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Ten comments by Friday again?


Purity Control

"They have come to persecute us, my brothers and sisters!" Pastor Al bellowed through the speaker system. "And they have struck down Brother Michael and Brother Damian without provocation!"

Ira rolled his eyes and continued to walk with the others as they rounded the corner of the Welcome Pavilion that Washington had just brought down on the heads of the two burly uniformed security guards who had drawn guns on her. When Lady J had given her a Look, Washington just said, "They're alive," and kept walking. Dragons.

"The time I warned you about is upon us!" Pastor Al continued. "It is time to defend your right to peaceful assembly!"

Ira wondered how close they had to get for Lady J's power of truth to kick in. He was kind of looking forward to hearing Pastor Al's ranting turn to confessions.

It was standing room only in the fenced and covered field, with approximately 500 hopefully normal humans between them and the transmitter that was presumably under Pastor Al's feet. Ira heard Lady J say, "Washington, can you fly?"

Washington snorted and said, "Yes, but I would crush everyone here if I did."

"Damn," Madame said mildly, watching people stand and pick up baseball bats and other similar items that were kept apparently at the ready.

Another voice—deep but somewhat panicked—cracked over the speakers. "Get the ones without weapons! Get them!"

The crowd surged toward them in terrifying almost-silence. Washington crashed into part of the tide, arms spread, crumpling the front line and eliciting gasps, grunts, and cries from her opponents.

Madame immediately deployed her own weapon, the little rod telescoping out into a staff her own height with a flick of her wrist. Apparently, this took her off the radar temporarily, and people ignored her to swing their weapons at Lady J, Ira, and Andrea, who made up the other three of the four-person wedge that would drive toward the transmitter at the same time as Washington—hopefully the wedge or the dragon would reach it and destroy it, and it didn't matter who was first.

It had been quite some time since Ira had to make the snap judgements of whether, where, and how hard to punch, but it came back to him pretty easily. He overestimated his strength a few times, but he compensated on the next punch, or throw, or whatever he was doing. Rusty, but fairly competent. And old, of course.

A couple of people got in good shots, of course. One big fellow's bat connected squarely with the side of Ira's head, and then the guy stared, appalled, at the bat in his hands. As far as he could tell, he'd just tried to crush the skull of a little old man. Ira drove an elbow into his gut and left him wheezing in their wake.

He caught glimpses of the others in between combatants. Lady Justice, of course, was her usual competent self, if a little weak on the stroke side. Andrea was sloppy, but able, and surprisingly athletic.

It was Madame Destiny who would have had his jaw dropping if he'd had time—she moved smoothly and fast, for all her apparent chunkiness, kicking high, punching hard, throwing people effortlessly, taking stubborn foes down with a sweep of her staff, never once pausing, never once getting snagged by any reaching hands, never once breaking her intense look of concentration.

Ira guessed she had kept up the training and was a helluva high level blackbelt at this point. Who knew?

It was going as well as could be expected. Ira couldn't see the dais, and the crowd was roaring now, drowning out the speakers. All he could see was another person in front of him, all he could feel was another impact of his fist or his elbow or his knee on some other human being. He followed Lady J's lead and assumed they were making progress. Most of their opponents were people who weren't used to being hit and hurt, and so they tended to stay down or run away once they were hit, unlike most hardened supervillain mooks.

That was when he noticed that the mob was turning on its own—anyone who hadn't picked up a weapon, or who'd dropped theirs, became a target. He glimpsed a few but couldn't get to them, but then…

"Oh, god, Suzanne!" he shouted, and shoved through the two people in front of him, ignoring Lady Justice's restraining yell. He leapt over the heads of the next little wave of people, and landed just in time for someone to break a plastic folding chair across his back instead of over Suzanne's head.

She looked at him with wide, unrecognizing eyes. He grabbed her against him just in time to shield her from another wild swing from one of her compatriots.

Then, of course, she kneed him in the groin. Hard and extremely competently.

Invulnerable or not, those parts were still delicate.

