in Spanish. Then in English. Then both. He kicked the ground, punched the air. Still not enough.

Still screaming, he bit into his fist. Hard. As hard as he could, expecting to taste blood.

Warning: Endocrine hormones -

"SCREW YOU!"

His head buzzed with readings on his heart rate, hormone secretion, distribution of blood flow, and other bodily functions he didn't know existed. The suit went haywire with scans, trying to detect the danger causing him to act this way.

Jaime must not move in such a way. His femoral bone needed to be kept stationary.

Jaime collapsed to the ground, yells turning to sobs. He couldn't do anything. He was helpless. He couldn't go home. Even if he survived walking twenty miles —

Nineteen point six.

— on a hurt leg, even if he didn't pass out from bloodloss, didn't die of thirst or starvation, how could he go back? After what he did … Those people he hurt?

Invalid query.

He was alone. What was he supposed to do?

Priority: water.

He flipped to his side and pulled a knee to his chest. Was this punishment for something?

Invalid query.

He needed someone to blame. To lash out at. His helplessness was a bitter and uncomforting hunger. It dwelled in the pit of his stomach, growing little by little, hollowing out a cavern in his chest as it grew, filling him with nothing.

Jaime cried himself into a shallow sleep, all the while one question rolling in his head.

Why?


A fretful dreamworld tormented by pain and exhaustion. Jaime hovered at the rim of consciousness.

"Está vivo?"

"No sé."

The voices floated just above him. He swam out of sleep. Terror shot through his veins.

Checkmate. They found him.

A dark figure loomed over him. Jaime wanted to scream. He couldn't. Couldn't move. Paralyzed. They drugged him. His heart beat so fast. Cold sweat. He was having a stroke. A heart attack. Something. He was dying.

A large hand grabbed his throat.

Jaime screamed.


Loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

ay - ow
ay Dios - oh God
está vivo? - he alive?
mami - mom
no sé - don't know
traje - suit

Chapter Text

It happens to all of us. In different ways, but no one's immune. The aftermath of a battle, of killing, of nearly dying … There are consequences. Psychological consequences. When the war is over, it isn't really over.

-Peacemaker


"Santa Maria!" The figure over Jaime reeled back. A dog went crazy, snarling, barking.

Jaime tried to jump up, fell, crawled. Arms grabbed Jaime from behind, lifted him. He thrashed.

"Calma. Cálmese."

"Suéltame!" Jaime shrieked.

"Calma. No voy a hacerte daño."

Jaime's burst of energy dried up. He sagged. The struggle had jostled his leg and it seared so fiercely his head spun.

The man holding him called towards the barking, "Honey, shut that chucho up and get a blanket."

It was night but even so the surroundings were visible under the clear sky. In the dim was the shape of a second man holding back a lunging dog. The man, Honey, hissed out a reprimand and the dog went silent.

Jaime shivered before he realized he was cold. Nausea rattled from his chest to his forehead. His knees gave out.

Had it been three hours? Was his body shutting down?

The arms holding him tightened. "Calma," the voice purred like a fire. "Todo está bien. Estás bien." The man was a vaqueiro, complete with blue jeans and broad rimmed hat. Behind him were three horses. Two were saddled. A third was a sorry looking thing with skin hanging over its ribs. The creature drooped, nose nearly in the dirt. It summed up how Jaime felt.

The second vaquero Honey, was younger though Jaime couldn't tell his age exactly in the dark. Honey returned from his horse with a spare saddle blanket. Trotting proudly at his heels was a scruffy grey and white dog. The mutt paced doggedly around Jaime, trying to sniff him. The young vaquero wrapped the blanket around Jaime's waist, tugging it snug.

Honey offered a canteen. "Agua?"

Jaime didn't remember moving. All of the sudden cool water poured down his parched throat. He downed half before he had to sputter for a breath.

A pause from the older one. "Acaba de cruzar?"

They thought he was an illegal. "No," Jaime said switching to English. "American." He tipped his head back and drank the rest.

The vaqueros glanced at each other. "Sure you are. How long you been out here?"

Jaime didn't meet the men's eyes. What was he supposed to tell them? He was on the run from some ... agency? That he'd just blown up a bridge? Paranoia scurried over his nerves.

Witnesses. Eliminate them.

He shoved the canteen at them. "Just ... leave me alone."

"You can barely stand," the older vaquero said. "Cálmese. Vamos a ayudarle."

"I don't want your help!" Jaime tried to back away. His leg throbbed in protest.

"We won't turn you in," the vaquero said. "No vamos a llamar a la policía. Now come on. Can't leave you out here to die, now can I? El rancho isn't far. Vamanos."

"You don't understand …" Jaime stopped. How could he tell them?

Honey lifted Jaime up like he were a pillow and placed him in a saddle. The other vaquero mounted a pale brown horse.

"Pass her up," the man called down. It was then Jaime noticed an animal lying in a pile of blankets. Honey scooped up the foal as easily as he had Jaime. The foal kicked at first, but Honey muttered something to her velvet ears and she stilled. The two vaqueiros situated the foal over the neck of the adult horse. Her reedy legs lay across the larger horse's neck, its head resting in the crook of the vaquero's arm. Before mounting behind Jaime, Honey checked on the starved mare he was towing. The creature let out a weary whiny.

The despondent caravan ambled through the night, moon and stars lighting their way. The ride was a daze for Jaime. All he processed were the uncomfortable slosh of liquid in his empty stomach, the warmth of the blanket, and the growing ache in his thigh. He couldn't focus on anything. Exhaustion was like a chain around his limbs. He let it drag him into unconsciousness.


The constant tic of his heartbeat broadcast as a squeak through a machine. Peacemaker's eyes felt puffed up to the size of cantaloupes. His skin itched like a thousand tap dancing fire ants. His thoughts drifted like smoke in a bottle. He was doped to high heaven. But he was trained to resist such things. He forced the smoke to still, then pried his eyes open to stare at a blurry white room.

"About time." Peacemaker focused on the figure seated by the wall. "You look like hell," Bordeaux said.

"Feel like hell," he spoke. His voice was raspy, words slightly slurred. "How long I been out?"

"Been almost a full day. We're in a hospital just outside downtown El Paso. A brief stint in surgery and sixteen stitches. Congratulations."

"A full day?" Peacemaker swore and tried to sit up. A horrible idea. A stabbing pain sliced through his abdomen. He had to remind himself he'd been stabbed in the gut. He rested on his elbows, refusing to give in. "The others?" he asked.

"The pawns that were in the other car …" Bordeaux shrugged a shoulder and Peacemaker remembered the eighteen wheeler that had plowed into the Hummer. He braced himself as she went on. "They're in ICU. Might not make it."

Peacemaker's muscles sagged, suddenly weighed down. He should have used the high caliber on the Texan. Taken him out right away. Should have warned the other team faster. He should have known. Should have been watching. Should have seen. What happened? How did this happen?

"It's not your fault," Bordeaux said.

"Sure."

His men, his fault.

Much slower this time, Peacemaker eased himself up, grimacing as he did. "Any news on the Texan?"

"We put out feelers. Watching family and friends. Have an APB out for gunshot victims for all hospitals in a fifty mile radius."

Peacemaker rubbed the bandages over his middle. His insides felt scrambled. Hopefully everything was still intact. "What about satellite imagery? Or irregularities on airport radar?"

Bordeaux cocked an eyebrow. "You almost died, you know."

"Not the first time."

"You need to rest. To recover."

"No time for that nonsense. That my laptop over there? Want to see if the white pawn back at castle has any news."

In moments a window was open and the sleepy-eyed Nadia stared back from a window in the screen. "Your face looks like it got hit by a city bus," She said. "Like, three times."

He ignored her. "Tell me you got something new on that suit."

The white pawn let out a groan of protest. "I've run every test invented on what little material we harvested. I've hacked and cracked and eavesdropped on a thousand bioengineers, a million chemists, and like five billion regular engineers. No one is talking about this suit. No one knows anything about the exoskeleton."

Peacemaker lifted the laptop's camera to his face. "So no one else knows anything, but didn't you tell me you were better than everyone else?"

Nadia laughed. "And you believed me?" But she looked pleased. "I'll try a different angle. Give me a few hours."

"Ya got one. Check in with me by then."

"Easy, boss man. Genius can only work so fast. Gonna need more time than -"

"We don't have more time," he barked. His stitches pinched as he did. "The Texan's done too much already. Do it." He slammed the lid closed, cutting her off.

Bordeaux eyed him as she retrieved the laptop. "You're pushing yourself too hard."

"We're running out of time."

"Forget the deadline. You've done more than enough. Nearly died. Is a promotion worth risking your life over?"

"This isn't about me," he shot back. "It's about those men and women who died when the zoo was breached. It's about those civilians from the bridge. It's about those two soldiers lying in ICU. It's about the dozens who might follow them if that kid is left out there." He closed his eyes and leaned back. A dull ache rattled through his body, centering on his midriff. But something sharper cut at his conscience.

He captured Jaime. That was his job. But … maybe he failed. Pushed too hard. Lied too much. What if he had tried to listen more or got more intel before the interrogation. What if he had made Jaime this way? Made him too desperate? If only he had taken more time. If only …

Peacemaker covered his face. Legions could be brought to their knees with that lamment.

"I need some rest," he spoke.

He heard her move towards the door. "I'll check on the others."

What if …

If only …


Jaime was in a bed. Warm. Safe.

Unconfirmed. Assess surroundings for hostiles.

He jerked up, hands flying to his body. His hands touched skin. Real skin. He sighed out a breath in relief.

The room was small, lit by a single window over the bed. To one side was a small dresser with an alarm clock. It was nearly six at night. A chair at the foot of the bed doubled as a dresser, stacked high with folded clothes. He was alone.

"See? No hostiles." Jaime lifted up the quilt to examine his leg. He pulled up a borrowed pair of basketball shorts. The onyx bandage was still in place. It still ached.

Last night was a blur of being carried, examined, and spoon fed. He'd been too tired to care who did what to him. He stood, wobbly, but the pain wasn't as bad as before.

Jaime's stomach cramped when the smell of grease hit his nose. Hot food. His mouth watered. He pulled on a spare t-shirt and hobbled to the door. A hallway led to the living room. Beyond that was the kitchen. Within, he spied a plate of tortillas, a skillet of refried beans, a dish of rice … A figure stepped into his view and Jaime lurched back.

"Ah, bella durmiente is awake," an abuela said. Her skin was dark and wrinkled from years of working in the sun. She beamed at him. "Sit down. Eat," she ordered in Spanish. "You feeling better?"

"Yes, mam."

"Doña Carla," she corrected. "Skin and bones. Barely ate a thing last night. Enrique and Honey found you por la gracia de Dios. They were out looking for missing horses. Foal sprained her leg and the mother wouldn't leave her. Niño!" she suddenly scolded. "Eso sólo? Take more. Eat!"

