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“Bored!” Simon sulks, hanging over his balcony.  I hook one foot around the railing and lean out to see him better, kittycorner across the courtyard.  “Bored, bored BORED!”

“Boreder.”  Yvette thwaps him in the back of the head with a magazine, picking her way out onto the catwalk behind him.  She cups the somehow-still-growing curve of her belly in one hand.  “Most boredest.  Your kid better make an appearance soon.  I think I’m gonna pop like a water balloon.”

Simon looks horrified.  When I glance down, though, the small crowd that’s usually in the courtyard is mostly stifling giggles.

It’s been almost a week since the attack on the base.  Almost a week of what Sarah’s calling “the lull.”  I don’t like the phrase, with its implications of breathing space between crises.  I’d be perfectly happy to not ever be possessed again, or to watch Sarah take off after Angus and wonder what’s to become of us.  Not to mention “Rasputin appearing on the rooftop over there” is on my list of stuff I don’t want to see.  At least Diel showed up with the cavalry.  Someday I’ll figure out exactly what her relation to the New Yorkers is, but in the meantime I’ll be glad that she seems to be mostly on our side.

I’m just cleaning house, picking up a few things, swapping out clothes.  This bit where I’m practically maintaining three separate residences would be even more of a pain if I didn’t also practically have three separate wardrobes.  But laundry?  The penthouse is totally the best setup for that.  Hence the gear shuffle.  And all the myriad other little things that get overlooked or passed up when we’re pressed for time and space and safety.  Queuing up work for the minions.  Buying things by going into actual stores. Clean undies that I didn’t buy this morning on my way to work.

“Fiiiiiiine,” I sigh back at Simon.  “C’mon.  Let’s go stretch our legs.  I promise to mostly miss you.”

“Oh, it is ON,” he fires back, hopping over the railing to land with a thump in the courtyard.

“SIMON!” Herger roars from the entrance of the dojo.  “STAIRS!”

Simon grins at me and runs for the bikes, fast.  He beats me there, but I make it out the garage door first, heading south along the waterfront for the industrial districts where we do some of our informal training.  As we pull up outside an abandoned building, I yank my helmet off and take a seat on a barrel.  First!

“Hey… remember the first time you dragged me down here?”

“Sure do,” he grins.  “Only way to convince you.  Seriously, after putting me through a wall, you still wouldn’t believe your own strength.”

“Yeah… sorry about that.” I sigh ruefully.  “You did grab me, though.”

“So did ‘vette,” he mock-pouts.  “You didn’t put her through a wall.”

“Yeah, I’m a sexist pig.  So, are we gonna do this or what?”  Sliding off the barrel and hooking two fingers through the metal, I pick it up one-handed and saunter through the warehouse door, swinging it at my side like a purse.

It wasn’t that long ago that we came down here for the first time.  Only six months….

The old factory has what can only and most charitably be described as “crap” in it. Thirty years of rust and neglect, and the building was never properly cleaned out or sold off in the first place. Abandoned. Part of a disease that’s spreading out from Detroit, down through Indiana, and up into Illinois. Industrial wasteland. The rot that’s killing cities and creating a rust belt across the United States.

Simon leads me into this gloom, chattering madly the whole way.  “I found this place a few weeks back. Figured I’d use it for something eventually. No, I can tell by the way you walk that you’ve had some self-defense training, and that’s good. But you’re Chosen now, Holly, and you’re not the same person physically that you were a week ago. While the best training you can hope to get is against actual squidge, our purpose here is to help you get used to your new power and avoid errors of judgment in lethal combat. The squidge doesn’t care if it’s your first time in a fight, but I do.  Just a word of warning, this is going to get messy.”

Behind us Medic enters, swinging his flashlight around in short arcs as he looks for a place to sit while the two of us… get messy.   His real name is Floyd.  Simon’s medic.  Dedicated medic.  Team Green’s own private doctor.  Because apparently these people need their own private doctors.  Actually, I shouldn’t complain… I’ve been, what-do-you-call… Chosen… for about 72 hours and he’s already patched me up once.

“Squidge?” I parrot back at Simon, raising an eyebrow.

