Coming home after a long night of driving and fighting and driving again, Johnny Nitro trudges through knee-high cans of Dew to flop face-first into his unmade bed. But before he can nod off, he hears something tap loudly on his window. Opening the window, Johnny sees a pebble laying on the windowsill, having landed in the piled snow after bouncing off the glass. A message is written in black marker on the stone. “Catch me. Don’t let them know you’re gone. For Queen & Quatrine.”
Johnny just manages to look up and scan the snow-caked rooftops of the nearby houses to see the tops of Usagi’s ears dart between two of them, riding her dirtbike and rocking a good head start. Both cars are parked in the driveway, where anyone will notice they’re gone.
Johnny spins around and scans his room for things he can use. He slides over to a red cabinet on the wall, with a glass facade that reads “Break in case of emergency,” you’d expect to find a fire ax in. However, this is Johnny Nitro, so in place of an ax are several rows of polished aluminum cans of “Booty Sweat” energy drink. He picks up the small, wedge shaped hammer chained to the box, and daintily, pinkie extended, shatters the glass. Scanning several flavors, he selects a can of “Tropical Thong Surprise.” Then Johnny turns and takes down his heavily detailed surfboard from the wall. He winces as he breaks the fins off from the bottom.
Bro, you don’t even live near the water, says a voice in his head.
“I could though, you don’t know!” he answers it.
You don’t know how to do what you’re planning.
“Dude, stop being a lame ass! Learn by doing!”
Outside his door, a drunken Wild Turkey dismissed the muffled sound of “Earn my doody!”
You said that out loud, bro?
Johnny grimaces; Usagi is well out of sight by now. “Shut up, other me! No time for your reality crap.” Johnny pierces his “Booty Sweat” can through the center using a key and chugs the contents.
Turkey’s drunken hiccup neatly masks the sound of Johnny jumping out his window, surfboard first. Any regular athlete will tell you, a surfboard is not a snowboard. But Johnny Nitro is neither regular nor good at distinguishing between things. So he zips like a quick fuse along the rooftops of the Victorian neighborhood, ramping off the peaks, skimming along the awnings, corkscrewing around weathervanes — generally doing whatever would get him most arrested if there were enough people out in the snow to see him.
Johnny tracks Usagi by the tops of her fuzzy ears as they bob between buildings and between fenceposts. She leads him through the neighborhood, riding between gaps in fenceposts and over the frozen swimming pools of folks who had no time to winterize. He has to stick to the rooftops, where the powder is thick enough to support his surfboard, but manages gradually to gain on her.
Until the neighborhood ends and she dips out of sight.
Normally, the drop-off is clearly visible from here, but snow hides depth. The neighborhood ends in a steep ledge where residents can take a zig-zag path down to the hiking trails through the woods below. Sadly, Johnny hasn’t the time to slow down before he hits the last slope of the last cliffside house. The rooster on its weathervane gives him a mocking side-eye.
Johnny upends with a “Ya-ha-hooey!” and loses his surfboard in the process. It shatters the bay window of an expensive looking modern house perched above the well worn hiking trail. Through sheer inertia, Johnny’s body is flung into the house right after his board. From within comes a cacophony of crashing and slamming and shattering, followed by a woman screaming, before Johnny bursts out the other end swaddled in a blanket, a bra on his head, and a pair of skis strapped to his feet, guiding sticks in-hand. Johnny hits the trail hard and proceeds to ski down the path like an Olympian hitting the moguls. Admittedly, not a good Olympian, but still. How often do regular skiiers do moguls?
At the end of the path Johnny skids out on some black ice, shredding the bottom of his newly “borrowed” skis, and careening into the woods beyond. Usagi sits at the border of said woods, motor off and arms folded, waiting for the Johnny Nitro catastrophe to appear. Seeing her directly in his path, Johnny drives the guiding sticks into the ground, which just causes them bend comically into a ‘U’ shape and boomerang out of his hands.
“Move! Get out the way!” As he approaches the waiting Usagi. In one deft movement she sidesteps his onrush and yanks on his jacket to direct him at a tree right behind her. Singed by his heat, she shakes her fingers, realizes he’s heading for a tree, and gives him a look that clearly says ‘Go limp!’
“I-OOF!” Johnny face-plants gracelessly into an ancient redwood. The redwood is completely out of fucks to give, so Johnny falls backwards into a tuft of snow.
Usagi raises an eyebrow at Johnny’s twitching form. A familiar mellow voice intones, “Clarify: Your durance took place during the peak years of Ludacris’ popularity.”
“What happened about me?” Johnny asks, the lights still sputtering back on.
“Firefly you likewise would have missed,” answers Mr. Roboto, who walks through knee-deep snow in his suit pants and dress shoes to stand over Johnny. By the time he’s cool enough to touch, the snow has melted beneath him, and the young moss underneath is burnt to cinders. Ash tumbles off his body in a charcoal haze as Roboto and Usagi help him up.
“Okay,” he says, “I’m here. What’s going on?”
