Early this afternoon Justin considered all the information he’d learned and where he’d need to go with this next. The next logical step began to unfold almost immediately, and that resulted in him picking up his phone and dialing his best friend.
“Sooooo,” is his opener, once all normal pleasantries are exchanged. “If I tell you I’m working on an extremely dangerous project that you can’t go talking about casually and that I might need both some back up and some serious film skills, would you be interested?”
He has never really described any of his projects as ‘extremely dangerous’ before. Some of them have been. Usually the highest he’s willing to go is ‘a little risky’ or ‘kinda dangerous’ or ‘meh it’s nothing.’
Whereas Roddy is simultaneously the king of hyperbole and underestimation. He once described sneaking into a mobster’s junkyard for some cool shots ‘a Sunday stroll in the garden’ and called to complain that his world was ending because they put pineapple on his pizza.
Granted, pineapple is pretty fucking disgusting, but the random voicemail he left Justin made it sound like he was being held at needlepoint by a hopped up addict in an alleyway.
All this to say, he sort of has a broken gauge when it comes to threat levels. After a moment, he asks, “Would it give us mad bank and-or is for the greatest of the greater good?”
“It is for the greatest of the greater good. Though…I mean…I could probably get you some sort of compensation negotiated.” Did he think to get himself some sort of compensation negotiated? No, but then the trust fund baby who really needs to get his own place never does. When he does get his own cash it’s either pin money or just stuff he shoves into investments against the day his parents finally get tired of housing him. But he is aware, at least, that not everyone has that luxury.
“Run over to my place and I’ll tell you about it in person,” he suggets. “It’s not really the sort of stuff we should be talking about in– ” In various public places. He’d been surprised to find the SHIELD agent doing just that, but she’d probably had her reasons. All the same he is not going to jeopardize anything by speaking about this where info brokers just like himself might be gleaning info over their beers and lattes.
“Have you had your palace swept for bugs, m’lord? You could have a whole colony in that palace o’ yours.” Roddy’s voice goes quieter for a moment as he yells, “Oy, on your left!” Then back to the receiver. “Yeah, I’ll be there in fifteenish.” Which means thirtyish in Roddytime.
He arrives not at the front door, but by rapping on the window closest to where Justin is. When he looks outside, he’ll see Roddy floating there with dollar store fangs in his mouth. “Hssss! Lef me innnn…” slurrp. The teeth make him drool. “I vant to suuuuuck…” the teeth pop right out, “…bollocks.”
Justin never much responds to jokes about the ‘palace.’ He can’t see that going anywhere good. It’s Mom and Dad’s palace anyway, but let’s face it, there’s reasons he’s not eager to move out.
When he sees this he bursts out laughing though, and opens the window with a merry grin. “Buy a guy dinner first,” is his return quip.
For all that he’s a very polite dork and a raging bookworm, Justin has one other thing. He flirts. With. Everyone. He flirts politely and shyly and with the occasional bit like that one, but he does flirt. He doesn’t flirt as much with Roddy, because they’re buds. But every now and then Roddy gets the brunt of it too.
His room is painstakingly neat, though, and looks like some sort of reporter or cop’s office. He’s got several boards up with various investigations on them, mostly whiteboards that connect to the Internet and which allow him to move digital files around. His laptop sits on his desk, and he has a printer that’s pretty heavy-duty and expensive, which is paired with a copier and scanner. His bed is sort of shoved off to the side, set up like a daybed with black covers and black, white, and grey pillows. There is a comfortable black overstuffed leather chair in one corner, as well as the desk chair. His e-reader is next to his computer on the desk. There are no posters or knick-nacks, though he has printed out and framed his four published stories.
He turns on one whiteboard that was currently dark and says, “What do you know about the epidemic of drugs causing humans to randomly and dangerously start manifesting powers all over the city?”
“I’m leaving the teeth there for your gardener. Take a picture if you catch him discovering them. Hup!” Roddy braces his hands on either side of the windowsil and hauls himself in. There’s a weird feeling of distortion before he lands neatly. Then he bows, bows. There was a time when he was absolutely terrible at landings. He was all Bambi on ice, long limbs akimbo.
