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[OC] Chronicles of the Siren War [Chapter 59]

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A/N: Please consider supporting my writing efforts on Patreon. You can follow this story and be alerted when new chapters release via
Special thanks to Tobi from the discord server for a double visual accompaniment today as well! They are not perfect representations of in chapter events, but they set a great scene nevertheless!
“Well, what do you think?!” Houston asked gaily, taking Fredrick by the hand and leading him aboard her mint condition hull. Modifications had clearly been made in the absence of a physical crew, leaving the ship sleeker and more evasive while maintaining its substantial firepower. The three triple 203mm batteries aboard the vessel were mimicked by the girl’s rigging, a complex system of hydraulics and tubes connecting her miniature guns to her waist. They sat aboard large steel-gray and red stabilizing fins that would help her maintain balance in open ocean combat, and were completed by a small, grinning Cheshire cat decal above the letters USN. She carried a pistol in her hand, a replica of one of her 40mm Bofors batteries.
“I think the smile on your face says it all,” the young cook replied, tilting his head to steal a glance at the exposed skin between her shoulder blades. Just below her collar, a vibrant rigging mark in the shape of Texas’ lone star still glowed, fading slowly in the wake of the ship’s new construction. As soon as they were aboard Houston activated her engines, pulling the cruiser out of dock so that Minneapolis could begin work on her own hull.
“Hmm, you’re rather sweet, Frederick. I’m glad you’re back safe and sound too,” Houston told him kindly, walking around her deck as she inspected her guns and fittings with pride. Many parts of the ship came to life under her touch, pivoting and changing elevation as if partaking in a firing exercise.
“I could say the same, Miss Houston.”
“Oh come on, all I did was laze around and help look after the kids!”
“Doesn’t mean something couldn’t have happened. It’s war, after all,” Miles reminded her, though it certainly wasn’t necessary. She spun on her heel to face him, her large Union Navy tattoo plainly visible on her upper right thigh. “Be safe tomorrow too, Miss Houston. It would be a shame to come home all this way just to…” The young man could not quite bring himself to say ‘lose you’, but Houston seemed to understand his meaning all the same. As her rigging shimmered and vanished, she reached out and took his hands in hers.
“You cut yourself. Be careful in the kitchens,” she observed, fingering a tender wound that would surely leave a bright pink scar atop one of his knuckles.
“And Lord willing, that's all the action I’ll see in this war,” Miles replied, taking a deep breath and squeezing her fingers tightly. “The way the Commander spoke, it sounded like the largest fleet ever assembled is coming for us.”
“And you’re worried about me,” Houston finished quietly. It was not a question.
“I’m worried about Hatsuharu and Yuugure and all the rest too, but at least they’ll be on the island. I can do something if it comes down to it. You’ll be very far away,” he worried as Houston found herself a suitable location in the bay just north of the base and dropped anchor next to the California.
“But I’ll be thinking of you!” She promised happily, though those words only served to draw Fredrick’s face tight in a frown. “Fredrick-”
“Just be careful,” he insisted. “It’s a beautiful ship; it would be a shame to lose it again.”
“Yeah it would, wouldn’t it?” Houston agreed thoughtfully as a pair of gulls settled on the top of her aft crow’s nest. “But Fredrick, I’m already on borrowed time. I can feel it in my cube, in my bones. I was supposed to die at Java, without having ever met you.”
“Miss Houston?” Fredrick whispered, feeling a small pit of fear worm its way into his guts. The air about her had changed significantly, revealing a sober and almost world-weary woman underneath her metallic cat ears and vibrant pink hair.
“Fredrick, have you ever lain with a white woman?” Houston asked before seeming to remember herself. She tittered at his shocked expression. “No, I didn’t think so given you are barely allowed to speak with them. What about any woman?”
No more adequate an answer was forthcoming from the young man as he found himself rooted to the spot, Pacific breezes ruffling his uniform. Houston took his hands again and stepped close to him. “Second chances shouldn’t be wasted, don’t you think, Fredrick?”
“I uh, but aren’t you… what I mean to say is the Commander-”
“Is an exceptional and handsome man!” Houston agreed readily. “He’s kind, reserved, and saved my life. He’s competent too, and I think he’ll see us through the battle tomorrow. That doesn’t mean I want to go to bed with him. Not every girl in this fleet has dreams of glory. I just want to live this life I’ve been given. I’m happy to take you back to the docks right now, Fredrick, but I don’t want to leave you tomorrow with just a peck on the lips. Come live a little with me, ravel up my ball of yarn?” she suggested with a cute swipe of her fingers against his uniform.
When he leaned closer, Houston sealed her request with a brush of her thin, soft lips against his own. The boy’s mind may not have known how to respond to her, but his body needed no such training or consideration. He allowed his lips to part in invitation, one she greedily but gently accepted. The two fumbling lovers embraced, with Houston gasping against his mouth and pulling back as his left hand brushed against her rigging mark. “Did I hurt you?” Fredrick asked quickly, swallowing heavily as he noted the growing flush in Houston’s cheeks. The girls back home, the ones he was allowed to long and lust after, did not blush like that.
“No, not at all. It was just intense!” Houston gasped, gathering herself and reaching over her shoulder. She took his hand and returned it to her back. “Be gentle, please.”
Miles was more than happy to oblige, experimenting with feathery brushes of his fingers and the comforting cover of his large palm over the area, sheltering it from the wind and warming it with his own body heat which was steadily rising thanks to their ongoing kiss. When the sensations from her rigging mark simply could not be withstood any longer, the electric shocks turning to warm pulses of longing thanks to his easy touch and unassuming manner, Houston took his cheeks in her hands. She could feel the slight beginnings of stubble under her palms. Bright green eyes met dark brown and delightful laughter bubbled up from her chest. “Fredrick, I didn’t want to do this so soon but it seems Akagi and Kaga decided not to wait around. Would you make love to me; show an unordinary girl an ordinary life?”
Houston’s second proposition was no more answerable than her first, but again the young man’s body knew the correct reply. He had no way, no words to explain to her just how unordinary their union would be. But he considered the coming battle, considered the fact that she might be lost. There was only one course of action to be taken. Without a word he shrugged off his jacket and shirt, laying them down on the deck for her. Houston laid herself down graciously, throwing him a coy yet innocent smile that beckoned him to oblivion. He was powerless to stop it as she freely bared herself to him, save her choker. As the base prepared for war and a New Orleans class hull came to life at dock, no one took the time or effort to glance out to sea as Houston felt herself come alive again.
“Don’t you want to be down there with her?” West Virginia asked Javelin. The two of them were seated near one of the base’s fixed AA batteries, about halfway up the slope to the dorms and radio tower. Mountains of shells were ready and waiting to be fired, courtesy of the bulins and Akashi.
“I feel like I’ve done nothing but remain at her side since she arrived here,” Javelin replied sadly, recalling Zed’s desperate flight from her own faction. “She’s one of my best friends. I can’t let this be anything but her decision. Sometimes it feels like she and Laffey are my sisters, even though I love Jupiter and the others dearly as well.”
“Mmm,” the stoic battleship agreed, fingers resting on the neck of her guitar. “So your focus is evasion?”
“Yep yep!” Javelin affirmed, playing with her blueish-purple hood and adjusting the small crown atop her head. “Don’t count me out when it comes to submarine warfare or gun battles either. I wish I could do something about my torpedoes though. Those new girls from the Sakura have such amazing armaments.”
“Yeah, but their guns couldn’t even tickle me if they tried,” West Virginia countered. “Based on what happened with Downes and Laffey, at least what I understand of it, keep training and keep focused. When the Commander grants you that power, or when you feel the need to claim it for yourself, I think you’ll acquire the strength you need.”
“You make it sound like magic,” Javelin replied with a smile. West Virginia’s eyes softened slightly.
“Not sure what else to call it. Not even Commander Thorson or the minty kitty really understand those cubes. They know how they work to an extent but the rest might as well be magic. But that’s good. If they’re shooting at you and missing, that gives me an opening. You’ll find that us Colorado’s aren’t the fastest or most maneuverable. And I don’t have as many barrels as Pennsylvania or Tennessee. But…”
“But?” Javelin prompted.
“Woe to any ship that tries to face me woman to woman, even a carrier if I can see her. Did you know I used to have torpedo tubes?”
“No! Really?!” the Royal destroyer demanded excitedly, tapping her namesake weapon against the ground. The battleship gave her a full smile that time.
“Yeah, really. When I was injured at Pearl Harbor and they wanted to rebuild me, I told them to get rid of them. A fast little demon like you is perfect for that sort of thing. Me? It would take so long to turn and fire the other tubes it would be pointless, to say nothing of my main battery rotation speed. But don’t worry. I’ve made up for it.”
“Uh huh, how so?” Javelin was eager to learn more about her battle buddy, having never seen a Colorado-class hull before their arrival at Thorson’s base.
“You won’t tell Tennessee?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Because we were redesigned to be better than her,” the battleship replied neutrally. Javelin shrugged.
“She doesn’t care. No offense, but I’d still bet on her in a fight with you. She’s merciless!” The destroyer’s tone was one of approval.
“No arguments there, at least not right now. But she’s only got sixteen 28mm guns and fourteen Oerlikons.”
“Right. And you?” Javelin tapped the AA battery with the tip of her spear to accentuate the point. West Virginia struck a chord on her guitar.
“Forty 40mm Bofors, forty three Oerlikons, and of course the eight 406mm guns. Just focus on the seaborne threats when we fight. My sisters and I know how to provide a protective AA envelope. With Cleveland on our side our odds are even better. Maybe it’s because she’s a cruiser but I just can’t beat her precision.”
“With so many guns you won’t have to! But do you really think we can win? It sounds like the enemy has as many aircraft as they want.” For the first time, true worry crept into the young woman’s voice. West Virginia placed a hand on her shoulder.
“We have unending firepower and resolve too. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty over in the Atlantic, but don’t underestimate the will of those who lived through Pearl Harbor. I remember the smoke and the flames, the screams of dying men. Oklahoma and Nevada didn’t make it. Downes and Cassin were torn to pieces. But in the end they failed. Even if they destroy Enterprise and her sisters tomorrow they will have failed if they can’t kill us.”
The conviction in West Virginia’s words, especially given her typically mild manner, gave Javelin pause. She remained silent as a squadron of P-40’s flew by overhead, now a sight on the base almost as common as the flocks of seagulls. Far out to sea she could see Yamashiro and Fusou’s float planes returning from a scouting mission. The battleship continued.
“Those of us who didn’t perish in those fires are now stronger than they could possibly imagine. I went all the way across the country and back, met the people I’m defending. Colorado dismissed her entire crew in the wake of the attack and rebuilt herself with her own hands. Maryland hasn’t ceased sharpening her skills since that day. If she ever finds the ones who killed Oklahoma they’ll wish they were already dead. And I know I don’t need to speak for Pennsylvania and Tennessee.” As a group of three Fulmars rocketed out to sea to join in the scouting mission, West Virginia struck a harsh chord on her guitar. Javelin’s foot was tapping soon after.
Send them over the waves, her sentinels. They’re reporting the news, position of our foes. This battlefield’s been chosen, Thorson orders advance! Time to alert our sisters, they’re soon in range.
“Midway! We meet at Midway!” Javelin added happily, bobbing her head from side to side. The battleship threw her a favorable look and continued. A passing bulin stopped to sit and listen.
Call all women to deck, keep the fortress strong. Head out into the sun, descending on our foes. This is the crucial battle, in the heat of our war. To sail and sink our targets, out in the waves.
Display our might, order and chaos, battleships at war.
“We meet at Midway!”
We’ll win the fight, tactics are crucial.
“Naval war!” Cleveland cut in from the stairs as she and the Portland class sisters headed to the Sakura dorms to spend some time in the onsen.
Far from shore a Pacific war, Shells are raining from the skies. It’s a Dreadnought day, it’s our naval way, A blood-red sun is on the rise.
West Virginia wailed on her guitar for a few chords, allowing some of her pent up frustration and battle energy to seep into her music before transitioning to working her fingers along the strings individually. By the time she and Javelin repeated the chorus another couple of times and struck the final note, they’d garnered a small audience, including several manjuu, who dispersed or hopped away after polite applause. When they were alone again the battle partners looked at one another. The USS Minneapolis sounded her horn from the docks below, another weapon in Thorson’s arsenal.
“I think this is the beginning of something beautiful,” Javelin declared. West Virginia smiled thinly behind her collar.
“You’re my favorite tea-drinking Royal, that’s for sure.”
“Come on, sis. Tomorrow’s going to be a big day. Live just a little bit?” California insisted as she and Tennessee strolled along the beaches to the east of the docks. Since arriving at the base, the beach had become, unsurprisingly, California’s stomping ground. She strode through the shallows, kicking up the seafoam remnants of waves with her bare feet, her body clad in a dark blue bikini with gold trim. From her feminine hips hung a sheer shawl designed after her state’s flag, the bear and golden star accenting her behind.
“Easy for you to say. Tennessee doesn’t exactly have any beaches,” the elder sister replied.
“And since when did you care about your home state?”
“Then you have no excuse! Come on, Tenn; the water’s great!”
“We’re boats, of course it is,” she sighed, nevertheless caving and joining her sister, if only to stem the tide of good-mannered nagging. Her uniform vanished and was quickly replaced by PT shorts and her black sports bra. California groaned.
“You have absolutely no fashion sense, sis, you know that?”
“I’m a machine of war, Cali. I don’t need fashion sense.”
“Mhm, your partner doesn’t seem to mind admitting she’s more than a boat,” California countered coyly, pointing with discretion towards the dry sand of the beach and the tropical tree line just beyond. There sat Downes and Ooshio, the former having long discarded her jacket and oversized t-shirt.
“I’m going to have to talk to her about that,” Tennessee said quietly, seeing that Downes had managed to connect her studded leather collar to a bra in similar black material, complete with metallic studs along the straps and over her nipples. The battleship didn’t bother looking close enough to see if she’d changed her underwear to a similar material, or if she was just indulging in rank hedonism on some sort of brave whim. Regardless of her own thoughts on the matter, the ensemble was having the desired effect on its intended recipient. Tennessee watched with a hardened expression and clenched jaw as a flushed Ooshio ran her fingers tenderly over Downes’ exposed musculature, the Union destroyer leaning against a palm tree and her new girlfriend resting among the sand and grass. Despite the lewd situation the two of them were deep in discussion, with Downes waving her hands about animatedly. No doubt she was in the middle of one tale or another. Catching Tennessee’s eye, the ashen-haired girl waved from the shade, prompting Ooshio to look their way as well before promptly turning red again and burying her head in the crook of Downes’ neck.
“Aww, she’s so cute! And she was looking straight at your abs by the way,” California laughed. She didn’t know Downes well, but the young woman had always struck her as a dominant and protective type. “It’s a good match, don’t you think?”
“I think I need a new sparring partner,” Tennessee growled.
“That’s not fair, sis! She can have her fun and still train with you.”
“And what about you?” The elder sister pulled her cap over her eyes. “You have yourself someone to watch your back?”
“Other than you, you mean?” California smiled as a wave lapped at their bare ankles.
“Yes, other than me.”
“Yep, brand new ships too!” California insisted, pointing at the Houston and Minneapolis far out in the bay. Tennessee nodded.
“When are you going to talk to him, Tenn, seriously?” California’s tone grew worried. “If the worst happens-”
“There’s nothing to talk about, Cali!” Tennessee insisted sternly.
“You can lie to the others but not to me. I see right through you. I’m your sister,” the younger replied, holding Tennessee’s gaze.
“Look,” the battleships gaze out to the northern ocean. “If both of us survive tomorrow, there will be nothing that needs to be said.”
“Your state may not have beaches, but you’re more stubborn than a Tennessee mule,” California relented, throwing her hands up. “Oh well, I’ll just have to make sure you two hardheads live to tell the tale!”
“Just stay behind me, sis. Everything will be fine.” Tennessee wrapped her arm around California’s shoulder and pulled her closer. The sisters continued along the shoreline, silence supplemented by the song of gulls, the rustling of palm fronds, and the roll of the surf.