It also threw him off-balance as he tried not to flinch, but dammit, he'd lost his really good cup somewhere over the years, and the two of them fell—Ira onto hands and knees to continue to shield her—under a rain of bats, clubs, and chairs. Suzanne was also fighting him from underneath, and he saw stars when her forehead connected with his nose.

He wasn't sure how long they were like that before he heard, "You idiot!" from Andrea and Lady J shouting, "Ira! Ira, are you all right?" as the dogpile was dispersed by force.

Lady J dragged him to his feet, and he saw Madame shrug a pair of football player types over her hip and shoulder. Andrea got Suzanne up and after staring into her eyes a moment, slapped her. "We don't have time for this!" she bellowed.

Suzanne blinked, putting a hand to her reddening cheek. "Andrea?" she said faintly.

"Ira, get her out of here!" Andrea said, shoving her toward him.

"Ira?" Suzanne said, staring at him as he put an arm around her. He smiled reassuringly at her, though he was feeling quite out of breath and sore.

"No time," Lady J said. "We're almost there, look!"

The platform was all of twenty feet away, Ira saw through a lull in the crowd. Off to their right, a small geyser of people erupted and Washington emerged from the center. She was grinning in a way that made something in the back of Ira's head cringe.

Madame Destiny led the charge, but she wasn't heading for Pastor Al. She ran at a sweaty, pasty-faced middle-aged man who was clutching a thick book and a microphone. Before he could say anything else into the mike, Madame's fist crunched into his nose, and he slid down the pole next to him into a heap. "Mind control is a nasty power," Madame said primly, compressing her staff and tucking it into her pocket.

Lady J grabbed up the book and tore it open, revealing all the tiny transmitter parts inside, then smashed it back together with enough force that Ira saw parts fly off in all directions. Then she turned toward Pastor Al.

Pastor Al, for all his apparent terror, had perfect, unruffled hair and a suit without a crease. Ira imagined, though, that there was quite a set of sweatstains on the crisp white shirt.

The fellow tried to run for it, but Andrea was too quick for him and laid him out flat. When she dragged his unconscious form upright by the front of his coat, though, Ira had to blink several times. She was holding a different man entirely. This one was handsome enough, but not nearly the perfect televangelist face. And his suit was rumpled. And his hair wasn't nearly so flawless. In fact, Ira could swear he'd seen him somewhere before.

There was a loud rending noise, and when Andrea and Ira turned, Lady J had ripped open the platform and was lifting out two handfuls of wires and plastic shreds.

Madeline, who had been picking her way across the field, healing people as she put them to sleep—Ira didn't know where she learned that trick, but was damned glad for it—caught up with them at last. "Is that it?" she said to Lady J.

Lady Justice nodded, flinging the transmitter bits aside.

"Good," Madeline said, "because Watson says we need to run for it. Riots are breaking out across the city… across the country. We've got to get out of town now!"

Lady J nodded again. "All right, folks, let's go." She looked over at the little cluster of armed security guards who had closed with Washington. "I think she'll cover our retreat."

"Are you all right?" Ira said to Suzanne.

Suzanne rubbed the side of her face and stared at Pastor Al for a moment, then said, shakily, "As right as I can be. Let's get out of here."

Andrea threw Pastor Al over her shoulder in a fireman's carry. To Ira's inquiring look, she said, "He might have useful information about the aliens."

They all started running across the field, heading for their rendezvous at Zoltan's van, the Divine Sarah.




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Want another episode this Friday? Let me know you're reading! Can we get 10 comments?

Like Dust, We'll Rise

Lady Justice looked up at Ira as they watched the Young Cosmics' announcement of the alien invasion and mind control on her StarSeed. "She's got some screen presence, all right. Good choice."

"Better than Mercury, I think," Ira said. "He's too jittery and fidgety, like his old man. Look at him in the back there, just kinda vibrating."

They turned to the others. Andrea was standing on her left leg with her right leg propped on a nearby bike rack and was carefully stretching forward. She was wearing a tight black running suit with racing stripes. Madeline was watching passerby from behind her sunglasses, lounging against the back of the park bench Watson Holmes was sitting on, staring at her computer screen. X was listening to the cell phone updates from Tizemt. Madame Destiny was in jeans, which Ira didn't think he'd seen her in for twenty years, and was carrying, Ira knew, a small telescoping staff in the inside pocket of her jacket. He couldn't remember who had taught her to fight back in the early 70s—he suspected maybe Karate Jo or Women's Libra—but he hoped she'd kept up on the training.