“Remind me why I’m not the loveable mooch who crashes at your place and never pays rent? Oh, that’s right, because I don’t want to know if your flirting ever actually does land someone in the sack.” Whereas Roddy’s never had a serious…anything. Or even a semi-serious anything. There was this girl in senior year who was obsessed with him for about two weeks, but that’s the closest he’s come. The closest that Justin knows about anyway.
He looks over at the whiteboards and shrugs. “Em. Only what I read in the papers?” Which is a lie. By that he means, only what might’ve flashed as an alert and gotten people talking on social media. His photography has a decent following on there.
Justin, fortunately, can speak Roddy, and briefly puts himself into the mindset that he’s going to have to drop a bit of a briefing. Fortunately his opener kind of did.
As for his paramours, in high school, none. Things have been better since graduation, if casual, but suffice to say Roddy’s choice is a good choice. He’s entertained a lady or two here, and a gentleman or two, at least when his parents aren’t around. Which might eventually inspire him to find his own place after all. But serious? No. His need for novelty makes commitment a rough deal, for one thing.
His whiteboard shows a lot of his investigation to date, but he runs Roddy through it.
“I’ll spare you the biology bit, but cutting to the chase: smuggled vibranium, smuggled unknown flowers out of Africa, links to a Purifier oufit in the South Sprawl, seems designed to create as much havoc as possible. For example last night a user started shooting laser beams out of her eyes and hurt a bunch of people, causing loads of collateral damage. The Purifiers may be using it to stir up anti-mutant sentiment, to show how dangerous we all are and whatnot.”
He clears his throat. “I’m um. I’m now a uh. Well uh. Now a SHIELD um.” He rubs the back of his neck. “Asset? On this?”
“Thank you very much for sparing me biology. High school certainly didn’t.” Roddy’s grades in science and math are actually the reason he hasn’t applied to schools as of yet. They kind of gave his GPA a hit, despite strong showings in pretty much everything else.
He drops down into one of the chairs, flopping bodily. “Laser beams! Man. That would be cool. But maybe also terrible? Lots of powers like that around.”
Then, a pause as he listens. When he gets to the end, he says (rather loudly) “SHIT you’re the fuzz?!”
“No, I’m not the fuzz, I’m just sort of helping the fuzz this time? A lot of people are dying, Roddy, this stuff has awful side effects. Would you believe I stumbled onto this while listening to people talk in a library? My point of contact is a Fuzz Scientist, not a Fuzz Spy. Anyway, I’ve tracked the guy who is buying the stolen vibranium to a church in the South Sprawl. I want to see if we can do some surveillance, if you can film the church and the people in it so we can see who else might be involved, start investigating other members, whatever. Plus Fred, the buyer, has now seen a raven, a cat, a rat…he’s going to start suspecting a shapeshifter any time now, so I can’t just go waltzing in as yet another animal. I’m thinking rooftop to start though, just kind of keeping our distance.”
He doesn’t worry about the volume; neither Charlene or Kevin are home today and it’s just them in the massively oversized house. Roddy’s reaction produces a slight twinkle in his eyes, too, but he keeps it serious.
“Yeah, but…” Roddy leans forward, then stage-whispers, “What if SHIELD are the ones doin’ it in the first place? I mean, would you really put it past them?” This is why he’s the image guy and not the words guy. He tends to come up with some far-fetched conspiracy theories. But with the state of the world, can you blame him?
“Hold on, hold on, buddy,” he holds up a hand. “If you’re attached to the SHIELDie folks, why’re you pulling me in to this? I mean, you know I always love being included in your deadly deadly errands, but, this is sounding like a thing that might be best left to the pros, y’know?”
“SHIELD is not the ones doing it,” Justin says dryly. “All roads point to the Purifiers at this juncture, and if the SHIELD agents were doing it they have a bunch of legal authority to tell me to stay the Hell away from it. Instead they’ve welcomed me with open arms and have let me take my side of the investigation virtually anywhere I want with it.”
This is why he’s the image guy. Justin takes the conspiracy theory with the same amount of good grace he usually does, which is to say with patience, but with a desire to set the record straight immediately, and with a fair degree of wryness about Roddy’s wild imagination.
And he shrugs his shoulder at the question. “Don’t have to if you don’t want to,” he adds. “But here’s the thing. I get the feeling they’re spread a little…thin. Kaylee– Agent Simmons– she’s going to all sorts of freelancers on this.”
