Chapter 150

George - he had ceased to think of himself a coach since this night’s inception - was both surprised and aggravated. The tear-stained butterball now panting on the truck’s cock-eyed floor had held on longer than he’d expected. It had taken no less than seven breaks in his arm to finally force Hershel to let go. Of course, George could have just ripped the damn thing off in the first place; however, he knew that wouldn’t have sat well with the man at the top of the ladder.

George turned his back on the softly weeping boy and readjusted his grip on Mary. It didn’t matter that he’d been slowed down. All that mattered was the girl. That was his job and that was what he would deliver. George was a singularly focused man. He took care of the mission at all costs. That was what had made him a great Hero, and, ironically, what had knocked him down to the point of teaching snot-based brats how to fight.

George stepped out into the crisp late-spring night. He flexed his rudders and checked his energy levels. Flying took some extensive warming up of his leg thrusters, but he was nearly there, even with Hershel’s delay. He’d be ready to take off in less than a minute.

George made it fewer than five steps away from the battered vehicle when a pillar of flame thick as a fist came rocketing past him, missing only by a few inches. It struck the ground several feet away, the tar immediately bubbling at the sudden influx of heat. It was a bold move, one that gave away both position and tactical advantage in favor of declaring one’s intentions. George knew plenty of fire users, but only one stupid enough to make an opening gambit like that. He turned around to greet his opponent.

“Reynolds,” George acknowledged, his voice tinged with an electronic variable.

Vince stood down the road, illuminated by the still smoldering spot at George’s back. The air around him shimmered as its temperature was forced upward. He was practically leaking energy; the guy must have absorbed a house fire or something. Gone were any traces of the usual happiness and optimism that usually peppered his expression. In their place was a vicious stare and eyes that said quite clearly that the only way one of them would come away from this was in a broken, bloody mess. It was a shame things had to go this way; George felt like he could have sculpted this kid into a real warrior.

“Let Mary go,” Vince demanded. His tone wasn’t angry or impatient. It was calm and flat as the waters of an abandoned bath tub.

“Sorry, Reynolds, not going to happen,” George replied.

“What if we say pretty please?” Nick Campbell stepped into view from the behind the front of the truck. He must have been making sure Persephone was down for the count. Smart kid. He edged slightly closer to his friend, though the emanating heat forced a healthy distance between the two. In his hands were a pair of guns, one a standard black pistol but the other a long-barreled silver six-shooter.

“Campbell, I thought you were one of the bright ones. What are you doing out here?” George just needed a little more time to charge up and he could get away without having to risk his unconscious package in a throwdown with these kids.

“Friendship can make us do some spectacularly stupid things,” Nick replied. He squeezed the trigger with his right hand and sparks flashed off George’s torso as the bullet ricocheted.

“Whoa, kid, not even a warning shot?”

“That was the warning shot,” Nick replied evenly.

George assessed the situation and weighed his options. Reynolds was pissed off enough to actually fight worth a damn and clearly hopped up on more energy than usual. Campbell was practically worthless if all he had was a pair of guns, but he could be surprisingly clever and behaved like he had ice water in his veins. Adair was floating overhead, trying to stay unnoticed as she clutched a huge rock. Whatever their plan was, it couldn’t be that sophisticated. Still, he was under strict orders to deliver the girl undamaged, and with kids this inexperienced, they could easily make a mistake and injure their friend.

“Last chance,” Vince said, taking a step forward. Flames began swirling in his hands as he prepared to release a dual barrage of fireballs. “Let Mary go.”

At long last George’s thrusters came online and showed a ‘Ready’ status.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” George replied. His robotic face wasn’t really equipped to smile, though it did put forth an impressive level of effort. He activated the thrusters and began to lift off the ground.

It was only because of his enhanced hearing that George was able to make out the gunshot over the roar of his leg engines. He did see the barrel of the six-shooter in Nick’s left hand flash, and that was the last thing he saw for several seconds. A white-hot explosion of light erupted in front of his eyes, blinding his sensors and forcing him back to the ground. He heard another sound, the soft whistle of an object in free fall and put two and two together. The idiots had shot something to blind him so Adair could drop that stupid rock on him. It was a completely brainless plan and the only person it might genuinely hurt was Mary. Coach George threw up both his arms, gauging the rock’s strike point on sound alone. He managed to deflect it with his forearms, shattering it into a dozen pieces that scattered along the ground.

It was only after George had lowered his arms and shaken his head in a vain attempt to get his visual sensors back to full functionality that he realized his left shoulder was considerably lighter. A quick glance to the rear confirmed his suspicions as a blonde figure holding a brunette one sped across the sky.

“You little shits,” he cursed.

“Come on, did you really think we’d be stupid enough to fight you with Mary in danger?” Nick taunted. “A little misdirection is the key ingredient in any theft.”

“I suppose it is,” George agreed. “What was that thing you shot at me?” His vision was finally clearing up as his system compensated for the damaged lenses.

“Phosphorous bullet: a little something one of my real teachers whipped up years ago,” Nick replied, his own face having no trouble displaying its cocky grin.

“Nice job there, kid, sincerely. Though I’m curious how you expected the rest of this to play out. You do realize I can easily catch that girl, right?”

“Actually, we didn’t even know you could fly,” Nick replied. “But it doesn’t really matter.”

“And why is that?” George asked.

“Because Mary isn’t here to get hurt anymore,” Vince answered.

The silver-haired boy took three steps forward and the inferno broke loose.