Where There’s Smoke: The Peace of Twin Falls

The odd thing about Twin Falls, Sin realized, is that the city wasn’t really a city at all. It behaved more like an organic being. If he wanted a drink, the people lining the streets would point him towards a bar. If he wanted to fight, someone would oblige and smash a glass. If he wanted to be left alone, he was left alone.


Except these weren’t pod people, or robots, or aliens. They looked like, well, normal people. Time had worn their faces, they bled (Sin had tested that little hypothesis extensively), and the farther you got away from Anathema’s modest house, the more… people-like they acted.

 

The longer you stayed in Twin Falls, the more you realized just how much control Anathema had over the city. It wasn’t a city – it was just an extension of the woman.


And so, you couldn’t help but be a little nervous when she called you to her home for a chat.

 

Sin involuntarily shivered when one of the people just up and told him that Anathema wanted to talk to him. They maybe acted like people. They might have looked like people. But whatever she’d done to them, they weren’t people anymore. Just…. meat suits. The first fight he’d gotten in was fun enough, and won, handily. But then after two, or three,  he realized that they were letting him win. And then they were letting him drink, and eat, and do whatever he wanted. When a cute girl or guy walked across his way, and his thoughts naturally turned towards that darker way, he saw their eyes, and the thoughts fled in the fear of those amethyst eyes. He really, really didn’t want to know Anathema in that way, and knowing that these people didn’t have any choice in the matter…. took all of the fun out of the idea.  And so he didn’t.

 

Half the fun of what he did was knowing that it offended, or made angry, or was just crazy enough that he enjoyed it, and usually other folks enjoyed it with him. This… he was the only one in the city. Him, and all of Anathema. Still. It was power. Just… maybe not the kind he wanted.

 

Sin, however, HAD taken advantage of the city’s moderate wealth. New shoes, new suit, new wallet, new sunglasses, new haircut. He looked the very definition of a man of wealth and taste. Black suit, red tie, very snazzy. Sunglasses that were just the latest fashion. The iPhone 12. Black hair cleaned, styled, and spiked in a crazy way. He’d been healed up, and everything felt better, and his confidence was back. His TK was back. Yeah, he was nervous… but it was a much more even playing field. Oh, and the metamorphic slime, his current ace in the hole, wrapped around his chest underneath the suit. Anyone tackled him like Nat did, they’d be in for a spikey surprise.

 

He knocked gently, twice, on Anathema’s door, polite as can be, deep purple eyes shining and a confident smirk, belying the deep nervousness inside.

 

Mathilda opens the door – that same old woman with the sunken eyes who had been eaten by Anathema from the inside out. You’re beckoned into the living room, and given some ice cold lemonade and cheese tea biscuits. “Thanks, Mathilda, you’re a sweetheart.”

 

It would be pleasant, if not for… well. The entire Twin Falls and Anathema situation.

 

There’s a young man in room. He wasn’t noticeable at first, but he’s in the corner hidden by the door as Sin walked in. He affects a bored attitude, casually caressing the hilt of his sword in a gloved hand. His attention is on Anathema, looking at her through lashes heavy with mascara and with eyes lined with a well practiced dark pencil. The young man is both handsome and fit. Dressed in a silky red shirt that matched scarlet hair that was too bright and too vibrant to be anything dye, he lounged with loose, long limbs in an armchair.

 

Then his eyes flick up to look at Sin. There’s resentment there, under the cosmetics and bored furrow. And a distinct lack of purple in his red eyes.

 

“This is my son.” Anathema says by way of introduction. Her lips are thinned into a sharp line of irritation. “Callister, stop being rude. I taught you manners, didn’t I? Introduce yourself. And straighten your back.”

 

Callister slouches upwards in a strangely graceful movement that reveals his shirt is buttoned only halfway up. His hair is in that specific arrangement that looked like it casually falls that way naturally but was probably the result of hours in front of the mirror. “Apologies, Mother.” He bowed in her direction, then at Sin, a more shallow bow. “Callister Rayne, The Red Knight.”

 

Sin opens his mouth, pauses a second, takes a moment to register that Callister is Anathema’s son. He bites back all the goth snark and the question if he needed to go blog about his emotions soon. He’s never going to like this pretty boy, but, he’s Anathema’s kid. Shit. Well, guess shoving that sword up his ass and bending him until his sword breaks inside his ass isn’t going to happen. Oh well. The little bow of pretentiousness causes another attack of snark to hit, but he swallows it down. It is a struggle, not to start talking in Ye Olde Englishe. “Right. Sin, or Jacob, as my current alias is.” He just… nods at Callister, instead of putting him through the wall.

 

Anathema’s eyes bore into Sin. “I can see your thoughts,” she says simply. “My son may be simple, and not the man of faith I need him to be yet. But if you lay a single finger on him, I will turn you inside out and twist you around until you scream apologies to the sky.”

He was that easy to read? Was it on his face or could she really read his thoughts that well? Shit. He shrugged, and took a sip of that honestly awesome lemonade. Evil lemonade tasted better, who knew? “Of course, ma’am. You are, after all, the boss.” Pride grumbled, wrath spat curses in his head, but greed and envy nodded wisely. Gluttony wanted the cheese tea biscuits. “Did y’ need me for something, ma’am?”

 

“How do you like my city thus far?”

“I’m impressed.” And he was. “You’ve made it yours, in body and soul, ma’am. I wouldn’t have thought it possible, but, my eyes are opening every day that I spend here. Though, to be honest, it is a bit… midwestern for me. I’m used to the big cities. No offense meant, ma’am.”

 

“There had better not be any offence meant.” Callister glowered, a dog at the ready.

 

“Down, Callister. He is a worldly man. See what the outside will do to you?” She turns her attention back onto Sin. “The initial flurry of attempting to apprehend you has died down. And the Midnight always needs new converts, new flesh and blood and minds and souls. I send emissaries out to find such troubled people, bring them home unto the flock. You might serve well as such a messenger.”

“Glad to hear it. Tried to change my look up slightly so that I could be of some use on the outside.” New converts. Meaning more people for her to enslave, perhaps. Or spread the word of the Midnight, her source of power, what she worshiped, he guessed. He nodded, thoughtfully. “There’s always folks looking for a new way. Been offended, persecuted, looking for the ‘way’, you know? People are hungry for that kind of thing. To be a part of something bigger. Though, I have to ask. Are you looking for quantity, because we can find that. Or are we looking for quality, like that Paranormal we grabbed on our way here?”

 

“Paranormals are difficult to crack, dangerous. The man in the cellar still insists his Legion is coming to save him. He will not let me in. Not yet. If you bring me Paranormals, make them ones who are short on will and insecure. Bring me Paranormals with cracks that I can exploit. That is the problem, the flaw with my power I have yet to solve. I need their damnable permission.”

Sin nods, thinking. This could work. She needed people short on will, insecure. He remained focus, pride in the forefront. Pride was the best thinker, out of all his sins. “Two ways I think we can go about this, then, ma’am. People nobody will miss, giving them a better life kind of thing. Runaways, orphans, drug addicts, the lowest of low. I know it doesn’t sound appealin’, but they do hear things, the underground of the underworld, as it were. They’ll be the information. Nobody’ll really miss them, and if we do it right, they’ll appear to be better functioning members of society, who’ll also spread th’ word. With them, we can find others. Paranormals who’ve slipped through th’ cracks.

 

Paranormals with no homes, no real place. People ripe for you, ma’am. Because they’ll be part of the Midnight. Part of somethin’…. bigger.” He pauses, thinking.

 

“Either plan will work. But you will need to discuss that with Callister, won’t you? He’ll be accompanying you.”

The kid in the red shirt sneers, flipping his long hair aside. “By God’s grace, it will be a pleasure to work with you.” There were layers in that sentence, some words he meant, some he definitely did not.

 

“You both will need to check in. You’ve been given full access to the Underground. It should be easy for you two to travel, and return home when need be.”

“Of course, mother. I will prove myself to God and to you.”

 

“You got it, ma’am.” He rises, and finishes off his lemonade, and polishes off those damned delicious biscuits. He cracks his neck, and looks at Callister. “You know, you’re lucky. The first place I’d like to visit, you’ll fit right in.” Sin makes a window with his hands, viewing Callister as if a movie producer. “The girls will love you, and the guys will too.”

 

Sin grins evilly, as he puts his hands in his jacket pockets. “If we want to see how each plan might be, we need to go to the lowest place on earth. I practically named myself for it.”

 

Anathema says nothing, but her amethyst eyes shift onto Callister, heavy with expectations.


Callister sniffs disdainfully. “Worldy expectations are beneath me. God has shown me my path.”

 

Sin’s eyes flash gold for a second, and he chuckles. “That, that last line right there.” He looks to Anathema. “That’s the kind of certainty we’re going to need in Vegas.”

 

Where There’s Smoke: Home Away From Home

Las Vegas, Nevada

The Club

 

There were things in Las Vegas that tourists didn’t know about. Places that only the connected, the famous, the infamous, or the extremely wealthy went to. The Club was one of those places. Drinks, low lights, elite clientele, and the illusion of privacy, and the promise of it if you paid enough. The Club catered to everyone, if your price was right. If you asked the right questions in the club, you could get anything you wanted. Sin had been here only once before, on a bender, which had made him fairly wealthy. He’d made ‘friends’ with the owner, a man who shared his particular tastes and excesses, and had given him a VIP membership, in exchange for also keeping the many, many graves out in the desert quiet.

