"Time is short," Mannheim said nervously, cocking his gun.

"What's going on ?" Blaze asked.

"They knew you'd be coming for me. Now they can have us both, their killers will come crashing in any second. Ellen ! Take the boys and come quick !"

Uneasy footsteps came from the hallway and a few seconds after, the cop's wife and kids were in the room with them. The boys looked up in awe at the dark figure.

"Mom, it's the super-hero ! It's Blaze !"

"Now listen to me, kids: you and Mom are going with the super-hero, he will take care of you, alright ?" Then he turned to the vigilante: "You take them out of here, I'm counting on you. They're innocent."

"What about you, Mannheim ?"

"I'll hold them back. Now, go !"

Blaze went through the broken window and on the fire escape, and carefully helped Mrs Mannheim and the children. The rain soaked them and chilled them to the bones. She looked down: in the alley below, there was a black Ford, and a man in a leather kutte standing next to it, guarding it. The only car around, got to be them. The man wasn't looking up, he hadn't seen them, and in the storm, hadn't heard them either. Blaze turned to the wife and whispered:

"When I wave at you, take the ladder down."

"And you ?"

"Don't worry."

And on these words, the vigilante jumped off and landed with all her weight on the guard's head, knocking him out. She then waved at the wife, who cautiously helped her sons down the ladder and followed them in the alley while Blaze searched the guard's pockets for the car keys. The blasts of gunfire began to resound over their heads, coming from inside the apartment.

"Oh my God," Mrs Mannheim shrieked, "Leyland !"

Blaze had to hold the woman to keep her from going back inside and try to calm her down: "Ellen !" she roared. "You got to take care of your kids ! Here's the keys, take this car and go to the police station, okay ? I'll take care of your husband."

In her room, Sally was helping Billy prepare his bed for the night, joking and laughing as they did. The dinner with the girl's parents had been a bit awkward, the adults didn't know what to say except exchange mundanities. They knew the kids needed to have fun to forget the recent traumatic events, so they didn't talk about these, and they quickly let them be excused so they could play alone, while Mr and Mrs Lomax would watch a movie in the living room.

"So Dany didn't want to come ?" Billy asked as Sally was struggling with the inflatable mattress.

"She said she had important business tonight..."

The boy suddenly grew somber: "She's going after them..."

"Yeah... you're worried too, aren't you ?"

He took a deep breath: "You saw what they did to me... only for spying ! Imagine what they could do to her if they caught her... I didn't worry about Blaze when I didn't know who he was, I could imagine he was an ex-military or something, but now..."

"Yup, now we know she's just like us... she's tough, but she's just a teenager..."

"Yeah..." suddenly feeling gloomy, he tried to brighten the mood: "So are you gonna make it with the mattress or what ? No doubt, you're a girl..."

"You know what the girl says ?" she replied, smiling, as she pushed him down on the mattress. But in his fall, he grabbed her arm and dragged her down with him. She squealed and they began to wrestle playfully, until they stopped, both caught by a sudden uneasy feeling, as they were lying down close, their hands wrapped around each others' waists, their faces only a few inches away. Billy felt his breath go short and his heart pound, and she felt the same. It only lasted a moment before they released each others and sat up, contemplating the ceiling in embarrassment and confusion.

"So..." Sally began. "Wanna watch a DVD ?"

"Yeah, why not."

The car gone, Blaze hurried back inside the building, through the main entrance this time. A five-seat car, she thought as she hurried up the stairs. With the guard outside knocked out, that meant a maximum of four of them remaining inside the apartment. They would all be focused on the cop, no-one would expect her to pop up from behind them. She had a chance to take them out by surprise. The sound of gunfire was getting deafeningly intense as she landed on top of the stairs, and she saw the entrance of the apartment wide open, the door smashed out of its frame resting on the floor, and a man with a revolver on the threshold, watching in case the lieutenant attempted to escape. The man had heard her. He swiftly turned around and, letting out a surprised yell, he aimed at her. Driven by a survival pulse, the vigilante rushed to him like a football player before he had time to fully aim, and rammed her helmet into his face. Three more to go, she thought.