California smiled as she rested her head on Tennessee’s shoulder. “Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
As Z23 stumbled out of the conductive matrix, gasping for breath, a rush of relief and weakness washed over her. Her collapse was forestalled by Thorson’s arms. When the waters had risen above her head and her world went dark, horrific flashes of the past returned. His warmth banished them.
“Zed, you alright?” he demanded quietly. Their corner of the labs was deserted and quiet, with bulins occasionally entering through the main doors far at the other end to pick up ammunition or oil for the ships ready to sortie.
“It is done, mein Kommandant.”
“Shall we go see her?” Thorson suggested, relieved and pleased to feel the give of her body against his arms. The girl of skin and bones who he’d bathed weeks before was gone. Her cheeks were rosy, her hair had grown flaxen and lustrous, and her chest finally looked at home on her slim, fit frame.
“In a moment, Kommandant. I am still weak,” she explained as the Iron Cross of her rigging mark still glowed almost angrily with a bright blue light.
“No problem,” he smiled, pushing up quickly with his legs into a standing, bridal carry. Zed gasped and held on tight, finding her arms wrapped around his neck and her lips brushing against his fabric-covered clavicle. He could feel her exhale against his pulse point. Her lips followed after. When he glanced down at her, she craned her neck and offered him another kiss, which he accepted willingly.
“I would be loath to head into battle knowing Laffey and Javelin had received your affections in such a way without me,” she whispered as he carried her to the nearest door that led to the docks outside. Her words saw him halt and give her another, longer kiss. This one she was strong enough to receive and relish. Downes’ bravery had broken his resolve with regards to his more mature destroyers. The looming specter of death by kitsune was also a factor, if he was honest with himself. “Mein gott, Kommandant… I did not know you felt such-”
“I remember when you first came to us,” was all he said as he turned and pushed his back against the door and carried them out into the sunlight. A gleaming, sleek hull of Germanic make sat in the waters before them, devoid of any hint of siren taint. She was narrow enough to fire her torpedoes to starboard or port from two fixed quad torpedo batteries in the middle of her hull. To her stern sat depth charge launchers and other anti-submarine armaments common in the Atlantic, and her four 5.9 inch cannons completed the look. Placing Z23 on the docks, Thorson stood back as she activated her rigging and placed her hand against the cool steel. Atop her mast appeared an ancient flag, one Thorson only knew from his studies of the wars of the European continent, the North German War Ensign. “How long since that flag has flown?” he couldn’t help but wonder.
“1919, mein Kommandant,” she replied sadly. “That was the year my people’s spirit was broken. They still believe the Fuhrer commands them… we would never recover if they knew the truth.”
“About the sirens?”
“Ja, Kommandant. If it is too much I can-”
“I think it suits you far better than Akashi and Fusou’s splinter faction colors, Zed,” Thorson assured her.
“It is a shame that the Ironblood and Union were never allies. Such a force would be unstoppable,” Zed insisted quietly, her expression one of contemplation as opposed to practical conquest.
“Maybe that’s for the best then, at least until we face the sirens directly. I know we have to fight this battle first, but I haven’t forgotten what they did to you and the others. I’ll help them if I can, Lord willing.” Zed took his hand.
“Danke, for standing by me until I was ready to stand on my own again, Kommandant. You should go and be seen among the rest of your fleet. I will take her to sea and begin maintenance drills at once.”
“Don’t be late for dinner Zed, that’s an order,” Thorson commanded, removing her beret and ruffling her hair softly. She smiled and took her headgear from him before turning back to her reforged vessel.
“You may call me N-Nimi, if you wish. I would never deny your orders, Kommandant. I will be alright, I promise.”
“That’s what I’m counting on out there!” Maryland shouted, walking along the narrow strip of cement dock that separated the lab’s dry-dock from the building itself. She laughed at the expression on Thorson’s face. “Don’t worry, I didn’t hear anything. Two of you look cute together though. Commander, I’m going to spend some time getting to know my battle partner one on one. Do as she says and run along now?”
“You big seven are something else,” Thorson laughed, straightening his cap.
“And tomorrow you’ll be happy you have us, sir. See you for dinner. Let’s go, little one.”
“Of course, Maryland. Allow me to show you around my armaments, radar, and sonar,” Zed agreed with pride in her voice that could only be described as German, leading the battleship onward. Thorson was left behind to appreciate the ship as it let out a blast on its horn and took to the sea, the dry-dock filling itself thanks to the prompt action of the bulin crews. He didn’t know how to describe the worry in his chest, but he thought it might be something close to the sorrow of a father sending his son off to war.
“Godspeed, Nimi.”
“Tono-sama, it is good to see you,” Fusou said quietly from her seat atop one of the cushions on the sheltered deck that oversaw the rest of the onsen. She was quickly drowned out by Yuudachi and company, who reacted quite strongly to Thorson’s state of dress. The three destroyers were doing their nails along with their battleship counterparts.
“Yamashiro-san, I can smell him all over you, you know? And please stay still. Shikikan, can you not walk around with your chest out like that. It makes this difficult!” Shigure insisted as Yamashiro moved her fingers in an effort to turn at the waist and catch a glimpse of Thorson’s towel-clad figure. He nodded to his battleships.
“Just following Akashi’s rules, no shirt no shoes for me at least. Can’t just snap my fingers and summon a pair of swim trunks like you lot. This looks fun.”
“Arizona-san, not you too nanoda!” Yukikaze groaned, watching the Union battleship’s face soften and eyes sparkle as she let her gaze run over Thorson’s war-forged body.
“Oh my sweet little Yukikaze, when you’re grown and you find the right man you’ll understand too. Would you like a bow in white, red, or black? We have plenty of colors to choose from,” Arizona asked caringly. She brushed Yukikaze’s short, snowy hair as the Sakura destroyer sat between her legs, looking over silk ribbons to accentuate her look.
“Yukikaze the Great does not need a man, nanoda! But she would like this black ribbon please,” the kitten requested, holding out a black strip of fabric trimmed with white lace. Arizona leaned over and pecked the girl on her head, the teardrop hairpin she’d received from Yamashiro months before glinting brightly in the late afternoon sun. “He he heeee~” Yukikaze tittered, closing her eyes and relenting against the onslaught of Arizona’s kind attentions. Nearby, Yuudachi and Pennsylvania had no such compunctions.
“You thinking what I’m thinking, pup?”
“Meat. Tasty looking meat, wan~!” Yuudachi replied immediately, licking her chops as she and Penny looked at Thorson. Fusou couldn’t help a giggle as Thorson proved more adept at handling open affection from his ships than when he’d first opened up to the idea.
“I like the green. It matches your eyes,” he said to Pennsylvania before turning to Yuudachi. “And that’s quite the colorful ensemble you have there.”
“Do you like it, Shikikan?” The snow white inu asked happily, almost flashing the entire crew as she hopped up quickly, her breasts bouncing as she held out her nails for him to examine. They were a mix of pink and baby blue. On another girl they’d be gaudy, but they seemed to fit Yuudachi quite well. He gave her a firm pat between the ears.
“I do. It’s perfect for you. Glad to see you’re all making the most of this time. Now why don’t you finish up with Penny, yeah? She deserves to look good too, right?”
“Wan~! Pennsylvania-san, can we take him to bed together tonight?”
“Nope. If I’m spending a night with him he’s mine and mine alone. You work up the courage yourself if that’s what you want. Now get back here and paint my left hand, would you?”
“Okay! Maybe later, Shikikan!” Yuudachi told him, returning to her cushion and nail polish as Thorson allowed himself a relieved laugh and sat next to Fusou. She readily leaned against him and inhaled.
“Shigure is right, tono-sama. I can smell my sister all over you. It will take days to come off.”
“N-Nee-san!” Yamashiro squeaked as Shigure wiggled her armored ears.
“You should not have taken him so many times if you were going to be embarrassed about it,” Fusou replied serenely. “Though somehow I doubt he minded?”
“Way to put me on the spot, Fusou,” Thorson said quietly, wrapping an arm around her plush waist and making sure she knew he’d absolutely not had his fill of Fusou-class battleships in his bedroom. “For now I just want to make sure everyone’s alright.”
“See for yourself,” the shrine maiden insisted, gesturing to the pools beyond. The kitchen staff and other Asashio class sisters were clustered together in the water having a polite conversation. Ark Royal could be seen in a one piece suit, taking each of the flavored kittens for their turn at swimming. Mutsuki and Mikazuki were sitting at the side of the pool, splashing their feet in the warm water as Ark supported Kisaragi’s belly and instructed her in freestyle.
“She’s really good with them,” Thorson said quietly, unable to help but consider shipgirls as mothers. He’d already taken many as lovers; it was the natural progression of things.
“She is indeed. Tomorrow will be trying for them,” Fusou observed sadly.
“We won’t let them hit the island,” he promised, earning nods of approval from destroyers and battleships alike.
“Someone has to put Akagi and Kaga in their place,” Shigure insisted. “Their aims were noble, but they sacrificed too much, and were too willing to sacrifice others.” Following that surprisingly mature proclamation from the black dog morph, Yamashiro hugged her tightly.
“Have faith in tono-sama. He will see us through.”
“Not like I have much of a choice at this point. I defected to come find you, remember? With Yuudachi and Yuki gone that Sanctuary was awful. Now stay still please, so I can finally finish your fingers and we can move onto your toes. Oh don’t blush so much! I’m sure he saw your toes and a whole lot more when you two were breeding like cats!”
“Quiet with the little ones around,” Fusou insisted sternly with a whip of her thin, black tail.
“Haha, baka-inu,” Yukikaze teased, only to have Arizona pinch her cheek just hard enough to be uncomfortable.
“Bad kitty,” she chided softly. When Yukikaze’s lower lip began to quiver, Arizona took her into a surrounding embrace and kissed her ears. “There there, I still love you, little one. It’s just good to be polite to our friends. Here, let’s get this bow on so you can look your best for the battle tomorrow. There we go!”
Thorson gave them all a broad smile as order and peace was restored, with Yuudachi standing up to brush Penny’s hair. Even the usually stoic battleship seemed happy to indulge in her feminine side around him and her friends. He couldn’t help but point it out. “We’ve come a long way since that night you arrived here,” he told her. She nodded.
“And the journey has only begun, sir.”
“Hey Michishio, can we have meat for dinner?” Yuudachi wondered loudly. The shrine maiden’s manjuu chirped happily and she nodded. “Hooray! Wan~!”
“Yeah, would be a shame to have it all end now,” Thorson agreed.
Following a wonderful spread at dinner, testament to hard work by Fredrick and the girls, the base finally descended into peaceful tension. The afternoon’s frolicking gave way to training and meditation, with Downes, Tennessee, and many others sparring hand to hand around the Union dorm’s annex. Fusou, Yamashiro, and many other Sakura left for the shrine to pray to the gods for victory. Some shipgirls, like Minneapolis, simply headed out to their hulls, wanting to settle in before the battle. Knowing he was very unlikely to find sleep that night, Thorson headed back to the onsen. While the view of his girls in towels and bathing suits was certainly easy on the eyes, the sound of running water, the view of steam and lanterns in the night, and the softness of the cushions Akashi had provided all recommended the onsen as more than just a place to see and be seen. When he emerged from the men’s room he found a pair of white rabbit ears popping out from behind the rocks that lined parts of the onsen’s border.
“Hey Laffey,” he called quietly, smiling as they twitched and she turned to face him. She hummed and stood, completely unfazed as he looked at her naked body, glistening with water and moonlight.
“Commander has come to spend the night with his first love, yes yes,” Laffey declared, collecting her towel and flask. She tied it around her chest and concealed her matured form from him once more, proof of her retrofit. Silently she followed him up to the lounge area and promptly sat in his lap. After a swig, she offered him the flask.
“How could I ever forget my first ship,” he whispered, feeling the burn of warm bourbon slip down his throat. “This is it for tonight. We can’t be drunk tomorrow morning, or hungover.”
“Laffey understands well, yes yes. Commander yearns to defeat the evil foxes and their fleets. Laffey will assist.”
“Thanks,” he murmured, kissing the back of her head and leaning back against one of the pillars that held up the structure. Laffey took the opportunity to press herself back against him.
“Does Commander ever wonder why Laffey has not sought him out at night?” she asked, displaying a maturity he was unaware she possessed.
“Why, Commander?”
“That’s why,” he said quietly pointing to two figures that had just entered the onsen from the women’s showers. Javelin was gleefully leading Zed by the hand towards the warm water. As they approached, the former allowed her towel to fall away from her lithe, evasive body freely. She hopped into the water and sighed happily as it enveloped and soothed her. Zed was left standing nearby, holding her towel tightly to her figure. Thorson smiled thinly. “She’s come a long way.”
“Laffey loves Zed and Javey. She is afraid we will face Ayanami tomorrow, yes she is.” The bunny took another swig as Zed finally stepped into the pool, quickly removed her towel and dropped the rest of the way so as to not expose herself. Javelin laughed anew and hugged her, complimenting her on her bravery and figure before pointing to Thorson and Laffey. The Ironblood almost fainted on the spot.
“If we can avoid her, we will. You know I don’t want to kill them… not her at least,” Thorson promised. Laffey nodded.
“But she may try to kill Commander, and Laffey cannot have that, no no. This cannot be the last night Laffey sleeps together with Commander and her friends.”
“And who decided that?” he wondered, taking another swig. Without warning Laffey turned and kissed him hard, claiming her share of the alcohol before pulling away to look at him with sleepy, red eyes.
“Laffey decided when Zed decided to fight again, yes yes.”
“Mission accomplished,” Thorson sighed with relief, resting his head back against the wooden beam. Laffey nodded in agreement before returning to her position and taking another sip.
“Mission accomplished, yes yes. Laffey and her Commander have a new mission now. Laffey is stronger. Laffey is wiser. Laffey is drunker. Laffey is ready, yes she is.”
“Then I’ll be taking that,” Thorson declared, snatching the flask away, capping it, and tossing it towards a nearby kotatsu. Laffey didn’t have time to protest before both his arms wrapped around her. The trade was adequate, and by the time Javelin and Zed finished their soak and joined them she was fast asleep. A quick rearranging of cushions later, the three girls were snuggled soundly under a kotatsu along with Thorson. Though his nerves mounted and grew with each passing moment, the sounds of the island at night and the soft breathing of the girls who trusted him lulled his eyelids closed with the help of the bourbon. And so on the eve of Midway, even Andrew Thorson found sleep.
“Hey, nee-san?”
“What is it, Hiryuu?”
“Is it wrong that tonight feels… beautiful?”
“You aren’t often known for sentimentality, little sister.”
“Can’t help it. Tomorrow, no, it’s surely long after midnight. Today there will be fire, blood, and chaos. Today we finish what we started back in December. But for now, the moon is beautiful. Watching it set in the west as the sky begins to turn red in the east? There’s nowhere I’d rather be right now.”
“The world has seemed… brighter, these last few days. But do not allow it to cloud your focus. Ready your talismans and cards. This will be the greatest game of hanafuda we ever play.”
“I’m as ready as I’ve ever been, Soryuu-nee. We’ll secure victory for the Sakura today. We’ll fulfill our destiny!”
“Yes… yes we will.”
“The time for preparation is over. This is Akagi of the first carrier division! All carriers ready your aircraft. All ships prepare for battle! Our first target is the airfields at Midway.”
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Gayniversary: Six Stripes, Six Years - Part Four

With the ring of the bell, both men begin to move cautionately out of the corner, hands raised in hopes of feeling something they can grab on to. They both start to slowly approach the center of the ring, hands nearly touching, when Dalidus suddenly drops to the mat, laying down flat as a board.
Woodbridge: The hell’s he doing?
Buster, unaware of Dalidus’ plan, continues to walk forwards, eventually tripping right over Nova’s body and falling to the canvas!
Paisner: I bet Buster didn’t see that one coming!
Woodbridge: No shit, Pais. And that’s the only time I’ll let that line slide.
As Buster tries to scramble back to his feet, Nova reaches to grab anything, managing to get a grip on Busters leg. Feeling his opponent latch on, Buster flips onto his back and drives his free leg forward, connecting square in the chest of Nova with enough force to make him back off.
Crowd: Oooo….