 

And Sin obliged, because he knew he’d need it. And he’d sent word ahead, with the right answers. He needed a thief, and a good one. Someone who was a professional. Not enough of those in these days and ages. And a good amount of whiskey, and something to look at and maybe take home. But now he had to convince Callister to come along, at 3 AM.

 

At their hotel, Sin walked up to the boy’s room, knocked once, politely, then shouted. “Cal, I know the porn is free, but you’re going to go blind if you keep watching it alone in there.”

 

The long limbed young man opened the door. He sneered. “Porn is for the weak. Those who put their faith in God do not need pornogaphy.” He stepped out, closing the door behind him. “Besides, you will not go blind. What is it that you need?”

 

Sin chuckled, and shrugged. “Going to meet a thief for our next stage of the plan. We need cash, a lot of it, to kickstart your mom’s work. I’ve got a decent job, but I can’t finesse it like a professional can. If you can keep it down on the faith and Sodom and Gomorrah, since we’re supposed to be incognito, it’d be helpful to have backup. Just in case.”

 

Callister considered through his red bangs. That vibrant shade of scarlet wasn’t dye as Sin once surmised, but was as red as his lashes. The was a noticeable lack of dark lines around his eyes, and Sin hadn’t seen Callister wear the kohl once they left Twin Falls. In fact, the boy had silently wiped his face clean as soon as their car left the city limits, sullenly tossing the wipes out the window.

 

“As you say. I’ll get changed. I won’t be long.”

 

He went back to his room and returned wearing a white shirt  unbuttoned to the chest and, sweet lord, leather pants, and a collection of belts. There was another collection of buckle bracelets at his wrists. He forwent the guyliner and wore his hair tied back.

 

“I’m ready.”

 

Sin nodded. The leather pants, unbuttoned shirt, and belt collection, as well as the buckle bracelets wouldn’t really draw much attention for Vegas at night. Sin nodded. “Good.” Sin smiled, and the two of them hailed a taxi, and took it to the Strip. After a few minutes, they would get out, and walk, past the lights, past the huge amounts of pornography everywhere, the women and men shouting and drunk and tourists, laughing, crying, swearing. Sin reacted and responded to all of them, with threats, double entendres, mocking laughter, and so on. Callister definitely got more than a few cat calls from all sorts, low whistles.

 

A few minutes later of the walk, and they reached a place where the light of the Strip just seemed to… fade a little. A large, blank looking man, built like a house and a head like a bulldozer, was at the door. Sin made no attempt to engage in any conversation with the man, showing him a small, black, featureless card. The bouncer looked at Sin, then at Callister. “My plus one, for the evening.” The bouncer nodded, and they entered into the Club.

 

Classy debauchery isn’t a combination that most would associate with each other, but the Club could do just that. Every booth was a hint of something depraved, delightful, and delicious, but just not enough to see, covered by thin screens. A maitre’d bowed and showed them to a table, and a woman and a man performed a long, slow dance in the center of the club. Upstairs, there could be heard the wub, wub, boom of a DJ, and the pounding of more… energetic mayhem. They sat, and Sin looked at Callister. “Order whatever you want.” He looked to the Maitre’ D. “We will be waiting for a procurer of fine things and classic items, sir. A whiskey, for myself, neat.” He looked back to Callister.

 

Sin noticed something odd. There were fewer people downstairs than usual, and a lot more noise coming from upstairs. Whatever DJ they brought in must be killing it.

 

Callister sniffed at the attention he got. That was his due, after all. He didn’t bother looking around the club when they got in. Such dens of debauchery were all the same. “I’ll have a beer.” He shrugged, nineteen and indifferent to the types of beer available. He stared at the dancing couple, his expression bored. The dancing couple get a little more…. intimate… oh that’s downright nasty….He heaves a sigh worthy of a man who’s been in many a battle, and muttered under his breath about degenerates unworthy of his mother’s salvation. The little mutter was eaten up by the heavy bass of the club.

 

There is a thumping noise as someone jogs down the stairs. A figure of average height, wearing a deep blue headwrap that covered his bottom jaw. He also had a long coat of the same color, coated in golden designs with thick white fur around the edges and short sleeves. What little could be seen of the face, appeared to be a skull made of ice with deep black chasms for eyes. He was dressed like something straight out of aladdin, probably a performer of some kind. Hell he even had the poofy pants. What really stood out though….was it looked like under that he had some sort of robotic body. Black and opaque, it was designed to look like muscles. A bright neon teal glowing inside, matching a skeleton…except for the ribs. They wrapped around him on the outside. Despite his bright and outrageous appearance, he moved quietly and gracefully, turning to the bar and speaking with the man behind the counter. “Some VIP up there huh?”

 

A maitre’d ghosted up to the side of the skeleton man, as quiet as the dead. The bartender nodded, said, “Some new Para, famous. Cute, too.” The maitre’d whispered quietly in the skeleton’s ‘ear’ as it were, and pointed towards Sin and Callister’s table. As for Sin and Callister, their drinks appear in a clink and a splash. The beer is of high quality, on tap, poured to a perfect amount of head. The whiskey is chilled, but not freezing, and of also high quality.  There is no label nor indication of what kind of whiskey or beer it is, only that when you drink it… it is damned good. Sin looks up, and around, watching the gyrating couple with pink eyes, before they flush back to purple. He takes a sip, and smiles contentedly… though, something was off. He couldn’t quite place it, but his nerves were acting up.

 

Callister tasted his beer. It was probably good but he lacked the palette to appreciate it. Instead, he drank half the glass without pausing to appreciate the taste. Sharp, red eyes caught Sin’s unease. It was in the way his eyes crinkled momentarily. He didn’t trust this new disciple of his mother’s…barely liked the man. But he had instincts that Callister lacked. “What is it. You look jittery.”

 

“Hunch. Something’s off. Could be nothing. Could just be a slow night. But keep your eyes peeled.” Sin said over his glass.

 

Dellen nodded as the words snuck into his ears. “Of course.” There was a plume of smoke and Callister soon found that someone’s arm was reached back behind his shoulders, as their new friend sat in the booth beside them in an extremely relaxed position. “I can tell you for certain things are NOT slow upstairs.” He said casually. “I believe you fellows are in need of an acquisitions specialist?” His touch is cold.Callister would feel hot to his touch. Whiskey SIIIIIP.

 

Callister stiffened, a look of outrage at being touched. Then he saw who was touching him and swore. It was a very naughty swear, something his mother would chastise him for, and which he learned in boarding school.

 

“Get away from me.” There was teeth in those words.

 

Overheard, as a pair of men passed by, one clutching his head. “I swear that kid did something to me. I feel weird and gross.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, she was hot. You just had too much stuff, man. Let’s get you home.”

 

Sin just smirked, and raised a calming hand towards Callister. “Easy, kid. This is our guy.” The kid growled under his breath. He turned to his left a little as the men passed by, quickly, and his eyes narrowed. He shook his head. Business first. “Indeed. I’ve got a job. 70/30 split. I’ve got the information, the lay out, and what should be in the vault. You’re my point man. Estimated value of three hundred million, if we can bargain some of the jewels well enough. Interested?”

 

Dellen yawned, pulling his arm away and placing both hands on the back of his head, the synthetic muscled arms flexing as the soft glow of his bones dimmed. “Let’s see, 3 hundred mil, divided by 100 times 30…..” He did the math quick. “Sounds reasonable depending on what kind of defences we are facing.” He spoke to Sin, disregarding Callister’s biting glare. “Oh wait just a second…you are the guy who has been all over the news.” There was a grin in his voice, but he made sure to say it hushed enough to not draw attention. “Now this WILL be an exciting field trip. I’m in.”

 

A scuffle from upstairs. There’s a bouncer… throwing someone out? That’s something you don’t see every day. The man being ejected complained vociferously as he was being collared out the door. “I just wanted to talk to him! I just wanted to talk!

 

Trailing behind the bouncer and her cargo, an identical bouncer held a wicked-looking knife with a cloth.

 

Sin blinked, then grinned predatorily. “Good man. It’s one of Big Time Tony Moretti’s safe house.”

 

If you wanted a man who could unite every human criminal enterprise, Big Time Tony was the guy who could have done it… until the Legion crippled him, and his enterprise. Now just a shadow of his former self, Big Time still held on to millions, if not billions, in safe houses, banks, and other legitimate businesses, but the will to power for the man was gone.

 

Sin continued, “It’ll be a tough nut to crack, but worth it. Ten guards, a Francettie Safe, and anti-para security systems. But, you’re as good as the Club told me you were…” Sin shrugs. “Shouldn’t be a problem.” He takes out his phone, and checks something under the table. After a moment, he nods, then writes a number on a small napkin. “This is where I’m staying. Two days time, new guard shift goes in. I’ll forward you the specs in an email, if you’ve got it. Good? I’ve gotta check something upstairs.”

 

“That’s the third one today.” Dellen mutters as he see’s the loon getting escorted out. “I really DO need to get an email. Use too many burner phones.” He pockets the napkin into his big coat and pats it there. “Make sure to scrape your shoes on the mat before coming back down. Never know what gets on those floors.”

 

Callister scowled at Sin then turned to Dellen. “Yeah? The wastes of the si-” he bit on his words, remembering to go lightly on the religion. For now. Undercover, like a spy. He could tell a few untruths for mother. “Singularly uncouth, no doubt.What is up there?” He checked his own phone. He didn’t look impressed at the picture. “Right.”