Jaime protested meekly when Doña Carla scooped a mound of rice onto his plate. "I want to make sure everyone else can have some."

Doña Carla laughed. "I make more. Eat."

Jaime did. Food had never tasted so good in his life. The refried black beans were smooth and moist with fresh queso grated overtop. It exploded with flavor. Must have been fried in bacon grease. Steaming rice was sticky but firm, seasoned with herbs. Fresh salsa verde spiced up the meal and of course the tortillas were pan made, just the right thickness, firm but not chewy. Ay Dios, he could die happy.

All the while Doña Carla chatted while she bustled around the kitchen. After Jaime's second helping, two more people entered. One was the vaquero from last night, Enrique. The other was his wife and Doña Carla's daughter, Lluvia. They sat and dug into the fresh pan of beans as they filled in Doña Carla on the day's happenings.

Enrique scooped rice and beans with his tortilla. "Foal's healing up. Mother's still on the fence."

"Arena will be fine," Lluvia said. "I stayed with her all night."

"Still won't move. Think she's got a fever."

"Who's the doctor here? You always doubt me, Enrique. But who's always right?"

He winked at Jaime. "Learn this lesson young and you'll be lucky old. La mujer siempre es cierto."

"This is why I let him marry my hija," Doña Carla added. "Un hombre inteligente."

"More like a whipped man," Enrique said. This drew cries of outrage from his wife. Their banter went on.

Jaime was absorbed into the family as though he had always been there. Total comfort. He was safe.

Negative.

Jaime's skin prickled and his joints locked.

Jaime was vulnerable. Subjects were a threat.

No.

They saw too much. They knew too much. They could lead Jaime's enemies right to him. Witnesses. Eliminate them.

"You can't be full yet," someone said to him.

Jaime stared up at Doña Carla, breath choked back. How would it look? Her eyes dulled and sparkless. Would she fight back? Would any of them? How would he do it? Shake their muscles from their bones. Incineration. Or just snap their necks?

"Leave him be, mami," Lluvia spoke. "Poor kid's gonna be rolling out the door."

"Give me a year and that not happen. Look how skinny. Hueso sólo!"

Jaime swallowed several times. Trying to focus on something, anything but the fizzing in his head.

Eventually everyone had their fill. Doña Carla left to take a plate to Honey. With her gone and the conversation spent, the couple turned their full attention on Jaime. He squirmed in his seat.

"Can't keep calling you, nino," Enrique grinned. "What's your name?"

Reveal nothing.

"Paco," Jaime said.

"Your English is very good."

"I told you, I'm American."

Lluvia bent closer. "Where's your family, Paco?"

Reveal nothing.

"They uh … They're in Albuquerque." It was a city in New Mexico about four hours from El Paso.

"I bet they're pretty worried about you," she said. "How about we give them a call. Let them know you're okay."

Jaime chewed on his lip.

Lluvia noded. "That's what I thought. Where you really from, Paco? You have a family? Someone you can go to?"

Jaime felt tears bite at his eyes. Go? There was nowhere to go. But he had to leave before the suit took over. And when he did go he'd be alone again.

"You in some sort of trouble?" she went on. "You can tell us."

Reveal nothing.

"Coyotes?" she guessed.

"Nothing like that," Jaime said.

"Okay. Then what? Why were you all the way out in the desert? How did you get hurt?"

Subject presenting too many inquiries. Enough stalling. Eliminate them.

"No!" Jaime jumped up, focusing every ounce of willpower he could. Push it back. Keep it down. Don't let it out.

His brain buzzed like a beehive.

Kill. Kill. Kill.

No.

The humming dimmed. Jaime was sweating. He gasped in breaths. Lluvia and Enrique stared alarmed.

Dios, don't let him have changed. Dios mio. Please let him be human.

He peered at his hands. They trembled. They were his hands.

Lluvia rose. "It's okay, Paco. You don't have to talk about it now. When you want to open up …" She reached for him, arms open in a hug to comfort him.

"Don't touch me. Get away!" Jaime's heart pounded and he reeled back. Her arms dropped. "S-sorry. I just don't want anyone to touch me. I just … I'm gonna go to bed."

In the guestroom, Jaime sank to the floor, sobbing silent and tearless as fear crowded in. Hold on to Jaime. Hold on to who he was. Don't forget himself. He clutched his knees to his chest.

Running. Torture. Fighting. Lying. Fear.

Who was he again?


 

Loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

abuela - elderly woman / grandmother
acaba de cruzar? - did you just cross?
agua - water
ay Dios - oh God
bella durmiente - sleeping beauty
calma - take it easy
cálmese - calm down
chucho - mutt
doña - mistress / head of the house
Dios - God
Dios mio - my God
el rancho - the ranch
eso sólo? - only that?
estás bien - you're okay
hija - daughter
hueso sólo - only bone
la mujer siempre es cierto - the woman is always right
mami - mom
niño - boy
no vamos a llamar a la policía - we won't call the police
no voy a hacerte daño - I'm not going to hurt you
por la gracia de Dios - by the grace of God
queso - cheese
Santa Maria - Holy Mary
suéltame - let me go
todo está bien - everything's okay
un hombre inteligente - a smart man
vamanos - let's go
vamos a ayudarle - we're going to help you
vaqueiro - cowboy

Chapter Text

Deception is a foundation seeded with half-truths. If you get caught in one lie your entire structure falls to pieces. So don't get caught.

-Sasha Bordeaux


Peacemaker ended up sleeping past dusk. He was more worn out than he thought. To the distress of his nurse, when he woke he got out of bed. He stretched his body, pacing the hall a few times before he finally settled. He ate a tray of what was supposed to be meat and vegetables while connecting back to castle on his laptop.

Seated in an armchair at a small table, Peacemaker drilled the pawn. Nadia had used her extra research time well.

"There is this one angle I was looking into … Not quite what you wanted but it was all I had to go on. A research lab in western El Paso caught fire about a month ago."

Peacemaker opened a pudding cup. "The Texan showed up last week. How is this an angle?"

"The lab specialized in robotics. Like, advanced robotics."

"Like the kind the Texan's using?"

"I don't have enough data to answer conclusively. But I started digging up info on stuff that happened around the time of the lab accident. Burges High School volunteered to help clean up in the area of the fire. That's Jaime's school." In a second window, screenshots of her research popped up as she prattled on. "Cute little article in the local paper on it. Anyway, a security guard from the research lab filed a report with police on the same day Jaime was blocks away. Two kids were snooping around the lab wreckage."

He perked up. "Was there a description of them?"

Nadia read off the report. "It just refers to them as two delinquents." She leaned back. "Go on, you can say it. I'm a …"

Peacemaker slotted this new intel alongside what he already knew. Perhaps Jaime stole the suit from the lab. Or maybe a second party was responsible for the theft and Jaime got roped in after. It didn't matter which was the case. What mattered was that Peacemaker was closing in on the origins of the exoskeleton. It mattered that he had less than a day to investigate. And it mattered that he finish this. For his team.

"What's the address?" he asked.

"You were supposed to say genius there. I'm a genius."

"Pawn, you were just starting ta get on my good side. Don't push it."

Nadia fake gasped. "You mean there's a side of you that's better than big, brooding, constipated army man? Be still my heart!"

"Address!"

"I hear ya, chief man. Sending everything now."

A file popped up. Peacemaker rubbed his chin, glancing at the doorway. No one in sight. But Bordeaux had warned him on the Osprey … someone in castle was watching.

"You okay?" Nadia spoke. "By now you're usually hanging up on me or something."

"This line is secure, right?"

"Uh, duh."

"I mean, it's just us? No one else from castle is … listening?"

Nadia gave him a weird look. "I set it up myself. We're clear. What's up?"

"I'm not sure but …" He stared at the ridiculous girl in the cat-eared beanie. She was good, but inexperienced. He wasn't sure if she was white King or Queen's pawn. But she was just a pawn. He'd chance it that she wasn't mixed up in it. The more allies he brought in, the better prepared he would be for whatever storm was brewing back at castle.

"Keep your eyes open over there," he told her. "Not just about the Texan, but … other things."

"Remember that talk we had about specificity? Gonna need a little more of that right about now."

Peacemaker explained as much as he dared about the tension between the other leaders and black King.

Nadia leaned forward. "You want me to like … hack black King's personal files?"

He blinked. She could do that? Peacemaker shook himself. "No. Don't draw attention. Just … keep your eyes open."

"Riiight. Keep it on the down low." She gave an exaggerated wink. "Got it."

Peacemaker let out a sigh and ended the call. Whites. A sniff of actual field work and they got all gung ho. He shifted his attention to the file Nadia had sent. She had been thorough. Too thorough. It was fifty pages long.

As he was skimming, Bordeaux returned. "Any luck?"

He grunted. "Got the address for a robotics lab in the outskirts of El Paso. It's possible the Texan got the suit from there."

"I'll check it out for you."

"Lead's solid. We'll both head out tomorrow." He passed her the laptop so she could read. "If the kid was there, we're that much closer to finding out who made the thing. If we know that, then maybe they can shut it down or tell us how to track it."

Bordeaux muttered something.

"What was that?"

"Nothing. Just reading out loud."

Peacemaker stood to look over her shoulder. It turned out that the lab was a subsidiary of Kord Omniversal. "Kord? As in Jarvis Kord? Good eye, Bordeaux. I'll have the pawn look into this."

Bordeaux stared at the screen. "You sure that's a good idea?" Peacemaker frowned. "We should keep this close to the vest."

"We're all on the same side."

Bordeaux turned to him. "If you think it's best. Just … be careful. Once you start pulling a thread, things unravel quickly. And you might not like what you find."

He stared, unsure of what to say, or how to take her sudden suspicion. Was it just his paranoia, or was she trying to keep this discovery to herself? It sounded like a threat. Offering to go alone to check it out. Not wanting an investigation into Kord Omniversal. Bordeaux had been up front thus far. For some reason this lab had her skittish. He almost considered confronting her. But wasn't it Bordeaux herself that warned him to be careful?

She practically forced herself onto his retrieval team. Working together, fighting together, Peacemaker had almost forgotten why he'd been brought on this case in the first place. Black King was overly interested in the Texan. And Bordeaux, Peacemaker reminded himself, worked for King.

He'd keep pulling this thread. But now he had to watch his back.

"Rest up," he told her. "We leave before dawn."


The alarm clock said four in the morning.

Incorrect. Satellite clock puts time at 3:56 AM.

Jaime couldn't sleep. Every time he tried, he jerked awake in a cold sweat. Visions of a paralyzing shadow reaching for him danced through his head. He turned on the bedside lamp and sat up. Everyone was asleep. The only noise was the soft chirping of wood as the house settled in the night.

The gnawing was getting worse. And the longer he resisted, the weaker he became.

He was only delaying the inevitable action.

Now was perfect. Go to their rooms. One by one. Honey had a trailer next to the stables. Finish him last. Then Jaime could rest as long as he needed, recharge, plan his attack on Checkmate, end them, complete the directive.