They both feel for the ropes and use them to get back to a standing base, now without any idea as to where the other is. As Buster continues trying to feel for his opponent, Dalidus again goes down to the mat, hoping to catch his opponent once again.
Woodbridge: This might be a long one…
Buster walks into Nova once more, but manages to stay on his feet. Realizing Nova’s position, Buster raises a boot and wildly stomps in the area he felt Dalidus, landing boots all over his back before Nova is able to roll out of the ring, taking a knee outside as Miles comes to his side.
Paisner: Maybe not, Mark! Looks like Buster’s quickly catching on to Nova’s… ‘strategy’.
Now alone in the ring, Buster takes a step backward, unknowingly winding up in the center of the ring. Reaching out and finding no ropes to ground himself, Buster begins to madly turn around and around, fists raised and closely listening for any sounds that may lead him to his opponent. Outside the ring, however, Miles leads Nova up onto the ring apron, walking him along it until Nova reaches the middle of the apron.
Woodbridge: Is Miles leading Nova directly to Buster?!
Paisner: I think he is! Like some sort of shitty Canadian seeing-eye dog, Alpha is acting as Nova’s vision!
Dalidus slips between the ropes, before charging straight forward and colliding with the back of Buster with a shoulder tackle! The sudden strike sends Buster falling face-first into the mat, where Dalidus quickly follows him down with a flurry of fists!
Crowd: Booooooooo!
Nova makes a grab at Buster, snatching his head in a front facelock and pulling him to his feet. However, Buster makes a desperate escape attempt, running blindly forward only to send Nova crashing into the turnbuckle!
Crowd: Oooooooohh!
Paisner: Buster, with a bit of luck, able to break Dalidus’ grip by pushing him into the corner!
Buster creates just enough space to launch a quick jab towards Nova, but Nova immediately twists out of the corner, and Buster’s fist collides with the top of the ring post!
Buster: Achk! hWhat the fuck?!
Clutching at his bruised fist, Buster turns his own back into the corner. Meanwhile, Miles gets behind Buster outside the ring, and begins to yell at Dalidus!
Miles: Dali! Follow my voice, spear his ass!
Dalidus, listening to his partner's advice, begins to run towards the sound of Alpha’s voice, lunging out in an attempt at a corner spear, only to miss by a mile and send himself flying outside of the ring!
Paisner: Nova looked for that corner spear, but ended up launching himself out of the ring to nobody!
Woodbridge: Now THATS what I call a suicide dive.
Miles looks down from the apron and facepalms in shame, but now Buster hears the slap of his hand and turns around to deck Miles off the apron!!!
The crowd cheers at the decking of Miles, and Buster celebrates with a raised fist to the air, followed by “BLACK POWER” at full volume, which gives Nova the queue he needs to sloppily roll back into the ring and then blindly launch a lariat towards the source of the yell, and he just connects with Buster’s head!
Crowd: OHHH!
Buster goes down and clutches at his head and Nova follows up and kicks to the torso of Buster as he has him on the ropes, and Buster attempts to pull himself up with the ropes while pushing Nova away, but Nova comes right back with a clothesline, and it ends up causing both men to spill over the top rope onto the floor outside!
Paisner: NASTY spill from both men, who aren’t able to see their landing and they land nastily on the floor outside!
Miles Alpha makes a dash for the two downed bodies as the referee begins the 20 count!
Alpha begins to rustle Nova up, but Nova remains motionless on the outside. Alpha brings Nova to his knees and Mia yells at him from the ring to quit interfering in the match, but now Nova has began to come to as he slowly begins to reach out and grip onto the apron, pulling himself up the rest of the way while Buster does the same with the ring post.
Miles: Punch straight ahead!
Dalidus quickly does so, shooting a powerful right hook that just misses Buster, catching nothing but empty air. Not letting up, he takes a step forward before throwing a left as Buster ducks down, immediately followed by a loud thud and a scream of pain from Nova, his fist connecting square with the post!
Buster lunges forwards at Nova, tackling him in the gut and taking whatever air was left left in his lungs! Both men hit the floor as Alpha backs away from the action, not wanting to watch Nova as he attempts to defend himself from a barrage of strikes.
9! But Buster refuses to let up, continuing to throw hands until the official’s count reaches 14, only to finally clue in and feel his way back inside the ring, staying close to the ropes as Nova groans in pain outside.
Paisner: He’s not gonna make it!
Woodbridge: There’s no time!
Suddenly, Alpha leaps onto the apron beside Nova, ensuring to stomp as loudly as possible while doing so. The noise causes Buster to respond with a quick shot to the gut that swiftly sends Miles back outside...
...But the distraction allows Nova to lurch inside the ring, rolling past Buster before he even realizes!
Buster: Count, ref! Count this cracka-ass-bitch out!
Mia So-hung: I can’t! He is inside!
Buster: He’s hWhat?
The conversation gives Dalidus all the information he needs to shoot a kneeling superkick at Braggadocio!
Nova now feels around in the air with his foot until he feels Busters head, then cocks back his leg and launches his knee full force towards Buster’s head, but whiffs as Buster ducked his head after feeling Novas foot against it! Nova doesn’t let up though and quickly bends down to grab the arms of Buster, before blindly irish whipping Buster, where Buster lands against the turnbuckle! Nova charges in the direction he threw Buster but Buster hears the steps and sidesteps, letting Nova hit the turnbuckles! Nova grasps the ropes and gets his bearings, and now Buster starts running the way Nova came from, eventually slamming against the opposite turnbuckle as he bounces off and now charges Nova from across the ring! But Nova hears Busters footsteps, and Nova charges too, both blindly throw clotheslines before slamming into each other at full speed!
Crowd: OOOOHHHH!!!!
Paisner: BOTH MEN ON THE GROUND! A double-blind takedown!!!
Woodbridge: Have you ever seen two men blindside EACH OTHER?
Miles Alpha slams his hands on the apron to try and wake up Nova, but the crowd starts clapping along in a rally for someone amongst the two men to rise first, as they both slowly begin to stir in the middle of the ring! Mia So Hung is checking on both competitors to make sure they are able to compete, and Nova seems to be getting to his feet quicker as he begins getting on his hands on knees off the ground, while Buster is still slowly stirring to consciousness. Miles is restless on the outside as he looks to now hop on the apron while the ref tends to Buster, as he retrieves a sleeping mask from his back pocket! Alpha reaches over the top rope and puts a mask on Mia So Hung!
Crowd: BOOOOO!!!
Alpha now quickly slides something under Mia’s feet that slides and hits Nova’s hands, and Nova smiles as he pockets the object just in time for Mia to remove the mask, turn around, and begin scolding Alpha, the only non-blindfolded person in sight. Alpha shrugs his shoulders and remarks, “It wasn’t me!” But Hung is having none of it as she motions for Alpha to be ejected from ringside!
Alpha is throwing a fit on the outside, but unbeknownst to the referee, Nova has pulled his blindfold down and locates Buster, then pulls out a marker!
Crowd: NOO!!!!!!
Nova charges, removes the blindfold from Buster, and swings, but Buster ducks in the nick of time and drops to the floor to the outside of the ring as Nova quickly puts back on his mask while muttering curses under his breath. He turns around to see Mia, who is politely handing the blindfold Alpha had to ringside. Alpha begins leaving through the crowd while being sung to by the crowd, who taunts Alpha with “hey hey hey”s and “goodbye”s. Nova in the ring tries to roll out of the ring, knowing where Buster went, but when he rolls out, the not-blindfolded Buster has just got something out from under the ring! AND IT’S HUGE!
Woodbridge: OH SHIT!!!
Buster launches the comically massive marker into the gut of Nova!
Crowd: OOOHHHHHHH!!!!!
Buster slides the marker under the ring and has put back on his blindfold as Mia has turned around after scolding Alpha and removing his sleeping mask prank, and Buster grabs Nova and throws him into the ring as Nova now writhes on the mat in pain! Buster slides into the ring as well and goes for the cover! Mia drops down for the count!
Crowd: OHHHHHH!!!!!!
Woodbridge: Nova just survived the fuckin’ Hiroshima of Marker Jabs!
Paisner: That was a disgustingly big marker to the gut of Dalidus Nova, but it should be noted that was the first pinfall attempt in the entirety of this highly unusual Blindfold Match! Hard to pin your opponent and keep applying that pressure when you can barely find them!
Buster has his hands on his head in disbelief as he realizes the match isn’t over, and so he quickly grabs the downed Nova and begins to lift him to his knees, and Nova launches a two finger eye poke at Buster’s blindfold!
Crowd: O-OOHH?!?
Buster falls back and the impact of the eye poke doesn’t seem to have bothered him as much as Mia not calling for the bell!
Mia: You already blind, stupid!
Nova doesn’t let up on the attack and now pushes Buster back, holding onto him and pushing until Buster gets shoulder blocked into the corner! Buster lets out a pained groan and Nova now brings on the heat with repeated chops, rights, lefts, uppercuts, and knee strikes as Buster is on the wrong end of an all-out onslaught of strikes!
Nova now takes Buster’s battered body and begins maneuvering it up the ropes, carefully making sure to balance Buster and maintain his own balance as he sits Braggadocio upright on the top rope! Nova now climbs and mounts the ropes and then wraps an arm around the arm and shoulder of his opponent!
Woodbridge: Christ, is this the first Blindfolded Superplex!??!
Buster seems at the end of the line as Nova sizes Buster up one more time, reaching out and grabbing him by the afro as he launches a right into Buster’s forehead. But now Buster seems less limp as he now yells at the top of his lungs!
Crowd: OHHH!!!!
Nova ignores him and launches another right, and another, but Buster just shakes them off as the crowd begins to get louder and louder after each punch that Buster shakes off before a black finger is pointed right to Nova’s face!
Crowd: YYOUUUUUUU!!!!!!
Buster launches a vicious knee into Nova’s gut!
Nova is now doubled over, and Buster reaches down and grabs a hold of both arms before getting them in an underhook and jumping off the top rope, plunging Nova’s head down into the mat!!!
Javier: AND YOUR WINNER, at a time of 14:08, Busstterrr Braggaadocioo!!!!!
Woodbridge: HE HULKED UP, SAID THE N-WORD LIKE THE HULKSTER, AND BOOM! A Patmos Plunge pedigree from the top rope to punctuate this pandemonium!
Paisner: I’ll let the alliteration slide, because damn, what an effort from these two men, putting on a match while blindfolded for nearly the whole damn match! You have to give it to them, they know their way around a ring, but Buster was just barely able to use his other senses and gain an advantage over the very dangerous Dalidus Nova.
Buster finally takes his blindfold off and kisses the mat after being able to see it again, and he then limps over to the ropes to raise an ear to the crowd, who oblige with a roar of approval! Buster locates the nearest camera and lets the cameraman have an earful!
Nova has finally began to stir in the middle of the ring and Buster looks over at his fallen opponent, with a look of disappointment on his face as he runs his hands through his hair and seems to have the gears churning in his head before finally reaching down to offer a hand to Nova.
Paisner: Is this a peace offering from Buster? He.. he isn’t being honest right now is he?
Woodbridge: I don’t blame him, Pais! These two just fought over 14 minutes without looking at eachother, I would have some newfound respect too!
Nova looks up at the outreached hand of Buster, and there is a brief moment of no movement between the two as the crowd is loud with mixed reactions of booing, cheering, and anticipation, and it all comes to a halt as Nova grabs the hand of Buster only to push his arm to the side as he walks past Buster and exits the ring through the ropes.
Crowd: Boooooooo!!!
Buster stands alone in the ring, shrugging his arms in the air, before making his own way out to let the ring crew do their thing.
Javier: The following match is a tag team match set for one fall, with a 60 minute time limit, and it is for the WiR World Tag Team Championships!
Piano of an obscure song comes through the speakers, playing for a while until the guitar kicks in further, signaling the arrival of Marshall Wheeler and Mercenaire out onto the entranceway. A cold, stern sort of confidence on both of their faces, as they pay no mind to the crowd as they walk their way down to the ring.
Paisner: And now, two bad, and dangerous ass men down to the ring. Marshall Wheeler and Mercenaire of Coup d’Etat, two masters of generally beating the piss out of people, and two men who’ve proven several times their prowess in the ring as tag team partners. Recently falling SPECALIST in an excellent tag team match..;...then committing some less than excellent actions against them post-match to convince both me and The Stargazers into giving them this match tonight.
Woodbridge: And it wouldn’t be shocking to me if The Stargazers live to regret that Allen. There’s just a significant size difference in this match, June builds herself and her moveset to be able to deal with that and go toe to toe with other bruisers. But if Kat gets caught even once, both Mercenaire and Wheeler have the tools to punish her heavily, her much lighter weight means she just doesn’t have as much protection and ability to take shots and keep dishing ‘em as June does. So if these men’s strategy revolves around isolated Kat, that’s both the un-suprising option, and almost certainly the right one.
Mercenaire and Wheeler both make their way down with long, confident strides, quickly making their way to the ring apron, disregarding all the jeers tossed their direction on the way, as they step through the ropes and into the ring. Awaiting their opponents.
The mixed guitar and synth of Summer Nights by SIAMES pours throughout the whole venue, as we see our tag team champions, Kat-Anavae Emery and June Emery-Anavae of The Stargazers come out from behind the curtain, titles belts around their waists, and special for this show, both having the lesbian flag painted onto both of their cheeks. As they raise their hands into the air, before bringing them down, making a heart shape with them, and then locking hands as they rush down to the ring!
Paisner: And now our tag team champions! Looking to make another defense, and being a lesbian couple, i’m sure they’d especially love to walk out of our pride themed show with those belts still around their waists!
Woodbridge: And I think there are two major points, overcoming the size disparity, especially Kat, with their speed and agility. And apply their experience in tag team wrestling well, they simply have quite a bit more of it than Merc and Wheeler, if they can keep their fundamentals on point, they have a very good chance of retaining tonight.
The Stargazers rush the ring, quickly making it to the apron and sliding in! Taking their belts, and raising them into the air to the cheers of the crowd, before Undersach takes them in order to present them in a moment. The two teams discuss amongst one another who’ll start out, deciding on June and Wheeler respectively, as Javier prepares his announcements.
Javier: Introducing first, the challengers, from A dark, dark place, and Houston, Texas respectively, weighing in at a combined 480 pounds, COUP ‘D’ETAT!
Wheeler cockily smirks at the jeers tossed their way, as Mercenaire tunes them out completely.
Javier: And introducing next, from New Hamburg and Harmony, Ontario, Canada respectively, weighting in at a combined 302 pounds, THEY ARE THE WIR WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS, THE STAAARRRRGAAAAZZZZEEEEEERRRRSSS!
June and Kat both wave to the audience in appreciation of their support, and Undersach raises both title belts in the air to signify what this all is about. aAs we then see Undersach signal to both teams to see if they’re ready, and getting nothing but nods, calls for the bell!
As the bell sounds, June and Wheeler stare down one another, putting their arms up in anticipation to scrap, as they slowly approach each other. And as they get close, Wheeler attempts to strike in quick with a forearm! But June gets out the way, and goes to land a kick to Wheeler’s mid-section in retaliation! But Wheeler catches the leg, and goes to spin June around by it, quickly attempting an enzu lariat on her as she’s turned around, but June once again dodges! June then quickly grabs Wheeler from behind in a waist-lock, and attempts to lift him, but Wheeler slips out, and gets a go-behind into his own waist-lock and german attempt! But June back elbows Wheeler in the side of the head, and forces him to let go! June then quickly grabs Wheeler’s arm from behind, and wrings him down to a seated position in the mat! Quickly delivering a sharp kick to the back, before running the ropes, and coming back with a seated dropkick to the back of Wheeler’s head!
Paisner: The back and forth exchange, but June finding her way through, and a devastating dropkick to the back of Wheeler’s head! It always hurts more when you don’t see it coming!
Wheeler holds at the back of his head, writhing around on the mat, as June grabs him, picks him up, and whips him into a corner! Directly following as she whips him, meeting him in the corner with a lariat! Clubbing Wheeler in the upper chest!
Then taking Wheeler, and whipping him again into the opposite corner, this time bashing him on the chin with a running european uppercut!
