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Exit, Pursued By a Bear

Megan maneuvered herself wearily up the front steps of the house on Marigold Lane. She wondered why it was as exhausting to sit at a desk, proofreading contracts and scrubbing the database, as it had ever been to fetch and carry on a construction site.

When she opened the front door, she heard voices upstairs, so she paused to listen to identify them. She recognized G's gruff tones -- she hadn't realized how much she'd missed them -- and a murmur that was definitely Watson's milder contralto.

At the foot of the stairs, she paused again to, frankly, eavesdrop.

"-- can't cope with living here right now," G was saying. "And I... I know I'm unreasonable about a lot of things."

"I admit a change of scene may do you good," Watson said. "But six months?"

"It's the contract length," G said. "It'll give me a chance to check out some of the really old architecture. I've been getting a lot of requests for Renaissance Italy, and photographs only go so far."

Looking up the stairs, Megan could just see the top of Watson's mousy head -- they were standing far back from the stair landing, against the door to the third floor.

"Gonna keep this place?" Watson said in a painfully casual tone.

There was a pause. "For now," G said. "I've got a subletter for the time I'll be in Europe. After that, I'll see how I feel."

"Ah," Watson said.

"I'm afraid I'll have to impose on you a while longer with the cats," G said, her voice wavering dangerously, but her phrasing carefully formal.

"It's the least I can do," Watson said softly.

Megan shook herself and crutched noisily to her own door. But she could still hear them as she fumbled her keys out of her pocket.

"You did your best," G growled. "I... wasn't clear. Asking for help."

"Megan was the reason I broke out of my idiotic indecision," Watson said.

Megan was transfixed by her own name.

"You're both good people," G said. "Great people. At least you two came out of this mess together."

"It doesn't have to be just the two of us," Watson said. "We've had this conversation before."

G laughed. "I saw Vivian a few days ago. She said you'd brought Megan to Death's place." She used the British pronunciation of Watson's sister's name. "Guess it's serious."

Watson sighed audibly. "Not any more serious than I ever was with you, and you know it."

"Yeah," G said quietly. "I guess I do. But this is what I mean. I'm so... angry. I'm unreasonable about everything."

"We'll take care of the cats," Watson said in tones one might use to soothe a wild animal. "Say goodbye to them before you go?"

"I... yeah. Yeah, I'll be by," G said.

Megan finished fumbling for the proper key on her keychain and promptly dropped the whole bunch of keys on the floor in a clatter. G descended the stairs as Megan was stooping to retrieve them, balanced precariously on her crutches.

"Hey," Megan said helplessly from her ridiculous position.

G smiled, showing new lines cut into her rugged features. Her red hair was newly shorn into a nearly military buzzcut that was starting to show some grizzle at the temples. She bent, scooped up the keys, and handed them to Megan. "Hey," she said. "I, uh, I wanted to let you know I'm... going away for a while. To Europe. For work."

Megan nodded. She spotted Watson at the top of the stairs and said, "Cool. That's cool. I'd need a change too. And for work, that's great. Is it one of the, uh, lizard folks?"

G grimaced. "Yeah," she said. Then she reached out and dragged her knuckles lightly down Megan's arm. "I never got a chance to thank you."

Megan clamped down on the strained, nervous laugh that was trying to burst out. She smiled -- she hoped she smiled -- and shrugged instead. "I didn't do anything. Ira and Suzanne did it all, you know."

"You tried," G said. "That counts for more than I can say." She flashed a last smile, though this one didn't reach her eyes, and nearly bolted out the front door.

Megan looked after her for a long moment, feeling a wrench of muscles somewhere in the vicinity of her throat. She looked up the stairs when G was out of sight, and Watson nodded.

"See you in a few," Watson said, then turned and trotted up the stairs.

---

Note from the Author:

First ep of 2012!

I'll be posting on a bit of an accelerated schedule over the next several weeks; you find out why soon enough. In any case, I hope you'll enjoy getting more than one episode a week!

And remember, if you've ever wanted a Team Simon t-shirt (or tank top, or mug, or water bottle), just check out Wonder City Wonders, my new store at Cafe Press. And if there's an item you'd like to get either of the existing designs on that's not in the store, let me know, I'll see if I can get it in there.

Please remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
Death's Dinner Party

"So here we are, at Death's door," Watson said.

Megan crutched up the front steps of the narrow Victorian townhouse.  "Do you really have to roll out the puns?  I'm nervous enough."

"Puns relax everyone," Watson said, shifting aside as Megan gained the porch.

"Why did she pick the name Death anyway?" Megan said a little irritably.

"I suspect she didn't want to be 'Bree' and got tired of being 'Harry'," Watson said.

"'Harry'?" Megan said.

"Big sisters are cruel," Watson said, and rang the doorbell.

Al opened the door, his Apollonian face breaking into a bright smile as he recognized them. "Death!" he shouted over his shoulder. "They came!"

"Of course," Watson said, vaguely indignant. "I said we would."

Al raised an elegant eyebrow. "You've bailed before. C'mon in."

"More of my sister's adventures in action?" Death asked as she arrived in the front hall in time to see Megan maneuvering awkwardly under the low lintel.

"What, you think my adventures are inherently violent?" Watson said, following Megan in.  

"I grew up with you," Death said.  "Do you need to prop it up while you're sitting?"

Megan smiled lopsidedly.  "Yeah, if that's not a problem."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure we can find something to fit the bill around here." Death gave Al a significant look, and he slithered past Megan and hurried down the hall. "We're not far from dinner, so let's get you set up in the dining room."

There were three women standing in the doorway between the dining room and the kitchen, but Megan didn't have attention to spare for them until she was settled in the large, reinforced chair at the end of the table and Al had brought a burgundy paisley-upholstered ottoman in and helped her get her leg onto it. Then she looked around. Watson was greeting the women with mild familiarity, and they all turned toward Megan when she looked up.

"Megan Amazon," Death said, waving a hand in the appropriate directions while she fussed with something at the vast mahogany sideboard. "Denny Silver, Vivian Chen, and Mack Janetsdottir."

Mack reached her first, a big, square, sixty-something white woman with short iron-gray hair, a weather-worn face of wrinkles, and a firm handshake. "We've been seeing your name in the papers," she said in exactly the rough, butch tones Megan had expected. "You do good work, kiddo."

"Thanks," Megan said.

Denny was an androgynous white woman who might be in her thirties, forties, or fifties, face smooth of most wrinkles and her short dark hair just starting to show threads of silver. She wore well-tailored grey trousers, a white men's dress shirt, and a patchwork vest made from sari material. "Yes, definitely," she said as she shook Megan's hand, then gestured down at the cast. "A badge of honor."

"Heh, well," Megan said, rubbing the back of her head with her left hand. "I'm not so sure about that."

"Pish, and also tosh," said Vivian, a curvy Asian high femme in a sequined little black dress and purple-toned eyeshadow and nails that highlighted one lock of her short black hair that was also purple. Her handshake was warm and thorough. "Still, I admire modesty." Megan was too distracted by everything else about Vivian to try to guess her age.

"Food!" Diarmid bellowed from the kitchen. He emerged, wearing pretty much what Megan saw him wearing before except that this apron read "Kiss the Cook or Make Him Cry." He was carrying a giant platter full of a large roasted bird of some sort -- Megan thought it was too small to be a turkey and too big to be a chicken. This was set at the head of the table, and then he hurried back out, returning moments later with a vat of mashed potatoes. Al followed with a heaping bowl of salad greens and pecans and goat cheese. Diarmid cycled back to the kitchen and appeared again with a bowl of steaming green beans.

Everyone settled down at the table, Watson at Megan's right and Vivian at Megan's left, Mack beyond Watson and Denny beyond Vivian. Death sat at the head of the table, Al on her left and Diarmid on her right.

"We don't say grace or anything in this house," Death said, brandishing a large, undoubtedly sharp knife and a large metal fork. "But it is the weekend of Beltane, so let's all think sexy thoughts or something while we eat."

"Mm, food and sex!" Mack said. "My favorite conflation."

"Better than Death and taxes," Watson said.

Death smiled at her mirthlessly and began carving the bird. Just a little vengefully.

"So, um, what do you all do?" Megan said politely to the trio of unknowns as they waited for the food to start getting passed their way.

"I'm a locksmith," Vivian said. At Megan's glance down at her remarkably sparkly fingernails, she grinned. "I have to take the polish off when I work," she said, mock-mournfully. "For some reason, people don't take me as seriously as they ought to. Besides, they chip like a chipping thing." She passed a hand over the shoulder of Denny, who was distracted by mashed potatoes. "She's a professor of high-energy physics at Wonder City U."

"I am, possibly predictably, a professor of women's studies," Mack said, winking at Vivian, "at the same eminent institution. And an anthropologist."

"Oh," Megan said.

"How about you?" Vivian said, serving herself salad.

"I'm, um, still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up," Megan said sheepishly.

"Meanwhile, she's doing construction gofering," Watson said.

"Thanks," Megan said to Watson through slightly clenched teeth.

"No prob," Watson said, clearly delighted with her self-appointed role as cattle-prod to the guests.

"Well, you gotta keep body and soul together, right?" Mack said, grinning in a way that threw all the lines of her face into relief. "I painted houses all through college and grad school, when I wasn't off in exotic places studying exotic brown people like everyone wanted me to. It was good money, and it was completely different from writing my dissertation."

"Where did you do your diss work?" Megan asked, mostly politely.

"Palau," Mack said. "In a tent on the beach."

"Sounds nice," Megan said.

"Can't get that kind of gig these days," Mack said, a little mournfully. "But, you know, you really couldn't back then either," she added cryptically. "So I do women's studies instead. I like the people."

"Neat," Megan said, at a loss for anything else to say. Fortunately, the parade of food came through. In a few moments, she had a heaping mound of buttered mashed potatoes, balsamic-dressed salad, green beans in lemon and parsley, herbed chestnut stuffing, and dark, juicy slices of poultry meat. She took a forkful of the meat and exclaimed, "This is fabulous! What type of bird is it?"

"Goose," Diarmid said, working on his salad. "And thanks, it's my grandmother's recipe."

"Except she usually made it for Christmas," Death said, adding pepper to her green beans. "I persuaded him that it fit any time of year."

"I save it for holidays, though," Diarmid said, leaning over to give Death a peck on the lips.

"So, Watson," Denny said, breaking the silent feeding frenzy that had ensued. "Death tells us you were behind that big newspaper splash about the serial killer."

Watson shrugged, slicing her meat into smaller-than-bite-size pieces. "It was just a bit of research."

"Aw, c'mon," Vivian said, "it's got to be more than that."

"Have the police confirmed that the camera kid was the serial killer?" Mack asked. "And not the TV kid? Or someone else?"

Watson shrugged. "They went to the cameraman's apartment and found quite a panoply of evidence. Maps of the city with certain areas highlighted. A scrapbook of newspaper articles and prints of blog entries about him. Most incriminatingly, a lockbox with items taken from the victims."

"'Items'?" Al said, his voice a little strained.

"Some of them were jewelry, like Yanaye Smallwood's missing locket," Watson said, "or the Steel Man's grandfather's watch. Others were... fragments. Like Dani Williams' false fingernail with the rhinestone set in it. Nothing entirely gruesome, like body parts, but certainly souvenirs. And I'm pretty certain they'll find that the things they couldn't identify from here will be found to belong to the Pittsburgh victims."

"Wow," Vivian said.

"What was the killer's name, anyway?" Denny said. "I haven't seen it yet."

At the other end of the table, Megan saw Death and Diarmid exchange an unreadable glance.

Watson fiddled with her wine glass, smiling mirthlessly, for a moment. Then she said, "You know, I'd rather not say." She looked up and glanced around at everyone at the table. "People get so hung up on the killer's name, and we tend to forget the victims' names in all the mess."

There was a bit of an awkward silence, but Mack nodded and turned to Watson, extending her hand. Watson blinked at the hand in surprise, then slowly took it. Mack shook her hand firmly, then turned back to dinner, changing the subject by asking Death how business was doing.

It took Megan most of dinner to understand from both comments dropped in conversation and body language that Denny, Vivian, and Mack were a threesome like Death and her boys. Well, actually, Megan corrected herself, not at all like Death and her boys. Because there was a vibe to Death's relationship where both Diarmid and Al were clearly lower on the power pyramid than Death herself. With the three women, there was a playful, familiar back-and-forth that had nothing to do with their relative ages (Vivian was possibly younger than Denny, who was clearly younger than Mack) nor the butch/femme/whatever dynamic.

Megan also noticed Watson watching everyone at the table. She could almost see the gears turning in Watson's head, snapping everything into pattern after pattern faster than lightning, finding the most likely ones and rejecting the others in ways that made her seem almost telepathic sometimes.

Death was keeping an eye on Watson too. Megan thought that Watson would have been a very hard older sister to have.

Dinner was a lovely thing, but Megan was drooping by the end of it, unable to do justice to the cherry and apple pies Denny had baked, or even to the chocolate shortbread Vivian and Mack had made. Her leg was throbbing, and she was thinking fondly of the bottle of painkillers she'd confidently left on her nightstand.

"I'm sorry, folks," she said, crutching back from the bathroom, which had been an exercise in cramming herself into a very small space in order to pee. "I think I'm just done for the night."

Watson stood up instantly, laying a hand on her arm. "I'm sorry, hon. I should've noticed you were wearing down. Did you remember your meds?"

"No, and that's one of the problems," Megan said, grinning sheepishly at the solicitous group who were all getting up and gathering around. "I guess it's true that the narcotics make you stupid."

Everyone was gratifyingly kind and concerned, and shook her hand and Watson's. "Let me know if you need a cane or something made to size," Diarmid added.

"Well, I'm glad you made it," Death said, trailing after them into the foyer. When Watson turned to her, she said, seriously, "Really glad."

Watson seemed taken aback by this, but got her face under control quickly. "I'm glad we came," she said.

"So am I," Megan said.

"Come over again soon, huh?" Death said, looking at them over the edge of her glasses and smiling.

"Yeah," Watson said. "Yeah, we will."

The sisters looked at each other for a long moment.

Megan nudged Watson forward with her elbow, and Watson, to her credit, did go ahead and hug Death. It was kind of cute, Megan thought, the way Death's eyes got so big at the gesture.

Once the two of them were safely ensconced in Zoltan's VW bus, the Divine Sarah, Megan said, "You two," in a tone of disbelief.

"What?" Watson said, skillfully guiding the van along back streets toward Marigold Lane. "I hugged her, didn't I?"