Two figures emerge from the woods. The first Johnny vaguely recognizes as Hiro, the friendly sushi chef with knives for fingers who makes the food when Clavell holds… held court.
The other Johnny’s never seen — a lithe, hunched humanoid who hops down from one of the high treetops, aided by leathery wings. He’s got brick-red skin, clawed hands and the feet and face of a pterodactyl. His snow-white hair comes to a widow’s peak just beyond two tall goat’s horns, and hangs down to where a tail emerges from his bell-bottom jeans. He’s cut holes from his wings into his brown bomber jacket, its sleeves covered in 60s concert patches, and as he lands he folds his wings under his arms like a sort of robe. A pair of Aviators sits atop his snout.
“You have met Usagi and Hiro,” says Roboto. “Fourth unit designated: Haight Ashbury, liaison of the Winter Court.”
Ashbury hops down again, landing lightly in the snow and approaching Johnny with a clawed hand extended. “Word is you’re got a knack for spookwork, brother. How’d you feel about running an op for Queen and Quatrine?”
“Oh yeah! Woo!”
Johnny struts around the clearing. He first walks up to Mr. Roboto, and holds up his hand for a high-five. The robot quickly makes several calculations, and decides the hard way would be best, then holds up his hand to recieve said high-five. Johnny winds up and plants Mr. Roboto with a deafening hand-slap that would leave the average persons hand red, raw, and stinging. Instead, Mr Roboto’s arm barely pivots, as Johnny’s flies back against his body, as though repulsed by a magical ward. Or alternatively, as though he had just high-fived a metal man, really, really hard.
“Bro!” Johnny loses some color in his cheeks, then begins cradling his damaged hand against his stomach, keeling over slightly. He stumbles over to Hiro, and determinedly holds up his other hand.
“Dude, I totally called…. It?”
Hiro simply shakes his head back and forth slowly.
“Okay, well. Yeah, as I was saying. It’s about damn time! This whole time I’ve been like, ’we’re all superheroes and shit, so let’s act like superheroes and shit!’ And everyone else is all ‘Nah, I’d rather deal with banal crap for people who don’t have powers!’”
Johnny looks around to see only passive stares, faces as blank as the snow surrounding them. Undeterred, he reaches in his hidden jacket pocket and pulls out a fresh pair of Ray-Bans. Then, staring into the middle distance, he slides them on his face, cracking a smile. As a child of the 90s, Johnny knew this always meant the hero was going to win.
“Okay gents, let’s save the world.”
Smiling as wryly as someone with a snout can, Haight Ashbury says, “Riiiight. Huddle up, then.”
Everyone joins the gargoyle in the center of the clearing. A buffet of his wings blows the snow off a patch of clear ice in the shape of a lake, a lake whose shape Johnny once saw from the stratosphere as he and his Motley first plummeted from the Hedge.
“Loch Lommond,” Johnny says, pointing out a pile of snow in the center of the ‘lake’ and another on the southern edge. “That’s the island with the hidden jail, and the marina that got destroyed for some reason I have no idea about.”
“Right. Thanks to your Motley and Daimyo Clavell,” Ashbury pauses to let his loss wash over the Summer Courtiers, “The Loch is officially Quatrine territory, giving us access to a major Trod directly from Arcadia. That the actual gateway is at cruising height for a 747 has been a problem. Our more mystically inclined Freeholders have been working to fix that, but those efforts stopped once we had to go into hiding.”
Mr. Roboto picks up the briefing. “For this reason, only designate: Mushu was present at the Loch at the time of the logged disturbance.”
Haight Ashbury beats his wings once more and the snow forms a little figure of Mushu, camped out by the water’s edge by a lean-to, a rowboat nearby. Just above a standing Johnny’s eye level, two nondescript humanoids appear, flailing and falling toward the lake far below.
“Ah, precious memories,” Johnny says, wiping a mock tear away.
“Here’s some deja vu for you,” Ashbury says with another buffet. The snow swirls into a thick mist over the lake, which slows the two figures’ fall and hides them from sight.
“That’s what that fucking witch bitch on the island did! " says Johnny. “And then her mercs tried to snatch us up. That fucking eel jackhole still has an insert-sword-here sign between his two favorite vertebrae!” flames blaze in his chest as he speaks, turning the snowy image into a pool of useless sludge. Only when he notices everyone staring at him does Johnny tamp it down. “Oh, um. Sorry. Did the new Changelings get got?”
“By Freebooters?” says Roboto. “Probability: slim. But Quatrine agents have been tasked with apprehending the Freebooters who tried to capture your Motley since you arrived, which must have driven them to ground. As only their alleged leader has displayed use of this slowing mist contract, we believe they have resumed operations.”
Ashbury cuts in. “Here’s the kicker: the very next day, we got reports that two new Changelings were presented to Duke Stag-Hart of Holy Cross.”
Everyone waits patiently while Johnny does the math in his head, muttering, “Okay, um, sludge-mist means Freebooter douchebags… Lots of Freebooter douchebags near San Jose lately, making us hide like little bitches… Sludge-mist saves new randos from a frozen pizza fate… But new randos end up in Santa Cruz… Eureka!” he shouts, “Stag-Hart’s real name is Artie Morty!”