Wheeler looks knocked loopy, as June grabs him again, whips him back into the original corner, and strikes him once again, this time with a running forearm! The sound of the impact sounding throughout the arena!
Wheeler’s eyes stare out blankly into the distance, as June then whips him yet another time, and as she rushes back at him, nails him in the head with a vicious elbow strike!
Wheeler sinks down after the elbow strike, slumped over in the corner! June then grabs him once more, whips him into the opposite corner yet again, rushing him, before jumping up and nailing him in the head with a spinning heel kick in the corner! Wheeler completely falling out the corner and onto the mat in a complete daze!
Paisner: June striking Wheeler down again and again and again and again! June starting off blazing!
June then dives right into a cover on Wheeler!
2! No! Wheeler lifts his shoulder up!
June brings Wheeler back up, and striking with several forearms into his face! Stunning Wheeler, as she whips him into her tag corner! June rushes into her tag corner to nail Wheeler with a high knee! Before she tags Kat into the ring! June grabs the stunned Wheeler, and snapmares him flat on his back to the mat! As Kat steps into the ring, and she/June both run the ropes together! Meeting back up as they come back to Wheeler’s body, as they both link hands with one another, before both falling down into a tandem elbow drop on Wheeler!
Woodbridge: The Gazers showcasing the power of love, and how said love can be used to cave someone’s chest in!
Wheeler struggles to breathe after the double elbow drop to his chest, holding at it, rolling around, and desperately trying to get air back into his lungs. As Kat then stands up, and backs up from Wheeler, before running, flipping into a handstand, then falling that into a leg drop to the neck of Wheeler!
Paisner: What remarkable athleticism from Kat! The cover!
2! No! Another kickout from Wheeler!
Kat stands up, an inspired look in her eye from the gazer’s control of the match so far, as she grabs Wheeler, and begins to try and bring him up, but struggles getting up someone twice her weight, and so settles for getting him up to a knee. Wheeler begins to gradually make his own way up a bit more, as Kat then rushes towards the ropes, jumps off them, then goes to come back with a springboard uppercut to Wheeler! But Wheeler manages to just barely get out the way at the last moment! Dodging, then stumbling back, as Kat rolls through, gets up, and rushes back at Wheeler again with a leaping forearm! But Wheeler dodges that as well! Moving behind Kat, but this leaves him open to a back elbow from Kat, stunning him! Kat then spins around, looking for a front facing elbow strike, but is cut off by Wheeler!........with a poke to the eye, followed by grabbing Kat by her hair, and tossing her down face first to the mat by it
Paisner: Wheeler with the attack to the eye followed by a hair pull! Undersach reprimanding him for both these illegal actions, but Wheeler doesn’t seem concerned at all!
Kat writhes around on the mat, holding at her face, as Wheeler rests against the ropes to catch his breath, before walking back over to Kat, and picking her up by the hair! Whipping her into his tag corner, where he follows, and nails her in the head with a running forearm shot! Completely stunning Kat in the corner!
Kat slumps over a bit, as Wheeler then tags in Mercenaire. Wheeler rocks Kat with a few more forearms to keep her stunned, before grabbing the back of her head and bringing her over to the center of the ring as Mercenaire enters. Wheeler then whips Kat into the ropes, Kat hitting the ropes by her front, bouncing off of them, and as she backs into Wheeler, he grabs her legs, and lifts her down and up into a wheelbarrow, as Mercenaire then comes in just in time of Wheeler to drop Kat forward, and Mercenaire to add onto the damage by bringing her down with a facebuster as the same time! Kat slamming hard into the mat!
Paisner: Merc and Wheeler with a double team wheelbarrow facebuster! Kat face first planted into the mat! Wheeler heads to the apron as Merc goes into the cover!
2! No! Kickout by Kat!
Kat looks dazed on the mat from her face being driven straight into it, as Mercenaire grabs her by her hair, drags her over to his tag corner, and tosses the still downed Kat into the middle turnbuckle! The back of her head impacting it, as she clutches at where her head bounces off! As Mercenaire does not give her any grace period to recover, immediately going to stomp her right in the face! Booting her in the head repeatedly as she sinks down further in the corner to a complete seated position! Where upon then Mercenaire changes to pressing his boot against Kat’s neck, choking her out! Undersach quickly comes over to count Mercenaire off for the choke, getting nearly to the 5 count before Mercenaire finally breaks!
Undersach reprimands Mercenaire for almost getting himself DQ’d, as Mercenaire turns around to argue with Undersach, standing right in his face as he does so……..which seems to all be a cover for him repeatedly mule kicking Kat with both his legs as he argues!
Paisner: Mercenaire bending the rules all he can, pushing the limits of all he can get away with!
Eventually, he ends the argument with Undersach, as he turns back around, and lifts Kat up, before taking her to the middle of the ring, and whipping her into the ropes! Intercepting her with a big boot as she rebounds off the ropes, flooring her to the mat!
Kat writhes around on the mat, holding at her face after being floored by the boot, as Mercenaire smirks at the damage he’s done, before grabbing Kat by her hair, and looking out to June on the apron. Silently telling her to watch, as he lays in a vicious european uppercut! Flooring Kat to the ground once more!
Kat falls like a rock to the mat, as Mercenaire eyes out to the apron once more, June looking into the ring with a now angered expression on her face, as Mercenaire grabs Kat up by her hair yet again, and staring at June the whole time, strikes Kat down with another european uppercut!
June glares at Mercenaire with anger, as Mercenaire remains silent, but keeps his eyes locked with June the whole time, as he grabs a handful of Kat’s hair, bringing her up by it once more. Mercenaire then forms a twisted smirk on his face, as he floors Kat with another european uppercut right in front of June!
June is fuming on the apron by now, yelling at Mercenaire to fight her rather than beat up on her wife, as Mercenaire laughs at her anger, as he goes to pick Kat up by her hair yet another time…..and this sets June off! As she rushes into the ring, and nails Mercenaire with a running forearm to get him off of Kat, as she goes wild laying in more and more strikes!
Paisner: Mercenaire taunting June by striking down her wife while looking her in the eye, and she’s had enough! Coming into the ring to defend her partner!
June lays into Mercenaire, but things get broken up as Undersach comes in to get the non-legal wrestler off of Merc, pushing her away….and in this commotion, gives an opening for Wheeler to come into the ring, and lay down vicious stomps to Kat’s chest while Undersach isn’t looking!
June yells at Undersach to turn around and see what’s going on, as he continues to just try and get an angered June back onto the apron, while meanwhile Wheeler’s stomping has gone past what would’ve been a 5 count, as Mercenaire uses the whole distraction to join Wheeler in mercilessly stomping on Kat!
Undersach eventually gets June onto the apron, Wheeler upon seeing this, rushes back to the apron as if nothing happened, as Mercenaire grabs Kat, and picks her up. June still very heated in her tag corner. Merc then whips Kat into a corner, then rushes right at her, and jumps up to clock her in the head with a high knee! Then grabs her arm, and pulls her into a short-arm clothesline! Taking her back down to the mat!
Woodbridge: Incredible viciousness and efficiency from Coup d’Etat, they’re looking well on their way to a championship tonight.
Kat is laid out on the ground, a blank expression on her face as she lays mostly limp. Mercenaire then goes over to the ropes, grabbing onto them as he seems to await Kat to come to. Kat eventually begins to show signs of life, crawling just a bit to be able to grab the ropes, and gradually pull herself up. She slowly makes her way up with what energy she still has, as she eventually gets all the way up to her feet, and stumbles her way out the corner! Where upon when, Merc rushes at her, twirls around, and connects with a spinning backfist to her face!
Mercenaire then kicks the stunned Kat in the gut with his left leg, doubling her over, before raising his knee with the right leg to connect with her face!......but Kat catches the knee right before it connects with her face!
Paisner: Mercenaire going for Remise, but Kat manages to stop the knee finisher!
Kat pushes Mercenaire off of her by his knee, as Mercenaire tries to quickly respond after stopping his momentum with a jumping enziguri! But Kat ducks her head under, and as Merc tries to quickly kneel up, Kat nails him in the side of the head with a kneeling roundhouse, before collapsing to the mat!
Both wrestlers are out on the mat, Kat exhausted, and Mercenaire stunned from the roundhouse. We see June on the apron, jumping and stomping on the apron! Trying to inspire Kat over!
We then see Kat begin to move, as Mercenaire is still laid out motionless on the mat, Kat digs her hands into the mat and begins to slowly crawl her way over to her tag corner. June continues to jump and stomp, hyping Kat up to get her to the corner! Kat continues to slowly make her way over, inching closer and closer, before eventually, leaping over to tag in June!.....but suddenly, Wheeler appeals from behind, and cuts June’s legs out from under her! Causing June to faceplant on the apron, as Kat’s hand makes contact with nothing!
Wheeler then slides into the ring, as he begins to stomp on the back of Kat! Stomping her into the ground!
Undersach goes to force Wheeler as the non-legal man off of Kat, and does so, as Wheeler shifts focus. Going over to Mercenaire, who’s just beginning to come to, and instructing him to roll out the ring, which Merc does, resetting the legal man to Wheeler, as Merc then comes right back in. Wheeler picking Kat back up, as he whips her hard into a corner! Kat making a forceful impact with the turnbuckles, tensing up in pain after hitting them! As Mercenaire charges first, clobbering Kat with a lariat in the corner! Wheeler then rushes himself, Merc getting out the way to give him the space to clobber Kat with his own lariat!
Kat slumps down in the corner, but Merc lifts her back up, then whips her into the opposite corner! Mercenaire rushing towards the corner, and nailing Kat in the head with a running knee strike! Knocking her loopy. As Merc then gets out the way for Wheeler to come rushing in himself, jumping up to knee Kat in her head!.....but Kat manages to get out the way at the last moment! Wheeler jamming him knee into the turnbuckle! Wheeler hobbles on his one leg, as Mercenaire is took aback by this, trying to quickly turn around and get after Kat, but gets clocked with Kat jumping up with a bicycle knee! Intercepting Mercenaire and clocking him in the head! Knocking him near off balance, as Kat finishes him with a superkick to the face! Knocking Mercenaire over, and Merc falls into the ropes, and falls through the middle rope to the outside!
Paisner: Coup attempting a doubled up version of Quatre! But Kat cutting them off! Taking Mercenaire out!
As Kat takes out Mercenaire, Wheeler recovers enough to come at Kat, jumping up with a superman punch! But Kat dodges! Wheeler turns around, but Kat grabs him, and whips him into the opposite corner! Kat following him, going to meet him in the corner, but Wheeler intercepts by getting a leg up! Kat running right into it! Kat stumbles back from running into the boot, as he then grabs Kat, and whips her back into the original corner! Where he now rushes Kat, and goes to nail her with a vicious running forearm!.....but suddenly, Kat ducks under, and June hops up onto the apron, meeting Wheeler with her own forearm shot, before tagging herself in!
As soon as June enters the ring, she rushes the stumbling back Wheeler, and absolutely destroys him with a clothesline from hell!
June goes immediately into the cover, as we notice Kat rolling onto the apron and lying down. Undersach goes to count!
No! Kickout from Wheeler!
June stands up, looking out to the crowd with intensity in her eyes, letting out a passionate yell, before heading over to the ropes! Beginning to scale up them, making it to the top rope, balancing herself up on it! She looks down at the grounded Wheeler, takes a deep breath, before jumping off, and coming down back first with all her weight on Wheeler as she destroys Wheeler with a top rope senton!
No! Wheeler lifts his shoulder up!
June doesn’t relent, as she quickly gets back on Wheeler, grabbing him, and lifting him up. She puts her arm around Wheeler looking to lift him up in a uranage, but Wheeler manages to block! June tries to lift again, but we see Wheeler drop to a knee to block! June sends a knee into Wheeler’s chest in response! Then another! Then another! The force of the knee causing June to lose her own grip for a moment, before quickly going to re-grab Wheeler, and lift him up with the uranage! But as she has Wheeler lifted up, Wheeler desperately reaches out with one of his hands, and rakes the eyes of June! Forcing June to drop him!
Undersach goes over to warn Wheeler for this action, as Wheeler “accidentally” latches onto him as he stumbles back from being released, pushing Undersach away! And as he’s briefly facing away Wheeler uses the opportunity to low blow June! June dropping onto her hands and knees in pain, as Wheeler mounts, then rolls forward into a gedo clutch! Undersach turning around, seeing this, and going over to count the pin!
NO! Kickout from June!
Paisner: June kicks out of the low blow into roll-up! I’ve talked before with cis gal wrestlers about this, don’t underestimate how much that shit still hurts even if it’s not a dick kick! Wheeler nearly stole it after pushing Undersach away!
Wheeler pushes himself up to his feet, stumbling and nearly losing balance as he does so, but managing to re-adjust, as we see June push herself to her feet as well, and as she does so, Wheeler charges, spins around, and goes to blast June in the face with a spinning back elbow! But June ducks her head under! Wheeler whiffing the elbow! Before Wheeler can turn around, June does so herself, tripping Wheeler’s legs from out under him, faceplanting him on the mat, before hooking her legs on Wheeler’s arms, using them to twist Wheeler onto his shoulders, before bridging back for the prawn hold!
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Final Mock Draft - Part 1 (1st Round/Competitive Balance Picks)

I won't have the time to do this just a couple days before the draft, but I wanted to do one, so I'll just get it in now. If these end up being very wrong, that's the way it goes. Some of these picks, I'm going based on stuff I've heard. When it gets beyond around the middle of the first round or so, I'm more going off on my own gut feeling. Like last time, I'll break it down into two parts to spread it out. I'll even let everyone know what my picks were from my previous mock. That will be italicized. If the pick is the same from my last mock draft, I'll just note it with the word 'Same.'