"When was the last time you hugged her?" Megan said, trying to stay chatty and ignore the sharp stabs of burning pain she got with every jar of the car.

Watson thought a moment. "Our parents' funeral."

Megan let that sit in silence for a moment, then said, "I'm sorry."

"No," Watson said. "You have a point."

They pulled into the driveway, and Watson stopped to help Megan out, rather than wrangling with the garage. Both of them frowned to hear raised voices from the garden, and hurried that way.

"Is there something wrong with your hearing?" G was almost-shouting. "I said no. And I also asked you to get out of here. Do I have to get the police to eject you?"

They came around the corner of the house and found G in her shirtsleeves and jeans, tending a sizable fire in the fire pit, a sooty poker in one hand. There was a cardboard box on the ground next to her, and Megan noticed the corner of a frilly blue curtain hanging out of it. G was addressing a young white man in a polo shirt and khakis, his dishwater blond crewcut mussed by his hand running through it repeatedly.

Zoltan was standing in the shadows on the back porch, watching.

"I'm just asking for... for a little something," Dr. Insight said more than a little desperately. "That little locket she wore. Anything."

"And I said no," G said. "There's no locket, by the way. Nothing she wore was real. Like her."

"She was real!" he shouted. "Stop saying she wasn't!"

G very deliberately set the poker pointfirst in the ground and stepped up to him. "I'm going to say this very slowly. She was a ghost. She wasn't a full person. She was a piece of a person left over after a terrible crime."

Dr. Insight ground his teeth audibly. "Gwen was a person!"

G flushed brick-red with rage. "Don't you get it? That wasn't even her name. IT'S MY GODDAMN NAME THAT SHE STOLE."

Dr. Insight reeled back a few steps. G advanced.

"She stole my name," G said, her voice dropped to a growl. "She stole my body. She stole my apartment. She lost me my girlfriend, and nearly lost me my job. She was a crazy shred of a person, a parasite that tried to kill me and take everything that was mine." She poked him in the chest with one finger. "Nothing that she brought into my home leaves it except to burn. Nothing. Because the Meteor you knew was a thief and a would-be murderer and doesn't deserve to have anything left of her."

Dr. Insight took another step back, then turned and started to walk out of the yard. He came up short when he saw Megan and Watson. He hesitated a long moment, then started to turn back to G.

G watched him for a moment, her lips pressed together tightly, but when he opened his mouth to speak, she said, voice harsh in her throat, "And you were a lousy fuck."

He went stark white, then his eyes opened wide in horror. Dr. Insight turned and ran out of the garden.

G watched him go, then looked at Megan and Watson. Megan remembered to shut her mouth.

Watson said, elaborately casual, "Want a hand?"

G shook her head. "This is something I need to do."

Watson nodded. "Come up for a drink after," she said, then turned and guided Megan back to the front of the house.

They watched Dr. Insight's car cannoning up the lane, and Megan said, in a low voice, "Can someone even apologize for something like that?"

Watson shook her head and shrugged.

---

Note from the Author:

I'm late, but, um, better late than never?

Remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
Resolving Powers

The wind was screaming. Simon leapt between Sator and Brainchild, teeth flashing. The Equestrian and Maelstrom banished the spell that entrapped them.

For one hollow second, the right side of Sator's face darkened and his eyes opened wide, mouth frozen mid-incantation. A pink mist coalesced in the air to the right of Sator. Then Sator dropped to the floor, his flesh crumbling stickily around his bones. The mist rained down and was lost in the general oversupply of gore.

The wind blew itself apart and the gears stopped cold.

There was silence.

"Well," said the Equestrian, staring at the remains of Sator. "That's a thing."

Holy shit, Simon said. Did she...?

My god, Ira said, she killed him. Took all the water... or blood... or something right out of his body.

It was the only thing to do, Suzanne said firmly, but I could feel her reeling with nausea.

We'll deal with that later, Watson said grimly. Start cleaning up, we're on our way.

Be careful, Maelstrom said. Magicians generally leave nasty surprises for posthumous applications.

So a few minutes later, a handful of Gold Stars bounced through the portal and found the Equestrian exclaiming, "I found your hand, Wire. I... think it got in the way when Nereid did her thing, though." She looked up from the object on the floor and said to Sekhmet, "Oh, hello. About bloody time you got here."

"My gods!" Sekhmet said, staring around the blood-spattered room in horror. "Who...? How...?"

The Equestrian snapped, "Later. Look, we've got a massive injury over there--" pointing to Wire "--and another couple of people down. Could you, perhaps, lend a hand?" She looked back at the floor. "I mean, help out?"

Simon was gently nudging Nereid with his cold nose, and Nereid was waking up slowly. I noticed he wasn't trying to, say, lick her face. She was blood, head to toe. (Of course, so was everyone else.)

Sekhmet and her compatriots (I recognized the Blue Eagle costume, but knew it had to be a new one -- or maybe not, if he'd somehow come back to life, which wasn't unusual for the spandex teams -- and the Green Hood) spread out, inspecting Megan and Nereid and Wire from a distance and looking up at the ceiling, where the hole was slowly closing up.

Watson and G went through the portal together and straight to Megan, who was still out cold (because I do my work right). They struggled a little -- she's a big girl -- but between them (and their minor superstrength) they backboarded her (why wasn't I surprised that Watson knew how to do that correctly?) and got her onto the giant-sized stretcher they'd brought.

Professor Fortune, in his cape and with his wacky Einstein hair looking especially Einsteinian, strode into the room like he owned it. "Ah, Molly," he said, smiling benignly at the Equestrian. He looked around quickly, and his gaze lingered on the funnel. "Oh, good," he said softly. "Nice to see the thing with the machine worked out."

Watson and G were slowly walking Megan out, and paused at the door while Watson gave the professor a strange, unreadable look. Her mind was shuttered completely from me. G shook her head at the solicitous Eagle and Hood, and gestured to Watson with her chin. Watson nodded and moved forward; they carried Megan out into Sator's shop, and the Eagle and the Hood followed them.

Sekhmet knelt next to Wire, producing a thick band of leather from some part of her costume to tourniquet the girl's arm.

"Bugger off, you useless toad," the Equestrian said to Professor Fortune. "This is my gig, not yours."

"Molly, my dear," Professor Fortune said, beaming at her, "I'm just here to help out with an analysis of the situation. The Gold Stars called me in."

"Analyze this, Harvey," the Equestrian said, flipping the bird at him (she did it both ways, in case he was too dim to figure out the British way). "Get out of here before Her Nibs notices that the self-styled Grand High Poobah of Earth is standing on her turf, from which, I note, he has been banned for more than four decades. I won't be responsible if she shows up."

The pool of blood on the floor rose up and coalesced gracefully into a replica of Nereid. It wasn't an exact twin: the replica was wearing a long gown streaked with all the shades of red and brown found in blood. Her face kept shifting and it took me a moment to figure out why: I was seeing her through the eyes of several people, and I guessed that her face altered according to the viewer's ideals of beauty. It was like looking at a very peculiar animation, especially since it was still recognizably Nereid's face.

I didn't even try to get near that mind. I'm stupid, not suicidal.

She turned and stared at Professor Fortune with the mad, cold expression of a bird of prey. He tried to smile urbanely and failed. She said in a voice that resonated in several registers, "You know the penalty, of course. I need not insult you by repeating it."

The Equestrian radiated an unholy glee as Professor Fortune backpedaled toward the door. I felt unadulterated terror from Tam Lane, who was trying to shrink behind a bit of debris.

"No offense meant, of course, Your Majesty," he said, pausing at the threshold and producing a handkerchief to mop his suddenly gleaming brow. "We had no idea that the door led to..."

The woman stared at him, motionless. Her dress rippled toward him liquidly where it met the floor.

He caught his cloak in both hands and bounded hastily through the door.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom both executed handsome bows to the creature that had manifested from the blood. "Your Majesty," the Equestrian said. "My apologies for not detecting this mess sooner."

She lifted a hand and gazed incuriously around the room. "You have stopped it, according to your bargain."

"I think we've a good bit more to do," Maelstrom muttered ruefully. The Queen ignored him as she swept into a walk so inhumanly graceful that it reminded me of a jellyfish.

Tam actually ducked his head beneath his arms as she glanced in his direction; I wasn't sure, but I thought I caught the traces of a smile on her face through the Equestrian's eyes.

The Queen paused and looked down at Nereid. Simon, who had turned human in order to lift Nereid's face out of a puddle of blood, looked nervously up at the Queen and I could sense from him that she didn't smell right -- not like blood, not like anything he'd ever smelled. "It is impolite to tamper with the lifeblood of another's realm, yet sufficient unto the day is the repayment thereof." She turned her head towards the Equestrian. "I forget the words," she said sweetly, with an undertone of malice so clear it was like metal. "How is it I should curse her?"

Nereid, who only just recovered real consciousness, looked up into that face and began leaking blood incontinently: I could see it dripping from her fingertips and it streaked her face like tears. I could feel her sheer, bone-draining terror: the closest I can describe it is that of an acrophobic being pressed to the edge of a sheer precipice.

The Equestrian blinked. Then her expression hardened, and she answered, "Your Majesty, I believe it is him you usually threaten, at least in the songs I am familiar with."

Tam came out from under his arms for long enough to shoot the Equestrian a hateful look.

The Queen raised a hand with impossibly graceful fingers -- and possibly too many of them -- to her lips. "Ah, now I remember. I cannot call shame upon her face, because after all, I am using it. Such shame as her ill-favored face may have is only that which she herself shall bring upon it. Let it be so."

She smiled at the Equestrian, as though she had just won a round of a game, and said, "Be off with you all, I want no more of you." With that, the figure collapsed to the floor in a viscous splash, the blood spreading once more into a shining pool.

"Can we get out of here now?" Simon asked the Equestrian. "Before someone changes her mind?"

Maelstrom strode over, nudged Sekhmet aside, and, with an interesting impulse of protectiveness I didn't poke at, picked up Wire, who looked grey and chalky. "Let's."

Sekhmet acquiesced to Maelstrom's preference and walked over to Simon. "May I? At least if I carry her, I can feel like I did something here."

"Please," Simon said. "Feels like she's broken her right arm and maybe some other things." He turned wolf again.

Sekhmet moved around to Nereid's left and carefully picked her up. Nereid's eyes closed.

Tam looked cautiously out from his hiding place, then rushed out to Nereid's side. He reached out for her hand, paused and grimaced. It was coated and shining with blood. Overcoming his squeamishness, he gripped her hand and looked into her face, murmuring, "Ah, my dear, my dearest." He trotted alongside as Sekhmet carried her out.

"Don't move her arm, you git," the Equestrian called after them. "It's broken!"

Nereid's eyelashes didn't so much as flutter. I couldn't parse the terror and anxiety I could sense from Tam, so I didn't try. Then they were through the door to Earth.

You look a mess, Suzanne said as she envisioned throwing her arms around Simon gratefully, and I let that go through, just to Simon.

He gave a wolfish grin and bounded out through the door.

The Equestrian took a last look around after the others had left. This is going to be a long night, she said.

Surely you're done? I said.

Not a chance, the Equestrian said, and let me have a little of her Faerie sight. I could see gaping holes ground into the dimensional wall as far as I could see. This is all over the realm. All over the Earth. We've got to gather up the escapees.

"Speaking of escapees," she added aloud, spinning one of her green balls of fire into a net. Her gaze moved to Brainchild, whose spirit was standing, looking around her with a horrified expression, in the corner of the room furthest from where the machine used to be.

Damn, girl, you have a rough job, I said.

"Yep," she said, flicking the net over Brainchild, who shrank down inside it into a green ball of light. The Equestrian strode over to pick her up, absently tucking Wire's mummified hand into her belt as she bent to receive the ball of light with both hands. She sighed.

Beer first, she said to me. Then onward. She strode through the door.

---

Note from the Author:

Okay! The cliffhangers are over, and the denouement has begun. What loose ends are you most looking forward to seeing tied up?

(Also, much gratitude to Akycha for helping me with the Queen's characterization.)

Remember to vote for WCS!









wonder_city: (Default)
L’appel du vide

"Now you," Sator said, glancing over his shoulder. "Megan Amazon, shatter yourself." I had to drop filters in place as Megan took a magical blast that went straight through her invulnerability, ran up every nerve ending, and back down, spasming all the muscles in her arms and legs. Meteor got an accidental punch to the nose from Megan, one that knocked her backward to sprawl on the floor.

On another "channel," I apologized quickly to the Wonderful House kids and dropped them out of the link entirely: Tom was in the ambulance with Brandon on the way to the hospital, Jeshri and Lizzie and Eartha were talking to the police and the Gold Stars.

Block her motor nerves, Watson said tightly. Do it now!

She was right, the spell wasn't stopping, and Megan was apparently strong enough to overcome her own invulnerability, judging from some of the pain I was reading. I stopped everything anomalous that was happening in her motor cortex and knocked her out. She dropped limply to the floor.

Meanwhile, Simon's shape swarmed up to human form (naked) and lunged for Brainchild. His hands couldn't touch her, but he managed to catch the glass fragment -- presumably magical -- that her spirit was standing on. There was a stab of pain as the razor edges of the glass sliced into his hands. Brainchild was stable for just a second, then her spirit turned and tried to grab onto the glass, as if she was being sucked into the funnel by some secret wind.

"Oh, let her fall, child," Sator laughed. "Let her fall and see my century-old plan come to fruition at last!"

Nereid hit him with a firehose blast... of blood. While he sputtered at the mouthful he'd got, she stared at her hands, and I could feel the hysteria welling up amidst her panic.

It's not permanent! the Equestrian snapped at her. It's just this place doing it to you. Do it again!

I can't help her! Simon exclaimed, gripping the glass that was slippery with his own blood and trying to pull it away from the machine without losing Brainchild. She's going to fall!

Meteor! Ira snapped. You're a spirit when you're not in that girl's body. Do something.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom were attacking Sator again to distract him. Nereid, to give the girl credit, pulled her shit together and added her geysers of blood.

Meteor hesitated. I'm not sure I can, she said. Can't Renata help her?

I can't reach her mind, I said. I've tried. And I'm not spiritually telekinetic anyway.

Meteor, you have to save her! Suzanne nigh-shouted. You're her only hope!

Feeling Meteor peel out of the body she was possessing was like nothing I'd ever felt: like someone burning their skin off, and then being totally without pain because there were no nerves any more. Her spirit leapt out of the woman -- G, Watson told me -- and threw herself across the mouth of the black abyss just as Brainchild slipped off the glass. Brainchild hit the "surface" that was Meteor and bounced off her onto the floor.