“A very non-technical slang term that refers to the baddies. Actually, there’s more kinds of baddies than squidge. Squidge is just one type of baddie. The worst type.”  He frowns, thinking.  “Cory was taken by squidge.”

“But… how is punching something like that going to even do anything? I would have lost the hand.”  I frown, rubbing my wrist where the acid burned it while I fought the thing that used to be my fiancé.  Simon ignores me in favor of the lesson.

“Now…” he puts his hand on a rusted metal barrel and tests its heft as he tilts it up one-handed. “It’s important to note that the opponents we face come in varieties of strong and fast.”  His gaze shifts from the barrel back to me. He slides his foot under the lip of metal, kicks the entire thing up effortlessly into the air, and as it comes back down, he catches and spins around to throw it directly at my head.  Jerk.

Everything slows down.  I can see the barrel spinning, tell from the tumble that it’s half full of… something… yucky.  I’ve got to use its own momentum against it, keep it moving.  My fingertips snag the lip of metal Simon had his toe under a minute ago, and my other hand comes around to guide the barrel through a quick turn, using my grabbing hand as a fulcrum to slingshot the entire thing back at Jerkface’s head.  Whatever’s inside should help it accelerate, but holy crap that’s a light barrel.  Maybe it’s not metal after all?  I mean, Simon just hackeysacked it.

He catches the barrel neatly in one hand, bringing all of its momentum to a full stop without having to move his feet, and smiles at me.

“You just caught and pitched a barrel half full of… something. Water, I hope. That’s like over a hundred pounds. And you threw it like a hardball. Take a moment to think about that, Holly. Look at your hands. Covered in rust. Do they hurt at all?” 

They don’t. 

He goes on.  “Not all Chosen have this strength, but both you and I do. It’s how I can go toe-to-toe with wolves and other baddies. What can punching do? It can tear them in half and scatter their parts.”  Oh.  Back to my question, then.  And then he tosses the barrel up and punches it on its way back down. It goes flying across the warehouse to crash into some old machinery and explode, sending dirty fluids splashing outwards.

“That… is what punching can do.”

As long as he’s going to play Yoda… “Is scattering the parts enough? Don’t you have to burn them or something?”

“Squidge blood is bad for the environment. It’s bad for people. It’s no good for Chosen either. But we spill plenty of it. And after the fight, we do clean up. No blood left behind.  Burning does wonders. It’s purifying, even if some of the by-products are a little toxic.”  He shrugs, spreading his hands.

“Ok. So that’s the Cliffs Notes version. Now… ” I grin.  “Show me how to hit something.”

Simon takes a couple steps closer. “Now, I know you’re strong. I saw your kick. And now you know you’re strong. You don’t know how strong, and that’s okay. Just remember to keep it in check until you need it. Real strength comes from control, not just thrust.”  He pokes me until I get in something like a fighting stance, half-remembered from self-defense class, then he prods and adjusts my arms and legs until he’s satisfied.  My fist is apparently ok, but my wrist was cocked wrong or something.  “The motion is the same, but the force you put behind it is much greater now. You’ll have more follow through on everything. Instead of your fist stopping on a concrete wall, you’ll knock a hole in it. You have to be careful to not overextend when doing this, or you leave yourself vulnerable.”

He walks me through the movement for a punch, then a kick, slowly, then makes me do it myself a couple times “for muscle memory.”  As he does this, he talks strategy at me nonstop.

“When you see squidge, and it’s too close to you, punch it in a spot that doesn’t have teeth… keep your shoulder lower…  or horns or claws. Look for a smooth spot with bone under it. The bone… no, roll your hip.  Like this.  Okay.  Again… One more time… bone will fragment and cause more damage than hitting something in the gut.  Striking in the teeth is bad. You’ll give it a free bite, and most squidge have really dirty mouths.”

“Right, ‘hit the soft spot with the hard spot, hit the hard spot with a tool.'”  This one, I know.  Daddy taught me.

“Right,” he says, proud as if I’d heard it from him first.  “Always look for the best spot to hit a beastie. With wolves, if you can nail the nose, they usually back down and whimper.  Okay, looks good but keep your back foot turned a little more… Now, no matter what sort of appendage the squidge uses, you can block it just like it was a punch thrown at you. Dodging is the best, but often difficult in constricted spaces. Blocking and countering will do. Unless it’s a spitter, then you just dodge and keep dodging.”