The shooting stopped, and in an instant the apartment fell into a gloomy silence, as she imagined the belligerents were reloading and trying to figure out who was where. That's when she realized she was panting like a dog, adrenaline rushing into her system at full speed, to the point that she thought her heart would detonate. She had encountered thugs with guns, once or twice before. But that, that was an organized assault by a bunch of mooks who knew what they were doing, and she thought that if she stepped inside, she'd be shot like a duck before she could land any punch. And of course, she had not planned things to turn out this way, so she hadn't deemed necessary to bring a flash grenade. Okay, easy girl, easy... if you can't get in, you'll have to bait them out.

She picked up the gun on the floor and, trembling, she pointed it at the stairs and shot. She had never shot a gun before, and the shock of the recoil made her drop the weapon while sending a wave of pain through her arm. It always seemed easier in the movies, she thought as she took cover, waiting for the men to come out. If it worked.

"What's that ?" she heard. "Travis, it was you ? You alright ?"

It worked ! She heard the men inside move towards her, thinking the shot had come from their friend she had just knocked out. Just as she had done before, she waited till she saw the gun appear through the doorway, she grabbed it by the barrel and pulled while raising her other arm stiff to clothesline the thug as he came out. Right at that moment, she jumped as she heard three or four gunshots inside, followed by two different groans, and the heavy thump of two bodies collapsing. Oh, shit, Mannheim !

Without thinking, she went inside, forgetting to take cover. In the dark, she made out a human form lying down in the living room, and she had to raise her visor to have a better look at it. The man was dead, a bullet in his chest, and a pool of blood was slowly forming under him. But he wasn't Mannheim. Then she heard a moan, and she saw the lieutenant on her right, crawling to her from the hallway leading to the bedroom, grimacing in pain. A trail of blood had formed behind him, and Blaze realized he had been shot in the leg. But at least he was alive, and they were rid of all the... oh, wait. The dead body, the two guys she had knocked down on the threshold... that made three and she had estimated a maximum of four. What if... she had no time to think it through as she felt she was suddenly pulled from behind and thrown on the coffee table like a rag doll. She gasped, groaned, rolled around, stood up. She'd sure have some bruises after that ! In the dark, she made out her attacker as a tall man in combat boots, cargo pants and a military jacket, his face concealed by a balaclava. Okay, tall fucker, she thought, lowering the visor to mask her eyes. Let's have some good old-fashioned brawl.

"Sally ?" Billy asked, as the two of them were lying on the girl's bed, their chins resting in their hands, absorbed in the film. "Can I ask you a question ? You... you don't have to answer, if... you know, if it's embarrassing."

"What is it ?"

"Are you still in love with Blaze ?" He waited a few moments, but as she didn't answer he felt terrible and tried to correct his mistake: "Sorry, I know it was a stupid question and..."

"I am," she interrupted him. "In a weird sort of way... I mean... I don't have feelings for Dany, you know, I'm not turning gay or something, it's just... in my mind, Blaze is still a completely different person, I don't think of Dany when I think of Blaze... I don't really know how to explain it."

"I think I see what you mean... like you were actually in love with the idea of a masked hero, and not with Blaze as a person."

She suddenly turned to look at him, eyes wide with surprise: "That's... exactly how I feel ! Waw, you really got it right, here !"

He blushed. "Well, thanks..."

"But..." now it was her turned to blush as she struggled with words. "Maybe... maybe you don't need a mask to be a hero ?"

"What are you talking about ?"

"You," she said, and she avoided his eyes and played with her fingers, trying to get it out. "When... when I woke up and saw Blaze without her mask, I was surprised, but I still noticed you pumping on my chest to keep my heart beating. You were fighting to keep me alive... to drag me out of that fire... and even when I was hiding and they were... and they were... you didn't say anything about me, you just did your best to keep me safe, all the time... Billy, that was very courageous, what you did. You know, Dany... she told me she did all these things just for herself... I don't know what it means exactly, but... you, you took all these risks... for..."

"For you," he finished. "I told you I was not Blaze but I wished I were... I never felt like a hero, and never really cared before, I just left people alone and they left me alone, but I saw how you admired Blaze, and... I wanted to be a hero to you."

"So you... you really love me ?"

"Yes."

She didn't answer. They just kept staring at each others, their faces so close... and slowly, without thinking, they came closer, closed their eyes at the same time, and their lips touched.

Blaze took a stride, bounced on the couch to launch herself up in the air, and landed on the tall guy with a flying left hook that could have stunned a buffalo. He didn't even protect himself and received it right in the face. Now, all of them were gone for sure ! Oh, wait...