A long silence. Sheepishly, Johnny says, “Or maybe this means the Freebooters are working for Holy Cross to fuck with our shit. Whatever, man. Without a Clue was a good-ass movie…”
“You got there, kid, you got there,” Ashbury says, returning the snow to its pristine state with a final flap of his wings. “Word is, Stag-Hart’s bringing the two randos up to San Jose sometime soon. Our guess is he’ll claim his Freehold rescued them while poor Mushu just rode her boat over the lake until it ran aground. ‘Holy Cross forever, Quatrine never.’ Same song he’s been selling the neighboring Freeholds since Halloween. Then he’ll probably make a big show of letting them choose to stay in SC even though by law they belong in SJ.”
Roboto nods. “However, I have calculated a 67% probability of Stag-Hart engaging in a false flag operation to maximize his shaming of our defensive capabilities. Specifically, he will use designates: new randos to provoke a privateer attack. Likelihood increases by a factor of 8% for every indication designates: new randos prefer San Jose to Santa Cruz or mistrust his intentions, as a successful attack negates the chance they choose the Quatrine and undermine his posturing by 82 or more percent.”
Ashbury flaps his wings again, forming a different lake of ice. Johnny recognizes one of the reservoirs in Los Gatos Creek County Park, though figures of snow ice-skate over it. “This is a currently-frozen lake at the park which locals have been using as a skating rink. We have intel that a drug dealer has been selling info to Freebooters here.”
“Nitro,” he turns to Johnny, “You’re going to get an excuse to go to the rink in a situation with plenty of distractions. While you’re there, you’re to observe a drug deal where the buyer will hand the dealer a note, which we believe will contain both the identities of the new randos, and the location of the snatch-and-grab. Get that note, memorize it, and put it back without being caught.”
“Once we have the intel, you’ll take point on an op to neutralize the privateer attack. Whether the newbies pick San Jose or not, Staggart can take his claims we can’t protect our own and shove them right under his fluffy little deer tail.”
“Mission parameters:” says Roboto. “Neither the drug dealer nor his contact are to know their information has been compromised. Under absolutely no circumstances can designate: Stag-Hart know he is suspected of dealing with Freebooters. Designate: Nitro is duly advised to, and I quote, ‘Shut right the blue fuck up’ to Stag-Hart’s face about any ill-feelings or suspicions.”
“So telling him he’s made of rancid dicks, and it thus wouldn’t hurt to eat a bowl thereof,” Johnny says, “That’s off the table.”
“Way off, kid, listen up,” says Ashbury.
“Freehold law does not forbid the slaying of Freebooters,” says Roboto, “but every Changeling must see to his own conscience. Capturing at least one would be highly beneficial. Any evidence linking the privateers to the Holy Cross Duchy is likewise much appreciated, but should be kept strictly confidential within this group.”
Usagi reaches into her backpack and hands out five short-wave radios, each with an earpiece on a slim wire — not military grade, just the kind hobbyists can get at Target, still in their plastic clamshells.
“We’ll be using these to coordinate the takedown, during which I’ll have point.” Ashbury unfurls his wings. “Eyes in the sky and such. Johnny, you’ll have someone —”
“We all know it’s Usagi,” says Johnny.
“Usagi will be nearby. Report the note’s contents to her via radio soon as you have some privacy, and get on coms half an hour later for further instructions.”
Everyone turns to Johnny, and Ashbury says, “We just showed you a lot of trust, kid. You don’t want to do this, you say so now and we’ll trust you to pretend this never happened.”
“Alternative: may answer in the affirmative and we will likewise maintain it never happened, but behave in ways which meet criteria: ‘badass’ and ‘fucking sweet.’”
Still favoring his left hand, Johnny says, “Dudes, like you even need to ask! Johnny Nitro is your man. Besides, I need to clear my head after being stuck in the Hedge for so long. Man-bro-dudes, that, that shit sucked pretty hard for me.”
“Groovy, brother.” Ashbury gives Johnny one of those complicated hand-slap-fist-bump-finger-snaps. “You’re clear on the deets, right?”
“Yeah, find the guy, get the thing, tell you about the thing, put thing back, kill other dudes.”
“You don’t have to-”
“I said, ‘kill other dudes’! Stag Fart wont know what hit him.”
Mr. Roboto approaches Johnny and places a hand on his shoulder. “Correction: there will be no impacts for which Stag Heart is unaware of the source. It will be as though we where never there.”
“Uh… right, of course. For real though, if Santa Cruz is actually trying to hurt us, something will need to be done.”
“Indeed, designate Nitro. That is a different program, for a different date. For now, stay focused and complete this mission. It did not go unnoticed how you were able to extract designate Ted from the Redkeep, so this group is willing to put its trust in you.”
“Okay dudes, let’s do it. Dudes? Dudes?”
Johnny comes out of his reverie to notice that everyone has left the clearing, stranding him at the edge of town.
“Not cool, guys!”