“Mmm, yeees. Trusting an eighteen year old with a critical investigation,” Roddy slouches and taps his lower lip. “A true marker of competence, that.” He slips down a little too far on the thing and awkwardly pulls himself back up. Ahem. “So, what? You thought you’d pull me against the warm bosom of The Man (TM) with you?” Yes, he says ‘(TM)’ out loud.
It should be noted that he doesn’t sound completely opposed to the idea.
“Nineteen,” Justin grumbles. He’s nineteen! “And they had to, because I found the vibranium they couldn’t find, and the buyer, and the seller, all based on a vague conversation in a library, and then brought it straight to them.”
He says this with what is perhaps a justifiable amount of pride, and he looks a little flustered; because he is competent and he doesn’t think trusting his very good intel is a mark of incompetence at all. He might even sound slightly wounded; he’s a little excited to be on something so big. But as is his way, he only offers the slightest bit of reproach in his commentary on what he accomplished. He’s not afraid to toot his own horn exactly, especially not when it comes to His Thing, but niehter does he like to brag.
“I’m not trying to pull you to anyone’s bosom, if you want to nestle up to someone’s bosom that’s your job. I just could use some help is all. If you want to.”
Roddy lets out a dramatic sigh and then holds up his arm. He waggles it around like a wet noodle, even letting his finger slap against his palm. “Do ye know what this is? Do ya?”
“Your…arm?” Justin asks slowly, as if trying to understand what kind of point his buddy is working up to. Something, he suspects, with a great punchline and a touch of drama. He is, he suspects, totally in, but is going to need to do a bit more grumbling and protesting. So he settles on his daybed crosslegged and simply gets comfortable so that he might enjoy the show.
This, he bets…is going to be the Pineapples to the 9th Power.
“My rubber arm that you are twisting with your amazing mental powers that somehow work only on me,” says Roddy as he continues to flop that spindly arm around. He shakes it a bit longer than is necessary for his point and then lets it drop limp. “I want a per diem though. So that means someone owes me for a Whopper and chips that I will invariably eat before this fool’s errand.”
Huh! Less painful than he thought. Justin grins and claps him on the shoulder. “To Burger King then,” he says. He will pay this per diem. For anything more formally per diemy he’ll have to ask SHIELD, but he does resolve to get Roddy paid for his work. He pulls on his sneakers– Justin hates shoes when he doesn’t have to wear them– and grabs his wallet, tucking it into his windbreaker. “Besides. Think of it this way. Footage you get today could make it into a badass documentary into this same drug epidemic a year from now. And a second one on the Purifiers themselves.”
“Wait, what? Right now? Jaysus.” Roddy gets to his feet and stretches fingers skyward. “You’re darned lucky that cameras come in miniature now.” Which means he’s almost always packing. “My great-uncle had this great beast of a thing with tapes thiiiis…” he mimes about two full feet, “…big. Can you imagine? And they only fit like 26 seconds of video.”
“That sounds inconvenient, what could anyone do with 26 seconds of video?”
Justin cocks his head and asks dryly, “Do you wanna vampire back down or do you want to use the front door, Dracula?”
Always in motion, save for when he’s working and focused, he’s all but bouncing from foot to foot now. It’s possible that in addition to the footage he just kind of wants Roddy’s company. Info gathering is solo work much of the time; it can be lonely. When he has a legitimate reason to bring in his best friend it’s kind of a neat thing.
And he definitely doesn’t want to be out in the South Sprawl spying on a Purifier cult all by his lonesome. In like. Any form.
“One day I will tell you the tale of the creature called Vine that once existed in the wilds of the interwebs in the days of old,” says Roddy in his best nostalgia-voice.
As to the question. “That depends. You said your mum is not around, yeah? Then I will take the front door and save my amazing Dracula powers in case we run into some trouble.”
Because it can’t hurt to bring someone with Roddy’s firepower to a dangerous situation, either.
“They don’t hate you,” Justin says for the 4006th time.
They totally hate him. But Justin won’t see it.
He takes the stairs down two at a time though, thundering across them with all the energy he’s got. His room is on the third floor, so this means the entire routine, but he does it with no trouble. And yes, the firepower is also very appreciated. Justin lacks said firepower, that’s for sure. Oh, he can turn into a big wolf or whatever but he’s also not really got the…temperament? For it?