 

Sin’s eyes changed to bright pink, and he grinned wickedly at Dellen. “That’s half the reason I’m going up there. Been a couple of weeks. Cal, if you want, have a few more drinks. I’ll be back in about half an hour. Otherwise, meet me back at the hotel, and we’ll go over the next stage together.” He nods at Dellen. “You know how to get into contact with me, we can go over the specs then earlier if you don’t have email.” Sin starts unbuttoning his jacket and shirt, and loosens his tie, with a dark smile on his face, and he heads upstairs the the madness…. if no one else says anything.

 

As Sin ascends the stairs, he is immediately overwhelmed by the wave of lustful energy and smells. Knots of dancers gyrate together, grinding and moving to the downtempo electronic beat. It only takes a little searching to find what he expected to see: a tiny redhead, bare feet gliding just off the floor, freckled face flushed, exuding raw sexuality and beaming with a broad grin.

 

Sin runs with it. Sin is part of it, as he moves through the crowd, and his demons all come out at once, his eyes blurring into nearly all of the different colors as he just… feels all of them. But mostly lust. A lot of LUST. But he makes his way, smoothly, and he feels that siren call, and rejects it. The Lure is there, and he makes a note of it. He watches it. And gives it the finger. He is no one’s bitch, not ever. But he still needs to make contact, briefly. Not that he cared if this para lived or died, but because er may be the beginning of him getting out from underneath Anathema’s thumb.

 

He gyrates, and moves, and swishes past, enjoying every minute of it… but Pride keeps him focused. His TK moves a slip of paper, one he’d prepared earlier, but didn’t think he was going to have a chance for a long, long while. The slip flies, floats, and flutters…. and finds its way tucked into Nat’s pants. Difficult, but he’s been practicing. And he continues past her, but that one moment… they might lock eyes. And the demons all say hello.

 

The look in the Damselfly’s eyes as they meet Sin’s… delicious fear, heavy shock, a flinch, countless other emotions, all heightened by some kind of drug. Ey claps a hand to eir waist where the paper tucked and ey float away from eir partner for a moment, eyes still fixed on Sin as he continued to weave through the crowd.

 

Ey thumbs open the paper and holds it at hip-level, reading it surreptitiously through a squint.

 

And Sin’s gone, through the crowd, vanishing. She might have hallucinated it.

 

On the scrap of paper reads: “We are Seven. Have information. Seek: *Here, there is a scribble of words, numbers and other things. A cipher.*

 

Clutching the paper, Nat flies up a bit, trying to catch sight of Sin. “Wait! I– I wanted to–“

 

The Sin is in the wind. Already, he’s moving back downstairs, covered in sweat and possibly other things. To Nat, he might have just disappeared, or hallucinated it all…. except for that scrap of paper.

 

——————————————————————————————————————————–

 

Dellen gives Sin a finger gun and makes a shooting noise in affirmation as he leaves, before bamfing across the table from Call. “Singularly uncouth? Absolutely. Not much up there for me but easy pickings.” He pauses for a moment, thinking on his words. “Of the monetary kind.”

 

Callister glared balefully at Dellen. Quite easy, considering his ruby eyes. “I couldn’t imagine any other sort. He empties his glass and ordered another. “Refreshment?” It was more sulky than normal courtesy required, but there it was.

 

“I bet you’re friend up there could imagine all kinds of nasty meanings.” There was a playful chuckle in his voice. “But alas, those kinds of things aren’t really my thing. Not much of one for the pleasures of the flesh.” He turned his head slightly at the glass of whisky left on the table. “Absolutely.” His jaw bone under his headwrap opened just a little too wide and he downed the whole drink, a haunting “Ahhhhh” coming from the nebulous void inside.

 

The look the boy gave Dellan said that he expected no less of him, but ordered another whiskey for the skeletal man anyway. His mouth curled sourly. How was he to do his mother’s bidding if he had to rely on such rejects as Sin and Dellan. How was he to prove his worth to her? Callister snorted. “So.” A short start at small talk. “What’s with the body armour?”

 

“Oh this?” Dellen said, motioning to the opaque synthetic muscle covering most of his skeleton. “It’s to keep most people from freaking out about a walking skeleton made of ice going around. They give me looks like that one you did when I mentioned cum shoes earlier.”

 

It is a great mystery how he achieved this, but Callister somehow managed to look both revolted and bored at the same time. “Nice look,” he yawned. “You come by it naturally or you steal it off someone? Don’t know who’d be making faces at you. Wouldn’t know anyone who’d want to pick a bone with you.”

 

“Heheh you know there was a girl who tried to use that as a pickup line on me? It was terrible.” He sighed, kicking his feet up onto the table and grabbing his new whisky and inserting a straw. Now with no lips one would think he couldn’t do much with it, but somehow he made it look super cool. “This look, however, is my own and fits in pretty well around here. How about you? Fan of bright reds I see.”

 

“Symbolic of the blood I must shed for victory,” he said in a flat tone into his beer. “Symbolic of the fire that must come before the fall, and the brimstone gates to hell that must be unleashed upon the world to bring it to heel. Or whatever. I like the color. Natural eyes and hair.” He drank.

 

“I believe it.” His teeth bit and unbit the straw, tutting his non existent lips somehow at the taste. “Blood and fire huh? If I am honest I don’t have much of either of those. But I can respect it. Good for you.” His voice was only a little bit patronising. “Afraid I don’t know where to find any keys to hell though, else I would nab one for you.”

 

“I’ll kick the gates down myself. I don’t need any key. Faith will be provided when I need it.” He finished his beer. “What is that reprobate doing up there? Am I his babysitter as well? Whatever. Excuse me. I’m heading up.” He stood, much quicker than he intended to, the two quick beers making him a little fuzzy. Then armed with a sneer and resolve, he marched up towards the techno beats.

 

The skull watched him curiously as he left. “I don’t think faith works that way.” He would sigh to himself in a sort of “Just saying” tone as he slurped up the last of his whiskey.

________________________________________________________________________

 

Upstairs, Callister’s nostrils flared as he was assaulted by the sight of writhing bodies, pulsing lights and slathers upon slathers of sin.

 

So this is where Mother’s new favorite had disappeared to. He was not about to look under the piles of bodies for the man, and turned to leave when he saw the lithe figure dancing in the center of the room. He paused, entranced.

 

It was a miracle.

 

He’d lost his sneer.

 

The red-haired waif twisted in the air like sapient, cabled sexuality, some kind of irresistible lure pouring off their body. For the life of him, Callister couldn’t tell whether the dancer was a man or a woman, but they were definitely paranormal– gravity seemed to have no effect on the pixie-like creature.

 

Callister was floored. He wanted to go up to the sprite-like figure, maybe talk to her. Him? About what, he didn’t know. What did you talk to girls about? Or boys?

 

He stared for a long moment then shook himself.

 

He was here to do his mother’s work. Callister turned, and walked back down the stairs.

 

He was about halfway down when someone giggled in his ear. Well, not exactly. Just… above it?

 

“Whatcha got in your pants that you need all those belts for?” The voice was somewhere between a tenor and alto, and Callister caught a faint whiff of sweet, musk-heavy breath. He turned and confirmed what he had already known: the para from the dance floor had followed him.

 

Callister swallowed, turning and looking up. He tried to speak, his voice thick. “Nothign. I, ur. I like the look.” A flush darkened his light brown skin. “I mean. Not nothing. I like the belts.”

 

“I like the belts too,” the para murmured, weaving around Cal’s body like a snake and running a finger across the edge of one of the belts. “You’re like… like the protagonist of an anime or something.”

 

The para looked up at him. Their eyes were powerfully dilated, a thin ring of vibrant green the only iris visible between their pupil and sclera. One could fall into such eyes.

 

And Callister did. Red eyes into green. “N-no, not an anime. I just like this look. Erm.” What do you do? Name? Name! “I’m Callister. What’s your name?”

 

“They call me the Damselfy,” the para purred, slowly floating up to be face-to-face with him, “but you can call me Nat…. Callister.” There was a particular emphasis, there, an implication that Callister was somehow special.

 

Callister swallowed. “Pleased to meet you, Nat. Er…do you want to do something? With me?”

 

“Why do you ask?” Nat’s breath smelled really… good? In an extremely exciting way. “Did you have something in mind?”

 

The pony tailed redhead stared desperately at Nat. “Urh,” he said intelligently. “I…do you want a drink?”

 

Dellen had set a towel down in one of the booths and was watching them with his chin in his hand, saying. “Simply fascinating.” In a sense of awe.

 

“How genteel!” Nat beams, floating sliiightly away from Callister. “I would love to be treated to a drink, thank you Cal. Is Cal all right?”

 

“Er..yeah? I mean, everyone calls me Callister.” He followed after Nat like a puppy, waiting for Nat to sit at the bar before taking his seat. “What would you like to drink?”

 

Nat wheeled in midair, floating just above the barstool. “Sex on the beach,” ey murmured.

 

Dellen bamf’d next to them, holding two of the drinks in question. “Sex on the beach, for the prestigious Callister and his friend.” The ghastly man mimicked a butler’s voice quite well, and moved with the grace of a servant as well.

“Ooh! Skellington man. I liked you in that show.”

 

Callister looked relieved. It was just drinks. He barely noticed Dellen’s presence, only taking the drinks for Nat and him, handing one to Nat.

 

“So. Ur. You like dancing?”

 

Dellen gives a bow at the mention of his showmanship, gave a slight nudge of encouragement for Callister, and then poofed away again to watch from afar. “Oh I MUST see this.”