The tall guy was still standing. Blaze couldn't believe her eyes. He didn't even seem to be hurt at all, and as she was still coping with the surprise, she felt the sole of his boot on her stomach, ejecting her a few feet back, and in spite of the breastplate, she felt like a jackhammer had been digging into her guts. Coughing, she tried to stand back up, but her attacker was already on her, and he lifted her, powerless, over his head like a professional wrestler, and slammed her against the kitchen cupboards. She landed heavily on her knees and yelled in pain. That was good thing she had opted for a motorcycle helmet as her mask, because without it she would have been knocked unconscious. But her back, her stomach, her knees, her arms, all her body felt like it was nothing but an open sore, and each of her moves in her slow attempt at standing up sent unbearable throbs of pain all the way through to the marrow of her bones.

The man strode to her. She jabbed him in the stomach to stop him, took a deep breath, tried to ignore the pain as much as she could, and stepped forward to get close to him, and unleashed a flurry of hooks to his flanks, as if he were a piece of meat that needed to be tenderized. For a while she thought it worked, for he wasn't fighting back at all, but he wasn't going down either, and she soon came to realize he was just playing with her, for her attacks had as much effect on him as if she were punching an oak. Then, he counter-attacked, throwing his knee into her loins. The pain was of an intensity she had never experienced before, a wave of fire blasting through her lower belly, and she let out a high-pitched, girlish shriek. She was suffering so much she barely felt it when he punched her in the stomach and shoved her against the counter of the kitchen. Ashamed and enraged at this low blow, she felt her fingers wrap themselves around the handle of a cooking knife on the counter, and when he came closer, she roared like a lion and sprung forward, and stabbed him in the shoulder. She felt and saw the blade dig deep into his flesh, she saw the dark stain of blood forming on his jacket, but again, he appeared to be entirely unaffected by the wound as he grabbed her wrist with his other hand and slowly, torturously, twisted her arm to force her on her knees, helpless. Her vision began to blur, and she realized it was tears pouring on the inside of her visor. He stopped twisting just enough not to snap her elbow off its cap, and instead rested his palm on her helmet and shoved her head against the counter. Her head was protected, but she felt the shockwave. He did it again. And again. And again. The repeated shocks made her dizzy, and when he finally let go of her, she was down and on the verge of passing out.

She breathed heavily, agitated by hiccups and sobs, which everytime felt like her body was filled with broken glass and tightly wrapped in barbed wire. She raised her head with difficulty. Her vision was blurred and reeling, as if she were on a boat by a violent storm, but she managed to make out the tall bastard walking slowly, confidently, towards Mannheim. The cop had managed to crawl towards the dead body and pick up a gun, but he was aiming with difficulty, trembling too much, and the thug easily snatched the weapon from him. Lightning illuminated the room for a second and Blaze clearly saw the imposing silhouette against the large balcony window of the living room, as he slowly pointed his gun down to Mannheim's head, ready to shoot. This image, so sudden, felt like an impulse of strength raging through the vigilante's body, and as her mind had already resolved to defeat, she felt her legs push her up and forward. She felt like she was a simple spectator when she saw herself grab the tall man by the waist and push the two of them against the window, which broke in a thousand shards as they flew through, and passed over the balcony to fall to their cold, wet death, two stories below...

She landed on something soft, like a pile of pillows... wet pillows that smelled of rotting food and moist garbage. No, not pillows, she realized as her vision stabilized and she could see a bunch of blue plastic bags floating in a terribly foul-smelling pool. She looked up to see a metallic wall surrounding her but opened to the raining sky, and she understood she had fallen into a dumpster and the garbage had saved her life. She stood up and saw something else move among the trash bags, and the tall bastard stood up too, facing her. Oh, great, second round ! But this time she was at a point beyond pissed. Ignoring the pain, the cold, the fear, she was resolute to beat the crap out of that guy whatever it took. He punched her. She saw it coming, dodged swiftly, and responded with a jab in the face. He punched again. Too slow. She bent her upperbody sideways, parried, and threw another jab in his nose. Knee-deep in water and garbage, they were both moving with terrible clumsiness, but being much smaller and lighter than him proved to be a considerable advantage for Blaze. She parried one more attack and punched back. And parried and punched back a fourth time. There was no way he could land a proper punch in these conditions. Finish this while you have the upper hand ! She took a deep breath and launched a flurry of machine-gun jabs, Bruce Lee-style, into his face. He reclined, almost fell under the hits... but didn't fall. To the vigilante's greatest frustration, even though her incessant pounding should have reduced his face to Jell-O, even though blood was clearly leaking through his mask, he would not go down ! She felt so desperate she wanted to cry, but at that moment the sirens of police cars began to echo in the alley, and as soon as he heard the sound, the tall monster jumped off the dumpsters and ran away. He was on foot, she thought as she herself crawled out. And her bike was parked nearby. She could easily catch up. But as the adrenaline was wearing down, she felt too exhausted to continue. Mannheim and his family were safe. She had not learned anything from him, but she hoped what happened would persuade him to turn himself up. She was done with it for now. She started her engine, and slowly began to ride in another direction.