He can fight, when backed into a corner. He just often. Kind of. Doesn’t. And as such he has never really studied how to make the most of his bigger, tougher, and more dangerous forms. He rarely even employes them. Small, compact, and snoopy. That’s what he favors.
It’s hard to say why Justin’s folks might not take to the gangly Newfoundlander. It could be Roddy’s sense of humour – uncouth and occasionally juvenile as it is. It could be his family’s fall from grace. It could be his accent, which does not invoke any kind of decorum or class. It could be that he’s gotten Justin into trouble once or twice and his folks don’t quite recognize the times when the shifter has returned the favour.
Like now, for instance.
He could just sort of jump over the banister and float gently to the first floor. He’s done it several times, in fact (in view of Justin’s parents. See points above.) But he does tend to restrain himself when they’re headed into a situation where it might be necessary for him to whip out the big guns. “All right, maybe not ‘hate’. What about ‘would not be sad if I stopped coming ’round’?
“Well, it’s their problem, not yours, anyway,” Justin says, as his feet hit the hardwoods of the first floor. He bounds over to set the alarm system and hits the button on his phone that will lock the doors after them thirty seconds after they walk out. “But I guess I can see why you’d want to avoid them, if you feel that way.”
Worth noting, Justin does not drive. He’s spoiled by being able to fly. He will let Roddy choose whatever mode of transportation to the Burger King suits him. He himself enjoys Whoppers, this really is no hardship, and he’s nearly always hungry. Shifting, and making constant changes in his body mass in particular, uses up a lot of calories.
As it is, there’s no service at the church for another hour, by their website’s schedule. They have time.
After a Burger King feast Justin brought Roddy to the roof of the building across the street from “The Blessed Meek” church, located just inside South Sprawl. This proves to mostly be a ramshackle, abandoned apartment block. They’re still about 20 minutes out from service, giving Roddy some time to set up; Justin, for his part, goes looking for shadowy corners to sit in, all while trying to figure out how to secure the roof access so they don’t get any unexpected company up here.
Though he won’t admit it, the ramshackle block has him creeped out. The signs are there. When he gets nervous his hair tends to shift without his meaning to, so it turns into very fine feathers that still look remarkably like hair. Except for the part where his crest rises in alarm, just these bird feathers instead of curls rising like a kind of mohawk.
“Calm your hair boner, Mohawkcatiel,” says Roddy as he fiddles with the settings on his camera. He was going to just shoot on his souped up phone camera, but the Burger King was near enough to his place that it wasn’t out of the way to stop off and pick up his better rig. The thing is more lens than body, and cost him nearly an entire summer’s worth of money from his job at a bookstore. But you need a decent rig to shoot in low light.
“So, em. What exactly am I looking fer again? I swear I did actually pay attention.” He might not have. Justin asked him to, which is, frankly, enough for him.
Justin sticks his hand atop his hair in embarrassment and shoves straight down, but all that happens is he molts a little bit. A gentle black adolescent feather pops out of his head and goes drifting towards the ground. He eyes it in dismay, then sighs and drops his hands.
“For now just…people,” he says. “I can take the tape back to the Agents and see if they can run any of these people through facial recognition. After service, though, when everyone’s gone? I want to get in there and look around; we can do some filming in there, too, and look for additional evidence.”
He shifts from foot to foot, walks over near Roddy, for all the world looking like he’s doing a birdy hop, retreats a little bit. The agitation is normal at least; when he’s got nothing active to do or to watch. Though the first car rolls up, steals one of the first parking spots. The pastor, maybe.
“So what’s our pretense for goin’ in there with a camera? Ghost hunting for the Lord?” Roddy might still be quippy, but his hands are busy making minute adjustments and finding the best framing. It might be an expose’ piece, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to forego the golden ratio.
“You mean if someone comes back for the night? Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen,” Justin says.
Most of the people going into the church are poor, downtrodden individuals. Their clothes reflect it. Their hunched shoulders and downturn faces often reflect it too. As they start showing up the young man stops his agitation, flops flat on his belly on the roof next to Roddy, and just pays close attention. “See if you can get any license plates down there too,” he murmurs in thought. “Could help us identify some of the congregation.”
Of course, the differences in their temperament may make this next hour absolutely fascinating for Justin in a way that might be maddening for Roddy. The younger man pillows his chin on his arms and seems perfectly content.