 

“I’m a professional dancer,” Nat said, pulling back on the seductive demeanor slightly. Slightly. “Minor celebrity for it, as of recently. You’ll have to come to my home club if you’re ever in Colorado. I’ll make sure you get in for free… and I’ll treat you to a dance, too.”

 

“Er. Okay. Colorado. I’ll be there.” Callister obviously had no idea how out of his depth he was. Or what sort of dance awaited him in Colorado. For now, he desperately racked his brain on small talk subjects. “So you don’t work here often?”

 

“Mmm, no, I’m on a little vacation,” the little para tumbled gently through the air, body moving in languid arcs. Ey turned eir drink while tumbling, taking sips through the straw and never spilling a drop. “But I travel all over, so even if you can’t make it to Boulder… you can find me. Want my number, cutie?”

 

“O-okay.” Cal fumbled for his phone.

 

Nat took the phone, entered eir number into it, took a quick selfie to add as the contact portrait, and then kissed the screen and handed it back. Ey leaned forward and whispered into his ear. “Find me.”

 

Then, suddenly, ey was zipping away, giggling to emself, dropping a generous tip in the bartender’s hands, saluting a bouncer, and out the door.

 

Callister could still faintly detect eir scent hanging in the air.

 

The cold hand of a skellington patted Cals shoulder. “Better luck next time sport.” His voice teasing.

 

“Bwuh.” Callister looked at Dellen, back at the door where Nat disappeared, and back at his drink. “Bwuh.” He took a sip. “What? What happend?”

 

“You fell in lust my friend.” The skeleton grinned. “Happens to the best of us. Seem’s you got their number though so….it’s not all for naught.”

 

“That’s good?” The kid looked young and more than a little poleaxed.

 

“Could be. Will have to call her some time to find out. Not for a while though….else you might come off as a bit ‘desperate’. Give it a few days. Maybe their charms will wear off…” Dellens voice made it seem like some sort of challenge to see if he could remain enamoured that long.

 

“Er..okay, yeah. Will do that. Think I’ll head back to my hotel. Night and stuff.” He got off the stool, and wandered away on shaky legs.

 

“Simply fascinating.”

 

Where There’s Smoke: Concerns

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

 

A new text message arrives on both Vera’s and Pariah’s phones. It simply reads: “Need to talk. Urgent. – Wasteland.” Followed by an address. Looking up the address, it leads to a small warehouse on the outskirts of the city.

 

“Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck -” Vera is the one who volunteered to drive to the warehouse, holding onto the wheel with white knuckles and her jaw set. “Fucking… fuck.” As if in sympathy, her midrange McGowan model vehicle groans and shudders.

 

“Sweetie, you gotta calm down,” Pariah whispers, “please. Wasteland is… he’s a decent guy. It’s gonna be okay.”

 

“Easy for you to say,” Vera retorts. “You’re not in a social rehabilitation program. You’re not one fuck up away from being collared and put in isolation. Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

She parks outside the warehouse and sighs. “Might as well just… get it over with.”

“Vera. VERA.” Pariah can’t shout, but she whispers as hard as she can, grasping Vera’s shoulder with her increasingly claylike hand. “That will not. Happen. We will vanish off the face of the fucking earth before I let them collar you. I will kill before I let them collar you. All right? We’ll go in there, we’ll talk to Wasteland, and we’ll figure it out.

 

“Okay. Okay. Okay. …Okay.” Vera rests her head on the steering wheel for a moment, then lets out a long breath. “Okay. Let’s go.” She unbuckles, opens the door, and walks towards the warehouse in the same way someone might walk down death row.

 

The warehouse is actually one that’s for sale, right now. There’s a nice little cheery sign that says if you’re interested in buying it or leasing, contact this number! Of course the cheery sign has been graffitied with different Human Supremacy or Paranormal Supremacy signs, slogans, and the same with the warehouse itself. There are a few broken windows, but over all, it isn’t something that’s clearly a horror movie waiting to happen. The doors in the front of the warehouse are open, however. Inside, there’s a couple of chairs, clearly for Vera and Pariah if they wish to sit, and in the armored suit, waiting like a statue, is Wasteland. He’s got his arms at this sides, and just looks… patient. Nothing scary, or frightening, despite that he’s a seven foot behemoth in a thousand pounds of armor, and a menacing helmet that the eye’s glow a fierce yellow. “Evening, Pariah. Vera.”

 

Pariah leads. She looks significantly less… grainy than she had at the club. Evidently she’s adapting again, and her substance looks a lot more cohesive and flexible. “Wasteland.”

 

Vera has lost four inches of height, even though she’s still Vera. “…Eve…ning…”

Wasteland holds up his left hand, palm facing them. “First off, I want to say I’m off the books here. My own time, not Freelancer time. Second, no one is recording or listening. My armor’s computer is scanning for anyone who might be listening in via electronic surveillance. Can’t do much about satellite or psychics, however.” He lets his hand drop, and looks from Vera to Pariah.

 

“Second, I want you two to know that whatever I have to say, is just advice. I don’t tell people what to do. I have some concerns, and I thought I should bring them to you. Whatever you do with it, that is up to you. You’re adults, and I’m going to treat you both like that. Okay?”

 

Vera looks left, looks right, and points at herself. “Wait, you know who I am? You’re actually giving me – like, friendly advice? You’re not…” She blinks, clearly unsure. “You’re not calling me Throwaway.”

 

Pariah shifts in place, dull blue eyes glancing between Vera and Wasteland.

Wasteland’s helmet nodded. Underneath the helmet, he grimaced. “Yeah. Honestly, I don’t know why anyone picked that name, it’s a shitty name to call someone. There’s reasons I call myself Wasteland, besides describing what I do to everything around me.” He pauses for breath, and his speakers manage to convey an even gentle tone, despite the mechanical boom.

“And yeah, I know who you are, Vera. I try to make sure I know who everyone is in the Freelancers, plus, you were on the take down team for that asshole, Otto De Fur or whatever the fuck his name was. ‘course I know who you are. And yeah, friendly advice. Free of charge. I ain’t Doc Meda, she’s the one who’s got better advice than me.”  He chuckles, the speakers in his helmet popping slightly.

 

“I guess we’d better hear it, then,” Pariah whispers. She still sounds pretty wary.

 

A tear rolls down Vera’s face, but her thin lips have quirked up into an uneven smile. “Yeah, yeah, okay. Advice. I’m listening.”

Wasteland nods again. “I know you two are roommates at the very least. Vera, I know you’re in the social rehab shithole, like I was a long time ago. Pariah, you’re independent. I know this is personal, but I have to ask. Are you two more than just roommates? Because of what I see on the Blue Bird’s feed, and such, I get worried. Partners in the Detroit Clean up? I’ve been following the police reports, the crime statistics, since you arrived here, Pariah.”

 

Pariah says nothing, managing to keep her already hard-to-read clay face fairly even. She turns slightly, looking over at Vera for a cue. She clearly intended to let the other woman take the lead on this.

 

“…Yeah, we’re uh, together. On a personal and a, uh, professional level.” Vera sniffs and rubs her eyes with her back of her hands. “I uh, guess you figured that out and I’m just confirming it, huh?”

“I think it was only a matter of time,” Pariah whispers. “We’ve become more integral to each other with each day.”

 

“I get that. I do.” The armored man crosses his arms before him, thinking. The metal grinds a little against his chest. “There are multiple reasons I’m worried, ladies. One, if I figured it out, and I’m no rocket surgeon, other people will too. Some jackasses who might turn you in, Vera.” And he looks at Pariah. “And I’m worried about the repercussions that might backlash on you, Pariah. I assume you know about the Social Rehab program, and how Vera can get in trouble. I’m not sure if you’ve thought about how it might hurt you, too. The Freelancers do not take to people using… and I’m using Cheney’s words, not mine, assets, kindly.”

 

“The second thing, is that there are others that use it. Not the public, though we have had some people hack in to find scream at Oathkeeper or yell at Rooster. But enemies might be watching it too. People who might hurt you, both. I’m not trying to say get out of the game, but I am hoping you’re aware of the risks. Like what Anathema did to Oathkeeper’s family. There are monsters out there. And you two have been bringing a war to the Human Supremacists, Pariah, Vera. Things might get nasty.”

 

Pariah nods slowly. “Yeah. We know. I… went into this kind of knowing that living the way I do was basically gambling with my life. I didn’t really expect to… have a partner. This is probably gonna kill us both at some point, and we do know that. But I appreciate you looking out.”

 

“Things might get nasty,” Vera agrees. “We’ll – look at risk mitigation. But… you served your time in the social rehab program. You got out. I’m never getting out. Ever. I can’t live like that. I need to – I have to do something -”

“If we get real, real lucky,” Pariah shakes her head, “maybe we can figure out a way for Vera to ghost. I can’t really imagine we’ll get that far, but I’d rather die in a futile attempt to get her free than watch her stay enslaved for the rest of our lives.”

 

Wasteland pauses for a long time, thinking. “It might look endless, but it isn’t. I know that. And hell, if they say it is permanent, I’ll say it isn’t. I’ll work with you, Vera, on seeing what we can do to get you out.” And his tone goes flat, and angry. Not with them, but in general. “Never say die, you two. Okay? The job we have is risky, violent. But don’t ever, ever expect to die. I’ve seen decent folks start to expect to die, then they turn towards seeking out the man with the scythe.” He takes a deep breath, relaxing. “I want you two to keep hope. And yeah, keep working with each other. Can’t do something smart, do something right.”

 

Pariah smiles slightly. “Well. Vera’s the only reason I haven’t done that already.”