Five minutes. Just five minutes of sleep. Jaime stood and paced the small room. But if he slept … That was how it happened the first time. It came in the night. It took over. It almost killed his …

No!

He sunk onto the bed. It wasn't going to happen again. The armor was gone. This was his body. He was in control.

He fidgeted, paced, sat again.

So tired.

He stared at his leg, rubbing the dark bandage, the constant evidence of what was inside him.

Repairs almost complete. Bone still mending. A few more days …

Suddenly, the bandage started to grow. It reached out and dyed his skin. Jaime's eyes went wide. The ebony stain slid along creases, swallowing his shorts, then his shirt. He frantically tried to pull it away. What was happening?

Exterior defenses activating.

"Defenses?" Then he realized what it was. The armor was taking over. "Oh no. Stop!" It was happening again. Why was it happening?

Jaime was exposed. Power levels sufficient to implement and maintain exterior defenses.

"No. You said I'm still healing. Still weak. Power levels critical, right?" What was this stuff? How was it just … growing like that?

Jaime's directive was still in effect. Priority: avoid detection from Checkmate. Avoid capture. Eliminate liabilities.

"No!"

Footsteps plodded within the house. Someone had heard him shout. They were coming.

"Don't you dare. Don't do anything." Jaime clenched his hands together, trying to force the armor back. Like cool liquid flowing against gravity, the suit crept up his chest. A knock at the door. Jaime leapt across the room and slammed his back against it to keep it from opening.

"Paco?" Doña Carla called. "What happened? Everything okay?"

Jaime tried to keep his voice a whisper. "I won't. I won't do it."

Jaime's housemates had witnessed too much, asked too many questions. Too many variables he couldn't control. They could alert the authorities leading to Jaime's incarceration. Eliminate them.

Jaime shook his head. His knees felt weak just thinking of the blind rage from two days ago, a rage that had blown up a bridge. A rage that stabbed a man. This wasn't him. It wasn't who he wanted to be. "I can't do it again. I can't hurt anyone else. Not again."

"Niño? Todo bien? I can't open the door."

Jaime was able to perform the necessary procedures. Low energy blast to the heart, brain, abdomen -

His arm itched as the suit mapped out the weapon. "I won't let you."

"Why not?" she called through the wood.

Jaime had no authorization to override operating procedure.

Jaime lowered his voice again."They helped me. Saved me. I can't hurt them. It's wrong."

Eliminating liabilities to his safety fulfills priority.

"That doesn't make it right!"

The suit was silent.

"Niño, is there someone in there with you?"

"I'll leave," Jaime said breathless. "I'll leave and everything will be fine. That fulfills the priority, doesn't it? No witnesses."

The foreign skin had all but swallowed him. The armor seemed to pause as though considering.

Jaime's alternate course of action was less efficient. Margin of risk: higher. But … there were advantages to conserving energy until a greater threat presented itself.

The armor receded, sucked back into his pores. Jaime breathed out a sigh of relief. His clothes, his skin, they were back. He cracked open the door.

Doña Carla stared back with concern. "Qué es esto? Oí ruidos y gritos. No abrirías la puerta. Estoy muy preocupada por ti. Qué está pasando?"

"Lo siento. Lo siento," he soothed. "I'm sorry, Doña Carla. I just had a bad dream."

Please go away. Please. A weapon was clawing to come out of his hand if she should suspect anything.

She cooed. "So sad. Come. I heat up some posole, si?"

His fear melted and he bit back a chuckle. "I'm really not hungry, Doña."

"Ah. Boys your age are always hungry."

"Gracias, Doña Carla. But I just want to get back to bed."

She shuffled off, muttering something about skin and bones. Jaime closed the door and listened as she returned to her room.

He couldn't stay here. Doña Carla, Enrique, Lluvia … They had taken him in, nursed him back to health, tried to set him back on his feet, treated him like a son. They were good people who truly wanted to help him. Not like Checkmate or Peacemaker. Jaime shoved a wave of anger down.

But as much as this family wanted to help him, they couldn't. Not with this.

He waited until he was sure the woman was asleep, then he slipped out the bedroom window. Around the house was a low adobe wall. Age corroded the plaster to reveal bricks of clay beneath. Jaime paced to the front. The ranch was flat. To the left were the stables, large enough for twenty or so horses. Next to that was Honey's silver trailer. The windows were dark.

Jaime shivered and rubbed his arms. He had to figure out how to stop this suit. But first he needed to get out of here. His last attempt at flying had ended in an unexpected drop. And he wanted to keep the armor off for as long as he could. Walking wouldn't get him far. And if Enrique and Honey found him and tried to bring him back there was no telling what the suit would do to them.

That's when Jaime spotted the pickup. It sat a few meters up on the dirt road next to a shed.

He'd never stolen so much as a candy bar in his life. And here he was, going straight for grand theft auto. Dios, if his madre knew what he was doing …

He pushed open the gate and immediately regretted it. the rusted hinges let out a squeal. Honey's dog was tethered outside the trailer. It barked furiously at the noise. Jaime cursed. Shut up shut up! Why didn't he think about the stupid dog!

He had to silence it before anyone woke up. Sonics. Dogs were sensitive to all sorts of frequencies. His hand morphed into a sonic emitter. Thirty thousand hertz should do the trick. Immediately the barking was silenced. But then havoc came from the stables. All the horses whinnied and kicked at the stalls.

Apparently dogs weren't the only animals that could hear frequencies that high.

Jaime cut off the sound but the horses didn't stop. And the dog started barking again. A light came on in the trailer. Honey had woken up.

Jaime sprinted for the truck. Unlocked. But the key … He checked the glove compartment, the visor, under the seat. Nothing. Light in the stables. Honey was trying to find out what had spooked the horses.

Come on. He worked on cars. Think.

He could hot-wire it, but he didn't have time for that or the right tools … Tools! The pickup was an older model. Early 80's. Yes. He needed a screwdriver.

Jaime checked the pickup bed. Toolbox. Bingo. He rifled around for a flathead. With a jolt, he realized he was seeing clearly in the pitch dark. The armor hadn't receded from his hand. It fact it was spreading.

Don't think about that. Just get out fast.

Lights on in the house.

Caray!

There. A flathead screwdriver. He snagged it and scootched in the driver seat. He jammed the screwdriver into the ignition and twisted. Wouldn't turn. He hit the end of the screwdriver. Had to break the ignition cylinder. Still wouldn't turn. Voices from outside. They weren't close, but how long before they realized he was gone and thought to check the truck?

Come on. He hit the handle again. The screwdriver turned and the truck sputtered to life.

Yes!

The steering wheel was locked.

Santo cielo!

Calm down. Think.

He could fix this. He needed another screwdriver. He jumped out and grabbed another from the toolbox. A figure in the night. They had heard the engine, were coming this way.

Prepare offensive.

"I almost have it." He swung back in the truck.

Weapon detected. M1400 Semi-automatic shotgun, 12 gage.

"It's for coyotes, not me."

Unconfirmed. Prepare offensive.

He jammed the screwdriver between the steering column and the steering wheel to jimmy the lock bolt. Jaime's arm stung as it tried to morph. "I can still get away. Come on." The lock released. He tossed the tool aside and put the truck in gear. Stick shift. Great. He'd driven one before. And played like twenty racing games. He could do this.

"Paco?"

Jaime flinched as a light came through the passenger window. Lluvia. She cradled the shotgun, aiming a flashlight in his face. Her eyes were wide in shock and hurt.

"I-I'm sorry." Jaime hit the gas and peeled out.

He lurched down the dirt road. The itch in his arm died. The ebony skin was past his elbow but didn't advance from there.

In the rear view mirror he watched the ranch grow smaller and smaller. Lluvia's shrinking figure stared after him.

Jaime beat down the guilt. He'd had no choice but to run. It was only a matter of time before he … the suit made him hurt one of them. They couldn't help him with the armor. No one could.

But every car had a manual. There had to be a way of figuring out how the suit worked. If he could understand it he could find some way to get control. To do that he needed to know where the suit was made.

Jaime squeezed the steering wheel. The armor's programming was muddled with his own thoughts. He could only tell the difference when it wanted to blow things up, and even then, it was hard to separate from his own emotions. He didn't know when he was being paranoid or when it was the suit feeding him information. He guessed that the armor had some sort of artificial intelligence, which in normal circumstances — not having it in his head for example — would be awesome. But as it was, the line between him and it kept shifting. Jaime found it nearly impossible to know for certain which of his impulses were foreign. It was like arguing with a more cynical version of himself most of the time. With this in mind, getting clear information from it would not be easy. Even so, he had to try.

Jaime took a few breaths, stilling himself. As always, the details and readings of his surroundings buzzed through his head. He tried to focus on that constant whirring of thoughts. He addressed it vocally. "Where … where did you, this armor I mean, come from?"

His brain shifted through elements, only a handful of which were actually found on the periodic table. He squinted at the road, straining to sift the needed facts from his mindscape.

External defenses composed mainly of organic recycled waste from Jaime's body in addition to some harvested exterior elements.

Did organic waste mean what he thought it meant? He made a face "Gross! I did not want to know that."

Why propose a query when Jaime did not desire the information?

"Shut up. Where did the armor come from, like … where in the world?"

Invalid inquiry.

"Just tell me! This I need to know. Where were you before inside of me? Ugh, that sounds so wrong."

Before binding to Jaime …

"Whoa, binding? Yes, this is the kind of information I'm talking about. Unbind from me. Like … now."

Negative. Separation of host and unit against operating procedure.

"I am NOT your host!"

Jaime's decibel did not alter reality.

"Whatever. What were you saying before?"

Before binding to Jaime, unit was in forced stasis under the supervision of …

"Get to the point. Where was that?"

Location of forced stasis: longitude -

"Traje, we talked about this."

A pause.

Location: Texas, El Paso, building known as Texas Research and Technology.

Jaime stared out at the dirt road. "You mean TRT. I know that place. That's that lab. Where our class went to help clean up that lot for the homeless shelter." Finally some progress. The answers would be there. Most of the lab had burned down as he remembered, but that was almost two months ago, Surely they must have rebuilt by now.

His brain buzzed in sudden agitation. The armor spread over his chest now.

Jaime must not return to Texas. Checkmate still in pursuit. Recommendation: recharge.

"I want answers. You want a host. "Jaime groaned and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Now I'm saying it. Look, there has to be a way we can compromise."

A thrum in his skull as the word was analyzed.

Compromise required only when parties were equally matched. If not, superior party could merely exact their will upon the inferior party. Jaime must follow the directive.

Did the suit really just call him inferior? "Who's inferior to who, here!"

Jaime did not desire the answer to this query.

"Was that- Did you just burn me? Ugh! How do I shut you up!" He punched the steering wheel. "Look, compromise is about respect and trust. Not power."

Spoken as one who is inferior.

"Remember what a team is?"