And there was… another… person.

She was tall and willowy, with long white hair. Her clothing seemed to consist entirely of black leather. And Ira had not yet seen her move, except to blink. She crouched on a low wall about fifty feet away. X had introduced her as Washington and assured them that she was there to help.

X tucked the cell phone into a pocket of the short, military-style jacket zie was wearing. "Tizemt says levels are optimal. It's time to go in and shut the backup transmitters down. Jane is on standby once we know the lay of the land."

Everyone looked at Watson, who said, "Judging from these aerial photos I got from Hel, I'm guessing the transmitter is right in the middle of the camp, probably right under Pastor Al's feet when he's speechifying. So it really doesn't matter whether you go in the front gate, through the audience, or the back gate, through the staff, except you're more likely to get armed resistance from the staff." She smiled wanly.

Washington stood abruptly and walked forward to where they were gathered around Watson. "Then let's go in the front gate. Closer, faster, better for you old humans to get through."

They all stared at her for a moment, until Watson said, "Tactless, but I concur."

"Good, let's go," Washington said, striding past toward the front gate of the revival camp across the park.

"'Old humans'?" Ira said to X.

X smiled. "Reptilian-American."

There was a small chorus of "Oooooohhhhh!" from them all.

"Right, let's get this show on the road," Andrea said, linking arms with Ira and almost dragging him after Washington.

"You sure you're okay with this?" Ira said.

"Jane gave me back my invulnerability and tuned up my strength," Andrea said. "I should be fine. How about you?"

"I'm good," he said, pulling open his buttondown shirt a bit to reveal a Mister Metropolitan t-shirt underneath.

"You old fool," she said fondly.

Ira glanced back and saw Lady Justice, Madame, and Madeline following in a little knot. Watson and X were to wait outside, watching, prepared to call Jane in if needed.

"We should have a team name," Ira muttered.

"Well, we're technically Gold Stars for this," Andrea said.

"But we're not, you know that," Ira said. He knew he sounded silly, and maybe a little petulant. The Gold Stars had never wanted him.

Madame apparently overheard and said, "Well, Ira, we can be the League of Forgotten Heroes, because the only reason we can do this is everyone forgot us."

"And 'The Underestimated' is too long for a team name," Madeline said.

Ira looked at Andrea and they both laughed a little. He said, "I like it."

They reached the front gate of the camp where Washington waited for them irritably. There was something going on inside—Ira couldn't make out the words from the speakers, but it definitely sounded like Pastor Al was going at it. The metal mesh gate was shut tight, but there were no guards posted that they could see.

"Everyone set?" Lady Justice said. When everyone nodded (or, in Washington's case, grunted and tapped her foot), Lady J said, "All right, then, let's move out!"

Washington snapped, "Finally," and ripped open the gate with her bare hands.




wonder_city: (Default)
This week has been weird and surreal -- I live in central Massachusetts, and work in Cambridge -- and today has been particularly strange, with the refreshing the browser and checking Twitter and such. I have successfully distracted written the lion's share of this episode today, however, and I hope you will forgive any little gaffes as being products of my distraction.


Torschlusspanik

"Ah, Mr. Frost," Zoltan said at the door of the enormous luxury board room, his eastern European accent rolling softly over the name. "And Nereid. So pleased you could make it to our little discussion group."

Nereid stared at Zoltan. For a man who never aged, the very fine lines around his eyes and mouth seemed much more pronounced than they'd been last time she'd seen him, at least a year before. He was dressed very finely in a pale grey three-piece suit, a white shirt, and a pale blue tie. She noticed his cufflinks, though, as they shook hands -- tiny gold bats -- and it was all she could do not to giggle.

"I was pleased to be invited," Michael Frost said, staring beyond Zoltan's head at the far side of the room.