 

Vera is now openly crying, even though she’s all smiles. “Yeah, yeah. I’m on board. Okay. We’ll – we’ll figure something out.”

“Cool. If things do get nasty, or if you need back up, let me know. I’ll be there ASAP.”

 

He pauses, then looks outside. “I’ve gotta get back, Bowman’s wondering if I go a little hotter. Y’ think the guy would learn after nearly putting a hole through his precious bunker…” He chuckles, and nods at Vera, and Pariah. “Stay safe, ladies. Keep up the good work.”

 

“I – I know you got the suit, but could I – I mean, can you hug, or can I hug -”

Wasteland pauses, as he was heading towards the door. “Uh, yeah. Sure. Just, careful. I’m somewhat pointy and such.” The suit is warm, but not uncomfortably so. Hotter than human temperature.

 

Pariah goes in for the hug too, wrapping around both Vera and Wasteland. She whispers, “see, love? Sometimes other folks actually give a shit.”

 

Then, after a moment, she whispers, “by the way, Wasteland? My name’s Mariah. And… thanks.”

 

Where There’s Smoke: A Friendly Favor

MICHAEL CHENEY’S OFFICE

ARCHAVEN

 

If there was one good thing about Michael Cheney, it was that he was predictable. The man followed the rules when it came to appointments and open door hours. And so, the great suit of armour containing Wasteland found itself sitting in a comically large chair in Cheney’s office.

 

“So,” Cheney said, flipping a fountain pen between his fingers. “You wanted to see me? You’re normally a self sufficient agent.”

“Yes, sir. I wanted to talk about one of our agents in the Social Rehabilitation program. Vera Newman, AKA Throwaway.” He shifts slightly, feeling like he is towering over Cheney even in the super sized chair. “I’d like to know more. She did some good work helping with Otto De Fe, standing up to the guy, knowing he could immolate her in a snap of his fingers.”

 

“We discovered Newman under some… unusual circumstances. She had been on our radar for a while, doing celebrity impersonations and racking up a good deal of cash. Nothing too terrible, and I can respect someone with that kind of business sense. She bought a few houses, I thought that’d be the end of it… And then she made that tape.”

“I understand. A large mistake. I understand that put her quite in debt in years towards the social rehabilitation program. However, from what I’ve seen from my interactions with her on and off the field, I believe she’s made progress. I was wondering if I would be able to help her with that rehabilitation.” The speakers boomed loudly in the little office, and Wasteland winced. He turned the volume down just a tad.

 

“Help her?” Cheney’s eyebrows rose. “Well. You have to understand, acts have values, yes? You paid off your rehabilitation quite quickly, as you’re… well, one of a kind. Newman, though, is of… limited use in the field. She could take a bullet to the heart, for instance, and our investment would be ruined. We’re keeping her in… low-risk scenarios.”

“ Of course, sir. Actions to consequences, and generating the maximum gain. In the field of combat, sir, perhaps.” He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.  “But I’m not sure the Freelancers are using her shapeshifting talent to the best investment, to use your vernacular. In my time in… other situations, sir, that I obviously cannot discuss, there would have been a good use for greater intelligence. Situations like Otto De Fe, while helpful, aren’t key. But intelligence assets are.”

 

“You think we can trust her enough to bump her up the ladder, give her a promotion, get her into work that’d allow her to pay off her debt to society?” Cheney asked, one eyebrow staying high and the other dropping.

 

Wasteland paused again, thinking. He was a soldier, not a politician. He had to use his field of advantage. “Sir, you didn’t see her when she stood up to that maniac. She was scared, sure. But she didn’t let it control her. She acted, and then when it came time to get down and let others handle it, she did so. No wild heroics. No cowardice. Professional and straight to the point. I have a hunch, sir, and they usually pay off. I think we should give her a chance, to really make a difference, and pay off that debt.”

 

“I see.” Cheney said, and there was a pregnant pause. “You would take responsibility for Throwaway, then? I assume if we found anything that… jeopardized her employment, you’d be able to take responsibility for that?”

“I would take responsibility, sir.” He didn’t hesitate. If it got thrown under the bus, so would he. He felt in his bones, burning and irradiated that they were, that Pariah and Vera were doing the right thing. While the smart thing would be to bail and leave them to their fate, it wasn’t in him. If anything, fighting the human supremacist movement, supporting independents, and in general keeping the peace should be seen as a good AND profitable thing. But he couldn’t say that to Cheney. He was certain that if it came to light, Cheney could spin it so that it was a Freelancer outreach program, designed for better policing and peacekeeping. But Vera would never be free.

 

He nodded to the man, accepting it. “Also, she’s going to need a better codename. We’re Freelancers. The best of the best. Not trash.”

 

“…” Cheney watched him for a moment, and then broke out into another big grin. “Loving this enthusiasm and initiative, Wasteland. This is exactly what I want to see from our agents. Go ahead and set up a new codename with Newman, get her ready for jobs. As I always say, the less agents we have in social rehabilitation, the better.”

You have never heard Cheney say that, ever.

 

Wasteland blinked behind his helmet. That wasn’t… what. That…. oh shit. Well, time to ramp up the paranoia. Check everything. Make sure that Cheney and anyone else didn’t have anything on him, at all. Clean the history from his suit. Delete the porn…. well maybe not the porn. He’s pretty sure Cheney doesn’t care about that…. delete it anyway, just in case.

 

“Really? Thank you, sir. I’ll let her know. I’m sure she’ll enjoy a new codename.” And make triple clear that none of the Freelancers have anything on Vera or Pariah, at all. Kill Solomon Swift. Wait, that’s just a daydream. “Thank you for your help, I’ll forward you any new details and ideas I have for jobs across your desk first, of course.” He rises from his chair, and offers a metal gauntlet to Cheney.

 

Instead of shaking, Cheney bumps his own knuckles against Wasteland’s metal ones. “Good talk, Wasteland. Can’t wait to see how this turns out.”

 

“Uh… yes sir. Got a good feeling.” He nods, and shuffles around the giant chair, and out the door. It’s kinda awkward, being this big in an office.

 

Where There’s Smoke: Pacification

Tags: Collateral, the Freelancers, Corey “Stormcore” Adams, Vera “Everyperson” Newman, Carolina “Ledger” Smith, Archaven

 

Pacification

DISTRICT 014 SUBURB

ARCHAVEN, EASTERN EUROPE

 

FROM: dispatch@freelancers.co.av

TO: uncontracted@listserv.freelancers.co.av; active@listserv.freelancers.co.av

SUBJ: [URGENT] APEC: Collateral

 

ATTENTION ALL AVAILABLE FREELANCERS

Freelancer special resource Collateral has escaped handlers and is currently AT LARGE in the surrounding suburbs. Casualties mounting; more expected. All available Agents will receive 1.5x standard contracting rate for this All-Points Emergency Contract. Available and uncontracted participants in the Social Rehabilitation Program are expected to report to dispatch for possible deployment.

 

Collateral is to be disabled and subdued by any means. Damage to the head or spine of the contained body at Collateral’s center may cause permanent damage or death to the resource and may void reward.

 

Three people on a crowded dropship, heading toward ‘Suburb 14’. Fifteen minutes out, they’d said.

 

Carolina– no, Ledger –looked through her mask at the two available ‘partners’ she’d been assigned for the emergency mission. Corey she knew, though this was her first time seeing him in armor. They’d sparred. He was decent at it, but she knew that his specialty was firearms. The other woman… was the green-haired one who’d given her the cold shoulder in the hallway. Fun.

 

She shifted her shoulder holsters, still getting used to the light but ever-present weight of the specialized pistols they’d commissioned for her.

 

“So,” Everyperson said, finally breaking the silence. “How about, that, uh… Corey, don’t you like sports?”

Carolina winced behind the mask. What did this lady know that made her so pissed?

 

Corey was in the process of checking his systems. He looked up, his one brown eye blinking. “Sports? They’re good for team building?” He said with the hesitance of someone who hasn’t really played sports since he was seven. He picked up his assault rifle, checking the stun pulse shots, and shouldered the weapon. There was no sign of anything heavier on him. “But we should talk strategy.

 

“I suggest I provide heavy fire and distraction.” He could take it. “And the two of you evacuate any civilians left in the area.”

 

“They said that they’re gonna bring in a containment ship, but we have to pin her down somehow,” Carolina’s voice was nervous, “can… you do that by yourself?”

 

Corey considered the question. “Not physically. She’s in my old armour, and that was a tank, if I do say so myself. I can pin her down via firepower, but I’m unsure how much stun blasts will take to bring her to unconsciousness.”

 

“Here’s a question, what the hell am I supposed to do besides not die?” In truth, Vera knew that the others had no better impression than she did. She’d been given some photos with brief descriptions: this was Collateral’s husband (whom she accidentally killed back when her name was still Rae), her kid (ditto), the scientist who helped install her into Earthcore (dead, replaced by Dr. Bowman), but… it all seemed like shots in the dark. Dispatch had also mentioned something along the lines of providing a decoy for either Ledger or Stormcore, which sounded like a super great idea.

 

“I dunno,” Ledger shrugged, “um… what do you do, actually?”

 

“Ssssshape shifting. Uh. Perfect impersonation of any human being.”

There was a long pause as that sunk in. “… oh.”

 

“Yeah.” Vera busied herself with looking at the files.


Corey looked at the two of them, bemused. “Regardless, I’m trying to recall any weaknesses the Earthcore had. I’ve not been given any up to date schematics of the…attachments to Collateral. I’ll keep her busy and away from the two of you.”