Round 1: 1) Detroit Tigers select Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Arizona State - I still feel Torkelson is the most likely selection here, but the Tigers could leverage him, Austin Martin and Asa Lacy against one another to either see which one would sign for less or even if one would take a significant discount. There are some similarities between Torkelson and Andrew Vaughn, who went #3 last year to the White Sox. Previous mock draft selection: Same 2) Baltimore Orioles select Austin Martin, 3B/CF/SS, Vanderbilt - Martin is the best pure college bat in the draft, and the O's could figure out his permanent position on defense later. Asa Lacy wouldn't surprise me, and I wouldn't hate that pick at all as an Orioles fan. Maybe Zac Veen or Nick Gonzales on under slot deals could be considered, but I think it's far less likely. Previous mock draft selection: Same 3) Miami Marlins select Asa Lacy, LHP, Texas A&M - Miami would snatch Torkelson or Martin in a second if one were still available, but they'd happily select Lacy at three if both are gone. This is an extremely projectable lefty who could have four plus pitches at his peak. If he reaches his very high ceiling, it could result in a Chris Sale type of career. I won't completely rule out a very under slot deal on high school outfielder Zac Veen. Previous mock draft selection: Same 4) Kansas City Royals select Zac Veen, OF, Spruce Creek HS (FL) - What the Royals do will heavily influence these next few picks. Their pick sounds down to two, New Mexico State's Nick Gonzales or high schooler Zac Veen. Being proven at the college level and showing well in the Cape Cod League, Gonzales provides the safer selection. Veen is the best all-around prep prospect in this draft class and likely has the higher ceiling between the two, but could take quite a bit longer to reach it. Previous mock draft selection: Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia 5) Toronto Blue Jays select Max Meyer, RHP, Minnesota - The blue birds sound very high on Minnesota power-righty Max Meyer, who could garner some Tim Lincecum comparisons because of his premium stuff and undersized frame. If the Jays decide on a hitter, they'd likely be choosing the player I mentioned above who Kansas City passed on. Previous mock draft selection: Nick Gonzales, 2B, New Mexico State
6) Seattle Mariners select Nick Gonzales, 2B, New Mexico State - Here could be the high-water mark for Georgia righty Emerson Hancock, whose stock appears to be slipping as we approach the draft. But with Gonzales on the board, he's who I have the Mariners selecting. The M's have been unafraid of taking very productive college pitchers from smaller schools in Logan Gilbert and George Kirby. I can't imagine they'd turn down a very productive small school bat, either. Especially one who also hit well in the Cape Cod League, which means you can't solely dismiss Gonzales as a product of a smaller conference and a hitter friendly park. Previous mock draft selection: Max Meyer 7) Pittsburgh Pirates select Heston Kjerstad, OF, Arkansas - Gonzales is probably the realistic dream scenario for the Pirates. He wouldn't fall any further than this, but without him available, I think new GM Ben Cherington would turn his attention to Heston Kjerstad, a lefty outfielder out of Arkansas with excellent raw power. Assuming he hits enough to tap into that excellent raw power, he should be a high level starting big league right fielder. Previous mock draft selection: Reid Detmers, LHP, Louisville 8) San Diego Padres select Robert Hassell, OF, Independence HS (TN) - There are a few rumors surrounding the Padres, but one constant I've heard is they do like high school outfielder Robert Hassell. I don't think he has the pure upside of fellow high school outfielder Austin Hendrick, but he's got a plus hit tool, which does give him a higher floor than Hendrick. Previous mock draft selection: Garrett Mitchell, OF, UCLA 9) Colorado Rockies select Emerson Hancock, RHP, Georgia - Barring a serious injury, never in the last two or three months did I think it'd be possible for Hancock to drop this far. But that's exactly the scenario I have unfolding here. Given how few proven pitchers will want to sign with them in free agency given how tough it is to pitch in Coors Field, the Rockies have to draft and develop pitchers along with making smart moves and trades. To get a premium arm like Hancock at 9 is something their GM shouldn't pass on. It'd be a fireable offense if he did. Previous mock draft selection: Heston Kjerstad 10) Los Angeles Angels select Reid Detmers, LHP, Louisville - It's hard to imagine the Angels would complain too much about taking perhaps the most polished college pitcher in the draft class. Reid Detmers doesn't have wow stuff, but it should play up because he's got very good command/control of his pitches and poise on the mound. For a team like the Angels trying to win right now, a quick mover like Detmers is a very good fit. IDK if he ever wins a Cy Young or makes many All-Star teams, but he should thrive as a high quality mid-rotation arm ala Jarrod Washburn. Previous mock draft selection: Jared Kelley, RHP, Refugio HS (TX) 11) Chicago White Sox select Austin Hendrick, OF, West Allegheny HS (PA) - Talk is the White Sox could be breaking a very impressive streak of taking college players in the first round. Austin Hendrick seems like one of the players under consideration if the White Sox go that route. He's got great raw power and could even stick in centerfield, which would be an added bonus. But he'd be fine in right field if that's necessary. Essentially, I see someone who could be a better version of Heston Kjerstad. Like Kjerstad, there are swing and miss concerns here as well. If the ChiSox want to keep going with college players, NC State catcher Patrick Bailey would be my best guess if none of the top four college pitchers are available at their spot. Previous mock draft selection: Patrick Bailey, C, NC State 12) Cincinnati Reds select Pete Crow-Armstrong, OF, Harvard-Westlake HS (CA): Only recently did I learn that Crow-Armstrong is the son of Ashley Crow, who played the mother of Billy Haywood in the movie 'Little Big League.' Awesome. I've heard high school bats being mentioned most with the Reds, and Crow-Armstrong's name is the one popping up most recently. He's not a big power threat (though it could play up a bit at Great American Ballpark), but he can hit and is a great defensive centerfielder. Previous mock draft selection: Zac Veen 13) San Francisco Giants select Tyler Soderstrom, C/3B, Turlock HS (CA) - Like Pablo Sandoval a number of years back, Tyler Soderstrom may eventually make the move from catcher to third base. Also like the Kung Fu Panda, he can really hit. I've often heard his name connected to the Giants. A college pitcher could also be seriously considered here. Previous mock draft selection: Mick Abel, RHP, Jesuit HS (OR) 14) Texas Rangers select Cade Cavalli, RHP, Oklahoma - College arms sound like the preference for Texas. Last year, they rolled with Texas college players early (Josh Jung, Davis Wendzel). This may be a bit early for Clayton Beeter out of Texas Tech, so I'll go for a guy somewhat close to the Texas area in Oklahoma's Cade Cavalli. This cat has excellent pure stuff and could find himself pitching at the top of a big league rotation if he can put it all together, something he didn't do at Oklahoma. He can also hit a bit, but even if drafted by an NL team, that may not matter so much since I expect a universal DH to be implemented into baseball relatively soon. Previous mock draft selection: Nick Bitsko, RHP, Central Bucks East HS (PA) 15) Philadelphia Phillies select Garrett Crochet, LHP, Tennessee - This range sounds about perfect for Crochet, who I don't think would get past St. Louis at 21. He could be one of the steals of the draft at this juncture as his stuff and upside rivals just about anybody's. There is a bit more risk with him than the other top arms because he's dealt with injuries and is not as proven a commodity. Previous mock draft selection: Same 16) Chicago Cubs select Mick Abel, RHP, Jesuit HS (OR): Way off with my projection in my first mock, it sounds like the Cubs are shooting for high ceiling high school players with this selection. Maybe they'd consider local product Ed Howard if they wanted a bat, or they could have their choice of any of the high school pitchers they want. Mick Abel already has a quality arsenal of pitches, and he should only get better as he puts on more muscle and gets professional coaching. Previous mock draft selection: Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP, South Carolina 17) Boston Red Sox select Garrett Mitchell, OF, UCLA: Boston appears high on Abel, but former GM Theo Epstein ruined that. New GM Chaim Bloom comes from the Rays, who have always been high on up-the-middle defenders with high upside. That's where Garrett Mitchell comes in. The UCLA product has shown every tool during his time at UCLA except in-game power, but some people think he could still tap into it at some point. He's a pure centerfielder with great speed and a plus hit tool. His profile doesn't sound too dissimilar from a college version of Pete-Crow Armstrong. He does have Type 1 Diabetes, which will be something a team taking him has to be comfortable with. Previous mock draft selection: Pete Crow-Armstrong
18) Arizona Diamondbacks select Ed Howard, SS, Mount Carmel HS (IL): Just two years ago, the D-Backs stole Alek Thomas late in Round 2 out of Mount Carmel. They may already be somewhat similar with Howard as a result of that, and may double down on the strategy of drafting a player from that high school. He doesn't have the highest ceiling, but he's a solid all-around player who shouldn't have any trouble sticking at shortstop on defense. Previous mock draft selection: Robert Hassell
19) New York Mets select Patrick Bailey, C, North Carolina State: Bailey could be long gone by this juncture, so here's an opportunity for the Mets to make a value selection by grabbing him at 19. Quality catching has become so hard to find these days. While Bailey obviously doesn't project to be as good as Adley Rutschman (otherwise he'd go much higher), he is an above average defender with a strong arm and solid power from either side of the plate. Previous mock draft selection: Tyler Soderstrom
20) Milwaukee Brewers select Cole Wilcox, RHP, Georgia: Pretty much everyone is associating the Brewers with a college pitcher. You can pretty much pick one from a hat at this point and your guess would be as good as mine. I went with Wilcox because of his premium stuff and much improved control over a short four game stretch in 2020. Previous mock draft selection: Austin Hendrick 21) St. Louis Cardinals select Justin Foscue, 2B, Mississippi State: Sort of a safe, boring college player, Justin Foscue's name appears to be on the rise and St. Louis could be his final destination. He really came on as a sophomore and posted an astounding16-3 BB-to-K ratio in a shortened 16 game season. A pick like Foscue here could have the red birds more money to play with in later rounds. I'd still really like the pick from my last mock draft here (though he was unavailable this time), which was... Previous mock draft selection: Ed Howard
22) Washington Nationals select Tanner Burns, RHP, Auburn: This pick came down to a number of pitchers, one of whom was already off the board (Wilcox). Burns has been a very productive starter in the SEC since arriving at Auburn, but he did have a shoulder injury a year ago and has slowed down late in seasons. Pitchers with injury concerns have never scared the Nats off before. J.T. Ginn is a real possibility here with my dark horse pick being high schooler Dax Fulton. Previous mock draft selection: Cole Wilcox
23) Cleveland Indians select Dillon Dingler, C, Ohio State: Fewer prospects did more to help themselves in such a shortened time span than Ohio State catcher Dillon Dingler, who may have been on the verge of an unbelievable 2020 until the coronavirus epidemic shut everything down. It sounds like he's set to be a top 25 selection given the vast improvement he showed with the bat. His great defense is still there and he's got a cannon for an arm. Previous mock draft selection: Same
24) Tampa Bay Rays select Carmen Mlodzinski, RHP, South Carolina: Carmen is right here. Let the whole world know! Oh, wrong Carmen. This Carmen had an outstanding Cape Cod League showing in the summer of 2019 and followed it up with a solid four games during a shortened season. He could have three plus pitches and solid control if it all comes together for him. Previous mock draft selection: Austin Wells, C/1B/DH, Arizona
25) Atlanta Braves select Chris McMahon, RHP, Miami (FL): Since the Braves have the draft's third smallest draft pool, I thought a should be fairly easy to sign college pitcher here at 25 would be a solid bet for them. There should be a number of guys like this for them to choose from (Bryce Jarvis, Clayton Beeter, McMahon, etc.). McMahon is likely never a Cy Young candidate, but he could be one of those pitchers you put into the 3rd or 4th spot of your rotation and not worry about it for as long as you have him on your team for. Previous mock draft selection: Cade Cavalli
26) Oakland A's select Bryce Jarvis, RHP, Duke: Normally a very conservative team in terms of the draft, going the same route with the A's that I went with the Braves makes a ton of sense. Bryce Jarvis really came on in 2020, throwing a perfect game and showing much improved control, which shows up on the stat sheet with a 27:2 K to walk ratio. If the A's would rather go for a hitter, someone like Baylor shortstop Nick Loftin or Arizona's Austin Wells could make some sense. Previous mock draft selection: Chris McMahon
27) Minnesota Twins select Austin Wells, C/1B/DH, Arizona: Nobody really knows for sure where Austin Wells will settle in defensively. He's likely not a full-time catcher, but he could see a bit of time there along with reps at first base, some DH games and maybe even a try in left field or two. What will get him drafted with a high draft pick is his bat. It doesn't matter whether it's been in Tucson or in the Cape Cod League, Austin Wells has hit and hit for power. He also has a solid eye at the plate. He fits pretty well with the Twins, who have a lineup full of players like him. Previous mock draft selection: Bryce Jarvis
28) New York Yankees select Carson Tucker, SS, Mountain Pointe HS (AZ): Carson Tucker is a name the pinstripes have been connected to, and it sounds like he's one of the high school players who is ready to get his pro career started. His brother, Cole, was a first round pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2014. He'll probably be an average defensive shortstop and at best, will probably have average power, but he can really handle the bat well. Previous mock draft selection: Kevin Parada, C, Loyola HS (CA)
29) Los Angeles Dodgers select Clayton Beeter, RHP, Texas Tech: In a way, I really wouldn't envy Clayton Beeter if he were drafted by the Dodgers here given that he'd have virtually no chance of living up to the standard set by another Clayton (Kershaw). But this Clayton has plus stuff and his much improved control in a shortened 2020 was at least a bit surprising considering how much trouble he had throwing strikes in 2019. Previous mock draft selection: Dax Fulton, LHP, Mustang HS (OK)
Competitive Balance Picks: 30) Baltimore Orioles select Nick Bitsko, RHP, Central Bucks East HS (PA): This is probably a bit of a mix of me dreaming both somewhat realistically and unrealistically. Based on talent alone, Nick Bitsko should be long off the board before this selection. And he may well be long gone by this point, but he does supposedly have a high asking price to not honor a commitment to play at Virginia, which could keep him on the board longer than expected. Given that the O's have around $14.5 million they can pay out without incurring any draft pick penalties, they're one team that could meet his asking price. He was originally going to be a 2021 draft entrant and may have been the most talented pitcher from that draft class until reclassifying to enter the 2020 draft. Previous mock draft selection: Tanner Burns
31) Pittsburgh Pirates select Jared Kelley, RHP, Refugio HS (TX): I had Kelley way higher than this in my previous mock, but because advanced analytics such as spin rate are not painting him in the prettiest light, it sounds like anywhere from the late first round to these competitive balance selections will be his draft range. He's still a fairly polished for a high school pitcher, at least as polished as one can be, and may have a shorter than usual big league arrival than most high school arms. The Bucs may feel they can get him on an over slot deal here since I have a feeling they might be able to get Kjerstad on an under slot deal at the 7th pick. Previous mock draft selection: Carson Montgomery, RHP, Windermere HS (FL)
32) Kansas City Royals select Carson Montgomery, RHP, Windermere HS (FL): Monty only goes one pick lower than I had him in my first mock. This time, he goes to the Royals, who go with perhaps the "safest" (I use that term loosely) high school arm left on the board. Kansas City may be able to get an under slot deal done with Veen at 4, and they added a ton of college arms through the 2018 draft, so I like the idea of getting a younger arm in the system. Previous mock draft selection: Aaron Sabato, 1B/DH, North Carolina
33) Arizona Diamondbacks select Jared Jones, RHP, La Mirada HS (CA): One recent mock drafter on this site has Jones being a major riser as he's supposedly fixed some stuff mechanically and may be better than ever. There's a ton of upside here if he can reign in his control and command. Arizona took high school righty Brennan Malone in this very spot a year ago, but he was dealt to the Pirates in the Starling Marte trade. Let's give them another one to replace him. Previous mock draft selection: Tanner Witt, RHP, Episcopal HS (TX)
34) San Diego Padres select Daniel Cabrera, OF, LSU: I didn't remember this off the top of my head, but I have gone through a lot of the top 200 profiles on MLB's Pipeline list and saw the Padres took Cabrera in the 26th round of the 2017 draft. Taking that into account and feeling like this is right where he fits draft range wise, I think it makes a lot of sense. He's been a little more solid than spectacular in college, but he has added some aptitude for stealing bases to his game the last two years. Previous mock draft selection: Casey Martin, SS/CF, Arkansas
35) Colorado Rockies select Drew Romo, C, The Woodlands HS (TX): High school catchers are typically a very risky draft profile. Romo could be an exception to that rule. Everyone acknowledges that he's an exceptional defender with a very strong arm behind the plate. If he hits at all, the team drafting him should have at least a solid/average starter. Going to LSU and developing could see him get drafted much higher than this in the 2022 draft if he wanted to go the college route. Previous mock draft selection: J.T. Ginn, RHP, Mississippi State
36) Cleveland Indians select Dax Fulton, LHP, Mustang HS (OK): At 6'6" and 225 pounds, it may be tough to think Fulton has much projection left. But at that size, he may not necessarily need it. The biggest issue here is he had Tommy John surgery in September. Luckily for him and other players who have it, this isn't nearly as big a deal as it once was. Some people like a high school arm for the Indians at 23. That would make sense, I just have it happening here at 36. Of the ones remaining, he's the best one on the board (at least in terms of MLB Pipeline rankings, which are the only rankings I have access to) who I think most fits their preference for guys with at least solid command/control. Previous mock draft selection: Isaiah Greene, OF, Corona HS (CA)
37) Tampa Bay Rays select Nick Loftin, SS, Baylor: Versatile prospects are ones the Rays love, and Loftin saw time at five different positions for the U.S. college baseball team in the summer of 2019. You could just as easily switch him and Mlodzinski as far as where I have the Rays picking each player if the Rays want to ensure they get Loftin, who may not get to 37 if they pass on him at 24. Previous mock draft selection: Drew Romo
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The Institute Director - Chapters One through Six (Pages 1 - 30)

Chapter One
Tuesday, July 16th, 2019
In a warehouse parking lot near Walter Reed Medical Center, the Mormon institute director fumbled with the cellophaned pack, retrieving and lighting his first cigarette in thirty-eight years. He barely inhaled as he smoked it through, surprised how familiar it was to his senses. The ash glowed orange and the smoke spun his head as it wafted out the car’s open windows. He looked at his hands as he lit his second, wondering if the small tremors were from the fresh nicotine, the high stakes of the day or another dose of guilt settling into his bones.