“One set of impeccably framed photos of license plates, comin’ up,” says Roddy with a slight grump. He’s got his rig set up so he can snap off a few stills without pausing the recording.
The next hour is about what you’d expect. Roddy’s bored while Justin is fascinated and engaged. The Newf manages to entertain himself with some impeccable framing as he switches shots, but there’s only so much he can do from this angle and this subject matter. “Oh fer fuck’s sake, someone get robbed or somethin’. This show’s booooring.”
“Shhh,” Justin murmurs. “I’m listening.”
And he might be, to every single word of it, because he certainly can, even from this distance. “Pastor’s name is Raines, Ruth Raines. Most of what I’m hearing sounds like the normal rot, but there was something in the announcements…something about ‘regular event.'” He can’t hear every word from this distance; much depends on the ambiant noise or the volume levels inside.
People do begin leaving though; the hands-on portion of the event is going to happen soon enough.
“Sorry, bro, you know surveillance is like this,” he murmurs apologetically.
As well a the volume level of his friend. And his Cheetos. Somewhere, Roddy got some hot Cheetos and is crunching away as he keeps an eye on the screen of the camera. He coughs a little as a bit of spice gets caught in his throat. “See that’s why surveillance is balls,” he says, then pops another in his mouth.
“Can’t do this sort of work without it,” Justin points out. Then again this sort of work is a Justin thing, not a Roddy thing, and he well knows it.
But his keen ears pick up something else, and his head suddenly whips around.
“Shit. Shit shit shit. Pack up, would you? I just heard a couple of them say they thought they saw something up here. They’re on their way to check it out. I heard them flipping safeties, they’re armed.” Humans with guns are pretty damned dangerous as far as Justin is concerned, for all that the two of them have super powers. And if they have guns, it means they’re willing to kill, which is bad business for anyone these days, even in self-defense. Every member of the population is too precious for it.
“Bollocks. Bollocks,” says Roddy. But his camera is too precious to just shove into his bag. He has to wedge it into the specially formed case, but that involves moving it just so. It’s the kind of thing that’s made worse when you hurry. He knocks over his tripod and makes it clatter to the ground in his attempt to collapse it quickly.
Justin snatches up the tripod for him and just tries to collapse it for Roddy so the young man can focus on other things. He’s a little calmer, but he can hear where they are. “Entering the building, elevator doesn’t work, we’ve got six flights of stairs,” he informs him. “The fire escape’s a mess though, we can’t get down that way. We might be able to hide, slip past them when they come up? Or we might be able to hide in the building.”
Justin will always favor hide and slip past over direct confrontation for a whole host of reasons.
“Or you and I could just fly the hell away,” says Roddy, voice cracking a little bit from the pressure. Never mind that they’re people with guns who would make really obvious targets if they lept into the air. Well, he would. Tiny bird boy would probably be fine.
In contrast, the lanky young man is freaking out a bit. He doesn’t like confrontation either, but he hasn’t had the experience Justin has of squeezing down into a small space to hide out being hunted.
He manages to get his camera packed up and he shoves the trip into a shoulder sling bag that he manages to get over his shoulder without choking on it. He’s breathing heavily.
Justin agrees; flying down would suck. His wing is still a little weak from the ice injury too. Instead he motions for Roddy to be quiet and creeps back to the stairwell door. He’d popped an exterior combination lock on it, but it’s his, and he spins it with ease and pockets it. He doesn’t want to wait for them to break it down to get out of there, doesn’t want to be trapped on the roof. There’s a chance they’d give up, and there’s a chance they’d…what? Pop pills and blast the door to bits or any manner of unpredictable things. No…he wants out of there.
He doesn’t go directly for the stairwell. He motions Roddy, instead, to the shadowed hallways. One of the apartments doesn’t have a door. He goes for it.
It’s dark as pitch in here, and Justin moves like a thief in the night. “Just step where I step,” he whispers, and so long as Roddy does he doesn’t make a sound either. But this is a perilous building, and Roddy might find at least one of Justin’s steps isn’t true. His enhanced sight is great even in the dark, but he has to make educated guesses about which floorboards won’t squeak. He has to make educated guesses, too, about where it’s even safe to step.