Meteor said to me, I only ever wanted to be a hero, before her grip slipped and she was sucked into the void, her mind sliding too far away for me to reach.

G staggered backward and fell over Megan. I apologetically seized control of her motor functions, got her ass up, and walked her out the door.

One less potential victim in that room. Go me.

---

Note from the Author:

Because I'm mean, here's a new challenge for Team Commentariat: 15 commenters get you a third new episode on Saturday!

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Truth and Consequences

Megan leaned back on the sofa and looked at the ceiling. "That Brandon guy looked familiar."

"Of course he did," Watson said from next to her. "He looked like every wealthy blond fraternity brother at an Ivy League college ever. It's almost a costume, it's so stereotypical."

"He even had the collar on his buttondown turned up and his hair strategically mussed," G said from the other side of Watson.

"All in all," Zoltan said serenely from his favorite chair, "he is sartorially tragic."

"They're attempting to depict diversity," G said, arms crossed, frowning at the blank television set.

"By making the Indian woman some sort of... of... belly bunny?" Megan said.

"Tom isn't stereotypical," Watson pointed out. "He's not a geeky Asian man who watches fetish anime or anything."

"They'll find something," Megan said gloomily. "I bet he does martial arts."

"At least Simon is well-dressed," Zoltan said, finishing his glass of wine. "I accomplished that much."

"Was the blue tuxedo your fault?" G said.

"God, no!" Zoltan said. "That... and the shaving little lines along the side of his head... are entirely the fault of the network."

"I wonder if they tried to get his goatee," Watson said. "He's very protective of the goatee."

"He loves his goatee in a thoroughly unnatural way," Megan said. "If they tried to shave it or even trim it, they probably had to replace the stylist. 'Stylist Mauled By Wolf'!"

"Staff members must burn through fast on reality shows," G said. "It's like the networks give the people on these shows license to be the biggest assholes ever."

"I think they just show the assholery because it makes good television," Megan said. "Connnnflict makes good television after all."

"You," G said, pointing at Megan, "are a cynic."

"That's why television news broadcasts like paras," Megan said in protest, though still not looking at G. "We're all conflict all the time, in most non-para minds."

"They're not far wrong," Watson said, almost under her breath.

"Speaking of conflict, I wonder how Lizzie expects to dodge her family," Megan said, tapping her forehead with her thumb, "being on national television and all."

"Does she want to?" Watson asked.

"From what little I got from my brief conversation with her," Megan said, "yes, indeed. She made her deal with that weird... energy being thingie... in order to get away from her family."

"Then we can anticipate one of two things," Watson said. "One: her family never surfaces and hides in ignominy until one of their small-town neighbors sells the story to the tabloids. Two: the family sells the story to the tabloids. Probably in the next... oh, month, I think."

"Poor kid," G said. "Not one for considering consequences, I guess."

"No, I don't think so," Megan said, still gazing ceilingward.

"The young do not have a fully-developed sense of consequence," Zoltan said airily. "Which is why you children are so much fun to watch."

The three women glowered at the vampire as one. He smiled a thoroughly disarming smile and shrugged. "It is the truth," he said. He gestured to the television. "Same time next week, ladies?"

---

From the Author:
Winter is well and truly here, alas. I am recovering from a bout of bronchitis. My busted shoulder (we're on day 67 after the accident now) is displeased with the world, but physical therapy is good for it.

I'm posting twice weekly during January. If you like this twice-weekly thing, I'm doing it again in January: if January's posts draw 50 comments total, I'll post twice weekly through February too. As before, if you provide a comment bonanza, I'll extend appropriately.


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---

Possession Is Nine-Tenths of the Law

Megan waved to her mother as the rented van pulled out of Marigold Lane and up into the streetlights of the neighborhood beyond. Once the taillights vanished over the rise, she let out a long breath she hadn't been aware that she'd been holding.

"Your mom's pretty decent," G said from the front door of the house.

Megan felt her shoulders tense up immediately and couldn't quite bring herself to turn around. "Yeah," she said. "She is. But I'm glad she took off. I wanted to spend Christmas with her, not all the holidays."

"She gave you New Year's Eve," G said, sounding amused.

"A few hours of it," Megan said, and forced herself to turn around.

G hadn't changed. G was just the same. G was the same short, wiry, narrow-eyed, wind-carved butch bundle of sex she'd been two and a half weeks ago, when they'd gone out to a late lunch and were on their way home for several hours of practicing the horizontal hokey-pokey.

The only difference was in Megan's head, and that whole green leotard thing.

G cocked her head to one side and said, "You've been avoiding me."

"Sorry," Megan said, and had started out meaning it to be sarcastic and angry, but it came out heartfelt and guilty. "I... just didn't feel up to processing while also dealing with Mom. Knowing her, she'd've figured out what was going on and offered to mediate, and you don't want to know what I think of her relationship skills."

The sky began to spit ice at Wonder City again, and Megan stood in it, feeling penitential and a little like a small child waiting for her doom to be pronounced.

G stood back from the door. "What is it with you and standing out in precipitation? Get your ass in here."

Megan fought down her reflexive nervous smile at that, and heavily tramped up the steps into the house. G shut the door on the dank, frigid blast outside and turned to regard the younger woman, pursing her lips.

"Come upstairs," G said. "The cats miss you."

"I..." Megan started to say something, and forgot what it was.

"I've got hot mulled cider on the stove," G said, squeezing past her in the narrow hallway and thumping up the steps. "Come on."

The apartment did smell of the cider and spices, and baking bread, and maybe even cake. Megan hovered in the doorway and sniffed.

Evason happened to be passing by the front door on urgent cat business, merely twitched her maimed ear at Megan's intrusion. Madame Blavatsky, however, hopped down from the kitchen counter and trotted over to Megan's giant boots, loudly chastising her. Megan bent to offer a fingertip to Madame B to sniff. Madame B did so gravely, gave out an imperious, "MWAH!" and strode toward Megan's preferred chair. She hopped onto the arm and looked back at Megan expectantly.

"You thought I was kidding," G said, gesturing at Ursula and Olamina, who had both also materialized from somewhere. "You'd better sit down."

Megan did so, and was immediately colonized. She suspected that the cats liked her because she emitted a lot of heat and had a lot of cat furniture surface area.

G gave her a very large mug of hot cider and reclined onto the loveseat with her own, rather smaller, mug, leaning against one arm with feet up on the other. When Megan looked at her next, Jazz had curled into a large black and white ball on G's lap.

Megan felt the silence stretching and twisting like an irritated copperhead (what had become of him? she wondered irrelevantly), but she kept staring into her mug, trying to think of the Right Thing to say.

"Do you feel betrayed?" G asked.

Megan looked up at her, then back down into the darkness of her cider. Ursula rolled onto her back on Megan's knees, waving her paws in the air and exposing her calico belly. Megan petted the exposed belly, and Ursula contracted around her hand pointily. "I guess so."

Megan could see G nodding out of the corner of her eye. Ursula chewed on her fingers.

"I could say several different things right now," G said, scritching one of Jazz's ears. "I could point out the whole secret identity thing. I could say, 'You're not the boss of me!' I could even be a really righteous asshole and explain that I'm not the one in spandex, the ghost possessing me is. But it all comes down to the fact that I didn't tell you, even though I knew you had issues with spandex relationships, and you have to be the one to choose to deal or not deal."

Megan stared at her for a long moment, opened her mouth, shut her mouth, then shook her head. "Okay, I'll come back to the ghost in a moment. Why didn't you tell me, even though you knew, et cetera, et cetera?"

G's mouth quirked a half-smile. "Should I spin you the pathetic story about how when I was a kid, I had the hots for a straight girl and I just kept hoping that if I made her like me enough, it wouldn't matter that I was a girl in the end?"

Megan raised an eyebrow. "Is it true?"

G shrugged. "Yes, but does that really matter?"

Megan scowled into her mug for several moments, and finally took a long drink of the cider. "Maybe," she said.

Uhura arrived, later than the others -- as usual -- and appeared on Megan's knee. She stomped across Ursula and stuck her head into Megan's mug.

"So what's this about a ghost?" Megan said.

G looked down at Jazz and pretended to be examining his ear. "Back in the summer, I was working on recording some points of architectural interest in a building that was being demolished. Near the end, I was in the basement, looking over the foundation, and I, well, found her body."

"In the basement?" Megan said, leaning her head forward so Uhura could drape herself along the back of the chair.

"Yeah. Just part of a skeleton, you know, and the bits of costume." G drained her mug and set it aside. "She was from the war."

"The costume did seem kinda... vintage," Megan said. "'Part' of a skeleton?"

G nodded. "She got killed her first time out. She says a guy called the Grey Phantom dematerialized her and shoved her into a wall. She died pretty much instantly. I don't know how or why she was never found. I couldn't even find a reference to any villains using 'Phantom' in their names who were on record as having the power to demat someone."

Megan frowned. "So she's all angsty and unfulfilled now? So she asked you to help her fulfill her destiny or some junk?"

"Asked, hell," G said angrily. "She grabbed hold of the back of my lizard brain and won't fucking let go."

"She's really possessing you?" Megan said, appalled.

"Yes," G said, still avoiding her gaze. "But I guess we've come to an understanding."

"You haven't tried to get her removed?" Megan said. "In a city full of Mystikai, there's gotta be someone who can do it."

G shrugged. "She claims that any attempt to remove her will hurt me. And I'm not sure she's telling the truth, but I'm not really willing to find out that she is the hard way."

Megan watched Evason stride across the room and jump onto the back of the loveseat. "A very smart lady recently said, 'Ghosts are notoriously crazy.' And I think she's right."

"I... can't really think about getting her removed," G said slowly. "And, I admit, I'm kind of enjoying the whole saving-the-day thing most of the time."

"Really," Megan said in a flat tone.

G plucked at the edge of the cushion. "Yeah. I guess so."

"And when did you start feeling this way?" Megan said.

G shook her head. "Don't."

"Why not?"

"I can't talk about it."

"Because she won't let you."

"Yeah."

Megan caught herself before she dashed the mug against the wall, not least because it would have discomfited one, if not two, of the cats on her. She settled for growling. Ursula twitched a paw at her. Madame B, curled into a round ball, gazed at her from one mad eye.

"You realize," Megan said after counting to ten and back, "that you're crazy too."

"Probably." G stroked Evason's nose. "The cats keep me sane-ish. And it's kind of nice being really superstrong and able to do cool shit, as opposed to being sort of strong and sort of tough and not really enough of either to be worth much."

"You could've been a helluva firefighter," Megan said.

G laughed. "I suppose I could've." She leaned back over the arm of the loveseat, her spine making little crackling noises. "But I'm not. I'm a lump of mobile meat with someone else in the driver's seat. A post-existential Oldsmobile."

"You're an unbelievably hot butch architect," Megan said. "And she's not. How long before she convinces you that you'd look good in long hair, maybe in a dress?" Ursula, taking issue with Megan's violent gesticulation, hopped down to the floor and stalked off, tail switching in irritation.

"That won't happen," G said, finally meeting Megan's gaze.

"How about dating a man?" Megan said, getting louder and more sarcastic than she meant to. "Did she ever get laid? Does she have a long-lost love? I bet Ira Feldstein was contemporary..."

Olamina punched Megan in the arm with a particularly mighty pawslap and disappeared under the chair.

"Jesus, Megan," G said. "The only thing she's concerned with is heroing. That's it."

"For now," Megan said, gently removing Uhura from her full-body drape, stroking her, and setting her on the floor. "Look, you can see where this is going as well as I can." Madame B uncurled on the arm of the chair, gave Megan an offended look, and stalked off.

"Yeah," G said, sitting very still and looking at Evason. "I think I knew this was where it would end up."

Megan stood up. "Thanks for the cider, G. I..." She groped for words. "It was really fun. I like you an awful lot, G. It's spandex-girl I don't like."

"Well," G said, stroking Evason's nose with one finger, "I'll let you know if I lose the roommate."

"Yeah," Megan said. "G'night."

Megan let herself out of the apartment gently, and went down to the back garden for a stroll in the sleet. She found Watson sitting on the back steps, under the overhang, smoking a clove cigarette.

"Hey," Watson said.

"Hey," Megan said.

"Almost time for the fireworks," Watson said.

"Yeah," Megan said gloomily. She finally admitted to herself that she'd really been hoping that the talk would result in her and G making some all-night fireworks of their own.

Watson looked at her quizzically over the rim of her glasses. "Not much for celebrations?"

Megan rubbed her hand over her face. "Bad mood, sorry."

Watson watched her for a moment, took a drag on the cigarette, and said, "You know, she can't think about having the ghost removed."

Megan looked at Watson sharply. "You know way too much. You sure you're not a telepath?"

"Absolutely," Watson said.

"So you think she was hinting at me to help?"

Watson shrugged. "Well, what mystical whosit is going to take time to talk to an architect? Or a consulting detective?"

Megan sighed. "But the daughter of the Amazon is another matter. Why does it always come down to my mother?"

Watson raised her eyebrows. "Why would they listen to the daughter of a retired superhero?" she asked. "Especially when they could be talking to one of the women who just saved the city?"

Megan stared at her for a moment, then said, "Oh."

Watson crushed her cigarette out on the cement of the stairs and dropped it into one of the cigarette poles Zoltan had put around the place.

Megan said, "But why didn't she talk to Simon? He's got better connections than I do."

Watson turned to walk up the stairs. "Maybe because she wasn't sleeping with Simon."

Megan thought about that a moment, and just as Watson was going through the back door, she said, "But then how did you --"

Watson grinned over her shoulder and went inside.

Megan stood in the sleet for a while, digesting that conversation, and thinking back over the talk with G.

In the distance, she started to hear small pops and explosions, and could see multicolored lights flickering against the cloud cover.

Zoltan landed in the yard, his dark trenchcoat folding down around him like wings. "It is very pretty from up high," he said, "but not so much in this weather. Why are you standing out getting a nice frosting like this?"

"Trying to clear my head," Megan said. She ran her fingers through her hair, flicking water and ice away.

"Pah! New Year's is not for clear heads. You must become muddled and befuddled."

"I'm already that," she assured him.

Another figure dropped neatly into the yard. She was a round-hipped black woman with short dreds and an easy smile, also wearing a trenchcoat. "Hey, are you one of his tenants?" she asked, a slight Jamaican accent flavoring the sentence.

Megan smiled back at her. "Yep. I'm Megan."