He couldn't be sure, but Jaime experienced sort of a mental grinding of teeth. Could computers even get annoyed?

These philosophies were flawed. Once synchronization was completed such thoughts would be eradicated.

"Eliminate. Eradicate. Don't you ever think about anything else?"

Invalid query.

It was like arguing with a six year-old. Luckily, Jaime knew just what to do when arguing with a six year-old. He drove in silence.

Jaime must not return to Texas.

Dirt turned to pavement. It was almost an hour before he reached Interstate 10. He knew the route from visiting cousins further north. He turned East. It would take him to Las Cruces, then from there, down into El Paso.

Jaime must not return to Texas.

Three miles outside of Las Cruces, the armor had all but taken over his body.

Jaime would not return to Texas.

Jaime's vision twinged and he swerved. "Cut it out!" He could see the car's engine, the belts, carburetor, fan, and other parts. What was the suit …

EMP of minor power would disable the vehicle.

"Wait -"

The engine died. Steering lost hydraulic power and became stiff and sluggish.

"Maria purísima!" Jaime pulled to the side of the road. The truck coasted to a stop.

Jaime gripped the steering wheel, trying to breathe evenly. It was dark outside for now. Traffic would pick up soon at rush hour. He looked down at himself. The armor had taken over completely, an onyx layer concealing his body. He couldn't let people see him like this. The suit would freak out and try and kill anyone who did.

Liabilities.

Jaime left the truck and headed south off the highway. He knew El Paso was an hour by car. What was that like … forty miles? Could he make it that far in a day? Without any water or food? Without someone seeing him?

Jaime would not return to Texas.

Jaime's senses were overwhelmed. Light, sound, heat, cold, a hundred sensations flooded his body. He collapsed, writhing in pain.

The bombardment stopped like a faucet being turned off.

"What the heck!"

Jaime would not return to Texas.

"Yes Jaime will return to Texas!" He crawled to his feet. "I'm going to find out how to get you off of me and you're going to shut up and- Ay!"

He collapsed a second time.

"Cut it out!"

Jaime would not return to Texas

"Por favor, no sé cuánto más de esto puedo tomar! Can we please agree to something before I pass out in the middle of nowhere?"

Jaime must agree to submit to directive. Operating procedure must be followed.

"And I want to go to El Paso. Can't we do both?"

Negative.

Jaime covered his face. "I don't really think you get the compromising thing."

Returning to El Paso Texas would endanger Jaime. One of the highest priorities: Sustain life of host.

"Stop calling me that."

Quarry: Does subject Jaime object to living?

"Well, duh. Of course not."

Then an agreement was reached. Jaime would not return.

"Two can play at that, trajo! Do you want a host that will do all that directive stuff?"

Affirmative.

"Then we go to Texas and find you one!"

Negative. Such action would be against procedure.

"Well sometimes you need to adapt. You can't bug out every time something happens that's not part of your plan or whatever. You accept it and move on!" Jaime shook his head. "Great. Now I sound like my dad."

It is against procedure to modify the directive.

"Dude! Modify away. There's more than one way to get the job done."

The suit was silent.

Jaime eased himself to his feet. No flash of pain. "So … are we agreed?"

Adaptation appears essential. But Jaime must be aware of the potential dangers. 78 percent chance of -

"I accept the risk, okay? Can we go?"

Plotting trajectory.

"Wait, are you sure that we have enough power to fly there? Last time -"

Jaime must not bug out. If power fails, Jaime must adapt to the situation.

"That's funny. Just come up with that?"

Affirmative. Trajectory plotted.

Jaime braced himself as thrusters morphed out of his back. In seconds he was skyborn and on his way to El Paso.


 

Loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

ay - ow
caray - dang it
doña - mistress / head of the house
Dios - God
estoy muy preocupada por ti - I'm so worried about you
gracias - thank you
lo siento - I'm sorry
madre - mother
Maria purísima - for Heaven's sake
niño - boy
oí ruidos y gritos - I heard loud noises and shouting
por favor, no sé cuánto más de esto puedo tomar! - please, I don't know how much more of this I can take!
posole - (a type of Mexican stew)
qué es esto? - what is this?
qué está pasando? - what is happening?
no abrirías la puerta - you wouldn't open the door
santo cielo - good heavens
si - yes
todo bien? - everything okay?

Chapter Text

Brenda, Jaime, and me have been through too much to let anything get between us. I'll always forgive them because they do the same for me. When someone's got your back no matter what, you gotta give yourself right back. And that's who we are. There for the good; holding on through the bad.

-Paco Testas


BEFORE …

The day arrived for Brenda's cumpleaños. Wind tore through El Paso from the south, hot and dry, like a blast from an oven. The cafeteria was crammed. Bookbags carpeted the floor between tables. Conversations garbled together, English and Spanish thick in the air.

Jaime, Brenda, and Paco packed themselves between the drama club and some goth punks. Jaime unpacked his bag lunch. His madre never let him eat at school. Whenever he asked for money she would go on a rampage about child obesity. He pried the lid off his low-cal, low-fat whole grain rice with chicken and black beans. Paco used fried chicken to spoon up his mashed potatoes. Brenda had skipped right to dessert with two giant chocolate chip cookies and an ice cream sandwich.

"Everything set for your cumpleaños?" Jaime asked her.

"My tía won't let me near her house until tonight."

Paco wiped his mouth. "Your dad still freaking out?" Jaime glared at him. "What?"

"It's fine," Brenda said. "He's not happy about it, but that's his problem."

Jaime jumped in to shift the topic. "Want us to bring anything?"

"Water guns," Paco said with a grin.

"Don't even think about it," she warned.

Paco wiped his mouth on his arm. "What sort of lame party is this?"

"The civilized kind," she shot back. "So dress nice."

"I get it. Whatever. You're gonna be too busy with your fancy fiesta to mess around with us pobres."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Why couldn't we just hang out at El Diablos like we did last year-" Jaime kicked him under the table. "Ow!"

"Dude," Jaime sighed.

"What?"

"Ignore him," Jaime told her.

"Oh, was someone else talking?" Brenda looked around.

"Why'd you kick me?" Paco rubbed his shin.

"It was her quinceañera," he said.

"So?"

Jaime glared. Paco knew as well as him that a quinceañera was the most important birthday for girls. Even some of the anglo girls had them. There were ball gowns, tuxes, lavished decorations, high class reservations at hotels and restaurants. Brenda's party? A fast food place. "So let's sorta not talk about it."

Paco shrugged. "I had fun."

"You'd have fun with the contents of a toilet bowl," Brenda leered.

"Ouch. You know what, you can forget getting a present. It was gonna be really awesome too."

"Oh please," Brenda said, gearing up to burn Paco again.

Jaime tuned them out, thinking of the bug carving. For the past week he had spent every spare moment in the school's metal shop working on her present. The bracelets base was easy enough. One of girls in metal shop showed him how to bend it just the right amount so it could still be slipped on a wrist. It was the overlaying layer of the wings that was difficult. It took him three tries to get the cut down. Another two to complete the detail etching that made the shaped metal look like feathers. All he had to do was mount it. He couldn't wait to see the look on her face …

"Jaime!" Paco protested.

"Huh?"

"Will you please tell Miss spaz-attack that I'm fine?"

"Brenda," Jaime spoke, "as long as he takes his meds the therapists say -"

"This isn't a joke, Jaime!" Brenda cut in. "Why do you two keep acting like it is?" Jaime frowned. Guess he chose the wrong time to space out. "When are you going to call the police?"

Oh, so it was about that.

Paco rolled his eyes. "When they care. I'm just another chicano. Cops could give a flip."

"You need to tell someone. This thing with those cholos is getting serious, Paco."

"I'm dealing with it."

"How? How are you dealing with a gang alone?"

"I'm not alone," he shot back.

"Yeah, I heard about that. From Ariel of all people. You're running with some creeps called the Posse?"

Jaime made a face. What was she doing talking to AJ?

"Madre de Dios," Paco breathed. "Will you get off my back!"

"As soon as you stop lying to me. We're your friends, Paco. You can't hide things from us."

"Drop it."

"I'm worried about you. How can I drop that?" She spun to Jaime. "Will you say something!"

Jaime cringed.

"Yes. Por favor," Paco joined in. "Help me out, mano."

"Uh …" Jaime glanced at Paco and the paleing outline of the bruise from a few weeks ago. Then he turned to Brenda and the worry in her brown eyes. "Brenda, it's not as big of a deal as you think …"

"Ugh! I knew you'd take his side!"

"I'm not taking -"

"Yeah, the right side," Paco goaded her.

Jaime covered his face. "I'm not getting in the middle of this." He scooped up his trash and grabbed his bag.

"Ay! Don't leave me with her!" Paco leapt up to follow.

"This isn't over, Paco," Brenda hollered after them.

The two dumped their trash and headed outside the cafeteria. The halls were so much quieter that Jaime's ears rang.

"You see the way she's always up in my grill?" Paco mumbled. "Mujer aburrida."

"She'd just worried about you."

"Me? She's the one living with that loco father of hers."

Jaime huffed out a breath staring hard at his shoes. "You're okay … aren't you?"

Paco shrugged. "I'm laying low. Those guys are getting bored. It's gonna blow over. You'll see."

"Why does that cholo have it out for you anyways?"

Paco slowed and Jaime turned to face him. "This guy, Mikey, he's the one that started it all. Met him at a party one night. He was alright. We hung out at the same places sometimes, not really together. But one day he wanted me to hold on to something for him. Said he needed a favor. That I needed to take it to some cousin of his."

Jaime came to a dead stop. "You didn't take it!"

"Heck no, mano. Estás loco? I told Mikey no hard feelings, but find someone else."

The two walked on. "So I guess he didn't take it well."

"Whatever it was, he got busted by some cops. Thrown in jail a few nights. Got out on bail. He's been on my case ever since. He's like, the gang leader's girlfriend's brother or something. Important enough to have them cause trouble for me."

"You really think he's gonna lay off?"

"Yeah. No hay problema."

"You'd tell me if there were a problem, right? I mean, you know I got your back."

"I know, mano. Gotta bounce. See you at your place." Paco disappeared around the corner.

Jaime sighed and he headed off to his own class. He wondered if it had been a good idea to keep Brenda out of the loop. She'd only worry after all. But she had a point. How far was Paco going to let this grudge go before he did something? Jaime had grown up by the city, lived here his whole life. He knew kids in gangs. Saw what happened to them. Drugged up. Shot up. Locked up. It wasn't pretty. Paco kept telling him everything was fine. But he was hiding things. He was hanging with the Posse. Jaime didn't want to snitch on his best friend, but if he kept quiet and something happened …

His musings were interrupted when he recognized two loutish forms lounging outside a bathroom. He groaned. Javier and Leo. He almost turned right back around. The halls were deserted with everyone in class or still at lunch. He didn't like to think what could happen to him without witnesses nearby to intervene. But he stayed on course to his next period class. He kept his head down, walking fast and close to the wall as though he could blend into the scuffed cinderblocks.