Ben Samuels remembered he’d scarcely heard his alarm go off that morning, as he’d been up and dressed. His wife had hit snooze and returned to her sleep. She didn’t think to check on him, nor make an effort to rise. Would Marge have done different had she known what was happening? Maybe, maybe not -- she’d become so distant over the past months.
He stared down at his cigarette.
I bet she’d notice this.
That morning alarm rang as Ben stood with a vacant gaze out his kitchen window, oatmeal bubbling on the stove. Dawn’s light gathered across the plain backyard, the sky clear and the grass begging a mow -- the start of a hot July day in Morgantown, West Virginia. Oats done, he grabbed milk from the fridge and made his way to the table, wholly uninterested in the meal.
He pushed aside his old high school yearbook and opened his laptop, commencing a read-through of his regular websites as he ate -- the Mormon Newsroom, USA Today, Consumer Reports and Amazon, the last to check on a backordered hedge trimmer blade. Only then did he reluctantly click onto the front page of the local paper. He finished his breakfast as he re-read the article detailing John Southland’s bike accident. Though it failed to identify him by his correct name, Ben knew it was his old college roommate under the police blanket in the photos.
He sighed and picked up his yearbook for the third time since learning of John’s death, or John’s murder or whatever it had been. Rogers High School, Spokane, Washington. Class of 1979. Page forty-four, Samuels before Southland, both their senior pictures on the same tuxedoed page. He ran his finger along a faded ballpoint line drawn circuitous between the two of them, “Race On!” written in the margin. Forty years and now a funeral instead of a class reunion, not that John would have attended anyway.
Should he call the authorities? Wake up Marge and tell her everything? His main thought was to do nothing. The paper showed the situation in-hand and it was really none of his business. But Ben couldn’t shake the dread that had gripped him during John’s surprise visit the week before.
He looked around his quiet kitchen half-expecting a calamity to break out. Nothing out of order besides the squeak of the air conditioner, he took a bright yellow USB thumb drive from his pocket and inserted it into his computer. He keyed down and opened the lone video file, still amazed at John’s resolve. There it was -- a silent and grainy footage, a prisoner restrained and bleeding at the end of a penitentiary hallway. Two men exiting the frame, the bald one halfway out and unrecognizable, the other tall and in view. The tall man turning back. Ben winced as the man pulled out what must have been a syringe full of something evil and plunged it into the prisoner’s neck. The prisoner struggled, then slumped at his feet. Ben scooted his chair close and watched again -- starting, stopping, reversing and witnessing once more. It was the most horrible thing he’d ever seen. But had John been correct?
He looked up at Marge’s knick-knacks on the plaster wall. Staring back was a kitschy cross-stitch their oldest daughter had finished fifteen years prior. It read ‘Just Do It,’ the famous quote from both the Mormon prophet Spencer Kimball and a certain Oregon shoe company.
John Southland had been so convinced and so desperate for help. Ben had heard him out in his institute office but done nothing. Now he was dead, like he’d predicted, and Ben had his evidence.
Just Do It.
He turned and rummaged through a worn-out credenza drawer, finding a red envelope. He grabbed a half-sheet of paper, searched for a location on his web browser, wrote his note and sealed it up. A final glance at the cross-stitch and the decision was made. Ben quietly put his dishes in the sink and hurried to his car, an uneasy three-hour drive to Washington, DC ahead of him.
Chapter Two
Two Weeks Prior
The only thing interesting about the old split-level colonial atop North Tremont Avenue was its view toward Greensburg’s historic beaux-arts courthouse. The county kept it lit at night and John Southland had come to appreciate its ostentatious dome. He gazed at it most evenings with cold beer in hand, sitting on the concrete steps outside the postwar brick and clapboard home.
The panorama was between telephone wires and across a wide working-class valley, the house on the wrong side of the tracks and long-ago apportioned into three separate apartments to maximize revenue. John had been given the walkup on the main floor -- a creaky sitting room in front of a Formica kitchen with two worn-out bedrooms down a hall. Beneath him was a small basement unit, the third apartment accessed from the blacktop alley around the back.
For most, it would be a dilapidated and bleak place to live. For John, it was a mansion. He reveled in the freedom and the space, twenty years of incarceration fresh in his rearview mirror. The small pleasure of a beer with a view seemed almost magical from day one.
He hadn’t met many neighbors yet. There’d been an occasional ‘Hello, I’m Jimmy Montano,’ but John had remained quiet, taking to heart his WITSEC Inspector’s advice to start slow with the introductions. He filled his plate instead with his new job and all the rules and regulations that came with being a parolee within the U.S. Marshals Service Witness Protection Program. The secret he held also made him careful, a ticking bomb tucked an inch below his veneer.
There’d been only one purchase beyond the necessities, an old Bianchi Celeste from a pawnshop owner who had little concept of its worth. They agreed on a hundred dollars and soon the mint green racer was performing like a European custom. John set out to regain his pre-prison cycling form, spending his evenings and off-days riding the hills of Pennsylvania’s Westmoreland County. He was careful to not cross the government line as WITSEC rules didn’t allow such excursions for at least six months.
His other pastime was more critical -- finding Ben Samuels. Early attempts had been fruitless. His old friend’s name was nowhere to be found on the Mormon Church’s voluminous website. John checked multiple times, waiting over a month before calling the 800 number in Salt Lake City, not wanting one shred of connection to the threat that beset him. Out of options, he used the counter phone at the downtown library after a final attempt searching the site.
“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, how may I help you?”
“I’m trying to get in touch with one of your employees. A man who works for your church.”
“Name please.”
“Ben Samuels.”
“Which department?”
“No idea. Sorry.”
“Just a moment.”
The woman was quickly back on the line. “Yes, I found him. He works for the CES.”
“Church Educational System. I’ll transfer you.”
The phone clicked and another woman picked up the call. “CES, how may I help you?”
“Ben Samuels, please.”
“I’d like to speak with Ben Samuels.”
“…May I ask who you’re with?”
“No one, ma’am. I’m just trying to reach him.”
“He no longer works here, in our offices.”
“Can you transfer me to his location?”
“Please hold a moment.”
“I’m an old friend of his.”
“Yes sir. Please hold.”
The line switched and John found himself listening to what he recognized as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. It was thirty seconds before someone came back on.
“This is Associate Director Oscar Trejo, may I ask who’s calling?”
The authority in the man’s voice made John want to hang up. “…James. James Montano. I’m trying to reach Ben Samuels.”
“I see. Well, I can tell you he’s no longer here.”
“Does he still work for your church?”
“For the time being. He’s out east, in West Virginia.”
John stood up straight. Ben was nearby. “Do you have a number?”
“I must ask, are you with the press?”
“The press? You mean like a reporter?”
“Yes sir.”
“No, nothing like that. Just a friend.”
John held his breath. The administrator paused, then relented. “…OK, I’ll take you at your word. I’ll give you back to my secretary and she can provide the phone number to the Morgantown Institute.”
John didn’t wait, hanging up as the Tabernacle Choir started a new hymn. He walked back to his allotted computer terminal and keyed in “Mormon Institute, Morgantown West Virginia.” The screen refreshed and the location came up. It was no more than an hour away.
The proximity and the urgency of the story he needed to share made the trip too tempting, WITSEC rules be damned. He bummed a ride from a co-worker as soon as he could. They left early and were back in Greensburg by noon, John sullen and quiet on the way home.
He’d tried his best to convince Ben in his office, but it didn’t seem his former soigneur was going to help. It left John only one option. He called his WITSEC inspector and made an appointment to share what he knew. At least the video on the remaining USB thumb drive was in good condition. He’d become adept at hiding it, choosing a space under a loose floorboard the day he arrived.
He was anxious the night before the meeting. The last thing he wanted was to be hurled back into prison on some sort of technicality. He tossed and turned until settling into a deep sleep after 2am, oblivious to the quiet crunch of a C-rake lock pick and the turn of his front door knob.
John woke to the barrel of a Glock pistol shoved against his shoulder, the beam of a flashlight dancing across the bed.
“Wake up.”
John rolled over. The handgun and nine hundred lumens flashed in his eyes. “What’s going on?”
“Get dressed. You’re going for a ride.”
“What? Turn that light off.”
“Get up. That’s the last time I’m going to tell you.”
John scooted to the edge of the bed. “Who are you?”
“A friend or a nightmare. Your decision. Like I said, it’s time for a ride. Put on your bike gear.”
John’s head cleared. He stood and didn’t ask any more questions -- the intruder wasn’t playing a game. He went to the dresser and pulled on his lone pair of bike shorts, then picked up his socks and cycling shoes.
The man tossed him a T-shirt hanging from a chair. “Slow and steady. Head out the front door.”
A panel van waited outside. Its cargo door was open and a driver sat behind a tinted window. John’s Bianchi was already stowed in the back. He got in and sat beside it while the man with the gun jumped in after him and slid the door shut. The van pulled away from the curb, the Glock held steady toward John’s chest.
John didn’t understand. Why the bike? If they were going to kill him, they’d have shot him in bed. Did they know about the video?
“Where are we going?”
The man wagged his gun. “Shut up. Just sit there.”
Maybe it was something else? Someone he’d testified against returning to settle a score? A midnight visit from one of the cartels? There were too many enemies to keep straight and it would do no good to ask. He went quiet, focusing his eyes beyond his captor, out the back windows.
He could tell by the streetlights and the storefronts they were headed south on State Highway 119 over I-70 toward Uniontown, and that they turned east on Pechin Parkway after the county fairgrounds. Even in the dark it was easy to track the route. He’d ridden it several times over the six weeks he’d lived in Greensburg.
A mile further and the van came to a stop in front of a deserted cement plant. The driver got out and walked away. In the distance, John heard a chain rattle and a gate swing open. There was a whistle back toward the van.
The man with the gun turned on his flashlight and slid open the door. “Put on your shoes.”
John did as he was told and followed him outside.
“Forgetting something?”
“Your bike. You can ride home from here.”
A car’s headlights appeared around the bend as John stepped back to the van. The car slowed as it passed and the man lowered his gun. John thought to jump into the road, but it went by before he had the chance.
The man was undeterred. “Get your bike and ride.”
John pulled the Bianchi forward and onto the ground. He spun it around and climbed on. The man turned off his flashlight and stepped close, the scene illuminated only by the van’s taillights. John noticed his captor was at least four inches shorter than himself.
“One more thing.”
The man leaned in and thrust a five-inch tactical knife through John’s right side, even with his stomach. It penetrated his abdomen, slicing his liver, spleen and tearing through his intestines. John screamed and collapsed to his handlebars, the knife held hard inside him, the pain both sharp and dull. The man wrapped his other arm around John’s back and held him steady.
John gasped, his gut burning and blood starting to spill. “Why?” The man yanked the knife out and dropped it to the ground. He grabbed his gun and pressed it to the back of John’s skull. “Justice for the people you murdered. Now ride home. If you make it, you’ll live.”
John didn’t move, blood flowing down his side. He tried to speak but fluid pooled in his throat.
The man gave him a shove. “Ride!”
There was nothing left to do. John pushed off and clicked into his pedals, his right hand pressing his wound and tears streaming down his face. The Glock followed his every move.
Fifty yards, one hundred yards and forward. John was delirious and confused with only his God-given talent keeping him upright. He thought of Greensburg, his new home. The stone steps, the beer. His new job, his new life. There was no way he’d make it. A cry for help on the main road was his only hope. But there had to be separation. He had to get away. He ignored the wound and tried to stand from his saddle, pouring what little he had left into the bike.
He’d made it almost a half mile before he sensed headlights gaining on him, the whine of a powerful engine closing in. John tried to swerve, but the blood loss caused his reactions to slow. The empty cement truck hit him square at forty miles an hour, its barrel spinning as the undercarriage bounced over him like an animal in the roadway. John’s last thought was of his old college roommate, a final prayer sent skyward that Ben Samuels would do the right thing.
Chapter Three
Tuesday, July 16th
The courier service delivered the red envelope to the front security desk of the Robert F. Kennedy Justice Building during the lunch hour. It was examined and time-stamped by the Mail Services Risk Assessment Team and hand-delivered to Susan Rivas, the United States Solicitor General’s Confidential Secretary. The unusual color caught her attention. She found it odd, a short note marked “For the immediate eyes of the United States Solicitor General only,” with no return address. Deciding it was warranted and straightening her skirt, Susan took it through the whitewood archway into the solicitor’s office.
She found Walter Peterson alone and busy, three hours into a session of summer prep for the upcoming autumn Supreme Court term. He’d finished the lunch she’d brought him from the executive dining room and there’d been no other interruptions since the morning’s staff meeting. He glanced up as she passed the flag array by the chesterfield sofas, coming forward to his desk. Handed the envelope, he emptied it and read the half-sheet scrap inside.
“I am an LDS Institute Director. I know what you are doing. Meet tonight at 10pm, 5300 West Cedar, Bethesda, Maryland.”
Susan stood silent, watching him turn it over and look back at the envelope. He found a similar result -- there was nothing indicating authorship outside shaky penmanship. He looked at her and again at the letter. “Who delivered this?”
“Mail Services brought it to my desk. Any idea what it’s about?”
“Anything you’d have me do?”
“…Nothing. I’ll check it through Chris later.”
“Are you sure? I could have him come over, maybe the FBI as well?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
Susan was used to the abruptness. She knew to be on her toes around the solicitor. “Alright. Anything else for me?”
Peterson re-read the short message and then laid it down. “Has SCOTUS gotten back about October’s schedule? Everyone was concerned this morning. The session is still three months away, but it’s normal to have a draft docket by now.”
Susan shook her head. The Supreme Court’s administrative officer had told her it would be several more days. Peterson grunted and adjusted his reading glasses. “What about the Penitentiary Commission? I’ve made a couple site visits as the attorney general requested. If I’m going again it needs to be soon, before we ramp to full speed for the fall.”
“I’ll check that for you. The calendar has a Commission meeting next week. You know, the AG isn’t expecting you to attend everything as you’re doing this ad hoc.”
“All hands on deck, Susan. Besides, it gets me out and around the country. Boots on the ground, so to speak.”
“Yes sir.”
He nodded and returned to his files.
Susan had to hide a half-grin as she walked away. The idea of her venerable Mormon boss a ‘boots on the ground’ anything was farcical. Bald, obese and unfit for any activity requiring sturdy shoes, she’d never met a man more behind the desk, blue blood and patrician. A woman on her block was LDS and Susan knew her to be the sweetest neighbor around. She couldn’t imagine Peterson neighbor to anyone.
She glanced back from the doorway. Peterson had picked up the phone and was starting a call, the anonymous note in his hand. Susan turned to her workstation and watched the PBX screen. Deputy U.S. Marshal Chris Powers’ line went active five seconds later.
Chapter Four
Ben found more time on his hands than he’d anticipated after watching the courier deliver his note. He drove north out of downtown to the small Bethesda warehouse he’d chosen online. Arriving, he found it unfenced and back from the main road, secluded with hills and heavy trees bordering two sides. He circled it and set the stage. Light pole placements were noted, as was the fact there were no exterior cameras in place. He marked a corner spot to park and patted himself on the back as he left. It seemed perfect.
He continued north on Old Georgetown Road through DC suburbia and past a large shopping area. His Honda Accord then merged east onto the Capital Beltway. He smiled as mecca quickly appeared on his left. Though half-hidden in the dense summer green, it stood elegant and soaring above the landscape. The Washington, DC LDS Temple, the single-most recognizable Mormon setting on the American east coast. He exited Georgia Avenue and was soon in the busy parking lot, the spired white building in front of him.
Ben felt no inclination to go inside. It was enough to be on the grounds, even in the summer heat. It brought the first bit of peace since his visit with John. He found a garden bench across from his car, walked over and sat down. Bowing his head, he offered a short prayer for guidance and help -- even a sign that he was on the right path.
That the solicitor general was also LDS and had probably sat on the same bench loomed large in his mind. Walter Peterson was one of the most famous Latter-day Saints in the world, Mormons looking to him with much the same esteem as the senior leaders of their church. A cult of personality existed, his name mentioned in the same breath with Hall of Fame LDS athletes, entertainers and politicians. Few Latter-day Saints were held in higher regard. A surprise appointment by an unconventional president three years prior, Peterson’s Senate confirmation had been can’t-miss television for Mormons across the country. His legal acumen and forceful confidence impressed everyone and left his church community beaming with pride.