 

“The dossier said that she can jump almost a half a mile in that rig,” Carolina’s anxiety about the mission managed to overtake the awkwardness. “With two of us evacuating, there’s no way that we can get all of the civilians clear.”

 

“Then the most important thing is that I lead her away.” Corey sighed. He slipped his helmet on, and it sealed, expelling air and pressurising.  “I hope that she’ll come after me in a rage and she’ll ignore the both of you.”

 

“That’s stupid. You’re the muscle, and you want her to be paying all of the attention to you? No, I’ll lure her, you two hit her hard. You uh, can hit, yeah Carolina? You’re… a Para now?”

Ledger sighed. “You should… probably call me Ledger now. And yeah, I’m a Para, and I can hit hard, but it costs me in a big way. If that’s what it takes, though, that’s what it takes.”

 

“So let me run, and you two gun. Comprehende?”

She looked over at Corey for confirmation. He seemed to understand this shit better than she did.

 

“I don’t like it. The threat to you will be much greater than to either of us. But it’s a decent plan. Stay under cover and keep moving.”

 

“I guess it’s a plan, then,” Ledger tried to keep the tremors out of her voice, “I’ll start out using the guns and if they don’t work I’ll break out the powers.”

 

“Alright. And we’re all Freelancers now, so we gotta trust each other. We can do this. When are we landing?”

Carolina pulled up the sleeve of her trenchcoat, checking her watch. “Less than five minutes.”

 

She unholstered one of the pistols they’d given her, checking its battery housing, lock, readouts, and settings. She’d practiced with the thing, but it felt weird going into combat with a gun that didn’t use plain old chemical propulsion.

 

“By the way, um,” she said, “in case this sucks and I croak– sorry about. Before. Hope your friend is doing all right.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sorry too about, uh, the cocaine thing. Friends? Or coworkers, at least?”

“Yeah. And for what it’s worth, I never really cared about… the cause. My parents were real gung-ho. I just wanted to be an accountant.” She checked the other pistol. “Just ended up accounting for the wrong people.”

 

“We all make mistakes. If we survive this, I’ll tell you about mine.”

“Okay, kids, we should be reaching the drop zone soon. We’re a ways out, because we don’t want to get so close that–“

 

The intercom was drowned out by a loud crash, metal slamming against metal. The vehicle lurched, then tilted, and the Freelancers drifted upward from their seats as gravity ceased to keep up with the craft’s downward momentum.

 

Corey stumbled then braced. He really braced. If he went loose in the vehicle, he’d cause some serious damage to both Ledger and Vera. Hands against the roof of the vehicle, and feet planted firmly, he wedged himself securely. Then he patched into the vehicle’s visual feed and nodded in confirmation. “She threw a car at us.”

 

“Oh, Christ -” Vera is gripping onto the handholds with all her strength. “We need to get on the ground, I can’t lure shit if I’m a smear on the wall.”

“Are you fuckin’ kidding me? We haven’t even started the mission–” Ledger threw her hands outward, trying to catch onto a handhold or wall, then finally gave up and thrust both arms straight outward. A spidery red script poured from her hands and snaked through the cabin, around her arms, around Vera, webbed Corey into the corner, and–

 

CRASH.

 

As the stars and the ringing in their ears died down, the Freelancers found themselves frozen in position, bound by the rigid energy cabling that Ledger had thrown up at the last moment. Then the script crumbled, dropping them all on the floor of the wrecked craft.

 

Corey was neither bruised or shaken by the crash. The suit was good for that. Instead he knelt up and tested his wings. They whirred, moving from closed position to wide open. Then he asked, “Are the two of you injured?”

 

“Not yet.” Ledger’s tone was resigned.

 

“Lil’ bit,” Vera grunted. “Broken ribs, I think. Fuck. Fuck. Hurts like a bitch, but I’ll be okay.” She stood and staggered up to Ledger, leaning in to whisper: “If I don’t come back from this, find the Pariah. Tell her I died of my own choice, doing a stupid fucking mission to earn my stupid fucking freedom.”

And then she stepped back, and she was no longer Vera.

 

She was Collateral’s mother.

 

And she took off at a sprint.


“HEEEEEEEEEEEY KIDDO C’MAWN AND GIVE YOUR MOM A HUG -”

“She’s going to get herself killed.” Corey reached out and tapped Ledger on the shoulder. “I’ll go first.” He stepped out of the vehicle and zoomed up and out.

 

“Fuck’s sake,” Carolina groaned, clambering out of the wreckage as quickly as she could. “Noooo. If she hears that you died and I was there, she’ll force-feed me my mask!”

 

Stumbling steps took the Masked Ledger over rubble and ruin, through the streets of a once probably very nice suburb, until she caught sight of their quarry: it was hard to miss the giant hulking metal mass.

 

Collateral seemed to be holding still, for a moment, making only small, hesitant movements as she tried to process what she was seeing. A carbon copy of her mother, trying valiantly to get her attention.

 

Corey flew overhead, hovering to the right of Collateral where her file said her unenhanced natural eye was supposed to be. He hoped to be far enough and that Vera was distraction enough, that Collateral didn’t notice him. His rifle came out and he waited, studying Collateral in his old armour. He wanted her moving when he attacked. She’d have less chance of avoiding hits that way.

 

“GET DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG LADY,” Vera hollered at Collateral. “YOU NEED TO COME GIVE YOUR MOTHER A HUG.”

And then she took off at a sprint again. C’mon c’mon c’mon do I gotta piss in your eye –

 

The hunk of metal seemed to contract in on itself for a few moments, emitting an earsplitting squeal before Collateral’s amplified voice boomed out from unseen resonators, almost shaking the ground and even louder than the metal noises. “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!” She screamed. “YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER! WHY ARE YOU TORTURING ME??!!!”

 

“Oh shit,” Ledger drew both of her pistols and took off running toward Collateral, moments too late: like a great robotic animal, the metal mess took off in a screaming, loping, four-‘legged’ run toward Vera, fast. Way too fast.

 

“HOJESUS I’M GON’ DIE -” Vera vaulted herself to the side, not able to roll with any grace, just launching herself away from Collateral’s impact point.

 

If that wasn’t Corey’s cue to swoop down, he didn’t know anything. He let gravity pull him as his jets blazed. His rifle was at ready and he hovered for a few scant seconds in front of Collateral and let loose a burst of stun blasts. White pulses of light spat out of his rifle, each connecting against the massive target that was Collateral. They should have disrupted her systems, and would more than sting. Then the turned and sped away, luring her away from Vera.

 

The scream of pain that Collateral let loose upon being struck with the stun blasts was enough to nearly deafen Ledger, and she imagined it must be worse for Vera, who was only paces away from the monstrosity. The hulk turned, and lurched, and stood still for a moment– then it was gone, only a crater where it stood moments ago.

 

A faint, tinny, muffled crash made its way into Ledger’s senses through her ringing ears. A moment later, Collateral crashed to the ground, only paces away from her. In huge, malformed metal ‘arms’, Stormcore struggled to avoid being crushed, or at least to bring his stun rifle to bear.

 

“Uh– UH–” Ledger raised one of her pistols and fired several times, but the stun bolts weren’t nearly as powerful as the ones Corey had fired earlier. She didn’t even know if Collateral felt them.

 

There was a scream of metal, but it was fine, it was just his precious wings being crushed. Slag smeltin-. Corey didn’t have time to swear, but this close to Collateral, he had one trick. Slapping a hand onto Collateral’s faceplate, he hacked into her own systems….and what did you know. She actually had some good firewalls. Corey felt his armour bend and redoubled his efforts. If he could get past her walls, he could paralyse her systems.

 

“What’re you–” Corey heard her voice, confused, then scared, then he was through and wait a second no why was it feeding back it’s not supposed to

 

Collateral and Corey screamed together as his armor and hers caught each other in a vicious feedback loop, suffusing both users with blinding pain and sending arcs of electricity through the air. Though she shed plates and parts rapidly, Collateral’s grip remained, and Corey’s armor started to buckle in earnest.

 

“Corey, Corey – no no no -” Vera shifted again, into Collateral’s daughter. “Mom, no!”

It felt cheap.

 

But sometimes a cheapshot is necessary.

 

“Baby?” The feedback loop stopped for just a moment, and the mech turned, and plates unfolded, and a woman’s badly scarred face was visible– and she reeled as a stun bolt hit her face, dropping Corey so he lay just next to his stun rifle.

 

Collateral turned toward the offender, her face exposed in a mask of rage for just a moment before the metal closed down over it and she leaped upon Ledger, who shrieked in panicked surprise and dropped the stun pistol.

 

Corey, likely barely conscious by now, saw that most of the excess armor that had been piled atop Earthcore by Collateral’s horrific powers had sloughed away. She was almost uncovered. Almost.

 

… wait, was that an exposed elbow? When she pulled her arm back?

 

He reached for his rifle, painfully slow. Ah yes. His pain dampeners were overloaded. Crushed ribs were likely. The suit will worked despite all his damage alarms. He pushed himself up, synced with the rifle, aimed and fired one single accurate shot.

 

With a startled shudder, Collateral just… stopped moving. Corey’s suit struggled to inform him that the human host inside Earthcore’s twisted remains had fallen unconscious, and the device’s power had gone toward sustaining her life and repairing itself. They’d won.

 

“Oh God someone please help me,” Ledger croaked from underneath the metal hulk.