"Ah, yes, you see that Baroness Von Drachenberg has arrived before you," Zoltan said, stepping aside gracefully and gesturing them into the room. "We still await Ms. Washington, from your folk. My folk are represented, as are most of the other Mystikai."

Nereid stared around the echoing room and was gratified by the presence of Madame Destiny and X, and also the Equestrian and her steed (in tall, lean, redheaded human form) Maelstrom. She didn't know any of the many others, and noticed that a certain amount of space was left between every knot of beings as they stood around and drank coffee. Sophie would probably snark about it if she were here. Which she wasn't. And Nereid wasn't sure why she wasn't, but the absence made her anxious.

The Baroness was a short, round, cheerful woman who appeared to be middle-aged, accompanied by a couple of stocky, balding men in tweed suits. She gave Mr. Frost a little finger wave that he ignored. Nereid smiled nervously in the woman's direction.

A moment later, a ridiculously tall, willowy woman with long white hair, wearing a strangely familiar long, flowing black leather coat (with large spiky shoulder pads) and pants, strode past Zoltan into the room without a word. Under the coat, she seemed to be largely wearing straps, which accented her... prominent cleavage. She paused to regard Mr. Frost, then the Baroness with a sneer, and made her way to the center-back of the room, throwing herself into the chair at the foot of the ridiculously long table. She put her booted feet up on the table with heavy clunks.

"And with the arrival of Ms. Washington," Zoltan said, nodding to the t-shirted bar bouncer-types in the hall and shutting the door, "our numbers are complete. I am, as most of you know, Zoltan Farkas, and I speak for the Grand Matriarch of the East today, though her granddaughter --" he bowed to an African American woman who was taking a seat near the middle of the table "-- is here to correct me if I step wrongly. Speaking for the Grand Matriarch of the West is Doña Juana Salazar. Between us, we speak for the Family here in North America."

He nodded, and the Equestrian stood, looking very out of place as a young blonde teen dressed for a horse show in a velvet coat of bottle-green, breeches, and tall leather boots. "All of you know who I am," she said in her British accent. "I'm here for the Good Neighbors, specifically the one known as Lady Daphne, my sometimes-patron."

A broad-shouldered, tanned man in a black suit, surrounded by several individuals in similar suits, introduced himself as the elected speaker for the shapechanger Mystikai. Several more people introduced themselves as chosen or appointed speakers for various schools of magic. There was a fascinatingly tiny woman who was the representative of the Appalachian Gnome Queendom. A pair of thin, pale women who were clearly twins said they were there on behalf of the Wonder City vampires. A perfectly normal middle-aged middle-class woman in jeans and a sweatshirt that sported a picture of a kitten, with the glittery legend, "Hang in there!" arcing over it, introduced herself as the Outsider.

Madame stood and bowed. She was dressed elegantly in a long black dress and a black turban, a silvery-grey wrap draped around her shoulders. She was made up extravagantly, with dramatic swooshes of shadow above her eyes. "I am Madame Destiny, the current vessel for the Mystikai known as the Oracle, and I have been asked here by my friend Zoltan in case we need to consult the Oracle's wisdom." She gestured to X, who was conservatively done up in a black suit and garnet-colored cravat. "This is my apprentice, X." And she resumed her seat.

Nereid became aware, as silence fell, that Mr. Frost and the Baroness were staring at each other across the room. After a long, tense moment, Miss Washington drawled, without standing, "I'm Washington. I'm a dragon."

Both Mr. Frost and the Baroness looked at her at the same moment, a fleeting glimpse of disgust crossing both their faces. They looked at each other again, and the Baroness shrugged, and said, "I am the Baroness Von Drachenberg, and I am a Reptilian-American." She glowered in Washington's direction, then gestured grandly to Mr. Frost.

He inclined his head briefly and said, "I am Michael Frost, also Reptilian-American, and I am the patron of the superhero team, the Young Cosmics." He dropped a hand on Nereid's shoulder. "This is my team's Class 10 elemental, Nereid, who kindly agreed to accompany me."