No such luck. Javier shifted to bar the hall, a task he completed effectively considering his house-sized frame.

"Gotta pay the toll, troll."

Jaime was forced to stop. "Guys, I thought we were over this." True enough. AJ's punishments had evaporated this last week or so. Jaime assumed they got bored with him and moved on to a new victim.

Javier cracked his knuckles. "You refusing to pay your dues?"

Then again, maybe their attention span was longer that he'd hoped.

Jaime held up his hands and backed away. "Forget it." He could double back later when the lunch crowd came through. He turned. Leo had slipped behind him. Jaime's skin crawled. Not good. Where was Paco when you needed him!

"Back off," a voice said. Saved! He was -

Jaime did a double take. It was … AJ? The boy stumbled out of the bathroom engulfed by a bitter smelling smoke. Jaime blinked a few times. There was no one else in the hall. Had to be him who spoke. When his gorillas didn't obey, AJ tried again. "What are you, stupid? I told you we gotta lay off."

Jaime swore he saw Javier's veins twitch in his biceps. "Don't see why we can't have fun cuz you're trying to impress some chick."

Jaime stood very still; like one of those animals on a nature show. If he didn't move, they couldn't see him.

"Screw you," AJ said. "The party's tonight. Don't mess this up for me."

Before he realized what he was doing, Jaime heard himself speak. "You're going to Brenda's party?" Eyes turned to him but he was too much in shock to care.

Brenda invited AJ.

AJ.

The guy she dated once. The senior who thought bushing kids was the comedy highlight of the week. The bully who constantly humiliated and tormented him.

AJ!

"She practically begged me to come," AJ said. "Can't help it if the chicas can't keep their hands off me." The trio moved off. Jaime stared after them a moment before storming off to his class.

Sure, Brenda invited a lot of kids to her party. But most of them were friends. And then she goes and asks AJ? What did she see in him! Sure, he was all … mature and … muscles … and …

Jaime was good looking. He had dates. Nothing got serious but he wasn't a complete social outcast.

He reached his class and slammed himself down into his desk.

It's just … Why didn't Brenda notice him? They always hung out. They'd known each other for forever. Was he just not interesting? What wasn't there to like about him? Why were other guys — guys like AJ — the ones she gravitated to?

He thunked his head on the cool desktop.

Maybe she did notice. Maybe she didn't know how to let him down because he was a friend. She probably thought he was pathetic. He shouldn't even bother with the bracelet. It would be so awkward. He should get her a book. Something safe and totally in the friend zone.

He sat up and slicked his hair back.

Come on, Jaime. After all that work, you're gonna chicken out?

Whether Brenda liked him as more than a friend or not, he wanted to do this for her. And yeah, maybe it would be awkward, but at least he'd know. He took a deep breath. Tonight. This was it. He couldn't afford to wait with a vulture like AJ circling. If Brenda liked her present, Jaime was going to ask her out.


 

Loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

ay - hey
chicas - girls
chicano - Mexican
cholo(s) - gangster(s)
cumpleaños - birthday
estás loco? - you crazy?
fiesta - party
loco - crazy
madre - mother
Madre de Dios - Mother of God
mano - bro
mujer aburrida - annoying woman
no hay problema - no problem
pobres - poor people
por favor - please
quinceañera - 15th birthday
tía - aunt

Chapter Text

Being a mother is one of the hardest things I've ever done. You literally give yourself up. Pregnant, it isn't your body anymore. The baby is a part of you. After they are born, they remain part of you. Their dreams become your dreams. Their pain becomes yours. At times I want to reclaim my independence when my time belonged to me and my responsibility was only to me. But alone, I was just that. Alone. Being a mother is hard. But the reward is having my joy multiplied in the lives of my children.

-Bianca Reyes


BEFORE …

A day off for Bianca Reyes was hardly that. When friends said with envy how nice it must be to work only three days out of the week, Bianca tried not to laugh in their face. Her job as a RN at the children's hospital was so demanding she barely had time to eat let alone sit down while doing so. Her average day was a twelve hour shift with three or eight patients to care for depending on the day. It was go from the moment she stepped on the floor.

Then there was the emotional toll of worrying for her patients. Not to mention the devastation she went through when a child didn't make it. Some of the other nurses told her not to get so attached. But she couldn't help it. She was a mother. She loved kids. She would have had more if she could have. And if it had been her child in the ER or recovering from surgery or on the brink of life and death, she would want someone who treated them like gold. So that's what she did. She gave her all to every patient and yes, some days she left work crying, but she didn't regret loving those kids.

Her remaining four days off she was still on call incase the hospital was short staffed. Often she'd groggily answer the phone at four in the morning and grab her scrubs.

On her down time, she'd try to manage the chores that had piled up during her absence. She still hadn't trained her esposo to unload the dishwasher. Jaime's idea of doing laundry was rotating through clothes on his floor. Milagro stickered, taped, bedazzled, colored, or glitter glued tables, doors, clothes, walls, and anything else that was not paper.

And then there were all the projects that Bianca had for herself. Repaint the bathroom. Fix the hole in the sofa — thank you not-so-safe safety scissors. Mop the kitchen. And the list went on.

Bianca wasn't the kind of person who found it easy to relax even when she needed to. She tackled each task with an intense energy. By the time the kids got home from school that day, Bianca had finished half her list and found a dozen other things to add to it.

She greeted her hijos with a kiss. Jaime ducked to his room before she could ask him how his day was. Milagro started talking like an auctioneer, bombarding Bianca with names, events, and feelings that had filled her school day.

Bianca retrieved a plate and browsed through the fridge to make a snack for Milagro. "What was the favorite part of your day?"

"I jumped off the swings at recess. Mami -"

"That was your favorite?"

"Umm … no. Mami, what's that?" Milagro pointed at the stove.

"Dinner."

"It looks disgusting."

Bianca plopped the dish of grapes, carrots, and a cheese stick in front of the squirming girl. "Oh. Thanks for that."

"It's like … It's like brown snot. It smells like poop," she giggled.

"It's stew."

Milagro nibbled on a carrot, giving the steaming pot a dubious snear. "I don't want any."

"Well, it's what you're getting."

"I want grilled cheese. No no. Macaroni for dinner. Mac-n-CHEEESE," she sung, thrusting the cheese stick in the air like a sword.

"You're having stew. Lindita, you didn't tell me. What's your favorite -"

"But I love mac-n-cheese."

"I know you do."

"I think I could eat it forever." She grinned, sliding down the chair like she was melting.

"Milagro," Bianca spoke to the pigtails, "what was your favorite thing about today?"

The girl peeped her nose over the edge of the table, smile tinting her eyes. "That you're home." The girl bounced out of her chair and gave her a hug. "I missed you, mami!"

Okay, maybe spending an hour scraping stickers off the coffee table was worth it. Bianca returned the hug. "I missed you too, mi amor. Sit down and finish your snack."

After Milagro was settled, Bianca went to check if Jaime needed a ride to Brenda's fiesta. Her hijo sat at his desk glaring at a lump of wrinkled wrapping paper. It looked like a present a three year-old had wrapped. He ripped it up and tossed the mess in the trash. The bin overflowed with spent paper.

"Hijo!" Bianca scolded. "Trying to wipe out a forest? What are you doing?"

"Trying to wrap this stupid thing," he grumbled.

Bianca looked at the object and gasped. "Jaime! Where did you get this?" On a wide silver band, an elegant etching of feathers detailed the polished metal. She picked up the bracelet, turning it in her hand. Mounted on the center was a stone the length of her palm. The deep blue rock looked like agate or lapis. Inspecting it closer, she marveled at the carving of a beetle.

Jaime rubbed the back of his neck. "I … I made it. For Brenda."

"You made this? Where … How …?" She shook her head in awe.

He squirmed. "Do you … think she'll like it?"

"It's beautiful. She'll love it. But amor," she chuckled, "you don't wrap jewelry."

At this he threw his hands in the air. "What am I supposed to do with it?"

Ah, boys. She patted his shoulder. "Tell you what, you get ready. I'll find some things around the house for this."

A gift box tied with a teal ribbon did the trick. Bianca nestled it amongst matching tissue paper in a small silver gift bag. She'd have to sit him down at some point and explain that small details like this meant a lot to a girl.

It wasn't until recently that Bianca noticed something different between Jaime and Brenda. Such as how Jaime looked at Brenda when she was in the room. Brenda didn't seem to reciprocate his feelings. As much as Bianca wanted to protect his heart, young love was for the young to figure out. Perhaps this gift would get Brenda's attention. Bianca still couldn't believe he had made the bracelet. That much effort … it was sure to catch any girl's eye.

Jaime cleared his throat and Bianca turned to assess his wardrobe choice. All her lectures on coordination were finally paying off. Dark T-shirt and jeans — which she'd just washed that evening, you're welcome — with a gray blazer. His hair was combed back and she detected the slight scent of aftershave.

Bianca took his hands. "Estás lindito."

"Mami," he grumbled.

She handed him the gift bag. "When's the fiesta?"

"Doesn't start 'til five thirty."

"Homework done?"

"Almost."

"You need a ride?"

He fumbled with the gift bag and turned to leave. "No, no. Uh … Paco and I are gonna walk. Her house isn't that far."

"You sure? After you get all dolled up you're going to show up sweaty?"

A skeptic look met her over his shoulder. "Mami, you can't drop me off."

"Why not?"

"If you don't understand it, then I can't explain it to you. It just can't be done."

"Fine. Just make sure you use extra deodorant," she teased.

He disappeared down the hall and Bianca set to work chopping vegetables and plopping them in the stew. Just as she was washing up, her esposo stumbled through the door under an armload of groceries.

She greeted him with a kiss. "Get the green onions?"

"And the cilantro." He dumped the bags on the counter just in time to be tackled by Milagro. "Hola, mi pequeñita. Come 'ere." He attacked her with kisses making her squeal.

Bianca was washing the long onion stalks when the doorbell rang. She grabbed a towel and dodged around Alberto and Milagro to the front of the house. She opened the door and Paco sauntered in. The boy was big for his age, built like a football player really. He wore suit jacket and vest with bright orange swimming trunks that matched his bowtie. To give the kid props, his style was … unique.

He grinned. "Hey, Doña Bianca."

"Paco." Her tone was less than impressed. Although childhood friends with her hijo, the older they got, the more she had to force herself to tolerate their friendship. Paco's humor was juvenile, his manners lackadaisical, and he was a slacker. She'd saw kids like him all the time. Life was a game and the only thing that mattered was instant gratification. But the way she saw it, as long as Jaime's friends came to her house where she could keep an eye on them, she would continue to welcome them.

"Just stopping by to pick up my hombre."

"He's in his room doing homework."

"If he keeps that up he might learn something." Bianca stared. Paco gave a nervous laugh. "I'll uh … just go get him." He slid past. "Hey, mano. You ready or what?"