"Isolde," the woman said, drawing the word out, her smile widening. They shook hands; the handshake lingered. Isolde's hand was surprisingly warm.

Zoltan gave Isolde a jaded look over his shoulder. "I'll have you know that she's not edible. You would break your teeth on her skin."

"My dear," Isolde said witheringly, "I do have more interests in this long life than just eating."

He shrugged. "Could have fooled me."

"Hah!" she said, throwing her hands in the air. "Look at who's talking here. How often does he have pretty boys in?"

"Wouldn't know," Megan said, quirking a smile. "I think he's got a separate entrance."

"Of course I do," Zoltan said. "Now can we go inside where there is no ice falling on my head? I would like something to drink, myself, that is non-nutritional."

"A lush, too," Isolde said to Megan, shaking her head. "It's so sad to see one of our elders devolve so."

Megan was having trouble not giggling. The world felt more than a little surreal to her right then -- a consequence of being para among paras, she concluded. Too much para-ness.

"Now?" Zoltan asked, raising his eyebrows dramatically. "You too, young lady. You require some sustenance after trying to freeze yourself like Lady Justice in Antarctica."

"I..." Megan started to say.

Isolde seized her hand. "Oh, yes, do come in. I want to know more about you, and I need diversion from Old Stuff here."

"If I am so old and boring, why did you come with me?" Zoltan said, opening the back door and bowing to the women.

"I was hoping to meet some of your young and beautiful tenants," Isolde said, tugging Megan after her. "Clearly, I am precognitive."

Megan allowed herself to be towed, glancing once toward the grand finale fireworks that exploded in a technicolor spray reaching up into the clouds. She turned to follow Isolde through the door and smiled vaguely at Zoltan.

"You see?" Zoltan said. "It is not so bad. Change is the only thing you can count on. Trust me, I'm old, I know these things." He patted her on the back. "Happy New Year, dear."

"Yeah," Megan said, looking after Isolde and letting her smile grow. "Happy New Year!"

---

From the author:

And so we close volume #1 of Wonder City Stories. I hope very much that you've enjoyed this first story arc at least as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

I'm going to take a week or so off now, as I pull the plot of volume #2 together and write the first several episodes. Want to influence the plot, or at least who appears in it? If you send me a tip OR write a review of WCS on your blog or on a site like Web Fiction Guide or Muse's Success, you can also give me the name of a minor character you'd like to see more of, and I'll do my best to include her/him in volume 2!

Thank you all for your continued support!

Jude



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---

Playing for the Other Team

Megan and G emerged from the Harvest Patch Cafe, replete with a romantically candlelit lunch and several glasses of microbrewery ale. Megan felt that all was good and fine in the brittle sunshine of the afternoon. She filled her lungs with cold air, anticipating the bus ride back to Marigold Lane, and the hopefully inevitable conclusion.

She hoped that Evason wouldn't... stare in such an intent and critical way again.

G turned to say something to Megan, and was cut off by the Kosmic Klaxon's blare. "I hate that thing," she said bitterly, wincing.

"Does it usually go off so often?" Megan said, looking upward nervously for alien craft and plasma bolts. "Oh, crap."

G swore vividly when she also saw the streak of golden light that was descending into the next block.

Megan was already running toward what she thought was the impact point. After a few seconds, she heard G's boots pounding the pavement behind her. Megan had a moment to think, What the hell are we doing? when she rounded the corner.

It was the matter of a fraction of a second for both G and Megan to spot Simon and the middle-aged white woman Megan knew to be Suzanne. Simon was getting cautiously to his feet. They could just make out the profile of a man in the light -- a white guy with glowing blue eyes and red hair. Megan heard G gasp.

"Isn't that the Bronze Guardian?" G said.

Megan squinted against the glare. "I think... it looks like the newspaper photos of him."

The vision spoke. "I am here for you, Suzanne. I'll make a goddess of you, and we can be together again."

Suzanne picked herself up with distracted assistance from Simon, who didn't take his eyes off the man. Megan's respect for her rose when she said, a little cautiously, "I don't care for goddessing, Josh."

Simon remained in front of Suzanne, squinting through his darkened lenses at the man. His knees were slightly bent, his weight on his toes.

"You'll get used to it," the man in the light said.

Suzanne shielded her eyes and looked toward him. "I don't think so."

The color of the light altered slightly, darkening to a reddish-gold -- or perhaps that was a trick of the oncoming sunset? He took a step forward on the air. "I've traveled farther than you can imagine to return to you," he said, a slight irritation entering his voice, "and I will not tolerate this dismissal." Josh started to reach for Suzanne.

Then Simon opened his mouth and drawled the stupidest, cheesiest, most threadbare macho line in the history of action movies: "The lady said no, buddy."

Josh Feldstein lunged and there was a deafening CRACK, though it didn't look like his backhanded slap had actually touched Simon. Simon was thrown sideways by the impact anyway. "And I will not brook interference from some... puppy," the man said, disgust in his voice.

Megan found herself intercepting Simon's flight before he could go through a nearby plate glass window. The wind went out of her as he hit her with more force than she anticipated, and they both hit the window. She bent over him as glass showered down.

The light was intensifying. G skidded to a halt at Megan's side. "Are you all right?" she said, loud enough to be heard over the wind that was rising around Josh and Suzanne. "Simon?"

Megan looked down at Simon. He was limp in her arms, blood running freely from nose and mouth, his glasses askew. One of his legs was bent the wrong way; he'd probably whacked it on the brick wall on their way through the window. With effort, she bellowed, "Get out of here!" at G.

G stared at Simon, then turned her gaze to the cowering woman in the windstorm. She had a strange look on her face when she turned back to Megan, a sad sort of half-smile.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I really meant to tell you."

G doubled over, clutching herself tightly. A shadow, a double-image, something, descended onto and into G.

When she straightened up, long red hair exploded out behind her in the wind, her lean shape spread and curved at hip and breasts, and her clothes were replaced by a simple green one-piece outfit. Her face was younger and paler and... different. She grew a foot taller with every step she took away from Megan.

Megan really couldn't breathe.

G was Meteor.

----

From the Author:

Thank you to everyone who contributed, both on and off the slate, to the ChipIn! I'm calling this week's complete, so you get the next installment. New ChipIn goes up with Monday's post: we'll try $20 for this coming week, just for the heck of it.

Hope you enjoyed the extra!



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---

Nibbled to Death By Cats

Megan looked around G's apartment for the first time. She'd seen it from the doorway a couple of times, but hadn't been invited in until now.

The walls were lined with bookshelves. The ones closest to the antique walnut desk contained tall art and architecture books, and the subject matter tailed away into fiction as the shelves got farther from the desk. The bookshelves themselves were of multiple shapes, sizes, finishes, and apparent ages, though all of them appeared to be made of actual wood rather than the particle board that populated Megan's own apartment. A dark blue sofa, a substantial red easy chair, a black love seat -- all of similar Swedish make -- occupied the other side of the main room, surrounding a low wooden coffee table. The hardwood floor was covered by a number of overlapping rag rugs of different colors and designs. The small kitchen, open to the living room across a breakfast bar, had been done in dark walnut and glass and stainless steel. The bathroom was small, with a glass-doored shower and a garnet-colored rug on the black-and-white subway tile floor. The door that Megan guessed was to the bedroom was mostly closed.

"It doesn't smell of diesel fuel at all," Megan said while taking all this in.

"Just one of Simon's very little jokes," G said, taking off her black sportscoat. She loosened her pale green tie, which had an Escher print on it, the one with the waterfall. "Want a drink? I'm afraid I only have beer or whiskey."

"Beer, please," Megan said. Now that she focused more on details than on the overall impact of the room, she noticed that there were cats everywhere.

One enormous silver tabby, lounging across most of the loveseat, yawned at her most deliberately.

"Feel free to sit anywhere," G said, rummaging in the refrigerator. "And displace whichever kids are in the way."

"How many are there?" Megan said, bending down to offer her fingers to a friendly long-haired calico who was all but throwing herself at Megan's shins.

"Six," G said. "Used to be seven, but I lost my bad boy in the fall."

"Oh, I'm sorry," Megan said. The calico cheekrubbed her fingers thoroughly.

"Well, he was eighteen or so," G said, emerging from the kitchen with Megan's beer and a whiskey and soda for herself. "Had a good run. But thanks."

"Are you one of those people that cats just find?" Megan said, popping the cap on the bottle with her fingers.

"Oh, yeah," G said, throwing herself down on the loveseat next to the silver tabby and reaching out reflexively to scritch the top of its head. The tabby closed its eyes, flattening its ears and purring audibly. "This one's Evason, who walked in my door one day while I was wrestling with groceries and wouldn't leave. She was wafer-thin, poor baby, and her coat was all messed up with some sort of crud. I had to shave her and vet her, get one of her ears looked at." G displayed one ear where the tip had been torn. "She fights like a tom, y'see."

Megan sat down carefully on the red chair, making sure there was no bundle of fur in the way. The calico immediately leapt into her lap and began to stomp around on it, tail high and vibrating. "And this one?"

"That's Ursula," G said, sipping her drink. "She was the smartest of the bunch when I first got her. As she's gotten older, she's turned into an affectionate pest."

Ursula proved this by circling widdershins three times and then curling into an impossibly small, fluffy ball in the center of Megan's lap. Still purring.

"These are the two friendly ones," G said when Megan had looked around the room and noticed that many of the cats had evaporated. "The others take some time to get used to strangers."

Megan watched G for a moment, admiring the lean lines of the other woman's shoulders and throat, before saying, "Like you?"

G smiled lazily. "Like me. Like you too."

"Me?" Megan said. "I am friendliness and extroversion itself. I am the Welcome Wagon compared to some people."

"No, hon, that's Simon," G said, running a finger around the lip of her glass. "You use friendly to keep things from getting too deep."

"Who majored in psych here?" Megan said, perhaps a touch more edgily than she meant to.

G shrugged, taking a sip. "You only open up when you're chemically altered and pushed to it."

Another cat -- an extremely tiny cat with short golden fur and spattering of black spots -- materialized on the arm of Megan's chair. Megan glanced up inquiringly at G.

"That's Madame Blavatsky," G said. "She's the oldest, now Vimes is gone."

Megan offered her finger for sniffing, which Madame Blavatsky ignored. Madame B examined the vast tracts of available lap, trekked across it with aplomb, and curled up against Ursula, making an even tinier ball of herself.

"You're attempting to subjugate me with cats instead of booze," Megan said, mildly accusing.

"Maybe," G said, finishing her drink.

"What is it you want to know?" Megan asked as a vividly-painted tortoiseshell cat landed on the other arm of her chair.

"I don't think you said everything the other night about your whole spandex issue, and I'm morbidly curious."

Megan shot G an irritable look. The cat also ignored Megan's finger and made straight for the ensconced pair. "Why?"

G gestured to the cat. "Olamina," she said, by way of introduction. "I think that your story about your roommate is horrible and tragic, and I hope the bastard got it taken out of him in pounds of flesh. But it feels like it's only part of the story."

Megan stared in amazement as a lanky black and white tuxedo cat scaled her leg and hauled itself up onto her knee. Then she looked back at G. "It is only part of the story. Happy?"

"I named him Jazz because he had really good PR to convince me to bring him in," G said, nodding to the tuxedo cat, who arranged himself on Megan's immense lap so that he was somehow touching all three of the other cats.

"What?" Megan said, surveying the pile of cats.

"Never mind," G said. "No, it doesn't make me happy. But it makes me feel better that my instincts don't suck."

Megan sulked. She knew she was sulking. She didn't care. She drank her beer.

Madame Blavatsky abruptly poked her head up out of the kittenpile and viciously groomed her flank.

G got up and made herself another whiskey and soda, then settled back down next to Evason, black-denim-clad legs stretched out in front of her. She unfastened the top button of her white shirt.

Silence stretched out between them. Megan shifted her weight a little in the chair.

Madame Blavatsky glared up at Megan. Her outrage was mitigated by the quarter inch of pink tongue still protruding from her mouth.

Megan sighed and skritched the tiny kitty head with one large finger. Madame B permitted the familiarity with imperial tolerance.

"My roommate's boyfriend was a member of one of the campus superteams. And so was my girlfriend." Megan drained the beer bottle and examined the label. "The whole team, in fact, except the nerd no one liked, was captured and mind-fucked by a supervillain, though no one realized it except the nerd, who left the group and was never heard from again." She looked at G. "He was dead, of course, but no one knew that at the time."

G looked like she was sorry she brought it all up. Megan was pleased, and noted the little viciousness in herself for later self-recrimination. Or possibly sulking.

"Except that the supervillain didn't actually do anything to them, just told them they'd been mind-fucked, and they all took it as permission to be villains," Megan said, rubbing her forehead. "Tanya broke up with Boyd and I broke up with Annette the same night. Tanya and I'd talked about it, and we both decided to be done with them, because they were being abusive fuckheads. A couple days later, Boyd came and cut Tanya to pieces and left her for me to find. I'm harder to cut up or blow up or whatever. So Annette started to stalk me. And gaslighted the hell out of me."

G fetched another beer for Megan and sat back down. "I'm sorry." G rubbed Evason's undamaged ear and didn't look up at Megan. "I shouldn't have asked. I was being a jerk."

Megan shrugged, drawing evil one-eyed glowers from Jazz and Olamina and Ursula. "I suppose I could have fixed the whole thing by telling my mom, who would've called the Gold Stars, who would've called the Berkeley groups together, et cetera, et cetera. It would've been too late for Tanya, and I was being stubborn and vengeful."

"What happened in the end?" G said, apparently deciding to cut to the chase.

Megan stroked Jazz's long back, which made him stretch out longer and curl his toes. "Mom figured out I was in trouble. I still don't know how, or everything she did behind the scenes. But half of them got away, Annette among them. I stopped getting creepy emails from her after Mom changed all my email accounts and phone numbers and put some sort of electronic trackers on things. Boyd is in prison. New Alcatraz, the orbital place."

G nodded and looked like she was about to say something.

Then an enormous black cat landed with a thud on the chair behind Megan's head. It walked onto her shoulder. She could hear a deep rumbling purr resounding from it.

G smiled, the lines around her mouth lending her face the character that Megan really couldn't get enough of watching, and got up. "That's Uhura," she said, walking into the kitchen. "Staying for dinner, I hope?"

Uhura stepped down from Megan's shoulder to her chest, then settled herself on the shelf of Megan's bosom, paws tucked under. Megan had to put an arm up to keep her there, and Uhura blinked enormous yellow eyes at her. The purr rattled through Megan's ribcage.