Zoltan seated himself at the head of the table and folded his hands. "Thank you all for coming. I think we can agree that the situation in the United States, and in Wonder City in particular, is growing intolerable and is threatening everything each of us has worked for. Several of us wanted to bring the community together to discuss possible options for information-gathering and action."

One of the myriad magic-using people -- one of the few dressed in what Nereid thought of as normal clothes -- raised her hand. Zoltan nodded, and she said, "I think it would be helpful if we pooled our intelligence as to the nature of the troubles and possible sources."

"Agreed," Zoltan said, nodding cheerfully all around the table. "So let us do so. I confess that the Family has very little information on the nature or source of the troubles, only a fairly close analysis of the results. So who has more information?"

Several of the magic-using people spoke up about scrying and analytical magic and things that immediately and pedantically went over Nereid's head -- another reason to regret Brainchild's absence, she thought, was her inability to ask Sophie later what something had meant. Nereid was also distracted by Washington's openly bored posture with her head tilted back, staring ostentatiously at the ceiling.

"So what you're telling us," Zoltan said, smoothly interrupting one of the interminable lectures, "is that the main threat appears to be in orbit, and radiating something down at us that is affecting human behavior?"

"Uh," said the man in burgundy robes. "Yes. Essentially."

"Thank you," Zoltan said, and he even sounded like he meant it. "Have any other Mystikai ascertained any details?"

Nereid glanced aside at Mr. Frost's pleasantly-smiling face, expecting him to say something. Instead, Madame Destiny said, "Yes, we have."

All heads turned her way. X met Nereid's look with briefly raised eyebrows.

"Our group of... friends," Madame said with a self-deprecating air, "have determined that the ships in orbit are, in fact, of alien origin, and that the nature of the projection is a technological enhancement of a para with empathic abilities."

And then the meeting exploded into discussion, debate, and questions. Nereid watched it all, bewildered, and also watched the three drago--- Reptilian-Americans, she corrected herself. The Baroness beamed delightedly as her two tweedy companions leapt into a debate with a trio of mages and one shapeshifter. Mr. Frost watched the proceedings with a small smile. Washington continued to stare at the ceiling. The only other person who appeared so disconnected was the Equestrian, who slumped in her chair and frowned at the tabletop.

During a brief lull in the conversation, Washington burst out with, "Tell me why I should care."

Everyone froze. Nereid heard Michael Frost inhale, but whatever he was going to say was preempted by the Baroness Von Drachenberg saying, sweetly, "I would explain, but I think that you are too young to understand."

Washington leapt to her feet and glared at the Baroness. Nereid felt obscurely that she ought to have a large magical sword in one hand, then realized that as a drago-- Reptilian-American, she didn't need a weapon of any sort: she was one.

After a long moment, Washington said, in tones not nearly as sweet as the Baroness', "Try me, old woman."

Nereid noticed one of the tweed-clad men next to the Baroness discreetly scribbling notes in a battered leather-bound notebook, while the other was sliding an old pocket dictation recorder onto the table and looking around surreptitiously. Some of the mages and a few of the shapeshifters were subtly fading back from the table. Nereid herself was feeling more and more nervous sitting next to Mr. Frost.

The Baroness folded her hands on the table and, still smiling, said, "As someone without much experience in the markets of the world, you perhaps do not know how very destabilizing these sorts of events can be. You may think that such disquiet would make your particular objets du dèsir easier to obtain -- whenever you decide to obtain them -- but it is not so." She paused, reached down without looking, and clicked the tape recorder off. "At least, not in the long run."

Washington was pale with a cold rage that Nereid could feel from across the room. She leaned forward to place her hands flat onto the table, her white hair starting to blow behind her in a breeze that seemed to affect nothing else. Before she could say anything, though, Michael Frost began to laugh.

The look Washington turned on him was very little altered from what she had just been aiming elsewhere, but the gaze the Baroness turned on him was cynical, withering, and underneath it all, so sharp that Nereid had to repress the urge to run out of the room. The mages and shapeshifters took the opportunity to slide entirely back from the table toward the outer walls.

"Do forgive me, Baroness," Michael Frost said, in his suavest voice, "but it seems to me that if we are here, we have already agreed to act. There is no need for this attention-seeking posturing."