 

“HQ. Send containment in. She’s down for now. We require medevac.” It wasn’t sent in Corey’s voice, but through a synch version. He didn’t feel like he could manage manual vocalisations just yet. He pulled himself up, and yes, there was the suit digging into his side. He stumbled towards the metal hulk and tried to push it off Ledger.

 

Vera, wheezing and sweating and dealing with a case of shaky knees, moves to the other side of the hulk and strains with her skinny arms.

 

The hulk doesn’t move. Vera’s strength makes no difference whatsoever, and Corey’s suit, while it would have been able to do the job normally, was operating with limited hydraulic capacity thanks to its damage.

 

“Oh, this is going to suck so bad later,” Ledger whimpered before bracing herself and shoving the hulk away with ridiculous strength, using Corey’s efforts to roll it to the side as she lifted. That done, she collapsed on her back, pulled her mask up, and looked up at the sky.

 

“Really not looking forward to paying this one off.”

Where There’s Smoke: Fancy Meeting You Here

THE SWEET ROLL DANCE EXPO

HELSINKI, FINLAND

 

Nat Zygoptera was easy to spot in the crowd of tall, statuesque Scandinavian dancers. Ey flitted above them, sunny charm emanating, wearing eir ribbon outfit that indicated that a performance was imminent.

 

The Finnish partiers all seemed to recognize the Damselfly, and many conversed with em in polite, polished english. No performance was active onstage, but EDM thrummed on the outdoor stage’s sound system.

 

Callister Rayne made his entrance. The ground bubbled up into a pool of roiling blood. The pool burst into red flames. Callister slowly rose from the dark red mess, the blood and flame sliding off his leather clad form. Today he was in a belted and high collared leather coat. There were elegant ruffles at his wrists, and way, way too many belts at his waist. His long scarlet hair was loose, in a careless style that, yes, took hours to create.

 

He stepped out of the pool, and sniffed disdainfully at the crowd, and put some effort into not noticing Nat.

 

Nat’s attention was drawn not by the blood or flames or even by Cal himself, but by the polite and appreciative applause that his entrance drew from the nearby Scandinavians, who immediately set about praising the excellent aesthetics of the entrance in various languages. Callister immediately found himself being asked whether he’s going to be performing with the Damselfly or just by himself.

 

Meanwhile, Nat stared with an expression somewhere in the midpoint between confusion, amusement, and resignation.

 

Callister actually responds politely to their questions in a civil tone, taking their admiration in stride. To their disappointment, he tells them that he’s a spectator, and not a performer and that he would rather die than to take attention away from the Damselfly. He says this all without even glancing once at Nat.

 

Nat quirked a brow, then shrugged slightly and weaved through the air toward a bar kiosk, which ey slipped under to pretend to sit on a barstool and order a drink while there was still time.

 

The friendly Scandinavians all expressed powerful disappointment that such a stylish and handsome fellow would decline to participate, but took ‘no’ for an answer and dissolved into clumps of small talk, leaving Callister more or less alone (but with many sets of curious eyes staying on him).

 

With extreme casualness Callister made his way through the crowd and to the bar. Finally he greeted Nat. He smiled slowly at em, having muchly recovered his composure from the last few nights. “Hello, buy you a drink?”

 

Nat slowly turned eir head toward him, wearing a smirk. “Callister. Fancy meeting you here. Whatever could have brought you to a dance party in Helsinki?”

 

Callister made a show of looking around, at the dancers, the stage, the bar then finally settling his red gaze upon Nat. “You.”

 

Ey raised eir eyebrows and headtilted a bit, swiveling in the air to face him. “Me, huh? Well, that’s very flattering, Cal.”

 

“But I can tell you’re not interested, so let’s settle for just a drink.” Callister produced a card and got himself a beer, indicating that that Nat should order what ey wanted as well.

 

The bartender gave Nat a questioning, another of the same? Face, and Nat nodded. The drink that the bartender set before em was a violent chartreuse color, and so packed with sugar than Cal could almost smell it from a distance.

 

“Thank you,” Nat murmured, checking eir phone, then putting it away and taking a sip of the drink, “but I never said I wasn’t interested.”

 

“You don’t need to lie to save my feelings. I’m a big boy.” He genially sipped his beer.

 

“Oh Cal. You misunderstand.” Nat tipped back eir cup, draining the drink. In a single fluid motion, ey snaked through the air, over the bartop, and around Callister’s body before ending up with eir face only an inch from his, holding his lapels in both hands. Eir breath cast citrusy-sweet against Cal’s face. “I didn’t say. I wasn’t interested.”

 

The speakers onstage suddenly boom with an announcement in rapid-fire Finnish, ending with two words in clear, unaccented english: “The Damselfly!”

 

“Duty calls,” Nat breathed. “Be back in five.”

 

Cal almost felt a tearing sensation as the Damselfly broke eye contact, sailing through the air toward the stage.

 

Callister drank his beer to steady his nerves. Nat held a powerful attraction for him and there was an urge  or an impulse to possess em. He wasn’t sure at first, but it became clearer with each meeting. Did he try to fight it? That was what he felt he was doing now, or so he thought. Fighting it by becoming acclimatised to the Damselfly. It certainly got much easier to talk to em each time.

 

So now, he leaned back against the bar and sipped his beer.

 

And ey was interested.

 

Callister smiled.

 

“You are IN THE ZONE my friend.” Dellen said proudly, having been right behind Callister for god know’s how long. He was in his performance attire, he did have a show in not too long after all. Despite his appearance he spoke to the scandinavians in a very calm manner, assuring them that he would book the next festival there. He could even speak their language a bit, though it was obvious he struggled with a few words.

 

“Where’d  you even come from?” Callister spilt his drink, startled.

 

With a thoom of bass, the lights onstage and illuminating the crowd went dark, leaving the crowd illuminated only by the bright moon and stars shining down from the clear night sky.

 

The first lights to come on were four spotlights, all focused on the tiny, balled-up figure of the Damselfly, seeming even smaller at this distance and so high in the air. Moments later, four huge viewscreens came on, each one showing Nat from a different angle.

 

Then, as a synth piano riff came in over the massive speakers, ey slowly uncurled.

 

With tightly-controlled, small movements, the Damselfly’s body spread into openness like a beating heart, moving to the pulse of the music. Eir eyes were hooded and distance, unseeing and focused entirely on eir own movement and the sound and feel of the musing. The ribbons comprising eir outfit fluttered in the breeze, but stayed put for now.

 

Ey was still moving in that dime-stop, popping-inspired way, like a glitchy tai chi form, as eir body began to rotate in the air independently of the movements. One of the ribbons — one covering eir arm — began to unfurl, revealing freckled alabaster skin underneath.

 

Dellen begins clapping and gives an encouraging shout from the crowd of excitement, urging others in the audience to join in. He then urges Cal to join in and look like he cares.

 

Callister gave Dellen a blank expression. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to applaud Nat, it was that he was having trouble trying to understand what the skeleton man was urging him to do. It seemed more that Dellen wanted him to jump and riot at the dance, which really, wasn’t in his plans this evening.

 

Instead he clapped, applauding the performance when Nat’s dance really caught him. His jaw dropped as the sensations caught hold of him. His pulse spiked and he set one foot forward and it was immense will that he stopped himself from moving further. His nostrils flared with effort and he turned back to the bar, holding on to it with both hands.

 

When the lead-in to the chorus began, the pulsing motions stopped, and the Damselfly’s midair rotations started to pick up speed. Ey curled into a ball again, but this time with an arm extended. The ribbon continued to unravel from that arm, forming neat spirals that glittered in the spotlight as Nat’s arm became increasingly bare.

 

As the chorus hit, rushing in a heavy four-to-the-floor beat, the crowd leapt along as the Damselfly spun even faster, exhibiting no disorientation and sending plumes of colorful ribbon in all directions. Ey reversed directions, pulling the ribbons back in, then letting them loose once again, an expanding and contracting orbital platform with satellites of shiny cloth.

 

The breakneck pace of the dance continued until the end, when the Damselfly splayed in midair, sending the ribbons flying out into the audience and leaving em in no clothes but a single, thin band over eir chest (breasts?) and one forming a set of simple, small underwear.

 

The crowd went nuts, and as the Damselfly descended, ey was instantly mobbed by respectful but enthusiastic fans.

 

Dellen was sure to grab one of the ribbons before it reached the audience, noting. “Ooooooh. High grade. Very classy.” As he felt the material in his hands. “Here my friend. Take this. Act excited and proud you have obtained it. SHOW EMOTION. Show it because this face cannot.” The skeletal mouth implored, bringing the fistful of cloth down into his hand.

 

Callister glared up from a curtain of silky hair. “Couldn’t you feel that? While ey was dancing?” His hands were white knuckles on the bartop. “Show emotion? It’s all I can do from breaking into a vengeful rage, killing everyone in this place, and stealing the Damselfly away. No. I have to take myself away from here.”

 

He spun on his heel, striding off.

 

A red-and-peach blur sped by Dellen, and Cal’s way was suddenly blocked by the Damselfly, glistening with sweat and glitter and breathing hard.

“Whoa what– I say I’m interested and you try to leave? What is going on?”

 

“I think the belts are cutting off circulation to his brain.” Dellens tone is painfully serious.

 

Callister ignored Dellen, glaring at Nat. “What is your power? Why am I fighting this urge to rage and to steal you?” His red eyes burned.

 

“I’m a Lure,” Nat was breathing hard, eir eyes locked with Callister’s. “The fact that you’re feeling it means that there’s something nasty in your heart. You want to suborn others, control or hurt them. But you know why I’m interested in you?”