"I guess so," Megan said, and was promptly distracted as the cats all chose that moment to stretch and rearrange themselves.



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---

Table d'hôte

"Does Zoltan always take any excuse to throw a party?" Megan asked G as they sat at the vampire's lavish table.

"Every one," G said, scooting her chair closer to the table. "And makes up others."

Watson sat across from Megan and G, and Jack Hammer sat at one end of the table, while Zoltan had reserved the other for himself. Simon, looking grey and sleepless and rumpled, arrived last and took his seat next to Watson.

Zoltan, resplendent in a black silk shirt and slacks crowned by a garnet velvet tailcoat and matching cravat, entered from the kitchen, followed by a trio of beautiful young men -- one white, one black, and one Asian -- each in waiter's black-and-white and carrying trays. Like a magician revealing his latest trick, Zoltan whisked the silver lid off the first tray and declared, "Venison!" The second was pronounced, "Goose!" and the third, with a broad and knowing smile, "Turkey!"

The trays arrived safely at table, and then more dishes materialized around them in a bustle of his hired waitstaff: pumpkin mushroom soup, sweet potato pie, asparagus and mushroom risotto, cornbread stuffing, and more. Zoltan seated himself at table as the bustle vanished back into the kitchen. "You will all forgive, I hope, if we do not say grace," he said with a sweet smile that made Megan laugh outright. He winked at her, settled his linen napkin in his lap, and said, "Will you please carve the turkey, Mr. Hammer? And you, G, would you carve the goose? The venison, alas, requires no carving, and so poor Simon must sit idle this year." He reached over and patted Simon's shoulder.

Simon appeared to awaken then, and smiled absently at Zoltan. "Oh. Thanks," he said, and returned to his distraction.

It was a merry and remarkably filling meal, and the food woke even Simon up enough to converse after a while. The desserts were copious and traditional: pumpkin pie, apple pie, and bourbon pecan pie, all warm and served with ice cream.

"If I weren't made of steel," Jack Hammer said as he leaned back from the table, "I'd bust. Zoltan, one hell of a dinner."

Zoltan managed to bow gracefully while still seated. "From you, with your family history of grand meals, Mr. Hammer, that is a great compliment."

"I'm just glad Doc Robotnik did that big overhaul of my sensory inputs last year," Hammer said. "Best tastebuds I've had since I lost the meatsack."

The group retired to Zoltan's parlor, seating themselves on the overstuffed furniture with the grace of overfed pelicans.

"Wow," Simon said, leaning back with his hands laced over his belly.

"Yeah," Megan said, flumping down in one of the chairs Zoltan kept for people like her and Jack Hammer, the ones made, apparently, of neutron star material.

Watson helped Zoltan pass around tiny cups of thick Turkish coffee and snifters of brandy. Little conversation occurred as they all settled into the mellowing influences of the dimly-lit room, comfortable furniture, and beverages, but words began to flow as freely as the brandy after the initial food coma.

Megan found herself talking to Watson and saying vehemently, "I don't know why anyone does it. I wouldn't get involved with anyone in spandex ever again. It's not worth it. Nothing's worth it."

The other conversations in the room ceased. Megan's ears began to burn.

"Helluva thing to say in Wonder City," Jack Hammer said, mildly.

"Yeah," Watson said. "I gotta wonder why you came here, feeling that way."

"There's plenty of people in Wonder City who don't wear spandex," Megan said, feeling the blush advance under the focus of the room's attention.

"I know why I don't want to date spandex," Simon said lazily (and probably drunkenly, Megan thought), "but why don't you?"

Megan glanced at him, then G, then down at her own knees. "I just... had some bad experiences."

"Everyone does," Hammer said.

"That's just it," Megan said, fiddling with the coffee cup that was very nearly too small to be a thimble for her, and suddenly couldn't stop the rush of words. "But normal bad experiences are, you know, people being alcoholics, or passive-aggressive, or just uncommunicative. The really, really bad stuff, with normal people, isn't as infrequent as we'd like, and when it's bad, it's really bad, but... you know, when things go wrong with spandex, it means supervillains in your living room or death rays through your roof or... or... being stalked by someone with fucking x-ray and telescopic vision." Her throat felt thick and her vision got blurry. "Or finding your goddamn roommate in sliced in pieces by laser vision and stuffed in the refrigerator because some spandex psycho got mad at her for dumping him and he thought it would be 'ironic.'" She savagely rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. "I'd rather deal with normal dysfunction any goddamn day."

There was a silence. She thought, Normal dysfunction can still kill people, can still be horrible, just as horrible. I know that. I know someone is going to say it, and I know it, and I'm just a... an... anti-spandex bigot... but I can't help it... She held her head in her hands and tried not to pull on her hair. She also thought, I'm sooo drunk.

When Megan dared to look up and around, the only person looking at her was Zoltan. The vampire sat with his chin propped on his folded hands, examining her thoughtfully.

She gave him a rueful smile and said, "Sorry for being a downer."

Zoltan smiled back and said, "No, I think you have reminded us all of things for which we should be thankful. That is what Americans claim this day is about, is it not?"

Watson leaned over and rubbed Megan's shoulder affectionately. "Sorry for setting it all off."

Jack Hammer stood up. "I better get home. Y'all look like you're about to start hugging." Pillows were flung by Simon and G. He fended them off and laughed. "No, really, the toy boy's due soon. I gotta get back."

"'Toy boy'?" G said, appalled.

Hammer grinned and shrugged. "Thanks, Zoltan. Dinner was great, man."

Zoltan rose gracefully. "But of course. Thank you for coming."

The rest took Jack Hammer's lead, rose, and trickled out with appropriate appreciative noises. Megan had the impression that Zoltan wanted to get on with the main event of his evening, which probably involved some or all of his hired waiters.

Megan lingered outside her own door, smiled good night to Watson and accepted a hug from Simon.

G looked at her and opened her mouth to say something.

"I," Megan said, mostly to forestall her, then rushed on, "I hate spending holidays alone. Don't you? I mean holiday evenings. Nights. Whatever." She gestured helplessly at her own door.

G regarded Megan for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah. I sure do hate it too."
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Of a Mingled Yarn

Nereid found a trio of women sitting in the garden at Zoltan's house, despite the chilly November air. She recognized two of them -- Megan and G -- and was introduced to the third, mousier woman, whose name was Watson. G and Watson were smoking. "Do you know if Simon's home?" she asked them.

Megan snorted. "He's home, but if you can get him to talk to you, you're doing better than any of us."

G said, "I think his date last Friday went badly."

"Oh," Nereid said. "Oh, maybe I should come back later."

Megan gestured her toward the house. "Nah. You're old friends. He'll talk to you."

Nereid continued to feel uncertain. "I... kind of wanted to talk to him about... you know... a relationship."

"With him?" Watson said, eyebrows rising precipitously.

"No!" Nereid said, alarmed. "No, no, I'm in a relationship and it's... confusing. But it probably wouldn't be good to talk to him about..."

Megan reached over and gave her a little shove toward the front door. "Go. He'll tell you if he doesn't want to hear about it. And it might do him good to hear about someone else's woes."

"You think so...?" Nereid said, casting her gaze to the two older women.

G nodded. "Go on," she said.

So Nereid went into the house, walking softly up the stairs to the landing where two apartment doors faced each other. She listened a moment at Simon's door, then tapped at it.

He wrenched the door open. Simon was shirtless, with a small white towel around his neck, and was wearing baggy, knee-length nylon athletic pants in the Wonder City U colors. The stereo was booming a woman's voice singing some opera thing that Nereid vaguely recognized. Carmen? Or something like that. Simon mopped beads of sweat off his forehead with the towel and said, "Pacifica."

Nereid said, "You're busy," and prepared to bolt.

Simon's smile didn't reach his eyes. "Nah, come on in."

His apartment was neater than she'd ever seen it. Everything was picked up off the floor, the laundry was in its hamper, the books were neatly arranged on the shelves, the bed was made. There was a strangely open spot that took her a few moments to puzzle out -- an old wooden table was missing.

"Soooo," Nereid said, looking around and trying not to touch anything, "how are you doing?"

Simon shrugged violently and balled up his towel. "About the usual." He threw the towel into the hamper hard enough to make it rock from side to side.

"I... a little bird told me you'd had a... a date problem," Nereid said.

Simon's mouth curled into a snarl, then relaxed. "You could say that."

"What happened?"

Simon cut his eyes at her and pursed his lips. "What do you think happened?" He reached out to a remote control on an occasional table. Next to it was a CD titled And the Fat Lady Sings!. He punched a button and the Fat Lady's voice ceased to course through the apartment.

Nereid looked away and cleared her throat. "The, um, Down There problem?"

"The inadequate supply of junk issue, yes." Simon thumped the side of a large wooden cabinet that Nereid remembered him building last year in Professor Canis's garage. "Prosthetic replacements not helpful." For a moment, she vividly remembered watching him work on it, lovingly shaping the individual shelves and racks for his extensive, embarrassing collection with a jig saw and sander. The garage had smelled of sawed wood and varnish. "I didn't try the 'it was shot off in the war' line this time. I didn't think she'd laugh." He turned his back on Nereid and started rifling through a dresser drawer.

Nereid watched his back for a few moments, abstractedly admiring his muscles, then noticed that he'd stopped moving and his shoulders had sagged. "I'm sorry, Simon," she said quietly. "I... have you ever re-thought asking your mom...?"

Simon back stiffened and he scowled at her. "I told you before. Anything Mom makes for me will be just for me. The government will take it away and lock it up and no other trans person in the country will be able to use it until the powers that be decide it can't be weaponized. And never will, if they decide it can be a weapon. I mean, shit, look at the potential for demoralizing the enemy soldiers by giving them boobs and making their dicks vanish!" He slapped his hand down on the top of the dresser and he turned his scowl down into the drawer. "I'm not using it unless everyone can use it."

Nereid thought, and never, ever said, that Simon was being a martyr to his own cause, and if she had his problem, she'd ask her mom to invent the sex-switcher the second she was sure. Not that her mom was an inventor. But anyway.

Instead, she said, "I'm sorry."

Simon shrugged and pulled a t-shirt out of the drawer. "It's okay. I didn't mean to snap. What's up with you?"

Nereid considered how to put it. "I'm... okay," she said.

Simon pulled the t-shirt over his head and looked at her again. "You don't sound okay."

Nereid flapped her hands uselessly, losing her mental grip on Simon's troubles. "I should be happy," she said. "I've got a... I've got a... Simon, I'm a..." Her words, starting in a rush, ended up a trickle.

Simon turned to face her. His white t-shirt was fronted by multicolored triangles -- pink, blue, and black -- arranged with overlapping corners to resemble a Venn diagram, and a tiny, white, "me," at their dark purple intersection. "You have a girlfriend," he said, his voice a little flat, almost bored, "and you have no idea how to tell your parents."

Nereid's eyes widened and she felt her face flush scarlet. "How did you know?" she whispered.

Simon barked a laugh. "Girlfriend, your eyes used to be locked on Ivy's cleavage when you thought she wasn't looking."

Nereid covered her face with her hands. Had everyone known? Everyone but her, that is?

"It's all right, you know," Simon said, his voice gentler. "Your mom and dad are cool people, and they know plenty of queer folks. They'll be all right after they get used to it. And if they don't, just ask Megan to get her mom to talk to them."

"Her mom is scary," Nereid said in a small voice, peeking at him between her fingers.

"Yeah," Simon said. "Megan doesn't believe that, though, which means she's going to turn into just as terrifying a person as her mom without knowing it."

"She's well on her way," Nereid said, dropping her hands to her sides.

"I won't tell her you said that," he said. "What else is wrong?"

Nereid gave him her best Why do you think anything else is wrong? look, and he just put his hands on his hips and glowered back at her.

She shrugged helplessly and said, "It's just... my g... girlfriend is... well, she didn't exactly break up nicely with her last girlfriend, and her last girlfriend kinda... walked in on us. And she looked really hurt and stuff."

Simon frowned and gestured for Nereid to have a seat on the blazing orange striped couch. She thumped down on it and he folded himself down more gracefully. "All right," Simon said. "Spill. Who's your girlfriend?"

Nereid looked down at her hands and said in a tiny voice, "Brainchild."

When Simon didn't immediately say anything, she looked up carefully. She expected him to be grinning, if not outright laughing at her. Instead, he was still frowning, but looking away. After a moment, he said, "I thought I heard that she and the deputy commander of the Young Cosmics were a thing."

"Um. Yeah. They were."

Simon's gaze slewed around to her and he looked at her over his tinted lenses, pinning her like a butterfly. "Are you prepared to be bounced off the team, then?"

Nereid blinked. This had never occurred to her. "But why...?"

Simon tilted his head, raised his eyebrows, and let his glasses slip down his nose further. "Because that's how this game is played. Come on, Pacifica. Teen mob mentality runs later than high school. Wire is going to kick you in the ass the only way she can, and her buds will back her up because she's the alpha bitch and you're the omega, and you came in and took her girl away."

"But I didn't!" Nereid said, not liking the high, strained pitch of her voice. "I... Sophie kissed me first."

"That won't matter to Wire," Simon said, then he rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. "Pacifica, look, why don't you call Ivy? She'd love to hear from you, and I think she'd have... she'd be better for you to talk to. She has a girl perspective on this, you know?"

Nereid stopped herself from saying something like, But you did too, once, didn't you?, and congratulated herself on catching herself before something like that came out. Maybe she did have a better learning curve than the kitten her mother always compared her to. "Sure," she said. "Sure, I'll give her a call." She stood up. "Thanks for listening."

Simon stood up too. "Pacifica, just be careful, okay? The Young Cosmics are mostly jerks. Talk to Pay -- from what you've said, he's got some perspective on things."

Nereid didn't quite wince, but pasted a bigger smile on her face. "Sure, I'll talk to him."

At the door, Nereid turned and smiled more tentatively at him. "Thanks, Simon. You're a real nice guy."

Simon smiled, tightlipped but pleased, she thought. They hesitated a moment more, and he reached out and hugged her with one arm. "Thanks," he said. "You're pretty nice too. Stay that way, huh?"

Watson was the only one still in the yard when Nereid left. She blew smoke rings over the yard and waved languidly at Nereid. Nereid paused, then headed over to her.

She had her mouth open to ask a question, but something else caught her attention: around the side of the house, near the trash cans, there was a little heap of splintered wood. One of the legs of the table she had missed in Simon's apartment stuck out of the pile.