Moments later, the two emerged from Jaime's room. "I can't believe you forget to get her something," her hijo was saying.

"I didn't forget," Paco defended. "What's wrong with my abuelita's picante, anyways?"

"Because it looks like you raided your abuela's pantry on the way out the door."

"It's quality homemade hot sauce and totally thoughtful. Brenda'll eat it, won't she?" With a roar like a bloodthirsty predator, Milagro jumped off the back of the couch at Paco's face. The teen caught her and screamed. "Help! I'm being attacked by a fluffy, evil bunny!"

There was some hint of outrage in Milagro's voice. "I'm not a bunny. I'm a lion!" The little girl crawled over him, got him in a headlock and hung on him from behind. Paco gagged. "I didn't know lions knew choke holds. Okay, maybe some actual help here?"

Jaime backed away laughing. "Sorry, dude. Don't want to mess up my look."

"Traitor!" Paco bent double. Screeching, Milagro flew over his shoulders to land on the couch cushions.

"Have everything?" Alberto asked. Jaime nodded. "What time you going to be back?"

"Around ten."

"Got your phone? Call if you need us."

"Have fun you two," Bianca waved.

Alberto muttered so only she could hear, "Not too much fun."

"We will," Paco said straightening his bowtie. "Can't wait to get my swims on in her tía's pool. Yo, Milagro. You gots some floaties I can borrow?" Jaime slugged Paco in the arm. "Ow! What?"

Bianca turned to Jaime. Her hijo cringed, fiddling with his jacket button, examining the wall with great interest, scratching his nose. "Paco, where did you say the party was?" she asked still staring at Jaime.

Paco squirmed.

Alberto paced next to her, arms folded. "You got a problem talking all the sudden?"

Paco glanced desperately at Jaime. "No …"

"So answer her. Where's the party?"

"Uh …" He laughed and shrugged. "I mean, everyone knows …"

"Everyone?" Bianca pounced. "Who's everyone?"

Her hijo jumped in to help him. "Okay, the party's at Brenda's tía's estate in the Upper Valley. The place got changed sorta last second." Paco nodded furiously. "I was gonna tell you but -"

"But what?"

"I know you don't like big parties. Brenda's tía sorta went all out and a lot of people got invited. But it's not -"

"How much is, a lot of people?"

"I don't know … like … the exact amount." He rolled his shoulders and didn't meet her eye. "I think I heard her say … like maybe … a hundred?"

"Paco, it's time for you to leave."

With wide eyes, Paco swung his arms awkwardly by his sides and glanced at a watch he didn't have. "Is that the time? Caramba." He shot Jaime an apologetic look as he slunk out of the house. "Lo siento, hermano."

Bianca strained to keep her voice level. "Walk to Brenda's house, huh?"

"Mami …"

"You lied to me, Jaime!"

"I didn't tell you because I knew you'd freak out. And you are!"

"Stop yelling at him," a small voice said. Milagro was kneeling on the couch, watching the exchange with a worried expression.

Alberto scooped her up. "It's fine, pequeñita. Go play in your room." He took her down the hall.

"You are out of your mind if you think I'm going to let you go to that party."

"What? Why! Everyone's going to be there."

"You're not everyone."

"I have to go. I'm Brenda's best friend."

"Then she'll understand. How did you even plan on getting there? Walk?"

"Paco's gonna drive," he said. "And I swear I can be back before ten."

"Paco." She rolled her eyes. "Yeah, he's really helping your case."

He stuttered for a moment. "What's that supposed to - So what, now you have a problem with my friends?"

"I have a problem with you and your friends lying to me."

"I'm sorry, okay?"

"Well, that makes it all better, doesn't it?"

"Mami!"

"Don't start, Jaime. Even if you hadn't lied, it's all the way on the west side at the house of someone I don't know with a bunch of kids I don't know."

"There's gonna be adults. It's not a big deal."

"You know how many kids I see come in ODed or with alcohol poisoning? Kids find ways of doing what they want, adults or no."

Jaime breathed out. "There won't be any drugs or stuff like that. It's Brenda."

"Brenda, I trust. It's the other hundred kids that I wouldn't put it past."

"And what about me?" Jaime was nearly yelling. "Don't you trust me? Se sério. I'm not some stupid kid. I can look out for myself!"

Alberto returned from the back of the house. "Raise your voice to tua madre again," he spoke, "and I'll give you something to yell about."

Jaime turned to his padre, desperation cutting down his volume. "Papi, por favor," he pled. "I need to go to this party."

No mercy from him. "What you need, Jaime, is to understand that deceit won't get you anywhere in this world."

"But -" Jaime turned back to her. "Mami, at least let me give Brenda her present. You know how hard I've been working on it."

Bianca's face softened and she felt her resolve waver. When he looked at her with those big brown eyes and puckered expression … He wanted it so bad. He was hurting for it. Every nerve in her body wanted to ease his pain. She shook herself. Ser mujer, Bianca. After everything she just said? That whole argument? If she let him get away with this then she was as good as admitting she'd been wrong and he was right. But he was wrong. And he had to learn that choices had consequences no matter how hard it was to swallow.

Her shoulders squared. "You lied to me. As a result, you are not going."

Jaime let out a holler. "This isn't fair!"

"You can give her the present tomorrow. It's one party, Jaime," Bianca said stuffing a bag of oranges into the fridge. "Not the end of the world. Vivirás." Jaime stormed off to his room.

"If you slam that door -" Alberto warned.

Jaime closed the door with savage gentleness. Bianca whirled to the stove and whacked the spoon against the rim. She rummaged around the kitchen like that for several minutes, slamming cabinets, thudding utensils, attacking food stains.

Alberto folded the grocery bags. "Amor," he soothed.

"What?"

"Dígame."

Bianca spun to him, slapping a strand of hair from her eyes. "It's just I'm the bad guy now. I'm the one who's ruining everything. He spent all this time on her present. It's lindo, Berto. You should see what he made. It must have taken weeks. He was so excited and now … Now he can't give it to her."

"He lied."

"I know," she snapped. "But this other part of me is like, we shouldn't stop him from doing something nice for Brenda. Her home life isn't the best. Jaime is a good friend to her." Her esposo was motionless as she ranted. "And yeah, I don't feel like I should reward him for hiding something from us. It's just … Sometimes being right isn't the most important thing."

"So you want to drive him all the way out to the Upper Valley and back?"

Bianca flicked off the burner and hunched over the smoldering kettle. "I don't know. I don't know what to do."

It wasn't that she didn't trust Jaime, but as his mother it was her job to keep him out of situations where he was pressured. At the same time, if she didn't let him know she trusted him … he would be crushed. His own self confidence would crumple and then he would make bad choices just because he thought she expected him to fail anyways and …

These tempst of thoughts fell away as Alberto pulled her in by the hips and gave her a kiss. "I've got Milagro. Go."

Bianca rested her cheek against his scratchy five-o'clock shadow. "How is it you always know what to say?"

His chest vibrated as he chuckled. "Me? All I do is repeat what you say. It's worked for me so far."

She left him with a kiss and gathered together her purse and keys. All the while she wondered what to say. She stood outside his door, hesitating. From within, the thrum of metal music droned in manic agitation. A projection of Jaime's mood no doubt. She took a deep breath and knocked.

"Jaime?"

No answer.

"Jaime, we need to talk. Open up."

Nothing.

She tried the handle.

Locked.

At any other time she would have let him brood until he came to his senses. She retrieved the key from the top of the door jam and unlocked it. "Look, get your shoes on. We'll talk in the car. I'm taking you to …" She looked around the room.

A pile of clean laundry on his bed. A desk scattered with homework, videogames, and bits of wrapping paper. The TV tuned to a Pandora channel. But no Jaime.

Her eyes locked on the cracked window. No. No he did not. Betrayal slid into her gut cold and unfamiliar. He had. He'd snuck out, disobeyed, to go to a party. She smothered her hurt with anger. "That boy …" Her face hardened. "Estás muerto!"


 

loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

abuela - grandmother
abuelita - granny
amor - dear / love
caramba - dang
cumpleaños - birthday
dígame - what's up / tell me
doña - mistress / head of the house
esposo - husband
estás lindito - you're cute
estás muerto - you're dead
fiesta - party
hijo/s - son / children
hola, mi pequeñita - hello, my little one
hombre - brother
lindita - cutie
lindo - beautiful
lo siento - sorry
madre - mother
mami - mom
mano - bro
mi amor - my dear / my love
padre - father
papi - dad
picante - hot sauce
pequeñita - little one
por favor - please
se sério - come on / be serious
señor - Mr.
ser mujer - be a woman
tía - aunt
tua madre - your mother
vivirás - you'll live

Chapter Text

Laugh and they'll never know they managed to hurt you. Don't ever give them that satisfaction.

-Paco Testas


BEFORE...

For the brief moment Paco flashed their invitations to the gatehouse guard, hot air swept through the car window. He tweaked the AC and followed the fleet of vehicles up the hill to Brenda's fiesta.

Paco shook his head at the mansions as they passed. "These people are different from you and me, mano. I mean look at that guy. A tennis court? Was the soccer stadium too extreme?"

No response. Jaime stared straight ahead. His face was ashen. Occasionally he licked his lips or repositioned the gift bag in his hands. He'd been mostly silent the whole way, at first brimming with adrenaline, but as the novelty of his rebellion wore off, he'd become more and more stoic.

"If you're gonna hurl, roll down the window. I mean, the new car smell was lost a while ago, but don't think my tío would appreciate his upholstery being christened by your lunch."

No answer.

"Uh, Jaime? Stay with me, hombre. Don't go towards the light."

Jaime peeked into the tissue paper. "What'd you say?"

Paco shook his head, then pat him on the shoulder. "There, there, abuelo. The doc said the blackouts are normal."

Jaime shrugged out of reach, then bent his head to stare out the window. Paco followed his gaze and nearly ran off the road. "That's where her tía lives? Brenda's been holding out on us!"

At the top of the incline looming at the end of a cul-de-sac was a walled estate. The masoned stone was topped with wrought iron bars. Just visible beyond them was a terraced terracotta roof.

Paco inched the car along and eventually breached the wall. The mansion sprang into view. Tall windows and open balconies framed a covered entryway. The cars were directed up the driveway which horse-shoed around an ornate gold fontain. Everything from the cobbled driveway to the house was a pale desert color. This was offset with vibrant green bursts from shrubs, flowers, and palm trees landscaped around the front.

"Holy … Valets," Paco said spotting the attendants. "She's got valets. Dang. Aren't you supposed to tip them or whatever? That's what they do in the movies, right?" A sharply dressed man in suit pants and jacket sprang to the drivers side. Paco and Jaime exchanged looks. Paco grabbed his present to Brenda then excited.

"Welcome, sirs. Your ticket stub. Please present this when you wish to retrieve your vehicle. Enjoy your stay."