And one section of floor he chooses decides it’s just time to give up the ghost. He steps, it cracks beneath him. He has time for a gasp of fear before the whole thing collapses, sending him to the apartment below. Roddy has time to jump out of the way, but then there’s Justin, lying in the billowing smoke and debris, out cold on his back. Breathing, but unconscious.
Shouts ring up the hallway, booted feet thunder towards them.
Roddy trusts Justin. He follows behind, but he has a half a second more notice than the shifter when something is going awry. When your ability is to control gravity, you tend to know when it’s about to work against you. The first thing he tries to do is grab hold of Justin with a rippling distortion of energy, but his ‘grasp’ isn’t strong enough to significantly slow him. He can’t risk, especially in that split second, trying for a harder grasp. Too hard and he risks snapping his friend like a twig from the competing pull of gravity. Sometimes the hard floor is a kinder option.
He is able to slow himself, jigging himself off to the left to avoid impaling his leg on a shard of floor. That sends him off-balance enough that he topples sideways and skins across the floor. His camera in its hard case bounces against the ground. Small mercies that he secured it properly.
He props himself up and touches a spot on his side where he landed on the tripod slung over his shoulder. “Justin, Justin, mate, get up, these arseholes are coming.” He grabs for the hard-sided case.
Justin is lithe and light and small. A glass jaw wouldn’t exactly describe him, but there are reasons he likes to be quick, agile, subtle, unseen. One reason is that when he hits his head a few shakes and touches don’t really help. He just remains most inconveniently out cold.
And then the arseholes are there. One kicks the door open and pauses but a moment to lever the barrel of a gun at one Roddy Holloway.
Justin did say this would be extremely dangerous.
The man looks unhinged, with ratty clothes and wild eyes and a feral look on his face. Then again the barrel of the gun might loom a little larger in Roddy’s consciousness. It’s a really big gun.
“Big gun,” squeaks Roddy. Yeah. safe to say he notices it. He hasn’t had very many opportunities to use his ability in a combat situation. Like Justin, he tends to avoid those. Not because he’s got a glass jaw, but rather…it’s a little hard to control how hard he hits. If you’re trying to break up a street brawl and snap someone’s spine instead…
So yeah, being a vigilante isn’t a career choice he’s been considering.
All bets are off when a really big gun is pointed at you, though. He ducks down and flicks up with a shove of gravity, aiming for the underside of the weapon. That dude looks shaky and that weapon looks heavy, so he’s hoping a good solid rattle will give him the time he needs.
He scrambles up to Justin and tries to heft him into a fireman’s carry. He concentrates on making his small friend even lighter so he can actually scoop him up with his own spindly muscles. “If you survive this you owe me so many Whoppers!” he calls to his unconscious friend.
That is definitely more than enough. The gun misfires, but it misfires up and at an angle, taking a bit more of the ceiling with it. Justin isn’t baby bird light, but neither is he terribly heavy. The guy at the door swears and fumbles for his weapon, and the guy behind him slips through into the room. This one gets off a shot, but not an aimed one; Roddy will feel the sharp heat of a bullet racing straight by his curls, though.
There are only two of them at least, and they’re not exactly ninja warriors. “Freak! It’s a freak!” one hisses, which is just not great for business in this neighborhood at all.
“Aaah!” Roddy lets off a decidedly unmanly squawk at that way-too-close-for-comfort bullet. He’s all spindly limbs as he tries to fireman-carry his friend and scoop up that damned camera case. No way he’s leaving that behind, even in a life or death situation. He flicks a hand back and lets out a rather uncontrolled wave of gravity to push debris (like ripped up bits of floor) at the armed men. Then he makes for the far side of the building, lifts a hand and rips out a section of boarded up window, sending that flying backward too, for good measure. He’s now got a hole in the wall to work with.
He turns around, shifts Justin’s weight, then, “Superfreak, bitchessss,” before he leans backwards out of the building. It’s a dramatic exit that is somewhat lessened by another unmanly squawk and the very close call with the ground before he manages to get the gravity bubble juuuust right so he can fly with Justin in tow.
Justin Steele recruits his best friend Roddy Holloway to help him get some footage documenting the people coming in and out of the Purifier church linked to a dangerous drug ring. Of course, complications are inevitable. A pair of zealots enter the building they're using, driving the two young men away in a hurry.
January 12, 2051