Watson followed her gaze, then turned back and smiled up at Nereid. "Yes," she said. "Our Simon has some anger issues, doesn't he?"

Nereid, remembering something Ivy had said to her, said vaguely, "It's the testosterone."

Watson gave her a look over the gold rim of her glasses, just as Simon had earlier, but her eyes were hazel and rather kind. "No, dear," she said. "It's just life."


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---

The Trouble with Lizard Brains

The convention day ground to a close. Megan had talked to -- and been eyed, interrogated, or psychologically analyzed by -- a vast array of people. Supposedly, all of them were members of Draco familiaris. Not all of them were Reptilian-Americans; some were Reptilian-Europeans or Reptilian-Africans or Reptilian-Taiwanese. Most of them were simply taking in the view of the humans here, she concluded after a while, but most of them also picked up brochures from the Ultimate Construction table. Ladybird, who knew more about the capabilities of the company, put herself in the way of the serious questions about what Ultimate could do, but let Megan fend for herself under personal scrutiny.

Megan concluded, after about five hours, that this was some kind of test of her personality, and Ladybird would no doubt be reporting in to Ms. Revelle and Dr. Thomas in the morning. "Oh, yes, she didn't even punch out that guy who asked her bra size," Ladybird would say.

That one had been a close thing, though.

Megan had just loaded the few boxes of brochures still left to them, along with the accoutrements of the booth, into the van, when she heard, "So, come here often?" somewhere near her elbow.

She turned, opening her mouth for a retort, and found G grinning up at her. "What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"Same thing you are," G said, plucking some invisible lint off her neat grey blazer and brushed down the front of the matching, somehow uncreased, trousers.

"I never figured you for a booth babe," Megan said.

G grinned, which deepened the laugh lines on either side of her mouth. "I'm not. I'm one of the professionals doing consulting and estimates in the 'back room' of our booth."

"I see," Megan said, viscerally regretting her lack of marketable skills and the ability to be in the 'back room.'

"You look like you could use dinner or a drink or both," G said.

"I have to go back to the office," Megan said, gesturing at the van.

Ladybird, overhearing as she appeared around the front of the van, waved her off. "You can unload tomorrow. It's after 5. Go on."

Megan frowned. "Are you sure?"

Ladybird nodded, climbing into the driver's seat. "I'm never one to stand in the way of a date."

Megan avoided G's gaze. "I guess I can, then."

G motioned for her to follow, and the two of them headed for the street.

"So, how much business did you get today?" Megan said, striving for non-datey conversation.

"I always do about half a dozen consults at these things," G said, taking the lead in the pursuit of a restaurant somewhere in the Wonder City downtown. "I'm the historical specialist, so I get a brisk trade since these folks have persistent tastes over time. Still, I'm going to have to do some research for a couple of them. Very specialized flavors, rather than my usual, 'Oh, you want a Victorian Egyptomania theme, with some Chinoiserie thrown in? Got it!'"

"Ever designed architecture for a supervillain?" Megan said.

"Not that I know of," G said, "but I wouldn't be surprised if I had at some point. There are always some sketchy folks coming in, paying cash, that sort of thing."

"I wonder how Ultimate handles that sort of thing," Megan mused.

"I expect they keep all their plans on file, just in case," G said, smiling. "The color of a supervillain's money isn't noticeably different from Joe or Jane Extremely Wealthy's money."

Megan was cranky enough to be in a mood to argue, but couldn't find any traction on this point. So she just sighed.

"Tired?" G said, glancing aside at her. "Would you rather head home?"

Megan shook her head, looking at her worn-down self in the mirrored window of a skyscraper. "No. I'm hungry and tired, and the whole convention left a bad taste in my mouth, so I'd rather spend time with some congenial company." She smiled down at G. "If you don't mind me being moody."

G shrugged and grinned again. "I guess I've gotten used to these people. Though I expect you were much more interesting to them than I've ever been."

Megan rolled her eyes. "Those people are nosy fuckers. One asked me if I was biracial, and when I said yes, asked what races the mix involved. She looked like she'd bit into a lemon when I told her I didn't know."

G raised her eyebrows. "So the rumors are true?"

Megan's mouth twitched and she shrugged violently. "It depends on which rumors you mean. If you mean the one about not knowing who my father is, then yes. It made college a pain."

"Always filling in 'Other' on forms?" G said, steering them down Silver Guardian Street toward the edge of the financial district.

"Well, I'd probably have filled that in anyway," Megan said. "But in college, a lot of people lack the ability to read mind-your-own-business social cues. Purposely or not."

"Ah," G said. "Yes. I remember the ones that wanted to know if I was a lesbian, and then spent a lot of time deciding whether I should be a lesbian. And the lesbians who had to discuss whether I really should be propagating the butch/femme dynamic with my gender presentation. Usually in situations where one can't just walk out."

"One white man actually walked up to me with a piece of paper bag in his hand and stood there, just looking at me and then at it, then walked off," Megan said, returning to the subject of the convention as fresh rage rolled over her. "Ladybird told me to go to take a break right then or I think I would've tried my best to dismember him."

G looked at her with some confusion.

Megan was merciful. "Is my skin darker than a paper bag?"

G's mouth formed an "o" of understanding and horror. "That's over and above the usual offensiveness."

"Really? I figured it was par for the sexist, racist, whatever-else-ist dragon course, given the several that asked about my various sizes. I'm just boggled by how much of a free pass these people get to be assholes because they're a different species that happens to be huge, powerful, and able to eat humans in a single gulp," Megan said.

G gave Megan a fond, sad smile. "It isn't that. It's that they're clients, or potential clients."

Megan sneered. "I thought I gave that shit up when I stopped working retail."

G shrugged. "Clients are clients. None of them, human or dragon or space alien, treat you like you're a human being. At least, working construction, you don't have to kiss anyone's ass directly. The higher-ups do most of that for you."

"Except when they decide I'm a-number-one material for booth-babe," Megan said sourly. "What the shit is Ruth-I'm-a-fucking-goddess-Thomas doing trying to get business from these people, anyway?" She glanced up at the sign over the door they were approaching and paused. It read Tir Na Nog in fancy, gilt-edged Celtic script.

G followed her gaze to the sign of the "Irish" pub, then looked at the entirely white yuppie population of the restaurant visible through the windows. She cleared her throat uncomfortably and ran her fingers through her short hair. "Want to go somewhere else?"

"Nah, I'm starving, and I feel like shedding some mysterious brown on people," Megan said, mentally giving G points for having a clue. "It'll do them all good."
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---

Betrayal Is Betrayal Wherever You Find It

Suzanne regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth. Not because she really understood what was wrong with what she said, but because... She'd seen people who looked like they'd been slapped by words before. That wasn't how Simon looked. Simon looked like he -- she? -- had expected the blow, had braced for the blow, and was still surprised by how hard the blow had been.

The silence stretched out between them. The whole thing was made more awkward by their respective states of déshabillé. Suzanne finally smoothed her skirt down over her knees and sat up straighter on the orange-tiger-striped couch.

Simon stared across the studio apartment in an unseeing way, finally saying, "Don't you think I tried that?"

Suzanne opened her mouth to say something, then shut it. She pushed a few strands of hair out of her face and tugged her blouse together in front.

Simon said, "Don't you think I spent years trying to be a lesbian?" Simon stood up and peeled the already-open buttondown shirt off, tossing it across the room. "Do I look like a lesbian?"

She looked at Simon. She stared at the lovingly-trimmed beard and moustache, the muscled amber shoulders, and the sculpted chest. She had liked the feel of the small, tight, black curls over the breastbone. She now saw the thin scars curving along the underside of the pectoral muscles. She finally met that disturbing yellow gaze and flinched at the rage she saw there. She felt angry and horrified and betrayed. Why should Simon be angry? Wasn't she the one who had been lied to here?

"I... I think I'd better go," Suzanne said, standing up hurriedly, trying to button her blouse with shaking hands.

Simon stepped in front of her, and with great gentleness, finished buttoning her blouse. Then Simon picked her bra up off the floor, folded it carefully, and tucked it into her handbag.

Suzanne took her handbag. "I... I'm sorry... I wish... I'm just not a..."

"No," Simon said. "And neither am I. Maybe you'll understand that in time." The fine, soft lips that Suzanne had so recently kissed half-curled into a snarl, then pressed together in a thin line. "I'll see you at the cafe sometime."

Simon held the door open for her, waiting patiently while Suzanne located her shoes and her coat. In the hall, Suzanne turned to... say something, anything.

Simon closed the door.

Suzanne was in the front hall when she heard the immense crash from upstairs. She dropped her shoes, shoved her feet into them, and yanked open the front door.

She stopped, face-to-face with a short, redheaded, mannish-looking woman. The woman stepped aside with a gallant little bow. Suzanne scurried past her.

"Ma'am?" the woman drawled.

Suzanne turned to find the woman holding up the lacy black brassiere that had fallen from her bag, dangling it by its delicate straps. She rushed back up the steps, snatched it away, and fled down the path to where her car was parked.
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---

The Sharpest Sight

"Why was she so late getting to the date that she asked you out on?" Megan said, stretching backward on the enormous pillows strewn on Simon's floor so that her back made a symphony of little popping noises.

"Her uncle passed out at work," Simon said, kicking the fridge closed and bringing her a beer. "She had to get to the hospital and make sure he was all right. He's pretty old, I think, and there's no one else to check on him."

"She couldn't call you?" Megan said, taking a swig.

"We exchanged cell numbers at the restaurant, so it won't happen again," Simon said, flopping down on a pillow and spilling beer down his shirt. "And the hospital had no cell reception, so she couldn't call the restaurant."

"Ah," Megan said. "How was the date once it started?"

Simon sighed, sipped his beer, and stared into space. "She's so great, Megan. Smart and funny and really together, and gorgeous and sexy..." He turned a serious look upon Megan. "I mean, a lot of people probably wouldn't be able to see the sexy. She's kind of older than most people think of being sexy, but I can see it and she's hot."

"What does she do for a living?" Megan said, tucking one arm behind her head and drinking more beer.

"I... um, I'm not sure. She works in an office." Simon closed his eyes, apparently pawing through his memory. "She manages projects and deals with clients."

"Ah," Megan said again, studying the beer label. "Did you get her last name yet?"

"Erm, no," Simon said, looking down at his hands. "It didn't seem important."

"What did you talk about?" Megan said, squinting at the ceiling.

"Um, well, the cafe," Simon said. "And my bike. And the city, the shelters, the Perisphere and Trylon, good restaurants, places in the city she likes to go but can't get to because she's really busy..."

"Well, it sounds like you had a good conversation," Megan said, finishing her beer.

"Yeah," Simon said, a silly grin on his face. "Oh, so how did work go today?"

"Lousy," Megan said, setting the beer down and sitting up finally. "The Captain is pissed on his own account, and also because Copperhead is pissed because Tizemt gave him notice. It was all I could do to ask for a day off. When I did, he gave it to me, then just stopped talking to me at all."

"Fuuuuck," Simon said, drinking from his own bottle.

"Yeah," Megan said, drying her hands on the legs of her jeans. "I better interview really well and land this gig with the construction company, because I don't think I can stand more than another couple of weeks with the Captain."

"You're really gonna do it, then?" Simon said, looking concerned.

"Yeah, why not?"

"Working for Mr. Hammer... I dunno." Simon scratched the back of his neck. "I wonder what kind of boss he'd be."

"Well, he's a site foreman," Megan said, tugging her shirttails out. "I'm interviewing with the top boss, who runs the company, and her second-in-command, who runs all the sites."

"Sounds intimidating as hell," Simon said, setting his bottle down on the floor.

"I'm just trying to think of it as having an interview with my mom," Megan said. "Or yours."

"Hah," Simon said, resettling his glasses on his nose.

Megan smiled at Simon and waggled her eyebrows. "Anyway, I've got a lot of steam to blow off..." She started unbuttoning her shirt.

Simon looked away, fiddled with his goatee uncomfortably for a moment, then said, "Well, I kinda have to open tomorrow morning..."

Megan paused briefly, staring at him. "Do you have an understanding with her?" she asked after a long moment, undoing the rest of the buttons.

Simon didn't look up, but started smoothing his mustache. "Not... exactly. I mean, I can't say to her, 'Are we going steady now?' or anything stupid like that, right? But we're going on another date on Friday..."

Megan got up on one knee and looked down at Simon. She put her hands on her hips, thumbs dragging down and back on the tails of her shirt so that the upper halves of the shirt were hooked over her breasts. The lower halves of the shirt were parted to expose the line of her breastbone, the curve of her belly, and the soft roll of skin above her jeans, features of which she knew Simon was particularly fond. She was feeling mean, and felt vaguely guilty about it.

Simon looked up at her looming figure, and Megan had the satisfaction of watching his gaze travel precisely where she knew it would. He licked his lips hesitantly, then said, "I just wouldn't feel right..."

Megan got to her feet, started buttoning and stopped feeling guilty. "No problem," she said briskly.

"Still friends, right?" Simon said, scurrying to his feet.

He kicked over his beer bottle, and the last little bit sloshed onto a pillow. Megan didn't point it out, only smiled lopsidedly and said, "Sure, dude. The benefits have been fun. Let me know if... well, you know."

Simon nodded slowly. "Yeah, sure." He bit his lip and looked down at his feet. "Sorry."

Megan shrugged and clapped him on the shoulder, a little harder than she'd intended. He rocked sideways and had to take a step to catch himself. "It happens, and we didn't exactly talk about what would happen if one of us found someone serious, right?" She leaned down, her shirt still open enough to give him one last glimpse, and kissed his cheek. "Seeya. G'night."

She was almost out the door when Simon said, "Wanna go for drinks Thursday? After your interview?"

Megan unclenched her jaw and smiled over her shoulder. He was fidgeting with his goatee again. "Sure. I'll come by when I get back."

She closed the door very gently. She decided somewhere around the middle of the staircase down to go out to the garden. She started to button her shirt up further, but abandoned the exercise.

She went for a stomp around the garden paths. The slates and stones had long since sunk deep into the soil, and grass had grown up between and over them, so her heavy steps were muted and not particularly damaging.

She shoved her hands into her jeans pockets. She pulled them out and punched her palm. She put them back into her pockets. She chewed her upper lip.