Paco accepted the stub. "Thanks, dude. Uh …" He patted his pockets. "Ehha-ha, must have left my wallet in my other pants. Catch you next time." He shuffled over to Jaime. They stood at the base of dual sweeping staircases. The stone steps climbed to the front door which was more suited for a castle then a house.

Amongst the partygoers were imposing matones in dark suits. They paced along the wall, stood post at the gates, and even watched from balconies above. Teens streamed past them, most in nice to formal dress, none, however, were as stylish as Paco himself. He tweaked his bowtie.

Sheep.

"I'm dead," Jaime said. "So totally dead."

Paco elbowed him as they ascended the steps. "Loosen up, mano. It's a party."

The two lingered at the front porch. The mansion perched on the side of the mountain. From there the entire west side and Upper Valley were visible, spilling down the incline far below.

"Dude," he muttered so only Jaime could hear. "This lady has some serious issues to want to live in a place where she can look down on everyone."

But Jaime's mind was elsewhere. "I just want to give Brenda her present and go. If my mom finds out I'm gone …" He cringed.

"You at least have to grab some pastel. I bet it has gold frosting. With real gold in it." Paco catcalled a girl in a slinky sapphire dress. "Britt-nay! How you doing, chica? Looking fine."

"My madre will skin me, Paco. Starting with my eyelids so I have to watch the rest."

Paco sighed. "I hear ya. Crash and run. No sweat, Cenicienta."

Both gasped when they passed through the gaping entrance. They stood on white marble floors and some way in front of them, bleached granite stairs curved up to a second level. Iron chandeliers shone down on them. Above, thick wood beams thrusted the ceiling up twenty feet.

"Nice place," Paco mumbled. "A bit cramped, but nice." They climbed the next staircase as directed by servers who blocked doors on the first level.

Jaime chuckled. "My house could live in here with room for a wife and kids." They came to the second floor. A woman in black sat at an onyx piano and played a dramatic melody. Jaime craned his head. "You see Brenda anywhere?"

Paco scanned the scene. To the left, several servers presented beverages to the youth. Before them, people sat at couches and armchairs or mulled about marvling open mouthed. To the right, a hallway led to an imposing dark door where a man stood guard. Paco frowned. "Think this place has enough security?" He nodded towards two other guards standing at pillars. "That one looks like he can crush my head with his pinky."

"It's just to keep kids from snooping around. I don't see her. Come on. Let's try outside."

They followed the flow of people out the back of the house. Here, a tiered patio sprawled. The space was equal to the size of the mansion. Arched stone pillars looked out over a shallow fountain and further out lay an inviting teel pool.

Fireplaces and grills were for the moment unlit though chefs hastened with trays of kabobs and thick slabs of meat shelved between parchment paper. Food tables with h'orderves were positioned by clusters of couches and wicker lounge chairs.

Most of the food was too strange for Paco to identify. But there was no mistaking the greasy smell of fried taquitos. One table was just for fresh salsas and a server was going around to different groups mashing up guacamole. Tortillas and beans flowed freely and where good eats were concerned, that was just as it should be.

Over it all, a live band played by the fountain. The current beat was a contagious Brazilian samba. A few early dancers already grooved to the music. Further out amongst tame trees and shaped bushes, couples strolled arm in arm under the settling twilight. A few sought more private retreats near the back wall were paths wound between latticed gardens and several gazebos.

The guards here were good. Paco had to really look for them. But they were there. Stoic and partly concealed behind foliage or at the far recesses of the property.

Under a crisscrossing string of paper lanterns, a crowd gathered. There, presents piled a table. The wrapping paper was a cacophony of color. Nearby he caught sight of Brenda's telltale red hair in the crowd.

Paco nudged Jaime. "There she …" The crowd parted and he got a clear view. Without warning, his heart ended up somewhere in his throat. "Woah."

She wore a dark teal dress. Never one to show skin, the sleeves went to her elbows. The dress gathered in a high v-neck. A wide band wrapped her waist then fell straight to her calfs. It was one of those heavy fabrics that didn't puff up. It moved smooth as water. As Brenda bounced around, kissed, hugged, swept side to side, the dress flowed with her, barely managing to keep up with her energy.

Next to Brenda, all the other girls from school looked like, well, girls; awkward and playing dress up in their puffy skirts, short dresses, or strapless numbers with bulging cleavage. Brenda was classy where they were vulgar. She'd never looked like that before. Anything like that. She turned away to welcome another of her guests.

"No kidding," Jaime answered. He thought Paco had commented on the crowd engulfing her. "How are we supposed to get to her?"

Paco shook himself, doing a quick scan to make sure no one had caught him with his guard down. "Take a number. Wait in line. That sorta thing. If you want to be all proper and junk." He cupped his hands around his mouth. In a shrill, cracking falsetto cry that nicely mirrored his abuela he called, "Oye, Brendita! Chiquita pelirrojita! Ven aquita!"

Jaime stifled a laugh and covered his face. "She is going to murder you."

Paco shrugged. "How else am I supposed to get her attention? We're in a hurry, right?" Laughs sounded around the gathering and people pointed and stared.

"Santo cielo, Paco. She's pissed. This was not my idea. I'm not a part of this. Tell her I'm by the pool." Jaime darted away.

Coward.

Paco faced the churning masses, scoping for a stain of amber hair. "Where is that woma-AHN!" A grip like a grizzly bear caught his shirt collar and whipped him around. At the other end was Brenda, face same shade as her hair, scowl cutting nicely through her makeup. Her eyes were aflame.

He suddenly wished he was with Jaime. "Ah, Brendita," he grinned. "You did hear me."

"Don't call me that!" She wound up to punch him, then thought better of it with witnesses and settled for a shove. "What in the hell," she whisper yelled, "is your problemI told you never to do that stupid yodel again and then you come in here to my freaking fiesta and … What are you wearing?"

"Uh, clothes. At least I was until you nearly ripped them from my body." He straightened his shirt with a violent motion. "Take it easy, woman."

Volume back to normal—or normal for her which was a soft yell—Brenda pinched the bridge of her nose. "Did you not read the invitation about the dress code?"

"Ha! Your mistake was thinking I could read." He fake paused, confusion twisting his face. "Wait …" She snorted out a half laugh which made him smirk in return.

They fell into a brief silence, which was so very odd for the two of them. Maybe it was because Brenda was trying to mind her manners with her party. Maybe it was because Paco didn't know if he should mess with her, or how he should mess with her when she was all … fancy and … nice looking like she was.

The silence swelled. It had never been hard to talk to her before. Why was it suddenly so weird? He fiddled with his hands, then remembered he still held her present.

"Here." He lunged the bottle of picante at her. He'd never felt so uncomfortable in his life, and he once drank a glass of bleach water on accident. The bottle from his abuela's pantry was lableless, tagless, bowless, and every manner of 'lesses.' What it was, was sort of sticky. Next to all the sparkle and shine and grandeur of this house, this party, this new Brenda … it looked so pathetic and dull.

Her eyes narrowed. "Is that—"

He rubbed his neck. "Look, I was sorta jammed on time and—"

"—your abuela's picante!" She snatched it from him. "Paco, I love you and forgive everything. She makes the best hot sauce on this planet!" She beamed at him, a smile so familiar but somehow changed. "Thank you!"

He basked in her praise for a moment, then swallowed it before she could see it in his face.

Jaime, feel free to suck it.

She hugged him and laughed. Brenda never did anything gentle. Her hug was rib cracking. It was their tradition to squeeze the crap out of each other until one of them gave in from pain. But again, something was different about the ritual. He was suddenly aware of her body against his. And that made him all wobbly in his knees for some reason.

He broke away, terrified that she might feel the hammering of his heart against her and think it was … something it wasn't. Because it wasn't. They were chill.

Paco brushed his nose. What was with him? Keep it together, man!

She looked around them. "Where's Jaime?"

"Who? Oh, that magro. He's …" Paco thought about lying. About saying he didn't know. Just so he could be around her a bit longer. He wanted to spend all night joking and arguing and talking with her. It blew that he had to bail. But he couldn't screw over his hombre like that. "… by the pool. Allow me to escort you, señorita." He gave an exaggerated bow and offered her his arm.

She gave him a critical sweep of the eyes. "Smooth. The neon shorts really sell it." But she accepted his arm nonetheless. Linked at the elbow, they moved to the back yard.

All this sweet music, killer food, and the flipping pool! Paco sighed. But alas, it was not to be. Jaime owed him big for this.


loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

abuela - grandma
Cenicienta - Cinderella
chica - girl
cumpleaños - birthday
fiesta - party
hombre - brother
madre - mother
magro - skinny person
mano - bro
matones - thugs
Oye, Brendita! Chiquita pelirrojita! Ven aquita! - Hey, little Brenda! Little redheaded girl! Come here!
pastel - cake
santo cielo - good heavens
señorita - miss
tía - aunt
tío - uncle

Chapter Text

 

Playing it safe may keep the status quo. But to make change, that requires risk.

—Bordeaux


PRESENT...

Bordeaux breathed in the scent of dust and dry vegetation. The El Paso air was crisp in the predawn. She was reminded of the rocky hills of western Iraq. The street butted up against El Paso's downtown sector. It was a sad, neglected side of town. Businesses were in shambles, the buildings in need of repair or renovation. The Texas Research and Technologies labs were no exception to this.

TRT was pitiful sight. The fire from months past still showed its mark. One wing lay collapsed, a crumbling frame of whether beaten remains. Some of the debris had been cleared and construction even started on the roof and lab rooms. But material lay piled and abandoned. The undamaged structure had been vandalized. The windows were first broken by rocks, boarded up, and then tagged by spray paint.

Agent Rockwell squinted at the wreckage. The pawn sported only scrapes and bruises from their encounter two days ago. As for herself, Bordeaux had escaped the crash with a slight concussion and fractured ribs. Peacemaker bore his injuries well, moving slow and measured. Rotation of any joint was restricted by either pain or bandages. He gave no complaint though she knew he must be in severe discomfort.

A good man. Solid in his duty. Driven by loyalty to Checkmate and his fellow soldiers. But he was on the wrong side and due to that, he wouldn't last long. Shame. She could use someone like him backing her up.

A repressed sigh swelled in Bordeaux's throat. So alone. She felt as though she held a bolder at the top of a hill. And she was the only one keeping it from rolling over her and tumbling down. But she would not budge. She would not run. She would go it alone for as long as it took.

But it was a dangerous game she played. Getting aid right under King's nose was dangerous. He had eyes everywhere, but it could be worth the risk if it meant putting an end to this all. She needed help. She didn't know how much longer could she last on her own.

Peacemaker picked his way around the wreckage, wincing and limping as he went. Hospital staff had been appalled when he announced his intention to leave. A ruddy faced doctor ordered him to use the crutches provided. Peacemaker assured the doctor that he'd never be without them. True to his word, he carried the metal crutches by his side. The only use made of the walking aids was to knock things out of his way so he didn't have to bend over.

Blank white spaces outlined where lab equipment had been removed. There was no indication of what purpose the lab might have served.