Peterson being such a prominent member of his church had been the tipping point in Ben’s decision to confront him. As the good solicitor surely desired protection of his image and standing, Ben reasoned he’d be amenable to such a discussion. The hope was for a brother-to-brother recognition, some sort of ease-the-throttle-back, get everything on the table, save-face. Foolish? Yes. Dangerous? Maybe. He at least took comfort that Mormons were well-known for such admirable foolishness on occasion.
An older, Sunday-dressed couple turned toward him, smiling and holding hands as they walked. Ben shook his head and sighed. His own marriage was far from a mirror image. As Peterson had risen, he’d gone the other way. Purpose had eluded him since his demotion and transfer to West Virginia, his wife feeling the effects even more so. Though they’d both fought depression and a sense of futility in their new surrounds, Marge had isolated herself to the point their relationship had started to strain -- Ben’s ‘what can I do to help’ met too-often with a cold stare and the covers pulled tight.
The couple approached. Ben realized he had no tie on and probably looked out of place. He compensated by standing to greet them.
The woman smiled. “Such a beautiful day to be at the temple.”
“Yes Ma’am.”
She stopped and pointed to cars across the parking lot. “The different license plates are always so interesting.”
“Excuse me?”
“Look at that row. People here today from Virginia, Ohio, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Massachusetts. I love that. Summer vacation must have them on the road -- so nice they chose to come to the House of the Lord along their way.”
Ben played along, pointing at his car backed into its spot. “What about that one?”
The woman looked and then turned back, perplexed. “I have no idea, it doesn’t have a front plate.”
Ben smiled. “That’s mine. I live in West Virginia where front plates aren’t required.”
The woman laughed. “We’ll include you in our count anyway.”
Keen to beat the heat, the woman’s husband patted her arm and looked toward Ben. “You have a nice day.”
Ben stood staring at the cars as they walked off. It was interesting commentary, something to share with his students back at the institute in Morgantown. He thought of all the license plates he’d owned over the course of his life. Washington, Arizona, Florida, Texas, Utah and now West Virginia. He’d have a nice display for his garage had he kept them.
Then, an instant realization of a flaw. Ben looked down the walk at the elderly couple and back at his car. If Peterson had his plate checked, he’d discover who he was. Ben wasn’t ready for that. If John Southland had been correct, Peterson was a menace. The short-lived peace in his heart evaporated. He felt the entire impetuous idea unravel, the grand confrontation less noble by the second.
You’re going to get yourself killed.
He returned to his car with his shoulders low and exited the lot without another thought toward the temple. He headed west, toward the shopping centers on Old Georgetown Road, intent on lunch and little else.
Chapter Five
June 1st, 1990
CES Area Director Oscar Trejo waited for his boss on the eighth floor of the LDS Church Office Building. He was off the clock and self-conscious minus a suit, visiting Salt Lake City on a vacation day to attend a family function. He hadn’t planned on the summons and was glad he at least had a white shirt and tie to wear.
Ushered into Associate Director Ronald Hayes’s large office by a secretary and left alone, Trejo found an oversized U.S. map propped on an easel beside the desk. Multi-colored stickpins were placed in college towns throughout the eastern United States. Trejo figured they were potential sites for the new Regional Select Institutes, knowing Church Educational System leadership had appointed Hayes to oversee the project. He was studying the map when the Associate Director entered and shut the door. Trejo pointed at the stick pins and spoke with his usual candor. “Are these what I think they are?”
Hayes smiled. “If by ‘these’ you mean potential Regional Select Institute sites, the answer is yes.”
“May I speak freely, sir?”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Trejo ran his index finger down the right side of the map. “I don’t like it.”
“What’s not to like?”
“These ‘RSI’s. I don’t like the concept or the philosophy. Are we really going to encourage these students to not come to Brigham Young University or institute programs in Utah, urging them instead to stay back east for college?”
“That’s the general idea, yes.”
Hayes scooted past Trejo and sat down at his desk. He opened the center drawer and retrieved a paper-clipped set of four index cards. Trejo continued as he moved to a chair opposite his boss. “Why would we do that? How is it better than bringing them out west? Many of the eastern programs have less than a hundred students.”
Hayes took a deep breath and looked across the desk. “How are you, Oscar?”
Trejo grinned, realizing he’d jumped ahead. “Fine, sir.”
“Wife and kids?”
“Everyone’s good. They’re all waiting for me at my in-laws’. We’re attending a high school graduation tonight.”
“Who’s graduating?”
“My wife’s sister.”
“Wow. I know you’re the youngest of our Area Directors, but to have a sister-in-law graduating from high school is quite something. How old are you?”
“I’m thirty-eight, my wife’s thirty-three. She’s the oldest in her family, with eight brothers and sisters. This is the last of them.”
“Well, I hope you enjoy yourselves. When are you heading back to Arizona?”
“Tomorrow. The family will stay here a while, now that school’s out. How did you know I was even in Utah?”
“Simple. I called your office in Phoenix and found you were on the road. Your secretary gave me the number where you were staying.” “How can I help?”
“For starters, let me address your point about low enrollment at our eastern institutes. What about the students there now, Oscar? Don’t you think they would appreciate extra resources and more LDS kids joining them?”
Trejo ignored the logic. “It seems like we’re conducting an experiment which might hurt more than help in the long run.”
“The long run is why we’re doing this. The idea is to foster organic, regional growth. LDS students staying in their home areas to attend college, meeting others doing the same, marrying and settling where they’re from. Growing the church that way.”
“Sounds pie in the sky.”
Hayes shuffled his cards. “What about your Arizona Area? If I’m not mistaken, you have over five thousand Mormon students attending non-LDS colleges and their adjacent institutes down there. Why not shoot for those numbers elsewhere? Ignoring these sorts of things not only stalls the growth of our institutes outside the inter-mountain west, it very well hinders the growth of the church in those regions as well.
How many of these kids who come to Utah wind up going back to where they’re from after they graduate? And what happens to those areas of the church when they leave? Like a leaky faucet, a constant drip of strength exiting the very places that not only need them, but the spots these young folks call home. And where do they wind up? They either stay here, where we already have an overflowing strength, or land in a third place with no roots and a yearning to move yet again. No Oscar, I don’t see it like you seem to anymore. Fortifying institute programs to retain many of these students in their home areas is what we should be doing, and these RSI’s are just what the doctor ordered.”
Hayes doled out the index cards across his desk. Trejo sat forward and watched. College Station, Texas; Gainesville, Florida; Blacksburg, Virginia and East Lansing, Michigan. Texas A&M, the University of Florida, Virginia Tech and Michigan State -- already four of the largest institute programs east of the Rocky Mountains. Hayes looked up and continued. “These are the four we’ve decided to start with and the groundwork has already been laid. Marketing materials have been drafted and Church architects have visited the sites, submitting plans to renovate and expand each one. I now have to recommend additional staff, including full-fledged assistant directors at each location.”
Hayes picked up a card and got to his point. “Tell me about this fellow you have in Mesa, Ben Samuels.”
“Samuels? Great guy with a full head of steam.”
“So I’ve heard. He has a Master’s in Higher Education and was baptized in an institute font. If his interview goes well, I’m thinking of sending him here….”
Hayes handed Trejo the card in his hand. Trejo took it, reading it aloud. “Gainesville, Florida. The University of Florida.”
He turned serious. “Well, if you’re going to do this, I think Ben’s perfect. Amazing really. How did you hear about him?”
“He’s inquired about moving from our high school seminary programs to the collegiate institutes.”
Trejo smiled. “He’s an interesting case study. A convert who never attended high school seminary, now teaching it and doing quite well. He’s been in Mesa several years and seems content, but it wouldn’t surprise me if bigger things were ahead for Ben.”
“He grew up in Spokane, Washington, right?”
“I think so. He joined the church while attending Washington State University, in Pullman. He’s told me that. His wife introduced him to the missionaries, back when they were dating.”
“I look forward to meeting him.”
“I have a different idea for you. If you’re serious about this ‘homegrown’ business, why not assign someone who happens to be from Florida to be the new assistant director? Send that person home and leave Samuels in Arizona. We’d hate to lose him.”
Hayes put his elbows on his desk and leaned forward. “Excellent question, Oscar. It goes to my larger point. We’ve actually looked into that, at all four sites. Would you believe we don’t have a single qualified CES employee who hails from Texas, Florida, Virginia or Michigan? Think about that -- it’s a telling fact. Twenty or thirty years from now, we hope to find a different circumstance. Maybe you’ll be sitting in my chair by then. If you are, I hope you’ll find more options than I have today.”
Trejo wasn’t ready to quit. “I still don’t like it, sir. As a parent, I’ll do everything I can to get my kids to one of our church colleges and would only consider something like an RSI as a last resort. I wouldn’t even want them at the major Arizona universities attending the institute programs I oversee. I want them here in Utah, where we’re at our best.”
“I understand, and we’re not interested in weakening the church schools. This will be an additional, fortified resource to work in tandem with what we have here in the inter-mountain west. Let’s not forget, these institute programs already exist. Our goal is to strengthen them, create a few gems to shine bright and give the LDS students from these areas another solid option to consider.” “What about financial considerations? One of the great benefits of church colleges is the tithing-supported low cost. Certainly BYU is a cheaper option than the University of Florida.”
“We’re working on that as well. As part of the roll-out, LDS endowments and scholarships will be set up and encouraged at each RSI site. We’ll be asking the membership to consider donations. It’ll defray the cost differences and further enhance the visibility and viability of the programs.”
“Do you think you’ll get much in the way of contributions?”
“I’m confident we will. These programs might be small, but they’ve had their successes over the years. We’ll be reaching out to the alumni, as well as the general membership. I believe it will work, and work well.”
“Florida would be lucky to have someone like Ben Samuels. Why not send him to Washington, where he’s from? I’m sure he’d love that. I visited his classroom a couple months ago. He had a Washington State banner on his wall.”
Hayes reached over and retrieved the card from his area director. “No, it’s east of the Rockies where the interest lies. If these four programs are successful, we’ll expand from there. As you’ve said, it seems Ben will do well wherever he’s assigned. At least for now, it’s Florida that’s in the cards for him.”
Chapter Six
Tuesday, July 16th
Ben was still smoking when the black SUV entered the parking lot and disappeared to the other side of the warehouse. Opening his door, he cursed himself for being so dramatic with the cigarettes. He’d smoked for three hours straight, more in remembrance of a life long passed than any desire to calm his nerves. He got out, stubbed his last one and threw the almost-empty pack in a nearby dumpster.
Enough of that.
He took a deep breath and headed the other way around, rehearsing what he would say.
I know what you did. I know what you are doing…
The SUV’s yellow fog lamps brightened his path as he turned the final corner, the vehicle fifty yards ahead. A man was standing outside the open driver’s door. He reached in and flipped on the high beams, assaulting Ben’s eyes with a blinding white.
“That’s far enough.”
Ben stopped and raised his hands halfway as the man came toward him. He was short and thin, quite the opposite from what Ben knew of Walter Peterson’s large build. The man’s suit, tie and confident gait identified him as a deputy or agent, a man with a badge and a gun. He approached, looked Ben over and then patted him down, spinning him around to double-check.
“What’s your name and what do you want with the Solicitor General?”
“I need to speak with him.”
“I need to see some ID.”
“I’d rather not disclose who I am. Is he with you?”
“Did you write that note?”
Ben started to answer but saw another man climb out of the SUV, shutting the door behind him. “Chris, it’s ok, send him over.” Chris forced a smile. “I guess you win. Follow me.”
Peterson’s thickset frame cast a wide shadow in the dim light. Tall and overweight to a fault without a hair on his head, he resembled a former athlete who’d let himself go, his glory years decades behind him. He was dressed to match his guard, but as they came to the passenger side of the SUV, Ben could tell his suit and tie were from a much better store -- the United States Solicitor General before him.
Ben hesitated then stepped close, an image of his dead friend appearing in his mind. Peterson wrinkled his nose and leaned back on his heels. “Who are you and what’s this cloak and dagger business about?”
Ben glanced at Chris, astonished he’d made it to the moment at hand. He turned and looked Peterson in the eye. “Never mind who I am. I’m here about James Montano.”
Peterson raised his eyebrows. “Who?”
“I’m sure you know the name.”
Peterson scraped his shoe across the asphalt. “The note you wrote this morning. You’re an institute director for the Church? Where?”
“Yes, I work for the Church out here. Telling you that was the only way I could get this meeting. But I’m not here to talk about me. I want to talk about James Montano.”
“Again, I don’t know anyone by that name. To be honest, this is quite strange. If you aren’t going to tell me more about you, this little waste of my time is over.”
Peterson turned and reached for his door. Ben gathered himself and brought forward his case. “I think you killed him…. And if you did, I know he’s not the only one.”
His fist on the handle, Peterson stared at the reflection in the window and seemed lost in thought. He then straightened and swung back, his demeanor cold, his voice that of a seasoned prosecutor. “First, would that be cigarettes I smell? Mormon institute director? I think not.”
Ben tried to reply but was cut off.
“Second, I have no idea what you’re talking about and it’s obvious you don’t know what you’re doing here. Third, though I haven’t had the privilege of an introduction, you seem to know who I am. I would think that might give you pause. I know nothing of a ‘James Montano.’ I suggest you slink back to your car and head home before you find yourself in serious trouble.”
Ben pressed as Chris stepped forward to intercede. “James ‘Jimmy’ Montano, AKA John Southland, witness protection case WS436C. Found dead in a ditch three days ago, south of Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He came to me last week, told me everything and gave me proof.”
Peterson’s bald head cocked to the right, his eyes widening at the mention of John’s real name. He dropped his hand from the SUV’s door and started toward Ben, raising his chin like a prizefighter sizing up an opponent.
Ben caught his breath and stepped back. Chris grabbed his arm and shuffled him off, letting him go in front of the headlights.
“Stand still with your hands where I can see them. Stay like that until we leave.”
Awash in the light, Ben watched as Chris went back behind Peterson, who stood glaring his way. He opened the rear passenger door and tugged on the solicitor general’s coat.
“Come on boss, let’s go.”
Peterson sneered and shook his head, then turned and climbed back into the vehicle. Chris retreated to his driver’s seat and put the SUV into reverse. Ben stayed put, his nerves shot and mind racing, the taste of something much worse than cigarettes in his mouth.
Peterson pulled out his phone and sent a text to Neck, stationed nearby in a stand of hackberry trees.
-Stand down.
He looked out the window and up the hill, catching a glimpse of his lanky security assistant lowering his sniper rifle. Peterson then turned toward the windshield and took stock of the so-called institute director. Just under six feet tall and waspy white, he had a pot belly, balding salt and pepper hair, cheap shoes, wire-framed glasses and a skittish demeanor. The typical build of a fellow Mormon in his mid-fifties. Though he resisted the thought, he had to admit -- every box was checked.
“Proof? What proof could he have?”
He ordered Chris to step on it and they were gone.
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Dr. Strange #19- In the Serpent's Den

Dr. Strange

Volume Five: A Fetch Quest Like No Other
In the Serpent's Den
Written by u/DarkLordJurasus
Edited by u/FPSGamer48 and u/dwright5252
Wong, the loyal servant of the Sorcerer Supreme, comes running into the main room of the New York City Sanctum. Spotting Stephen Strange, he quickly says, “There is a high surge of mystical energy in Texas. We should investigate just in case it’s the cult of Dormammu.”
Pausing for a minute, Wong finally sees exactly what Strange is wearing. Instead of his normal red cape and robed persona, the master of the mystical arts is endorning a blue tuxedo.
Dr. Strange lets out a sigh before replying, “I have a job to do. Can you deal with it?”
Wong shakes his head, “You know I’m not up to fighting. You said it will take another week or so for me to heal.”
Strange frown and says, “Yeah. I probably should have dealt with that. To be fair, I didn’t know you would have to fight - -”
Wong quickly cuts Strange off, “A demon. I fought a demon. I know why you couldn’t get the shard, but you sent me to literal hell. I still haven’t gotten the smell of sulfur out of my clothes. You know, from the flaming pits of literal damnation!”