She didn't really understand why she was so irritated with Simon. They'd agreed after the first date that neither of them thought they'd work out as a traditional relationship, but the sex was pretty good, so they thought they'd keep that up. She had no desire at all to be his girlfriend. None. Because they could never make a good relationship for dozens of reasons. But maybe they kind of were involved, and that was why she had disliked Suzanne from the beginning, and grown to dislike the old cougar, er, woman, er, Suzanne even more with the latest adventures. Sour grapes? Surely not. Because she didn't want to be involved with Simon that way. She couldn't conceive of it. She preferred women, after all. And she'd only known him a month.

A month? Is that all it had been?

She emitted a wordless snarl, then a sigh, and kept stomping along grimly.

Somewhere around her fourth circumnavigation of the garden, she noticed G leaning against an artistically broken pillar, smoking and watching her.

"Hey," Megan said.

"Hey," G said. "Did a blade of grass kick your puppy? Or are you looking for that vamp Zoltan claims is buried out here 'for regeneration purposes'?" She provided the airquotes.

"Wha--?" Megan said. "Oh. No. Just... cranky. Annoyed."

"What'd he do?" When Megan eyed her sharply, G smiled and shook her head. "I heard you tromp out of his apartment a while ago."

Megan shrugged convulsively, simultaneously tossing her head. "Nothing. He didn't do anything. I'm just being stupid."

G took a drag on her cigarette.

Megan stared into the darkness of the garden.

They both started simultaneously as they were struck by a sudden flurry of cold raindrops. A rumble of distant thunder followed the initial assault.

G threw her cigarette down and crushed it under the toe of her boot as she turned to go inside. She paused in the doorway, one hand on the jamb, and looked back. The rain had started to come down in large, heavy, pounding drops, and the leaves of the trees and bushes in the gardens shook visibly under the barrage. Megan stood still in it, shoulders hunched, hands in pockets.

"Come in out of the rain," G said, the cynical traces of a smile still playing about on her face. "You may be super-a-bunch-of-things, but you can probably still get cold and wet."

Face burning, Megan shuffled after G.

G regarded her solemnly once they gained the back hall of the house. "Look," she said, "if you want to come up and have a drink and talk -- tonight, or tomorrow, or whenever -- just come by. Open invitation. Okay?"

Megan didn't trust her voice, but nodded. She didn't like the feeling that she was sulking, or pouting, or any of a number of teenager sorts of things to do.

G trotted up the back stairs. Megan heard her footfalls echoing on the bare boards, the jingle of keys and the chain that held them to a belt loop, and the thunk of the deadbolt sliding open. The door shut firmly, but she did not hear the deadbolt turn home.

Megan stood in the quiet of what had been the servant's door to the garden, listening to the sounds of the house settling down for the night: Mozart from Zoltan's basement rooms, silence from her own parlor rooms, footsteps from the second floor, and someone, probably on the third floor, playing what she thought might be Celtic fiddle music.

The dark, birdlike grandmother clock in the front hall struck ten.

An open invitation is an open invitation. Megan scaled the stairs, buttoning her shirt up as she went.
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---

The Interstate's Shadow

"And that," said G, pointing at a bizarre Frankensteinian confection of glass and steel and brick, "is what started it all."

"What?" Megan said, squinting up at it. "It looks like two buildings that have been mashed together."

"Precisely!" G said. "You have a good eye. That's exactly what it was. Now, though, it's considered a purposeful masterpiece of architectural design. Everybody wants one."

"You're kidding," Megan said.

G put hands on hips and stared up at the modernistic metal structure fused with a neo-Victorian brick-fronted piece, her sunglasses hiding most of her expression, though her teeth were bared in something that only vaguely resembled a smile. "Porter Construction goofed delivery. They build the structures on their site, and deliver onto the foundations by teleportation. The teleporter malfunctioned and sent two buildings to the same site. They couldn't figure out how to extract the brick one without demolishing it, so they retrofitted the foundation and built connections between the structures and voila, a new school of architecture."

Megan stared at G, trying to figure out how she felt about this from her expression and failing. Finally, she looked back at the building and said, "It's, um, kinda ugly."

G laughed in a harsh, flat sort of way. "Welcome to my life."

They walked to the bus stop then. Megan cleared her throat and said, "You've shown me a lot of things that are kinda ugly today. I mean, that thing tops the list, of course. But the financial district was all mirrored walls with distorted hood ornaments on top, and the docks had all sorts of slick high-tech cranes and shit that looked more like erector sets, and the old World's Fair buildings are all falling to ruin. North of town is overrun with beige townhouses, and west of town is all ticky-tacky 50s suburbia. Is there anything really pretty in Wonder City?" She gestured across the street at a block of beige, brick-fronted boxes with windows and doors slapped into them. "Anywhere?"

G examined her for a moment, then hailed a cab.

Megan reflected that this was perhaps the first time she had ever been in a taxicab that was large enough for her. Ah, Wonder City.

A confusing half-hour's ride later, they got out and G paid the tab. Megan looked around. The sun was heading for the horizon, throwing the long shadow of the central hill over this street, one of the easternmost of the city. The street was crowded with dilapidated two- or three-family houses, some with broken driveways between them, some with only a narrow strip of dead grass and a rotted wooden fencepost marking the boundary where one ended and the next began. A second-floor porch on the yellow house across the street sagged precipitously.

The taxi accelerated away and G turned to her. "Let's go this way," she said, pointing along the street.

G led the way, and Megan followed tamely. She could smell the river nearby and could see an 8-lane highway noisily overpassing several houses ahead. As they passed a cross street, she noticed that a hill fell away from them, the street proceeding at least 10 blocks straight down to the river. They were north of the modern docks, but she could see blackened stumps of old docks jutting from the water. The street was lined with the same sort of two- and three-family clapboard houses. To the south, near the river's edge, she could see factory stacks and the top story of a long, low-slung factory built of years-darkened brick.

They passed this street, and the next, which was nearly identical. Under the deeper shadow of the highway, G turned down the third street.

The houses gave way abruptly to a Victorian main street. The storefronts were brick with large glass windows, adorned at the edges with wooden art nouveau flourishes. A tall brick building with a clock tower dominated the next street corner and still bore a gilded wooden sign that read "GENERAL STORE" along the front. The sidewalks were broad and so was the street, so that cars could park in diagonal spaces in front of the stores. All the storefront windows shone brightly in the premature shadow of the highway and the hill. People hurried or strolled or stopped to talk, a mixed population of black, white, Asian, and Hispanic people. Little old ladies walked along the sidewalks together, pulling wheeled shopping trolleys behind them that bore paper grocery bags marked with the green and black logo of Takahashi's Market. The market itself was on the corner opposite the clock tower and inhabited the entirety of one of the Victorian buildings that had previously been four or five shop fronts. Children chased each other along the low stone walls surrounding the garden of a tall Queen Anne Victorian, painted brilliantly in yellow and red and cream, that housed doctor's and dentist's offices. A Golden Retriever gazed up at them mournfully as, secured to a parking meter by her leash, she waited for her owner to emerge from a tiny, crowded bookstore.

As they walked the busy sidewalks, Megan picked out half a dozen different languages being spoken, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Korean, Chinese, and Polish. There were a couple of people as tall as she was, a few adults who were short as children, a few aliens -- she noticed in particular a native of Arcturus Prime, with her featureless humanoid shape, scarlet hairless skin, and head of enormous feathery sense organs -- and even a few cybernetic beings. No one paid particular attention to Megan or G as they made their way past the clock tower and turned the corner.

"This is the original town of Staybird," G said, gesturing around at the little town center. "Founded in the late 1700s by a family named Staybird, who bought farmland here. Some of their relations moved to the area, and then someone figured out that gosh, there was a river here." She pointed at the old churches that stood shoulder-to-shoulder along this street: Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Episcopalian. "The immigrants came in for the coal-mining, then the factories, and the docks perked up. It never made it as a steel town, and the coal mining operation fell apart. The town was dying by inches when Wilson decided he needed somewhere isolated to train and stage his paranormal forces."

Megan looked around again. She knew the history, but hadn't realized that the town had effectively remained intact when the Army engineers moved in. "I guess I assumed that everyone in the town had been relocated."

G shrugged. "Not everyone wanted to leave. The camp was set up south of town, away from the lion's share of the houses and factories, and that's why some of the older Wonder City houses are down there." She looked around, finally taking her sunglasses off as she did it. "I got to work on some of the renewal here when I was just out of school. This is, to me, the prettiest part of Wonder City."

Megan ran her fingers over the rough grey stone of the Episcopalian church's front, peered across the street into an old cemetery dotted with slate and marble headstones, and smiled at G. "Thanks," she said. "Just... thanks."

G grinned at her, tucking her sunglasses into her shirt pocket. "Well, there's a good pub down here. A block, I think. Want an early dinner?"
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---

Boardinghouse Reach

"Oh, hey," Megan said, peering closer at the newspaper. "They identified that body they found down at the docks. It was a two-bit villain called the Merlin. He tried to mug me on my first night in the city!"

Simon stared despairingly at the shirts he had spread over his bed, then paced around in a circle, clutching his head. "Uh-huh," he said distractedly. He was wearing only a towel at his waist, and his muscled shoulders and back were damp.

Megan looked over at him and folded the newpaper. "What is up with you? Are you usually this squirrelly before a date?"

Simon said, "Uh-huh," again and held a green checked oxford shirt under his chin and stared into the mirror.

"Shall I go away while you stress?" Megan said.

"Um, what?" Simon looked at her, wild-eyed with alarm. "No! Don't go! Keep me company!"

Megan sighed and glanced at the clock. "If you don't decide what shirt to wear in the next five minutes, you'll be late meeting Suzanne."

"Auuuugh!" Simon said, throwing his hands in the air and running around the room. "Which one should I wear?" he said when he paused to grab his towel, which had come untucked.

"I think that you could wear nothing but your work apron and she'd be delighted," Megan said, smirking. "Look, she asked you on this date, so she MUST like you already. Wear what you feel most comfortable in."

"I caaaaaaaan't!" Simon said. "I feel most comfortable in flannel and jeans!"

Megan got up and inspected his closet. "Look, this is a brand new flannel. And your black jeans. There. Et voilà. You are dressed."

"Which underwear should I wear?" Simon asked meekly.

Megan gave him a sarcastic glower. "The gold lame briefs."

Simon covered his face. "How did you know about those?"

"Zoltan told me he'd given them to you for Christmas last year." Megan grinned and clapped him on the back. "You'll be fine. Just wear your usual tighty-whities, and get into your shirt and jeans and get out of here."

"Right." Simon looked despondently at his closet, then yanked the new flannel out and pulled his black jeans off their hanger.

"I'm gonna go out and see if Mr. Hammer is around," Megan said, turning to the door. "I'll see you as you're leaving, right?"

"Right."

Megan closed the door softly. She paused a moment outside the door that led to G's apartment, listening to the silence within, then sighed and trotted downstairs. She opened the heavy wooden front door with its leaded glass and ornate Victorian trim, passed through the vestibule and outer door, and stepped out onto the porch. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a plain, 30-something, brown-haired, bespectacled white woman sitting on a bench in the gardens beside the house, tipping her cigarette ash into a concrete urn full of flowers. She nodded to Megan, who returned it. Megan then turned right, toward the carriage house.

She knocked on the yellow front door of the carriage house and, as she waited, studied the small, squared-off boxwoods planted on either side of the walkway. There were heavy, thudding footsteps inside, and the door was opened by Jack Hammer, dressed only in jeans. His surprisingly mobile eyebrows registered surprise.

"I'm sorry, are you busy?" Megan asked.

"Nope, not yet," Hammer said, managing to inflect his electronic voice with something like impatience. "What's up?"

"Zoltan told me you're a foreman with a para construction company," Megan said, opting to go straight to the point. "I really need a new job."

"Whatcha doin' now?"

"Deliveries," Megan said, "hauling thereof."

"You're the one working with Captain Zip, right?" he said.

Megan nodded.

"The grapevine grows like kudzu here on Marigold Lane," Hammer said with a tinny chuckle. "You want to move into construction?"

"I want to move into a job where the mob isn't hip-deep into my boss."

Hammer nodded slowly, then glanced over Megan's shoulder. "Whyn't you come over tomorrow, around 6 or 7, and we'll talk more, huh?"

Megan blinked, caught the sound of approaching footsteps, then nodded vigorously. "Sure! Thanks!" she said, then turned and hurried back toward the front of the house.

She passed a pretty young white man in jeans and t-shirt who looked like he came straight from the sculptor's workroom, all muscles and cheekbones and brilliant blue eyes. He gave her a bright smile.

Behind her, she heard Hammer growl, "Yer late."

The young man said, "Indeed, Mister Hammer, I do apologize. I am indeed very sorry for my delay. I was quite eager to be here with you, but my team..."

Hammer interrupted. "Get in here."

Megan heard a brief scuffling sound, then the door shut heavily. Blushing, she sped her steps around the turn of the house.

G was lounging on the grass at the feet of the woman on the bench, and both were smoking. G spotted her and waved, so Megan strolled over, glancing around for Simon.

"Hey," G said lazily. "Pull up some turf."

Megan folded down to the ground, still a little tender around the ribcage. She smiled up at the woman on the bench. "Hey."

G gestured with her cigarette. "This is Megan Amazon, who has taken up with us by moving into the parlor rooms. Megan, this is Watson Holmes, one of our third-floor residents."

Megan's eyebrows went up, and Watson leaned forward to shake her hand. "My father was a mad fan," she said with a grin. "Everyone asks. I do have a first name, but I hate it more than the other two." Watson had a firm handshake, but no evidence of superstrength. Megan guessed she was on the other side of 40, given the tiny lines around her hazel eyes and the touches of grey sprinkled through her mouse-colored hair. She was wearing gold-rimmed glasses, a t-shirt and jeans, tattered red sneakers, and a cell phone in a belt clip.

There was the usual exchange of pleasantries, then G said, "Visiting Jack?" to Megan.

"Yeah," she said.

"Can I be nosy?"

Megan shrugged. "I need a new job. My boss is mixed up with the mob, plus I think he's going to be a bastard to me when I get back. I stuck my nose in where it wasn't wanted."

"So you're looking at construction?" G said, sounding vaguely surprised.

Megan shrugged again. "I'm hauling deliveries now. Just about anything's a step up."

G said, "Well, the company Jack works for is a pretty decent place. Union, though."

"That's what Zoltan said," Megan said.

Simon emerged from the front of the house and looked around. Megan waved and he hurried over. "Do I look all right?" he said breathlessly.

Megan eyed him. He was wearing the black jeans that fit him like a glove and had put on a black t-shirt under the flannel. "You look good," she said.

"Hot date?" G asked.

Simon nodded.

Watson said, "Is she or he cute?"