The film had been over for long. Maybe Sally's parents were in bed already. In the girl's room everything was silent. They hadn't stopped kissing since their first one, not even to put on some music. They didn't even notice the silence. The room didn't exist for them. It was only him, her, and the kisses. Sally didn't feel the violent surge of pleasure she had felt when she had kissed Blaze, or rather the fake Blaze. It was not the same, it was no longer some stupid fantasy she was fulfilling. What she was experiencing now was the quiet bliss and comfort of falling in love with a boy who would die for her. They were so absorbed in their newfound romance, that they both jumped out of their skins when they heard a tapping on the window. They were surprised to see the familiar figure of the vigilante outside.

"Dany ?" Sally asked as she opened the window. "What are you doing here ?"

Silently, the girl jumped inside, and only when the window was shut behind her did she take off her helmet, revealing an exhausted face and hair glistening with sweat. She smelled of garbage. She sighed heavily.

"Please tell me your slumber party thing is still on... cause I really had a shitty night so far."

It took quite some time for Dany to unwind and return to a normal teenage girl state. She had taken off her Blaze stuff and hidden everything under the bed, sounding incredibly relieved to kick off her heavy boots. The kids were horrified to see the many ugly yellowish bruises that covered her arms and shoulders, but she joked about it, saying it was only part of the job and that was nothing compared to her back. They had asked her what she had been doing that night, but she didn't want to talk about it, said she'd rather relax with her friends. Sally was quite happy with it and soon the three of them were having ice cream in her room while listening to music, trying not to be too loud so they wouldn't awaken her parents.

"Oh come on," Dany said, laughing. "You really want to get me to play that stupid game ?"

"Yeah, sure, it's gonna be fun ! Come on, truth or dare ?"

"Oh, okay... truth, I guess ?"

"Okay, so... here's a good one: how did you start ?"

"Start what ?"

"The vigilante thing."

"I'd rather not talk about this..."

"Oh come on, we've always wanted to know !"

"Fine... well, you're gonna be surprised, but it all started because of you, Sally."

"Me ?"

"Yup. Remember Tommy DaSilva's big party in June ?"

"How could I forget, that's when he tried to put me in his bed..."

"Well, I was there, that night, at the party. I know I'm not very popular, but the jocks kind of liked me, surely because I could beat them at arm wrestling or something, so I was invited. I was there, drinking my beer, when I saw you dart down the staircase and out of the house, and Tommy try to follow you, like all confused. The way you left, the look on your face... I knew there was no possible way you two had made it. So when he told everyone that you did, I didn't buy it any second. And... I dunno what happened, I didn't really like you, you know, but... I just couldn't stand it, that he could tarnish your reputation and get away with it. Maybe I related cause I'm a girl. I know I was like a huge bully back then, but you just can't do that to a girl, it disgusted me, made me want to punch his face... so that's what I did eventually."

"So it was you who threw him in that dumpster ?"

"Yes it was. I had no disguise back then, so I just made sure I'd knock him out quick enough so he wouldn't see who I am. And you know what ? Doing this...punishing some asshole, making sure he'd not harm any innocent people again... it was exhilarating ! I loved it, I found out there wasn't anything that made me feel better in the world than beating up a guy who deserved it. So, little by little, I'd do it again, hanging around hot spots, waiting for people to get mugged, or for drunkards to fight, and I'd just jump in the middle and beat the bastards down. I was quite good at boxing before I got fired from the league, so I can pack a punch. So, yeah, little by little..."

"And what ? Keep going, please."