“Squidge wolves? Is that what happened Tuesday?”  And, was it less than a week ago that I flew to Yellowstone with Sarah?  Really?  It feels like forever.

“No, those were normal wolves. But the there is hybridization between the two, and those things are nasty.”

“Those were not normal wolves.”  I glare at him.  “Especially the big one.”

“Wait… by normal wolves I mean normal werewolves. Sorry. I don’t really worry about natural wolves.”  He shrugs ruefully.

“Ok, now you’re messing with me.”  I step back out of stance and fold my arms.  The big brother act is one thing, but this is going a little too far.

“Nope. No messing here. It was explained to me like this. We are Chosen. We’ve been gifted power, and we have the will to use it. But we are not alone. Wolf Chosen are pretty common. They can shapeshift a bit, and they are strong and wicked fast. And, they do not like us. They especially do not like our drilling for oil.  We tried to explain, but… they’re kinda simple beasts. Short-sighted and very temperamental. Usually what begins as diplomacy ends in bloodshed, but still we try. We should be on the same side… but we’re not.”

He pushes me back into stance, watches me throw a couple more punches and kicks.

“All right.  Moving on… Punching things is good. It’s not always an option, though. This is why I carry a gun.”  As if.  Five guns, more like.  “Lacking a gun, you can throw heavy objects like that barrel at them. If you’re really strong, you can throw cars.  A downed street light can make a decent improvisational spear against the big ones.”

“I … don’t think I’m up to that. Maybe rocks. I could throw rocks.”  Probably I could.  If my brief and inglorious softball career is any indication, though, my friends would be in more danger than my enemies.  Simon goes on, oblivious.

“If you got rocks on hand, absolutely.”

“It’s not about the size, it’s what you do with it, right?” I try on a smile to see if it fits.  Maybe I could do ok, here.

Simon grins back and nods. “So I keep telling Vette.” That gets a laugh out of Floyd.

“Guess you should buy her a bigger one, then,” I wisecrack… and immediately dodge.

I get my ass handed to me.

Turns out Simon is fast as well as mighty. He is careful to point out each time I overextend myself when I miss.  I can see, tactically, that, yes, he’s more experienced and more capable, but it’s that speed that really keeps him ahead of the curve.  It’s funny- the more we do this, the more I watch, even, the more I feel something in me filing everything away for future reference, already starting to catalog Simon’s moves against stuff I’ve seen in movies, read in books, strategy big and small.  It’s eerie… but I can also feel how useful it will be.  When I ask him, Simon shrugs.  

“I don’t get that when I fight, but we’re all a little different.  Maybe you got some fighting sense that makes up for how slow you… ow… are.  Nice one.”

Eventually he calls a stop. Floyd is standing up and pointing to his watch. 

“Aieee… we’re out of time. Okay, homework for you: shower, food, sleep. And think about how we can improve your speed. Don’t worry if you don’t come up with an answer to that. Just start thinking about becoming faster.  Hey, Floyd? Let’s mark this place for development. Maybe Empress can do something with it.”

“Sure thing, dude.” Floyd takes out a smart phone and taps in a message.  Turning back to me, he says absent-mindedly, “You did good for a first time wrecking stuff. Just keep calm and carry on.”

I scowl.  He’s joking, right?  I sucked.

Floyd arches an eyebrow. “What? I mean it. Not kidding here. You’re adapting nicely to your new strength. It’s not always an easy transition.”

“Sorry.”  I wince.

“Engh… no harm. Let’s get you home.”

“Yes, please. Note to self: select next apartment based on size of bathtub.”  I think I’m figuring out how to smile again.  Too soon?  But, I’m still alive.  That’s worth something, right?

“Amen to that!”  Floyd claps me on the shoulder and Simon gives me a brotherly boost into the SUV and we head back to the base.

“Incoming!” Simon yells, chucking a barrel at me and snapping me out of my reverie.  This time, I know what to do with it.  Six short months and a lifetime of experience later.

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