 

Ey gripped Cal’s face and put eir forehead against his. “Because you’re the first person I’ve seen who fought it.”

 

Dellen quietly, slowly, and seamlessly backs away. “Oh Tja!” He calls to one of the scandinavians, quickly started up an energetic conversation with them to give the two a bit of privacy. He was still eavesdropping though.

 

Fought it? Of course he fought it. It was not yet time for him to show his hand.

 

Callister drew in a breath. A Lure. A Lure for fish like him. A Lure had an angler on the other end.

 

“In other words, you are a trap.”

 

He pulled away from Nat’s hands, rapidly turning his head around, trying to spot any evidence of Legion advancing.

 

Nat reeled backward with a ragged gasp. Eir eyes went from wide-open shock to disbelief to indignance to rage within the span of five seconds. “How dare you call me that,” ey murmured, then raised eir voice, rising into the air and glaring down at Callister, tiny fists white-knuckle clenched. “How dare you call me that! How dare you fucking call me that slur!!

 

Dellen began talking much louder and urging those around him that maybe they should give the blood fire anime character and (even though he did not know it) martial arts trained peter pan some space.

 

“A slur? A slur? Is it not the truth? Are you not a lure to trap people like me? You said it yourself, you’re a Lure. Where are they? Where’s the police and the Legion?” He spat those words out. “Where’s your friends you have hidden away to arrest people who can’t fight your f-. Your powers.”

 

Nat looked like ey was going to start shouting again, but then halted as ey processed what Cal was saying. As realization dawned, ey clutched eir head and let out a frustrated growl. “Oh my fucking god you paranoid little pissant. I can’t turn the Lure off, all right? I didn’t choose to be like this, and I don’t care if you have a nasty little heart. I don’t care! It’s not my business. When I said I was interested, I meant it, and you made this shit all about you and whatever backroom shenanigans you think I give a shit about. Well, fine. If you don’t want to have me, feel free to spin your self-centered fantasies, but this is the last warning you get: never, ever call me a t-trap again, or I will bury you with my own hands. Capisce?”

 

Dellen successfully moves the audience away and prevented this from becoming a spectacle. He turned his gaze backwards though, still worried of the possibility of escalation.

 

Callister’s nostrils flared as he tried to control his temper. His jaw was stiff, stubborn, but he appeared to be listening. Finally, he said “I apologize if the word offends you. And that my use of the word also offended you. Right now, I cannot think past my anger to consider what I want, so I will go. Excuse me.” Every word was delivered in a stiff and formal tone. He delivered an equally stiff and formal shallow bow before moving past Nat.

 

Nat stood stock-still as the red knight walked past em, frozen in the air like a hanging statue. Callister was nearly clear of em when eir voice hissed an accusing whisper, no closer but clearly audible:

 

“Just like my family, feeling the weight of your own sins and blaming me. Good riddance.”

 

Callister turned, his face shadowed by his hair. “I apologize. I was in the wrong. Believe me, if I still continued to blame you, you will know it.”

 

Nat didn’t respond or turn, keeping eir tears of shame and rage hidden from Dellen and Cal.

 

Callister looked at Nat for a long moment. The stiffness in his shoulders loosened. He walked back to the dancer and held out his hand to em. “I’m sorry.” This time it sounded genuine, spoken in a soft tone.

 

Dellen had wanted to interrupt…but he truly believed this wasn’t his place to intrude. No doubt he would take some time after to explain to Callister what that word meant. See if he couldn’t help Nat through this hard time as well. But for now…the two of them needed to fix this. Their way. He bought some drinks in advance, and then helped make them. What? He got antsy at times like this and being active helped.

 

Nat turned slightly, just enough that Cal saw the wetness on eir cheek shining in the event lighting. “Thank you,” ey said, though ey didn’t turn around or take the hand. “I accept your apology. Let’s… I’d like to try again. Not today, but. Again. Sometime. Can we do that?”

 

Callister nodded. “Sometime again,” he replied softly. “Until then.”

 

He began turning away.

 

Dellen approaches Nat with a beautiful drink of deep purple and bright teal, cooled slightly with his touch, fogging what he is using to hold it. He looked directly at her, despite her trying to hide her tears and offered her the glass. “Hey. It looks like you need this….I don’t know if Fiona is free right now or one of your other friends are, or what you like to do when you are feeling down. But if you need someone to talk to, who won’t judge, well, I will listen.” He handed her the glass and watched as Callister left. There was a sadness in the pit of his gut he could not place. Sympathy, he supposed. No matter.

 

Nat smiled a little bit. “Thanks, Dellen,” ey said, taking the drink. “You’re a mensch. You gotta come dance at my club, okay?”

 

Ey didn’t wait for a response; Nat took a long drink from the glass. “Also, this is really good. Thanks again. Sorry I’m… not staying.”

 

He took the glass courteously, using a blue cloth to clean it off like any barman would. “No need to apologize. The offer won’t expire.” He said with a small, sober laugh. “Just keep it in mind if you need it. Fly safely.” He gave her a cold but supportive pat on the shoulder before heading to return the glass to the counter.

 

Callister slowly walked away, seemingly deep in thought. With each step he took, he sank a little more into the bloody pool that appeared at his feet. Flames licked up, tasting  his long coat, then further up as he sank all the way until the pool covered his head. And he was gone. The flames died down, the pool bubbled once, twice, then stilled, settled and the ground was normal again.

 

Where There’s Smoke: Smoke and Mirrorballs

Smoke & Mirrorballs

 

THE FLYING FORTRESS

 

Someone had taken the Damselfly.

 

The whole point of the Damselfly, of Nat in the Legion, was to be bait. The problem was that a Legionnaire had given into the lure.


“This shouldn’t be…” Alice said, white in the face. “We screen people. We only recruit heroes. Villains go for Nat.”

Smokescreen, the Legionnaire who had taken Nat, was leaving a trail. She was tweeting as the Damselfly.

 

“It’s not that simple, Alice.” Tabitha said, trying to be reassuring.

Continue reading “Where There’s Smoke: Smoke and Mirrorballs”

Where There’s Smoke: Second Album Syndrome

SECOND ALBUM SYNDROME


Chad listened to the challenge from the loud speakers, took a breath and made to set Fi down. “Okay. I’m gonna…”  

 

Good enough for Fi. She stormed right inside.  

Continue reading “Where There’s Smoke: Second Album Syndrome”

Where There’s Smoke: The Hangover

A pool of flames and boiling blood erupted outside, and a tall figure in plate mail arose from it. He was carrying two figures – one over his shoulder, and another under his arm. He handed the smaller figure over to Gretchen, and then began to walk away with the unconscious Smokescreen.

 

“Drop the rogue agent!” Someone shouted. A poised woman in a flak vest, brown hair done up in a neat bun, ran onto the scene. She raised a stun pistol and fired it several times, but the bolts just bounced off the figure’s armor.

 

Callister ignored the bolts, not even deigning to smile at Tabitha Armitage. His bloody pool bubbled at his feet, and with each step, he disappeared. The bolts ting!ed off his armour, hitting the pavement. And then, he was gone.

 

Sawbones was there, with a kit at the ready. She went to Nat instantly, ignoring everything else.

 

The combat-suited woman holstered her stun pistol, cursing under her breath. She ran to where Sawbones was already attending to Nat. She looked like she was about to say something, but hesitated, nodded, and left her alone. She turned and strode toward Alice and the medic vainly trying to calm her down.

 

“Alice. Please.” Gretchen mumbled, settling Nat onto the ground so Sawbones can do her thing, and returning her attention to the panicky Paladin. “I do not think se-” She trails off, noticing her new company.

 

“It’s ANATHEMA, SHE IS BACK GIVE ME THE PHONE I NEED IT ARE YOU LEGION I AM A LEGION GENERAL GIVE ME THE PHONE -”

 

Alice Elizabeth McGowan,” Tabitha barked sharply, and Alice froze stock-still.

 

“T-T-T-T-T-T-Tabitha!” Alice said, hands frozen in panicked grabby motions around Gretchen, her face transfixed in a mixture of horror and an awkward grin as if it was possible to play this off.

She paused for a moment, thinking about her next line.


“Tabitha!” She repeated, this time less high pitched.

 

“I’ll… take her from here, Gretchen, thanks,” Tabitha shifted the infrequently-worn stun pistol’s holster further to the side and crouched down beside Alice. “Okay first thing, hon, let’s do a hug. Okay?”

 

The sound of music could be heard emanating from the club. Instead of dance music, it was the Sound of Music’s So Long, Farewell. Soapy bubbles carried the club staff, the Damselfly, and eir heroes to the club entrance with the rest of the Legion.

 

Nat stirred, groaning and coughing.

 

Fi ran in her bubble like it was a hamster ball before realizing that she could pop it, then kneeled next to Nat. “Nat?” she asked, cautiously.

 

Ey seemed to react to that.

 

“Nat? Yes?” Fi tried again.

 

With eyes closed, Nat reached out to touch Fiona’s face. “Fi. Fi. Fiona. Fiona, Fiona, Fiona.”

 

“Shh. Shh,” Fiona says, taking Nat’s hand. “Hey. Hey, I’m here, alright? Not going anywhere. And-” she looked around. “There’s like sixteen people here. You’re safe,” she said, trying to sound soothing.

 

Nat gripped Fi’s hand and practically tried to climb her arm, drawing her close. “The… she said, she—I thought I’d never see you again…”

 

The Legion gathered around, arguments and frustration forgotten. Nat was one of theirs, one of their family, and ey was safe.