The Baroness was no longer, at all, a pleasant-looking little woman. Nereid saw the representative of the Gnome Queendom retreating behind a heavy credenza and felt an urge to join her. As if reading her mind, Michael Frost chose that moment to lay his hand over hers on the table, and action that made Nereid unbearably uncomfortable for too many reasons to list.

Nereid attempted to comfort herself with her ability to dissolve into mist at the first sign of actual violence.

At the head of the table, Zoltan looked as if he might be comforting himself similarly. He was exchanging looks with the other representatives of his Family -- whatever that was, Nereid thought, wondering if it he was a member of some kind of vampire mafia -- and both women were giving him cheerful sorts of "I wouldn't be you for a million dollars" encouraging smiles.

Washington was staring at Michael Frost, and Nereid noticed that she was becoming visibly more irritated when he refused to stare back. Her long, slender fingers gripped the edge of the table, and Nereid had an unpleasant image of her flipping it. But the moment passed, and she sat down in a kind of anticlimax.

The Baroness and Michael Frost, however, continued to match gazes, and Nereid thought that perhaps there was some sort of battle going on that she was too human to perceive except on the most uncomfortably lowest levels of her lizard brain. Like the so-called brown note, she thought.

"Oh, for fuck's sake," the Equestrian exclaimed, slamming her small hands on the table with moment-shattering slaps. "The rest of us don't have time for your--" she paused over word choice for a moment, then continued sourly "--politicking."

The two dragons snapped their heads around to look at her and the Equestrian pursed her lips and tilted her head slightly in the direction of Maelstrom, who appeared to be dozing in his chair. Mr. Frost and the Baroness each glanced back at each other, then exhaled, and the tension oozed out of the room.

Zoltan shuffled some papers. The mages and shapeshifters glided back to the table. The Gnome Queendom representative returned to her chair.

"I think," said Doña Juana Salazar, smiling thinly around the table, "that perhaps we should take advantage of the presence of the Oracle to ascertain what level of action would work best for the Mystikai as a whole."

"Yes," the Baroness said, her good humor apparently restored, though Nereid was unsure if that was true. "It is so very easy to overreact and do more harm than good."

Michael Frost said, "Yes, let's." He yawned elaborately.

Washington just waved a hand irritably.

"Perhaps it would be best to determine what the maximum level of involvement we would be willing to pursue should be," piped the tiny representative of the Gnome Queendom.

This led to another bewildering half hour of conversations, cross-conversations, and sub-conversations that Nereid could not parse at all. None of the dragons involved themselves in these discussions; they just watched.

Zoltan tapped a glass (where did he get the glass?) with a spoon (likewise?), and the sound rang out over the room, bringing conversation to a faltering halt. He said, "If we are going to make use of the Oracle, then I think we should do it quickly. We are unlikely to come to a consensus on this issue, nor do I think it is necessary. We simply need to remember to ask yes or no questions for optimal accuracy."

"And minimal cryptic ramblings," the Equestrian muttered, getting a short laugh out of Madame and X, at least.

Madame got up and moved her chair well back from the table, then resumed her seat. X moved to stand facing her, a little to the side. Everyone at the table turned to watch Madame with great interest -- even the dragons.

Nereid had seen Madame do this many times before, and all went as usual. Madame composed herself in her chair and closed her eyes for a few moments. X watched her fixedly. Then the light in the room changed to the harsh, focused, bluish tinge it always took.

Madame's face in that light startled Nereid, like she was seeing straight through the makeup. Madame looked old. Really old. And sick, and strained. Tears began leaking from the corners of her eyes. Then her eyes popped open and blue light crackled there, making everyone blink and look away for a moment.

"SPEAK, CHILDREN OF MAGIC," the Oracle said with Madame's mouth.

X turned to Zoltan and nodded.

But then the Oracle said, "STOP."

Nereid could see Madame's head and hands vibrating as if she had a palsy. The tears were coursing down her face and dripping off her chin. Her face looked grey in the blue light.

Madame gasped, in her own voice, "No!"