Strange lets out an aggravated groan, “I know. It’s not like I didn’t have reasons not to go. They could have sensed my mystical energy.”
Strange morphs his tux into his normal outfit before saying, “Listen. I will go down and deal with the mystical energy surge, but you have to go to the meeting I have tonight.”
Wong nods his head, “Yeah, what is the whole meeting about?”
Strange responds, “It’s just another one of the sanctums wanting to renegotiate their salaries.”
Wong shakes his head before saying, “This is getting out of hand. Can’t we just hire a lawyer?”
Strange answers, “The best mystical lawyers are either part of the union or busy as of now. As much as a mortal lawyer would work, I can’t justify giving away the magical world just so I don’t have to deal with negotiations.”
Wong thinks the problem through for a minute before asking, “What about the lawyer that helped you on the malpractice case way back? You trusted him with a shard of the Eye of Agamotto.”
Strange shakes his head, “Matt is going through a crisis of his own right now. You remember that article about the blind lawyer killing a trained assassin? That’s him. He was and probably still is a devout Christain. With his ethical and moral problems right now, explaining that not only is God real, but every other religion is too, might not be the best idea.”
Wong lets out a sigh, “Fine I’ll go. Where is this Sanctum anyway?”
Strange smiles and throws Wong a small device. As Wong catches it, Strange replies, “It’s in India. Part of the protesting is putting an anti-teleportation field around the Sanctum. That device will teleport you to an abandoned outhouse a mile or so away. It’s the closest location I know of that won’t have witnesses.”
Wong opens his mouth to speak but is too slow. Strange is already flying out of the Sanctum to search for the mystical energy surge.
Wong teleports to the outhouse in India. Almost immediately, bile rises from his mouth as the smell hits him. He thinks to himself how it is no wonder that the outhouse is abandoned, no one would ever choose to use it.
Walking out of it, Wong breathes in the fresh air. Looking around his surroundings, Wong notices a man in a black top hat.
The man turns around and Wong immediately recognizes him. Wong fires a bolt of lightning at him. The man twists his body out of the way, the lightning millimeters away from his Adam’s apple.
The man smiles before saying, “Well...well...well, if it isn’t Strange’s pet sorcerer. Now I wonder what you are doing in India. Is a shard here, perhaps?”
Wong ignores the taunts as he asks, “Make anymore abominations, music man?”
The man frowns and he replies, “The name is Cedric.”
Wong questions, “What?”
Cedric answers, “My name is Cedric. I thought you would want to know, me being your superior and all.”
Wong prepares to attack again as he asks, “What do you mean superior?”
Cedric smiles again as he responds, “Simple. You’re only second rate.”
Seeing Wong’s blank expression, Cedric continues, “You know, Jafar’s song from Aladdin: Return of Jafar? The one Robin Williams refused to return for.”
Wong says, “Sorry, don’t know it.”
Cedric facepalms, “Well I’m going to sing it anyway.” Immediately after, the musical sorcerer begins to sing.
I must admit, your parlor tricks are amusing
Wong attempts to fire a second bolt of lightning at the musical musician. The magic flows through Wong’s body, yet nothing is released from his hands. Over and over again, Wong attempts to use magic to stop the man but his attempts are futile.
Realizing what happened, Wong growls, “Taking away my magic. Real nice.”
The man cackles before taking off his black top hat.
I bet you've got a bunny under your hat!
Cedric reaches into his top hat and pulls out a sword. In a swift motion, he throws the glistening weapon over to Wong. Wong catches it in midair and starts to rush the singing sorcerer. Cedric does not move an inch as he sees his opponent. His arm snakes back into the black top hat as he pulls out a sword of his own and throws the hat to the ground.
Now here's your chance to get the best of me
Wong slashes at Cedric. His blade is blocked by Cedric’s with a deafening clang. Before he has time to react, a swift kick is delivered to the groin of the heroic sorcerer. Wong stumbles back as Cedric holds up his sword. The light glistens off of it, remaking the iconic image of Excalibur and King Arthur.
Hope your hand is hot!
Wong lets go of his crotch as he sees the blade light up with flames. Altering his plans, Wong grinds his feet into the dirt, hoping to hold his ground in his weakened state. The aches of the injuries, from his trip a few weeks back, pound on his skull. Barely giving in, though, Wong acknowledges the only way he is getting out of this is if he plays defensively.
C'mon, clown! Let's see what you've got!
Contradicting his thoughts, Wong senses his body begin to run towards the singing duellist. It takes half a second for the sorcerer to realize he no longer has control of his body. The next thought through his head is a hope that this song doesn’t have a big finisher.
You try to slam me with your hardest stuff
Cedric reflects Wong’s blade using one hand as the blade comes near. He then grips the sorcerer’s wrist with his other hand and forces him to drop his sword.
But your double whammy isn't up to snuff
Still not in control of his own thoughts, Wong grimaces as his arm is twisted behind his back. Kicks begin to rain into his stomach, each one sending a wave of pain that blocks all else.
I'll set the record straight,
The arm holding the sword comes down on Wong’s back in an elbow. Cedric drops Wong, letting him crash into his ground.
you're simply out of date
Cedric flips a wheezing Wong onto his back using his foot. Bloop dripping from his nose and mouth, Wong coughs up a mixture of mucus and blood, his body spasming from pain.
You're only second rate!
The singing sorcerer bends down and grabs Wong’s neck. He then forces Wong into a standing position in order to deliver a headbutt to Wong’s temple.
You think your cat's a meanie, but your tiger's tame
Cedric takes the pained and dazed sorcerer and slices into his stomach, the blade becoming dressed in blood. Wong throws a sloppy right hook that strikes Cedric across the jaw.
You've got a lot to learn about the magic game
Cedric’s face barely moves as he places a smile on his face. He drops his blade on the ground and uses his now free hand to share a blow to Wong.
So for your information, I'll reiterate
Wong stumbles backwards. His nose sprouting blood like a waterfall. Wong places one of his hands on the outhouse, balancing himself on the old, wooden structure.
You're only second rate!
Cedric bends down to pick up his hat and sword. He places the sword back in the hat, throwing it up into the air as he stands there, allowing it to fall onto his head.
Men cower at the power in my pinky
Cedric lazily points his pinky at Wong. Wong does not even attempt to dodge a blast of light, his body aching with pain. The bleeding stops as the cut to his stomach bursts with pain. Another light hits Wong’s nose, causing him to feel like his nose is being ripped off. Through the pain, Wong realizes that his injuries have been healed.
My thumb is number one on every list
Cedric wiggles his thumb at Wong. The only thought going through Wong’s head as a third beam of light hits him in the chest is, “Oh shit.” His body starting to constrict, Wong can’t help as his arms and legs twist out leaving him entirely open to attack.
But if you're not convinced that I'm invincible
Cedric releases a blast of electric energy. The energy surrounds the singing sorcerer. It strikes off his body, showing itself in a field around him.
Put me to the test!
Cedric releases Wong of his invisible chains. His legs wobbling, Wong stands back up to face his foe.
I'd love to lay this rivalry to rest!
Cedric strolls up to Wong who is still regaining his footing. He then lightly taps Wong on the temple. As his electrified hand touches Wong’s skin, Wong drops back to the ground.
Go ahead and zap me with the big surprise
Wong, on his hands and knees, barrels into Cedric. Cedric goes flying down as Wong delivers a punch to his jaw. Wong doesn’t give the sorcerer time to recover as he delivers another strike down on his nose.
Snap me in a trap, cut me down to size
Deciding to play dirty, Cedric bites into Wong’s shoulder, causing a scream of pain to escape the sorcerer’s lips. A beam of light escapes Cedric’s hands as Wong flies multiple feet up into the air.
I'll make a big escape, it's just a piece of cake
Cedric calmly stands back up. Patting off his clothes, Cedric deviously stares at Wong.
You're only second rate!
Cedric closes his fist, releasing his magic from Wong. The sorcerer drops down to ground, concrete ripping through his flesh.
You know, your hocus-pocus isn't tough enough
Cedric fires off bolts of lightning from his hands. As each one makes contact with Wong, the sorcerer’s body spasms under the electric shock.
And your mumbo-jumbo doesn't measure up
Cedric holds up his hand, bringing Wong's body up into the air.
Let me pontificate upon your sorry state
The cuts and bruises Wong has disappears as oxygen no longer flows into his lungs.
*You're only second ra- - *
As the musical sorcerer sings, he is cut off by the playing of a flute. The Sorcerer drops his control of Wong as snakes begin to crawl up his body in tune with the music. The noise totally ends as a man runs over to Wong, helping him up. Wong rubs his back while saying, “Thanks for the assist Adi.”
Letting go of the old sorcerer, Adi places his lips to his flute. All of the snakes drop off the previously singing man, other than the ones binding his arms and legs.
Adi asks, “What do you want?”
The man simply smirks, “Snake Charmer, is it? I know American heroes are rude but I never expected heroes in the east to be the same. Hello, how are you? My name is Cedric. You have the green shard that belongs to me.”
Adi turns to Wong and asks, “What is he talking about?”
Wong replies, “The shard I gave you. He thinks you still have it.”
Adi nods in understanding before saying, “Good thing I sent it back through FedEx when you asked. When was that, two months ago?”
Agrily, Cedric spits out, “What, you’ve already got the shard? Then why the hell are you in India?”
Adi quickly adds, “I was going to ask the same thing. Even if he is your enemy, I can take care of threats in India.”
Wong frowns and lets out a sigh, “With Strange dealing with magic users in New York, I’m on union duty. I have to negotiate new contracts with the Indian Sorcerers. Supposedly they got word from the Moscow sanctum that protesting works.”
Cedric lets out a dry laugh, “The greatest ally of the Sorcerer Supreme demoted to Union duty.”
Wong scowls at the villains and says, “Yes, yes laugh it up. I still have Brazil and Japan to get to. Now that you know the shard isn’t here, can we just end this?”
Cedric lets out a smile and responds, “I believe so. Now that I know neither of you have it, neither of you are of importance.
The sorcerer belts out the lyrics, “And no one far I’ll go.” With that he disappears into dust. As the snakes that were holding him finish dropping to the floor, the small outhouse portal that Wong arrived in is crushed by a 40 foot tall king cobra.
Adi quickly begins to play the flute again. He takes turns stopping and forcefully screaming commands at the beast .
As the snake continues to come closer to the two, Wong says, “Looks like you being a parseltongue isn’t getting us out of this one. Do you have a sorting hat of sorts to use?”
Adi gives Wong a glare to which Wong replies, “Oh come on. It’s a giant snake. This will be easy.”
To prove his point, Wong blasts a ball of fire at the behemoth. The blast hits, not slowing the snake down. Sighing, Wong begins to run towards the snake. A meter away, Wong jumps into the air. Quickly teleporting blades into his hands, the sorcerer throws a dagger. As Wong lands on the beast's head, the dagger he threw hits its target, the eye of the beast.
The snake lets out a hiss that could have been confused with a scream of pain. The beast begins to thrash around, Wong barely staying on. The sorcerer attempts to use this to his advantage. He allows the snake to throw him off. Using the time in the air to strike a second dagger into the other eye.
The beast hisses once again as its head drops to the floor. Mid hiss, the beast is dead. Wong looks towards Adi and says, “You see, easy. Only took two dagger laced in fast acting poison.”
Adi shakes his head with a smile on his face, “It’s good to see you, Wong. Even if it is just for tea, come over more often. Your wisdom is always appreciated.”
Wong smiles and says, “Thanks, but no can do. I’m cutting down on the hot tea. Doctor’s orders. He says that I’m having too much caffeine. When that doctor is also your boss, you tend to listen.”
Adi holds back a laugh and says, “Then it will be for talking.”
Wong nods his head, “That sounds like a nice break from saving the world and teaching. I may have to take you up on that offer.”
Adi nods as Wong brushes off his clothes. Without another word said, Wong begins walking to face the greatest evil of all: lawyers.
A trembling Ms. C drops to her knees in the house formerly owned by Mr. Crow. The scattered attic of the blessed man, morphed into a shadowy ritual room. The shards of the eye currently collected lay glowing on a pedestal of mahogany. The candles surround the room but seemingly don’t touch it. A glow of light permeating the edges but lost in the center.
In a voice so shaky that the words are almost impossible to understand, Mrs. C stutters out, “Dormammu, lord of the Dark Dimension, future ruler of the nine realms, I request to speak with you.”
Almost immediately a tornado of flames erupts in front of the sorceress. Spirals of green, blue, orange and red circle each other, smothering each other. At the tip, they raise into flames, into a circle spiral. Eyes of pure white take up a quarter of the flaming face. A grin of black takes up a whole third. The head lets out a small growl as Dormammu demands, “What is the matter? I give you a job more important than any of the others and you come to me?”
Mrs. C steadies her breath and she replies, “My lord, my master, we must talk of my task. I have done the necessary research.”
Dormammu glares at her as he questions, “What research is required? I gave you my power, my magic. Is that not enough?”
Ms. C stammers to reply, “N-n-no my lord, your power is more than sufficient. I simply did not know how to do it. I had to research the spells and rituals required.”
Dormammu, satisfied with the answer, asks, “What does the research say, my daughter?”
Ms. C replies, “Bringing that much power onto Earth before the eye is complete is dangerous. The dimensional boundaries are already lowered due to Wundagore. Right now it may be only dimensions close to Earth, but to destroy the borders anymore could lead to the collapse of reality itself. The laws of reality are made up by each dimension, if these were to interact in an unknown way, the effects will be catastrophic.”
Dormammu screams out asking, “Do you not trust me to keep you safe? Do you not think me powerful enough to protect you?”
The flames making up Dormammu’s head rise. Angrily they eat at the darkness. The room raises in temperature, the sweat on Ms. C’s face evaporating off her skin.
Hurriedly, Ms. C responds, “No, my great and all powerful leader. I simply believed it important to bring it to your attention.”
Angrily, Dormmamu says, “The process shall continue. We will start the process with the test subject you brought to us a few days ago. Yes, I am talking about the mindless one. He will not be intelligent enough to protest.”
Bowing deeper, Ms. C says, “Of course, Father.”
As the flames die down only one thought is going through Ms. C’s head: her plan has to work, if not she won’t live long enough to see reality collapse. She can only hope that Tahiti was the right choice of a test subject.
Moriarty is pacing around his empty little room. Well, calling it a room is giving it too much credit. It is in all actuality the space at the end of the story, his story. When discovering the ins and outs of the storybook world he discovered there are three parts. There is the tale, the cover and the shelf. He right now is in the cover, a place to hang out in between his many times through the story.
As he paces, thinking of how to destroy the shelf and combine the many planes of tales together, Hannibal Lector comes running in, licking his lips in pure ecstasy.
Without a break in his pace, Moriarty asks, “Have you found a use for our interplanetary friends?”
Smiling, Lector replies, “Their blood makes a scrumptious sauce. It works with anything: eyes, brains, flesh.”
Moriarty shakes his head and says, “I needed an army, not a dinner.”
Lector frowns as he responds, “They make a poor army. They die from any disease, even the common flu.”
Moriarty still shaking his head, explains, “”Humans need to feel superior. It was an obvious ending when the story overall shows the power of the aliens. While intellectually the aliens are superior, the author had to work in that biologically humans are stronger.”
Lector says, “But they are in a different tale.”
Moriarty replies, “Rule number one of the twelve rules of interconnecting tales: a being shall keep their natural rules even when placed in a different realm of being.”
Moriarty begins to walk out of the cover when Lector stops him, “Moriarty, we are smart, but this being is on another level. Leave him to his wasteland.”
Moriarty attempts to ignore Lector who continues, “He doesn’t do deals. He hates all of humanity. Going there, you are leaving yourself to his will. He can kill you, devolve you, mutate you or just obliterate your soul.”
Moriarty smirks and says, “He hates humans, not fictional characters. I simply must convince him of the truth.”
Shaking his head, Lector says, “Moriarty, wait until we are more prepared. I know you are angry but killing Sherlock again is a better way to get out your anger. You are NOT a god.”
With a cackle Moriarty disputes, “I am a god. You know why? I think, therefore I AM.”
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