"What do you think?" she asked.

He grunted. "Could have been anything. Manufacturing. Testing …" He nudged a piece of rubble with a crutch and shook his head. "But with the fire … impossible to tell."

"Maybe they burned the facility to cover their tracks," Rockwell spoke up.

Bordeaux's pocket buzzed. She didn't bother checking the caller ID. It was her secure line. "I'll check the second floor in case we missed anything."

Peacemaker sighed. "Sure. I'll talk to the building manager out front; see if I can't figure out what this place was used for."

While Peacemaker and Rockwell idled in the desolation, Bordeaux returned to the main building. She followed a stairwell to the second level. Here, offices lined the walls while cubicles cluttered between support pillars.

She entered an office, closing the door behind her. A desk and bare filing cabinet were the only evidence of its former use. She dialed her satellite phone and flicked open the blind. Clear blueing sky and abandoned storefronts greeted her.

"Bordeaux," King's voice answered.

"Sir."

"Your report does not bode well. You're sure the Texan's suit is connected to KORD?"

I'm here now, sir. Evidence was destroyed by a fire. There is no way to confirm that the boy has any affiliation with KORD. But the coincidence is hard to ignore."

"Indeed. Especially with the Texan appearing so closely to his demise."

"Your orders, sir?"

"Proceed as planned."

A sudden flash of movement across the sky caught her eye. Bordeaux leapt to the window. The street was as before. But she could have sworn she saw …

A thud on the roof.

Her eyes flicked to the ceiling. Trickles of adrenalin burned through her limbs.

"And what of the Queen's dog?" King went on. "He suspect anything?"

She eased the door open. Across the room a loud crack echoed. She could have sworn it was the sound of a roof access door being broken through. Had to alert Peacemaker and Rockwell.

"Bordeaux?"

She reached for her gun. "Sir, I'll have to get back to you."

His voice held mild amusement. "Problem?"

"I think our theory about the kid being connected to KORD wasn't far off. Because he just broke into the building."

"What?"

"He's here, sir. Moving to intercept. I'll contact you once we've—"

"Wait," King's voice came sharp through the speaker. Bordeaux used the reflective surface of a framed poster to get an angle on the end of the hall. A shadowed figure slunk from office to office, searching for something. "Is the other Knight aware?" A quick glance outside revealed Peacemaker and Rockwell talking with the supervisor.

"Negative." Her heart beat hard but steady. The shadowed figure at the hall's end had reached a locked door. A pause as it considered the obstacle.

"Locked up in the Zoo the boy is no advantage to me."

Bordeaux adjusted her grip on the butt of her gun. "Sir?"

"Things are in motion, Bordeaux. Things I could use him for." She didn't have to wonder what use King could have for the Texan; the teen was a walking weapon of mass destruction.

When the voice returned it was confident and sly. "Here's what you do."


Jaime was awoken from his power nap by a dim buzzing in his ear.

Current time: five hours and forty minutes by MST. Vitals: stable. Exterior temperature: seventy-seven degrees.

Jaime groaned and rolled over on his patch of dirt. He'd landed on some ridge in the Franklin Mountains to get some sleep. The repraize was short lived.

If Jaime wished to compromise, it was required he act before Checkmate discovered TRT.

What he wouldn't give for a snooze button. Behind closed lids, aeronautic readings and equations scrolled by. Jaime forced himself to sit up. The sky was already lightening with the hint of morning. He slowly pulled himself to consciousness. Hungry. Sleepy. His injured leg throbbed. He was immediately aware that metabolic readings were normal, neurological activity was increasing, and repairs were almost completed.

"I could eat a whole freaking cinnamon bun from Lulu's," he slurred. The famous pastry was found in a bakery in San Antonio. Whenever they traveled out east, Jaime's madre made a special trip to Lulu's so the family could feast upon a three pound piece of heaven.

He shot over town, reviewing what he knew. The suit and its artificial intelligence came from TRT. The real question was, how did it get inside him? Maybe he'd been exposed to an experimental chemical when he and Brenda went snooping around the lab wreckage. Did that mean that Brenda had a super suit too?

It was good the trip took only minutes. Jaime was having a hard time keeping himself from trying to find his familia. But as he knew — and as the suit kept reminding him whenever his mind drifted that direction — Checkmate was probably watching the hospital and his street. Those psychos had already proven they were willing to do anything to capture him, including launching freaking missiles over his house. It was safer for his familia if he stayed away. Though he couldn't help but wonder if his padre was out of ICU.

He reached his destination and dropped from the sky in a onyx streek. The building looked abandoned. Worry crawled along his skull as he searched vacant offices. Everything was cleared out. He'd been counting on this place being in use. He kept searching. This was his only clue to the origins of the suit. If he could find just one computer, he could access data on the projects they had conducted.

He came upon a locked door. That was promising. "Hey traje," he whispered. He wasn't sure why he whispered, but it seemed like the right thing to do when breaking and entering. He held up his hands. "You got a lock pick in here with all these weapons?"

Discretion: unnecessary. Subject Jaime capable of breaking the lock with single precice blow to—

"Got a lock pick?" He could almost feel the AI give an eye roll as it responded.

Affirmative.

Pressing a finger to the keyhole, the suit morphed into the lock, forming the shape of the key. It sort of tickled.

The door opened to a selent server room. Silent towers lined the walls and a mess of wires tangled the machines. Jackpot. TRT definitely had info backed up on these babies. Jaime pressed the power button on one of the towers.

Nothing.

He tried another. And another.

"Come on!" He checked the power strips and plugs.

Subject Jaime should be made aware that no electro-readings emanated from the power lines in the building.

"The power's shut off," he repeated. "Of course. Because nothing can ever go right—"

"Jaime Reyes?" a voice said from behind him.

He spun, arm already changed and ready to blast away. He faced familiar face in the doorway, the woman present at his interrogation. Checkmate! He should have listened to the suit and stayed away from here! They were going to take him back to that base and do who-knew-what to him. Had to escape. Maybe if he blasted a hole in the wall.

Blasting a hole in the opponent would be more effective.

"Stay back," Jaime spat at the woman. "I don't want to hurt you but I will!" Unlikely. The agent was lithe but solid, body hard from years of training and combat. Her eyes pinned him to the spot. If he had to bet who would win this fight, he'd put his money on her.

Inaccurate. Opponent easily neutralized with single plasma blast to the head; heart; liver—

Jaime tuned out the list of other vital organs as the woman spoke.

"Does it look like I want a fight?" Her hands were out, palms up.

He snorted. "Yeah, that's what Peacemaker said right before he stabbed me with a… Aren't you the lady who shot me?" She tried to reach for something. "Hands up, keep them up!"

Her voice was level. "Take it easy. This lab was destroyed. Whatever you're looking for is gone." She slowly retrieved a piece of paper from her pocket. "But…"

He couldn't help himself. "What?"

"There's another lab. KORD Omniversal, headquartered in Chicago. You want Dr. Havok. He was head scientist here. I think he's the one you're looking for." She extended the note towards him. He didn't take it.

He shook his head, still not sure he shouldn't listen to the suit and blast her into a fine powdery ash. "Why … Why are you helping me?"

"I'm going to leave now." Not missing a beat, she placed the note on top of one of the computers. "Peacemaker and another agent are out front. I suggest you go a different way if you don't want trouble."

"How do I know this isn't a trap?" he asked. They probably wanted to get him to a specific spot so they could drop a bomb on him or something.

Her tone was matter of fact. "Because I could have shot you in the back of the head and ended you right here." Jaime swallowed deeply. She backed away. "But I didn't." He kept the cannon trained on her as she edged out and disappeared.

He only breathed a sigh of relief when he landed safely back in the Franklin mountain range. He sat, stretching as the rising sun bathed him in warmth. It was weird the way he could feel its heat through the armor.

"I can't trust anything Checkmate says," Jaime muttered to himself. After everything they told him, everything they'd done to him, it was crazy to trust them! But this was exactly the information he needed in order to track down the maker of the suit.

What was he supposed to do when the people he trusted the least offered him the thing he wanted most?

Without risk, there could be no reward.

Jaime blinked at the thought. "Traje, was that you? Híjole. You're actually helpful. Why aren't you telling me to liquidize her or something?"

Vitals were targeted. It was Jaime who failed to deploy.

"This is unreal. Even you want to trust that Checkmate agent."

The AI went on a rant. There was no other word for it. Bubbles of what could only be described as anger fizzed at the edges of his mind.

Operational data: incomplete. Memory files: corrupted. Synchronization: faulty. Conjecture: backup located at secondary location. Information given by subject from Checkmate: confirmed. Leader of KORD Omniversal responsible for forced stasis of unit, possibly responsible for faulty data. Objective: retrieve backup at all costs; fulfill directive.

"You know, I start to like you, then you bring up all that 'directive' junk."

But the suit was busy bombarding him with recon techniques and the danger of failure. He took it all in stride. Maybe it was a bad sign that he was getting used to this. But at least they were finally agreeing on something, even if the suit wanted to 'eliminate all resistance' when they got to TRT headquarters.

"Chicago," Jaime repeated glancing down at the name on the paper Bordeaux had given him. He could only hope this Dr. Havok had the answers he needed and that this would be the last stop in his continental adventures.

He gave one last look over the city of El Paso. Do this, and he could get the suit off of him. He could finally go home.


Bordeaux watched out the window, but the Texan heeded her warning and was not seen. She'd almost forgotten how young he sounded. After the whole incident chasing him through town and saving Peacemaker last minute from his clutches, she expected him to be … more in control. Or out of control. Either a diabolical mastermind or a raving psychotic. But the Texan just seemed scared. Lost.

She made the call, confident he had taken the bait. "Package on its way, sir."

"Good," King's voice rumbled back. "About the other Knight… He's sniffing too close."

"He's still recovering. I could arrange an unfortunate reaction to his medication…" She knew King was more careful than that. But it didn't hurt to show she was eager to please.

"Your zeal is appreciated, Bordeaux. But that would only complicate things. Midnight is already on my case as it is. No. It's time you both return to the keep. See that it's done."

Although he couldn't see her, Bordeaux nodded. "Yes, sir." She ended the call as she exited the building and approached the other agents.

Peacemaker didn't bother waiting, hobbling over to her as fast as he could to meet her half way. "Anything?" he asked.

"Negative. This place is a dead end. We should—"

The knight shook his head, cutting over her. "We're just late to the party. The supervisor said the stuff they were working on here was very specialized. Didn't know what exactly. After the fire, they resumed production. But shortly after the department head went missing. No one else was qualified so the project was shut down. The team, equipment, all of it, was shipped back to their main branch."

Bordeaux's heart sank though her face remained passive. "That so? Where's that?" Though she already knew the answer.

There was a fire in the man's eye. "Chicago. We're on the next flight out."


loose Spanish translation as taken in context:

familia - family
híjole - oh my gosh; wow
madre - mother
padre - father
traje - suit