The light changed again -- instead of seemingly radiating from Madame's whole body, it shifted to solely from her head. And then blue lightning stabbed out from Madame into X, who echoed Madame with a more gutteral, wrenching, "No!"

Nereid ran to Madame as the older woman toppled from her chair, pulling her up from the floor and cradling her head against her shoulder. For a long moment, Nereid gazed down into her exhausted, drawn, tear-streaked face, and irrelevantly remembered the same woman, five years earlier, patiently helping her with her math homework. She remembered that Madame had been studying to be a mathematician, that she was really good at it, until the Oracle took up residence in her body.

X was suspended in mid-air in the middle of the room, blue light and lightning leaking out spasmodically. Most of the people in the room were at least standing, if not moving cautiously toward X.

Madame's eyes opened and she tried to sit up, but couldn't, then relaxed back into Nereid's arms. She croaked urgently, "Don't touch X!" into the tense silence, and everyone moving stopped.

"If you touch X," Madame said more calmly, "it could distract zir from what focus zie could gather. If that happens on the first possession, we might never get X back." She closed her eyes again.

Nereid was chilled to the bone by the idea of the Oracle being permanently "on" in X's body. She looked at the disheveled figure dangling like a marionette in mid-air.

"NOW YOU MAY SPEAK," said the Oracle with X's mouth.

"Oh, god," Madame groaned.

"It's all right," Nereid whispered to her.

"I thought I could hold on," Madame said, tears trickling out of her eyes again. "I thought I could keep going. Anything so X wouldn't have to..."

"X knew this would happen eventually," Nereid said in low tones, vaguely registering that questions were being asked and answered with a staccato precision elsewhere in the room. "X was prepared for it."

"You're never prepared for it," Madame said faintly. "Never. I knew for years, and I never expected what happened."

"Is it so bad?" Nereid said.

"It's like a seizure," Madame said opaquely. "Oh, god, I should get up, I should spot X, keep people from asking too many questions." She began to struggle to sit up, at least.

Nereid helped her sit up when it became clear that she was too agitated to rest. X was still held off the floor, but was no longer quite so high in the air. Madame took one look at X's face, which was lined with strain, and made a throat-cut motion to Zoltan, who nodded and stepped between a ponderous mage and X.

"Thank you for your generous assistance, oh, Oracle," Zoltan said with a graceful bow. "Your vessel needs rest, and we have our answers."

"VERY WELL, TRAVELLER," the Oracle said in its booming voice. "CARE FOR THE EMPTIED VESSEL AS WELL AS THE NEW VESSEL."

With that, X was released into Zoltan's waiting arms. Maelstrom took X from Zoltan and the Equestrian peremptorily gestured Zoltan back into the scrum of loudly-discussing Mystikai.

Madame reached out as Maelstrom knelt to set X next to her. She stroked X's sweat-beaded forehead maternally and whispered, over and over, "I'm so sorry."

Nereid stayed on the ground with the two of them, an arm around each, content to be a literal support. X was moving slowly, blinking dazed eyes up at the ceiling. Madame was still murmuring what sounded like apologies. As an afterthought, Nereid dried their clothes and faces and hair -- sweat and tears and whatever else would leave a bit of a crust, but at least they wouldn't feel damp.

"You have my promise," Michael Frost was saying, coming to stand near Nereid and Madame and X, "that I will match the Baroness' contributions financially, and that I will permit limited involvement of my Cosmics in a decisive para action."

Washington strode almost up to him, then past, saying, "And you have my promise that I will participate in the para action myself... if it seems fun." She kicked the door open and walked out of the board room.

"I am going to take Madame and X home," Michael Frost said, reaching down to effortlessly lift Madame in his arms. Nereid helped X to stand, and stayed under the strong arm that she remembered so vividly holding her up at one time. "The rest of you may go on discussing whatever you like. Zoltan, if anything significant comes up, I trust you will notify us via the usual channels."

"Of course," Zoltan said, catching Nereid's eye with a questioning raise of his eyebrows. Nereid smiled, she hoped, reassuringly, and turned to help X follow Mr. Frost out of the room.











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