She sighed and smiled, and took another spoonful of ice cream. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this... you're the only people I've ever told this story... well, as it went I wanted to become more effective, to know who to attack, where to find them, so I started to keep tabs on sex offenders and wanted people in the city... later I came to ask Billy for info... one day I saw that guy in a parking lot, recognized him as a guy the cops were looking for, for beating his ex-wife. You see the kind of guy... I jumped on him from behind and pounded him. Then, well... I figured he wouldn't need his helmet or his motorbike in jail, so I borrowed these..."

"You stole the bike ?"

"It's not really stealing if it's stealing from an asshole. I'd rather call it a tax on public service. Sometimes I take some cash from the guys I beat up. Used it to buy the jacket and the boots, and the gloves. I figured the helmet was good enough to hide my face, and the jacket could hide my... well, you couldn't see I was a girl, and I could have a protection underneath. It saved my life once or twice, believe me."

"Never thought of getting yourself a costume with a symbol or something ?" Billy asked jokingly.

"No," she said, giggling. "It may seem weird, but I never thought of becoming a masked vigilante, it just... happened this way. I chose this attire because it looked threatening enough while staying pretty plain, someone who'd see me pass by would just think I'm some motorcycle guy, you see. I don't have superpowers or insane gadgets, so my best tactic was to move around unnoticed. It worked for a while, but then the Keats Case made me a local celebrity..."

"But," Sally said, "you got yourself a vigilante name with Blaze."

"Actually, I never intended to get myself a nickname, I was supposed to stay unnoticed, so no names. At the beginning, I didn't even talk because I didn't want people to hear I was a girl."

"How did you get that growling voice, by the way ?"

She smirked and pointed to her Lamb Of God tank top: "Trained a lot to sing like my favorite singers. Took me some time to get it right. To go back on the name, actually it's when you asked me, I was surprised, didn't know what to answer, so I made it up on the fly."

"But why Blaze ?" she asked, and right after, a spark of intelligence passed through her eyes as she found the answer to her own question. "Your favorite Streets of Rage character, right ?"

"Right. First thing that came to my mind. I didn't know it'd stick around like that."

"Another question," Billy said, "why are you so dead set on taking down Bronco Jones ?"

"Because when I started to get famous around, I figured beating up random muggers wasn't enough. Thought if I took down the biggest bastard in town, that would send a message to all others, you know, that would make a difference. I admit I didn't think of the consequences, at first. I'd become a bit too confident, and I didn't think he would such a hard opponent. Paid the price again tonight. But I've gone too far to step back now. After what his mooks did to you... tried to kill you in a fire... can't let that slide."

"But why... why do you impose this on yourself ? Don't you think you'd be better off as a normal girl, with your friends, with us ? Why do you take all these risks ?"

"My business," she said, suddenly turning cold. They got the message. Don't hit that nerve.

They were about to resume the game in a lighter mood when a vibration was heard. Billy's phone. Unknown caller.

"Hello ?" he answered.

"William Brewster ?" a male voice said.

"Yes. You are ?"

"This is Leyland Mannheim."

The boy's blood ran cold. "What do you want ?"

"Don't worry, William, I didn't call to threaten you or anything. Are you friends with that vigilante guy, Blaze ?"

"Why do you want to know ?" he asked, defiant.

"Listen, I need to talk to him a.s.a.p.. Do you know a way to contact him ?"

Billy covered the phone with his hands and turned to Dany: "Mannheim," he whispered, "he wants to talk to Blaze."

The girl reached out and gently took the phone from him. As she talked, her two friends could witness the process through which she turned from Danielle Cassidy to Blaze, as she took a breath and contracted her throat and belly so as to produce the growling voice that was the vigilante's trademark:

"I'm listening," she said.

"Blaze ? I didn't thank you for taking care of my family. They're alright."

"You're welcome."

"Listen, I... I turned myself in. Couldn't bear it any longer. Billy's dad wants to kill me now, but I'd rather that than being stalked by Jones's hitmen. Ellen and the kids will be kept safe until this is all over. I'll tell them everything I know, but there's one problem. As soon as Jones finds out, he will start moving his business away, and leave no evidence. He's quick and careful. I know where the drugs transit through. Hangar 18, on the docks of Coast Way Bay. The stuff arrives by boat, and Jones usually supervises the operation in person. Problem is, it's private property, and by the time my colleagues get a warrant, it will be too late. I thought you might be interested, since you don't need any paperwork..."

"How can I trust you ?"

"I understand that you don't. But if you really want a shot at Jones, this is a golden opportunity."

"I'll think about it," she concluded as she hung up.

"What was it ?" Billy asked.

"Nothing important."