G snorted. "Come on, does he date anyone who isn't?"

Simon said, "You know I don't date boys."

Megan said, "You don't?"

"No." Simon looked sheepish. "I flirt with 'em, but don't date 'em."

"Tease," Watson said, grinning.

"Hey!" Simon said, then caught sight of his wristwatch. "Augh! I'm going to be late!" He turned, sprang over a shrubbery, and sprinted for the bicycle rack.

"Good luck!" Megan said.

"We want full details!" Watson called.

Simon waved as he tore off into the street on his bike.

"She is cute," G said, inhaling from her cigarette. "She was the older woman at the party last night, I think."

Megan nodded. "Suzanne."

"Hah," Watson said. "How'd you know, G?"

"Elementary," G said, and laughed when Watson punched her in the shoulder. "He was drooling over her like a poleaxed puppy."

"Well," Watson said, stubbing out her cigarette butt, "it's nice that someone has something to do on a Saturday night."

"How 'bout you, Megan?" G said. "Hot date?"

Megan grimaced. "I've been in town 3 weeks. I don't really have a wide acquaintance. Though," she said thoughtfully, "I guess I have gone on a date. With Simon."

"Jesus," G said, "and then you moved into the same house with him? You got the lesbian indoctrination from your mom, eh?"

Watson choked as she lit a new cigarette and Megan felt her own smile go a little snarly.

G smiled grimly. "Sorry, I have a lousy sense of humor."

Megan let the snarl settle and shrugged. "No problem. A little touchy about the lesbian stereotypes."

"Even from a lesbian?" G said.

"Yep." Megan plucked a blade of grass and folded and refolded it.

There was a slightly awkward silence.

Watson nudged G with a foot.

G cleared her throat. "Well, as an apology, the least I can do is take the new woman out and show her the town. You free tomorrow?"

Megan looked up. "Well... yeah, I am. That'd be nice. All I've seen is the Trylon and Perisphere."

"Can't have that," G said, extinguishing her stub and tossing it into the urn. "Well, I'm gonna go do some work so I'll be free. I'll come by around 10 tomorrow morning, is that all right?"

"Sure," Megan said, blinking.

G got up, dusted off her jeans, smiled, and headed inside. Watson and Megan watched her go.

"She's a strange cookie," Watson said, exhaling smoke. "Want to grab some dinner up the street? Merciful Minerva isn't too much further beyond the pizza joint, and they've got an author reading tonight. Bechdel is touring for her new book."
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---

La Soirée

"Welcome to the dungeon, my dear!" Zoltan said, embracing Megan one-armed, since his left hand was occupied with a glass full of something red. The interior of his apartment was very warm and dimly-lit and noisy, full of fabulously-dressed people and wood smoke and incense. There was some sort of background music, but Megan could only occasionally hear notes above the general hubbub. "Come in, have a drink or three."

"Thanks," Megan said, sliding through the door and adjusting her black leather necktie and the collar of her green dress shirt. "I assume you have more conventional beverages." She thought she saw someone with fairy wings run past.

The corner of Zoltan's mouth turned up. He was decked out in an electric purple silk waistcoat over a black dress shirt and slacks. There were birds of some sort -- phoenixes, perhaps -- worked into the silk brocade of the waistcoat. When he moved, the silk shimmered and changed from electric purple to iridescent green and back to purple. "If you're looking for soda pop, my dear, you will find it hidden in the cooler behind the wine and beer table. This -" he said, displaying his glass "- is a lovely Merlot from Australia."

She grinned and said, "Who's here?" She got a glimpse of a trio of identical Latino men with their arms around each others' shoulders, doing a little kick-step to the shrieks and laughter of a group who sported enough sequins and rhinestones to blind Europe.

"Everyone from the house, now that you've arrived," Zoltan said. "And some friends of mine from around town. A few from out of town. I promise that practically no one is boring." He glided off into the crowd, exclaiming, "Darling! Let me get you another drink!"

Megan looked around, coughed a little at the dense smoke in her atmospheric zone, and headed for the drinks table.

As she was examining the myriad options, a small blonde girl in jeans and a t-shirt bounced up to the table. She reached unerringly for a Guinness.

"Er," said Megan. "Should you be drinking that?"

The girl looked up at her with a sarcastic twist to her mouth and a sharp look in her eyes. "How long were you 13 years old?" she said in a slightly slurred English accent.

"Um," said Megan, already thinking that she'd got in over her head. "A year?"

The girl stood on tiptoe, grabbed Megan's necktie and hauled her down so they were face-to-face. Megan could smell the beer on her breath. The girl poked a finger at Megan's shoulder and hissed, "I've been 13 years old since nineteen forty-one, and if that doesn't entitle me to a pint now an' then, I don't know what does!"

Megan nodded, eyes wide.

"Right!" the girl said with a decided nod, and released Megan's tie.

A tall man with a long, mournful face and a mane of flaming red hair nodded at Megan as she straightened up. He reached over the girl and removed the Guinness bottlecap, then tucked the cap into an inner pocket of his dark blue suit coat.

"Thank you, Maelstrom," the 13-year-old said regally. With a sniff, she turned her back on Megan and marched away into the party. The tall man followed her.

"Who was that?" Megan said by way of greeting to Simon, loosening the knot of her tie.

Simon peered through the smoke. "Oh, her? That's the Equestrian. Old friend of Zoltan's. Comes to all his parties."

"Is she, you know...?" Megan tapped her canine tooth and made a bitey motion. She plucked a beer from the ice bucket.

"Oh, no," Simon said, refilling his wine glass with a California chardonnay. "No one's quite sure what that big guy is, other than some magical horse, but she made some sort of deal with him so she could save her parents during the Blitz or something."

"Wow," Megan said, looking after the pair again. "Poor kid. Didn't know what she was getting herself into. I hated being thirteen."

"Didn't everyone?" Simon said. "Hey, there's someone you should meet. C'mon."

Making their way through the party was less directed action and more drifting with the tides. At one point, they ended up near a large Victorian couch upholstered in scarlet brocade.

"I don't care which Elizabeth you saw crowned, dear heart," Zoltan said to the pretty young man draped over the arm of the couch, "whether it was the queen, the empress, or the other queen, you're ancient."

The young man folded his arms and scowled prettily.

Zoltan leaned closer and said in a low but carrying voice, "And if you move to town and try that trick of 'going back to high school', I will have you arrested for child endangerment, as well as for anything else you manage to pull off before I make the call. And people here know about our sort, unlike your blind and uncaring West Coasters."

"You're not the Grand Duke!" the young man snarled.

"There is no Grand Duke here," Zoltan said, spreading his hands and smiling angelically. "We're one big happy family here. Very democratic. Very happy. Very getting-along with the mortals." His smile vanished. "Very not biting up their children under false pretenses, because the mortals here have more than stakes and pitchforks."

"They're just mortals," the young man said, shoulders hunched up near his ears and chin firmly pressed to breastbone.

"This town is a favorite haunt of every Mystikai on the planet," Zoltan said, looking at the young man from under lowered lids. "They may not have children attending high school, but they have friends who do."

"What if I went to college?" the young man said after a silence, still sulky.

"If you will insist upon your usual approach to people," Zoltan said, "there are plenty of older women and men who would welcome advances by a young man with full pouting lips. Even should he choose to nibble upon them. You could become a sidekick! Or perhaps you could market your saliva as a treatment for arterial hardening."

The young man snarled and turned his back on Zoltan.

When Megan looked away from that exchange, trying not to laugh out loud, she noticed that Simon was being loomed at by a masculine figure that was dressed in snugly-fitting leather trousers and a leather motorcycle jacket. The man's smooth steel cranium shone dimly as he leaned back from whispering something in Simon's ear, and he grinned a metallic grin, eyes glowing faintly blue under his brow.

Simon lowered his eyes flirtatiously. "C'mon, Mr. Hammer, you know I'm not nearly man enough for you." Simon rapped on the man's metallic abdomen, producing a ringing sound. "I'm still not invulnerable."

"Hah!" The bigger man's voice had an electronic and echoing quality. "I can be careful, you know, pretty boy."

Simon looked up at him and grinned lopsidedly. "I've seen the guys coming out of your door too many mornings. They all need a buff and shine, or bandages."

Mr. Hammer laughed again. "Well, you know where I am if you suddenly get less chickenshit."

"Megan," Simon said, gesturing in an introductory fashion, "this is Jack Hammer, the guy who lives out in the carriage house. Mr. Hammer, this is Megan Amazon."

Jack Hammer extended a big, well-formed steel hand. "Good ta meetcha, kid."

Megan shook his hand. "Thanks."

"The bloodsucker finally got someone in the parlor rooms, huh?" he said. "Well, welcome to Zoltan's House of Crazy Queer Paras." Then someone else caught his eye, and he turned and sauntered off with a not-quite-apologetic nod.

"'Mr. Hammer'?" Megan said, raising her eyebrows.

"He's, uh, older than I am," Simon said, avoiding her gaze.

"Mmm-hmm," Megan said. "Robotic leather daddy seeks young shapeshifter for fun and games?"

"Just who I've been looking for!" Simon said feverishly, stepping through a gap in the crowd. "Megan, G; G, Megan. G is on the second floor across from me. Her apartment frequently smells of diesel fuel. Megan is on the first floor, in the grand parlor suite. Her apartment is occasionally soggy."

"Only when your friends come and weep on my furniture," Megan said, extending her hand to G. "Hiya."

G was dressed in well-faded jeans that clung to her hips and thighs and covered the tops of worn brown cowboy boots. She wore a tuxedo shirt, open at the collar, adorned with faceted onyx cufflinks. A small jade pendant hung on a braided hemp cord and rested at the hollow of her throat. She was a lean, wiry woman with sculpted cheekbones. The wind and sun had started carving lines around her eyes and mouth. Her auburn hair was about an inch long on top, shorter on the sides, starting to show just a few white hairs. G levered herself up from her chair, revealing that she was shorter than Simon, maybe 5'2", but her hand delivered a bone-straining grip. "Hey," G said, offering a lazy smile.

Simon melted away into the crowd, leaving the two of them facing each other. G pointed to a nearby chair with her beer bottle. "I hate standing around. The crowd gets to me," she said, folding herself back into her own chair.

Megan sat cautiously, still reluctant to bend at the middle even though her ribs were knitting up nicely. "How long have you lived here?" she said, casting about for conversational topics.

"About six years," G said with just a touch of a drawl. She took a long pull on her beer. "You new to the city?"

"Yeah," Megan said. "I lived out in Las Vegas with my mom. Decided to make a break for it."

"Ah, family," G said with a faint smile. "What're you doin' to keep body and soul together while you're here?"

"Loading delivery trucks," Megan said. "At any rate, I was. I'll find out Monday if I've still got a job."

"Was the place hit by the aliens?" G said.

"No," Megan said. "I... said some things to my boss and, uh, the guy he owed money to." She took a swig of beer. "How about you?"

"Architect," G said.

"Wow!" Megan said.

G waved it away. "It's not all that. I'm still small potatoes. But I came here originally to learn more about this city's architecture. It's coming back into vogue, you know, all the Deco stuff."

"It's all the fault of that TV series," Megan said. "Steam Heroes."

"You watch it?" G said.

"Mom hates it, so I never really bothered to pick it up."

"Good casting. Stupid, terminally straight romances. Enormous merchandising campaign," G said, gazing out over the party. "Reviving interest in the para first wave all over the place."

"Hunh," Megan said. "So after you learn what you can, you going to move?"

G brought her focus back to the conversation and smiled. Megan liked watching the line on the left side of her mouth deepen.

"I'll probably never leave," G said.

Megan looked at G's eyes, which were blue-gray. "You're completely in love with this city, aren't you?" Megan said thoughtfully. Then she covered her mouth with a hand, feeling the blood rush to her face. "Sorry. Inside voice on the inside, Megan."

G laughed. "Thought a big woman like you would hold your liquor better," she said, winking. "But yeah, I guess I am."

While Megan wrestled with her embarrassment, G got up. "Hey, speaking of work, I should go. I have an appointment early tomorrow." She put a hand on Megan's shoulder. "See you around the house, right?"

"Yeah, sure," Megan mumbled. "Good night." And she watched G stroll away, noticing how her jeans were faded around the rectangle of her wallet in her left hip pocket.

Megan picked up another beer and went in search of Simon, but stopped when she saw Simon sitting on the arm of a chair, leaning close to the middle-aged woman with brown hair who sat in it, looking up into his face and laughing. There was a dazzled, adoring look in Simon's eyes that rang some bells in Megan's head. Had Simon invited that woman he'd been talking about since the alien attack? What was her name, Suzanne?

Megan sighed and turned toward the door. She wasn't feeling particularly sociable after putting her foot in it with G, and didn't want to muck up Simon's chances with the current woman of his dreams.

She noticed an Armani-suited older white man leaning against the front wall of the suite, watching the party with hands in pockets. His hair was short, sleek, and executive-perfect, black with just a touch of white at the temples. His profile looked like it belonged to a catalog model or a movie star. He was so jarringly out of place that Megan felt drawn to him.

He gave her an odd Mona Lisa smile as she approached.

"Hello," Megan said.

"Hello," the man said.

"Friend of Zoltan's?" she said.

"I suppose you could say that," he said.

"I'm Megan," she said.

"Nice to meet you," he said.

Megan put her back to the wall next to him and watched the party while working on her beer.

"Since this seems to be my night for putting foot in mouth," she said, and in her peripheral vision, he looked at her, "I might as well say it: you don't look like you're comfortable here."

He nodded. "Very astute."

"So why are you staying?"

He tilted his head back to examine the ceiling. "Just because I'm an outsider doesn't mean that there's nothing for me to learn here."

Megan looked at him sharply. "In a police raid or alien invasion sort of way?"

He gave her a brief, spasmodic flash of a larger smile. "I thought you weren't in spandex."

"Congenital paranoia."

"An excellent legacy from your mother."

"You say that like you know her."

"I do." He stepped away into the party. "If you'll forgive me." He bowed slightly and vanished into the depths of the party.

The Equestrian and Maelstrom arrived seconds later. "Bloody hell, he was just fucking here!" said the girl, who was looking rather worse for the wear.

The horse gave Megan a long-suffering look.

"Which way did he go?" the girl said to Megan.

Megan pointed in the general direction of the man's departure. The girl flounced that way, and the horse sighed noisily before striding after her.

Megan sighed as deeply as Maelstrom had. Giving the evening up as a bad job, she finished her beer and departed in search of her bed.

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June 2017

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